Going Deeper 10-21-19

The text for this morning’s sermon is the first couple of verses of our Psalm of the Day, Psalm 121:  I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Last Sunday morning I did not need to “lift up my eyes to the hills” because I was in them.  While you may have been gathered here for worship, I was worshipping our Creator amidst the great splendor of His creation.  Here’s a picture of my sanctuary exactly one week ago.
Psalm 121 is one of three “Songs of Ascent” which were used by Israelites during their three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  All males were commanded to come to the Jerusalem temple for the feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread in early spring, the festival of Pentecost, celebrating first fruits of the wheat harvest in late spring, and the feast of Ingathering, celebrated in early fall after the harvest of summer fruits and nuts.  One commentator I read wrote that a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple was “… like visiting paradise and temporarily recapturing the primordial peaceful and abundant relationship with God.”
I’m wondering if this is how you feel about your pilgrimages here.  When you gather at Zion for worship and ‘feasting’, is it like visiting paradise and temporarily recapturing the primordial peaceful and abundant relationship with God?  If it is—and I hope and pray it is, at least to some extent—then I am very glad to hear that?  But I’m guessing that for many of us it’s not typically quite like that.  If it were, then I would think that church attendance would be growing, not shrinking.
So, what would it take for us to experience that kind of thing, to feel as though we are visiting paradise and temporarily recapturing the primordial peaceful and abundant relationship with God more profoundly and consistently here in this place?  Is that even possible, especially if we do gather on a regular basis?  How can we keep it from becoming redundant, meaningless ritual, perhaps even boring?  How could it be so special that there would be nothing else we’d rather do, nowhere else we’d rather be?
Obviously, I don’t have a complete answer to that question.  It is something Clinton and I and others ponder continually as we try to pick liturgies and music which we hope will help you experience a peaceful and abundant connection to God.  But I would like us all to prayerfully ponder this?  What would it take for us to consistently experience God’s presence in this place?
There are a number of factors involved.  As I just mentioned, the liturgy and music can be very important. The challenge here is that it seems like everyone has different preferences and tastes.  Some would love a return to using only the liturgy and hymns from the hymnal, while others wouldn’t care if the hymnals would disappear in favor of nothing but contemporary stuff. That is why we do “blended worship” here.  
I will say, this is important.  The decisions regarding liturgy and music are critical to the quality of our experience, and input is welcome.  But is liturgy and music the most important thing?
Some believe that the place of our gatherings in very important.  Many of us have been in some incredibly beautiful sanctuaries and churches.  The architectual styles throughout the ages have sought to create a sense of awe, of uniqueness, a sense of experiencing paradise.  Some have told me that what drew them to Zion was that it’s unique, or that it reminded them of churches they grew up in.  And so, where we worship can be important.  Is it the most important thing?
Maybe what matters most, at least to some, is the sermon.  Is the preaching dry and boring, or is it relevant and engaging.  A lot of people are drawn to—or turned off by—the quality of the preaching at a church, or even by the personality and likability of the pastor.  No pressure!  So the preaching is important, but is it the most important thing?
There’s another important factor: the people we gather with.  Many visitors will decide whether or not to return to a church based on how they’re received by the members.  If a church seems cold or closed in or judgmental, they won’t come back.  But if the fellowship is authentic and warm and welcoming, they are much more likely to return. (Honestly, this is one of the reasons I can’t understand why Zion is not growing more… I love the people here and how we relate to and care for one another.)  So, the quality of the fellowship is important, but is it the most important thing?
What do you think?  What is the most important factor in making your pilgrimage here worth the time and effort?  Anyone brave enough to share your thoughts?
I am going to share with you what I believe to be the most important factor in terms of reaching our potential to have our time here be like visiting paradise and temporarily recapturing the primordial peaceful and abundant relationship with God.  All of these other things—liturgy and music, the ambiance of our gathering place, the quality of the preaching, and the fellowship among the members—are important, and I/we need to keep trying to maximize their potential.
But that said, the most important factor of all is our attitude.  If we see going to church as being something we need to do to fulfill our religious obligations, than we can become just like the Israelites of old who found more and more reasons to not make the pilgrimages, or did them begrudgingly out of a sense of duty.  
Or we can put all of the responsibility on those who lead the worship.  If the liturgy and the music and the preaching are of high enough quality, and if they meet my own particular taste, then it may be worth going.  If not, I’ll either find another church or stop going altogether.
It is critically important for each of us and all of us to understand our need to do the work necessary to make this time worthwhile.  We can prepare ourselves with prayer.  It is important each time we gather to stop and think about what we are doing and why.  We are gathering here in hopes of being encountered by our Abba Father, our brother Jesus, all through the working of the Holy Spirit.  If we come seeking, we are prepared to find.
Also, we can learn to not judge the worth of a liturgy or song or hymn based on how well it fits our taste.  We can focus on the words, the content.  We can intently listen for God to speak to us through the words of the music and liturgy.  And when the sermon comes, we can ask God to open our hearts and minds and spirits to receive a word or blessing from God, even if it might seem dry or boring.  And as we gather for the sacrament, we can pause and contemplate the mysterious and miraculous nature of what is happening.  
I urge us all to prepare ourselves each time we gather here, and to seek the help of the Holy Spirit of God in order that we may more and more profoundly encounter and grow in Him.  Our attitude and preparation are vital.  If we come hungry, God will feed us.  If we come seeking, we will find.  If we open the door of our hearts, where Jesus continually stands knocking, He will come in to eat with us.
For worship to be worthwhile, it takes work… on all of our parts.  And God promises to work with and among us as we gather in His name.  Amen.