I bring you greetings from believers in the Midwest, both Chicago and the twin cities of Minneapolis / St. Paul. And I gotta say, it feels a little surreal to be saying that, but I’ll tell you about that in a bit.
Two weeks ago, my wife Holly and I spent a week in Chicago catching up with old friends that we hadn’t seen since we moved to Portland five years ago, especially one particular couple that was in our wedding who are now living and serving at Lawndale Community Church on the west side of Chicago, where God is doing some amazing things in the midst of inner city struggle.
Last week, we were on the campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church north of Minneapolis, where we gathered with about 15 or worship leaders who are all pursuing the vision of multiethnic worship. We laughed together, prayed together, and wrote songs together. It was an incredible time of fellowship… it was like worship camp.
It feels funny to say the whole, I-bring-you-greetings thing, because that’s something that my Dad, our founding pastor, would say when he would come back from a ministry trip. And I always felt funny hearing that, because I would think, “well why are they greeting me? I don’t know them, and they don’t know me.”
But now I understand. Because even though you don’t know those people specifically, you need to know, there are saints in Chicago and saints in the Midwest who are praying for our church. They are praying for you, believing in you, trusting that God will continue to do marvelous works in this part of His body. Although you may not realize it on a week by week basis, we are not alone in this work. We are a part, not only of a denomination of like-minded believers, but part of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and when we have victories, others rejoice with us. When we struggle, others struggle with us.
So that’s what I mean by, “I give you greetings.” It’s not just a formality. It’s about the love and unity of the gospel.
So anyway, like I said, our first week was spent in Chicago, catching up with old friends. And since it had been such a long time since Holly and I had been back, I asked a friend of ours to gather up some of our old friends and put on a get-together so we wouldn’t have to try to see everybody separately. She sent out a bunch fo Facebook invites weeks before we got there, and Holly and I were excited about coming.
As a matter of fact, Holly was so excited that she wanted to make sure I had the right time for the party in my calendar. When I told her it was at 2pm, she thought that was an odd time to have lunch, so she asked me to double-check. I went back on Facebook to check the event, and there it was – “Picnic with Holly and Jelani – 2:00pm.”
So you can imagine my shock when Saturday at 1pm, as Holly and I are preparing to drive across town, I get a call from the host.
“Hello Jelani, are you coming?”
“Yeah, we’re just leaving… waitaminute, I thought the party was at two.”
“No, we started at noon.”
At this point, I’m glancing over at Holly, who is giving me a look that could melt steel. She is NOT happy.
I finished up the conversation, we dashed out the door, and because of crosstown traffic on a Saturday, made it to the party right about two o’clock. By way of explanation, I pulled out my new phone, checked the Facebook application again, and there it showed the time for the event – 2pm.
It was at this point that I realized what happened. When I accepted the invitation on Facebook for the party, I was still in Portland. But after I got to Chicago, my phone, sensing the change of time zone, shifted all of my appointments forward two hours, and my Facebook app did the same thing. According to my Facebook app, I was right on time for a party that started noon Pacific, or 2pm Central time.
And that’s the story of how we ended up being two hours late for a party in our honor.
But you know what? That happens a lot in the church.
We get caught up putting on an event for God, or doing a program for God, or running a ministry for Him, and it takes us awhile to realize that… umm… He’s not in it. Yes, God is omnipresent, but I mean His manifest presence that indicates His will or His pleasure, His indwelling. When it comes to that, sometimes it takes us awhile to realize that God is not the house. We’re struggling along, wondering why our work is so difficult, or why the atmosphere is so dry, or whatever, and then we finally hear the still, small voice…
“Did I ask you to do this, or did you decide to do this for Me?”
This happens to all of us, I think, at one time or another. And I think it happens usually when we expect God to work a certain way, and then He defies our expectations and does something completely different.
Today, we’re going to examine two passages of Scripture where this happens, We’ll take a brief stop in 1 Kings 19, and then we’ll sit for awhile in John 4. Take note in each passage of the disconnect between what we expect from God and what He actually does.
Let’s start with 1 Kings 19:9b-13…
And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Here we see God confounding His servant by throwing Him a curveball. He tells Elijah, get ready, I’m about to show up… and then He causes three calamitous events to happen, things that are signs of His presence at other times, but it says of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, that the Lord was not in them.
It seems a little odd that God would do this. But you have to remember who He was talking to. The prophet Elijah had seen and participated in some of the most dramatic manifestations of God on record. This was the same servant who mocked the prophets of Ba’al before calling down fire from God to consume his offering. This man had seen God part the Jordan river and stave off starvation for a widow and her son.
So for Elijah, it would’ve been pretty normal for God to show up in something big and dramatic. I believe God instead showed up in a whisper, just to make sure Elijah wasn’t too enamored with the miracles themselves. He wanted to remind Elijah that He can show up however He wants.
Now, let’s get to the main passage of the day, John 4:19-26.
This is a continuation of a story that we’ve looked at before, where Jesus met a woman at the well. In a nutshell, he asks her to draw him some water from the well, and then engages her in conversation. In the course of the conversation, she reveals that she has no husband, and Jesus reveals His prophetic ability by laying bare her past failed relationships (five husbands), and mentioning that the man she’s with now is not even her husband.
It’s at this point, humbled and yet intrigued, that she continues her conversation with Jesus.
19“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
It’s clear from this text that this is another example of Jesus confounding someone’s expectations. And if we look closely enough, we can see that this was not just true for the woman in this story, but it’s true for us today.
Today, I want to share with you three important lessons that we can take from this text, lessons that will help us understand the disconnect between our expectations and His sovereign will. Fundamentally, this is a story about worship. If we take lessons to heart, they will change the way we worship, not only on Sundays, but throughout the week.
1. Worship is not just emotion, but also action.
It’s clear from the text that this woman had an Old Testament understanding of worship, because it involved action. In order to understand, we need to establish some background information on what worship is.
Let’s break down the language.
The Hebrew word for “worship,” which appears many, many times in the Old Testament, is “shachah,” which means:
to depress, i.e. prostrate (especially reflexive, in homage to royalty or God):–bow (self) down,
crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (make) obeisance,
do reverence, make to stoop, worship.
The Greek word for “worship” is “proskuneo,”
to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand); to fawn or crouch to, i.e. (literally or figuratively) prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to,
English… the word worship is derived from the Old English “worthship” … so the word really means to express or declare the worth of something or someone.
So if you do a search for the word “worship” in the Bible, most of the time you’ll see one of these two words. And when you read about men and women in the Bible worshipping, there is almost always action that is part of it… building an altar, making a sacrifice, singing a song, lifting hands, bowing prostrate, etc.
And this was not only true for them then, but it’s true for us now. Worship is something that we as humans do naturally and regularly. Even nonbelievers worship. It’s just that we don’t usually call it that, we’ll call it something else… being fanatical or devoted.
But you can tell the difference between someone who likes a particular thing, and someone else who is really, really into it. It’s like the difference between praise and worship.
So maybe I could watch a Blazers game and think, “hey, that Brandon Roy, he’s a good player.”
But an adoring fan might say, “Brandon Roy is a former rookie of the year, three-time All-Star and 2nd team all-NBA who scored 21 points a game last year, and he’s the closest thing Portland has had to a superstar since Clyde Drexler in the early 90s.”
Or I could look at a house and say, “that’s a pretty nice house.”
But an excited real estate agent might say, “this is an architectural hybrid of Queen Anne and Dutch colonial styles, with rounded arches, ornamental parapets, and elaborate shutters. It’s the jewel of the neighborhood.”
Or I could look at a car and say, “hey, that’s a pretty cool car,” but someone who is really into cars can see that same car and say:
“This is a limited edition model built from the ZXC concept prototype, with a composite carbon fiber exterior, and an interior of Tibetan suede, except for the high definition LCD projection unit in the windshield.”
Do you see the difference? Worship is fanatical and specific.
And remember, it’s not enough just to know certain things or feel a certain way. True worship always involves action. So we respond by buying tickets to NBA games, or touring lavish homes, or going to car shows. We take actions to demonstrate our devotion.
So remember that the next time you come to church and the worship leader asks you to stand, or wave your hands, or kneel down. They’re not doing it because they’re insecure and need you to participate (at least I hope not), but because thoughts and emotions, on their own, are insufficient vehicles for worship. Worship is not something that comes over you, it’s something that you DO, regardless of, sometimes even in spite of, what you might be thinking or feeling in the moment.
True, authentic, Biblical worship always compels us to respond with an action.
But not just any old action will do, which brings me to our next lesson we can learn from this text.
2. In worship, context matters.
Action is good, but not all actions are the same. The questions of how, when, where and with whom are very important. In the Old Testament, there were lots of rules and regulations for the Israelites and even for the high priests who only encountered God once a year. Yahweh was very particular about the manner in which He was to be worshipped.
And we carry on some of these ideas about worship today. There are times and places to be loud, and other times and places to be quiet. Shouting in triumph, bowing prostrate, and lifting holy hands can be quite acceptable during church, but less so while commuting on the bus in the morning. Even if we as Christians don’t always agree about what should happen when, our ideas of what is appropriate exist in the context of certain cultural norms.
This woman was no different. Being a Samaritan, her cultural background required worship at a temple on Mt. Gerizim, which according to scholars, had been destroyed by a Jewish king centuries prior. So her statement in verse 20 – our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say to worship in Jerusalem — is an indirect challenge to Jesus’ allegiance. It’s a question of which cultural context is more legitimate. By inquiring about where to worship, she’s really asking, in this ancient ethnic conflict, who is right? She’s expecting Him to take a side.
Jesus flips the script on her.
He answers, not by taking sides, but by taking over. His response changes her paradigm of context. Pretty soon, he says, the where of worship will be irrelevant. According to Jesus, the proper context for worship will have nothing to do with externalities like geography or ethnicity, and everything to do with being connected to Him.
So what is the proper context?
3. True worship is fully connected to Spirit and truth.
The context that Jesus identifies as ideal for worship is translated as “in spirit and in truth.”
The word translated as spirit is the Greek word pneuma, which is the same word Jesus and others in the New Testament use to refer to The Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead Himself.
But Jesus didn’t just refer to Himself as Spirit, but also as truth (John 14:6). So His mention here of truth is particularly aimed at the woman He was talking to, who based on her less-than-honest testimony, had evidently gotten used to playing fast and loose with the facts. His words were a gentle piercing of her pretense.
And so they are for us today.
God wants our worship to be fully connected. He wants us to be honest… to Him, and to ourselves. God made us in His image, and because of Him, we have a spirit that animates us and allows us to connect with Him (John 3:5-7). When we are dishonest, when we engage in sinful acts and attitudes that cut us off from Him, our worship suffers (Ps 66:18-20, Isa 59:2). No amount of animal sacrifice or physical atonement can substitute for this (1 Sam 15:22).
For those who would rather stick to cultural norms as the basis of our worship, THIS IS BAD NEWS. As long as we worship from a place of cultural superiority (“my worship is better than yours”) or as a way for us to earn righteousness (“because I worship this way, I am forgiven”) our worship is doomed. The best we can hope for is to go through the motions, to have a form without the power.
But for the rest of us… this is GREAT news.
It means that our worship doesn’t have to be constrained by artificial contexts beyond our control. It means that God is not a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) or partisan toward nations or groups (Gal. 3:28). It means that anyone – ANYONE – who believes in Him can worship Him in confidence (Hebrews 4:16).
And when the Spirit of God connects with our spirit, and we begin to comprehend the truth about ourselves in light of the truth about Him, and it hits us like a ton of bricks, over and over, until we stop caring what we look like to others and eventually become sniveling wrecks incapable of anything but complete and total praise and adoration… that is the kind of worship that the Father seeks.
That’s the kind of worship that changes hearts, transforms lives, and brings restoration to communities.
And isn’t that what we want to be about at ICC? Isn’t that the vision of worship that we all long for, a place where God is glorified week after week in the midst of a diverse people who have nothing in common except the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Of course it is.
I have to be honest here… sometimes when people ask me about the future of worship at ICC, I have a hard time talking about it.
Not because I don’t have a vision, but precisely because I do. It can be very depressing to verbalize things that I feel so strongly about, without a clear sense of how we can get there. Otherwise, it just feels like an elusive dream.
Because at Irvington Covenant, we have tremendous upside potential. I’m serious… we have some very talented people in our midst, and with our strategic location, and much of the necessary leadership and infrastructure in place, we have most, if not all, of the critical pieces in place to build an amazing worship ministry, one that can serve as a light to our community and a catalyst for exponential growth.
I’m talking about worship music of various styles … postmodern Europop, acoustic soul, hyphy rap, Latin rock, southern gospel, folk trios, baroque minuets… you name it. I’m talking about embracing and leveraging artists within our community and training them to raise up the next generation of rappers, dancers, singers, thespians and designers who want to represent Christ and serve Him with their gifts. I’m talking about something so incredible, so beautiful, so ridiculous and provocative and anointed and Good-Lord-did-you-see-that, that you’d have to experience it to even believe it exists.
This is my vision for worship in our multiethnic community.
(See? I’m getting worked up right now even as I talk about it.)
Every time I think about it, though, reality sets in and I see how far we have to go.
Because I deal in the practical world of logistical details, I tend to focus first on what we don’t have. So practically speaking, I’m always thinking in terms of future developments. As soon as we have someone who can manage the sound and tech team, as soon as we have enough skilled, anointed people in the band and in the choir, as soon as people start showing up to church on time… as soon as this or that happens, then our worship will be amazing.
But go back to the beginning of verse 23:
“Yet a time is coming… and has now come…”
In those few words, Jesus has a powerful revelation for me as a worship leader, and for all of us as worshipers. We don’t have to wait for that glorious future to come later, but we can start worshiping Him in spirit and in truth RIGHT NOW,
We don’t have to know the right songs, or play the right chords, or sing with the right inflection, or have enough members of the enough racial groupings to do just the right blend of music that will appeal to a diverse cross-section of people.
All we have to do is worship Him, and God will take care of the rest.
So if you’ve been waiting for us to sing that one song that you like so much, stop waiting and worship. If you’ve been waiting until you see more signs of life and a greater level of musical complexity or diversity, stop waiting and worship.
And especially if you’ve been waiting on me or other people in leadership to get our act together, please… stop waiting and just worship. ‘Cause that last one might take awhile.
The Father is seeking those who will worship in spirit and in truth. Let us not disappoint Him.