First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012
Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully
This year we are using themes from Advent Conspiracy:
Someone asked me why it’s called a conspiracy, and I realized that “conspiracy” may not be the most accurate term, because it implies something secret–which this is obviously not. There are websites and books and flashy videos freely available. It’s not meant to be secret.
But conspiracy also implies something subversive that is done by a group. And in that context, “conspiracy” is the perfect word. People of faith trying to subvert the dominant cultural practice of Christmas by focusing on others instead of self, by pouring less money into the consumer economy and more money into programs that help the most needy, by honoring God above all.
Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All . . .
These are not the holiday activities and attitudes promoted in the commercials and catalogs with which we are inundated this time of year. And out of all four of these themes for Advent Conspiracy, today’s focus–worship fully–might be the most subversive.
Because the holiday commercialism is really about making “me” happy and fulfilled. And worship is about letting go of our self-consciousness. The holiday commercialism is about focusing on that one magical future Christmas moment. Worship is about loosing ourselves in the reality of eternity. The commercialism is about being productive–to bake and decorate and shop and wrap and host . . . . Worship is just about being with.
Full worship, true worship–what Jesus calls worshiping God in spirit and truth–takes an orientation of the heart that rubs up against so much of our cultural conditioning.
I selected this reading from Matthew today because, yes, it is Christmasy and we’re getting into the Christmas carols at home and we’ve set up the tree and it’s fun to read these Christmas-related stories this time of year. But I also selected this reading because I think the journey of the Magi gives us an important glimpse into what it means to worship fully.
To begin with, worshiping fully does not mean that you (just) sit in a pew (or a hard folding chair) for one hour every Sunday morning. This worship journey of the Magi does not last for one hour once a week. It is a nearly life-long pursuit. We don’t know exactly how long the Magi have been watching the skies for this star, but it certainly seems like an intentional, patient, pursuit. They notice the star as soon as it rises and are able to tell Herod the exact time that the star appeared.
To worship fully means to be ready to worship at any time; to be scanning the horizon for the faintest glimmer of God, for any sign of Emmanuel–God with us. Thousands of people saw the same sky that the Magi saw; the star was there, shining, for everyone. But only the Magi noticed and followed.
Derek Yoder, one of the guest hosts at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Pennsylvania, has a blog I like to read. He posts pictures and small musings of his life there. The other day he posted about his daily walk to the “office” and his hikes on the trails. All the things he notices. The glimpses of God in the sunsets and the animals and the trees. I admit I was a bit jealous.
Then our own Bert Haverkate-Ens wrote an editorial in the Journal-World about walking–it was sent around on the list serv, so hopefully you had a chance to read it too. Bert wrote about walking in Lawrence. The beauty, the benefits, of slowing down. Of not always choosing the fastest, most efficient way to get from point A to point B.
And, of course, we don’t have to live at a church retreat center to slow down and pay attention. (It might help those of us who are easily distracted, though.)
And we don’t have to be Magi or astronomers to pay attention to the night sky. And we don’t have to be a chief priest or a teacher of the law or a biblical scholar or a pastor to pay attention to what the scriptures reveal about God with us.
Mary Oliver has a poem titled: “The Real Prayers are Not the Words, but the Attention that Comes First.”
“The Real Prayers are Not the Words, but the Attention that Comes First.”
Prayer and worship are connected, and are both dependent on us paying attention. Even when we don’t know what we are supposed to be paying attention to. Even when it seems to be taking too long. Even when we don’t quite understand what it is that we see.
If it were not for the attention they gave to the night sky, the Magi would not have seen the star rise. And they would not have been able to follow it.
The first thing we must do to worship fully is to pay attention. Pay attention not just to churchy things, but to all things that might help lead us more deeply into the presence of God. The sky and the road and the people around us.
Take a moment to consider what it is that you want to be more attentive to this Advent season. . . . Where will you look for clues to God’s presence? . . . How will you look? . . .
The magi looked to the sky and they saw the star. A new star. Out of the thousands of stars they could see in the pitch blackness of a pre-electricity desert–they noticed a new star.
And they followed it to the home of Jesus and Mary and Joseph.
Once the Magi find the Christ child, there seem to be two actions to their worship: they bow down and they offer him gifts.
They bow down to a boy! We do not know exactly who the Magi were–some sort of advisers, or astronomers or priests perhaps. They probably were not kings themselves, but were likely high ranking and wealthy.
They have walked into Jerusalem, the capital, and asked to be directed to the King of the Jews–unintimidated by the religious and political officials of the capital city. And then here we see them bowing before a child. A simple act of humility. A simple recognition of something–someone–beyond themselves.
I am actually touched by this bowing; this most basic, bodily act of worship. Those of you who grew up in the Catholic tradition may not share the warm feelings I have for this gesture of submission. I imagine the whole stand–sit–kneel–stand–sit–kneel routine gets old, not to mention painful if the padding is not thick enough on the kneeling rail. But coming from a tradition where there was very little connection between the physical body and acts of worship, I envy the Magi their bowing. Honestly, this is my favorite yoga position–it’s called child’s pose; folded up on the floor, head to the ground. It is a humbling position, but also secure and comforting.
These strangers from the east do not prepare a call to worship or write a sermon or play piano or even speak a prayer. They simply show up, see God, and plant their faces on the floor.
Now please know that I am not trying to preach myself out of a job. The elements of organized worship services are an important means of watching for God, listening for God, connecting with God–and connecting with each other. The calls to worship, candle lighting, sermons, prayers, and most definitely the music can indeed draw us into a deeper awareness of God’s presence with us. Weekly, communal church services are an important anchor in our attempts to worship fully.
But the weekly gathering, the candles, the prayers, the music–all of those things are not the worship–or rather they can be, but they are not necessarily. The worship is our heartfelt response of humility and adoration when we realize the reality of Emmanuel, that God is indeed with us. Maybe it is a prayer, or a song. Often it is a silence–a time when there are no words and we simply–literally or figuratively–fall on our knees and bow before the Holy One.
And after the bowing come the gifts. The gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. There are many theories about why the Magi give these particular gifts to the Christ child. What each represents. What they say about Jesus, what they say about the Magi. Interesting theories. You can look them up some time.
What strikes me as we talk about worship this morning is that the Magi must have carried these gifts with them on their journey. They selected and packed the gifts when they saw the star. While I imagine that seeing the Christ child was an incredibly moving emotional experience, it’s not the emotion that makes them give the gifts. They simply understand, from the beginning, that the child is worthy of gifts.
The frightening hellfire rhetoric of the televangelists. The sad pictures of emaciated children shown by various charitable organizations. All the pulpit pounding and teary eyes that so many rely on today to inspire gift-giving–that’s not what we see here. The Magi are excited to see the star–overjoyed at this sign of God’s presence among them. And they pack the gifts before they go on the journey. And when they find the child, they give the gifts. Just as they planned all along.
The presence of God in the world is our inspiration, our motivation to give. To give whatever we have. Our money, our efforts, our organizing skills, our child-teaching skills, our toilet-fixing skills . . . We have these gifts to give. We carry them with us, intending all along to give them. And then when we find God, when we say, “Hey, look at what a wonderful thing God is doing here,” we pull out the gifts and offer them.
This offering, too, is part of worshiping fully. (And no, Rod did not tell me to say that when you are about to get the pledge requests in your boxes. It just happens to fit with the scripture. Blame the Holy Spirit.)
For us and for the Magi there is the attentive seeking. The bowing and giving when we find.
And then, always, I think, there is a return to our country by another route–if we have indeed worshiped fully.
For the Magi, it is an encounter with God in a dream that lets them know they cannot go home the same way they came. That the people and powers they used to follow and trust are actually not trustworthy at all.
That is one thing true worship teaches–that the powers we used to trust are not trustworthy–the political systems, the financial systems, the flawed human leaders, the commercials, the self-help methods . . . all those things society tempts us to worship–they’re not worthy of worship. Many of them are not even worthy of trust.
Herod does not want to worship the baby; he wants to kill him.
Once we have truly, fully, worshiped the Holy living God, we must go home by another way. We must make our home in another way.
It doesn’t specifically say this in scripture, but I would imagine that the Magi came to Jerusalem by the shortest possible route–they were supposedly wise men after all. And if they came by the shortest route, then for them to go home by another route necessarily meant to go home by a longer route.
This other route is the route that true, full worship will compel us to take. A route that won’t make sense to others–or even to ourselves sometimes. A route through unfamiliar territory. A route that bypasses the well-traveled roads and pre-mapped directions.
To worship fully will lead us to go home by a different way. To do Christmas in a different way. To do life in a different way. It will be a long journey. A joyful journey. A journey we can take with each other. And we trust that God, whom we worship, journeys with us. Amen.