Worship Is Cancelled

Isaiah 52:7-10Hebrews 1:1-4 John 1:1-14

If you’ve noted the title of the sermon, you can guess where we’ll begin. Many of us have seen the headlines and heard the stories of American mega-churches that have cancelled worship this Sunday morning. From Chicago’s Willow Creek to Alpharetta’s North Point, these communities have cited potential low attendance and “poor use of staff time” as one reason for doing so. They have also put a positive spin on the issue, saying that they prefer not to interfere with family time on Christmas morning. Several of these churches, including North Point, have also cancelled worship for next Sunday, New Year’s Day, for similar reasons.

Given that we are all here this morning, I am going to take a chance and suggest that we might have a problem with this line of reasoning. Personally, I’m going to stray from the “neutral” column on this issue, and stick my neck out just a touch. On Sunday, and on Christmas Day, I am concerned that these churches’ witness to the world is to close their doors.

I have no desire to mark my ministry or that of Oglethorpe by comparing ourselves favorably to others or judging them for their behavior. We know that many good, faithful Christians – among them our members, our family, our friends – have made a similar choice this morning. We do note that the pews are a bit roomier today. And ministries that become obsessed with comparisons put themselves in the “holier than thou” category. They lack humility and pretend as though the world, and even the Church, is not a place of great brokenness and imperfection. As soon as we start looking in our neighbor’s eye for the speck that blurs his vision, we miss the log in our own that blinds us.

Instead, my hope is that we will learn something about ourselves, and our calling to ministry, in the contrast. On Sunday, we are here to witness to the promise of resurrection. On Christmas, we are here to witness to the birth of Christ our Lord. We do not come here to fill the pews with our bodies, but to fill the sanctuary with our praise.

For many, the heart of this issue is the relationship between the Church and its culture. Some evangelicals have criticized the choice to cancel worship as surrender to the increased secularization of our society. They may have a point. But unfortunately, this question is not limited to those moments every ten years or so when calendars collide on a Sunday morning. The Church’s relationship to its surroundings has always been a complex one. At its best, the relationship is a healthy dialogue that finds places of cooperation and others of challenge. At worst, it is a decision to either disengage or to allow the Church’s message of salvation to be co-opted by the ills of the society.

The balancing act for the Church is to be involved enough to be an agent of transformation without falling prey to the corruptions that society can offer. When we do it well, it looks like the Christian witness for justice during the Civil Rights’ era. But it is a constant negotiation, a moving dance, a world of shades of gray where we take seriously Christ’s command to be in the world but not of it.

It reminds me of the struggles faced by the Russian Church under Communism. When the Communists came to power, preaching atheism as the only acceptable form of religion, the Church of Moscow was in a bind. Part of the Church ended up going underground. They remained fervent Christians who maintained the traditions and practices of the Church in secret. And doing so, they risked severe punishment and persecution. Another part of the Church worked with the authorities. Bishops collaborated with those in power, and were able to keep their churches open publicly. But as they did so, they knowingly sacrificed their own integrity in the hope that their schools and churches and seminaries and publishing houses could continue to function.

Both approaches had their shortcomings. Neither part of the Russian Church ended up facing these difficult questions with unquestionable purity. Those who went underground mostly hid their faith publicly, living a sort of double life. And those who collaborated were unable to protect their churches from a government that eventually forbade all aspects of church life except worship. And yet, through it all, Christ was proclaimed. The Church served the poor and gave witness to the hope of resurrection. But while the Soviet Union has collapsed and churches have reopened their doors and restarted their ministries, their issues of Christ and culture remain unresolved. The rift between the two parts of the Church remains unhealed. Dangerous nationalism plagues every aspect of Russian life, including that of the Church. In Russia, the dance goes on, the shades of gray remain, the negotiations continue.

We see this movement, the tension of this relationship between faith and culture, throughout our texts this morning. Our first reading from Isaiah finds the ancient Israelites in Babylon, in captivity. The prophet has admonished them, noting that when they had power in Jerusalem, their faith became corrupted. And he has explained that their captivity is punishment for excessive lapses to temptation.

But losing their land doesn’t mean regaining their faith, either. They find themselves in a strange land, where a strange tongue is spoken and strange gods are worshiped. They find themselves facing questions they never had to face when they ran the show. Should we bow down to the Emperor so that we can maintain the Sabbath? Can we use the Babylonian calendar with months named after idols without losing our faith in the process? One can imagine the debates between leaders in the community.

But the simple truth in the midst of it all was this: they are not abandoned. In the midst of all this strangeness rings the prophet’s voice. Isaiah reminds them that it is not the Babylonians, nor their kings, nor even their gods, who reign. It is the Lord who rules. It is God who will bring them salvation from captivity. It is a redemption that is so far beyond description that the prophet has the smoldering ruins of the once-glorious Jerusalem bursting forth into song.

Similarly, in Hebrews, we find the writer addressing a suffering community that has begun to lose its faith. Their initial fervor is fading. The immediate return of Christ they expected has failed to materialize. They are living in the midst of intense suffering and persecution. Their expectations of immediate salvation and redemption have not materialized. And it is possible that many are renouncing their faith in Christ altogether.

But the simple truth in the midst of it all was this: they are not neglected. Their case, in the history of faith, is not unique. They’re not the first followers of God to suffer. And in the midst of that distress, God was always present. Prophets like Isaiah proclaimed these truths to their ancestors, even in places of great misery like Babylon. And as glorious as the words of these prophets were, the author tells them, they pale in comparison to what we have experienced. In Christ, we have received the clearest message of the divine word, clearer than that of prophets or angels.

Friends, little has changed for the people of faith. From Isaiah to Hebrews to Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we are called to be in the world but not of it. In our own society that is a mixture of blessings and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ. The challenges are many: poverty and materialism, division and hatred, violence and fear.

But the simple truth in the midst of it all is this: we are not alone.

Friends, the messages of both Isaiah and Hebrews find their essence on this Christmas morning. Our celebration today is at the heart of our faith: in a manger in Bethlehem, the word became flesh and lived among us. The eternal word, the divine logos of John’s gospel, became human. The Christmas promise is that God lives among us, even (and especially) in the midst of the mess of our lives. The powerful truth of our faith sits in the center of our worship every Sunday morning. This world is so loved by its Creator that this Creator was willing to risk everything, even – and especially – humiliation and death, for the sake of our redemption.

There are rarely easy answers to the questions that face the Church. But in the dance of culture and faith, the Holy Spirit should guide our feet. In the give and take of negotiation and dialogue, Christ is the word that should be on our lips. Among the shades of gray, we should clear away space for God’s work of subtle, vibrant colors.

Will we get it right? Not always. Will we make mistakes? Most likely. But in the mess of it all, God is at work, freeing us to be bold enough to risk getting it wrong. And God is at work, patiently perfecting our faults – even our choices about worship on a Sunday morning – for the glory of the kingdom.

Merry Christmas.

sermonsMarthame Sanders