word

In the Beginning

John 1:1-5, 9-14

This time of year, Christian minds quickly go to a baby in a manger. But we also are invited to contemplate an astounding idea: The true nature of what is within the child.

Last week, I mentioned that if you accept that Simeon saw the face of God when gazing upon the baby Jesus, then you understand a central tenet of Christianity. Jesus is God among us, God taking on flesh in order to be among his creation and, ultimately, to save his creation from sin and death.

The opening of the Gospel of John takes this idea and runs with it. As we read it, we are asked to put aside notions of time and space and understand the godly essence of Jesus has always existed and always will exist.

We are told there is an an aspect of God we can think of as “the Word.” When we see God as creative, as life-giving, we are seeing the Word. In Greek it is logos, which we also might translate as “truth” or “reason,” if we trust some of the meaning ancient Greek philosophers read into the concept.

This high-minded notion of creativity, truth and reason existing beyond space and time—indeed, making space and time—is overwhelming to try to grasp. My head hurts just trying to think about it. And yet, in all of this, there also is love. And God loves his little human creations so much that this endless aspect of God, this Word, concentrated and shrank himself enough to inhabit flesh.

That is what Christmas is about, by the way. The Word inhabited flesh.

When you begin to get this notion of the Word walking among us, a lot of Jesus’ miracles make more sense. Of course the loaves and the fishes were superabundant; the aspect of God that made every fish and every grain of wheat that ever existed was present.

Of course he could heal a man born blind, even though no one had ever heard of such a miracle. A little spit and dirt mixed into a mud, and voilà, new eyes. The aspect of God that made every eye that had ever existed was present.

Of course Jesus rose from the dead, made indestructible. The battered body contained the inventor of life, and he would not be restrained.

To ease the theological headaches we sometimes get from such big thoughts, we also have this notion of Jesus being the “Son of God,” an idea we also see reflected in the Gospel of John. I’ve seen people struggle with this, taking the phrase too literally, saying, “No, Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is the Son of God.” But we have to remember, we call Jesus “Son of God” as a reminder that a new being was created in Mary’s womb, one fully divine but bearing human flesh.

Saying “Son of God” also makes our lives a little easier; the idea is simpler to grasp. It is hard to talk about Jesus in the high-flying language of John’s first chapter all the time.

The beauty of Christianity is that while we’re invited to stretch our minds, to exercise our imaginations, no great leaps of thinking are required for a relationship with God. Theologians can spend a lifetime studying Christology, but at the same time, a child, through simple belief, can be saved and brought into a relationship with God through Christ.

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Belief is enough.

As you contemplate the baby in the manger this year, may your Christmas be merry, and may your visions of God be magnificent.

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Four Parts of Worship: The Gathering

It has long fascinated me that when we make mistakes in life, they often are rooted in our failure to execute the basics well. We’ll let complicated details worry us and then botch what should be simple.

You see it in sports. A Major League baseball player costs his team the game by booting a routine ground ball, a simple maneuver he’s executed thousands of time since Little League. An NFL quarterback in a panic throws off balance and across his body, something a coach first told him not to do when he was 8 years old. Interception.

It happens to us at work. We’re trained in the basics of our job. We execute those basics day after day. And then one day, often for reasons even we cannot explain, we do it another way, and we’re left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

It happens to us in worship, too. To worship well, there are some basics we need to keep in mind. And if we keep going back to them, we will worship very well, in a way that invigorates us and impacts every moment of our lives.

Through the rest of September, we’re going to talk about the most basic aspects of worship, the four identifiable parts of worship going back to the earliest days of Christianity. We’re going to see if we can fully understand our role in each part and how each part leads to its next part.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll cover one each week. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

Focus

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere out on the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins when we gather ourselves, readying ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Cassidy and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective where we remember where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with a church bell, as we are, its ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Cassidy to have a beautiful garden with a pathway through it next to the sanctuary. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking through it.

To again use a sports metaphor, the gathering is first about getting your head in the game. You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins on the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we do it right, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the singing. The prayers bind us together.

We’re Not Alone

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life.

Consider Jesus’ words, and then think about what we’re doing when we gather here. God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I ever leave?”

We also begin to realize that a mature Christian’s worship experience has little to do with matters like style of music or preaching. Jesus promised to show up when we gather in his name; he said nothing about matters of style. Our experience is tied to how fully we believe God is among us when we gather as Jesus told us to do.

Next week, I’ll tell you why I can promise you we will encounter God every week in worship, assuming we stick to our basics and walk into church ready for the encounter.