A Sermon for Evensong
Some words from our second Lesson this evening: “Day and night without ceasing they sing”.
In the parish church I served before coming here, we hosted a day for the Royal School of Church Music. It was a great deal of fun, and a good lot of singing went on. At the end of the day, perusing the visitors book, I found that one of the children attending the day had written “this is a beautiful church and a very good place to sin”. Perhaps this is a good point to say to our visiting choir that we’ve enjoyed having you very much and we hope that you have found this to be a good place to sing! If you’ve found it to be a good place for anything else, then so much the better.
Singing is a very important part of Christian life. There are very few places in our society that we come together to sing. Sporting events, pop concerts and church are probably the only places. St Augustine thought it so important that he said that to sing is to pray twice. And in our reading from the book of Revelation, we hear that the four living creatures who sit around the throne of God sing constantly, day and night without ceasing.
This passage is key to understanding the whole of the book of Revelation. After the first three chapters set the scene and then provide letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, John the Visionary finally goes through the door and sees behind the curtain. This is not, and let me really emphasise the not, this is not a book that gives a step by step guide to the end of all things. The book of Revelation is not, absolutely not, a programmatic account of things that will happen or which must happen. To read it in this way is to fail to understand it. What the book of Revelation is, is a peering behind the curtain of this world to see what is going on from the point of view of heaven. Heaven is not a separate place, in the understanding of the book of Revelation. For the book of Revelation, heaven is the inner meaning of all things. At the end of the book, that inner meaning is clearly seen on the face of creation (as our first lesson would have us know was always the intent). At the end of the book, heaven and earth are married, and God dwells with his people.
But until then, there will always be things that are difficult to see and to understand. Why are there people dying to day from preventable disease? What are there Christians who are punished simply for being Christians? Why does God allow this to happen? Revelation is written for a persecuted church, to encourage it to keep going and to keep being the people of God. And throughout the book of Revelation, we find worship. Perhaps more so than in any other book of the Bible, worship is at the heart of the book of Revelation.
And so, briefly, tonight I want to offer some reflections on worship, why worship is so central to the Christian life, and what we are about here in this place tonight as we come to worship. And the first thing that I want to suggest is that worship is about putting all things in proper order, and especially ourselves. The English word ‘worship’ comes from ‘worth-ship’. To worship God is to give God his proper worth. In worship we acknowledge that God is on the throne, God is the true meaning and purpose of all things. God is on the throne and we are to cast our crowns before him. And in doing so, we begin to remove from that throne all the many daily idols that we put there – money, status, ourselves, our desires, our prejudices, our duties and our needs. These are removed from the place of worship, as we find that the throne is occupied by God. Worship is the most human act of all, because it is in worship that we acknowledge that we are human and that we are not god! Worship, as our Psalm (Psalm 148) reminds us, is something that all creation shares in. With angels, stars, mountains, hills, the weather and even dragons, we too are creatures. We are made by God, and we are to worship God. Worship reminds us that we are human creatures, we are not god. Worship makes us more human.
Worship is central to the Christian life, because worship acknowledges that God alone is worthy, and acknowledges that we are human and not god. And in doing this, the second thing that worship does is to give us a glimpse of what it will be like when heaven is married to earth. In worship, we catch a view of heaven. No pressure, choir. That is the time, to jump to the end of the book of Revelation, when God will dwell with his people “and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21.4). In worship, as we begin to see what it is like to have things in their proper place, to give things their proper worth, we catch a glimpse of what God intends for all things.
Worship helps us to be human, and it gives us a glimpse of the time when heaven has come to earth. And then worship sends us away to be worshippers in all of our lives. John does not stay behind that door in heaven, but is sent back to the exile of Patmos and the care of the persecuted churches entrusted to him. At the end of all acts of worship there is a dismissal – we are sent out to be God’s people in the world. Often, and tonight is not exception, we are sent with a blessing. But we are sent. We are sent to be human, not gods, in a world that tries so hard to make us more than human and ends up making us less than human. We are sent to be people in whom others can get that glimpse of heaven come to earth. That is what it is to be a worshipper!
Tonight as we gather to worship God, we gather to be made more truly human. We gather to catch a glimpse of heaven come to earth. And we gather to be sent away as worshippers, to live as human beings in the midst of an inhuman world and to offer the vision of God dwelling with his people to those who we meet. Let this be our song in the days ahead: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created”. Amen. Let it be so.
Given at Derby Cathedral. 23.2.13.