Why does the worship of God always seem to end up on the bottom of our list of priorities? If there is almost anything else going on, any other place to go, any other activity to do, it takes precedence over our worship. Fishing trip?—Oh, I can miss church for that. A round of golf this Sunday?—No problem, I can easily skip church this week. Run a marathon—I’m there. Missing worship? No problem. But you’re the preacher! Don’t worry, I can work it out!
You know it and I know it, we’ll skip church to do just about anything else. The sad truth is that sometimes we’ll even skip church so we can stay home and do absolutely nothing. Out too late on Saturday night?—Not a problem, I can just sleep in on Sunday morning.
And when it comes to missing worship, just about any excuse will do. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s too windy. It’s too rainy. It’s too bad outside and my bed is calling my name! It’s too nice outside and the beach is calling my name! It’s too cloudy. It’s too sunny. I’m too tired. I’ve just got too much energy and want to do something that is fun!
And we all know the reason why. We don’t like to admit it, but we all know why. Too often than not, worship just seems like a waste of time. We get up and drag ourselves out of the bed, iron our shirt or blouse, get dressed, go through you-know-what to get the kids ready, drive to this place, climb up the steps, sit down, sing, pray, take communion, and listen to a preacher drone on and on—and for what? What do we get out of it? What’s it all for?
Twelve o’clock rolls around and nothing about us has really changed. We really don’t feel any better. We don’t have a new desire to do any better, and we really don’t want to even be any better. We get in our car and drive home thinking about all of the other things we could have been doing instead of wasting our time sitting in church.
Why is this? Why does the worship of God often seem like such a colossal waste of our time? Why do we very seldom get anything out of it?
Maybe it’s the choir’s fault. Someone sang off key. That song sure wasn’t very uplifting. It sounded more like a funeral dirge than an anthem. Why can’t that choir ever sing anything that makes me want to tap my toes, clap my hands?
Maybe it was the organist’s fault. She just wasn’t on today. She played that thing today like she stayed out too late last night. And that offertory, well it just didn’t do a thing for me!
But more than likely it was the preacher’s fault. You call that a sermon! I’d rather hear John Moore preach anytime. You’d think that with all of his experience and education, he could do better than that! I just didn’t get a thing out of that message!
Well, I wished it was as easy as all that.
Perhaps you have heard the story about the man who left the worship service complaining. He shook the preacher’s hand at the front door and grumbled: “That last song didn’t do a thing in the world for me!” To which the preacher responded: “Who cares?!? Because that song was not for you! It was for God.”
We must learn to get it through the self-centered, self-absorbed, big heads that worship is not God’s gift to us. Worship is our gift to God. Worship is about giving; not receiving. We do not come here on Sunday morning to get something out of it, but to give something through it, namely ourselves. We come to offer God our hearts, minds, soul and strength.
However, that is not to say that God does not reciprocate. Through our worship of God, I believe there is something from God that we should receive. None of us should leave this place on Sunday morning empty. Having come to give ourselves to God, I do believe we should leave full, blessed, forgiven, and according to our scripture lesson this morning— we should leave this place feeling “justified.”
But sometimes, that is just not the case is it? Sometimes we do leave this place empty. Why? Whose fault is it? This morning’s lesson is about two men who went to church to worship. Jesus says that only one of the men went back home “justified,” that is, made right with God, forgiven. For the other, worship was a waste of time. Why?
Let’s look at this story closer.
Because we have been listening to Jesus’ parables for eight weeks now, from the very outset we know Jesus is setting us up for one of his surprises. The Pharisee was a good person. He prayed a fine prayer. The works that he mentions in his prayer are excellent deeds. They are deeds that go far beyond the basic demands of Jewish law. Furthermore, this Pharisee thanks God for his good life, recognizing that even his virtues have come to him as gifts of God.
The publican is a bad person. He’s not exaggerating when he says that he’s a “sinner.” His life’s work was fleecing the poor on the behalf of the Roman occupation government. And because of it, he is hated by his fellow Jews.
The two men go to church. One—a good, bible-believing, church-going person with good and honest moral values. The other—a despised collaborator with the oppressive Romans—a sinner and he knew it. Guess which one goes home justified and which one merely wasted his time?
Jesus said that it is this despised Publican who went home from church that day full, blessed, forgiven and justified. Why?
We need to remember that every parable that Jesus ever told has one important thing in common. The purpose of the parable is to teach us something about God and God’s kingdom—how God acts, and what God desires. Like worship, parables are not about us. Parables don’t tell us what we ought to do. Parables tell us what God, in Jesus Christ does.
So, this particular parable teaches us that there is simply something inalienable about our God that loves to forgive sinners. Our God always surprises us by embracing those, who, because of their sin, seem to be outside the boundaries of God’s love. Our God always surprises us by accepting and loving those people that the world, especially the religious people in the world, despises.
Do you want to get something out of worship? Then we must understand that every aspect of what we do in this service on Sunday morning is an acknowledgement that we are all, every one of us, fallen, broken, sinful human beings in desperate need of God’s grace. Not one of us here is any better than any other.
We sing hymns to God. Why? Because singing is all we can do. The gift of God’s grace—the gift of life, the gift of salvation, the gift of eternity can not be earned and can never be deserved. We sing because we have been given gifts that we cannot repay.
We pray. Why? Because this gift of God’s grace draws us close to the Giver. We crave intimacy and communion with God. For without God, we would not be.
We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because we remember that God, through Jesus, did for did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We, through our deeds could not come close to God, so God through Christ came close to us. We break the bread and share the cup in remembrance that for love of us, God gave us the very best gift that God had to give—the gift of God’s very self.
We give monetary gifts. Why? Because we know that this is the best way to acknowledge that all that we have and all that we are and all that we will ever have and will ever be is a gift of God’s grace.
We listen to God’s Word. Why? Because we know that our sinful souls need to hear it and embrace it. We have fallen short of being the people that God has created us to be. We make bad choices. And we even mess up our good choices. We are lost in need desperate need of direction, and we are sinners in desperate need of forgiveness. We need to hear God say: “I am with you and will always be with you. I am for you and will always be for you. I love you and will always love you.”
Two men went to the same church: same choir, same organist, same old tired preacher. One did everything right in life. He always did right by his friends, his community, his family. He could do no wrong. He prayed the most eloquent of prayers, and it was quite obvious to all that he was better than most—But when twelve o’clock rolled around, he wondered where in the world the preacher found his sermon. He wondered why the organist was so tired and why choir was so off key. He went home feeling as if he had wasted his entire Sunday morning.
The other man had made a mess of his life—at work, at home and with his friends, and he knew that no matter how hard he tried he was going to continue to make mistakes. He was a sinner and he knew it. He was better than no one. But when twelve o’clock came, he said to himself, “Well, I believe that right there was the best sermon I ever heard. The offertory today rocked. And the choir, well the choir, never sounded so good.”