I love Harvest Festival.
I love the decorations, the fruit, vegetables and flowers that burst with color in their displays. I love the sense of celebration that flows through the service, and the special opportunity that is provided to contribute to those in need by bringing produce for distribution. As a way to express thanks for God’s abundant goodness, and as a chance to remember the sacredness of our world and the people who live in it, Harvest Festival is unique in the Church calendar.
One moment, from a few years ago, characterizes this season for me. Our whole church had come together for worship, and the sanctuary was filled with people of all ages. During communion, the children were invited forward with their parents, and were given the opportunity to place food on the communion table to be distributed after the service to needy communities. As a young mother knelt at the front with her eyes closed, waiting to receive the bread and wine, her tiny son stumbled over to the table and placed a can of food alongside the other offerings. As he ran back to the shelter of his mother’s arms, she remained in prayer, drawing her child and his gift into her own act of worship. How little his mind must understand of all this, I thought, but how much his heart must have been formed by it.
This scene expresses a truth that has become increasingly clear to me over the years – how we worship defines how we live. When our God is harsh, unforgiving and judgemental, then our lives reveal these same qualities. But, when our worship embraces God’s compassion and justice, then our faith and our lives demonstrate this to the world. In the light of the often harsh criticism of Christians from those outside of the church, we cannot afford to ignore the influence of our worship.
If our worship is to lead us into true Christ-likeness, two simple principles must be embraced, both by worshippers and worship leaders.
At the heart of Christian worship is a meal, given by Jesus, that we call the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The power of the sacrament is in the way God takes simple, everyday things, and fills them with God’s presence and message. In the sacraments, God is revealed, God’s voice is heard, and God’s grace is received. For those who seek abundance, the sacrament calls us to thanksgiving. For those who seek forgiveness, the sacrament assures us of God’s mercy. For those who despair, the sacrament reminds us of our hope in Christ. For those who are lonely, the sacrament invites us into Christ’s family. All of this, and more, is available to worshippers in this simple meal, and indeed, in every part of the worship gathering. (To further explore the power of this sacrament, see my book Food for the Road: Life Lessons from the Lord’s Table – details are available at my website, www.sacredise.com.)
The sacrament teaches us that worship is a place of revelation, a place not unlike Moses’ burning bush, or John’s prison on Patmos, where God breaks in and makes himself known. The point of this revelation, though, is not just so that we can have a blessed time in church. God calls us into the sanctuary so that, away from the distractions and busyness of our lives, we can learn how to recognize God’s presence and hear God’s voice. Then, when we return to our daily routine, we have the ability to recognize God’s presence and hear God’s voice in every circumstance, in every moment. This is worship that changes how we live, for once we have experienced this truth, we realize that every person, every situation, every interaction is an opportunity to meet with God. This changes how we engage with others, how we react to events and how we respond to the world around us. This Christ-awareness, creates a Christ-likeness in us that is truly life-giving.
Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline says that “to worship is to change.” There is only one way to measure the authenticity of our worship – by the extent to which we are transformed, and then by the transformation we bring to the world around us. The Scriptures make it clear that in our worship God is active, touching worshippers with healing, teaching us God’s truth, proclaiming God’s justice and life-giving message, drawing people into unity with one another, and leading us into new understandings of God’s purposes and ways. Through our songs and prayers, liturgies and sermons, God’s Spirit seeks to touch and change worshippers, so that they, in turn, can be God’s agents of change in the world.
When we engage in worship with an intentional openness to God’s transformation, we cannot help but be changed little by little into people who reflect Christ more effectively. The apostle Paul put it this way: So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like Him as we are changed into His glorious image. (2 Cor.3:18 NLT).
What these two simple principles indicate is that worship is the fountainhead of Christian spirituality. In the sanctuary we encounter God and are changed in such a way that we can live from this encounter, and repeat it, in our daily lives. In our worship we learn how to live out our spirituality, and we are challenged to put what we learn into practice as we go out into the rest of the week. Worship like this is a discipline that leads us into a lifelong journey of personal and social transformation, in which we are changed, and become God’s instruments of change in the world. And it is worshippers like this that our world so desperately needs today.