Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"The Open Door"

Message preached September 26, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Revelation 4:1-11

Order of Worship

            I begin with a scene from a television show. Of course, itís problematic to do so, for we all know that TV programs and movies arenít really real - actors and actresses are just playing a role... So what! This show may have been a favorite of yours. Itís continues on in syndication. Sometimes it got a bit sappy, but when it first aired, it was like a fresh breath of air, for in the years preceding it there was hardly any mention of God on the airwaves. It was good, then, to every week be "Touched by an Angel."

            In this scene, there is a small church struggling to put on a Christmas pageant. Like many congregations, they may wonder if their best years are behind them, but they continue on. A joy in their present journey together has been a little girl who has provided a sense of vision and energy. Unfortunately, she is also dying. In fact, as the time for this Christmas event rolls around, she loses her battle with cancer. Itís disheartening for a child to die at Christmas. How do you proclaim "good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10) at such a time?

            This child was to be the Christmas angel. The apparatus specially constructed to lift her up now was empty. Who would speak "joy to the world?" At this point in the story, one of the programís main characters, played by Roma Downey, saw and grabbed an object everyone would be able to identify as belonging to this child. She insisted on taking her place, over the objections of the fellow who said the apparatus was only built for a child - it could not support an adultís weight. Even so, she was lifted up holding this object - a stuffed animal, I think. While such an image could be a reminder to all of what they had lost, it might also be a sign that the vision and energy this child brought to these people did not end.

            In the moment of this realization, something happened which threatened to tear everything down. The pulley mechanism broke. Instead of crashing to the floor, however, this character - an angel - did as angels (we think) do. She flew. A door was opened in the life of that congregation as they witnessed and worshiped. The choir itself was struggling though a very demanding piece for a small group of volunteers, the "Hallelujah chorus." Suddenly, the room was filled with a heavenly host, and Godís praise almost literally rose the rafters. It was a transforming moment for those people.

            Two weeks ago we received a letter in worship written long ago by St. John to one of the seven churches God had called him to oversee. The note, like six others composed in a similar pattern, to other congregations, was a bit unusual. Instead of being addressed to the people themselves, it was written "to the angel of the church of Laodicea." How peculiar! Of course, thereís much to this entire last book of the Bible that seems out of the ordinary.

            The intent of the seven letters, as well as the purpose of the book of Revelation, was and is to open the door to the praying imagination of Godís people, whether they lived inland from the Aegean Sea back then, or they live inland from the Chesapeake Bay today. If a letter for us is addressed to the angel of this church, it takes some leaps of our imagination to receive it. If anything, it widens our view of reality. Who, after all, thinks there might be an "angel" of this congregation? Is there more to this church than our meetinghouse, or those who gather in it?

            More to the point, when we come together to worship, is there more going on than what we sing, say, or even do? Is worship all about just "us?" Good question. Sometimes we behave as if that were the case. If so, weíre in good company. Folks back then needed to be reminded, as do we, that more is happening when we worship, than what we think. The church in Laodicea, in fact, needed to open their door to Jesus. "Behold, I stand (there) and knock," he said - and still says. "If you open the door, Iíll come in and eat with you and you with me" (Revelation 3:20).

            This morning, letís intentionally open the door to our prayerful imagination and receive what was revealed to St. John, and to the churches he was called to serve, about worship. On a bulletin insert, you find the text to chapter four of Revelation, which you can follow if you wish. By the way, this is one of the ways I prepare for preaching. Lining out the scripture in this way helps me. Perhaps it will you also. One note before we open the door to this chapter - my intent is not to treat this as one of those frogs we used to dissect in High School Biology class. Instead, allow these words to open your imagination. Itís not a code for us to break, but a vision by which we can be grasped. Allow the strange and confusing elements to remain that way.

            Johnís shared vision begins with an open door. Remember, he has just finished speaking to the door of the church in Laodicea, the door to the human heart, upon which our Lord knocks, seeking entrance. Here, another door opens. Our dispensationalist friends see in this door a future event in which the faithful will be raptured to heaven. Iím not so sure about that. This is not so much a futuristic sci-fi film, as it is a picture of a present reality.

            You see, we are tempted to believe that when Godís people worship, itís all about us. What happens when we pray and praise, we think, is limited to the confines of the room in which we are gathered. It all depends upon us ... or does it? Think about that question. If for instance, the worship leader mispronounces a word, or somehow messes up a reading, or if she struggles when it comes to the prayer, does that mean worship is less than it should be? Suppose we attempt a demanding song, like we did this morning in that three page doxology, and we blow it, is our worship itself blown? And then the preacher preaches what turns out to be a lousy sermon (Iíve certainly preached my share of those!), does the worship itself need to be "de-loused?"

            Certainly, we should aspire for excellence when it comes to worship, but is worship all about us? When we gather to praise God, and things are less than what we think they should be, where does the problem lie? We can be critical of every mistake, and thus miss out on whatís really happening when Godís people worship. The door to heaven can be closed and locked on our side. We can be lost within our own critique, and thus never enjoy the feast the Lord wishes to share with us.

            The truth is, worship is not really about us. It involves us, yes! But we do not lie at its center. This vision of St. John makes that abundantly clear. The One who is seated on the throne is central to worship, our greatest treasure - our heartís desire, our deepest longing. God not only sits at the center of worship, God through worship centers us. Our day-by-day lives are fractured and broken, torn apart by everything that demands our attention and allegiance. God centers us, restoring our lives, and our regular time of worship is where that happens.

            Worship pulls us together, often as people who wouldnít normally associate with one another. I was blessed this past week to reconnect with folks who had been so crucial to my call to ministry. Attending the evening worships two of the nights were two couples Karen and I connected with 25 years ago. Meeting for the first time at a new pastors retreat, we found in one another a new community, even though we were very different. One couple came from a charismatic evangelical background and were a generation older than us. The other couple were yet another generation older and from conservative Mennonite roots. Yet I have not had a deeper sense of Christís blessed community as I found in our times together back then. Roger and Mim, Ted and Darlene remain my close sisters and brothers in Christ, though twenty years have come and gone.

            Worship gathers us, different as we may be from one another. Think of those twenty four elders in this vision, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and the twelve apostles, the old and the new. Together we receive what God reveals. Our eyes may tell us to fear when we observe what is happening around us in the world, but worship opens the door to our prayerful imagination and we behold God at work. As our dear sister Gayle helped reveal last week when you gathered in my absence, God is faithfully and awesomely at work even in that fearful thing called cancer. There is, indeed, "good news of great joy for all the people" amid the lightning and thunder.

            What happens when Godís people worship? Well, as this chapter reveals, our praise is really an echo of heaven. There, day and night without ceasing, the "Holy, holy, holy" rings out. Donít get so "wierded" out by those four living creatures and their eyes all over the place, that you miss the fact that all of creation is included in this picture. Itís no mistake that we often sense Godís majesty standing before what God has created - a mountain, the sea, a tree. Creation is part of the picture, waiting on tiptoe as the apostle Paul imaginatively once stated (Romans 8:18-23).

            But itís so much more than us or nature. Remember the illustration I began with from "Touched by an angel?" There is a heavenly host surrounding us whenever we are gather. In fact, the glory and the hallelujah never end. Long after we end worship and leave, and long before we return, and in the middle of it all, the glory and honor and thanksgiving are flowing out from around the throne of God. Do you ever hear it? Are you listening when you worship? Are you allowing the door to be opened that you might catch a glimpse of glory?

            One of the blessings of our new hymnal is that most of the hymns do not have a choral "Amen" tacked to the last line. Of course, some consider this a curse of the new hymnal, but I see it as a blessing, for I grew up thinking that "Amen" meant "The End." Did any of you think the same? We finish a song, and the "Amen" tells us itís over. A prayer reaches a conclusion and the "Amen" says we can open our eyes once again. Right? Only thatís not what "Amen" means.

            Itís really one of the few Hebrew words the early church didnít translate into Greek. When they did so, the effect just didnít cut it. So they kept the original. "Amen" doesnít mean "thatís truth," or even "let it be so." Itís an affirmation that connects deeply to our will. When Jesus spoke, "Verily, verily, I say unto you," he was really saying "amen, amen," and with those words speaking Godís "Yes" to us. The closest Iíve come to an equivalent in English is the full-hearted "Yes!" we might say to something that has really grasped us. Itís an affirmation.

            At the heart of the "good news of great joy for all the people" is Godís "Yes!" And when we are grasped by Godís "Yes!" we respond with our own "Yes!" to God. Yes, Lord, like those 24 elders seated around your throne, we cast down our crowns, we lay before God all that we are and all that we do, and center our lives in the only One who can bring order from chaos, something from nothing. "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Revelation 4:11a). Yes! Amen!  

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Revelation.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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