Wade in the Water of Worship | Sermon from 11/12/17

Based on Amos 5:18-24

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Standing in the stream I could feel it’s power. The rain had swelled the river, moving mightily and quickly as it passed over the rocks, down the sides of mountains, showing its might. Water seems so docile, so safe, until it moves rapidly and reveals it’s power.

Jack and I climbed out onto the rocks. We felt the splash of the water on our legs as we climbed from rock to rock. We heard the might of the waterfall behind us. We saw twigs and leaves flowing downstream at a quick pace. We had stepped into the stream; we had come to experience it’s power, and it did not disappoint. There’s nothing quite like a mighty, ever-flowing stream.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

[Pause]

Shipwrecks were common for the ancients, for the people of Amos’s time. They had to sail, for that was a source of trade as well as a source of food. But the waters could be unpredictable. Placid waters could suddenly turn violent, seemingly without warning. Ships could find themselves sinking, having hit a rock that couldn’t be seen below the surface. The ancients feared the water.

Which is why they placed water in a large bowl in front of their temples and worship sites. The presence of water at these churches of old represented, reminded the people, of the the chaos that God could control. They simply needed to worship God regularly, showing proper reverence and adoration, following all the strictures of the law. Then, they would please God and the water would be controlled, the chaos would fail to dominate, and they could be better assured of safe passage.

By and large, the people are doing just that when Amos finds them. He wanders up from Judah, the southern kingdom, into Israel, to deliver a message to the Israelites. They were awaiting a message, the institution of the Day of the Lord, which they assumed would be the best day ever. They would get all the blessings they felt they were due because of their proper adherence to worship standards, their careful attention to offerings and festivals, their regular and solemn assemblies.

Perhaps Amos would deliver the news that the Day of the Lord had come, that abundant blessing was on its way, that the people would finally be rewarded!

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

[Pause]

That famous verse, made so by Martin Luther King, Jr., is the message to the Israelites from God through Amos. It’s God’s standard: the people are to be just and righteous, both of which flow from the source of the water, it’s creator. They are to have a just society where no one lacks for anything, where they take care of each other and especially the poor and those abused by the powerful. They are to live in right relationship with each other, which is how Amos defines righteousness: right relationship with God and right relationship with neighbor.

It’s the standard to which Martin Luther King, Jr., called the American people. Be just in treatment of African Americans, be righteous by being in right relationship with God and right relationship with neighbors of all races. It speaks to God’s standards for society. We should be so in love with God, so right in our relationship with God, that justice and righteousness simply flow out of us.

God lets his justice and righteousness flow like a mighty stream. We, as the people of God, are called to wade in that water, allowing it to refine us.

But as Amos arrives in Israel, the Israelites have abandoned that call. They’re standing on the banks of God’s mighty stream of justice and righteousness.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

[Pause]

Amos does not have a fun message to deliver. The day of the Lord is not coming and the people wouldn’t want it anyway. The day of the Lord will be like successfully fleeing a lion, only to run into a bear. The day of the Lord will be like taking refuge in a house, only to be bitten by a snake. The day of the Lord will be out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Why? Because the people are standing on the banks of the mighty stream. They’re doing all the right rituals, they’re adhering to all the right laws, they’re following all the right guidelines; their worship is textbook perfect. But God says they should stop, take it all away. God despises their worship, God takes no delight in their offerings, God has no willingness to hear their music; they should simply stop worshipping. God hates their worship.

God hates their worship because they are unchanged by their worship; God’s mighty stream does not shape them. They do not meet God’s standard for justice to roll down like waters through them. They do not meet God’s call to let righteousness move through them like an ever-flowing stream. Worship does not shape who they are.

[Pause]

Standing in that mighty stream with Jack, I could see the well worn stones, shaped overtime by the flowing of the waters. Moss had no place to grow, for the water kept the rocks clean. They were beautiful, far different from the rocks on the shore that were jagged, misshapen, and even dangerous. The rocks upon which we stood, there in the middle of a mighty river, were safe, good, helpful, for anyone could have crossed the river safely on those rocks. The rocks on the shore, untouched by the water, covered in moss, were slippery. The jagged edges cut several folks who were making their way out to the rocks with us. I shaved some skin off of one of my calves on a sharp edge.

The water was refining, purifying, for the rocks in the mighty stream. In its power, it shaped those stones that were in its path, bypassing those on the shore.

That’s how we are with worship.

God’s justice and righteousness flow like a mighty stream through our worship. Each and every Sunday, we’re given the opportunity to stand in the stream like one of those rocks, shaped and refined by encountering God’s love. Or we can stand on the banks of the stream, sitting here in worship, but not opening up our hearts to God, not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to experience God’s power.

For this is not like a concert, or a lecture, or any other kind of assembly. We’re not passive consumers of the music produced by the band/choir, we’re not simply receptacles for the Word proclaimed through the sermon; no, worship is a call to active engagement. We’re to open our hearts, make ourselves vulnerable, to encounter God’s power and presence in the midst of our worship.

We’re to wade in the water. We have a choice when we get to worship: will we wade out into the water, opening our hearts, choosing to eschew the distractions of life, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, or will we stand on the banks of the stream, being passive in worship?

That’s what the ancient Israelites were doing. They stood on the banks the stream, refusing to wade. They know the water is powerful, the water changes things, the water means that we can never be the same, for every time we encounter it, something about us changes. We’re convicted of sin, we’re given peace that overrides our anxiety, we’re called to do something that the world thinks is crazy, we’re even called into ministry. Worship, the water, changes us. And that change is scary.

So the temptation is to stand on the banks with the Israelites, refusing to get in. And God says to us, like God said through Amos, that we should take away our worship until we’re ready to wade, until we’re ready to respond to the challenge, until we’re ready and willing to be shaped by encountering our all powerful God.

For worship shapes who we are: it softens our rough edges, like water running over the rocks in the mighty stream. It convicts of sin, pointing us toward greater righteousness. It teaches us how God treats us so that we will know how to treat others with justice. Worship is life change, but we have to make a choice to open ourselves to that change, to wade into God’s mighty and powerful waters.

For only through encountering God as God is, powerful and even unpredictable like a mighty stream, can justice roll down like water through us and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

[Pause]

As we approach the seasons of Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas, as we stand at that threshold, we have a choice to make. Will we wade into the water, allowing it to refine us, or will we stand aside, coming to church dutifully but unchanged by the power of the water that’s offered; the mighty stream of God’s refining power.

We can dutifully come, but if we are distracted by all the things that need doing, if we’re focused on the chores that need accomplishing, if we’re worried about family relationships, if we’re thinking through gift ideas; if we’re distracted and not fully present because the holidays put so many demands on us, not giving of all that we are and all that we have to this worship moment, this one hour a week, then we stand on the banks of the stream, letting justice and righteousness flow past us.

To truly worship requires heart change; requires an openness to refinement, requires wading in the water. That’s what’s missing from the Israelites; the people are closed off to change because they think, pridefully, that they are already doing it right. They have no need for further refinement, they have no need for God’s power to soften the rough edges, they’re already a great Christian.

We, too, can be this way when we come to worship, haughtily thinking that we’re fine already, that we’re in no need of greater refinement or life change. Or, we can come haughtily thinking that church is about us. We can think that this time of worship is a time to be seen, so that others will know what a great Christian we are for being in worship. Or so that we can show off our newest clothes, or show off our children, or build relationships that will be valuable for business connections. Or, we can come to church thinking that we’re powerful in this community and wanting to make sure that we have the opportunity to exercise that power, lest anyone forget who’s really in charge. That’s standing on the banks of the stream, watching justice and righteousness flow by.

And lest I forget to pull the plank out of my own eye, I have been just as guilty of attending worship for these reasons, forgetting that the true purpose of worship is to encounter the living God and be changed for the better; that the call on my life whenever I encounter worship is to wade into the water.

We have a choice to make: when the bank of the stream calls and tempts us to come out of the water, when the intrusive thoughts come, when distraction sets in, when our pride causes us to want to be seen and heard, will we keep wading or will we walk onto the shore, attending to our own business, deciding that whatever needs thinking about, whatever needs doing, whomever needs to see us, is more important than the powerful refining work God is doing in the water?

No, wade in the water. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Worship is about life change. Being here, every Sunday, should gradually change your life through the refinement of God’s water. In worship, as we wade in the water, we encounter the love of God for, as 1 John tells us, God is love. Thus, worship should have the effect of causing us to become more patient, more kind, less envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude, less self-centered, less irritable, less resentful, rejoicing not in the suffering of others but rejoicing in the truth. We should become more and more a people who bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things, for God’s love that shapes and molds us will never fail.

The more we submit to God in worship, the more we give of our presence, the more we eschew the intrusive thoughts, the more we open our hearts to be vulnerable in front of God; the more we wade in the water, the more we will be a force for justice and righteousness in this world. The more we collectively do that, the more this church will be a force for justice and righteousness in Eastman and Dodge County. We cannot effect that on our own. Only by wading in the waters, waters we first came to know in our baptism when we encountered God through the sacrament, waters that we know because we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that has taught us to recognize the water; only by wading in the water will we know peace, will we know release, will we know freedom, for only by wading in the waters can we truly know God.

[Pause]

In a sparse upper room, not too different from my imagination’s view of the first Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples, a bunch of Methodist pastors were worshipping together. I had learned, over the course of the week I was in Venezuela, that these pastors were from competing, and sometimes enemy, churches from around the countryside. The Holy Spirit was moving in powerful ways throughout Venezuela; we’d heard testimony after testimony to that effect, including from the Methodist bishop of Venezuela.

But in this upper room, many of the pastors worshipping despised each other, suspected each other’s motives, worried about losing members to a rival church. They had deep discord.

The worship moved from music to preaching, a passionate sermon in Spanish, thankfully translated into English for those of us from Emory to understand what was happening.

Then the worship moved back into singing. As the music continued, one pastor walked over to another and they embraced. Our translator leaned over to me and told me that they were huge rivals. Then more pastors started embracing each other. All of a sudden, like a mighty wave, the entire room was in motion: people hugging, people embracing, people crying as they looked into each other’s eyes. Cries of “lo siento,” which in Spanish means “I’m sorry,” rang on high.

That night, I saw the power of wading into the water, I saw the power of worship to affect life change. As I have kept up with friends I made in Venezuela, I have learned that many of the old rivalries ceased that night, peace and brotherhood came to dominate the relationships for those sixty or so pastors who had attended this conference in the upper room.

These pastors chose to wade into the water. And when they did, they discovered the power of God’s refinement, changing their lives as righteousness, right relationship with God and each other, came to define their relationships with each other.

That’s the power of wading into the water. That’s the power of worship.

God has let his justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. This morning, are you standing in the stream? Are you wading in the waters? Or are you on the banks, distracted, focused elsewhere? Are you on the banks, more concerned with your power than the power of God’s water? Are you on the banks, more concerned with what people think about the fact that you’re here than the fact that you’re here in the midst of God’s presence.

If you’re on the banks this morning, jump in, wade in the water, and discover the refining, the purifying, that comes when we submit to God’s power. Choose to be shaped by God’s justice and righteousness flowing around you. Don’t miss the power of this holiday season because you’re on the banks worried about all the demands and pressures of the season. Dare to wade in the water.

And if you’re in the water, dare to stay. Refinement isn’t easy, change is hard, but God’s grace will see us through as the waters soften our rough edges and remove our blemishes of moss.

Respond to the invitation of Christ, given this day and everyday. “Let all who are thirsty come. Let all who wish receive the water of life freely.”

This morning, are you on the banks or in the stream? Come, wade in the water to let God’s justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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