Stuff My Church Does II: Gather

(Preached at Alger First UMC on 8/16/2015)

Scripture: 2 Chronicles 7:12-16

This is the second week of the series “Stuff My Church Does.” In case you weren’t here last week, the whole idea behind this series is to ask the question “Why do we do that?” about all the things we do here in church. Why do we have a call to worship? Why do we call out our prayer requests? Why do we give an offering? Those kinds of questions. And we’re doing this so that we can rediscover, or maybe discover for the first time, the real meaning behind what we do here. Because if we just say “Well, we’ve always done it that way” and don’t investigate further, then we lose the meaning of what we’re doing. And if what we do here is meaningless, then why in the world are we wasting our time here?

Now I’m not going to answer all of those questions in this series because there’s just not time, but my hope is that this series would start you asking those ‘why’ questions for yourself about everything we do here, seeing if you yourself can figure out why. Last week we asked “Why do we preach?” and we said that it was because we all need to be reminded of the message of freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Before I go on, can you pray with me?

Why did you come here today?

I used to question why my parents brought me to church every week. My sisters and I were always the pastor’s kids, and that was just kind of the unspoken assumption in the house-if you were breathing and not infectious on Sunday morning, you were going to church. But I used to wonder why we had to do this every Sunday morning?

In high school, my parents had another mostly unspoken rule that no matter how late I was out on Saturday night, I still had to be in church the next morning. Now of course that wasn’t usually a problem with me. But there was one time during my sophomore year that it was.

In high school, I dated this girl named Leah for a little over 2 years. She was a grade older than I was (yeah, I know), so that meant that I could go to the prom my sophomore year as her date, since she was a junior. I know, kind of a big deal. So we went with a group of our friends and we had a great time. We all went out for dinner before the dance, then we all showed up fashionably late, danced for about three hours in the incredibly hot, stuffy, sweaty high school gym, then we went to the after prom at the local bowling alley/arcade/roller skating rink. I got home around 3 or 4 in the morning and collapsed in bed. That was a Saturday night into early Sunday morning. Do you know what else we had on Sunday morning? Church. Do you know who still had to be in church that Sunday morning? Me.

It was awful. I was so tired and grumpy, I thought my mom might go easy on me just so she wouldn’t have to deal with me. But she was waiting on me when I dragged myself out of bed, ready to drive me to church. And I remember wondering “WHY IN THE WORLD AM I HERE?!” Why in the world do I have to be in church right now? I think I would be closer to God if I’d just stayed in bed.

Now I’m SURE that some of you have asked that same question I did-Why do we have to go to church today? Maybe you asked that this morning-Why do we have to go? Maybe you’re asking that right now. “Why am I here? I’m tired, I’m annoyed at my spouse, my kids are misbehaving, I spent prayer time completely focused on staying awake and have no idea what we were praying about, and I don’t like the hymns we sang today. And now the pastor’s asking me these really hard questions. Why am I here right now?”

Why do we gather here to worship every week? Why do we come together in this same place at 10 in the morning every Sunday for worship? Why do we gather together for this? Last week we asked the question “Why do we preach?” and I said that not many people ask that question, we really just kind of accept that the pastor is going to preach at some point. But this is a question that even fewer people are asking. Why do we gather together in church in the first place? Why did you come here today? Was it to just waste an hour or two of your Sunday sitting here?

I think there’s part of us that understands that there’s something special and holy about coming together. When there is a national tragedy, like a school shooting, or the shooting in Charleston, SC. This past Monday was the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. When things like this happen, we gather together. We have candlelight vigils. We pray together. We worship together. I think we understand that there’s something important in doing that. But why is it important?

I think we can find the answer to that question in the Bible. Let’s all get our Bibles out and turn with me to 2 Chronicles 7:12-16. If you don’t have your Bibles, we have the red pew Bibles for you to use, and the page number for the verse is in your bulletin if you’re using the red pew Bibles.

12 Then the Lord appeared to Solomon at night and said to him: I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place as my house of sacrifice. 13 When I close the sky so that there is no rain or I order the locusts to consume the land or I send a plague against my people, 14 if my people who belong to me will humbly pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land. 15 From now on my eyes will be open and my ears will pay attention to the prayers offered in this place,16 because I have chosen this temple and declared it holy so that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. (2 Chronicles 7:12-16)

So 1 and 2 Chronicles tell the story of Israel from the time of King David until Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon. David was Israel’s most famous king-God blessed him and the people prospered under him. When David was king, God had been living in what was basically a really nice tent for a long time. God had told the Israelites all the way back when Moses was leading them through the desert to build him this tabernacle to be their place of worship, where they would meet with God. And it was basically a really nice tent. When they came to the land of Israel and settled down, they continued to worship God in this tent. David knew this and he decided that it was a travesty that the king was living in a palace while God was living in a tent. So King David decides that he wants to build God a temple. God comes to him and says “Thanks, but no thanks. You’re not going to build my temple, your son is.”

So David hears that, understands, and when his son Solomon ascends to the throne, Solomon begins to build a temple for God. And it’s a magnificent structure. Sometime, Google “temple of Jerusalem” and look in the images. A lot of artists have made renditions of what they think it looked like.

So when Solomon finished the temple, God gives his full approval. And he comes to Solomon and says what I just read to you in that passage. God basically says that this temple that Solomon built for the people to worship God in will be uniquely blessed. Because this space is where God’s people can gather as one body. And when they do that, God will listen to them and care for them. Not that God won’t listen to individuals speaking on their own. There’s plenty of examples of that happening. It’s just that something unique, special, and holy happens when God’s people gather together in one place to worship.

But why? Keep asking that question-why is there something unique, special and holy happening when God’s people gather together? I think it’s because God never meant for our faith to be solitary. I don’t think the Christian faith was ever meant to be an individual’s faith. We find God in community, and we see that all over the place in the Bible.

When God brought the Israelites, God’s people, out of their slavery in Egypt, since that time there has always been a place for God’s people to worship God in community. First God had them make the tabernacle that I told you about earlier-basically a really nice tent which was the place where God could meet with God’s people.

Now, there’s the temple that Solomon built-this huge majestic building that was really built for the purpose of God meeting with God’s people. This temple is where the Israelite nation would gather together and worship God as the whole body of God’s people. Why did they gather? Because God said in our Scripture for today “When my people gather in this place, I will listen.”

Now, corporate worship, the fancy term for what we’re doing here, gathered as one body for worship, this looked different for the ancient Israelites. They were all spread out all over their country, so they weren’t going to be traveling in from the furthest reaches every Sabbath day, it was too long. So God gave them several important holy days when they would all gather together in the temple to worship God.

The holiest of these days was called Yom Kippur, which means the Day of Atonement. This is the day that all of the Israelites would gather before God at the temple to atone for their sins, or make amends for all the ways they had disobeyed God and done wrong in the past year. So they would all gather at the Temple. And the High Priest would go into a room in the Temple called the Holy of Holies.

The Israelites understood this room to be the most holy place on Earth because the Holy of Holies is where the complete, unadulterated presence of God resided. No one ever went into the room except for the High Priest and he only went in on the Day of Atonement-only one day per year. And the High Priest went in there, stood in the presence of God, and through sacrifice and ceremony, atone for the sins of the people, or make amends for all of the wrong the people had done.

Now, the High Priest did do this on his own, but the whole of Israel was gathered just outside in the temple. See, this was the most profound encounter with God that could ever happen, and it happened in community, by community, and for community.

Now, I say all of this to drive home the fact that this sense of deep community forms our faith. No, this calendar of Jewish holidays is not our faith, but these formed the foundation for our faith. And what this tells me is that our faith was never, ever meant to be solitary. It was meant to be lived out in community. Why? Because encounters with God happen in community. That’s why the people would gather together from the furthest reaches of the country for the pilgrimage festivals. That’s why they would all come together for the Day of Atonement-to experience God in community. That is why we come together each Sunday-to experience God in community with other human beings. We experience God in each other.

Now I think there’s a big part of us that already knows this. Archaeologists have found evidence that somewhere between 1.8-2.6 million years ago, early human beings-probably not homo sapiens, but an earlier version-had some kind of a social life. They were, at the very least, sharing resources. Evidence has also been found that early humans were practicing some form of religion or communal faith over 30,000 years ago; probably earlier, but evidence is hard to come by. Those might just be numbers to you. But what those facts tell me is that there is something deep within us, and I mean at a deep subconscious level, there’s something deep within us, something built in that tells us that we need each other, that we need God, and that those two needs are bound completely together. We find God in community.

So what does all of this mean for us? Why did I just spend this time talking about all of this? I realize that you here are the ones who understand that. Summer is notorious for low church attendance. So if you’re here, you understand this need to be in community with others for the good of our faith. However, as much as I believe that encounters with God happen in community, and that these encounters are what we need for our faith, an encounter with God will be hard to come by if the only reason you got out of bed and came here this morning was because you’ve always come. If your only reason for coming is simply “I’ve always come to church,” then you are not expecting an encounter with God. If you’re not expecting an encounter with God, then it’ll be much easier for you to miss it when the encounter happens.

See, this is why I’m doing this series-so that we can get out of this rut of just doing things because we’ve always done them. That’s why I keep asking why-so that we can finally discover the meaning and the purpose behind what we do here.

So why do we gather? Because encounters with God happen in community. So come expecting that encounter with God. Don’t just come here on Sundays because you’ve always come. Don’t just come to chat with your friends-not that that’s bad. Don’t just come because you’ve heard the carry-in dinners are great. Come expecting an encounter with God in this community.

Now, I realize that’s a little hard, especially if you’ve been coming to this church for longer than I’ve been alive. But I can understand that, because I struggle with apathy too, even as a pastor. I struggle with falling into the rut of just preparing a sermon and preparing for worship just because that’s what pastors are supposed to do. I struggle with apathy as well. And I realize that might be even harder for you if you’ve been coming to this church longer than I’ve been alive.

But imagine what kind of life we would have as a church if we all came here expecting to meet God here in this place. Imagine what kind of encounters with God we would have if we came here expecting to find God, with our eyes and ears wide open. Imagine what we could do if we expected to hear and see and feel God in this community. Imagine what that would do, not just to our worship service, but to our life as a church. If we would just come here expecting to meet with God, expecting to encounter God, expecting to be moved by God. I think there would be new life for us. There would be new energy. There would be new possibilities and new growth. And I think we would be so much more able to be the church that God would have us be.

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