I grew up, and went to church school, and sang in the choir, and listened to sermons, in a church whose sanctuary looks very much like this one at St. Andrew’s. Although my home church was a little wider and a little shorter, it shared the same basic architecture as this worship space. It included rows of wooden pews, facing straight towards the front, a long central aisle, and a balcony at the back.
The front section, traditionally referred to as the chancel, included a pulpit on one side for preaching, a lectern on the other for readings, prayers, and announcements. The area reserved for the choir included two sets of pews facing towards each other with the Communion Table in between. And like here at St. Andrew’s, we usually only had a choir large enough to fill one side.
The architecture varies a little bit these days, both in Presbyterian and other Christian churches, but one thing that is almost universally communicated by the way we set up our worship spaces is that something is going on at the front, and the people are watching it. You’re all looking this way — often you’re looking at me! — because I’m supposed to be doing something, or saying something, and you’re all here to watch it, or hear it.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not complaining about the responsibility that I’ve taken on in responding to the call to preach the Word and celebrate the Sacraments in this Christian community. Every week I spend some time in reading and reflecting and prayer to decide what to do and what to say when we gather here to worship God. But what I want to emphasise today is that your role as worshippers is not to be simply observers of what I am doing and saying each week. Your worship (and your faith) is not just about watching. It’s not just about thinking and reflecting and evaluating either, despite the fact that those are all very good things to be doing. And, I would even say, that it’s not just about believing certain things, though you’re invited to do that as well.
Today’s Gospel text is Matthew’s story of the Baptism of Jesus. The Baptism of Jesus is a pivotal story in each of the Gospel narratives because it’s the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s the point at which Jesus is identified as the beloved Son of God, the Spirit comes down on him, and soon after, he begins his ministry in Galilee.
But the thing that kept leaping out at me this week as I was reflecting on Jesus’ baptism was all the activity. Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan River. John baptises him, pushing him down under the water. Jesus comes up from the water. The heavens open, and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and alights on him. A voice from heaven is heard — perhaps by Jesus, perhaps by all — he is a child of God, loved by God and pleasing to God. And though today’s passage ends, I know that the action continues. Jesus goes out, in the strength of the Spirit, to teach, to heal, to stand up despite temptation, and to share the love of God with all of the world.
Now, you might be thinking that Jesus’ baptism was a special case. It was a special baptism for a special person. He was the Son of God, after all! But I wasn’t exaggerating when I told the children this morning that God’s Spirit came down on each one of them when they were baptised. I wasn’t kidding when I said that when they were baptised it was like God taking them in God’s arms, and hugging them tight, and saying, “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you.” Jesus’ Baptism is the model for our baptism. What happened to him happens to us. We have been called to follow his way.
Jesus was a religious and thoughtful and reflective person. He studied the Scriptures. He went to worship in the synagogue. He discussed and debated religious ideas with the scribes and Pharisees and teachers. But when it comes down to it, the way of Jesus is not a way of observation and thoughtful reflection and belief in certain things. Jesus’ way is not a philosophy or a way of thinking. Jesus’ way is a way of living and acting and being in the world. Jesus’ way is about action.
I think that for many Christians, though certainly not all, the main content of their religious life is expressed in Sunday morning church attendance. During the rest of the week, we can get so busy with work and family and leisure activities, that we rarely pause to think about how our faith might affect how we live each day of the week… How we spend our time or our money, or what we do with our friends, or how we treat our family or our neighbours, or what we do for a living, or how we vote, or what we do for entertainment…
For many Christians, Sunday morning is it. Sunday morning is how we live out our faith, and Sunday morning is basically about watching, listening, and reflecting. So how do we live out our faith? How do we live out our faith if we watch and listen and reflect on Sunday morning, and then we go home and forget about God altogether?
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Perhaps none of us forget about God altogether. But to varying degrees, we all have parts of our lives — whether work or family or politics or social circles — where we don’t really let God direct us. We all have parts of our lives where we don’t let our faith be a part of our decision-making process, where we don’t ask ourselves something as simple as “What would Jesus do?” We are followers of the way of Jesus, so Jesus is our model for faith and life. And it is a way that calls us not only to thought and belief, but to action.
At some point in our lives… maybe as a teenager, maybe later on… most of us made a decision and acted on it.
Like Jesus did that day at the Jordan River, we came for baptism, or we came to profess our faith and to claim the promises made in our baptism when we were just little children. On that Sunday morning, we didn’t sit in church only to watch and listen, but we came forward to the centre of the action, and promised to follow the way of Jesus with our lives. That was a day of action in our worship.
You may have noticed a little note in the Sunday bulletin each week here at St. Andrew’s. It’s been there for a number of years, since well before I arrived here to join the ministry team. It says, “The audience of this worship is God.” The worship committee decided to put that little note in the bulletin each Sunday, and it’s purpose is to remind us each week that as worshipers, we are not here only to watch something that’s going on at the front.
We are here to do something, to worship God, and we are reminded that God is the one who is watching, who is enjoying our worship.
In a sense, I think it can be a helpful little note. But the one thing that it’s missing is the reminder that God is not only an observer as we worship. God is also active in what we are doing here each Sunday morning. On that day when we came forward to ask for baptism or to profess our faith and claim the promises of our baptism, God was not simply an observer, sitting back and cheering us on.
At Jesus’ baptism, God opened the heavens and sent down the Spirit of God like a dove to land on Jesus. God opened God’s mouth and spoke from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” When we came forward to put our faith commitment into words and action, God didn’t just observe either. God sent the Spirit onto each one of us, and God’s voice spoke too: “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you.”
If you’re like me, you probably remember that day as a very special moment in your journey of faith. It was a day when you acted in faith, and when God acted in blessing you and drawing you close. But like Jesus, that first day of action is to be followed by many others, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out to take part in the ministry of Christ.
Our worship should be filled with action… and it is. We are active in our worship as we praise, pray, and respond to God’s Word by offering our hearts, our lives, and our gifts to the ministry of Christ. And God is active in our worship as God speaks to us in scripture, sermon, and song. God is active in our worship as bread is broken, wine is shared, and water is poured. God is active in our worship as God’s Spirit comforts, encourages, and blesses God’s people. God is active in our worship as God wraps God’s arms around us once again to let us know that we are loved by God and that we belong to God.
Our Sunday worship is not a show to be watched. It is an active interplay between us and God. And when the hour has ended, it’s not really over. Sure, we leave the sanctuary. We drink coffee. We visit for a while and then move out into our weekday lives. But our worship continues. At least, I hope it does. The activity of God in our lives certainly continues, if we’re paying enough attention to notice it. And if we follow the way of Jesus through the week, our worship activity continues as well, as we offer our hearts, and our lives, and our gifts towards the ministry of Christ.
In our baptism, God sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. And that Spirit will help us throughout the week if we will let God direct us in our work lives, and our family lives, in our relationships with friends and neighbours, in our politics, in our finances, in our leisure and entertainment.
Thanks be to God for the blessing of God’s activity in our lives, and may all our activity give glory of God and blessing to our world. Amen.