2 Timothy 3:10-17; Luke 2:815
Last Sunday before Lent
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Have you ever wondered why we say the particular words we do in our church services? Or why our services are structured in the way they are? For some of us, we may wonder, why do we always sing the gloria, or why do we stand up for the gospel reading? For others, we may wonder, where do the words of the creed come from, or why is communion also called the eucharist, and why is it something that we do every week? For others of us, we may never have asked those questions, just taking the service as given. Well, over the next few weeks we are beginning a series called “Journeying through the Liturgy” (and that’s another word that may be helpful to explain), as we explore some of the answers to these questions. My hope is that it will be interesting, but more importantly, that it will enrich our worship, as we come to have a fuller grasp of why we say and do the things we do when we gather together to worship.
Two things before we dive in. Firstly, I’ve just used the word “liturgy”. Liturgy is most commonly used today as referring to the scripted parts of the service – those words that have been written down in advance that hold our service together. Secondly, you may have noticed that in our service books, whatever the service, there are always four big headings: The Gathering, the Word of God, the Eucharist, and the Sending Out. We gather together as one people. We have been worshipping and praying as individuals throughout the week, now we come together to offer collective prayer and praise. The opening time helps us to adjust and prepare for that. Then we have the two main blocks of our service, focused around God’s Word to us and God’s gift of communion to us.
On the road to Emmaus, we see a beautiful template of this pattern – the two disciples talking the Scriptures with the risen but unrecognised Jesus, “their hearts burning within”, and then the sharing of bread “when their eyes were opened and they recognised him”. And just like those two disciples, who immediately got up, went out, and shared the goods news with others, so we are sent out to continue to worship and praise God and proclaim and share his love in the world. And so our pattern for our services is that we gather together as one body, we are transformed by our encounter with Word and Sacrament, and then we are sent out to continue our lives of worship and service.
So if that’s the overview, let’s have at look at some of the words we say, and you may find it helpful to have your service books in front of you as we do so.
Our opening words are words of greeting – not so much saying “hello” to one another, but reminding ourselves from the very outset of our time together that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is present with us. Those words alone are almost enough for an entire service. The God of heaven and earth, He that is greater than all the galaxies, he that is the source of all life, is here with us. We are not some random social club who happen to like being together on a Sunday morning. We are a people drawn together by the love and presence of God. We stand on holy ground.
Our next words that we say together are a prayer of preparation, usually following notices and an opening hymn. Getting to church can sometimes be a rush, sometimes we can come with our minds swirling with different thoughts. We may not always be that focused. I do recommend coming to church before the service is due to start for time just to still oneself. But this prayer helps too. We ask for God’s help that we may offer him worship. Next week, we will be praying that we will “worthily magnify your holy name”; this week we pray that our time of worship would “free our praise, inspire our prayer and shape our lives.” In other words, right at the beginning of our service, we acknowledge that without God’s help our worship is difficult. We may be easily distracted, we may not like the sermon or the particular choice of hymns that week, we may prefer to receive communion in the nave and we are up at the high altar, we may be struggling with tiredness or burdens that we are carrying, but the wonderful thing is that despite all this, God delights that we have gathered to offer him worship, and he is here to help us.
We are going to focus on Confession and Penitence next week, as we enter into the first Sunday of Lent, so we’ll jump to the Gloria or Gloria in Excelsis. The first few words of the Gloria, as we heard in our Gospel reading, are taken from the joyful song of praise of the angels on the night of Christ’s birth. As a result it is sometimes known as the “angelic hymn”. Its a reminder to us that as we worship God we join in not only with the millions of Christians all around the world, but as well with all the angels and heavenly host. We are not alone in the worship we offer. Occasionally we may look around and feel there are only a few of us – that can often feel the case at our 8am or mid-week communion service -and yet it is good, and perhaps more accurate, to imagine the church absolutely packed to the rafters with countless angels offering praise alongside us. In a universe so vast, and a God so worthy of praise, surely the Bible’s suggestion that it is not only humans that give praise to God is worth celebrating.
The Gloria also connects us to all those Christians who have gone before us. For the other words of the gloria were added as early as the second century, and have been used in churches for the past 1900 years – a song of praise of God and thanksgiving for his Son that has been celebrated for centuries. We gather with the angels, we gather with the saints of the past, to proclaim that Christ alone is the Holy One, the Lord, the Most High.
One little footnote. You may notice that during Advent and Lent, we don’t use the Gloria. Those times of the church year have a more penitential focus – we recognise our failings before God – and so we take a break from the more joyful offering of the Gloria. But it will mean that on Easter Sunday morning, the Gloria will burst forth with even greater joy and celebration.
Following the Gloria, we pray the church’s special prayer for the day, the Collect. For each Sunday of the year, the Church has a special prayer. It is known as the Collect because it is viewed as “collecting up” all the individual prayers of those who have gathered and symbolically offering one prayer to encompass them all. The structure of the collect is a helpful one for our own prayers – stating a truth about God – his character, his grace, his love (so today we prayed: “Almighty Father whose son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross”) – and then based on that, making a request of Him (so today: “give us grace to perceive his glory so that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory”; and then ending the prayer by stating the reason for our confidence – that we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ “who is alive and reigns with you”. Each week with the weekly email, I send out a sheet with the Bible readings and the Collect – you may find it helpful to take the prayer and pray it during the week.
We then move into the second section of our service, the word of God. Scripture is so important to the Christian life. As Paul wrote, it is “able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” We send out the daily emails, we encourage people to join home groups, but hearing the word of God together as a congregation is also so important. In fact, that is how most Scripture was originally written: to be read out and listened to by a large gathering. In Scripture we find the story of our faith, the grounds for our belief, the guidelines for good living.
And that’s why after we hear it, we say “This is the word of the Lord”. We don’t say it after the reading of minutes of a committee meeting, or after listening to a children’s story book or watching a play. We are saying that what we have just heard is in a different category altogether – this is God’s word to us – and therefore we hold it with reverence and a desire to understand.
And we give particular emphasis to the Gospel. That’s why we stand – physically we are saying this is particularly important – and why even though chronologically the rest of the New Testament comes after it, we always read the gospel last; it has, if you like, the last word. For the gospels take us closest to the words and actions of Jesus, and it is through their lens, in their light, that we read and understand the rest of Scripture.
That has been a whistle-stop tour through the early part of our service. In the next few weeks, we will have a little longer to explore other themes in more depth, but to finish, let me leave you with three questions to reflect on:
- How can I prepare myself more to worship God?
- What difference does it make for me that I gather in worship with the angels and all the saints?
- What steps can I take to be ready to respond to God’s Word?
May God deepen our worship and transform our lives.