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Not long ago my wife and I were flying in an airplane, and we got into a conversation about our earliest plane flights as children. And as we talked, we recalled how back in the 1950s and '60s air travel was so special people used to dress up. Men would put on coats and ties; women would wear nice dresses because it was so special to fly on an airplane. Do you remember those days? If so, we know how old you are!
Our parents would come home from plane trips with pictures-
"Hey, kids! You wanta see what clouds look like from the top?" or
"Come quick, I want to show you a picture of the wing!"
"Oh, wow, the wing!"
Today people don't even want the window. They prefer the aisle where there's more leg room. Instead of ooh's and aah's on the plane, we hear the click, click, click of laptop computers.
I wonder sometimes if we don't come to worship like sophisticated travelers. We walk into the service thinking we've been here, we've done this, ho-hum. We've grown accustomed to his grace.
The best antidote I know for this disease is the second phrase of the Lord's Prayer: "Hallowed be thy name."
The theme of Revelation chapter 4 is the hallowing of God's name. John is caught up through a trap door into heaven and finds himself in the midst of a cosmic worship service.
Let's listen to a text that may leave us a little awestruck and perhaps give us a few goosebumps as we contemplate the majesty of our God.
Revelation, chapter 4, verses 1 - 11:
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." 2At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7The first living creature was like a lion, the second like an ox, the third had the face of a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8Each of the (four) living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
"Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come."
9Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
11"You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being." (NIV)
Wow! It almost takes your breath away, doesn't it?
To hallow. It brings to mind the college president rising to his feet on alumni weekend at the evening banquet and speaking of "these hallowed halls." Or we think of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg when he said, "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground," for it had already been hallowed by the blood of Union and Confederate soldiers who gave their life on that soil.
To hallow means to set aside as special or holy. It has to do with reverence, awe, and wonder.
Almost every summer our family spends some time on the beaches of Southern California. A few years ago, there was a huge storm off Tahiti that brought the biggest waves in twenty years against the Southern California coast. Here were these giant breakers skimming the bottom of the piers. I was standing there before that water just before they made it illegal to go in, and as I stood there, I thought, "You know, you'd have to be crazy to even think about going out into that stuff." But another little voice said, "Boy, wouldn't it be fun!"
I don't know what got into me, but I went out into that very water that terrified me and I dove under one-and that was just the one wave-and I have to tell you that that feeling of having tons of water going whoosh over you as you hug the ocean bottom for dear life was one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever had. I came out of that water, even laughing hysterically. I think it was probably the nearest I've ever come to speaking in tongues. I felt so alive! And then there came a thought. You know, I've had something like that feeling before in of all places Sunday morning worship. I've had moments when I have felt so tiny in the presence of a majesty and a power beyond imagining.
It's kind of like the prophet Isaiah who said in the presence of God, "Woe is me. I am undone." Isn't it interesting that we often come to church, we say, to "get it together." Isaiah said when I came into the presence of God, I came apart. I unraveled before God. "I am undone." In Revelation when John saw the glory of the risen Christ, he said, "I fell at his feet as though dead."
I love what C.S. Lewis said. He said, "A human in the presence of God is going to feel one of two ways. Either you feel like a small, dirty object, or you lose thought of yourself altogether." And then he said, "The latter is by far preferable." That's the problem that many of us mainline Protestants have -- somehow getting outside ourselves in worship. I have a Baptist friend of mine who once said to me, "Vic, I have biblical evidence that you Presbyterians are going to get to heaven before anybody else." I said, "Where does it say that in the Bible?" He said, "It says right here: 'The dead in Christ shall rise first.'"
That missing tingle I so yearn for in worship is caught in the words of an old hymn, "How Great Thou Art." The words are "O, Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder." Isn't that what's missing in so much of our worship today? Awe and wonder in the presence of God.
I have to confess to you that one of my pet peeves is going to church and listening to the pastor get up and give the announcements and say, "Now, don't miss our potluck dinner tonight. It's gonna be awesome, truly awesome!" My thought is, after you've said that, what's there left to say about God?
As a matter of fact, on the staff of my previous church we instituted a rule that if you used the word awesome to refer to anything or anyone other than God, it cost you 25 cents. With the proceeds we built a new building-I'm only kidding. But save your superlatives for God, and in so doing, you hallow his name.
With our lips and with our lives, you and I are to look up into the face of a holy, loving, majestic God and say, "Hallowed be thy name." Now, why name? The phrase thy name was a circumlocution Jewish people would use to avoid saying the name of the most high God, which was seen to be so holy it was not even to be uttered in worship. In fact, the name of God fell into such disuse it was forgotten for a time, and the recovery of the name Yahweh is a relatively recent development in biblical scholarship. Indeed, in the Bible God is not simply holy. God is called holy, holy, holy. Holy to the third power. That's because in Hebrew, emphasis comes through repetition. When Jesus wanted his hearers to pay close attention, he would say, "Verily I say to you." If he was saying something of ultimate importance, he said, "Verily, verily." God is holy, holy, holy.
I once had a worship moment I will never forget. It was at St. Catherine's monastery in the middle of the Sinai desert in Egypt. The monks in that monastery there are notoriously reclusive, but I wanted to worship in this monastery, which was founded in the fourth century by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, on the traditional site where Moses saw the burning bush. I was told that if you walked into their worship and said to them, "I come not as a tourist; I come as a pilgrim," they just might let you join them. There were five of us in our group who wanted to come and join them. Well, the monks begin their worship every day at 4 a.m., and we decided to wait till 6 a.m. And when we did, they were still going strong. We pushed open a massive door and walked into a candlelit room with billowing incense everywhere. Through the smoke, we saw eight or nine priests walking around. We found one who spoke English and said, "We come not as tourists; we come as pilgrims."
Now, this priest was very polite, but he was clearly bothered. The attitude he had was, "Look, here we are engaged in the most important work in the universe at this moment. Here we are lifting up the world to God in prayer. God's very kingdom is coming through our activity here in this room. We can't afford any distractions." I'll tell you what I felt like. I felt as if I had made a wrong turn at a university hospital and blundered into the operating room where the surgeons looked up and said, "What are you doing here?" These monks were engaged in the deadly serious business of worshipping God. They allowed us to stay for two hours, and after that, I walked out thinking, "We are the priesthood of all believers."
I was once with an orthodox Jewish friend of mine on the Sabbath. We walked into his study, and he showed me his holy books, his Torah, his Mishnah. There was a little plaque in Hebrew over his desk. I said, "What does that say?" He said to me, "It says, 'Remember before whom you stand.'" I've never forgotten that.
Remember before whom you stand.
The shattering wonder of Christian worship is we come into the presence of a holy, majestic God, glorious and enthroned in radiance, with every angel eye in heaven fixed on him, and we call him, "Father," for He loves us with unfathomable love.
Can you remember the first time you began to grasp the love of God for you? My earliest memory of hearing about God's love was as a boy hearing a song by soloist George Beverly Shea, "The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell. It goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell." The song goes on to say that if the skies were a scroll made of parchment and the oceans were filled with ink, and the song goes on to say if every bush on earth were a writing quill, we could never write in full the love of God for us, for the skies would be filled and the oceans would run dry before we could even begin to tell of the wonder of God's love. This is the God before whom we stand.
As we pray the Lord's Prayer we step into the presence of this God, a place we have no business being, but where instead of being annihilated or thrown out, you and I are welcomed, embraced, and received.
The other day I was on the phone with a friend of my mine, a pastor in Edmond, Oklahoma, Joel Baker. He said, "Vic, I want to tell you a story, and you're going to love this story." And he was right. He said, "Last weekend my mother was visiting from Maine, and in a long conversation one evening she unfolded the details of how her mother had come to this country early in the last century. She was a teenager living on a farm in Austro-Serbia. Joel said, "My grandmother's father was an abusive man who used to beat her. She was told one day to take a few of the family cattle to town to sell them, and so she did. But then fearing for her life with the father she had, she took that little bit of money and ran away. When she got to the coast, she boarded a ship for America. When she arrived at Ellis Island, all the passengers were told they were to line up in two parallel lines with hundreds of people in each line. As my grandmother was standing there, an immigration official came by checking documents, and, of course, my grandmother had none. The official had a block of chalk, and so he put a white X in chalk on my grandmother's arm, meaning she was to be deported immediately. After all, she had no sponsor, no passport, no family and no status." And here my friend got a little choked up. He said, "My grandmother's name was Barbara Slobovic. Across from her in the other line was a stranger named Theodore Daizy. As soon as that immigration official left, this stranger, Theodore Daizy, reached out and with his hand, he brushed away that white X off my grandmother's arm. When they got to the head of the line, Theodore Daizy said, "She's with me." And within a matter of weeks, they were married. And today their grandson is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, Oklahoma.
My friend, you and I were born into this world with an X, without status and without hope before God. But there is one who comes to us, who reaches out his nail-pierced hand, and he wipes away that X of shame and guilt and he says to you, "You're with me and I'm with you. Welcome home."
Remember before whom you stand.
"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."
Let us pray.
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God Almighty, worthy are you to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created. You are worthy of the blood of the martyrs, you are worthy of the praise of your people, you are worthy of the devotion of our lives, and, yes, you are worthy of this prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
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