You’ve all flown. You know the routine. There’s a familiar pattern to checking in, boarding, pre – flight safety, take off, service during flight, landing. I remember the time a new carrier came into the Australian skies – called Virgin Blue. The fares were cheap and the church counts its pennies so it wasn’t long before I had a flight. It was interesting because it was a mixture of similarities and differences.
The plane looked the same but had a different paint job. I still left from the airport but it was from an out of the way corner of the terminal. I walked across the tarmac rather than go through the tunnel to get on board. Usually I had been addressed as ‘Reverend’, ‘padre’, or ‘sir’ but on this flight I was ‘George’. There was food and drink on board as there usually is on flights only this time I had to pay for what I wanted to consume. But the plane went up and down as other planes do and the flying time was the same. One difference was when we were leaving on the return flight the Virgin Blue staff came out onto the tarmac as we started rolling towards the end of the runway and they linked arms – there were about 10 of them – and they did the can – can – while the people on each end waved goodbye to us. On board there was the rule about no smoking, no phones, etc. and then there was the flight safety demonstration. Now I’ve heard these every flight and they say the same thing. Then I heard, “and should the cabin become depressurized and there is need for oxygen, masks will drop from above you. Once you have stopped screaming, reach up and pull the mask down and put it over your face.”
I chuckled as did many on the flight at the “once you’ve stopped screaming” aside. But it occurred to me – what would you have thought if this was your first time flying and you’d never heard the more normal safety talk? Would you be worried, unnerved, maybe you’d feel that the flight steward was being somewhat callous?
Amidst the predictability, there is the unexpected. It can make us take notice, stop and think, reflect, learn.
Christian living has sometimes been likened to an aeroplane flight which finally reaches its destination. In Christian worship God meets his people and takes them on a flight with him into daily living and one day that journey will reach heaven and eternal living. People wonder what it’s going to be like in heaven and John, in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, gives people a picture of what he saw when he was taken up into the heavenly realm.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty – four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:1 – 14 ESV)
What happens in heaven? We will worship in heaven and God will dwell with us and all the heavenly creatures. Here and now we take many flights – daily, weekly, maybe less frequently – where God comes to us to bless us on our journey, to be with us in joys and sorrows, hardships and easy streets, births and deaths.
However these journeys – worship or devotions – are often so routine. We know what this church is like – it’s the same each week. Predictable patterns once again – we often know what’s going to be said.
However as my flight experience reminded me, amidst the predictability there is always the unexpected. While it is organized and cyclical, there are things different each worship – the propers – those parts of the service that change from Sunday to Sunday – particularly the readings, hopefully the sermon, also the prayers. The pattern remains similar: preparation – meeting Jesus – response – as we encounter Jesus through the word and through the sacrament of the altar. Here there also can be some variation – more often emphasises that highlight which part of the church year we’re in – but the pattern of worship set down by Jesus remains similar. While at times it may seem boring – the familiarity is also comforting and helps form our identities. Try having a birthday party without singing ‘Happy birthday to you’ and you will be aware of the importance of patterns in living, the rituals in our lives.
But there’s more because we are not just running a familiar maze to spend a Sunday morning (or evening) being active. We’re not in some sort of communal history lesson deluding ourselves. In worship we encounter the living God. He is not a picture on a wall but a sovereign being who takes an interest – a personal interest in us and our lives and our world. And he is very capable of doing something unexpected.
Through the readings or the prayers or the words of a song or hymn or through the sermon or a part of the liturgy which suddenly speaks to us or even through our wandering thoughts, God interacts with us personally. (Ever felt guilty or hassled that you find yourself far away during worship? Maybe you should feel guilty but before you beat yourself up too much just stop and have a look around and ask yourself, ‘What might God be saying to me here?’.) In worship God is taking us on a journey – it’s personal – the journey of the person next to you will be different to yours. God comes to guide us or comfort us or challenge us – he is here to clean us and feed us and bless us.
We respond with praise which encourages us and strengthens us as we acknowledge – sometimes even in pain and tears – that God is good. We also respond in prayer bringing our needs but especially the needs of those around us to God precisely because he is good.
Worship is God breaking into our lives and taking us on a journey. Why should we go? Well, anyone who has committed himself to us through a cross and an empty grave has already put up front that he’s for us, never against us.
- Revelation 5:1 - 14