Introduction: Christian Worship
What are we doing here this morning?
What happens when Christians come together, for what we call “church”.
It’s always good to have visitors with us. Maybe you go regularly to another church elsewhere. But if you don’t, I wonder what you think gets Christians to come here. As opposed to stay in bed. Play football. Go shopping.
Even those of us who are regular at church sometimes wonder: “What is the point of all this?” Or rather, “I know what our church is like, and why I go, but what’s it supposed to be like? What’s supposed to happen?”
Today’s Bible reading tells us that some pretty exciting things happen when Christians gather for worship. Or at least, some pretty exciting things happen – if we get church right.
In fact, three exciting things should be going on. If we get church right. And those three things face in different directions: In, up and out.
But before we can look at that, I need to set the scene and explain where this Bible reading comes from.
Introduction: 1 Corinthians 14
We’ve been working through a book called 1 Corinthians. This is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in the ancient city of Corinth. The second half of the letter responds to a letter they wrote to him. One topic in their letter was “spiritual gifts”, and Paul responds in chapters 12 to 14.
God has given us all different abilities and talents. He wants us to use them to serve one another. Instead, the Corinthians were using them to get one up on each other. Paul has brought the Corinthians back to the point of these gifts. They’re about service. They’re about love.
Which is where chapter 14 starts. Verse 1: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.”
In chapter 14, Paul moves from talking about spiritual gifts in general, to talking about what should happen when we come together to worship. What gifts should be used during our church services.
Obviously, we use lots of gifts. We have musicians, people who can read and pray, serve coffee, welcome people, and so on.
The discussion in 1 Corinthians focusses on just two gifts, and they need a bit of explanation. There was the gift of speaking in tongues, which the Corinthians thought was the bees knees. The best one of all. The Corinthians’ letter probably asked Paul to agree that this is what everyone should be doing at church. And there was the gift of prophecy.
As I say, they need explaining. Many of us may have limited exposure to these two gifts, if any. Or it may be that we’ve met something we think is tongues or prophecy, but is actually not what Paul is talking about here.
Introduction: Tongues and Prophecy
The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in a language you’ve never learnt. (This may well sound weird). It might be a language spoken somewhere else on earth. You suddenly find you can speak Shona, like they do in Zimbabwe. Even though you’ve never learnt it. In fact, you wouldn’t even know it was Shona unless someone recognised it and told you.
Or it could be a language you wouldn’t find anywhere on earth. 1 Corinthians mentions the tongues of angels. Perhaps the language you find yourself speaking is one spoken by angels.
The actual language doesn’t matter. The point is that it is a real language. The words mean something. They can be translated into English, interpreted. If you know how to. Which is where you need someone with another gift he mentions in this chapter, the gift of interpretation. The ability to put someone’s foreign tongue back into English again.
Tongues was the gift that the Corinthians really wanted. “All proper Christians could speak in a foreign tongue. What gifts do we want during our church services? Why, tongues of course! It’s simply the best.”
But Paul steers them in the direction of another gift, the gift of prophecy. We’ll look at this in more detail in two weeks’ time. For today, let’s just say that it’s a message from God in English, or whatever your own language is. Something to help you and your church to live as a Christian day to day.
The key thing is that it’s in English. You can understand it. Whereas if someone speaks in a foreign language you haven’t a clue what they’re saying. Not unless there’s a translation.
Wonderful things happen when Christians come together in church. 3 wonderful things, that I will tell you about in a moment, I promise. But they only happen if the words spoken are intelligible. If things can be understood.
So, let me read verses 7 to 11: “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.”
On Remembrance Sunday, we’ll gather for two minutes silence. We’ll have a bugler. He’ll play the Last Post to start the two minutes silence, and the Reveille to end it. The Last Post was originally played to signal that an army camp had been inspected and was secure for the night. The troops can go to bed, safe. The Reveille was played to tell everyone to get out of bed and start the day. There would be a different bugle call to charge into battle.
I can’t play the trumpet. My mouth can’t make the sound. If I try, the instrument just rasps, hisses and burbles. Nobody would go to bed for the night, get up or charge into battle. The two minutes’ silence would fall flat on its face. Useless.
Paul says that the words we say during worship are like that. If the words cannot be understood, it’s just a noise. It’s just babble. And the words don’t do any good to anybody else in the room.
Nothing wrong with the gift of tongues, in and of itself. It just doesn’t belong in church – unless there’s a translator present. That’s verses 18 and 19: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
But when the words used can be understood, wonderful things happen in church.
As I say, three things, facing in different directions: In, up and out.
In: Christians are strengthened
Firstly, let’s face inwards. As we meet, Christians are strengthened.
Verse 3: “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”
Three things we all need. We need strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
We need strengthening. We need to build our spiritual muscles, grow, become strong, if we’re to live for God in the real world.
We need encouragement. At times, life can be deflating, and we need encouragement. Other times, we need courage. Courage to do what’s right, to live as the people of God.
And we need comfort. Life can be tough for all of us. Sometimes things fall apart. We find ourselves beyond our ability to cope. Comfort.
And the word of God provides all three. Wonderfully, as we hear God speak to us, week by week, we find we’re built up, strengthened, encouraged, en-couraged, comforted. We come to church weak, and God gives us strength. We come to church broken, and God graciously puts us back together before sending us out to serve him for another week.
But none of that happens without a clear note on the trumpet. God strengthens us by speaking strength into us. But a church where the word of God is clearly heard is a place where the people of God are strengthened.
Up: God is addressed
Second, let’s look upwards. God is addressed. God is praised. God is prayed to.
We watched a drama on TV last week. A powerful nation was going to war. The leader of that nation was one of the most powerful men on earth. And his grown son got to articulate his unease about the war. Access and influence that nobody else had.
That’s what is it like to have access to the living God. To be able to speak to him and know that he hears, that you have an audience. That is simply mind-blowing. And yet that is the privilege that we have as Christians.
That is what happens each time we come together. We sing songs of praise to our God, in which we tell him how great he is. We bring our requests and our needs before him. And we get to do so together, as his people.
But we can only do that if the words used are intelligible. Verses 14 to 17: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an enquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.”
God is addressed.
Out: New People meet God
Then, third, look outwards. New people meet God. New people meet God.
Church services are a chance for the family of God to come together. We don’t plan everything around visitors who may want to join us. But we do want them to be welcome. And we want them to come to know the wonderful God we have.
So here’s verses 23 to 25: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and enquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an enquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’”
This describes what it’s like to meet God for the very first time. You come into a church. You hear the good news of Jesus being spoken in a language you can understand. Somehow, that good news goes deep inside you, and the lights come on.
And you realise three things.
Number one, there is a God who sees all the secrets of our hearts.
Number two, that does not leave me in a good place. I’m not the person I want to be, never mind the person God wants me to be. And he sees all of it.
Number three: God is here amongst these people. He’s calling me to stop running away from him and to worship him instead. To come, to find forgiveness, and to know the God that I’ve been hiding from all my life.
Our God is wonderful. He knows everything about us. He knows all our faults. Yet he wants us to know him and to worship him. In sending Jesus to die and rise again, he’s done all that needs doing for us to be forgiven and brought into his family.
And wonderfully people come into churches like ours and discover that this really is true. They fall down and worship God. “God is really among you!”
Some of you have discovered precisely that, here in this church.
But once again, it only happens if the words being spoken make sense. If what we do is intelligible.
Let’s Worship God Intelligibly
Something wonderful happens when a church like ours gathers to worship. We’re strengthened. We get to speak to God and be heard. New people meet God too. But it all only happens if our worship is intelligible.
For the Corinthians that meant that worship in foreign tongues was not the way to go. Not unless there was an interpreter present.
Some churches today need to hear exactly this. Some churches, some Christian gatherings, use their time together for those who can to speak in other tongues. Those who can’t feel left out. And nobody can understand anybody else, which is not a good use of precious time together. Nobody is strengthened. Nobody joins in with anyone else’s prayers. Outsiders don’t get to meet God.
But for most churches today, this lands in other areas. Our services are in English. That may sound obvious, but in medieval times all church services were in Latin. That, too, is useless. And I’m quite particular here that we don’t sing or say things in Latin. Not enough of us speak it.
Those of us who play a part in running the worship need to make sure everything that happens is intelligible. That it makes sense. I need to choose songs and prayers that make sense. We need to use a Bible that’s in good, modern English. People who lead us in prayers need to give us clear prayers, where we’re clear what we’re asking God to do. So we can say “Amen”, “I agree”, at the end. Those who preach and teach need to work hard so that it’s crystal clear what we’re saying. That applies to those who help with crèche, and Sunday Special, too.
But many of us don’t help to run the worship. We come here to worship. To be part of the church family.
I hope we hit the mark for clarity here. It’s what we’re aiming for, and if anything that happens doesn’t make sense please let me know. Because then we can all come and be a part of a church where amazing things happen week by week.
Where we’re strengthened, encouraged, comforted – fortified for the challenges of life.
Where we come before our God, to praise him, to bring him our needs.
And we welcome others, we invite them to come and join us, longing for more people to share in worshipping our wonderful God.