Your Designer Deity

Third in a “Woman at the Well” series on John 4,
Delivered April 16, 2000 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
John 4:19-26
19 Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the
place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will
worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do
know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will
worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of
worshipers the Father seeks.
24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming.
When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

Do you remember the words, “hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us?” About 25 years ago Burger King came out with their “Have it Your Way” campaign where if you wanted fast food you didn’t have to get it anyway they made it, you could have a hamburger made especially for you. And we liked that. We wanted that hamburger made especially for us, our way. That’s the kind of people we are, we love customization. We like things being tailor made, fit just for us.

In fact, nowadays, even my junk mail comes customized with my name on it. Of course, I know if it says ‘Dear Jerome’ it’s probably not really from a friend. But we like the idea of things being personalized and customized. The problem is that we don’t stop with material customization, we also want it in our spiritual lives. We like our church customized to fit our needs. We like our worship service customized just to our exact taste. Unfortunately, we also want a God who is customized to conform to our preferences. We want a God who does it our way and that’s a problem.

Two different secular publications have written recently about today’s view of God and the church. The first comes from Los Angeles Magazine, it is an article called God For Sale. The author says, “It is no surprise that when today’s affluent young professionals return to church they want to do it only on their own terms. But what is amazing is how far the churches are going to oblige them.” Also Newsweek when describing today’s churches says, “They’ve developed a pick and choose Christianity in which individuals take what they want and pass over what does not fit their spiritual goals, and what many have left behind is a pervasive sense of sin.”

You see we want spirituality. We want God. We just want him on our own terms. We want a God that does it our way. But that’s not just true of us, that’s been true of every age. We’ve just taken it to new heights. Even on Palm Sunday, 2000 years ago, they had that same problem. You might want to turn again in your Bible to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11. What was being described that first Palm Sunday, what we often call the Triumphal Entry, happened during the time of Passover, actually right before Passover. Passover was the greatest celebration of the Jewish people. It would be for us like a combination of Easter and July 4th all rolled into one. Because Passover described both God’s most mighty act on behalf of the Israelites, bringing them miraculously out of the hand of Pharaoh, out of the hand of their oppressor and into freedom in the Promised Land – not only God’s greatest miracle – but also it described their independence day as a nation, as they were taken out of slavery and became a nation before God.

Jews would often make it their goal in life to go to Jerusalem at least once for the Passover. So on this Palm Sunday just a few days before Passover began, the pilgrims were already flooding into Jerusalem. They made their way along the dusty roads to Jerusalem, the capital city, the place where God himself dwelt in his temple. And where we find Jesus on Palm Sunday is just as he’s about to round the edge of the Mount of Olives. And as you round that edge of the hill you are given a spectacular sight of the city of Jerusalem, gleaming white in the sun. And at the pinnacle of the city, sitting atop Mount Zion, was the temple overlaid in gold, so that when the sun reflects off it, the pilgrims who come upon the sight are virtually blinded by its glory. So as those pilgrims came over the shoulder of the mountain and caught their first glimpse, they were filled with emotion, enthusiasm, hope, even great expectation.

Because the idea was that the Messiah himself might come during the Passover, during the feast, in order to free his people Israel from the yoke of the oppressors of Rome. It was into that mix of expectation and enthusiasm and emotion that we see Jesus getting a donkey, a colt, and riding on that donkey from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem (which by the way was in fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah 9, “Behold Jerusalem, your King comes to you riding on a donkey, a colt of an ass.” So here is Jesus, fulfilling this messianic prophecy as he rides into Jerusalem amidst the fanfare of the pilgrims all around him. And the pilgrims, they see this and they think, “could this be the Messiah?” And their hopes get the better of them and they begin to wave their palm fronds, and they sing songs, and they shout their praises to Jesus as he enters into Jerusalem. A wonderful sight, except for the question of whether they are really praising Jesus Do they even know who this Jesus is? Or are they worshipping and praising a figment of their imagination that they have attached to Jesus?

Remember their words, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Those are quotes from Psalm 118, verses 25 and 26, one of the psalms that the pilgrims would sing as they made their way up to Jerusalem. But they go on to shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” You see the Messiah was to be the son of David, an ancestor of King David, the greatest of all kings of Israel. And the messiah was to restore his great kingdom. The people give away their thoughts and intentions by the praise they give. Their expectation for Jesus was that he was coming as a conquering general-king to free them from oppression.

But is that who Jesus is? The reason Jesus rode in on a donkey rather than a horse is that a horse is a symbol of power and war. A donkey was a symbol of peace. But they didn’t really get that. They were so consumed with what they wanted the messiah to look like, what they wanted God to do for them, that it didn’t matter who Jesus really was. They took all of their hopes and expectations and put them onto Jesus.

Unfortunately, there was a problem with that, because Jesus ended up not being the person they wanted him to be. So they might have thought they were worshipping, they might have thought that they were giving praise to him, but they really weren’t. They weren’t worshipping; they weren’t praising Jesus as all. They were simply praising the false image of Jesus they had developed.

And the question for us 2000 years later as we process into the sanctuary waving our palm branches and singing the right songs is whether we are worshipping Jesus or are we worshipping a figment of our imagination that we simply call Jesus? You see, the pilgrims on that first Palm Sunday they knew the right things to do, they knew the right the words to say, they knew the right songs to sing, they just didn’t know the truth. We also know the right the things to do, we know the right words to say, we know the right songs to sing, but the question comes to us even today, do we know the truth? Do we know the real Jesus? Or have we created a false image of him to worship as well?

Remember how last week we talked about R.C. Sproul’s answer when he was asked, “What is the greatest spiritual need in our world today?” and “What is the greatest spiritual need in the church today?” His answer was the same to both, “the greatest spiritual need of every person, Christian or not, is to discover the true identity of God.”

So what does true worship of the true God look like? Please turn with me to the second scripture for today which is from John 4, as we continue working our way through the passage of “the woman at the well.” You may remember last week we talked about how Jesus was speaking to her about living water and she wasn’t quite understanding. She was thinking physical water while Christ was talking about spiritual water. And to shake her out of her earth bound perspective Jesus touched on a very sensitive area of her life. Specifically, he mentioned the fact that she had been divorced five different times and she was now living with a man she was not married too.

That’s where we stopped last week, and this week we find her response to Jesus. It is interesting that she doesn’t even respond to what he said. She does a classic “changing the topic” move. We begin in verse 19 of John 4.

“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. You know our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

You see, what she has done here is that when Jesus gets a little bit too close and personal, she decides to switch the conversation to one of those questions that nobody has the answer to. Such as when things get too personal with the gospel, what do people do? What’s the question they raise? “What about all the evil in the world?” “What about the bad things that happen to good people?” “What about predestination and free will?” “Who can figure it out?” When things get too personal we raise the theological issues that we believe are unanswerable and will get the focus off of us. But Jesus he used this evasive tactic in order to give us his most clear teaching on worship that we find in the Gospels. In fact, this question that the woman thought was unanswerable, ends up being answered by Jesus. Let’s continue at verse 21:

Jesus declared to her, ” Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know, but we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming and when he comes he will explain everything to us.” And Jesus answered, “I who speak to you am he.”

Please join me as we pray,

Lord, we do thank you for these your words both from the gospel of Mark as well as from the Gospel of John. Lord, we pray that you would now take these words, that they would be more that just words to us, but that by the power of your Holy Spirit you would engrave them upon our hearts and change us by them, that we might be more faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we ask it in his name. Amen

The woman begins with this question, “Where are we to worship? You see my people, the Samaritans have said for centuries now that we are to worship on Mount Gerizim. But your folks, the Jews, you keep saying ‘No, we’ve got to worship in Jerusalem.’ Who can figure it out? It’s beyond the wisdom of a mere mortal.” And Jesus’ response is very clear. She probably expected him to say, “but, of course, Jerusalem!” but what he did said was, “It doesn’t matter.” The place you worship is not what’s important. It’s not the “how” of worship that makes it worship it’s the “who” of worship. You can worship in all sorts of different ways; the question is “Are you worshipping the true God?” You see, the form of worship is something the church has gotten stuck on a number of different times. In fact, the tendency of human nature is that once we get comfortable doing something a certain way we enshrine that as “the” way to do it. Sometimes not just the “best” way, but the “only” real way. But that’s not what the Bible says. The Bible actually has a number of different ways of worshipping God. The Bible itself is not consistent in the form of worship because the form is flexible.

If we were to look around us here in Baltimore this morning we would find all sorts of different styles of worship, wouldn’t we? Just come to Central Presbyterian and stay here all morning and you will find two different styles of worship. The form is flexible. You know there’s a church in the Mid-West that has eight services and every single one of those eight services is different. They even have a country western worship. I don’t know, how many of you want to give that a try? Many of us might want to place that in the category of beyond the boundaries of real worship, but that is the point: the form is flexible, very flexible. What is critical is who are we worshipping.

In fact as we talk about a third service and as we move towards that here at Central, the third service is not going to look like either of our current services. It will be more contemporary in nature, but will still look different than 8:30. Why? Because there are all sorts of different folks out there. It is interesting to note the comment Paul Borden made to the Deacons and Elders, that we are probably not ready for a GenX service. Because if you do a GenX service right, then no one else in your church will like it.

The point is there are many different ways that we can express our worship of God, in fact we do that even here at Central. The critical part is that it is God we worship. The “object” of our worship never changes, as much as the “form” might change. Now our culture agrees that the form of worship is flexible, but they also say the object of worship is flexible. Worship whatever gets you charged in the morning. Whatever makes you feel good that’s what you are to do. But as Christians we know different, there is a true object of worship and everything else is false.

Take a look at what Jesus says to the woman. Jesus was not very tolerant when talking with her. He says, “You Samaritans worship what you don’t know. But we Jews, we’re the ones who worship what we do know because salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus is saying to this woman, “You’re clueless. You have no idea who God is. You don’t know him. You might think you do, but you don’t.” Jesus was not being tolerant. He was not being a very nice guy in a pluralistic society.

But Jesus knew the truth and the truth is you can’t mess with God. We can do all the gymnastics that we want spiritually, but God will still be God. The question is “are we worshipping him or something else that we created – a god that’ll do it our way?” That’s the question that comes to us on Palm Sunday and from the woman at the well. Because as we look at the Triumphal Entry we see something interesting. The crowd had its agenda in mind. The people wanted to worship a god who fit with their agenda as they welcomed Jesus, as they gathered the procession into Jerusalem. But what happened when they discovered that Jesus really didn’t fit their agenda? That he had a different agenda? What happened 5 days later? The shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” turned into shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” How could a crowd change so quickly in 5 days? From enthusiastic welcome and praise to a rejection so severe they wanted his death.

The problem is that their enthusiasm on that first Palm Sunday was a mile wide but their perception was an inch deep. When Jesus didn’t fit into their agenda they simple got rid of him. You see, they didn’t want a suffering messiah. They wanted a triumphant messiah. They wanted a glorified messiah not a humiliated one.

In our world today, we often want the same thing that they wanted back then. We want a glorified messiah not a humiliated one. We want, as the article in Newsweek said, a god of pick and choose Christianity where we choose that which fits our personal spiritual goals. And too often the idea of sin doesn’t fit in very well. The idea of sacrifice and suffering doesn’t fit in very well. The idea of self-denial doesn’t fit very well. But you can’t understand Palm Sunday without understanding Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Palm Sunday is just fluff. It’s just a time to feel good for a little while on our path to oblivion.

The question as we celebrate Palm Sunday here this morning, as we processed into the sanctuary, is “Who are we following? Who are we praising? Who are we worshipping?” Is it truly Jesus Christ or is it a god we have made for ourselves? One who will do it our way? We are no different than the Jewish people 2000 years ago. We have our conception of who God ought to be and if the real Jesus what we find in scripture doesn’t fit into that then what do we do? We may not nail him to a cross, but it amounts to the same thing. We get rid of him also. We take the real picture of Jesus out of the frame and put in the one we have drawn. We shove the real Jesus to the side so our comfortable Savior can console us and make us comfortable. We crucify him all over again spiritually as we reject him in favor of our imaginary pursuits.

Are we willing to join the procession not just to the gates of Jerusalem on that Sunday morning, but to continue to follow Jesus in procession to the last supper, to the garden of Gethsemane, to the court of Pilate, and even to the cross? Are we willing to follow Jesus on the path that he has set out for us, rather than asking for him to follow the path we have set out for him? Because if we are willing to follow him all the way to the cross, then and only then do we get to follow him to the resurrection and Easter morning. This is Holy Week. Too often Christians come on Palm Sunday to celebrate and then fast-forward to Easter Sunday to celebrate again, but we must not miss everything that happened in between. It’s what happened in-between that gives meaning and substance to the bookends of Palm Sunday and Easter. It is what happens in-between that shows us the true identity of the God we worship together this morning.

May God give us the strength to worship the true Jesus Christ, the real thing, and to be willing to follow him in joyful procession wherever he leads us. Praise be to our God, who has called us to be his people.

Please join me as we pray:
Lord, we do thank you that you sent your only son, Jesus Christ. That you loved this world so much that you came among us, you lived among us a gentle and humble life, that you were willing for our sakes to go to the cross to take the penalty for our sin and ultimately be raised again to life. Lord, we pray that you would give us the strength, the courage and the wisdom to walk the path that Jesus has laid out for us. Lord, to accept that the truth is better for us than ignorant comfort and help us to pursue the truth, your truth as we continue to worship you and follow you all the days of our lives. For we ask it through Jesus Christ our Lord Savior. Amen.