"A prayer before worship," read the screen at the front of the tidy church, its oak-and-white simplicity spruced up with poinsettias, garland, wreaths, and Christmas trees outfitted with gold and white ornaments fashioned along Christian themes (a crown and cross, a star, three interlocking rings symbolizing the Trinity). "Heavenly Father, we come to worship you with hearts at peace because of the forgiveness of sins you have given us. On this day of celebration of the Epiphany, when the Gentiles came to worship the Christ, cause us to pray for and promote mission work throughout the world. Let your salvation be known to the ends of the earth, and use us to carry this out."That emphasis on an active God and a receptive humanity (" cause us to pray," "let your salvation be known," " use us") showed up again and again during the Epiphany Sunday service. (Epiphany, noted Pastor Lowell Smith, was the day when the Magi found the infant Jesus and paid Him homage; the day "when the glory of the Lord was revealed in the coming of Jesus.") The reading from Isaiah testified that "thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you." Lamenting the foolishness of our own sins during the sermon, Smith said, "All we can do is cry out to God, 'Lord, I am sorry. Forgive me; give me a new start.' That's why we need the glory and the light to shine upon us, for it is God who must come into the world to change us."
About the Magi, he said, "God put it upon their hearts -- the desire that they needed to go and find for themselves.... Isn't that amazing? That God put that kind of conviction inside them...and then gave them the perseverance to follow through with that? God also protected them from being deceived by King Herod.... Their whole journey had its hopes and dreams fulfilled."
Even the exhortation to evangelization that followed sounded a passive note: "God has chosen you out of the world...and given you the privilege of being a spokesman for the Lord Jesus Christ.... There are people among the people you know who may come to faith in Jesus Christ by the message that you share.... My friends, it is with the same kind of perseverance that God works in your lives to enable you also to proclaim the praise of your Lord, to find people whom you can influence...to bring them to the Lord Jesus Christ. You'll see that you too can have your hopes and dreams fulfilled."
The Canticle that followed kept up the theme. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence.... Restore to me the joy of your salvation."
Communion is, of course, reception par excellence . Smith recited the words of the institution with the same matter-of-fact, precise delivery he used throughout the service. The congregants stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the base of the Sanctuary to receive the Sacrament. An assistant moved along the line, distributing one morsel per phrase of his admonition, so that by the time he had finished saying, "Take and eat; this is the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given unto death for all your sins," five congregants had received. Pastor Smith followed in like manner with the cup, so that four people received during his recitation of "Take and drink; this is the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, poured out for you on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins." Finally, the assistant administered the sacrament to Smith -- even the pastor received.
Against all this receptivity was the notion of praise; in praise, the action of the faithful was stressed -- humanity's response to God. (Mostly, anyway: the psalm did use the somewhat passive " Let the people praise you, O God" as its refrain.) If the Kyrie was a plea for mercy, the Gloria was an offering of praise: "We worship you, we give you thanks..." From the Introit, sung in rich harmony by the chancel choir: "No ear has ever caught such great glory; therefore will we in victory sing hymns of praise eternally." From the opening hymn: "Vainly we bring him the richest of offerings.... Richer by far is the praise that the heart brings." The hymn of the day: "Sing hosanna! Heavenly manna/ Tasting, eating/ Whilst Thy love in songs repeating." The first verse of the Isaiah reading began, "Arise, shine..."
And from Smith's sermon: speaking of the Magi, he said, "God has penetrated them, and they come with their thank-offerings.... They're going to come with their gifts of praise to God." He marveled at "the future day when all these nations will gather in eternity...and sing praise to their Lord for what He has done for them."
4670 Mt. Abernathy Avenue, San Diego
Denomination: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
Founded locally: 1963
Senior pastor: Lowell Smith
Congregation size: 350
Staff size: 10, including teachers
Sunday school enrollment: varies, but over 90 enrolled in Lutheran elementary school
Annual budget: around $700,000
Weekly giving: around $6700
Singles program: no
Dress: ranging from dressy to a step above casual
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour