In my life, I've gone to hundreds of churches. I've worshipped everywhere from the very liberal Methodist church of my pre-Christian childhood to a charismatic 4-square church in college. I've smelled incense spread at Eastern Orthodox churches, and sat through a service in a tiny Finnish church where I kept myself occupied in the balcony by counting the kerchiefs on the grey-haired older women sitting below me who made up most of the congregation, because the whole service was in Finnish and I couldn't understand a single word. I've sat on mats in a house, missionary-led church in India, and in a large theater-sized church right here in town. Some of these churches seemed as dead as the occupants of the graves beyond the stone walls, and some were so living and jubilant, I couldn't see the pastor for all the raised hands. I've even had occasion, with my son's 'Comparative Religions' class to visit, like a tourist, a Muslim mosque, a Buddhist temple and most ridiculously of all, a Hari Krisna building where their 'gods' were dolls they daily dressed and fed. I'm telling you, I had a such a hard time not laughing that my son practically had to kick me in the ribs in admonishment.
The point is, one way or another, people try to find meaning in their lives via a belief in something bigger than themselves. They find religion. And when God took on flesh, He plopped Himself down in the middle of a very religious people, the 'chosen' people who I sometimes think of as our cousins, if that makes sense. The most religious among those who came into contact with God, were as stiff-necked and full of self-importance as Isaiah described in warning centuries before. Rules and regulations governed them and they made quite a living telling ordinary folks how to live.
But one of them in 1st century Israel, wanted truth in his inmost being. He'd heard of Jesus and something flickered in him. Kind of a pre-lit Light, I think. So this man, Nicodemus, came to Jesus under cloak of secrecy, knowing it was already dangerous for a man in his position--religious leader--to be seen with this rabble-rouser. Nicodemus is full of questions that reveal his already hungry heart. His first words are actually the genesis of faith. "No one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with Him." Considering what the other pharisees and sadducees believed--that Jesus was a heretic and liar--these words are pretty surprising.
But what is even more surprising is that to Nicodemus, Jesus speaks the absolute heart of the gospel. To this religious man, He speaks of what a person must do to be saved, and what God has done to bring that salvation about. We must be born again, Jesus says. We must not only live as people trying to be good, trying to discover religion, but we must actually be re-born, and live in a new way, through the Holy Spirit, which moves as a wind through the world, and through our lives to accomplish that new life in us, and to blow us where He wills so we can also be a part of the Kingdom coming. This is a typically confusing word that Jesus speaks. It's not surprising that, in the newness of it, Nicodemus doesn't quite understand. But Jesus sees that the pharisee's question, "How can this be?" springs from an earnest heart, one that seeks this new birth. He tells Nicodemus, "Everyone who believes will have eternal life."
There it is--the first time Jesus makes His purpose clear. To the strangest of listeners--a religious man. Religion, the practice of rules and rituals, will not save anyone. It's not the outward form that does it, it's the Spirit causing a person to believe. It's the Spirit that brings a person to eternal life. The form doesn't matter, the heart does. John clarifies Jesus' words with the most succinct and beautiful sentence in the Bible: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." This is it, folks. God's love, Jesus given, our true belief, eternal life. In a nutshell, the best news ever proclaimed.
It doesn't matter what form our worship takes, as long as it begins and ends with this nutshell. God is looking all the time at the heart, after all. He knows whether we are merely practicing religion or whether we have been born of the Spirit and, with tears swimming in our eyes from the very joy of it, can say, "For God loved me so much He gave His Son for me, so that I won't die but will live with Him--to worship Him--forever."