2014 is in full swing, but Christmas still isn’t too far behind. This Advent and Christmas made me think a lot about worship, not so much the style, but the nature and heart of it. Psalm 95 reveals multiple components of worship: joyful and boisterous praise-filled singing from a heart overflowing with thanksgiving for starters. Then there’s the recognition that Yahweh is the great God and King above all gods, the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth, Who alone is to be worshipped, a word whose meaning is drawn out by the parallel words “bow down” and “kneel” (NRSV). In Hebrew thought worship is a full bodied activity that indicates and to be true necessarily requires submission to and recognition of the superior status of it’s recipient(s) or Recipient. The later part of verse 7 through verse 11, which refers to Israel’s wilderness rebellion due to deep thirst, shallow patience and parched faith that kept them from entering into God’s rest, reveals the most important component of worship, namely obedience.
Advent and Christmas took us through the the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise after she conceived our Lord, the praise-filled prophecy of Zechariah, the angels at Jesus’ birth being joined in praise and worship by lowly shepherds all of whom glorified and praised God because of the newborn King. Then on Epiphany we encounter the magi traveling hundreds of miles at great cost and risk bearing precious and valuable gifts, the best their land had to offer to present to the child born King of the Jews. When they arrived they bowed down before Him in worship.
In contrast to those wonderful models of worship, however, we also have Herod’s feigned desire to also come to worship Jesus. Herod deceitfully expressed a desire to worship only to hang on to his own crown by getting rid of this new born threat to his own kingdom. He would bend his knees, but not his will. He would bow his body, but not his soul. He would honor the God of Israel with his lips, but not with his heart. In fact Herod was a worshiper and and he supported lots of worship, but he was not a true worshipper. He rebuilt the Jewish temple on a massive scale and he bowed down in it, but only to appease the Jews in order to retain his crown by bolstering his own standing in their eyes. At the same time he also supported pagan worship and even furnished idolatrous statues of Caesar to please the Romans, at whose pleasure he served. Appease the Jews, please the Romans, and all to gratify self by going through the motions of worship. What a contrast!
The difference is the difference between true and false worship. True worship requires the God Who is Who He is (Ex 3) to be its sole focus and His will and desires to be exalted above one’s own. A true worshiper not only bends the knees, but also their will to be aligned with the will of God. Moreover, a true worshiper will not only praise God with the lips, but also in the heart. In contrast false worship, which may feel quite right and good, has self at its center and as its focus. It is worship that is redirected from the God Who is Who He is to the god or gods we wish there were, figments of our own darkened imaginations, replete with false promises of self-promotion and self-gratification backed by the demons. This type of worship will often be justified with phrases like “to me” and “I like” and “what’s most meaningful to me is”. When worship is more about what we want and what we like, that’s a sure telltale sign that we may not be worshiping the one true God, at least not wholeheartedly.
Now this is subtle, but it is dangerous, and it may be much more pervasive in the American church than one might suspect. A couple of examples have come up for me around Communion. Several years ago I introduced foot-washing in a small group. One long time member of that particular church, a very evangelical believer, later said that she was very moved by the service and “got much more out of it than she did with Communion.” She went on about how she just found it much more meaningful. On another occasion in a conversation with a retired pastor of a more liberal bent, he also remarked that he really didn’t like the Communion service because he just didn’t get a lot out of it. As a pastor and worship leader I hear this kind of thing all the time when the topic of worship comes up. Our likes, our wants, what is meaningful to us is often the center of attention and dominates the conversations.
I once preached a combined worship service with the white church that I pastored and the black AMEZ church across the road. The service was in the AMEZ church. Afterward a young man about 13 or so came up to me and said, “Cliff, why can’t you preach like that at our church?!” By the way, he wasn’t saying that because it was an exceptionally short sermon. Any way, what he experienced when surrounded by a lively African American congregation was new, and therefore more exciting. In reality my preaching wasn’t all that different, but the congregational response was quite new and different. Others from my congregation also reacted about the same way that the young teenager did. It was novel and therefore exciting, but what was at the center of the excitement? God and what God likes? Probably not so much really. Novelty can be exciting while it lasts, but it definitely doesn’t last forever.
A Gideon speaker came to preach at the last church I served, the same one above. It was in December and we sang the very traditional Christmas carols. Afterwards he was telling me how much he enjoyed it. He said, ” I really miss the old hymns.” He had left a church with the more traditional style of music and liturgy and started attending a non-denominational church with contemporary praise and worship music. He was drawn there at first because it was all so different and …, you guessed it, new. He had been there several years and the novelty and excitement had faded into the same old, same old, and now the traditional was novel again. I’m not here advocating any particular style of music. I’m just saying this may be an indicator of the root cause of much of the turmoil that we face in the church today (Think Romans 1 here). The wrong person may be at the center of much of our worship.
John Wesley warned about the danger of seeking after novelty, among other things. In explaining 1 John 2:15-16, which warns about the love of the world and all that’s in it, lust and pride he said:
“In seeking happiness in what gratifies either the desire of the flesh, by agreeably striking upon the outward senses; the desire of the eye, of the imagination, by its novelty, greatness, or beauty; or the pride of life, whether by pomp, grandeur, power, or the usual consequence of them, applause and admiration; – ‘is not of the Father,’ cometh not from, neither is approved by, the Father of spirits; ‘but of the world:’ It is the distinguishing mark of those who will not have Him reign over them.” (Sermon 17 I:13, “The Circumcision of the Heart” – emphasis mine).
That last sentence seems like a good description of the “worship style” of Herod, doesn’t it? How we worship, determines who we worship, and who we worship determines our behavior, holy or unholy. In other words, our “worship style” determines our “lifestyle,” if you will. Romans 1 makes that quite clear.
Who is the focus of our worship? May we worship the One, the only One, Who is worthy, and may we worship on bended knee with bent will, bent by God to be in harmony with His will, and may we worship with our lips from the bottom of cleansed and circumcised hearts. Let us let go of our crowns and cast them before the throne of the King above all kings (Rev 4:10), and let’s see if He won’t heal our church (2 Chron 7:14).