Today is our final session in our series, “Living Faithfully in a Fallen World.” Over the past few weeks, we’ve been focussing on some practices that can be important for developing or maintaining a God-centered view of the world, and therefore our place in it.
I don’t want to do a full review of all of the topics we’ve covered, but in short, there are an awful lot of things that can lead us to seeing life, the universe, and everything in a way that marginalizes, trivializes, or neglects God. And one of the important things to remember about that – we talked about this, but we didn’t really focus on this – is that Christians are just as likely to remove God from the center of our lives. And we’re prone to replacing God with something else, especially if we’re not paying attention. So my hope is that, over the past weeks but always, we try to pay attention.
Therefore, we’ve been talking about practices, spiritual disciplines, that are useful for or necessary to re-orienting our worldviews. My general premise (position? attitude?) is that spiritual practices aren’t primarily about raising our spiritual stock or improving our spiritual skill. It is not about increasing our spiritual value, not about making us more spiritually productive, but about re-orienting our lives around Him who is the source of life. They are about re-orienting ourselves towards God.
So our topic today is worship. And because I want to make sure I don’t miss the point (as I ramble on), let me start by saying that worship is an important part of spiritual formation – that is, it’s an important practice in making sure our lives are oriented around God. But at the same time, we need to make sure that our worship is oriented towards God. To put it another way, if our worship is not oriented towards God [alone], we have to question if we are being formed in the proper [biblical] way.
Now worship is a pretty big topic. We may not think that it is – because it’s one of those things that we take for granted – but it is. I’m not going to get into how it is a big topic – we could talk about liturgical theology, history and tradition, practice, etc. So, because it’s a big topic, it’s too big to talk about in detail here. But we can think a little bit about how we take it for granted.
What I mean by that is not that we minimize it (though that may be the case). What I mean is that worship, and here I mean usually Sunday worship, is kind of ubiquitous. For most Christians, for most people exploring Christianity, worship is usually one of the first things we encounter. This is definitely true of those of us who grew up in the church. Some of my earliest memories are of spending time at church. And it’s also true for those who are exploring Christianity. One may begin with a conversation or several conversations; one may attend a bible study or an Alpha group. But somewhere near the very beginning of your Christian journey, you will find yourself in a church at corporate worship.
Which is great. It’s important and necessary. But one of the consequences of that is our expectations become formed – and often set in stone – very quickly. And at the same time, we don’t often talk or think about worship a whole lot. We think we know what worship is based on what we’ve seen – but most of us haven’t seen very much before we think we know. Again, without getting into the big-ness of it all, we don’t talk about the liturgical theology, the history and traditions, or the practices of it all. We kind of just do it.
Now that isn’t to say that we don’t talk and think about it at all. I’m merely saying that we do it a lot more than we think about it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a whole perspective in theology that suggests that our theology is shaped as much (if not more) by what we do than what we say or (explicitly) think.
In other words, our theology – how we think about God – is shaped (to a certain extent) by how we worship. Which is fine (great even), except that we often (sometimes?) don’t think overly much about what we’re doing, and we do things because we’ve always done them. Therefore, in this instance (worship), how we think about theology is shaped by a thing we do that we don’t really think that much about.
So, having said all that, I want to think a little bit about what we’re doing (though only in a very brief way).
To begin with, what do we mean by worship? Most of us (I assume) understand worship as something along the lines of “proclaiming/recognizing/exalting the worth of God.” I think that’s a perfectly good and useful definition. Primarily, we worship God because God is worthy of worship – and only God is worthy of worship.
In other words, worship must be first and foremost focussed on God. When we stray from that basic truth, we have to re-examine what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Before we think about our own desires, our own needs, our own preferences and expectations, we need to remember that worship is to and for God.
It’s for that reason that scripture plays (or should play) such a central part in worship. Because it’s in and through scripture that God reveals Himself. Of course, we know God in various ways – and here there’s a conversation to be had about the distinction between General and Special revelation, but we’re not going to get into that. But in short, scripture, because it’s the word of God to us, must take precedence inasmuch as we want to actually know God.
So, having said that, I want to take a look at just a couple of elements, models, or ideas about worship to help us think further about what we’re doing.
The first thing that I want to consider is worship as sacrifice. Worship as sacrifice (or sacrifice as a part of worship) is well-attested in scripture. Especially in the Old Testament, we see that various sacrifices are a central part of the regular part of Israel’s worship. Now this practice is superseded in the New Testament as Jesus becomes the one sacrifice for all. But the idea of sacrifice is important to keep in mind.
Again, there are a several types of sacrifices attested to in the Old Testament, but the basic idea is that human beings, because of our sin, are unable to come into the presence of a holy God. The sacrifice mitigates our sin so that Israel can continue to function as and receive the blessing of God’s people. We see a description of this in Hebrews 9:
9 Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2 A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4 which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
6 When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7 But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. 9 This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.Hebrews 9:1-9
Now obviously, that’s an extremely abridged account of sacrifice. But there’s a couple of important elements to consider. Firstly, the notion and practice of sacrifice recognizes that God is a holy God. It acknowledges that there is an order, particularly a moral order, to the world that we are subject to, that we have to pay attention to. Secondly, it acknowledges that we fall short of that order. Human sinfulness means that we are somehow apart from how we are supposed to be, which primarily includes fellowship with God. So sacrifice, as part of worship, recognizes that we are dependent upon the grace and mercy of God.
However, what can happen is that we turn this idea of sacrifice into the idea of buying favour with God. Rather than worship as acknowledging our relationship with God (or our inability to have a relationship with God), or as recognizing our need of God, and desiring to enter into the presence of a merciful God, worship becomes something that we owe God. We attend Sunday worship (or whatever-day worship) because we still think of God as an angry God or an accounting God who keeps attendance because He is determining how much we still owe.
When we think of worship this way, or when we treat worship this way, we turn worship into an obligation, or we turn it into an accomplishment. But either way, we become prone to taking our eyes off of God.
The second thing I want to consider is worship as fulfillment. This is a little less obvious, but what I mean by that is that we think of worship, or we approach worship, in terms of how it fulfills us. Now again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – at least I don’t mean it that way (there’s probably a better way to say it). What I mean is that, in worship, we are entering into the presence of God. In Hebrews 10, the author describes how Jesus Christ surpassed, by truly fulfilling, the role of the high priest. Hebrews 10:19-23 says:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.Hebrews 10:19-23
Without getting too deep into an examination of this passage, what it describes is the work of Jesus Christ (as high priest) allowing us into the Most Holy Place in the temple. In other words, because of Jesus Christ, we can participate in true worship, that is, to enter into the real presence of God. And this is hugely significant because, as we discussed, our sin keeps us from this crucial relationship. Because of our sin, we are not able to have genuine communion with God, which means we are not able to truly be who and what we are meant to be.
But in worship, by virtue of the sacrifice, we are in fact able to enter God’s presence. We are able, for a moment, to participate in God’s glory. And this brings us closer to our true purpose, our true place, our true selves.
However, what can happen is that we turn this idea of being fulfilled in the presence of God into being satisfied in our earthly passions. In other words, we think of worship as something that makes us feel better (whether because we are in God’s presence, because we fulfilled a requirement, or whatever). And so the focus of worship becomes what we get out of it. In other words, worship turns into one more element of consumer spirituality.
When we think of worship this way, we turn God into our servant. We evaluate worship on whether or not it gives us what we need (or want) and if it doesn’t, we simply find it somewhere else or stop participating altogether. (The flip side of this is that we only participate in worship when we need or want something in particular – we are going through a particularly bad time so we think that putting in our time in worship will balance God’s cosmic scales and improve things for us). So rather than glorifying God on His throne because He is King, we treat Him as a cosmic butler or genie. The center of worship, then, is not God, but ourselves.
Now again, and obviously, there’s a lot more to discuss and think about worship. We are being nowhere close to comprehensive here. These are just a couple of examples and we could probably easily come up with many more. For example, worship is (usually in scripture) an expression of community. In worship, we are reminded (as we live out) that we are a people belonging to God. But that can easily turn into a form of indoctrination or even exclusion if we don’t keep at the center the God who loves the whole earth and all the people in it.
It’s for this reason that we constantly need to remember what worship truly is or should be. We are constantly trying, in our worship, to keep God as the focus, to keep God at the center. Again, Scripture (and a good reading and use of scripture) plays a central role in keeping our worship God focussed. But of course there are other ways in which we can keep ourselves, through worship, oriented to a proper God-view of the world. But if we don’t keep our worship properly oriented and ordered, in ways like we’ve discussed, it can easily be steered away from its true purpose and object.
So again, the point that I’m trying to make is that worship plays an important role in our spiritual formation. That may be obvious, but maybe it’s not, so it’s worth saying (because I don’t know how much we think of worship as spiritual formation). And so, because worship is part of our spiritual formation, how we worship, how we approach and practice worship becomes important. Because inasmuch as theology informs practice, practice can also transform our theology.
And so, what I’m trying to call our attention to is that our practice can often and easily be informed by things (again, such as the several things that we’ve been talking about) that can lead us away from what the point is. Worship as a practice can easily be informed by our own inclinations, our own preferences, and our own assumptions – and therefore be focused on us – instead of being focused on the God who deserves and calls for our worship.
But what worship can be, if we do indeed keep our eyes, our hands, and our hearts focused on God, is that regular practice that helps us re-orient ourselves on God. It can be a practice (among and with others) that reminds us that all the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. But only if we keep it focused on Him.
Now I could go on (and we probably should, as a community), but I want to wrap up – not just this sermon, but this series of sermons.
What we’ve been doing over the past couple of months is considering some of the challenges of being Christians in a broken world. And what we’ve been talking about is some of the particular challenges of being Christians in this broken world. The world we live in – and by this, I mean postmodern, post-Christian Canada – this has been examined in a variety of ways by a host of people more qualified than I am. But one of the things that I hope we understand is that we are all part of this world.
We’ve spoken numerous times about how (I believe) there is no concept of biblical Christianity that is separate from community. And in a similar way, I want to say that there is no concept of biblical Christianity that does not take place in this world. There is no escaping it, no extracting a “pure Christianity,” out of it – this is the world into which Christ has called us to proclaim and to live the truth of the gospel.
But that does not mean we simply become cultural Christians – I don’t’ mean this at all. It does not mean we simply accept the ways of the world and try to “make do.” What it does mean (I think) is that we are called to pay attention. We are called to pay attention to God and we have to pay attention to the ways we are being led away from paying attention to God.
And that’s fundamentally the challenge. Because it doesn’t matter which culture we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about modernism vs. postmodernism, if we’re talking about baby boomers vs. millennials or Gen Z. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a Western culture vs. an Eastern culture, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about biblical times or contemporary times. It’s really easy to get caught up in how the new culture is different from my culture. But isn’t that the wrong question? Isn’t the question we should be asking, “how do I seek first the kingdom of God,” no matter where we find ourselves?
But even though we are selfish, faithless, weak and willful, God is always calling to us, calling us to redemption, calling us to be who we were meant to be. God is on His throne and His kingdom is near.