Monday, March 16, 2009

The Church at Worship, pt 2


There are actions to worship. We sing, pray, preach, take the Lord’s Supper, and give financially to the Lord’s work. But, before we can worship in action acceptably to God, we must first have a heart for worship. Actions of worship cannot replace attitudes of worship.
Worship as Adoration

Deuteronomy 6:4,5 - "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

Is there a more profound statement in the whole Bible about the attitude in our heart toward God? So important is this statement that it is repeated, in whole or part, three times in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

"Hear, O Israel" is called the "Shema" after the command "to hear." To hear means to obey. "To hear God without putting into effect the command is not to hear him at all."3 I remember my Dad giving us boys instructions about working on the farm. "Make sure you pull all the weeds in the garden and clean the barn. After that, don’t forget to do the milking." Frequently after giving instructions like that Dad would follow up with, "Do you hear what I am saying?" Dad didn’t want to know if our ears were working. He wanted to know that we were going to obey and do what he said. That idea is at the heart of what God is presenting to Israel: "Listen to me with an obedient heart."

We listen to God because he is "one." He is unique, all-powerful and creative. There is no god like our God. He deserves our attention and worship. He deserves for us to hear him.

What was Israel to hear? What was she to obey? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. We love God with all of our being, with everything we have to give.

The heart refers to our mind. To love God with our minds means we devote intellectual energy to understanding who God is. The soul refers to our inner person, or will. The soul is the essence of who we are. It is the home of our desires, plans and aspirations. Strength refers to our physical being. Even our bodies are called into lay when we love God. Loving God with our bodies means we conduct our bodies in purity and holiness. We abstain from sensual pleasure and abuse; we treat our bodies with honor and dignity. "To obey is to love God with every aspect and element of one’s being."4

How would God have us live? Notice that the Shema and the command to love God with everything we have comes right after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Six of the ten commandments have to do with how we relate to each other: honoring our parents; honoring human life by not killing people; being sexually pure; not stealing or lying; and not lusting or coveting another man’s wife or possessions. Four of the Ten Commandments are about our relationship with God: not honoring any other god but the one God of heaven; not making idols; not misusing the name of God; and setting aside a day for rest and to contemplate God. Forty percent of the commandments are about our worship and adoration of God.

Following the Shema are a number of admonitions for Israel to practice in respect to God: not forgetting God (6:12); fearing and serving only God (6:13-15) and keeping the commands of God (6:17). Also, when Israel takes the land God is giving her, she is to destroy all of the idols and pagan worship centers in the land (7:5-6). God will not accept any competition in our worship and adoration of him!

That was true in the Old Testament times, and it is true today as well. The command to love God with all of our being is quoted three times in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In two instances Jesus is asked what the most important commandment of the Old Testament is. He quotes this verse from Deuteronomy 6:5. In the third instance, in Luke 10, an expert in the law asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus challenges the man to answer that question from the Bible: "What is written in the law?" The man answers, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." Salvation is found in our heart-felt response of love to God.

Different circles in the church today emphasize different aspects of the source of our salvation. Some say "preach Jesus." Some emphasize the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, "Love God."5

Whatever we adore is what we give our attention and energy to. My grandfather tried to teach a cousin of his about Christ. His cousin was extremely successful in business. He was very wealthy. "You seem to have everything," Grandpa said. "But you need God." "I need God?" His cousin spoke with a condescending and mocking tone. "What do I need God for? Everything I have I got on my own." This man loved his success. He gave everything for it - his time, his wife, his kids. He gave them all for his success ... he lost them all. But he had his business success. He loved his money, he adored his position, he was devoted to himself. All that love and energy is what God demands for himself. That is kind of love is one of the key ingredients of worshiping God with a proper attitude.

Worship as Allegiance

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance as far back as first grade. Every morning we would begin our school day by reciting this oath of allegiance to our country. We had a couple of older teachers in the four-room school house I attended who actually had us sing some of America’s patriotic songs as well. We’d sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful. I don’t know if the full significance of these songs touched me at the time, but as I grew older I think they did.

What our teachers tried to instill in us was a sense of loyalty and devotion to our country. With our right hands over our hearts we would offer through song or recitation the solemn promise of loyalty and devotion. Every day. This devotion was punctuated with an elaborate ceremony every year of walking to the local graveyard and placing little American flags on the grave sites of fallen soldiers. Allegiance.

Have you ever thought that what we do every Sunday in the singing of our songs and other acts of worship is a pledge of loyalty to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? We don’t have "a" pledge of allegiance. The entire experience of our worship functions as the pledge. We sing of God’s majesty and greatness; we recall the sacrifice of the Son for our redemption; we offer up a token of a responsive sacrifice with a financial offering; we offer a public proclamation of the Christ as the object of our devotion and we bow our heads in humble prayer, acknowledging our lowly state before the throne of the King. In all of this we remind ourselves that without God’s love for us, without Christ’s sacrifice for us and without the Holy Spirit’s continuing work of transformation among us, we would still be "foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures ... (living in) malice and envy, being hated and hating one another" (Titus 3:3). In worship we extol the "kindness and love of God our savior" which has appeared, saving us "because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). Worship is a pledge of allegiance.

Everyday we face the daunting challenge of maintaining loyalty and devotion to our Savior. Numerous lesser gods vie for our attention and love. How many of us want to compare the time we spend in Bible reading to learn more about our savior with time we spend in front of the television? Take a quick look at your checkbook and compare how the money allocated for spiritual activities compares with money spent on personal pursuits or pleasures. Are we more proficient with knowledge of sports scores and statistics than we are with the number of missionaries we have serving in Africa and Asia? What songs roll from our lips when we are driving down the road - the current popular tunes, or songs of Zion? We must be careful lest we change our status as sons of the King of the Universe to become children of a lesser God.

That is why we need worship. Worship reminds us that there is one God. We sing to that God. We pray to that God. We proclaim the word of that God. We remind ourselves, "There is no one else. There is no authority above God’s authority. There is no power above his power. There is no savior but the one who came from the Father."

So we pledge allegiance. To God "we ascribe ultimate authority over our lives."6 Our worship is a declaration to the world, a pledge of allegiance to God, and a reminder to ourselves that there is no one higher, there is nothing grander, than the God we pay homage to in worship. God is our "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). Worship reminds us that God is our power for today.

Worship as Awe (Wonder)

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. Psalm 148:1-5

I think a lot about worship. How should worship be conducted? Every group has biblical teaching they have identified as incredibly important to who and what they are as God’s people. These passages influence what we do in worship. Some churches put more emphasis on singing, some on personal testimonials, some on the Lord’s Supper, some on preaching and even some on giving money.

Every group has traditions that build up over time. Not only do we like singing, but there are certain songs that become more dear to us than others. We like preaching, but some verses or some stories of the Bible proclaim more the heart of what we believe and how we perceive ourselves. We the Lord’s Supper, but certain ways of observing it speak more to our hearts than others. Every aspect of the actual worship service has some biblical teaching and some tradition that secures that observance in our hearts as real, biblical, meaningful and right.

That is good. When we worship we need some sense of, "God is pleased with what I am doing. My singing, my observance of communion and my attention to the sermon are all in some way feeding my spirit the way the Lord would want it to." That is important. But something else is important, too.

Have you ever been so far out in nature that you could see any cars, any houses, and roads, any power lines? That is an incredible experience. I’ve had that experience numerous times.

I remember one time being atop Pat O’Hara mountain outside of Cody, Wyoming. The snow was deep - I was sinking in the snow the full length of my legs and still not touching the ground. I slowly made my way to the top of a ridge. From this spot I could look out and see the most incredible display of untouched, uncontaminated nature that you can imagine. All around me mountain peaks poked holes in the sky. The valleys were deep, snaking their way through the mountains. I was hunting elk, but at that moment I quit hunting elk. I almost felt like the hunted, alone and exposed on top of that snowy ridge.

Emotions overwhelmed me. I couldn’t escape the majesty of this creation. The breathtaking view, the cold air in my lungs, the deep snow, the exposed rock ridges, the trees bent under the weight of snow. And the loneliness. I could scream and no one would hear me. If I hurt myself, no one was coming to my rescue. No one would know. I was alone. But it wasn’t a panicky type of aloneness. I didn’t feel fear as much as I felt reduced, reduced to someone pretty small in the grand scheme of things, nature, time, life.

But up there on that ridge I also had a sense of Wonder. Wonder at the grandeur of this natural masterpiece I was looking at. Wonder at the power of God to be able to create something this captivating of my attention and overwhelming to my senses. Wonder at the power of this natural environment I was in. Those mountains stood in proud defiance of our bulldozers and suburban sprawl. They were standing just as God created them, thousands and thousands of years ago. I wondered at the majesty, power, genius and eternity of the God who made all this. I didn’t sing, pray, preach or do any of those things we do in a worship service. But there is still a very real sense in which I worshiped that morning atop Pat O’Hara Mountain. Wonder.

The cold air dried my eyes. They teared up and I wiped them away, turned, and walked down the trail, trying to step into the holes in the snow I made on the way up. I was tired when I got back to the truck. But I was refreshed in a way, too. Wonder does that, whether it is on top of a mountain or in a church building singing along with 100 other people.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts ... Psalm 95:1-8a.

We have to be true to the Bible verses and tradition that has shaped us. But may we never lose the sense of Wonder at the God who made us, calls us, and blesses us with his presence in our lives. And may our worship in song and scripture, in prayer and giving, and in the Lord’s Supper, ring out with our adoration, our awe, and our allegiance to the God of heaven.

Warren Baldwin July 2006

3.Eugene H. Merrill, "Deuteronomy" in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), p.162.

4.Merrill, p.163.

5.Lamar Williamson, Jr., "Mark" in Interpretation (Knoxville: John Knox Press, 1983) p.226.

6.Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), p.120. I owe Lee for the idea of worship being allegiance.

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