Tuesday, August 27, 2013
What does acceptable worship look like?
Ever since Jesus spoke about worshiping Him in Spirit and truth, we have wondered what that kind of worship looks like. Today the writer of Hebrews appeals to us to offer God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, remembering that our God is a consuming fire – in other words, reminding us that there is also unacceptable worship.
Generally the fall lines in historic worship wars have been drawn between ceremony and sincerity, as if we must make a choice. The pietistic movement deeply affected Lutherans in the last couple of centuries until suddenly, coming to America, we were ashamed and embarrassed by outward ceremonies and rituals. We refurbished our church buildings to look like Protestant America and soon we bought into the false idea that it is the worship of the heart that pleases God and it does not matter what you do outwardly.
It is not Lutheran to pit faith and act against each other. It is not Lutheran because Jesus insists it is wrong to make worship outward like the Pharisees (without faith in the heart) but just as wrong for only inward worship (as if what we do matters not). As James says, faith that does not show itself in deeds is dead. So we wade into this today. What does acceptable worship look like? How do we do it?
Hebrews introduces acceptable worship with a “therefore” – in other words, something has to happen first. Worship does not begin with us. It is because we have received a kingdom which cannot be shaken, the fruits of Christ's own redeeming acts, worship is possible at all. Were it not for God's mercy in Christ, no one could offer the Lord acceptable worship. So we come in Christ, only in Christ the Word made flesh, as a people once dead and now alive in Christ, and free in Him to fulfill God’s bidding.
We did not seek this grace out but God showed His grace to us while we were yet sinners and His enemies. God came to us in His Son. Christ invited us into the Kingdom of God where no one comes by right. We heard this invitation through the voice of the Word and we received it in the water of baptism. Christ and His work upon the cross was sealed to us and we do Him. This is His doing always and only. We come then to worship because God bids us come, with the promise of His mercy. Church on Sunday morning is not a voluntary activity. Those who come are here because they were bidden by God. It is not an accident but the fruit of His Word.
So we come because Christ is here. We come because His voice speaks through His Word to impart the blessings of His death and resurrection. We come because we are the baptized, whom He has joined to Christ’s death and raised up with Christ in His resurrection to new life. We come because that Word is given to us as food at His Table. There in bread and wine we meet Christ, giving His flesh to us and His blood to drink, because this is the food that imparts His life to us. His flesh is real food and His blood real drink. We come because in Word and Sacrament Christ is here. Because Christ is here, we come and our worship is acceptable.
We apprehend Christ by faith prompted by the Spirit. The Spirit enkindles in our hearts the desire for His Word and Sacrament and here faith and act are married together and met by the promise of God. His voice once shook the earth and now it speaks in mercy to the sinner for forgiveness and in grace to the dead for life and life eternal.
This is the therefore that must be there before anything we do enters in. Acceptable worship does not begin with you and me but with Christ and what He has done and continues to do for us and our salvation. Only those who have heard His Word and believed can render to God acceptable worship. Spirit and truth is not some cryptic code but faith.
Faith meets God where He is. Not in the shifting sands of emotion nor in the murky darkness of the human heart but on the firm ground of God's Word that speaks and what it says is done, and God's sacraments that impart His promise in earthly element of water, bread, and wine. We do not believe in an idea of God but in the incarnate Jesus Christ. We worship not the Lord of our imagination but God who takes flesh to make Himself known to us and save us.
Faith shows itself in faithfulness. What God has faithfully served to us in the means of grace, become our witness to the world. The God who has welcomed us strangers moves us to welcome strangers in His name. The God who has loved and served us and all our needs moves us to love and serve our neighbor in His name. Worship begins here in the house of the Lord but it does not end here. It continues as we take the gifts of God which He has well supplied to you and me and distribute them to others in His name – forgiving sins as we have been forgiven, loving as we have been loved, caring for the poor as we poor have been cared for in Christ. . .
Acceptable worship is NOT what appeals to us, what we want to do for God. Acceptable worship is NOT about personal preference. Acceptable worship pleases God because God has given us what to do in worship. Repeating back to Him in faith what He has said to us we worship Him and God is pleased. Receiving with faith His gifts in the Eucharist, we worship Him and God is pleased. It pleases God to serve us with His gifts in Word and Sacrament and acceptable worship means meeting Him here with faith and then bringing new of what we have received to others in His name.
Now there are always those who think simple worship is best – without all the fuss of ritual and ceremony. But if God cares little of outward ceremony and ritual, why was He so explicit about these things in the Old Testament? Why is the heavenly picture of worship from Revelation so explicit in its ceremony and ritual of the saints worshiping the Lamb on His throne? Has God who changes not changed? Of course not. It was never a choice between words and works, faith and act, sincerity and ceremony. It was always about both. The Lord has always come to His people in concrete ways and never left His revelation to a mere matter of imagination or feeling. So likewise, what we do in worship to Him is not merely the inward nod of the heart but song and service, prayer and praise, heart and hands, eating and drinking... These are the works of worship and with the works of service that begin with God, we return to Him with faith what is His and this is worship, acceptable and true, good and salutary.
...you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Amen