During this Lenten season we’ve been thinking about godly habits that will help to shape us as Christian disciples long past the end of Lent. I suggested six areas of our lives that we need to think about: prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. Over the last few weeks we’ve talked about prayer, study, and action, and this week I want to continue by thinking about the Christian discipline of worship.
Of course, ‘going to church on Sundays’ has been seen as a defining characteristic of Christians for centuries, and until fairly recently the custom has remained a strong part of our cultural makeup. But if I was to ask the average church member why this is important, I suspect some people might have difficulty coming up with a coherent answer. And of course the busyness of modern life and the spread of Sunday work hours have presented new challenges for us as we try to figure out how to fit corporate worship into our lives.
Let’s start out study by going back to the words that are used for ‘worship’ in the Bible. There are two main words in each of the biblical languages. The first word – ‘abada’ in Hebrew and ‘latreia’ in Greek – means ‘service’, the labour that slaves and hired servants offer to their masters. The second word – ‘histahawa’ in Hebrew and ‘proskyneo’ in Greek – means ‘to prostrate oneself in awe and wonder before God’. Together these two words express the idea of worship in the original languages of the Bible.
What do these Hebrew and Greek words teach us about worship? Three things. First, worship and life are connected. The fact that one of the words for ‘worship’ means ‘the work that a slave or servant does for their master’ reminds us that we gather together for worship to offer ourselves to God in faithful service. Paul uses this word in Romans 12:1, where he says:
‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’
The words ‘spiritual worship’ could also be translated as ‘reasonable or spiritual service’. To worship God together is to offer our lives in his service.
Second, worship is focussed on God; it is not entertainment offered to the worshippers. If worship is the labour offered to a master by his slaves or servants, then we can see that it’s not the master’s job to keep the servants entertained; it’s the servants’ job to serve their master. I was at a pastors’ conference at Regent College a few years ago when I heard Marva Dawn tell a story about a young man who was chatting with her after a church service. He said, “I didn’t get anything out of that service”. She replied: “Well, that’s good; we weren’t worshipping you, you know!”
Thirdly, in worship, we use not only our minds but also our bodies. As we’ve seen, one of the meanings of ‘worship’ is ‘to prostrate oneself before God in awe and wonder’. And in Biblical worship, prostration isn’t the only bodily act mentioned; we also read about people standing to pray, or kneeling in humility, or raising their hands to God, or clapping their hands with joy, or even dancing before the Lord. Worship isn’t just about our minds and voices; we are bodily creatures, and it’s right that we use our bodies to worship God as well.
What other themes do we find connected with worship in the Old Testament? First, there’s the practice of sacrifice. The book of Genesis tells us that when God called Abram to leave his home in modern Iraq and move to what is now the land of Israel, the first thing Abram did when he arrived there was to build an altar to the Lord, so that he could worship him there. Altars were used to sacrifice animals to God. Sometimes the sacrifice expressed thanksgiving to God for his blessings; sometimes the animal was sacrificed to make atonement for sin and to obtain forgiveness from God. In the New Testament this sacrificial theme is centred around Jesus’ death on the Cross, which is seen as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus used this sacrificial language at the last supper when he said to his disciples “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The Holy Communion is a grateful remembrance of the perfect sacrifice that Jesus offered for us on the Cross.
This leads us to another idea connected with worship in the Bible: the idea of remembrance. In the Old Testament God’s people gathered once a year at the Passover to remember how God set them free from slavery in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea and the desert into their promised land. Christian worship continued with this remembrance theme; the early Christians made Sunday their day of worship, because it was the day Jesus was raised from the dead. So they gathered once a week to celebrate his death and resurrection with the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. Later on we get the development of the Christian year, with annual remembrance of Jesus’ birth, his death and resurrection, and the other events of his life at different times during the year.
Another worship theme in the Old Testament is hearing the word of the Lord. One way in which we express our love for God is to listen carefully to the scriptures and try to discern what God is saying to us in them. Psalm 95 is a psalm that is all about worship; it begins by saying,
‘O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!’ (v.1)
But later on in the psalm we read these words:
‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (vv.7b-8a)
So listening to the Word of the Lord is an essential part of our worship. In the time of Jesus this was the central focus of the weekly services at the synagogue, where people listened to the scriptures read and preached, and joined in the psalms and other prayers together.
Notice that word ‘together’; in these Old Testament passages worship is almost always seen as something that God’s people do together. Individual worship is mentioned from time to time, but it’s not seen as fundamental. The most important acts of worship are the ones that God’s people offer to God together. This theme continues in the New Testament. When Jesus gave his disciples a prayer to pray, he didn’t teach them to say ‘My Father in heaven’ but ‘Our Father in heaven’; every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is plural, not singular. The modern idea that ‘I don’t need to go to church to worship God’ is entirely absent in the Bible. Yes, God’s people did pray alone in the Bible, but they saw their worship together as fundamental.
When we think about the story of Jesus, we see that he fully immersed himself in the worship life of his people. No doubt his parents took him to synagogue regularly, and we know that they took him with them on the regular pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem for the religious festivals. As an adult, Jesus was regular in his attendance at synagogue; Luke 4:16 says, ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’.
The early Christians also gathered regularly to worship God and hear his Word together. We’re told in the Book of Acts that on the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian Church, three thousand people decided to become Christians and were baptized. Acts tells us that
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
In these few words we can see the outline of our worship services today. We read the Bible and listen to a sermon, which is our way of ‘devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching’. We break bread together in Holy Communion, we offer our prayers together, and we support and encourage each other in Christian fellowship. And I like the language that Acts uses here when it says that ‘they devoted themselves’ to these things. In other words, they enthusiastically committed themselves to this, and they made it their number one priority.
By the way, this weekly gathering on the Lord’s Day was not easy for the early Christians. Sunday was an ordinary working day in the Mediterranean world; the Christians didn’t get a day off to go to church. Roman writers talk about how it was the habit of Christians to get up on Sunday mornings and meet for worship before dawn – not because they especially liked getting up early, but because they all had to go to work afterwards! Later on, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, our holy day became a weekly holiday, so we have the privilege of sleeping in a bit before we come for worship. But this is a luxury, not a necessity; the early Christians didn’t have that luxury, and they didn’t consider that this made Sunday worship impossible. They simply got up earlier.
Today, of course, there are a number of challenges to our commitment to regular worship together with our fellow-Christians. There’s the busyness of our modern life, with so many people having to work on Sundays, and so many recreational activities taking place on that day as well. It’s a very difficult thing to be a committed member of a hockey team or a curling team if you also want to commit yourself to regular weekly worship. Christians find themselves having to make hard choices about what comes first in their lives.
Another challenge to corporate worship in the modern world is our entertainment culture. Take a look around you and ask yourself what our church architecture says to people who aren’t in the habit of coming to church. We’re all sitting in rows facing forward. At the front there’s a raised platform, and on that platform people dressed in strange clothes are speaking and singing and performing actions in front of everyone else. What does that say to a person who’s new to churchgoing? It says, ‘Entertainment!’ It makes them think of a play or a concert; it certainly does not make them think of something that we do together for God.
But the biblical idea of worship is not that we come together to be entertained; rather, we come together to offer ourselves to God. The important question for biblical worship is not ‘What did I get out of the service?’ The important question is ‘What did God get out of the service?’ And I suspect that the answer to that question has very little to do with how the service made us feel, and a lot more to do with how our lives were changed when we went home.
When I began this sermon I talked about the discipline of worship. A discipline is something we train ourselves to do, whether we feel like it or not, because we know it’s good for us. The discipline of worship is something we build our lives around, something that shapes us together as disciples of Jesus. I know that I have been shaped as a follower of Jesus by the fact that I’ve been going to church every Sunday my whole life. My parents didn’t get up on Sundays and ask ‘What are we going to do today?’ They were committed to being in church with God’s people every week. That discipline has shaped me and made me a better Christian.
Let’s be quite clear that occasional worship won’t do this for us. Worship ‘unless we have a better offer for Sunday morning’ won’t do this for us. Planning what we’re going to do each week and then adding corporate worship if we have any leftover time won’t do this for us.
You’ve probably heard the parable of the rocks in the jar. The big rocks represent the really important things in your life - the little rocks and the sand, the less important things. If you pour the sand and the little rocks in first, when you try to put the big rocks in there won’t be room for them. You have to put the big rocks in first, and then the little rocks and the sand will find their place around them. It’s the same with our time commitments; we need to put the really important things in place first, and then let the other stuff find room around them.
So the discipline of worship is simply this: that every week, whether we feel like it or not, whatever challenges our weekly schedule gives to us, the community gathering for worship is our number one priority. I fully realise the challenges we face today in keeping this commitment, particularly those of us in businesses that require us to work on Sundays. We Christians probably need to rethink our Sunday worship hours and make changes so that as many people as possible can come together for our weekly celebration. I fully expect that by the time I retire we’ll be back to the practice of the early Christians of having our Sunday worship at 6 a.m., before everyone goes to work!
But we also need to face the fact that for many people, it’s not their Sunday employment that’s keeping them out of church; it’s the other stuff in our lives. The discipline of worship simply means that we put God first. We come together week by week, in response to his great love for us, to offer our lives to him as a living sacrifice, which is our spiritual worship. We make this the first commitment on our time, and we build our week around it. This was the habit of Jesus, and in this, as in so many other ways, we’re called to follow his example.