Worship Is . . .
My friend Mark asked me to write a post for a website, worship.net. I was to finish the sentence "worship is . . ." After reading what some of the other folks had already written, I decided to say something I didn't feel had been expressed. So, here it is:
Worship is sacrifice. At its essence, worship is offering something important to God without any expectation of return or reward. Worship requires that we give away that which is precious to us.
The first time the word “worship” occurs in the Bible, it comes from Abraham’s lips. The Patriarch is on his way to the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. He speaks to the men with him and says “ ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac.” (Genesis 22:5-6, NIV)
Why does Abraham call what is coming “worship?” Is it because he is going to sing a song, or preach a sermon, or do most of the things that we call “worship”? Apparently not. Instead, he intends to stab his beloved son out of obedience to God. It is the ritual killing and burning on the altar that Abraham refers to as “worship.”
The pattern continues throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The Temple becomes the central place where humans worship YHWH. Songs are sung, incense is burned, teaching happens; but it is the giving up of animals, grain, fruit, and money that is the life of worship. It is also this aspect of the Temple that becomes corrupt, and therefore odious to the Lord. When God becomes Man, he enters the Temple and drives out those who have denigrated this central act of worship. (Matthew 21:12-13)
When the Incarnate God, Jesus, meets a Samaritan woman she engages him in a conversation about where these sacrifices are to occur. She says, “our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." (John 4:20, NIV). Jesus’ response to her newly orients Christian worship. He says, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23, NIV) In this moment, Jesus alters the form of worship, but not the essence. We are still called to sacrifice, but rather than slaughtering animals on a sacred altar we are called to offer ourselves as the sacrifice. And this new worship is rooted in the essential sacrifice, the blood shed by Christ himself.
St. Paul phrases it this way, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1, NIV) So, instead of getting by with merely presenting objects in the temple, Christians are called to the deepest acts of sacrifice. We are summoned to offer our whole selves—body and spirit---as on-going and all-encompassing gifts to the Father of us all.
We do this in many ways: in loving our neighbor, in caring for the environment, in witnessing to the life of Christ. We do this in community, when we offer our sacrifice of effort, money, time, and praise. We do this when we re-engage the finished sacrifice of Jesus himself in celebrating holy Communion.
In this context, much churchy talk about worship is not just silly, it is sinful. We must stop asking questions like “do I like it?” or “does it bless the congregation?” Instead, we must seriously ask “does God like it, does it bless God?”
For worship to bless God, it must cost us something. It must be true, not just in the sense that it “comes truly from our hearts” but also as a true witnesses to the Father of Jesus. It must be in spirit, in that we can not do it of our own strength.
Sometimes our sacrifice is enjoyable, sometimes it is not. But let us, as Christians, set aside our fickle desires and selfish pretence. Let us instead join the life of the psalmist who sings,
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come into his courts.
Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
(Psalm 96:8-9, NIV)