Friday, June 17, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Tom Becomes a Redhead

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Worship is one of those polarizing subjects.

At one end of the spectrum you get Christians for whom everything is worship; hence terms like “worship team” and “worship leader” and so on. Such a concept of worship is so broad as to be almost meaningless. At the other end you have the ritualists, whether they are Catholicized and liturgical or simply traditionalist evangelicals with very rigid ideas about what a church’s corporate worship ought to entail. Such a view of worship fails to deal adequately with Romans 12:1.

Both extremes claim scriptural evidence for their positions, though I would argue that both views of worship are too limited. Everything in the Christian life may be done worship-fully, but choosing to worship remains a specific and deliberate act.

What the Father Seeks

It is evident that the Lord Jesus was anticipating a different sort of worship from that which went on routinely in the Jewish temple when he told his disciples, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him”.

Tom: So the question we’re going to try to address is not “What various meanings attach to the word ‘worship’ throughout the Bible?” but rather “What should worship mean for the Christian today?”

IC, would you care to unpack the expression “in spirit and truth” a little bit for us?

Immanuel Can: Sure, Tom. That oft-quoted little phrase comes from the incident of the woman at the well. The Lord is responding to the woman’s question about where worship should happen ... in which geographic locale, Jerusalem or the nearby mountain (likely Gerizim, at which God had offered blessing to Israel). Moreover, implicit in her question is an assumption: that God is really a physical, local presence — perhaps like so many of the gods of the nations.

Tom: So “in spirit and truth” is in contrast to a physical location and a localized, limited God. Because God is spirit, there is no restriction as to where he may be worshiped and, we may add, we have greater cause to worship him, because he is actually so much bigger and more awesome than mankind might naturally imagine him to be. But there is perhaps a little irony there in that the one speaking of how God was to be worshiped was himself God in the flesh, walking among men and being touched and handled informally by them for the only time in human history to date.

The Coming of Christ and the Change in Worship Mode

Is it reasonable to say this change in how worship is to be understood today is inextricably connected to the incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

IC: Yes, absolutely. Even there, you see Christ himself acting as the gateway to true worship of God. He dismisses the old order, whether Jewish or Samaritan, and declares the direct way to God open — provided that he is approached in spirit and in truth. Now, the woman has an additional problem: she says, “I know that Messiah is coming ... he will declare all things to us”. In other words, she is aware of the need for a human intermediary capable of bringing man to know God rightly. And the Lord declares himself: “I who speak to you am [he]”.

If you don’t approach the Father through the Son, you aren’t coming to worship him at all. That’s how much he matters.

Tom: That’s well put, and it explains the change in the believer’s mode of worship throughout the centuries. The Son had not yet fully revealed the Father in Old Testament times, and consequently Jewish worship often lacked the intimacy which characterizes Christian worship.

The End of Geography and Physicality

IC: The “spirit” part of the Lord’s response has to be understood in context of what Jesus himself says right after that: “God is spirit …”. He’s offering that by way of explanation. We must worship in spirit because God is spirit, and can actually be worshiped in no other way. Nothing else is compatible with his being or with his intention that we should enter into genuine relationship with him.

Implications? Geography is irrelevant. So is physicality. As for tradition, Christ himself gives absolutely no weight to whatever Samaritans and Jews had been accustomed to doing. It’s all about the heart, about the genuineness of the spiritual relationship we have with him — and nothing else is worship.

No place, no self-made concept of God, and no tradition is worshipful. It’s got to be sincere in a way that none of those things can ever be; it’s got to come from the heart, and it’s got to be based upon nothing but the truth of who God is.

Worshiping in Truth

Tom: When the Lord says “in truth”, do you think he means merely that our meditations before God must be based on facts (and therefore upon the Word as opposed to our own speculations)? Or is it possible to read it as meaning that worship must come from a heart that is true? By “true”, I mean free of unconfessed sin, ulterior motives, the desire to be seen, etc.

IC: Well, you have to take some implication of that from the context, don’t you, even if you don’t want to interpret “in truth” that way. After all, the Lord contrasts these true worshipers with people who worship “what [they] do not know”. Since they do not know what they are really worshiping, how could they be doing anything but going through the motions? How indeed could the heart be right, in that case?

Tom: Absolutely. But I take it you favour the other reading?

IC: Well, one thing’s for certain: you can’t worship the Lord if it’s not really the Lord you’re worshiping.

To illustrate: suppose someone asked me, “Do you know Tom?”

“Yes,” I reply, “He’s a middle-aged man with conservative theological leanings, about six feet tall, with thick, white hair.”

“Oh,” they say, “That’s not who Tom is to me: to me, Tom is a twenty-year-old liberal-leaning redhead, about five feet tall, and female.”

What might we reasonably conclude? Only that we cannot possibly be talking about the same person. To know a person is to know him as he is, not as I would like, imagine, wish or delude myself I would like him to be. And to worship God is only possible when we are conceiving him as he is. So truth always has to be in view when we speak of worship.

Attitude vs. Form

Tom: So to sum up, you’re saying worship is primarily an attitude rather than a form. And that makes sense. In looking at the two extremes among believers today, you have those who call everything worship and those who are extremely concerned about form. I read a modern believer’s take on the Lord’s Supper recently in which he spelled out what sorts of words were and were not appropriate. Very form-conscious.

You can have the form — whatever your choice of form may be — but without the correct attitude of worship, you are not worshiping in spirit.

IC: Right. We’ve got to be mindful that we’re approaching One who loves the prayer, “God be merciful to me, the sinner”, and simply turns away from “many words” with “meaningless repetition”; One who looks on the heart, not the outward appearance. Simple faith and honest humility are his delight: but all the elaborate religious rituals in the world, however sacred, and even when performed in the very precincts of the temple itself, when conducted without “spirit” are to him nothing but an abomination.

Maybe, Tom, we should look at some practical applications. As you see it, how do we need to rethink our worship in light of that?
Audible and Inaudible

Tom: Good idea, but before we get to audible expressions of worship, are we correct in thinking that all worship is necessarily verbal? You’ve just pointed out that it’s possible to mouth many religious words without any actual worship occurring at all. So is it possible to worship without saying anything out loud?

IC: In the heart, you mean? But of course. It’s not actually possible to worship him any other way. The substance of worship is heart-worship, and words are incidentals. “This people honours me with their lips …” was not a statement of approval.

Tom: Exactly. I’d hate to think we’d get the idea in corporate worship that the person speaking on behalf of the congregation is worshiping and the others watching. I suppose that can be true in a particularly hard, jaded group of believers, but generally I think it is easier to have the right spirit while listening than to do so while speaking, where a lot of selfish thoughts and distractions may intrude. So my first thought about audible expressions of worship might be to keep them relatively short.

IC: Yes, that’s good. As the book of Ecclesiastes wisely advises, “let your words be few”. What else, Tom?

Tom: And if worship is primarily an attitude of reverent occupation with God as revealed in Christ, then the silent worship those in the congregation who are not in a position to lead audibly of believers is no less valuable to God than the public, audible worship of those who are.

Cultivating Occupation with Christ

IC: For me there’s a deeper issue beyond what we’ve talked about. And that is that worship must focus on the adoration of God through the person of Jesus Christ. Now, a lot of people don’t get that. They think they do, but they are actually way off base. They think that “worship” means “remembering all my blessings”, or “speaking anything from the Bible”, or “applying my Christianity to some practical problem”. What do you say about that, Tom?

Tom: Yes, I hear you. There is a lot of confusion about praise, thankfulness, the expression of one’s spiritual gift and so on. All of that is good in the church, but none of it necessarily rises to the level of worship. Worship, for the purposes of the Christian in this era, is occupation with who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is less about what he has done for us than what those things tell us about him. So singing about my blessings may be done in a worshipful spirit, but it is not, in itself, worship. And it’s primarily worshipers the Father is seeking.

IC: If we think about it this way, maybe we’ll understand what God really wants. If we give a gift to someone (a child, a nephew or niece, or a friend, say) they can respond in two different ways. They can come to us and say, “Awesome gift; thanks a lot!” Then, maybe, they go off and play with it in a corner. Or they can come to us and say, “You love me enough to give me this? You’re so wonderful: you really are the kindest, most thoughtful, most generous and most big-hearted person I know!” And they can stay with us and revel in our relationship.

Now, which one of the two is the best? Which one looks beyond the gift to the giver? And that is the point of worship: to see past all the blessings, and to esteem highly the worth of the Giver himself. We don’t worship until we look beyond all of the gifts and embrace the Giver.

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