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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Avoiding the Extremes

There is a tendency in worship to push to the extremes: studying the elements and structure and defining worship in relationship to a strict adherence to these, or struggling free of a bondage to set form and coming to God and worshiping Him any way we desire or in whatever way comes to our hearts and minds.  Both of these extremes of worship are problematic.
Psalm 50 is a wonderful reminder of what can happen when we just maintain structure and loose the real meaning of worship:
    7 "Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
           O Israel, and I will testify against you:
           I am God, your God.           
     8 I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices
           or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
     9 I have no need of a bull from your stall
           or of goats from your pens,

     10 for every animal of the forest is mine,
           and the cattle on a thousand hills.
     11 I know every bird in the mountains,
           and the creatures of the field are mine.
     12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
           for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
     13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
           or drink the blood of goats?
     14 Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
           fulfill your vows to the Most High,

     15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
           I will deliver you, and you will honor me.
[bold emphasis, mine]

Here, the people were worshiping, and obviously following the prescribed laws for offering their sacrifices, that is, their worship. However, it seems to be implied that the motive was to supply a need that God had. As we listen to God’s comments, we understand that God has no needs. So, why offer sacrifices? Sacrifices are important for at least three reasons: [1] they are a recognition of sin and the need of forgiveness, [2] they are a means to show gratitude for what God has done, [3] they are a means of being obedient to what God has commanded.  Though the context for this psalm are from the Old Testament, we could substitute the word “worship” for sacrifice and see a present application for us today. When we offer true thanks in worship, we are recognizing that God is our Provider, our Protector, and our Sustainer.

True worship is not a matter of checking off a list of things to do: [1] attend service, [2] closed eyes to pray, [3] gave the dollar, [4] sang, [5] clapped at the right time, [6] listened to entire sermon, [7] shook hands with 3 people, etc...  Some people as so obsessed with doing certain things that they miss why they are there in the first place. The psalm is right on target.

To draw a parallel to current worship practices, the psalm could have said:
    “I do not rebuke you for your songs, offerings, prayers and sermons; but that in and of itself is not enough. It is not the mere act of showing up for a worship service, singing, or preaching that I am looking for, it is a clean and thankful heart! When you show true gratitude for how I work in your life you bring honor to me.”
The other extreme involves those who desire to shed the chains of any liturgical function and desire the freedom to worship God anyway that they might see fit, — out with any “mindless habits,” everything must be fresh and new! As good as this might sound, there are dangers here as well.  Review a part of the story of Uzziah, a king who had restored the worship of Jehovah and was instrumental in bringing the nation back to God:

    16 But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. 17 Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the LORD followed him in. 18 They confronted him and said, "It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the LORD God."
     19 Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the LORD's temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. 20 When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the LORD had afflicted him.
     21 King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house  —leprous, and excluded from the temple of the LORD. Jotham his son had charge of the palace and governed the people of the land.
[2 Chronicles 26:16-21]

Without trying to over simplify the situation, there were several issues that were wrong, not the least of which was the burning of incense was strictly forbidden except for the priests, and even then only under specific directions. [1Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: " 'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.' " Leviticus 10:1-3]

It was the mercy of God that the King wasn’t killed. Besides offering incense in direct disobedience, it is necessary to go back and look into the motivations behind the actions. No doubt the King thought he was above the law, being “God’s anointed.” But rather being above the law, he was to be the example and model for keeping it. Pride can sneak up on someone even before they realize it and plant the seeds of twisted thinking, thinking that because of a position that might be held, God’s commands don’t apply in those specific circumstances. Both of the examples, the sons of Aaron and Uzziah, also show that it really does matter to God how we worship, not just who we worship.

What does this mean for me?
1. Repeated rituals that loose their meaning really loose their function as well. Sacrifices were to remind the people that God was their Provider, that they needed to restore the broken relationship with God, that there was always to be an outflow of gratitude toward the goodness of God. We need to heed the direct command in Psalm 100:4: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” We thank God for what He has done and praise Him for who He is.
2. God is holy. Because He is holy, we must come to God on His terms, not ours. Our responsibility is not to dream up new and creative ways to approach God as much as it is to discover what His Word says we must do. We must be students of the Word in regard to worship. We must be “doers of the Word, and not hearers only,” as James says.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent word-straight from the Word. It really is a matter of the heart. Thanks for sharing yours! Love you :)