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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Centrality of Worship in the Scripture

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end.  Worship is central to understanding the Old Testament. Man and woman were created by God for fellowship with each other and with Him. Since we live in a post-Eden world, we cannot know what it must have been like to walk and God with God without any hindrances. But for those who have a saving faith and knowledge of the Lord Christ, that unhindered walk will be part of what heaven is like. Whatever that walk was, it must have been unhindered worship as well. There are a number of wonderful texts that trace worship in detail, but our purposes here allow me to just highlight a few.

Consider the first sacrifices offered to God: those of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. One was accepted and one was not. Since this predates any of the Jewish sacrificial system, one must look deeper than the fact that one of the offerings was with blood and the other wasn’t.  Timothy Pierce {Enthroned on Our Praise: An Old Testament Theology of Worship} observes that Abel gave the first born, while Cain just gave of the land’s produce, implying a lack of intentionality. Worship had not been commanded, but grew out of the relationship with God in the garden. Wrong worship led to tragic outcomes.  Worship continues to be central to the message.

Noah offered God a sacrifice upon leaving the ark. This act of worship was pleasing and came with a promise: “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Genesis 8:21

When Abraham arrives near Bethel in Canaan, God promises him the land to his offspring, upon which Abraham responses with building an altar [Genesis 12:7-9] and calling on the name of the Lord. He did this again when he moved to Mamre at Hebron [Genesis 13:18]. When God promises him that he would be the father of a great nation, he falls face down in worship [Genesis 17:3]. Perhaps the most defining moment in Abraham’s life was when he built the altar in obedience to the commandment of God on Mt. Moriah, and laid his son, Isaac down as the sacrifice. [Genesis 22:9-11]. This portion of Scripture has rightly been the source of much study and sermons, and could easily be a book in its own right. However, let’s focus on just a few of the details that relate to the passage and worship.   

Notice that worship demands sacrifice; the choice of Isaac as the sacrifice tested Abraham’s obedience, yes, but does not negate the fact that when God calls him to sacrifice, it is just that and nothing less. Even in the midst of scene, it is the grace of God that provides the solution; a ram is provided by God. Worship still demanded a sacrifice. Worship still demands sacrifice; it always has.

Abraham left an example of worship so powerful that even his servant responded in worship when God directed him to get a wife for Isaac. [Genesis 24:26] Isaac worships when God reveals Himself and renews the covenant [Genesis 26:24-25]. Jacob sets up a sacred stone and poured oil on top of it as an act of worship when God promises to bring him back to the land of his father Isaac [Genesis 28:16-18], and then again once he resettles in the land of Canaan [Genesis 33:20]. When Jacob returns to Bethel, the place where God had previously spoken to him before leaving Canaan, he builds another altar to God [Genesis 35:4-7]. Two other times Jacob is mentioned as worshiping: as he reaches Beer Sheba on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt [Genesis 46:1] and just before he blesses Joseph’s sons [Genesis 47:31].

The life of Moses is punctuated with times of worship, of the most notable are his first meeting with God through the burning bush [Genesis 3] and the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20.  It is interesting to note that the people’s first response to Moses’ signs and announcement of deliverance is worship [Exodus 4:31].  The repeated request from God to Pharaoh through Moses was to “let my people go, that they may worship me,” [here the word used for worship is sometimes translated, “serve” implying that serving God is a part of worship] [Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:5]. The Passover was instituted as a time of worship [Exodus 12]. Along their journey to Canaan, God provided manna, yet on the seventh day there was none, so that the time might be spent in rest and worship [Exodus 16:23]. 

When Jethro, Moses’ father in law heard all that God had done, his response was worship (Ex. 18:11-12).
When God renews covenant with the children of Israel at Sinai, He tells them in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The very description of their calling was related to worship, that is, being a “kingdom of priests.”

Let’s focus briefly on the commandments. The first four cover our relationship to God as humans and the last six, that relationship to human beings. Examine the first section in Exodus 20:2-8:
    [2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 
    [3] “You shall have no other gods before me.
    [4] “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the
    earth beneath or in the waters below. [5] You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    [7] “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone
    guiltless who misuses his name.
    [8] “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
God reveals Himself as God, all powerful and deliverer, and then sets down how we are to relate to Him:
    [1] The worship of God is primary.
    [2] There can be nothing you do that would undermine the relationship you have with God.
    [3] You must not mis-communicate Who God is or disrespect Who God is and
    [4] You must set aside time to maintain the relationship with God.

When God give His “ten words,” what does He consider as first and foremost? Worship.  Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 of Exodus deal with the details of how the establishment of worship in the tabernacle.  Idolatry in the form of the golden calf and restoration of God’s intent and purposes fill chapters 32-34. The book of Leviticus is the book of regulations about the sacrifices used in worship. Chapter 3-4 of Numbers deals with the division of the Levites in the organization of carrying out Tabernacle worship.

When Balak fails to get Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24), he succeeds in getting some of them to fall into sexual sin and worshiping the Moabite idols (Numbers 25:1-3).  Later, as they approached the border of Canaan, the promised land, God commands them to destroy the idols of the nations they conquer (Numbers 33:50-56).

In the repeating of the Covenant at Horeb, God reminds them again and again how important to watch their worship (Deuteronomy 4:15-24, 32-39, 5:6-14, 11:16, 17:1, 26:10-11).

The first act of the Israelites after crossing the Jordan was to celebrate the Passover, an act of worship (Joshua 5:10). At the end of Joshua’s life after the land had been divided, the leader calls them again to worship (Joshua 24:14-24).   The book of Judges is the account of failure of the people to keep their commitment to worship Jehovah alone, their being defeated by their enemies and the restoration by a leader. Samuel’s parents worshiped as they dedicated their young son to the service of the Lord.  God showed the Israelites that the ark was not a good luck charm and that He doesn’t honor confusing the trappings of worship with the worship of Himself when He allowed the ark to be captured (I Samuel 4-6).
Samuel clarifies that worship was more than just following the rituals of sacrifice after Saul disobeys God’s direct command to kill all the Amalekites (15:22-35).  

The life of David is a life highlighted in worship. Whether fleeing from Saul, fighting his enemies, or rejoicing in his victories, David’s life is one marked by the adoration of Jehovah. He is the author of many of the songs in the hymnbook of the entire Bible. David is the warrior king who is the “sweet singer of Israel” and the heart of his songs is worship. It is no wonder that one of the first things he does after reuniting the 12 tribes is to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. Entire books are written just on his life and deeds, so no attempt here will be made to add more detail. There are other sections that highlight some specific times that will be studied in more detail later.

The apex of the reign of Solomon is the completion of the temple of God and his downfall was his failure to keep worship primary in his life. In Proverbs he declares that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (1:7) which is that reverential awe of God. The sin of Jeroboam was the creation of a convenient alternative option for worship, calves of gold, strategically located in the country and operated by those who had no preparation or calling. Later during the reign of Ahab, Elijah, God’s prophet, calls the nation to repent and return to worship and fire falls to consume an evening sacrifice, but the repentance did not last. Leader after leader of the northern kingdom followed the ways of Jeroboam in idolatry and eventually the nation is defeated by the Assyrians and carried off into exile. Prophet after prophet had warned the leaders and the people, but to no avail. The summary of the story is found in 2 Kings 17:7-13:
    All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. 9 The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns.  They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree.  At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the LORD had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that aroused the LORD’s anger. They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.”

Judah, the smaller of the divided kingdom, experienced occasional times of spiritual refreshment, centering around a return to the worship of Jehovah God and many time expressing that fervor with the celebration of the Passover. However, in the end, they suffered the same fate by the hands of the Babylonians.

Many of the major themes in the books of the Old Testament center around the return to worship: Ezra, and Haggai and the rebuilding of the Temple; the celebration and worship at the completion of the rebuilding of the wall in Nehemiah; Isaiah’s experience of worship (6:1-8) will be covered later, but not only did it set the course for his life, but serves as an example for us as well. Jeremiah weeps for the coming destruction of Jerusalem for the failure to repent and worship as God commands. Ezekiel’s vision displays the straying from God and the Spirit of God leaving the Temple. Daniel is cast in the lion’s den for his commitment to worship.  God uses Hosea to show that Judah’s idolatry is like adultery. Micah reminds the people that worship is more than ritual, but to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (6:8).  Habakkuk teaches us to worship God despite our circumstances. Malachi condemns the people for their careless attitude toward worship.

When eternity breaks into time with the birth of the Incarnate Son of God the heaven’s are full of angels in worship. Jesus explains that worship is not geographical, but relational (John 4:21-24):
    “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The life of early church was marked by worship, fellowship and prayer (Acts 2:42-46). The singing of worship songs by Paul and Silas had such a profound effect that the prisoners did not escape after an earthquake had made it possible and the jailer in Philippi and his entire family come to Christ (Acts 16:25). Paul declares what “reasonable worship” is in Romans 12:1-2. In I Corinthians 10: 31 we are to do everything for the glory of God. In Ephesians and Colossians we are to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. One of the greatest hymns of the Incarnation is found in Philippians 2:6-11. In Hebrews 12:1-3, the author says:
    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In 13:15, we are continually offer a “sacrifice of praise.” Peter refers back to God’s original covenant to make the people of God a kingdom of priests in 2:9. And finally in Revelation, the culmination of time and eternity centers around the worship of the Lamb on the throne, surrounded by countless men and women from every age, every tongue and every nation, praising God and saying “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When God Seems Silent and Our Worship is Dry

Why does God seem so present at times and then all of a sudden so distant? According to Dr. John Coe, Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot Seminary and Rosemead School of Psychology, early church fathers traced these times in the lives of believers. They found that it was not uncommon that young believers would have times in which they could sense the presence of God in very deep ways, yet later on in their experience that feeling would plateau and then they would pass through times in which they felt the complete absence of God’s presence entirely. Contrary to what we might think would happen, our spiritual feelings do not necessarily correlate with our spiritual maturity. The more we grow in Christ, we do not always sense God’s presence in the same way we did earlier.  But, according to Coe is not necessarily because of sin [although it certainly could be]. This early sense of closeness may be a way that God is giving a taste of what fellowship will be and can  like. They are less the results of our own actions and more the gifts of God. Because of this, we may seek to repeat the sense of God’s presence by doing some of the same things we had done previously, but do not experience the same sense as we once did. Why, then, do we go through such time of desolation? Perhaps God is trying to wean us from depending so much on our feelings and wants us to learn to trust Him for who He is. These “dark nights of the soul,” as Coe calls them serve as times of purging from our dependence on feelings and at the same time are mirrors to show us what is really in our heart. During these times we might have difficult times focusing during our private devotional time with the Father. Rather than frustration over the lack of focus, we can thank God that He is showing us areas that do not conform to the image of His Son. God is revealing who we are so He can take us to a new place of neediness and dependence. This is not rejection on God’s part, but part of the process of bringing us to maturity. Rather than give up and claim that God has abandoned us, we need to reach out and accept what God is showing us of ourselves. We need to seek out someone to help us walk through the dark night, a spiritual mentor.

You might ask, “What does all this have to do with worship?”  That’s a great question. Let me attempt to make the connection. I really believe that the truths that Dr. Coe shares can be life changing in relation with how we worship God. There are so many parallels to our beginning walk with God and our early worship experiences that it should be fairly easy to see. Worship is fresh, God is so big, so real, so awesome, we can’t really take it in. We continue to walk with God and worship, but after a while worship doesn’t seem to do for us what it once did. At this point, some begin to seek for other churches, or worship services that will give us the feelings that we once had. If we do not get there, there is a possibility that we will give up on the whole thing and choose to walk out on God, since it seems that even though we were trying to seek Him, He walked out on us.  But if we will look at these times less as God’s abandonment, but more as times of God’s mirrors into our hearts to reveal the things from which He wants to purge us, we will enter into a new level of worship. Worship not dependent on feelings, but worship dependent on God alone.  We need to resist the temptation to try to “fix” the feelings, trying to regain them through the music or spiritual disciplines. God is reforming us to become less dependent on our feelings and more our trust in Him alone.

Think how this understanding might change how we look at worship, itself. The temptation is to measure a worship service by how deeply we “felt” the presence of God. While this is not bad, in and of itself, if it is the only measure by which we worship, then we are missing on learning what God is trying to teach us during the “dark nights.” If we are not careful, our desires will turn more toward the gift than the Giver; we will desire the feelings more than God, Himself. There are times when sin separates us from God and worship. I am not talking about these times, but times when we are doing what we should and God just seems silent.  Dark nights will come and go, and God is more concerned about remaking us into the image of His Son, than He is giving us warm feelings. Just as the relationship between a husband and wife matures past just the early romantic feelings to deep love and commitment, so our relationship with the Father deepen past just the emotions of those early days of knowing Him.

Many times believers will come into a worship service like judges for the Olympics, ready to give their evaluations of the service: “Well, it has been better, but I only felt like I made it to a 5.5 today. I guess the worship leader was having an ‘off’ day.” The biblical model of worship is not about how we feel as much as that recognition of who God is and our obedient response to Who He is. We must worship Him by faith, trusting that because He said He inhabits the praises of His people, He is there. That He has promised never to abandon us, that His Spirit lives in us, we can be assured that He has not left us, though we cannot “feel” His presence. We must live by faith in the truth that God has declared and not on our emotions. As we mature in Christ, the simple fact that God has promised His presence with us need be enough. Caution must be called for if the goal of our worship is to “feel” God’s presence, rather than acknowledge by faith what the reality of His Word has promised. Let’s commitment ourselves to trust Him in the dark night and reach out and help those who might be walking alone through it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Worshiping by Faith

There is an old saying that you should “never treasure what you can hold in your hand more than that which you can hold in your heart.” Perhaps it might be better to clarify the statement to say you should “never treasure what you can hold in your hand more than the relationship you have with God your heart.”  Regardless, the thought does bring up some interesting ideas. We, as humans  have a tendency to hold on to that which we can see, hear, and touch, more than that which we must believe by faith.  Perhaps that is part of the attraction of the worship of idols: they are a physical object that one can see and perhaps even touch and so confirms their own existence and then certain actions or powers are assigned to them.

Contrast that with the life of faith that God requires. Our relationship with God is based on what Christ has done for us, a redemption and payment for sin that we could never accomplish on our own. Somehow in the grace of a loving God we are allowed to have a personal relationship with a God whom we cannot see, but through belief and faith in what has been done we respond in an action that shows our belief. Much like a chair we have never seen before, we proceed to sit, never even thinking if it might not support the weight of our body.  We could have said beforehand, “I believe this chair will support my weight,” but if we never sat down, one could call in question whether or not we really believed. However, the moment we rest our bodies in the chair, we show that belief was there. In the same way, we are not saved by “sitting in the chair,” we are saved by trusting in Christ’s finished work. We “sit” by responding in obedience to what He commands. We can read about the cross and Christ’s sufferings, we can see the change that a relationship has made in the lives of many, but it is not anything that we can hold in our hands. I must come to God in faith, not of my own merit, but solely on the merit of the Son of God. It is a work of God, of grace, a divine miracle or restoration. It is a belief that we must act upon to demonstrate our faith.

Now the question: Is worship by faith as well? We are saved by faith, walk daily with Christ in obedience by faith, and by faith we will spend eternity with Him in heaven, but do we worship by faith, now? What does it mean to worship by faith?  Is it some nebulous feeling we trust in or must obtain to really know that we are worshiping God? Must we reach some emotional level to certify that we have indeed been worshiping the Creator of the universe? Perhaps the simplest way to describe what must happen in worship is to remember the illustration of the Fact-Faith-Feeling. Scripture teaches that worship is that obedient response to God’s nature and character. God is holy, perfect, faultless, all powerful, all knowing, all present; these are facts. We accept these facts by faith. How I feel about them does not change their veracity. I can be happy, sad, mad, or even indifferent to a light bulb and it really makes no difference at all, the light will still shine un affected, because that is the nature of the light. God is love and His nature and character does not change with the emotional roller coaster of His creations. God is love. I choose to believe that fact by faith and it may or may not elicit an emotional response. The proof of my believe is not dependent on whether or not I “felt” anything, but on the fact that God is love. 

In a similar fashion, worshiping by faith is not dependent on my emotions, but rather on the fact that God and only God is worthy to receive it. I offer my adoration by faith, not dependent on some emotional signal of confirmation, but based in the fact of who God is and what He has done and continues to do. Feelings may come; many times they do, but I cannot abandon the facts for the hope of some feelings. I must worship by faith. I must trust in the unchanging nature of the God that loved the world enough to provide a way of redemption so that everyone might have the opportunity of recognizing God as He is and responding to Him appropriately. As I worship by faith I declare my trust in God’s character and nature and His worthiness. I must not look to feelings for what only God alone can give. I must worship by faith. I cannot depend on the externals of the music, friends, or feelings to confirm or deny what is worship, but solely in the obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God. I must worship by faith. It is not some mystic jump in the dark, but confidence in the one who created the light. I must worship by faith.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Worship HeartCries Blog Archive: January - October 2010

October :
     October 31:  Some Thoughts on Spiritual Anniversaries....
     October 23:  Reflections on Moments You Wish You Could Forget.....
     October 17:  Disappointments, Expectations and Worship
     October 9:   The Elephant in the Room in Worship: Sinning While We Worship
     October 8:   Prayer and Worship

     September 30:  Did God Make You Smile You Today?
     September 24:  “Not a problem to be fixed, but a paradox to be managed”
     September 18:   The Power of Knowing God...
     September 9:    Does the Church Have Laryngitis?
     September 3:    Developing a Vocabulary of Praise
    August 29:  What Not to Do in Worship
    August 25:  A Trip to Heaven
    August 19:  “Dear God: Life is not fair.”
    August 13:  Four Bases Authority
    August 10:  Preparing for Worship: Psalm 24:3-6
    August 7:    Psalm 100: A Mini-Bible Study
    August 6, 2010:  “When the Latest and Greatest Isn’t”  [Chronological Snobbery]   

    July 31, 2010: “Lead Worshiper” or “Worship Leader”
    July 26, 2010: “Ten Challenges Facing Worship Leader Training”
    July 22, 2010: “How Did We Get Where We Are and Where Are We Going?”
    July 14, 2010: “An Amplified Lord’s Prayer”
    July 12, 2010: “Worship and Culture...”   
    July 3, 2010: “Avoiding the Extremes” [Psalm 50]

    June 26, 2010: “The Unseen Enemy”
    June 5, 2010: “Hymn Stories to the Biblical Songs”

    May 13, 2010: “Knowing God”
    May 8, 2010: “Six Questions those that Lead Worship Must Ask”

    April 27,  2010: “What is Congregational Worship?”
    April 13, 2010: “Worship and Reconciliation”
    April 10, 2010: “Prayer and Frustration”

    March 28, 2010: “What Makes a Song “Congregational?”
    March 1, 2010: “Worship and Entertainment”

    February 19, 2010: “Things That Impede Worship” [Missing the Focus of Worship]

    January 31, 2010: “Worship in Difficult Times” [Psalm 57]
    January 23, 2010: “The Centrality of Christ in Worship”
    January 16, 2010: “The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in Light of Worship in Isaiah 6"
    January 7, 2010: “God takes the initiative”