So after much interpersonal debate, I finally gave in and watched the Oscars Sunday before last. The reason for the internal conflict was that I knew the host was going to be Seth MacFarlane. If that name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, you’re not missing much. His biggest claim to fame is the Family Guy franchise and its various spin-offs. If that’s not ringing any bells, you’re missing even less. Anyway, all of that is to say that I was mad the Oscars were given to him to host because it was sure to be a filth fest. In any event, after skipping the opening monologue, I did go ahead and tune in…and was pleasantly surprised. Other than being kind of a boring and awkward host, MacFarlane was tolerable. The show itself with only a couple of exceptions I had to avoid seeing was generally a much cleaner, more tasteful affair than has been the recent trend. Even most of the nominated films themselves were less hostile to the Christian worldview than has become the norm. The reason I mention all of this is because one of MacFarlane’s jokes got me to thinking. After coming back from one of the commercial breaks he commented that with the event being in a big room, on a Sunday, full of people dressing way nicer than they normally do, the Oscars were kind of like being in church…but with more praying. After I finished laughing at the irony of the joke, I thought about it some. Is that the full extent of church? Dressing up nice, gathering together on Sundays, and praying?
Of course, the answer I very quickly came to was no. But, as I thought about it some more, in the minds of most folks—and not merely those outside the church—that is all the church is about. Think about it. How much involvement in church-type stuff do many church folks have once they leave the building on Sunday afternoons (or mornings if the preacher doesn’t go too long)? Not much. Let’s not stop here, though. What word would most folks use to describe the nature of the activities that go on at a church service? Worship. Sometimes we even call the church service a worship service. Thus, in the minds of many, many folks, worship consists pretty much entirely of the set of activities that happen in a church service. Activities like singing and praying and perhaps even listening to a sermon and giving away money. Now, while activities like these can certainly provide the context for very worshipful experiences, they do not come anywhere close to helping us understand the full breadth of what is contained in the word “worship.’ In fact, if we limit our understanding of worship to these things or perhaps even smaller parts (as is often the case since many folks think in terms of worship being only the singing portion of a church service), it becomes very likely that we won’t do very much worship at all. And yet, if we take the things the biblical authors say about God and about us seriously, this is a problem because we were made for worshiping God.
Well, as you might have figured out, as we continue our journey of unpacking the kinds of practices necessary for us to maintain the power of Easter on a long term basis this morning, the next practice I want to look at with you is worship. We have already talked about the practices, or spiritual disciplines as they are sometimes called, of fasting, taking a Sabbath, and memorizing Scripture. These have all been things you’ve heard about before. The last two items in particular are practices that I suspect every professed Jesus follower in here has felt guilt over not doing as frequently or as well as they’d like. This morning’s practice is another that often falls in that same category. When most believers think about worship, we happily give assent to the idea that it is something we should be doing. We might even acknowledge that God is worthy of our worship. But in making these baseline assumptions, there are a few questions left unanswered on the table. For instance, how do we know God is worthy of worship? What does it even mean to be “worthy of worship”? We know that we should worship, but why should we? What exactly is worship anyway and how is it a spiritual discipline? You see, without having clear answers to these important questions, we may go through life showing up at church once or twice a week because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We may experience a few random moments of spiritual euphoria when we really encounter the Spirit of God in what we understand to be a worship setting. We may even think and believe some of the right things about God. But actual worship of our heavenly Father will be something that comes, if at all, only occasionally if that often.
Here’s the problem with this: we were created for worship. We are reflecting creatures. When we worship, we reflect the character or the qualities of the object of our worship. We resemble what we revere. Now, we were designed in the beginning to reflect God’s image. But, the reality is that we will reflect the image of whatever we happen to have most closely aligned ourselves. In other words, again, when we revere something, we gradually come to more closely resemble that thing. Think about what this means. Worship itself is not a discipline. We do that naturally. Worshiping God is the discipline. That won’t ever happen on its own. Do you follow here? If we worship naturally, but we don’t worship God naturally, then we naturally worship things other than God. We naturally revere things other than God. We naturally come to resemble things other than God. The Bible has a name for this: idolatry. I think we can safely agree that practicing idolatry is not how we are going to appropriate Easter’s power in our lives on a sustained basis. So, as we continue our journey of figuring out how to do just that, we need to confront head-on the practice that can most easily and consistently keep it from us. In other words, we need to talk about worship because not only do we worship things other than God all the time putting totally unnecessary blocks in between Him and us, if we are wrongheaded in our thinking about worship (which we arguably are), it will never be for us the powerful tool it could be in terms of appropriating Easter’s power. Instead, it will be a block keeping us from it. In light of the fact that we resemble what we revere, incorporating the spiritual discipline of worshiping God into our lives can help make sure that we are resembling the right person.
With all of that in mind, let’s unpack thing a bit more. I keep talking about worship and how we resemble what we revere, but I haven’t yet defined it. So, what is it? Well, there’s not really an easy way to define it. I mean, yes, I could read for you some definitions out of my copy of Webster’s, but that’s not really going to give us a clear understanding of what it means to worship God. The best way to get a better sense of what we’re actually talking about will be to look closely at what the authors of Bible communicate when they talk about worship. We have to dive in kind of deep for a minute to do this, though. Are you ready? Lean in close with me and we’ll see what we can come away with. In the Old Testament, there are three primary words that your Bible may translate “worship.” The first and most common is abad. Say abad. (For my manuscript friends, both a’s have an “ah” sound.) The basic meaning of this word is to serve or to work. Specifically, it refers to someone who works the ground. It is often used more generally though by a person of low standing to refer to himself when talking to someone of higher standing. The idea is that the higher ranked person is in fact higher ranked and could technically command the lower ranked person to do anything and whether by force of respect or force of arms, the lower ranked person would do it. When God is the object of the work, though, the word is usually translated as “worship.” The second word is yare. Say yare. (Again for my manuscript friends, the vowels sounds are “ah” and “ey” as in “hey.”) This word is only translated “worship” a few times. Its key meaning is “to fear.” Whenever you encounter the phrase “fear of the Lord” this is the word being used. While a sense of terror-fear is in play here, the more prevalent sense is the respect fear that comes from recognizing that God is in fact sufficiently higher ranked than you are that He could squash you like a bug without missing a beat if He wanted. The final word is havvah. Say havvah. (Manuscript friends, get a bit of spit in the back of your throat and say “ha-ya” like you are going to Karate chop something but replace the “y” sound with a “v” sound.) This word essentially means “to bow down.” This word describes the posture taken by a person in the presence someone greater. For example, if a British subject goes before the Queen, what does he do? He bows. Still with me? Almost through. There is only one important Greek word in the New Testament translated “worship.” This is the word proskuneo. Say proskuneo. (Manuscript friends: sound it out. The first “o” is short, the “u” is long, the second “o” is long, and the “e” sounds like you’ve said the name Brett.) The meaning here is kind of an amalgam of the first and last Hebrew words, capturing the sense of humility, reverence, and acknowledging that you are in the presence of someone greater than yourself.
Okay, let’s come up for air. What does all this tell us? It tells us this: When you see the word “worship” in the Bible, there are no specific actions or practices associated with the word. None. There’s not any one thing you can do and be worshiping. There’s not any one style of music, length of sermon, size of offering, frequency of prayer, sincerity of devotion, nothing. Instead, it is all about attitude. Drawing on these various words in the Bible for “worship” if we are going to worship God we must first recognize that He is greater than us. And not just a little greater. There is social distance between the average American citizen and the President. That’s just how things are. But we don’t worship the President because even though the distance may be great, socially speaking, in an absolute sense he’s not greater at all. He’s not worthy of worship. Respect, yes. Worship, no. Worship goes beyond simply showing respect. God, on the other hand, is greater than us in an absolute sense. He is more powerful. He is more moral. He is smarter. He is wiser. He is eternal. He created everything we see and don’t see. God is sufficiently greater than we are that it doesn’t even compute to try and rank His worth in comparison to ours on a scale. Trying to do that would be to compare two things of different categories. It would be like my holding up my phone and a piece of paper and asking you which is the greater phone. You would pause awkwardly, look at me kind of funny, and then gently point out that they’re not both phones. Right! When we think in terms of the question: who’s greater, us or God, we make the same category error. We’re not both great. Rather than thinking about how much greater God is than we are, the better thought is: He’s great and we’re not. He has inherent worth and we don’t. He is everything and we are nothing. If you don’t believe God is sufficiently greater than you, or better yet, as long as you think in terms of God being simply greater than you (and He can only be greater if you possess some level of greatness to start with), you’ll never worship Him with the exclusivity He demands because you don’t really believe He’s worthy of it. If He’s simply greater, there are lots of things that our behavior reveals we think are greater than ourselves. Again, the President is greater than us in a social sense and we don’t worship him. Worship in a biblical sense, then, involves primarily making this acknowledgement in our hearts and minds and then doing something about it. And what are we to do about it? Well, given that He’s great and we’re not, how about whatever He says? Worship, very simply, involves recognizing who God is and then doing what He says. And as we do this, we become more like Him because: we resemble what we revere.
But, what’s all this have to do with the spiritual discipline of worshiping God? Here’s the connection point: remember what I said is generally true about all people a few minutes ago? We were created for worship. We worship things naturally. We don’t, however, worship God naturally. What did I say the Bible calls worshiping things other than God? Idolatry. Now, when you say the word “idol” to most folks, they think one of two things. They either think of Ryan Seacrest or else they think of little statues. If you talk about worshiping an idol, they get a picture in their minds of a person bowing down or perhaps offering a sacrifice to a statue. In our scientifically-minded, antisupernaturalist culture, that’s a silly image. Why would you set perfectly good food before a statue believing the spiritual force it represents is going to eat it? Why would you bow down to a piece of rock? With this in mind, almost no one in this culture is going to confess to worshiping idols. Because we don’t…like that. Yet remember how I just described the Bible’s understanding of worship. It is recognizing God for His greatness and then doing what He says. Make this definition of worship nonspecific. Worshiping anything involves acknowledging it as greater than we are and then doing what it says. For example, some people worship money. In worshiping money we acknowledge a belief that money is greater than we are (and since we’re greater than all the people around us it’s greater than them too), and then doing what it says. And what does money tell us to do? It either tells us to go and get more because it’s lonely, or it tells us to hold it close because it might get lost. Doing things like this gives us a sense of security. Given that we are reflecting creatures, we need an image to reflect in order to feel secure in ourselves. An idol is anything we turn to other than God in order to receive this security. When we feel secure with something, when we trust something, we begin to do or, as is more often the case, think like it says. And in doing this, we become more like it. We resemble what we revere.
What we find, then, when we have a proper understanding of the nature of worship, is that we are perhaps far more guilty of the sin of idolatry than we once considered. And when we have committed ourselves to something to a degree that we are worshiping whatever it is it’s hard to let go of it. It took the people of Israel centuries to finally and fully give up their predilection toward the physical idolatry common in their day. And even then they merely switched idols because worshiping God takes discipline. It takes discipline because there are all kinds of things in our culture competing with God for our attention and devotion. Our culture works very hard to convince us to think of ourselves as inherently great in some sense and as soon as we do that we can’t worship God like we should. The book of Revelation actually captures the tragic results of this. At least three times and in conjunction with a couple of different series of plagues, the people who are ultimately judged and sent to the lake of fire refuse to repent and “give up worshiping demons and idols…” Indeed, they face judgment because they worship the beast and its image which is simply a representation of the world system opposed to God. They refuse to join with God’s people in adding their voice to the worship going on around His throne all the time as described in Revelation 4. In spite of the horrors they face which are designed to send them running to God’s arms, they refuse. They’ve become fully reflective of the object of their devotion and they can no longer reflect God’s image as they were designed. Indeed, we resemble what we revere.
Come now, though. What does this actually look like for us because we don’t bow down to little statues? Let me give you one example that I believe affects far more of us than we’d like to believe. One of our main images in this culture is mainstream media and its attendant worldview. Now, let me unpack this just a bit because that’s a loaded phrase. For those who find their sympathies leaning to the political right, the mainstream media represents the various news organizations whose ideological sympathies run left of center. I’m using the phrase more broadly this morning. When you turn on the television and flip to any station save perhaps some of the religious ones, you will encounter the mainstream media. The worldview on display in the vast majority of programming you’ll encounter both on the radio and especially on the TV contains no sense of God’s character or presence in our daily situations. Well, when we constantly imbibe messages which, while not necessarily hostile to that idea, treat it as a nonissue, we begin to think in the same terms. Worshiping the idol of mainstream media involves very simply uncritically receiving its messages so that it can shape our thought patterns. Consider a rather poignant warning of the dangers of this from a prominent New Testament scholar: “This absence of God in mainstream media should alert us to the fact that when we uncritically leave ourselves open to the perspective of the media’s worldview, then, slowly but surely, it leads us to cease thinking of the things of the Lord in the details of our daily life. . . .And when we imbibe this worldview uncritically, it makes us feel a little bit abnormal, a little bit unnatural in relating to God and being sensitive to his sovereign activity in our daily life. . . .The media’s worldview has subtly become an idol we easily reflect.”
We resemble what we revere. Is it any wonder our culture—including the church—has become more open to things like gay marriage over the past twenty years in light of enormously popular TV shows like Ellen, Will and Grace, Glee, and Modern Family? We resemble what we revere. When we sit down at night—and I do this all the time—and flip on the TV in order to “veg out” as the saying goes, we are worshiping. We are uncritically opening ourselves up to receive the gruel the mainstream media gladly spoons into our heads. The Hulu commercials featuring aliens who want us to watch lots of TV in order for them to suck up our brains isn’t so far off from the truth as it seems. And, when our uncritical reception of this far, far outstrips our reception of the things of God guess what happens? We throw extra hurdles in the way of our worshiping Him. Coming to church regularly, by the way, isn’t enough to stem this tide. An hour or two’s exposure to the things of God during the week is not enough to counterbalance the several hours of exposure we give ourselves to the things of the world. Guess which things we better reflect then? We resemble what we revere. By the way, this doesn’t make being in church less important. It actually makes it more important because in light of the media leaving us feeling awkward thinking about God, we need to be reminded that it’s not unnatural at all. In fact, it’s what we were designed for. In light of this, when we think of worship as something that primarily happens at church on Sundays doing a certain set of things it’s no wonder that we never really experience the joy of worshiping our God.
Let’s turn the corner together, then. If all of that is how our wrongheaded views about worship keep us from fulfilling our God-given purpose of bringing Him glory (which is the result of real worship), how can we take up the discipline of doing this with greater intentionality and success? The how-to here is going to be a bit less concrete than the others somewhat by the nature of the discipline. But, since worship is primarily about an attitude than any particular action, it has to start with our minds. When the apostle Paul began to apply all of the wonderful theology laid out in the first two-thirds of Romans, he began at what we know as chapter 12 with the marvelous phrase that’s on the front of your bulletins: “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[—what?—] your spiritual worship.” When we worship we give more of ourselves more fully to Him. But how? Well, verse 2 there gives us a clue: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Don’t ever just sit and “veg.” Don’t uncritically, mindlessly absorb the slop coming out of your television. Don’t allow yourselves to be conformed to the world. We resemble what we revere and you want to resemble God more. You’re not a vegetable. You’re a person. God gave you an incredible mind. Use it. Whenever you watch TV (and I’m not at all against watching TV), keep your filter on. Filter everything you see and hear through the lens of Scripture and what it reveals about God’s person and plans. (Having Scripture memorized will help in this process, by the way.) Not only that, but process this thought regularly: how can I glorify God in this? How can I acknowledge who God is in this? How can I do what God says in this? Now, will this feel awkward at first? Yes! Because we are, all of us, cultured to think that kind of stuff is only what crazy, religious radicals do. But, if we practice it regularly; if we are disciplined about it; if we engage regularly with a community of like-minded believers who send and reaffirm the message that that kind of thinking is not unnatural, it will begin to seem very much natural. We resemble what we revere and we will be revering the right things.
If you want to make the spiritual discipline of worshiping God more apparent in your life, consider taking up the advice Paul gave at the close of his letter to the believers in Philippi: “Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Constantly work to make sure you are filling your head with edifying material. Sometimes we can’t avoid being exposed to media that is dishonoring of God. But if we have a choice, let’s make sure we are engaging primarily with ideas that reinforce the vision of the kingdom. Yet we can’t confine ourselves to a bubble. We have to engage with the world. Let us make sure, then, that when we do, we are controlling the flow of influence. Let us not allow ourselves to be influenced to think more in line with how the world thinks, but let us instead engage critically with the world in order to understand how it thinks so that we can influence how it thinks. In all of this, our primary goal is to acknowledge who God is and do something about it. In this working to constantly acknowledge who God is in all things and doing something about it, namely, what He says, we will be worshiping God all the time. We will take what we do naturally and focus it where it was designed to point. We will constantly come to reflect the image and character of our God more fully because we resemble what we revere. Then, when we are worshiping all the time and we come together with a whole group of Jesus followers who are themselves worshiping all the time, putting all of our efforts in the same pot and drinking in deeply their sweet bouquet, the time spent doing what you primarily thought of as worship thirty minutes ago will be immeasurably more satisfying, powerful, meaningful, and any other similarly good adjectives you want to add. We will together reflect our God in ways our community will not be able to miss. This because we resemble what we revere. And together, we will revere the only One worthy of reverence.
G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 299.