It has been said that human beings are “hard-wired” to worship. I believe that. Throughout the thousands of years of recorded history, the overwhelming majority of people have believed in some kind of a higher power that is worth worshiping. And who knows how far back this practice goes before history was written down? Probably hundreds of thousands of years.
So what is worship? The dictionary tells us it is the reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage or to any object regarded as sacred. I like this definition because it is very broad. As our culture has become more individualistic and self-centered, it is easy to think of ourselves as “sacred.” The result is self-focus and self-worship. So, instead of serving God or some other cause bigger than ourselves, we become “self-serving.”
If you have ever been in an environment where everyone was self-serving you probably recognized that it is not a good place to be. In my religious tradition this idea of being turned in on oneself is the very definition of sin. There is even a fancy Latin name for this condition: Incurvatus in Se. It literally means to be curved in on oneself.
Two major human failings, pride and lying, arise directly from the broken relationships in which people live first and foremost for themselves rather than for God or others. The remedy? Worship. I will leave it to others to argue what benefits can be derived from worship of self or of things like power or money or fame or nature or political ideology, or even something as potentially beneficial as education or knowledge.
As a pastor, my interest lies in the tradition of Judeo-Christian worship that has roots going back 4,000 years. It has been my experience that most of us today need to expand our understanding of worship. Some today think of it in a very narrow sense almost as a synonym for music. I’ve heard people say, “In our congregation, we have worship first, then teaching.” While music is certainly included within the idea of worship, there is more to it than that.
In addition to music, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament provide guidance for us in how we are to worship together as the assembled people of God. Authentic biblical worship includes the practices of sacrifice, prayer, singing and teaching. Observing sacraments, ordinances, and different rites and celebrations also often enter into the picture. All these activities are done corporately, among the community of believers.
This is not to say that we cannot enjoy moments of deep reverence during times of solitude or perhaps when we are taking in the grandeur of creation. And I understand it is fashionable in some places to talk about being “spiritual” rather than religious. But worship is best done in community.
At one very basic level, biblical worship is concerned with the community of faith coming together regularly to give thanks for the blessings bestowed upon them by God. During these times, we comfort one another and gather to hear God’s Word for our lives. It is the application of God’s Word in our living that brings us to another aspect of worship.
The Bible is clear that believers are to worship with their whole lives. In other words, worship is a way of life. Eugene Peterson’s unique translation of the Bible called The Message interprets Romans 12:1 like this, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
Paul then warns that the world will offer you many different options for worship. The danger for us is that we can become so identified with culture that we end up idolizing the things that culture worships. Romans 12:2 from The Message says, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
As we here in Tooele emerge from the cloud around social gatherings caused by the Corona Virus it is my hope that the people here will soon be back in full corporate worship mode. Online services had their place, but the kind of “well-formed” spiritual maturity God wants for each of us is best accomplished face to face in the community of believers. As the author of Hebrews says, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing.” Take time – better yet make time – to worship together with your family of faith.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.