The Road Ahead: The Stages of Worship

When Elayne and I first went to Fries Memorial, there were very few children there besides our own. One of them was named Mark, and he was not more than three or four years old. One Sunday I encountered him outside the nursery. He was standing in the middle of the hall, and would not let me pass, so I made a little conversation with him, in hopes that I could slip by. I said, “Say, you are a handsome young man. You should be on television.” Little Mark was so bumfuzzled by that statement that he let me pass, but that was not the end of the story. That very day, just as Mark’s mother was putting his Sunday dinner on his plate, he looked up and said, “Ma’am, ma’am, God is going to put me on TV.” Mark’s logic was impeccable. I was the only one at the front of the church. People sang hymns to me. They brought me  their money. I stood above them and spoke to them. Mark figured I was God. As gods go, I am not much; but at least I was benevolent; and I don’t think Mark was afraid of me.

God has never left God’s Self without witness. In Acts 17, St. Paul says that God made from one every race of men to cover the earth that we might “feel after him and find him.” Human beings have always felt after God, but, when we are left to our own devices, we are not very good at finding Him. Instead of finding the One True God, we inevitably end up finding and worshiping a plethora of false gods, and these false gods can be rather terrifying.

1. The most primitive stage of worship is Animism. Animists worship every rock, and tree, and animal, believing each to be a god, who is more powerful than they, a god capable of tripping them up, or crushing them, or of stealing their spirit. We sometimes think of Animism as belonging to humankind’s ancient past. That is not so. Today animists can be found in Europe, Japan, and China, India and Africa, and the Americas. Many traditional Native American religions are fundamentally Animistic. Animism holds millions upon millions of people around the globe in a grip of terror. It is one of the best reasons I know for the missionary enterprise. When we send missionaries to the Animists we are not just seeking to save their souls for eternity, we are seeking to save their lives in the here and now. The gospel frees us and makes a tremendous difference in the aspect of our lives.

Some agnostics and atheists say we should simply set Animists free from all worship of God. Penn Gillette says that to the atheists everyday is a holiday. I certainly do not believe that this is desirable. The truth is it is not even possible. Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, at one time president of Asbury College, once told me that a society had to be monotheistic for a number of generations before people became brave enough to become agnostics and atheists. Only the one true God gives people the freedom to believe in him, or to reject that belief.

2. The next stage of worship is idolatry. Animists worship rocks and trees. Idolaters chisel the rocks and carve the trees into figures of animals, and birds, and human beings and worship the work of their own hands.. In Romans 1 St. Paul writes that God has never left himself without witness, but that did not stop humankind’s fall into idolatry, and polytheism of every kind. The apostle writes:

20 Ever since the creation of the world (God’s) invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

A major theme of the Old Testament prophets is the condemnation of idolatry. At God’s direction, the prophet Hosea took a prostitute for a wife, to illustrate the way that Israel had forsaken the one true God, and committed adultery with false gods, copulating on every high hill, and under every tree and bush. One reason God centered the Hebrew cult in Jerusalem was to avoid the temptation to idolatry and immorality.

On at least one occasion, Isaiah took a different approach to idolatry; he just poked fun at the foolishness of it. In Isaiah 44:14-17 the prophet writes:

(The man who worships an idol) cuts down (a) cedar or he chooses… an oak…he takes a part of it and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread; also he makes a god and worships it…he prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

We too may laugh at those who worship idols, but it is hardly a laughing matter. St. Paul believed idolatry to be an expression of demonic power. In 1st Corinthians 8:4 the apostle writes, “We know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’” Then he goes on to point out that an idol is real to those who worship it, and exercises terrible power over them. Let me give an example. According to some ancient texts, the priests of the Ammonites demanded child sacrifices for their god, Moloch. The prophet Micah, protests this practice when he asks, “Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7) The response the Prophet receives from God is one of the most famous texts in the Hebrew Bible.

“He has showed you, O, man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Today, we are much more likely to worship money, or power, or celebrity, or the thing that George Bernard Shaw called, “that bitch goddess success” than to worship an idol of wood or stone. But idolatry in all its forms still extracts a terrible toll upon people. I know of a number of instances’ where people have taken their own lives simply because they failed to meet the criteria for success that they had established for themselves. This kind of idolatry is satanic in nature. In Luke 4:5-8 we read how Jesus had a vision in which the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. He said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

3. There are other stages of worship—including various forms of Polytheism, and Pantheism, but the last, highest, and best stage of worship is the worship of the One Triune God who reveals God’s Self on the plane of human history as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The principal difference between the religions of the world in which humankind is seeking God and the religion of the Bible is that in the Bible God is the one who seeks us. In the parables of Jesus, God is the good shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep and goes into the wilderness looking for the one sheep that is lost. (Luke 15:4) Or, God is the woman who loses a coin, and lights a lamp, and sweeps the whole house until she finds it. (Luke 15:8) In the Bible God is the one who calls us, and pursues us, and refuses to let us go until we accept God’s offer of grace and love.

Consider the history of God’s sacred people. Abraham does not go out looking for God. God calls Abraham to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house, to follow him to a land he will show him. And Moses did not set out from Egypt into the desert looking for God. Moses was not a religious mystic; he was an outlaw on the run from the authorities, a shepherd charged with tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Moses found God only after God spoke to him from a bush that burned with fire and was not consumed, and sent him to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go!” And what about the prophets of the Hebrew Bible? The prophets did not sit with folded legs, meditating upon their navels, repeating a mantra, until they had a vision of God. Rather they were engaged in the work of the world. They were vine dressers, and they tended sycamore trees, and they were shepherds and priests. And the Word of the Lord came to them, and laid hold of them, and burned like a fire in their mouths (Jeremiah 5:4), and became sour in their stomach, until they spit it out, and proclaimed it to the people of God. (Revelation 10:10—a continuation of Israel’s prophetic tradition!)

4. True worship is possible only after God has revealed himself; but in what does it consist?

Some say that true worship involves a special posture. Moses worshiped God with his face to the ground. In Psalm 95:6 the Psalmist calls his readers to worship saying, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” In the book of Nehemiah, after Ezra blessed the people, they lifted up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:6) But the psalmist communed with the Lord as he lay upon his bed (Psalm 149:5) , and I over the years I have spoken with many people who worshiped God on their drive to and from work. I use to have my best talks with God on my long, slow morning runs. Malcolm Boyd once wrote a book in which he asked, “Are you running with me, Jesus?” I would answer, “Yes, many times, by faith, I believe that he is, for he has promised and I have worshiped.”

Some people think that true worship involves a special place. When Jacob wrestled all night at the brook Jabbok with the angel, he called the place Beth-El, or house of God; but he did not confine God to that place. When Moses approached the bush that burned with fire, and was not consumed, God said, “Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground,” but, thereafter, wherever Moses stood, he often found himself on holy ground. The psalmist said, “The whole earth is filled with the glory of the Lord.” And Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote that we who worship God, “Live in a holy neighborhood.” The woman at the well told Jesus that her ancestors worshiped God on Mount Gerizim (“this mountain”), but the Jews say that Jerusalem is the place of proper worship. Jesus responded, “The time is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth.” He then told the woman that he was the Messiah that was coming into the world. True worship takes place where He is worshiped. (John 4:7-29)

Protestants and Catholics agree that true worship takes place where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, and the sacraments rightly celebrated.

We disagree about the sacraments. Some say there are two, the Dominically instituted sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the rest are merely the rites of the church. Some say, there are seven, adding that confirmation and a good marriage are  as sacramental as Baptism to many. I take a middle position suggested by Karl Barth. I believe there is one sacrament, the Word of God, which is made visible when we baptize a child, or an adult, or celebrate the Holy Communion, or make a Christian Marriage. Without a Word of explanation even Baptism and Holy Communion would be meaningless to outsiders, before whom we are to bear witness.

Worship certainly takes place where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, and that word will always include the Word about Jesus, which we call “the gospel.” In this autobiography, the late E. Stanley Jones, wrote when he went to India as a Missionary, and he very nearly exhausted himself. He wrote:

I found myself defending a long line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation, to the history of the Christian Church, to the history of Western Civilization, and I was constantly moving up and down behind the line defending this and defending that, and I felt that the main thing was being left out. There are many points of question about our faith—about the Bible, or the history of the church, or the history of Western Civilization, and when we decide what we believe about this or that, we don’t make a real decision, because God decided these things long ago, but when we decide what we believe about Jesus Christ, we make a real decision, a personal decision, a decision that will affect us in life and in death. I decided to shorten the line and make my stand at Jesus Christ, and that made all the difference.

Spoken like a Moravian!

5. Given proper worship, there is always a proper response to worship.

In Romans 12:1-2 St. Paul asks us to make the same sacrifice that Abraham made. He does not ask us to take a life, he ask us to consecrate a life, and that life is our own. He writes:

1 I appeal to you therefore (Note 1), brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your “spiritual worship” (RSV) or “reasonable service” (KJV). 2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

True worship is not a sacrifice of the mind, for Paul says that true worship is perfectly reasonable. Likewise, true worship is not a sacrifice of the Spirit, for God does not ask us to sacrifice our spirit, but to surrender it, in order that he might join his Spirit with our own. In Romans 8 the apostle writes, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ.” Worship is not a sacrifice of the mind or the spirit, it is act in which we sacrifice our will to the will of God, and we sacrifice our “body,” or our “life” to the service of God.

In the New Testament worship takes two forms: the first is “proskuneo,” which means to bow before God, to prostrate ourselves before him as a citizen might prostrate himself before his king. The second is “latero” which means simply to serve, as one might serve anyone. In true worship, we both “prostrate ourselves before God,” or “submit our will to God’s will,” and then go forth into the world in God’s service as Christ’s body, becoming his hands and his feet, his eyes, and his ears, and mouth. None of us need be all things—we simply employ the gift that God has given each of us, that as a whole we might be Christ’s body in the world, for the only Christ the world will see is the Christ it sees in you and me.

Final Hymn:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.