I remember being hired by my first church and being scared of one particular part of my job description. One of the things that I was expected to do was to be involved in worship leading. Why would that scare me? In my mind, a worship leader was a person with a guitar or piano who led singing. Not only did I not play an instrument, I am a horrible singer. I have since had many opportunities to lead singing, although quietly enough to not cause too much damage. However, I now understand where my mistake was. I equated Christian worship with music. Of course the church has a wonderful tradition of music that has enriched our worship. But music does not equate worship. You cannot say “I just sang a hymn, therefore I worshipped God.” Nor can you say “I have not sang a hymn, therefore I have not worshipped God.” It is wonderful when worship includes hymns and songs, but it is much bigger than that. We are going to introduce the idea of worship, looking at part of what it is, and then over the next few weeks will look at a few biblical examples of worship.
What does it mean to worship? First of all, it requires that we be exclusive in the object of worship. I cannot worship God and chocolate and cars and nature and money and computers and everything else that I come into contact with. If I am devoted to everything equally, then there is nothing that is actually being worshipped. To worship is to lift something above all others and say that this is the one thing that is worthy of my devotion. You might wonder how this fits with the ancient world. After all, they were not that exclusive since they believed in many gods. However, I am not talking about belief, I am talking about worship. Even if an ancient person believed in dozens of gods, they would not worship them all. They would likely worship just one or a couple of gods. They might perform some ritual for more, but their devotion would be fairly exclusive. It is the same today with Hinduism. Depending on you count, there are between thirty-three and three hundred thirty million gods. An individual Hindu does not worship all of them, usually they are devoted to one god. The story of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is a call to decide who is to be worshipped. Listen to these words of Joshua: “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14–15 NIV) The same challenge is put to us. The temptation may not be pagan idols but there are other objects of worship that seek our devotion. How does God fit with money, power, popularity or pleasure? Is God just one of many, or does he rise above everything else to receive our worship? The first thing we need to think about as we worship is not what song we sing, but where does God stand in relation to everything else in our life. Unless God is our exclusive object of worship, we are not really worshipping him.
What does it cost to worship God? If worship is simply singing a song, the cost is not very high. A little bit of exertion by the vocal chords and you are done. But that is not what worship is about. I did a search of the word ‘worship‘ in the Bible and do you know where the first appearance is? The first appearance of worship is in Genesis 22. The significance of this is that is the chapter where Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him according to God’s command. Of course God ended up providing a ram at the last minute so that Isaac did not have to die. But Abraham did not know that when he went up the mountain and told his servants they were going to worship. Even though Isaac was not killed, this worship cost Abraham something. It cost him in terms of radical obedience and trust. Once formal ways of worship were developed under the covenant with Moses, we see that worship continues to cost something. The people were not commanded to just nod their head or give God a thumb’s up. They gave a portion of their herd or flock or crop. They sacrificed from what they had and it cost something. What does our worship cost? Since tithing is a part of our worship, there is a financial cost. There is a time cost, as you could be doing numerous other things on a Sunday morning. But perhaps the biggest cost is an emotional cost. As you are singing or praying or reading the Bible, we need to choose to make that more than an empty ritual. We have to choose to make that a part of a developing relationship with the living God and that has an emotional cost.
We live in a world that likes to compartmentalize everything. This section of my life is for family, this section, for work, this section for friends, this section for entertainment and this section for God. However, that is an artificial division of life. The Bible certainly does not expect that we would keep things separate. This is especially true when it comes to worship. It would be easy to see how worship could be about one hour a week, singing and praying and reading. Then we go our non-worshipping activity for the rest of the week. One of the greatest challenges to this idea is Isaiah 1. In this passage, God goes into detail as to how the Israelite worship makes him sick. The strange thing is that the forms of worship that God indicates that he hates are the same forms that he commanded to the people. What is the problem? The people were keeping their worship separate from the rest of their life. They would offer their sacrifices and then would either oppress the poor or at least tolerate the oppression by others. They did not see how our love for God was related to our love for people and yet these two things are indivisible. We read “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV) In the New Testament we read “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:11–12 NIV) How should you worship this week? Look for ways to make a difference in people’s lives, both locally and globally. Fight for justice and comfort the hurting. That is some powerful worship.
What is worship? I will tell you what it is not. It is not your general feeling for everything. It is not cheap. And it is not limited to what you do in a church building. Worship is about acknowledging God as the only one worthy of worship. Worship is about giving something of yourself, sacrificing something you value to glorify God. Worship is something that spills out onto every area of our life so that when we love other people, we are actually loving God. That is what Christian worship is.