Imagine if I announced today that we were going to radically change the style of worship in the church. I don’t just mean a change of songs, moving from traditional hymns to newer songs. I mean a complete change. We would remove all musical instruments from the sanctuary. Not only that, we would cease all singing, audible prayer and even the sermons. What we would do for an hour each week is sit in a circle holding hands, staring at candles and silently seeking the presence of God. That would be a pretty radical change and all things considered a fairly unlikely situation. However, a comparable situation was faced by the Jews when the Temple was destroyed. Think at what the worship of Israel was like for centuries. People travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices. There were all kinds of sacrifices for different circumstances, but this was the foundation of worship. Then the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple. This was not just an inconvenience so that the Jews would have to find another building to sacrifice in, perhaps in Babylon where they were sent into exile. That was not an option. God had made it extremely clear that there was one place and one place only where sacrifices could be offered and that was the Jerusalem Temple. No Jerusalem Temple, no sacrifice. So what were the Jews to do? They could not just give up on worship for the indefinite future. As a result they had to create a radically new way to worship. What did they do? They turned to studying the Bible. They gathered together as small groups and communities and learned about God as revealed to former generations. These gatherings became known as synagogues. There was sacrifice, but not that of animals. The new sacrifice was that of time and dedication in studying God’s Word. Someone who was very influential in this was the scribe Ezra. Now to be fair, the passage we are looking at is after the dedication of the second Temple. So the Jews were now able to offer animal sacrifices again after over seventy years of impossibility. But something had changed. During Solomon’s Temple, it seemed as if the sacrificial system of worship would last forever. But after seventy years of exile without a Temple, forever did not seem like a very long time. Things were a bit more uncertain now. How did they know that another nation wouldn’t come around and tear down this Temple as well? In fact a few centuries later the Romans did just that. Because of the innovations in worship after the first destruction, the Jews were ready to continue through the study of God’s Law. During the time of Jesus, just a generation before the second destruction, there was a group of professionally trained scholars, known the Pharisees and scribes, who led people in the study of the Law. Today’s rabbinic Judaism is descended from this tradition of Bible study. The Sadducees, who were completely tied to the Temple, simply disappeared after the Temple was destroyed. They were not able to change. What about us? Christianity inherited the tradition of biblical worship, that is worshiping God through the study of his Word. Throughout the years musical styles and liturgical traditions have changed but God’s Word continues to be central. Still, many of us struggle to see how the Bible fits with worship as our tendency is to see them as two separate aspects of what we do. Let us take a look at how they fit together.
What is worship? Worship is ascribing worth to someone or something. How can you worship what you do not know? Worship is about saying that some characteristic of the object of worship is deserving of praise. But if you do not know the characteristics, you cannot worship. Think of it in terms of a relationship. The relationship depends on some knowledge of the other person. I once had a phone call in which the person asked specifically for me. After fifteen minutes on the phone, I had no idea what the person was talking about nor did I know who I was talking to. It ended up being a wrong number and it just happened that he was looking for someone with the same name as me. We talked but we did not have a relationship as we knew nothing about each other. What about God? People can know some general things about God apart from Scripture. They can know he exists from creation. They can know that he desires us to be good people from the conscience that is within us. But that is about it. Think of the songs we like. Holy, Holy, Holy. How would a person know that God was holy apart from the Bible? O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. Jesus who? If it was not for the Bible, he would not even be a consideration for inclusion in worship. Ezra as he was leading the people in worship, began with a long reading of the Bible. Why? As they began a new era of their nation and religion, they needed to know who they were to worship. When we study the Bible, we are not just gaining knowledge, we are discovering the one we worship.
What is God looking for in worship? Suppose we discover that God is a loving, just, holy, righteous, gracious and awesome God. Suppose we learn that he sent Jesus to die for us and through him we receive eternal life. So we begin to worship this God. But once we leave church we live lives of excess, greed, selfishness, hatred and bitterness. Would that be acceptable worship to God? Even if we got all the rituals and traditions right? Likely not. God has always wanted our worship of him closely linked to how we live. Worshipping God while treating others unjustly is actually more offensive than not worshipping. So we are supposed to live lives that reflect who God is as a part of our worship. But how do we know how to do that apart from studying the Bible? Some might suggest that we would just naturally know how to be good people. But is that true? As society separates itself more and more from Christianity do we see morality increasing? Do we see crime go down? Do we see people more active in helping each other? What about personal holiness? We need to live lives that glorify God but that happens through the study of God’s Word. When Ezra was reading the Bible to the people, he was not doing it just for fun. Ezra knew that during the time of the exile people had slipped into many unbiblical practices. They could have a new Temple with all the rituals they wanted, but it was meaningless if their lives did not reflect this desire for worship. As Ezra read, the people began to weep for they knew how far short they were of God’s expectations. We need to study God’s Word, not to feel terrible about how bad we are. We must dig into the Bible to learn what God expects of us and find the spiritual encouragement to take those steps. We are saved by grace and not by works, but God still wants our faith to inform our life. As we work on a worshipful lifestyle, we will find that our formal church worship experiences will take on more meaning.
The last thing that I wanted to talk about is not as obvious as the other issues. Think of what the Bible is. The Bible is not just a book of people’s thoughts and reflections on religion. The Bible is God’s attempt to communicate with us by inspiring people to speak his words. We read “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21 NIV) Often we use that to say the Bible is authoritative for building our theology. But think of it in terms of worship. What if God took tremendous effort to inspire many writers to provide us with the Bible? What would the worshipful thing be to do? Put the Bible on the shelf? That would be like a loved one spending years putting together the perfect present for you. They are full of anticipation of how you will react. But when you receive it, you simply toss it into storage. Not a great idea for deepening a relationship. When we receive God’s gift of the Bible and take it and study it, we are worshiping God. We are responding to what God initiates toward us. If worship is about saying God is worthy, what do we say if his book is not worth our time studying?
Ezra and his people had an amazing time of worship. Ezra picked up the Bible and read it for hours to the people. That may not sound like great worship and yet it was. It was setting the foundation for all the worship of other forms that people would participate in. We worship God but we need to know who this God is and what he has done for us. The Bible tells us this. We need to live lives of worship that match our worship through song and prayer. The Bible tells us what God wants and how to reach this goal. God has offered us something through his inspired Word. By responding to that offer and using the Bible in the manner intended, we are participating in worship. Make sure your Bible is central in your worship of God.