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God has created people to live in dependence on him, so everyone has been created for worship. We are meant to find our purpose and direction outside ourselves. This makes everyone a worshipper. But who and what and how we worship are choices that God has given to us.
In many places in our world, people choose to worship gods. Pagan religions emphasise the need to appease the spirits and to manipulate them to do what is good for you. Other religions focus on gods that need to be obeyed and served. Most people in the world worship some form of god. But secular Westerners tend to worship success or materialism or sex or pleasure. While none of these are spiritual entities, they serve in the place of a god by providing the sense of meaning that every person requires. We are all worshippers. We all pin our allegiance and purpose to something or someone outside ourselves.
As Christians, we have been redeemed and reconciled by Jesus so that we can worship God in spirit and truth. This is our most fundamental purpose. Through Jesus we have been made holy so that we can relate to a holy God and join with the holy angels (and eventually all creation) in giving him honour and serving him. We have seen that worship involves the whole of our lives. It requires both loving and obeying God. Christians are meant to live a life of worship (Rom. 12:1-2).
This will be even more so in the new heaven and earth when the whole of Jesus’ damaged creation is redeemed to worship God. We will receive resurrected bodies so that we can live physically and spiritually with God and worship him forever. Our focus will be completely directed on God. We will wholly be his people and will deeply love and appreciate him.
So when we gather to worship corporately, we are actually doing what we were created and redeemed to do, and what we will be doing forever. There are many ramifications of this. Let me discuss a few.
1. We should be telling people in corporate worship that this is what they have been created to do. For many worshippers, the worship time feels like a strange aberration in a week built around work and family and rest. But this is not true. Worship is not only the heart of the Christian life but will be our ministry to God forever.
2. Worshippers need to put effort into worship. For many worshippers, the worship service is something they make little contribution to. They are mainly interested spectators. But if worship is our foremost role on earth and our eternal ministry to God then it should require significant effort on our part. This effort may involve confessing our sin, shutting out the distractions, focusing our attention on God, participating fully in the worship activities, listening carefully for God’s voice, going beyond our comfort zone, giving ourselves to God and others, or making some sort of response to the revelation of God.
3. We need to offer various ways in which people can express worship so that everyone can find their niche. In our present singing-saturated worship style, it is exciting for the many who love singing (especially the worship teams) to be told that this will be their eternal role. But it may be quite discouraging for those who do not like singing or can’t sing well to think that they will be singing long and loud forever. Of course, they will probably love it in the new creation, but on earth they need a way of expressing their worship that matches the way that God has made them. Perhaps they can participate in art or sharing or serving or reading or praying or dancing or IT.
4. Earthly worship needs a connection with the future. Because of our brokenness and lack of understanding of God, worship will seldom reach the heights of our expectation. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah describes a wonderful experience of God in worship. But it was not normal. It was probably a one-off. We looked at Moses’ experience of God’s presence in the tabernacle that made his face glow for days. But no-one else, not even Joshua, had this experience. Many of our worship experiences are mundane – pleasing to God, but ordinary for us. It won’t always be like this. We look forward to better times in worship when we see Jesus face to face. Our present worship is good, but it is only the start.
5. However, Christians need some worship experiences that take them beyond the mundane. The Israelites experienced this in their annual festivals as the whole community gathered in Jerusalem to worship Yahweh and experience community. With huge crowds and thousands of professional musicians to support their worship, they had a taste of the greatness of God and the wonder of heavenly worship. In a different way, the early church experienced the supernatural wonder of God in their powerful prayer meetings (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). In the 18th and 19th century Western church, it came in the form of revivals. I’m not saying that church services never get beyond the mundane, of course they do, but this is more likely to occur in Christian conferences and concerts when many passionate worshippers gather together with excellent resources to assist them or in extended seasons of prayer when God’s presence is sought consistently.
We have seen that God has created us with an inbuilt drive to worship. Everyone worships. So people in our culture choose different objects of worship that provide some sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. As we grow up in our culture and constantly rub shoulders with our culture, we are exposed to many of these “idols.” They are attractive to us and seek to win our allegiance. So our worship of God does not occur in a vacuum, where we worship God or nothing at all. It takes place in a strongly competitive environment with many objects of worship demanding our attention and submission.
For the early Israelites, the temptation was to worship the gods of the peoples that lived around them. God called them to live separately but they didn’t, so they were always being pulled to worship idols, especially the Baals and Asherahs of the Canaanites. Godly leaders and prophets called them back to the pure worship of Yahweh and warned them of the consequences of syncretism, but the attraction of the idols was often too strong for them.
After the Exile and its dislocation, the Jews developed a fresh commitment to separatism and obedience to Yahweh and the threat of pagan idols diminished. But the new idol of legalism took their place. The focus became the law God had given rather than God himself. It seems incredible, but their system of religion challenged God’s place. Many godly Jews kept God as their priority, but the Jewish leaders didn’t. So when the Messiah came, they missed him completely because he didn’t hold to the laws and system they worshipped. They saw Jesus as both an unbeliever and a threat.
The early church battled with numerous idols. For the Jewish Christians, the main battle was still with legalism. For the Gentile Christians, there remained all the idols of their pagan past including sexual immorality, the Roman and Greek gods, and their allegiance to the Roman emperor and state. No wonder the church introduced such a long lead-up time to baptism and full incorporation into the church. A lot of discipleship was required to establish God as the centre of their attention and worship.
As the church became a part of the establishment, the leaders struggled with the idols of power and wealth whereas the worshippers tended to make worship itself the idol. Their focus was on what happened in worship (mainly the re-sacrificing of Jesus in Communion) and the systems and structures surrounding it, rather than on God himself. The idol of worship drove worshippers away from God towards legalism and superstition. I’m reminded of the lyrics of Matt Redman’s song, The Heart of Worship: “I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it [worship], when it’s all about you Jesus.”
The Reformation brought the attention of worship back to truth, but then the challenging idol became Scripture itself, or more accurately the various theological systems that Christians derived from Scripture. The allegiance (and therefore the worship) of many was not just to God, but to particular understandings of God and his work. Much damage to other branches of God’s church was caused by this ideological worship of one form of theological truth.
I could deal in detail with many other idols like emotions in the Revival movement or the gifts of the Spirit and experience in Pentecostalism, but I think that I have made my point. Our worship of God is always challenged and threatened by the idols of the culture around us, whether that culture originates in the church or in the world.
In Post-Christendom, the idols that compete with God for our worship mainly come from our secular culture. These are the idols that grip the worship of our society particularly pushed through the influence of the media.
Some of these idols are deeply opposed to God and his righteousness. Idols like greed, sexual immorality, egocentrism, and absolute control, fly in God’s face and challenge his truth. They set themselves against God. Yet their worship can sadly be incorporated into the church. There are many examples of this including clergy abuse (sex or power), factions in the church fighting for control, or the neglect of the disadvantaged. These all involve the worship of idols.
But the more insidious idolatry involves worshipping the created rather than the creator. It’s when we take the good things that God has given us and make them more important than God. One obvious example is our wealth. There’s nothing wrong with money. But when our possessions become more important than obeying God (e.g. the rich young ruler), they become an idol. Another common idol is family. Family is a wonderful gift from God, but it easily becomes our major priority and even our reason for existence. I’m reminded of God’s strong reprimand to the old priest Eli: “Why do you honour your sons more than me?” (1 Sam. 2:29). God does not have a family first policy.
There are many other idols we find biting at our heels, seeking our attention and devotion. Pleasure is one. We can have wonderful experiences in life, but when our quest becomes to seek pleasure and comfort, we cannot worship a God who refuses to guarantee earthly pleasure and comfort. We inevitably become consumers not worshippers of God. Success is another idol that can invade the church. Our goal becomes being successful rather than being obedient to God. We decide what is important rather than following the servant ways of Jesus.
I think I’ve proved my point. Everyone is a worshipper and our world offers us many options. Worshipping God is a hard-fought choice among many idols that compete for our allegiance and worship. These idols can even be seen within the church or in the worship service itself. The worship of God is never easy. It always involves a decision.
You might think that God would understand. But God is a jealous God and he will not put up with rivals. He demands total commitment. He calls for the choice to be made. Listen to his words to Israel in the 10 commandments (Ex. 20:3-6):
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”