There’s a surprising turn in the beloved Psalm 51. The psalmist sings,
“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
A reader might then conclude, “God isn’t into all these sacrifices offered at the temple after all. God desires not sacrifice but repentance.”
But then the psalm concludes:
“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.”
A reader might then conclude, “If we repent, and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, THEN God does desire sacrifice.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage since worshipping via livestream with our congregation yesterday. I currently have a fever. I tested negative for COVID, but decided to quarantine from the broadcast we put out each Sunday. So I watched our livestream instead of leading it, and had a rare opportunity to just meditate and pray with the community rather than lead the prayers.
I’ll return to that feeling in a bit, but for now, let’s stay with the tension of Psalm 51. Let’s stay with the tension between sacrifice and repentance.
So which is it?
Christian Scripture encourages “right” worship and even describes it. Build the temple this way. Here are songs to sing. Make the sacrifices this way. Worship God and only God.
Much of that same Scripture discourages “false” worship. Don’t sacrifice to idols. Don’t worship while practicing injustice (Kenneth Copeland I’m looking at you). I despise your long public prayers.
In 2020, with public worship dramatically disrupted by a pandemic, we are offered the opportunity once again to reflect on “right” worship.
We might initially get wrapped up in the technology. Does livestream worship count? Can we share communion at home? What should we do if people are overwhelmed and not praying and worshipping much right now?
But the focus of “right” worship according to Scripture is not so much technology as temperament. Repentance is an inner heart disposition that results in changed action, whereas outward worship rites, though contributing sometimes to a change of heart, can also be faked.
We might say God doesn’t like posers.
The most famous passage on this is probably in Amos 5:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images,[b] which you made for yourselves; 27 therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
Amos notes two reasons God despises false worship. First, because it is conducted while injustice is perpetuated. To see this, we have to look back earlier in the chapter to what Amos prophecies against:
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
God despises those who worship or publicly claim faith while trampling on the poor, take bribes, and plant pleasant vineyards (or build fancy golf courses), who shove out renters onto the streets.
Second, God does not approve worship of false “gods.” Images we make ourselves (like flags), the gods of nations (like nationalism), gods of comfort and wealth.
Scripture is pretty clear. Israel, and later Christians, and now us, are often idolatrous, running off to worship false gods, and one of our biggest problems is we rarely recognize that we are doing so.
What is worship for?
So then if worship is false if it worships false gods or ignores injustice (or acts as political cover for those engaged in injustice), what actually is worship for?
Let’s return to my experience on Sunday. I must admit, it was centering and soothing to be able to pray and meditate without having to lead worship. I could breathe deeply, rest in the prayers read by others, close my eyes and listen to the lessons, chant or not chant the liturgy as I chose.
I think this is a not uncommon understanding of the purpose of worship. Worship is there to bring peace, to center us for the week, to serve as a time for re-grounding. Worship as assurance.
If we take the passages above, however, we might need to conclude that at least in Christian tradition, worship is for something slightly different than personal comfort or assurance.
Worship is for communities who are living out a right relationship with God.
Worship is an opportunity to praise God inasmuch as we are participating in God’s overturning of injustice.
Worship is the continuing reception of Christ (in the meal, in the Spirit) so that we are turned from idolatry and toward the God of the poor.
I think we can recognize that worship, if it is a deep and robust form of human activity (it is), can be more than one thing. It’s for many things. Just to get this lined out, I’m going to make a list of some of the popular and theological notions of worship, just to get a sense of the breadth.
- It’s a recapitulation of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice (the Mass)
- It’s a liturgical enactment or making present of the inbreaking kingdom of God
- It’s a recharge for the week
- It’s where we hear teaching
- It is space and opportunity for prayer
- It’s where we get our praise on
- It’s our way of honoring or acknowledging God
- It’s where the word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments administered
- It’s the assembly of God’s people
In this historical moment, when many “traditional” worship practices have been disrupted, we are presented with an opportunity to revisit the integrity of our worship while also acknowledging how much the drive for comfort might undermine such considerations of integrity.
When we are already challenged to the extreme by the pandemic itself, how is that we can or should also challenge ourselves by listening to the challenge of the prophets?
Well, we might consider first of all that the prophets proclaimed their warnings precisely to a people who were being gathered up and taken into exile. In other words, the prophets didn’t hold off on challenging the worship practices of Israel just because Israel was already having a hard time of it.
So too in this moment, as tempted as we are to make use of adapted liturgical rites to comfort ourselves and give ourselves a semblance of normalcy, it might actually be wise for us to recognize God’s habit as illustrated by the prophets is to leave us challenged in such moments rather than lift us out in order to appease us with shallow comforts.
Worship is then in no way elevation, if it is worship in the way of Jesus. As Ernst Käsemann writes, “Only the church sees itself united with the heavenly host in divine service; Jesus leaves humanity on the earth and does not call on them to transcend themselves” (Jesus Means Freedom, 32).
Right worship is in fact as simple as answering the question Jesus poses in Matthew 25, “What have you done and not done to me in my siblings?” By siblings, we mean all the humans with whom Jesus identifies. Co-humanity. Right worship is treating each of these as if they were Jesus.
Worship is neighbor love.
Now, gatherings of any kind for worship inspired by or grounded in the list above or in and of themselves not less than such commitment to neighbor love. But we can definitely check ourselves with this working definition. Is our design of worship, our reason for attending worship, our commitment in attending worship, centered in a call once again to recognize Jesus in his poor one’s?
This presents us with a unique challenge in this moment. Since so many of us are worshipping in more private spaces these days, or blended public-private inasmuch as we participate in public digitally mediated services that connect to our smaller, isolated gatherings in homes or back-yards, we need to ask ourselves again, “Is my worship neighbor love? Am I worshipping at all? Is there a connection between my renewed commitment to justice, and renewal of the ways I honor God in my neighbor?”