In this week’s study of Ezekiel 45-48, we have been following a map to God’s heart. We now study chapter 46 which includes more detail about Israel’s sacrificial system. What do we learn in chapter 46 about God’s heart?
The sacrificial system teaches us that God desires worship that is gathered, consistent, and orderly. In my Christian heritage, the evangelical Bible tradition, we don’t have many issues with orderly worship. But I think we need to be careful about orderly worship in at least two ways.
First, we need to be careful of being so orderly that our worship becomes empty. I am a fan of liturgy and ritual. I do not believe that highly liturgical churches, or highly ritualized churches are doing something that is inherently wrong. But we low liturgy and low ritual churches can look down on high liturgy churches as if they are automatically practicing dead or empty religion. In fact, years ago when Faith Church made a change from quarterly communion to monthly communion, some people expressed concern that it would ruin the meaning and importance of communion because we would be taking communion so frequently that we would take it for granted. That is an important concern. But the same thing could be said for singing songs every week. For singing four songs every week. For having a sermon every week. Anything we do repetitiously and consistently is in danger of becoming boring and empty.
But that danger is not so much connected to the repetition as it is connected to our hearts. Worship starts in our hearts. Worship flows from a heart that wants to express thanks to God, from a heart that wants to proclaim the truth that God is real and that God is awesome, from a heart that wants to hear from the Holy Spirit. A heart in the right place, in other words, can say the Lord’s Prayer every week and mean it. A heart in the right place can take communion every week and find it to be extremely important. Our evangelical forefather, John Wesley, for example, saw the deep meaning of communion with Jesus, and said, “Give it to me every day!”
The antidote to empty worship is heart aflame for Jesus. A heart desiring and seeking more connection in an ongoing relationship with Jesus.
The next aspect of orderly worship we need to be careful of is idolizing it. We can actually worship our worship. We can worship an element of worship. Over the years, I’ve heard many sentiments that are either straight up idol worship, or scarily close to it. People suggesting that one kind of music is preferable in worship than another. People saying that one order of worship is preferable to another. People saying that one kind of sermon is preferable to another. People saying that the kind of room and the kind of furnishings in the worship space are preferable to another. People saying that one kind of clothing should be worn by worshipers.
We have all kinds of preferences, but we cross a line into idol worship when we start glorifying our preferences, as if our preferences honor God more than others’ preferences. In none of those categories I just mentioned (style of music, order of worship, sermon, room, furnishings, clothing), does God tell us in the Bible that there is one right way. Instead, all of those categories, and there are more, are based on personal preference that is almost always connected to what a person grew up with, first came to faith in Jesus with, or has become accustomed to.
I am not saying that those preferences are wrong. What I am saying is that we can idolize or legalize them, and that is wrong. To counteract this, we from the evangelical word tradition need to make sure that we come to worship gatherings in a humble, teachable heart, asking God’s Spirit to be at work. We come to worship saying, “Lord, I do not have worship figured out. Yes, there are some methods for worship that I really enjoy, but I don’t want to become so focused on those methods that I don’t hear from you. So I welcome new worship experiments and experiences. Teach me, Lord, how to worship you. Holy Spirit, speak to me.”
I am excited that our Arts Team is forming. We seek to do just that, to experiment with art in the life and ministry of our congregation.
Next, in chapter 46, we read that worship is gathered and consistent. It is not inconsistent. What I am not talking about is the person who consistently participates in gathered worship once per year, every year. They are consistent alright, but that’s not the consistency of gathering for worship that God’s heart shows us in this passage. Instead, we view gathered worship at vital, important to our discipleship. The act of being together strengthens us as a body.
Recently a Christian writer who is also an Anglican priest wrote an opinion article making the case that the pandemic had gotten to the point where it is safe for most churches to stop their online services and meet in person. She made several excellent theologically sound points. The response to her article was fast and strong. She received tons of mail. Some people supported her, some strongly disagreed. What about people with physical impairments, for example? There are potentially numerous good reasons why a church should still offer online worship.
At Faith Church we will continue to have an online option. We have no interest in competing with other highly produced online worship experiences. But we do believe that it is important to at least have an option. If you are sick or on vacation, you can still participate in online worship. We do not believe that online worship is the same as in-person worship. But that doesn’t mean we look down on online worship as bad. In-person worship as having distinct advantages. I believe we can hold that tension without any negativity or judgement.
If a person is good health and physically able to be in person, we should make it our goal to have a highly consistent practice of in-person worship. If we evaluate our lives and we are inconsistent in in-person worship, what can we change to become more consistent? It is not about the building, it is not about the worship service, it is about the act of gathering with the rest of the church family to encourage one another, to build one another up in the faith, to motivate one another to serve God.