Scripture: Leviticus 25:55-26:2
“There is something powerful about singing to God as an act of worship, but it is time to reframe our perspective and our language to genuinely encompass all of life as worship.” – Erwin McManus
I remember when I was a child, when my family and I were visiting England my parents as good Anglicans wanted to visit Canterbury Cathedral – the mothership so to speak. My parents were often very excited about visiting churches, but as an uncultured teenager I usually dreaded it. I had been to enough churches in my life and visiting them was always a terrible bore – I wasn’t interested in Liturgy, in the Bible, there was rarely Sunday School. But for once, I was actually a little excited to be visiting Canterbury – I was excited because I believed that Canterbury Cathedral had to be the best of the best that we Anglicans could offer and I thought, maybe just maybe I would get to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury preach. I sat through the opening prayers, the readings, hymns and then it came time for the sermon. As the preacher walked up the stairs to the pulpit it became clear it wasn’t the Archbishop… in fact it turned out to be a visiting American preacher who gave probably the most boring sermon I ever heard… (I know I know as a preacher myself I’m probably tempting fate when I say that!)
All-in-all I didn’t feel that I had really worshiped God, I was bored, I was disappointed, I never wanted to go back to Canterbury Cathedral. But in reality that had more to do with me than it did with the Canterbury Cathedral – I had come with my expectations of what it should be, I had come to be entertained, to be wowed by a famous preacher and the perfect Anglican service – I hadn’t come to encounter or worship God, I was there for myself. I was worshiping an idol.
Now I’m probably being a little harsh on my teenage self, but the topic of worship and idolatry are intertwined and I think that is important as we continue to examine the Book of Leviticus that we ask ourselves: what is worship and why do we do it?
Worship is after all a core part of Leviticus. Although we only had three verses this morning, much of the book deals with the worshiping life of Israel. Whether it is the sacrifices we began to explore last week, or the ordination of Israel’s priests, or the ways to be purified of uncleanness – all of these are part of Leviticus’ understanding of worship. And although we only have three verses they in some ways present Leviticus’ central message about worship.
In our reading we heard:
“For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants who I brought out from the Land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars and you shall not place figured stones in your land to worship at them; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.”
The three key features of worship in Leviticus are: worship is rooted in God’s creative and salvific work with the people of Israel; worship is to due God alone; and there is proper order and reverence to worship.
Worship is rooted in God’s creative and redemptive work with the people of Israel.
As I have stressed over the past two weeks, Leviticus depends on the assertion that God is with his people and desires relationship with them. This assertion stretches back to beginning in Genesis when God created the world, and the persistence of God through humanity’s disobedience and sin, into the creative act of salvation brought about God by saving the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt thereby inaugurating a new form and type of relationship with the world, particularly one of worship. Through worship the people of Israel are invited to share in God’s work of creation, they are invited to share in God’s work of redemption.
It is easy to miss on a casual reading of Leviticus, but the number seven is present throughout many of the instructions in the book. There are seven speeches about sacrifice, seven-day festivals, seven acts to ordain priests, seven-day cleansing periods, seven holy days and on and on – you can get the picture. The number seven was traditionally linked to God’s act of Creation and therefore the prevalence of seven links the people of God and their worship to God’s creative design for the world. The people of Israel, by God’s act of salvation out of Egypt, are invited into God’s ongoing creation and sustaining of the world – through their worship.
The offering of sacrifices, the reconciliation of sinners, the appointed festivals of Israel all of these point to the greater reality of God’s creation and redemption of the people of Israel. Israel’s worship is founded on the fact that relationship with God is possible and that restoration and redemption are possible for a people who stray from the way of the Lord. Leviticus ‘announces that the worship of God, with its unyielding summons to righteousness and justice ‘on earth as it is in heaven; is the ultimate goal of creation.” (Balentine p. 18) God continues to call Israel, confident – even in the face of disobedience – that they are his servants who he saved from enslavement, that they are listening to his words and that the future is abundantly full of hope for life and flourishing
Worship is due to God alone
If Israel’s worship is rooted in God’s creative and sacrificial works, then it makes sense that it is due to God alone, that the creation of idols and carved images would be forbidden. From the beginning of the story in Genesis, idols, false Gods, fears and doubts have drawn humanity and God’s chosen people away from trust and obedience – whether it was Adam and Eve’s decision to listen to the serpent, or the world turning away from God before the flood, the unrighteousness and injustice of Sodom and Gomorrah or the worship of the golden calf after receiving the ten commandments on Sinai – Idolatry was an ever present threat for the people of Israel, especially as they moved from the desert wilderness to the land of Canaan where they were confronted by people who worshiped different Gods. The worship of Leviticus is therefore consistently rooted in the declaration “I am the Lord your God” reminding the people of Israel the proper subject of their praise and adoration.
Proper order and reverence is important in worship
If worship is part of God’s creative work, if it is part of his redemptive work in the world and if it is directed to God alone then it makes sense that there would be a proper order and reverence to the worship of Israel. Leviticus claims that the worship of the Israel creates a new reality, it brings people closer to God, it brings them into relationship and creates the community of Israel by binding people together through ritual and righteousness and as such it is important for the people to do so properly, to participate thoughtfully and to approach God with reverence and respect. This extends beyond the what we might traditionally think of as worship – prayers offered in the sanctuary – and extends to the whole life of Israel. Leviticus is a book of worship, but that definition extended to how the people were to act in community: how they were to care for the poor; how they were to treat the stranger and alien; how they were to act justly; and how they respected moral and sexual ethics. For worship to be reverent and properly ordered the whole life of Israel was meant to be shaped by their covenant with God, not just their times of formal prayer in the sanctuary.
With this brief dip into Leviticus’ understanding of worship the question remains: How might our imaginations be shaped by Leviticus’ vision? What can we as a church learn about what it means to worship God in the 21st Century? I would argue that there is much to cultivate our imaginations because the same three features of Israel’s worship are just as important for us today. Let us imagine our worship rooted in God’s creative and redemptive work; let us imagine worship that is directed to God alone and finally let us imagine our worship as reverent and properly ordered.
Our worship is rooted in God’s creative and redemptive revealed to us in Jesus Christ
While our worship might not take the shape of sacrifices, festivals and the like of Ancient Israel it is nonetheless rooted in a Biblical understanding of creation and redemption, through the lens of Jesus Christ. Each and every week as we gather we sing God’s praises, as we hear God’s Word, as we are reconciled in confession, as we offer gifts from God’s creation, as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Eucharist and are sent forth as God’s people into the world to bring life and light – we are participating in the creation and redemption of the world. Our worship is founded on the same principles of participating in God’s creation and God’s redemption – in the Eucharist, in Communion, we believe that we are participating in the very life of Jesus, the life which is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning of all things and the fulfillment of all things.
You might think Sunday worship is just something you do, you might even think that it is nothing special, perhaps sometimes you don’t feel into it, the music isn’t right, or the sermon fell flat – but regardless of all of that I want you to imagine that we are participating in something special each and every week when we come together to offer praises. I want you to imagine that we are participating in God’s new creation, in the breaking in of God’s Kingdom. I want you to imagine that when we come here, when we hear God’s Word, when we make our confession, share God’s peace that we are participating in the reconciliation of the world through Jesus Christ beginning with ourselves and radiating outward into the world. I want you to imagine, truly imagine what our worship, what our lives would look like if we believed our worship was participation in God’s creation, in God’s redemption of the world?
Our worship is directed to God alone.
While we don’t generally fashion idols or carved images to worship, and we don’t raise up pillars or figured stones – the threat of idolatry is very much alive and well in today’s world and today’s Church. Idolatry is worshipping anything that is not God, it is allowing anything that is not the God that we encounter in Jesus and the Scriptures to be our primary focus and the primary shaper of our life. Whether it is money, fame, security, entertainment, self-importance or any number of different of things – each of us comes to worship with temptations that draw us away from God, which draw us away from the life and flourishing that God offers us.
Imagine what our common life would look like if our worship was wholly dedicated to God? Imagine what our life would be like if we were all able to resist the temptations of idolatry? I imagine that our worship would be consistently filled with joy, I imagine that it would transform us each and every week, I imagine that we would not be able to contain the Good News of the Gospel. I imagine we wouldn’t be jealous of one another, or worried about what others might think. I imagine that we would each feel included as an integral part of our communal worship.
Our worship is reverent and properly ordered
All too often I think we get caught in the trap of limiting our understanding of worship to what we do on a Sunday morning – to the songs we sing, the readings we hear, the sermon that is preached, and the bread and wine which are shared. These are certainly an integral part of what we do as a community, but just as Israel before us, Leviticus challenges us to broaden our understanding of worship to encapsulate our whole life. Worship creates community, it binds us together and it shapes who we are – even if we don’t realize it.
Imagine if we considered our whole life as worship? Imagine if we viewed everything we do as a church as part of our worship – our outreach and community engagement initiatives, our discipleship and education and our congregational care. I imagine that we wouldn’t put as much stress on Sunday mornings, but rather we would be confident that no matter what we do as a church as long as it was oriented towards God, would bring us into closer relationship with Him, would transform our lives and bring us into the abundance and flourishing of the kingdom.
My prayer today is that we might come to understand worship just as Leviticus does: rooted in the creative and redemptive work of God, rooted in the worship of God alone and properly ordered and reverent that our whole life together – from the morning when we wake up, to the moment we rest our head on the pillow – might be an offering of worship to God. Imagine the freedom and joy each of us would experience if this were true. Will you imagine with me?
Let us pray.
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