A New Way to Worship

By Scott McClellan

Before we can really talk about worship, there’s one idea we all need to grab ahold of: we are all worshipers. It’s not a question of if we will worship, but rather a question of what or who we will worship. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way:

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worship. You worship. Everyone you know worships someone or something. And this isn’t a new phenomenon either—humans beings have always been worshipers. It’s almost like we were created that way.

So let’s talk about worship. In fact, let’s begin with worship in the ancient world.

SACRIFICE FIRST

In the ancient world, the specifics of religions varied along family, village, tribe, and regional lines, but worship tended to follow a pattern. An ancient worshiper would prepare an offering, a sacrifice—perhaps a portion of the farmer’s harvest, some wine from the vineyard, or maybe a lamb culled from the flock—and then the worshiper would take the sacrifice to a sacred place. This sacred place could’ve been a household shrine, a local temple, or a special altar outside of town, but whatever the case, the worshiper would take the sacrifice to the sacred place, offer it to their god, hope the god would look favorably on this offering, and then leave the sacred place hoping to receive the god’s mercy in the form of better circumstances—fertility, the upcoming harvest, or a war on the horizon. So that pattern of worship throughout the ancient world looked like this: First, I initiate an interaction with my god through worship, the climax of which is the sacrifice I offer. Then, I hope my god sees my sacrifice and responds by being merciful and improving my circumstances

I offer a sacrifice, and then hope to see my god’s mercy.

THE MERCY OF GOD

It’s in the midst of this kind of worshiping culture that the Apostle Paul wrote a long letter to the community of Christians in 1st-century Rome. Amid temples where people worshiped the Roman pantheon of gods, past the Coliseum where people worshiped celebrity and entertainment, beyond the brothels where people worshiped sex, the Senate where people worshiped power, and the academies where people worshiped knowledge, there was a community of people who were called and compelled to worship Jesus.

And so Paul writes them this letter, and even though they’re already missionary disciples of Jesus, Paul declares he’s eager to come and preach the gospel to them. And in fact he doesn’t wait for a visit, he begins to preach the gospel to them in this letter we call Romans. In the letter he talks about the brokenness we all carry, and how that brokenness separates us from God. In our sin we stand unrighteous and condemned, dead in our rebellion and alienated from the God who created us in his grace and power. But there is a righteousness to be had, he says, and it comes through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” he says in Chapter 3. In fact, he goes on to say—and remember the world in which his first readers would’ve heard this—“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood— to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25).

In subsequent chapters Paul dives deeper into the new life we have in Christ—not because of what we’ve done, but because of what Jesus has done as our substitute and champion, our redeemer and restorer. Paul wants his readers to see the goodness and grace and power of the God who is able to rescue and renew the lost and broken. He liberates captives. He breathes new life into the dead. He calls us his children. In a world so formed by the pattern of offering sacrifices and hoping for mercy, Paul wants them to see the profoundly different and breathtakingly beautiful story of Jesus, and so over the course of this letter he tells them. 

And having born witness to what God has done on our behalf—what we could never do for ourselves through sacrifice or trying harder or performing well—Paul begins to talk about our response. Everything he’s covered in the first two-thirds of letter—our need for God, the saving work of Jesus, and our new life in the Spirit—leads Paul to a conclusion. And so he begins with the word, “Therefore.”

    Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1

A NEW PATTERN

Do you remember the pattern of worship at work in the ancient world? I offer a sacrifice, and then hope to see my god’s mercy.

Compare that pattern to the word of God in Romans 12:1 again:

    Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to off er your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— this is your true and proper worship. 

It’s a complete reversal. In this new humanity God is forming in the church, in the story of Jesus, worship has forever changed. 

See, we don't worship and hope to earn God’s mercy; we view God's mercy and it moves us to worship. Worship is never the first word, it’s simply our response to what God has done. God has spoken first. He spoke the world into existence. By his word we have light and life and breath, and his Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And that flesh was pressed against the least and the lost, the sick and the scandalous, the overlooked and the outcast. And that flesh was bruised and torn, nailed to a cross, absorbing our sin and the shame—“a sacrifice of atonement,” Paul called it. The perfect embodiment of God’s mercy. And this mercy moves us to worship him in response. And it’s not that we merely worship him in the mix of our personal pantheon of gods and idols—no, in view of this mercy, we worship him alone. We don’t offer a piece of ourselves—we offer our whole selves. As long as we live, we worship as living sacrifices.

In our worship center at IBC, a cross serves as our focal point. It’s there to remind us of God’s mercy and Jesus’ death on our behalf. It’s there to remind our hearts that we come to this place to worship because God first drew near to us in Jesus. When you enter that place each week, take a moment to reflect on the cross and God’s great mercy toward us. And in view of this mercy, we offer our bodies, our very lives, as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is our true and proper worship.

In the ancient world, in me-centered worship, you act first. You offer your sacrifice and pray to your god, “In view of my sacrifice, respond in mercy toward me.” The invitation of the Jesus story, to anyone who would be his disciple is the exact opposite: “In view of God’s mercy, respond with a sacrifice.” And our sacrifice is not a dead or inanimate object, but our very selves.

In our new discipleship experience, Foundation, we define Christian worship is our practice of directing our attention and our affection toward God. We direct our attention toward God, we view his mercy, we remember his story, and we celebrate his character. In response we offer ourselves to him, we surrender our will to his, and his love for us ignites in us love for him.

We are all worshipers. I worship. You worship. It’s not a question of if we will worship, but rather a question of what or who. The invitation to all of us is view the mercy of God on display in his story, the gospel, and to respond in worship. Not with mere words or lifeless sacrifices, but with ourselves—our lives, our loves, our rhythms, our desires, our work, our relationships, our compassion toward and availability to our neighbors. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. As missionary disciples, this is our true and proper worship.

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