Understanding Lutheran Worship 1: What is “Authorized”?
When God’s people get together and “worship” … what are they supposed to be doing?
We might have some ideas of what we’d like to do. As human beings we have senses, and want love to have them please … so we like things that taste yummy, sound pretty, look beautiful, smell nice and feel good. We evaluate the basic goodness of our days by how our senses are pleased.
Most successful, contemporary churches do a good job of catering to our sensuality. Convenience parking, slick signage, cushy seating, cutting-edge publications, antiseptically clean facilities, meticulous landscaping, great music (from the parking lot PA system to the worship band), dynamic communicators, tasty catering for guests … and don’t get me started on the children and youth ministries! Having been on the staffsof these types of churches, I can tell you that these things aren’t afterthoughts — a large amount of time, attention and cash is given toward honoring these sensual values, and pleasing the people who hold to them (in Jesus’ name, of course).
Flashback to the ancient worship of Israel. Having traveled far to the place of worship, your hands bloodied from having slit the neck of your sacrificial animal (the best one in the flock, too), you stand in the heat and dust of the desert as the priest literally sprinkles your tunic (one of the two you own) with animal blood (“Hey, that stains!”). This was not “seeker sensitive” … this was seeker hostile.
But it was what God prescribed. And it’s His worship, not ours.
Take time to read the story of the tabernacle worship service in Leviticus 8-10. (You’re not grabbing your Bible, are you? No, really … read it, if not right now, but soon.) Aaron and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, are putting together the worship service for Yahweh. Throughout these chapters, it says that they were preparing the service “as the LORD commanded“ (8:4, 5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 9:5, 6, 7, 10, 21, 10:13, 15). The climax of the service is described in 9:23-24: “The glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when al the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.” God showed up, just as He promised!
Then, Nadab and Abihu had a great idea! They thought it would be neat to take some of the fire from the altar, and put it in their censers … either to just have a bit of it for themselves, or to be able to take it from the altar and show their friends. Anything wrong with that? It’s just a little fire, right? And wouldn’t it be good for people to see the fire up close? Hey, I can use this divine fire to light my fire-pit and candles at home! It looks awesome, smells great, feels warm, sounds cool…
One problem. BIG problem. It is “unauthorized fire“ (10:1). The result? “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord, and consumed [Nadab and Abihu].” God is deathly serious about His worship. He wants it “just as He commands.” To do what you want to do, instead or in addition, is unauthorized.
Now, I know of no instances in my lifetime where God has sent down fire on bad worship. (I’ve wanted to see it sometimes, but that’s sin on my part – a worse kind of sin than the bad worship.) Still, this text serves as a glimpse into the heart of God about HIS willingness to bless our worship, and the seriousness with which He insists on HIS prescriptions.
So … what does God prescribe for His worship? It was clear to Moses and Aaron … is it clear to us today?
More in the next blog …
– Bill Hartley