It is probably not surprising to you that God has an opinion about the way we worship. As is the case with so many other things, God is not only interested in our doing of a particular thing but in how we are doing it. Obedience is not just about right action or right result; it's also about right "way". Jesus was obedient, even to death on the cross. The central temptation of Jesus was to get Him to do God's work in the Devil's way. Much has been written about the three temptations Jesus faced in this regard, from Dostoevsky to Eugene Peterson.
When this principle is applied to worship, however, the discussion usually becomes about physical actions: God wants us to lift our hands, dance, clap, etc, we say. And that may be true. The one who made us just might know something about what helps engage our whole being in worship. But I read something in Deuteronomy today that made think of a few other "ways" our worship must be:
"Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods." Deut. 12:4 (NLT)
The Book of Deuteronomy puts a great emphasis on avoiding idolatry. Even Deuteronomy 12 opens with an injunction to destroy pagan shrines and every trace of idolatry, echoing a theme that has surfaced several times in the preceding chapters. But God doesn't stop there. It wasn't enough to not worship idols; they were not to worship Yahweh in the way pagans worshipped idols. So, what were the ways pagans worshipped their gods? Are those ways still prevalent in how people in our culture worship success or fame or wealth? In what ways was the worship of Yahweh to be different from pagan worship? Based on Deuteronomy 12, here are some thoughts on the way we worship our God:
1. Be Communal Not Privatized
The first thing God says about His "way" of worship as opposed to the pagans is about place. "Rather, you must seek the Lord your God at the place of worship he himself will choose from among all the tribes-- the place where his name is honored." That specific place is where they are to bring their burnt offerings, sacrifices, tithes, sacred offerings, offerings to fulfill a vow, voluntary offerings, offerings of the firstborn of their flocks (vs.6, 10-11). You get the point. But in case you missed it, Moses goes on: "Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings just anywhere you like. You may do so only at the place the Lord will choose within one of your tribal territories" (vs. 13-14a).
In John 4 Jesus helps us understand that there is nothing inherently sacred about a geographic location anymore. It is worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth that the Father is after. But wherever those worshippers gather in His name, there He is. And every gathering has a place just as every family has a home. Place matters because that’s where the gathering is. By specifying a location for their worship in Deuteronomy, God was teaching Israel that worship was not a private matter. They could not freely offer sacrifices anywhere they liked. It had to be at the chosen place within their tribal territory. Their worship was to be in the context of their tribe-- or in our language, community.
There is something dangerous about our tendency to privatize or individualize everything. When worship becomes privatized it becomes vulnerable to error-- false worship, wrong thinking about God; moreover, it becomes anemic. Our worship must not only remind us that we belong to God, but that we are His people, we are part of His tribe. This is likely why Jesus' chosen word for the His new people was ekklesia, the gathering or assembly, a word that conjures images of a city gathering with purpose. Much can be said about our current trend toward meeting with a few friends just like us in a home and calling it "church", but that must be saved for another blog. For now, it will do to start us thinking in a more communal or corporate way about worship.
2. Honor Life, Don't Desecrate It
Moses continues by telling them that could eat meat so long as the blood was drained: "But you must not eat the blood. You must pour it on the ground like water" (vs. 16). From Leviticus 17, we know that "life of every creature is in the blood". Blood was for atoning for sins, not for eating or drinking. Wrapped in this strange command is an instruction about the sanctity of life.
By telling Israel not to eat the blood of an animal when they joyfully ate its meat as part of their worship celebration, God was teaching Israel not to let worship make them self-indulgent. It's as if He was saying, "Don't get so caught up in the joy of worshipping Me that you forget about others, that you think your life is more valuable than theirs." Later in Israel's history they would be rebuked for celebrating great sacred festivals and feasts at the expense of the poor and the needy (Amos 5). Our worship, while being communal, must not be insular. Life is precious: the Life that was given so that we might truly live, the lives that are suffering without that Life, and the lives that are trivialized and extinguished by genocide, abortion, abuse, and injustice all around the world. Worship must lead us to honor life and to protect it.
3. Involve Our Children, Don't Sacrifice Them
Toward the end of the chapter, Moses adds a very specific detail about how pagans worshipped their gods, one that Israel had to avoid: “You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods” (vs. 31). When Moses talks about what Israel was to do with their children, the two ways come into sharp contrast: “You must celebrate there in the presence of the Lord your God with your sons and daughters and all your servants” (vs. 12a). In Yahweh worship, children are included in the celebration; in pagan worship, the children are sacrificed.
How often do we aim to serve God, to worship Him, to bring Him honor, but do so at the expense of our children? Far too many servants of Yahweh—pastors, missionaries, marketplace ministers—are sacrificing their children to carry out their work for God. This is how our culture works for its gods of wealth and success. But our God does not want to be worshipped in that way. His way of being worshipped means that we bring our children into what we are doing for Him. We are to talk with them when we are “at home and when [we] are on the road, when [we] are going to bed and when [we] are getting up (Deut. 6:7).
It's good that we are learning to put away idols and idol worship. Now perhaps it's time we rethink the way we are attempting to worship God, so that we aren't doing it the way the ancient pagans did. The way we worship matters immensely to God.