Worship: The Cry of God for His People
Copyright 2019 Canna Godeassi (c/o theispot.com).
When my family and I lived in England some years ago, a terrible wind storm hit the country. Thousands of trees were felled that night. The trees were massive but their roots were unbelievably shallow. Friends told us that the water level below the soil in England is so close to the surface that the roots do not have to penetrate very deep to find their nourishment. As a result, the roots stay shallow. Even though the trees are massive and sturdy on the outside, the first major storm uproots them with very little resistance offered.
What instruction is contained in that illustration! It is not sufficient to have roots; our roots must go deep. As followers of Christ, how does one build a root system that can weather the storms of life? I believe the answer is contained in worship, for it is the consummate answer to the cries of the human heart and what God seeks in us.
God’s words through the prophets Hosea and Malachi were a heartrending plea to the people to take a hard look at how worship had lost its worth. The entire prophecy of Malachi has only fifty-five verses. But if this book was taken to heart by each believer, it could be one of the most revolutionary changes ever to take place in our thinking. Through these prophets we discover six components needed for worship.
What Worship Requires
First, we cannot worship God without love. God says in Malachi 1:2, “‘I have loved you.’ But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’” This pattern of dialogue punctuates the book, and the people’s mindset is hard to fathom. Imagine the audacity of a chosen people to ask, “In what way have you loved us?”
I know of no better way to convey how unthinkable this response is than to consider the story of Hosea. Here God’s love is illustrated in the most graphic terms. God commanded Hosea to love a woman named Gomer who ultimately deserted him and added shame to her betrayal by selling herself into prostitution. Out of this marriage came three children. The first was a son who God told Hosea to name Jezreel, meaning “judgment.” The memory evoked in the Hebrew mind when the word “Jezreel” was used was of a day of reckoning—and a dreadful one at that.
Hosea’s second child was a girl whom God said to name Lo-ruhamah, which meant “no more mercy.” The nation had lived so long off the abundance of God’s grace that there was no more mercy left for them. Even love can only go so far without prostituting itself in the process. Hosea’s third was a boy and God said to call him Lo-Ammi, which meant “not my people.” God, in strongly worded terms, was saying “I disown you.”
Imagine the mood in that home of Judgment, No More Mercy, and Not My People. Every time one of them was beckoned, there was a harsh reminder of spiritual adultery in the land. “Judgment, come to dinner.” “No More Mercy, clean up your room.” “Not My People, finish your homework.” But the worst pain in that home had to be the pain within Hosea’s heart. For him, the message God gave him was not just a sermon chastising the people and calling them back to God. He now knew better than anyone else what God was saying about love thwarted. His wife had left him to rot in the dreadful world of selling herself to strangers for the love of money. He stared at his motherless children and nursed his heart that was broken from an unrequited love. The struggle gave way to an inevitable question: “How long do I keep loving her?”
It was only a matter of time before the question moved outside the parsonage into the streets of the city where Hosea preached. A prophet of God who preached holiness was living with a wife who was a prostitute. Picture this scene for a moment. A group of worshippers are walking to the place where they are to gather. They happen to pass by the brothel where the losers and the lost hang out, one of whom derisively shouts out to the throng headed to hear Hosea’s message, “When you see him, tell him for me that some of us have bought his wife’s services and delighted in it. We are standing in line for more.” Much shaken by this distasteful reality, somebody dares to broach the subject with Hosea and says, “Please tell us. How can a holy man like you be married to an adulterous woman like that?” Hosea is silent for several moments and then says: “I have been waiting for you to ask. And I will be glad to tell you how easy it is to love a woman like that if you will first explain to me how a holy God can love an adulterous nation like us?”
If Hosea’s silence before he answered was but for a few moments, the silence of the questioners must have seemed like an eternity. How could a people have missed that kind of a love? Right from the beginning, God had reminded them that his love for them was not based upon the nation’s size or strength or particular credit. It was completely an unmerited love, poured out without measure on a people who squandered it. God could have given that privileged status to Greece. But He did not. He could have given it to Rome or to Babylon, but He did not. He looked at this tiny little nation, laughed at by Greece, bullied by Rome, enslaved by Babylon, and said, “You alone have I loved of all the nations of the earth” (Amos 3:2). His lovingkindness was shed upon them, though undeserving.
Such love seems scandalous—a love that loves the wantonly dissolute. A love that wills to love, though spurned. In Hosea, this is the point worth remembering: God’s rejected love, so flagrantly abused, was given the odious parallel of a woman who had left her husband to a life of prostitution. And yet she remained loved by him. That was the heart of Hosea’s message.
One recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah through whom God said to his people, “What more could I have done for you that I have not already done?” (Isaiah 5:4). If God could have said that centuries before the cross, we can only wonder what He would want to ask this world that has rejected Him even after the cross. What does one say to a heart that does not recognize love even in its supreme sacrifice? This raw expression of love was carried all the way to the cross.
It was a profound awakening within me when I realized that God wants us to understand not just the doctrinal fact of his love but also its emotional intensity. Love is not only a word describing commitment; it is also a concept that engenders feeling. Theologians have debated about the nature of God’s feelings, and whether or not He has them. Yet I sincerely doubt God would have chosen the explicit imagery that He did if it were not for his heart to come through in such an utterance, “I have loved you.”
This was the double tragedy of Israel. God said to them, “I love you.” Yet in their failure to recognize that love, they had also failed to see what they had lost. They did not in the process of rejecting God’s love make God less than God. They made themselves less than they were meant to be. We cannot worship without love, which means the emotions are an intrinsic part of worship.
Second, we cannot worship God without giving honor. God makes a second charge: “‘A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ …But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’” (Malachi 1:6).
In the Hindi language, the word for father is Pita. The word for mother is Mata. You do not call your father Pita or your mother Mata, even though those are the correct words. You always add the suffix, jee. You call your father Pita-jee and your mother Mata-jee, because jee denotes respect and reverence. The closest parallel in the West would be in the Southern United States where a son calls his father, Sir, and his mother, Ma’am. Daddy and Mommy are terms of endearment. The one who is nearest is also revered. In contemporary application, what God is really saying to his people is, “You call me Daddy, where is the Sir?”
When the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, which he did once a year, he had to enter backwards, for he could not come “face to face” with God. When Uzzah, well-intentioned, reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant, God gave the people a dramatic reminder that He was not to be handled as if He were a common thing. His presence was represented in the Ark of the Covenant.
This concept of honor and reverence is an extremely difficult one, especially in North America where social distinctions are removed. The breakdown of social barriers is a good thing, but there are some distinctions that ought never to be erased to the extent that legitimate respect is lost, such as with parent/child, teacher/student, and youth/old age. When these are lost, something of life’s direction has been lost for all of us. The greatest difference, of course, is between God and us, his creation. When that distinction is lost along with reverence, the greatest of all relationships dies.
Third, we cannot worship without sacrifice. God introduces this component in his response to their belligerent question, “How have we defiled you?” He answers, “By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” (Malachi 1:7-8).
When I was a young boy, I was asked if I would be willing to play Joseph in the Nativity mime one Christmas. I arrived at the church early, and at the altar I saw a silver bowl with wafers in it. Having very little knowledge of what this could be, I took a handful of those wafers and enjoyed them as I admired all the great art and statuary in that fine cathedral. Suddenly the vicar appeared. I politely greeted him and continued my enjoyment of the biscuits in hand. He stopped, stared, and quite out of control, shouted, “What are you doing?” As surprised by his outburst as he was at my activity, I said, “I am Joseph in the Nativity mime.” That evidently was not what he was asking. “What is that in your hand?” he demanded. As he stared me down from head to toe, he could see that there were more in my pocket. I received the most incomprehensible tongue-lashing to which I had ever been subjected. The word that he kept repeating was “sacrilege.” I chose never to check out its meaning for I was sure this was the end of the line for me, having done something I did not even know how to pronounce.
Years later, I could not help but chuckle when I was reading G. Campbell Morgan’s definition of sacrilege. He said that it is normally defined as taking something that belongs to God and using it profanely, such as in the book of Daniel when Belshazzar took the vessels in the temple and used it for his night of carousing and blasphemy. That was a sacrilegious use. But sacrilege, said Morgan, does not only consist of such profane use. In its worst form it consists of taking something and giving it to God when it means absolutely nothing to you.1
That was the charge God brought against his people when He said, “When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong?” Worship at its core is the giving of all that is your best to God. This cannot be done without sacrifice. If we were to pause only for a few moments and take stock, we would see how close we all come to sacrilege each day. Do we give God the best of our time? Do we give Him the best of our energies? Do we give Him the best of our thinking? Do we give Him the best of our wealth? Do we give Him the best of our dreams and plans? Or does the world get our best and God merely the leftovers?
Fourth, we cannot worship God with a wrong motive. The Lord Almighty cries out, “‘Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you … and I will accept no offering from your hands’” (Malachi 1:10).
So much in the temple had become a show. Everything seemed to point to how impressive one’s religious performance and duties appeared. But deep inside, the heart was so far away from God. Any time we find a blend of power and ceremony with the need for inward purity, there is a great risk that the latter will suffer. The monotony of repetition and the seduction of power are two extremely potent forces. That is what makes the whole concept of staying fresh in one’s study and efforts so necessary.
At least figuratively speaking, the heart is the seat of the soul. That is, our inclinations, our passions, and our desires are true intimations in matters of the spirit. They are wordless expressions of true commitment. As the old song said, “Your lips are so near, but where is your heart?” That is precisely what God is asking in spiritual expression. Their comings and goings in the temple were very obvious, but their hearts were far away.
Fifth, we cannot worship God without instruction in the truth. He calls upon the priests and takes them to task. “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7).
Is there a clearer mandate and a more sobering trust than this: to instruct people in the knowledge of God so that they might worship Him not only in spirit but also in truth? Worship can be erroneous in form, and we may at times make those errors in form. But the great danger before us is not the errors in form as much as it is in the corruption of substance. Observe the next time when the emotions run wild and pause to ask the all-important question: Is this merely a distortion in ceremony, or is this plundering the very nature of God? So often immodesty and disorder have taken over and expression has been given license. How unsettling and confusing it has become to Christendom at large, to say nothing of the skeptic. In the days when God gave priestly instructions, He warned that if there was even a callus on a priest’s hand, then he should refrain from his duties until the callus was gone, for no distraction ought to attend the concentration of the worshipper. How far have we strayed from such injunctions. Worship is not for the glory of men and women; it is for the glory of God.
Sixth, we cannot worship God without obedience. The specific point that God makes is utterly surprising:
Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. (Malachi 2:13-15)
God went back into their homes and asked them to take honest note of the broken promises that husbands had made to their wives and that wives had made to their husbands. He brought the tragedy of a nation that had lost its relationship with God right down to the marital vow. How important this must have been for Him to incorporate it into his closing words.
In the old English usage, the marriage vow declared: “With my body I thee worship.” This pledged an unqualified exclusiveness in consummating love. God says, “You have broken those vows and betrayed the wife of your youth.” In other words, worship had collapsed through a disobedient lifestyle, which fed into the sanctity of the home and returned as hypocritical worship. Of all the unexpected themes that one could have encountered in Malachi when God was talking about worship, this theme of keeping one’s marital vows would have been the least expected. Yet this is precisely what God has dealt with at length.
Worship in disarray leads all the way back to the home in broken covenants. If the word that we have committed to God Himself is not honored, what motivation is there to honor our word to our husbands or wives? The domino effect then sets in, and ungodly offspring are raised when vows are broken. God said that it grieved Him much to see the loss of the children trapped in a situation with broken commitments. This is a sobering thought and painful to reflect upon.
The Most Powerful Evangel
Years ago, I read a definition of worship that to this day rings with clear and magnificent terms. The definition comes from the famed archbishop William Temple:
Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose. All this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of all expressions of which we are capable.2
In short, worship is what binds all of life together and gives it a single focus. Conscience. Mind. Imagination. Heart. Will. Each is knit together in worship. Here love, reverence, sacrifice, motive, truth, and obedience are harnessed before the One who made us, who alone can bring unity in the diversity with which He has fashioned us.
I am convinced that if worship is practiced with integrity, it may be the most powerful evangel for our postmodern culture. Being in the presence of fellow believers in worship is a restorer of spiritual hope. We so underestimate the power of a people in one mind and with one commitment. Even a prayer can touch a hungry heart and rescue it in a treacherous time.
My colleagues and I were in a country dominated for decades by Marxism. We were invited to a dinner with skeptics—essentially atheists. The evening was full of questions, and as the night wore on, the questions began to go in circles. Finally, I asked if we could pray with them and for their country. After silence and an obvious hesitancy, one said, “Of course.” So we did just that—we prayed. In this historic room with memories of secular power on the walls, the prayer brought a sobering silence that we were all in the presence of someone greater. When we finished, every eye was moist. They said nothing but emotion was written on their faces. The next day one of them said to me, “We stayed up most of the night talking further. Then I went back to my room and gave my life to Jesus Christ.”
Over the years, I have discovered that praying with people can sometimes do more for them than preaching to them. Prayer gave them a taste of what worship is. Their hearts had never experienced it. Worship and prayer draw the heart away from one’s own dependence to leaning on the sovereign God. To a person in need, pat answers don’t change the mind; worship does.
Ravi Zacharias is Founder and President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
1G. Campbell Morgan, Malachi’s Message for Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 50.
2William Temple, quoted by David Watson, I Believe in Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1976), 157.
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