30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Dear Friends in Christ,
There’s a war going on in America’s churches today. Now a statement like that probably doesn’t surprise you. But when I tell you what the war is over, I can pretty well guarantee you will be surprised. For the war is not the ongoing battle with Satan and the forces of evil in this world. It’s not with liberal judges and politicians who want to take us farther down the slippery slope of godlessness that we’ve been on in our country for more than 50 years now. The war is not even between denominations, with certain church bodies insisting that since they’re right and everyone else is wrong, then their members are the only ones who are going to be in heaven.
You want to know what the war is over? Believe it or not, it’s over worship. In fact, I’ve even heard the phrase “worship wars” being tossed around quite a bit in recent years. And I don’t know of too many denominations that are immune to it. Sometime ago there was an article in the magazine Christianity Today entitled “Cease-Fire in the Worship Wars.” It began with these words:
“If your church has split over worship, you have plenty of company. And in those congregations that have not split, there is all too often a festering, unresolved conflict over the music used in worship, the choice of hymns or songs, the order of the service. These so-called worship wars have been extensively reported.”
These worship wars have certainly been evident in our own church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. And the war most often revolves around two styles of worship: traditional, which would involve what many of us lifelong Lutherans were raised on where the same liturgy was followed each Sunday straight out of the hymnal. So there were no surprises, no changes, no deviation from the norm. The other style of worship is often called contemporary. It features more of a departure from the norm with upbeat music, hymns projected onto a screen rather than sung out of a hymnal, praise bands, dramas, videos, and a host of other things that keep worshipers on their toes throughout the service because they never quite know what’s coming next.
While those are the two styles of worship most often at odds in Christian churches these days, I might mention a third style that we actually use here at Salem Lutheran. I call it a blended style of worship. This form of worship takes what’s good from the traditional and contemporary and tries to blend them together into a new style that is hopefully relevant to and touches the lives of people living in the 21st century while not totally throwing the traditional baby out with the bath water.
So in the light of all these worship wars that are going on in America’s churches these days, I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time this morning taking a look at what God has to say about this timely subject in his Word as we continue with the sermon series that I started several months ago entitled “Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World.” And since worship is to be a huge part of the God-centered life that we’ve been focusing upon in this series, the sub-theme I’ve chosen for my sermon today is “Worship Wars vs. Worship Wisdom.”
And the first point that I want to make is that God wants our worship of him to be accurate. By that, I mean that he wants us to have a right and biblical understanding of him – who he is, what he’s done, and what he wants to do in our lives. You see, the problem with a lot of people today is that they have fabricated, they have created their own comfortable, politically correct image of what they think God should be, rather than opening his Book, the Bible, to see how he has revealed himself to us there. Like somebody once said: “God originally created man in his own image. And man has now returned the favor by creating God in his image.” Some people today refer to God as the man upstairs or they picture him as this sweet old grandfatherly figure with long flowing white hair and beard who sits in his heavenly rocking chair up there and kindly turns his head the other way when his children do something wrong. But that’s not the kind of image God presents of himself in the Bible. Rather, he reveals himself first and foremost as a holy God, a God who is altogether separate and distinct from the rest of his creation, or as I like to teach my Confirmation students, he is a God who is in a class all by himself. And because he is holy, he is also a just God, which means that he must deal with sin. He can’t turn his head the other way and pretend that sin doesn’t happen. But thankfully he is also a merciful God, which means that he pities us, he feels sorry for us in our sinful condition and wants to do something about it. And he did do something about it by sending his Son Jesus Christ into our world to earn God’s grace, forgiveness, and salvation for a lost and dying world. And because of that, we know that he is also a personal God who has such an incredible interest in our lives that Jesus once said he even knows how many hairs we have on our head.
The point I’m getting at here is that our worship of God must be based on the truth of Scripture, not on our opinions our feelings, or the latest polls. I’m sure that’s what Jesus had in mind when in our Gospel reading before he told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” To worship God in truth means to worship him as he has truly revealed himself to us in the Bible.
But God not only wants our worship of him to be accurate, he also wants it to be authentic. Worship is to be more than just going through the motions, saying the right words, following certain prescribed rituals. It’s a matter of meaning what you say and saying what you mean. Therefore, it involves more than just the mouth. True worship enlists the heart, the mind, the soul. Like Jesus says in our text: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”
Maybe some of you can relate to the experience I had as a child growing up in a very traditional Lutheran church where the same liturgy was followed out of the hymnal every Sunday. It never varied. And of course, when you repeat the same words and phrases week after week, it does become rather ingrained in your mind, which can be a good thing. But it can also become rather routine, which was my problem. And because of that, I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing. Oh, I thought I was pretty hot stuff because I knew that liturgy so well that I didn’t even have to crack open the hymnal. I could do it with my eyes closed and even in my sleep. And I took great pride in that. But then we got a new teacher at our Lutheran school whom I had during my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. His name was Mr. Bishop. And when Mr. Bishop told our class one day that he always followed along in the hymnal whenever we worshiped on Sunday morning, I kind of puffed my chest out a little bit and thought to myself: “Too bad he’s not as smart as I am because I don’t need the hymnal.” But then he added that the reason he did that was to keep his mind from wandering, to keep him focused upon what he was doing because it was so easy to thoughtlessly go through the motions when you knew it all by heart. So guess what I did next Sunday in church? I opened my hymnal and followed along. And I discovered he was right. Though I knew it all by heart, my heart wasn’t really in it. So my worship was less than authentic. Kind of like what God said to the Jews in Isaiah 29:13: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Whenever we talk of authentic worship, we also have to deal with the issue of emotions because there are those on one side of the worship wars who insist that emotions need to be left out of worship because if worship becomes too emotional, then those emotions can become the focal point of the service rather than God. In other words, we worship to attain that emotional high rather than to honor God. I understand that to a certain extent, but I also know that because of its very nature, worship can be intensely emotional. And I don’t know how you can separate those emotions from your worship. Some hymns, for example, have a way of just reaching out and grabbing you by the heartstrings because they remind you of a particular situation that God helped you through or they offer praise to him in words that you’ve often felt but were never quite able to express. Hymns like “Because He Lives,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Abide with Me,” “Silent Night,” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd” are just a few of my personal favorites, each one of which holds some special memory for me that touches my heart and stirs my emotions every time we sing them.
And by the way, for those pastors who say that emotions are to have no part and no place in a worship service, I would suggest that they open up the hymnbook of the Old Testament, the Psalms, and read for themselves the wide range of emotions that the psalmists expressed as they praised God, wrestled with him, talked to him, cried to him, rejoiced in him, stood in awe of him, and thanked him.
Then one more thing, God not only wants our worship of him to be accurate and authentic, he also wants it to be active. In other words, he wants it to be more than just a one-hour-a-week thing we do on Sunday morning. He wants it to be something that permeates our everyday lives. Listen to how Paul puts it in Rom. 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” Why do you think God wants your body? Why doesn’t he say that we should offer our spirits as living sacrifices? I believe the answer to that question is pretty simple. It’s because he knows that we cannot do anything in this world without our body. You’ve heard people say, “I can’t make it to the meeting or the worship service or the Bible class or whatever, but I’ll be with you in spirit”? Do you know what that means? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s worthless. Because as long as we’re here on earth, our spirit can be only where our body is. So if your body isn’t there, neither is your spirit.
Please also note what that Rom. 12:1 passage says. It says that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. Now that might strike you as rather odd because the Bible usually associates the concept of “sacrifice” with something that is dead or about to be dead. But God wants you to be a living sacrifice. There’s a problem with that idea though. And that is that a living sacrifice can crawl off the altar and cease from being a sacrifice, which unfortunately is something we do all too often. Like one author has put it: “We sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ on Sunday, and then go AWOL on Monday.”
In the Old Testament God took pleasure in the countless animals that were sacrificed because they foreshadowed, they pointed ahead to the greatest sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, the perfect Son of God, that would one day take place on the cross. But now that the need for those animal sacrifices is over, God is pleased with different sacrifices of worship, sacrifices that involve activity on our part: thanksgiving, praise, humility, repentance, prayer, service, offerings of money, and sharing with those in need. Put simply, real worship costs. And the one thing it costs more than anything else is our self-centeredness. You cannot exalt God and yourself at the same time. Either you sit on the throne of your life or he does. And I guarantee he can do a much better job of running your life than you ever could.
So worship that is accurate, worship that is authentic, worship that is active. That’s what God asks of us. And maybe if all of God’s people would begin to understand this type of worship wisdom, we just might finally see an end to all those worship wars we spoke of earlier.