WORSHIP IS REVERENCE
BIBLE READINGS: Isaiah 1.11-17, Luke 12.1-7, Exodus 3.1-7, Deut 6.20-25
Outline by Rev Dr Ian Robinson
The idea of ‘reverence’ has done some hard yards lately. Some want it o mean conservatives sitting in silence in church, and others want it to mean the expression of a passionate love. It has two allied ideas – fear and respect, and both of these are in confusion too. That gives us the hint that we need to know this for several strong and maybe severe reasons. So I will begin with stories that will put flesh and feeling around the dynamic of reverence, and then some bible study.
Q: What is “Reverence/respect” when used about worship?
To keep quiet? keep silence? dressing up to look good? dressing how someone thinks you should? acting more formally than usual? I suppose that idea comes from the idea of God as a King and everyone must act like restrained adults.
Or is it more accurate to show a God of love to see people entering church in conversation and loving greetings and ‘how has this week been?’ In this church children can be a little bit spontaneous as they are wont to do.
‘Reverence’ is a lukewarm word, at best, and I don’t want to go to a dictionary for more lukewarm definitions. So, here are some stories that I hope will put the feeling back into what we talking about.
It took my breath away. Standing near rigid with fatigue, 22 hours of labour and nothing to show but an exhausted beloved Margaret (probably should say beautiful here but you know..) and frustrated midwives, chin-brow presentation, the surgeon came. With a spinal injection and two flicks of the wrist, called a Caesarean, and suddenly there was Thomas, my boy, held up like a flag in the air, eyes twisting to see where he was now, while sutures flashed behind the green screen. Took my breath away. Love and life happening with desperate force. I was rendered completely unable to speak.
But my life-long response as a husband and father has been to live in the light of that day. You see, I recognized where the life came from. The awe of life took my breath away, AND THEN launched a life-long response . That is reverence.
Now a less dramatic light.
We stepped out of cars on to the warm sand at the river’s edge and the breathless sound of small waves. The night was black, the river too and only the glide of some far off landing lights and the blur of a distant train told us where we were. As we slipped into the kayaks the full moon began to rise like a searchlight, trailing a summery silvery path right across to us, filling us and the sky with light. As we lifted our heads to take in its procession, two black swans ambled into the silver path, swaying towards us, sharing the river. I felt he privilege, a ‘welcome to country’ by these gorgeous native birds. The magic of the moment stayed with us all during that night, and for days and now every time I go there.
That take-your-breath-away feeling was the beginning of a response of reverence. Of course I could have treated it as just another beautiful sight in my collection of memories. I have let in awe and let my response be shaped by it – that is reverence.
Some days even if only for a moment, as I walk or stand or sit , I break through my mind’s preoccupations. I can feel the weight of God’s presence, how shall I say, a flowing loving giving cherishing living creating beautifying redeeming dynamism. In his eyes the hairs of my head are numbered. As I wait this presence comes into focus in the shape of Jesus. He died for me, can you beat that? My little acts of service and submission are to God (as Isaiah says, “precious in my eyes and honoured and I love you” . My growth in his love is his main game. My connection with the people of God around me and across the globe is his goal. Everything that breathes and everything of gravity in the cosmos shares in His great purpose and which is at work IN ME, Glory to God, IT IS AT WORK IN ME. Wow.
That takes my breath away and thus would I swoon in him. I give myself to be able to arrive in that attitude, and I live in its light as I choose to respond in deeds of submission and service, That is reverence.
I finished my sermon at a metropolitan Uniting Church and some tired older leaders thanked me with great feeling for my words of encouragement and hope. “God is not finished with us,” they smiled somewhat wearily. Last time I had preached there I met a vibrant bunch of young adults but to my surprise they were all gone. One of the elders in shirt and tie approached me. ‘Why do you dress that like, you look like a student or something.’ He pointed to his tie and his own righteousness and continued – ‘You should show respect to God’s house.’ I suddenly saw why they had all left, why the youth leader had finished up suddenly. That too took my breath away. To impose religious legalism where God’s love had before been shared and grown. I am sad to say, his ‘respect’ was not reverence, just another enforced ritual of which Isaiah 1 speaks and to which God says “I will not listen.”
In church, indoors, on time, in rows – it is not really the hugeness of God that gets through to me, it is the fine surgery that he does. One night late in a darkened church I found myself getting annoyed with the precious prayers that went too long, stating the obvious, pathetic jokes, music disorganised and long winded – what was wrong with me?! These are good and godly people and I am bothered be with them? So I asked the Lord to search my heart. Almost immediately I saw my anxiety for the new role that I had moved interstate to do. Like a little Jeremiah, I wanted to be a prophet to the nations with the gospel.
‘It is too much for you’ he named it.
‘Have I made a mistake coming here then?’ My anxiety speaking even louder.
‘It is not too hard for me.’ I realize afresh whose task it is and whom do I serve.
‘Thank you Lord, I will stop asking you to walk my road and I will walk the road with you’.
That is not the punch line. There is even more surgery.
‘You want to reach the nations here in this state? He showed me King David in 2 Sam 7.19
“Who am I sovereign Lord and what is my family that you have brought me this far? And if this was too small a thing in your sight, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant – and this decree, Sovereign Lord, is for one human being!’
‘What you are thinking is too small.’ God said.
Suddenly I am thrilled again to be a servant of the Lord. Again I surrendered my heart and time and talents and all my best, win or lose, to this Lord Jesus Christ.
Can you see the spiritual dynamic – impatience shows worry becomes intimacy, awe at my calling, respond in reverence?
Why do we need to know this?
Because We become what we Worship
Isaiah 1 is ferocious against having the ‘best’ in worship that produced a society with the worst case of the privileged few. They had all the right moves in church-reverence but could not see the consequences of what God calls worship. So also Rom 12:1-2 transformed nonconformist lives show ‘acceptable worship’. The day-to-day consequences of our worship really matter, or God ‘will not listen’.
Worship says what is really the ultimate to us.
Everyone worships something, in that sense. The question is not ‘will you worship?’ but , if I look at your life and see what rules it in practical day to day decisions, ‘what do you worship’? The ongoing question is :’ is it worth it, is it the best. How many competing gods are in your head? Which God can hold the weight of your life’? Only Jesus the incarnate One.
Our culture is ‘pushing us away ‘ from God
People around us are investing in other things. Maybe a part of you, inside you, is investing the wrong things.
You can see it in our culture of disrespect
a. In many schools a cultivated culture of disrespect – facebook, blog comments, some high schools, male aussie humour > which leads on the other hand to ….In some places the importance of self-deprecating humour. If you don’t they might think you are important.
b. Social disrespect to God and people – OMG!, Jokes about God may become blasphemy, F*** words and other offences. Once I tried to escape by saying : “That’s Ok he’s a friend of mine” and it totally disarmed them, laughing they never said it again. Worked better than righteous indignation!
c. Churches without any customs of reverence, emphasising expression and passion, or passivity and neutrality without the bowing of the knee. Out of ignorance, I have heard criticism that Orthodox church reverence of icons, or Catholic crosses or…
d. Churches with too narrow understanding of what God calls respect . Why do they call me ‘reverend’ – is that so they do not have to be?
You can see it in a culture of distant respect
These are not new issues. Reverence as practised in the Graeco-Roman world:
a. They expressed respectful reverence at a great mistake, a lofty thought or like me at a sublime moment of awe. Essentially it was reverence at a distance, characterised byDrawing back. I hope our prayers are not like that for you. That’s not a biblical meaning.
b. In their hierarchy of officials and the circus of status, they had to keep up the appearance of doing reverence and giving honour to a great one. But that did not necessarily mean obedience, it could be fawning. In what is called a shame-honour society, their expression flipped from Woeful shame to excessive praise and none of it meant anything tomorrow. I hope your singing is not like that for you. That’s not a biblical meaning.
c. To do Reverence was to perform a religious action or duty in a temple or in one’s household shrine. Stand, sit, sacrifice, burn incense, sing, say the prayers. It’s what you do, it’s what you had to do to gain favour with the gods. ‘Pay due reverence’. I hope your church is not like that for you.That’s not a biblical meaning.
These are just some of the elements of worship at that time. SO CLEARLY respect is culturally determined as well as determined by the kind of worship expects.
Let’s look to scripture as our resource and guide.
FEAR God and BE NOT AFRAID
Trembling fear: Read the story of (Ex 3.6) Moses at the burning bush. He takes off his shoes for it is holy ground. But when he gets a little closer, he hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. Have you noticed that the voice immediately goes on to say that God has come to save not to destroy! Fear meets favour. In Ex 19.16 Everyone trembled with fear and stayed that way. The difference? Moses went close.
Hear the fear that draws in close in Psalm 2.11. Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son (the king) or he will be angry…his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him!
Biblical reverence is not about honour for honour’s sake, not holding back but coming in close to take refuge in the only possible friend. Are you close with God?
‘Fear God’ does not mean that God is a distant magistrate. God’s wrath is not waiting to pounce and punish, waiting for us to be good enough so he will deliver us from trial. God is not outside the world aloof but in here with us in compassion and holiness. He is just holding things steady enough, patiently allowing us all the room we want to co-create this world, like riding a wild horse, like a horse-whisper even. Let that image percolate around with you a while.
Isaiah and others express a fear of death by the fire of holiness but it doesn’t happen. When the fire falls they get called, loved and told ‘do not fear’.
What is it that burns so fiercely? The New Testament tells us unequivocally . It is a big Love that draws us in.
GOD IS BIG LOVE
God’s love is not any kind of love that we wish it to be. God-love has a particular set of priorities, a particular architecture and certain values are higher than others. So, to retian that architecture and priorities, we must keep his commandments:
Dt 5.29 : oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always. To obey his voice 1 Sam 12.14, To walk in his ways Dt 8.6
God expects a behaviour consequence from those who revere him. To turn away from evil Pr 3.7 Do not be wise in your own eyes but fear the Lord and shun evil. God’s love is healing, holiness and hope.All choices have consequences, all compromises lead to the next choice and we need to be clear what kind of community that we want to be seeding.
We have been shown a value system that we seek to adhere to completely, not picking the ones that we like, and not just quoting them against others. It still calls for interpretation into our context but that does not make some of them optional.
This love has three main characteristics – healing, holiness and hope.
God is Healing Wholeness God is not a mysterious space that we stand still and look at, but a place you come into for completion/fulfillment,.
God instills the beauty of Holiness Only those who know the fire of his grace can understand why anyone would want to obey his holiness completely. 2 Cor 7.1 perfecting holiness out of reverence for God
God instills in us hope for a Big LoveThe commands of God are not burdens imposed by a despot. They describe the way of Big Love. We can HOPE to have, in our ordinary lives, the impossible possible and the attainable presence of a personal infinity. So don’t make your aim any lower or any other little love – in all of life – romance, daily work, counter cultural, neighbourhood.
FEAR GIVES US THE RIGHT KIND OF COURAGE
Acts 9.31 Living in fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit the church increased in numbers.
2 Cor 5.11 We make it our goal to please Him…Since we know what it is to fear the Lord we try to persuade people. What we are is plain to God…
Fear says it is necessary to be Counter cultural Dt 6.13, 10.20, Josh 24.14-15 Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt….Choose: as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Also 1 Pet 1.17
Q: Where in your life are you aware that you have changed your thinking away from that of your ancestors (‘we are Ok and we have got it right just do as we say’) in favour of God’s revelation and impartiality (‘see true reality, see the ultimate, live that way completely above all other allegiance’)
So Fear God but do not be afraid.
In case you think this fear is all so Old Testament not New Testament, Jesus said:
Luke 12.5 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear. Fear him who after your body has been killed has authority to throw you into hell! Yes I tell you fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? …
NOTE: Judgement by Jesus is grounds for confidence about ultimate justice and kindness.
Did you see that Jesus follows the same pattern, fear meets favour – ‘fear Him who…you are of more value than sparrows’ . Fear is respect for God’s authority, which is quite singular, unmatched and unsurpassed, and which is repeatedly stated we might well fear but/and/because it is a force FOR us. Reverence lets that is and draws us to respond.
How to express reverence for God?
Obviously, not by the way you dress for church! Not by simply being quiet.
Adopt in your prayers, in church or elsewhere, the practice of an expressive physical action – a simple gesture of hand or bow or knee or prostration, keeping silence, an offering of sacrifice. E.g. Benedictine bow of the head when we say ‘glory be to the father…’. Not a compulsory ritual except in the sense that we can all act together in solidarity.
Faith is obedience in holiness, yes, to a love that is described by all the covenant commands of God ‘the honouring of God by total lifestyle” IS more than cultic activity. It takes your breath away. And then you do reverence.
Don’t let anything take you from prayer with a ‘face to face’ God and not ‘a God who is far off’. If there is major noise in your mind, major pain in your heart, then you might have to get to shouting your response if you are to be reverent.
God summons us to have more fear and be less afraid.
Christians understand a more clearly that a judging God is also a more welcoming God. What is more that holiness is a necessary expression of Love, which is the greatest, best, yet not unattainable and most possible Love. If we fear God we accept no cheap substitutes.
PRAYER IF YOU DARE
I am seeking your face
I am catching my breath
I am living the life
I am wrapt in your love
To me, for me, through me
Holy holy holy
More fear and not afraid
Loving living Only God.