What Happens When the Church Worships God?
Sunday February 4, 2018
By Mike Ivaska
Yesterday's reading from the Daily Lectionary (which is the reading plan I use in my personal devotions) included a reading from Hebrews 12:12-29. As I was reading this passage, the following verses jumped out to me:
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
If you don't know, the book of Hebrews is actually a letter, or a written sermon really. It was written in the first century to encourage Jewish Christians who were facing persecution not to abandon their faith in Jesus by going back to their previous religious faith, Judaism. The whole letter is an extended argument about how Jesus is better. Wherever you look in the Old Testament, the author says, you see something or someone pointing beyond themselves to Jesus, and Jesus is always better. Whether you are reading about angels, Moses, Joshua, the temple, the High Priest, the sacrifices, and so on, everything you see are just shadows of Jesus.
Much of the letter is focused on the worship of Old Testament Israel (and, by extension, first century Judaism). And it was this connection that jumped out to me when I was reading yesterday's passage, particularly the verses quoted above. The author says that we who believe in Jesus have come to a better mountain than Sinai, where Yahweh gave his law to Israel. We who believe have come to a better Jerusalem, the one in heaven. We have entered the assembly, not only of our fellow believers here on earth, but of "the spirits of the righteous made perfect." Indeed, the author says, we have entered the very presence of God. And of course he means that this is our present reality in an every day sense. Christians are now, today, members of the heavenly community. But I began to consider that a large part of this letter's argument is that, in Jesus, we have something better than what took place in Israel's worship. And here in these closing chapters, the theme of Christian worship starts to pop up seemingly everywhere:
"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire." (12:28-29)
"Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat." (13:9-10)
"Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." (13:15-16)
And I began to think, what if part of what the author is saying is that when the church worships God we experience a taste of the heavenly Jerusalem. When the church worships God we enter the heavenly assembly of angels and departed saints. When the church worships God we enter the presence of God and are sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ. What if the gathering of God's people in worship, which these persecuted Christians were tempted to avoid (see Hebrews 10:25), is where these spiritual realities are most truly experienced? What if "the altar from which we eat" includes the communion meal that binds us all together (and which points behind itself to Jesus' death on the cross, the true sacrifice and the true altar)?
With the idea of the church gathered in worship, singing God's praise, lifting up our voices in prayer, hearing the Word preached, and taking communion together as a family, reread the following words...
"But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
What if that is what happens when the church worships God?