Remember when God led the people of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt through Moses? It’s part of your history as God’s people, the Church Israel. After Moses led the people up out of Egypt, God led them all to Mount Sinai in the desert. Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Law from God while the people remained at the foot of the mountain. But, when Moses later came down from the mountain he found that the people had created a golden calf for themselves to worship. While Moses was with the Lord God, the people engaged in idolatry. They basically formed their own religion, exchanging the truth for a lie.
This is a constant temptation for all of us. The temptation is to teach as doctrines the commandments of men; that is, to create our own little rules and base our religion around those rules rather than around the Lord God. In Mark 7:1-13, Jesus encounters the Pharisees who had done this. They had rules about everything. These rules defined their religion. They had rules about eating and drinking and washing and what was clean and unclean. To be a good in a religious sense meant that you followed all these rules. Who you were was defined by what you did.
So, they get upset with Jesus and his disciples because they’re not following all these rules. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
They want to know why Jesus isn’t following the rules. Jesus responds in a strong rebuke by referring back to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 29:11-19). Jesus says to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Then he clinches it by saying to them, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
This is just what the Israelites had done in the desert; they left the commandment of God and followed their own inklings instead. Like them, the Pharisees had defined themselves and their religion by what they were doing. In essence, their religion was based around things they could control.
Their religion was therefore no longer centered around God’s promise of the coming Messiah that was even then being fulfilled in their midst. The Pharisees thought that they were faithful to God, but what they were really faithful to was their own self-defined sense of piety; the missed the Savior in their midst.
Now, lest we beat on the Pharisees too hard we have to realize that we are subject to the same temptation. We also have a tendency to define ourselves and our religion by what we do. Our focus is so easily shifted to questions about what we can or should do to the point that sometimes we define being a good Christian as meaning that we follow all the “rules.”
What’s often lost in this is what God has done for us. He has sent his Son to die and rise for us. The God who created us and all things has forgiven us of all our sins and redeemed us from eternal death and the power of the devil. God has done it all and given it all to us as a gift. So, taking this into account, the question is then no longer what we can or should do, but rather what is the proper response to what God has first done for us? To be a good Christian then means that we respond faithfully to God’s grace and mercy through Christ. The focus is on what God does; we’re simply recipients, responders to God’s grace.
So, if God is the lead actor in this great drama of our salvation and redemption, then how do we arrange the stage? How do we organize our worship so that what comes center-stage is the message of the holy Lord’s justification of sinful humanity by His grace through faith in Christ? That is, how do we put the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center? Everything else on the stage should point to and serve this message.
So, the questions about how we worship, where we put the Baptismal font, where we put the altar, what music we use, and all the other related things should be framed within this context. The question isn’t what we can and can’t do – we have freedom in Christ. The real question is what is most helpful to the proclamation of the Gospel and our walk with our sister congregations as they too seek to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What will put the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center?
Luther talked about how when we go to worship, we come as beggars with empty bags; in fact, after he died they found a piece of paper on which he had written, “We are all beggars, this is true.” His point is that The Lord continually fills our bags with His gifts of grace and mercy through Christ. This is a different image than what is often portrayed about worship. The dominant image of worship in our culture tends to be that we are going with full bags, giving the Lord our gifts. But, this image puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It puts the emphasis on the Israelites at the foot of mount Sinai doing their thing, rather than on Moses at the top of the mountain receiving gifts from the Lord. God is the giver in worship and in all of life.
There’s a latin phrase that talks about how worship and belief relate to each other. The phrase is lex orandi, lex crendendi. It means, basically, that the law of prayer or worship is the law of faith. Basically what it’s saying is that the way we worship will impact the beliefs we have.
That’s why we put the font up front: to remind us of our Baptisms and the fact that we entered into the Church through Baptism. That’s why we put the altar in the center: to highlight Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper in our midst. That’s why we have a pulpit or lectern: to highlight the Word of God being proclaimed. Worship is the Divine Service, because the Lord is the one serving us. He served us in our Baptisms when He Baptized us into Christ’s death and resurrection. He serves us in the proclamation of the Word as He gives us the life-giving Gospel. He serves us in the Lord’s Supper as He gives us Christ’s body and blood.
What we hopefully begin to see is that our entire lives are worship. God is continually giving to us and we are responding in faith to what He has done. We see our vocations as ways in which we respond to what He has first done for us, as we are faithful wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, parents and children, teachers and students, employers and employees. We see that coming to Church on Sunday is not a time where we are giving back to God; rather, it’s yet another time when God gathers us together to bless us as the very body of Christ united around Christ’s body at the altar. We see that it’s no longer a question of what we can or cannot do, but a question of how best do we receive God’s gifts and respond in faith and praise and thanksgiving. We see that our faith and religion is defined not by what we do, but by what God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Christ.
(Image: Altar, pulpit and baptismal font in the Church of Skagen, Northern Denmark. By Matthias Schalk – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50361070 )