by Karen J. Diefendorf
As our congregation worked through the book of Hebrews recently, I listened anew to Hebrews 8:1-5:
The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.
Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (emphasis mine).
I immediately was reminded of two occasions, one recent and one from years ago.
Last year I attended an Antiochian Orthodox Church’s worship service. Afterward the priest responded to questions from some students about why Orthodox liturgy has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. He explained that the Orthodox believe worship goes on around the throne of God eternally; that is, that worship does not start and stop and start again as it does on earth. As such, when the Orthodox congregation gathers for worship, it is acutely aware it is joining something already in progress.
Orthodoxy believes whatever is done in worship on earth ought to mirror what is happening in Heaven. Earthly worshipers come into God’s presence for a while and then depart. So it is important for them to enter and depart worship in a reverent manner.
Modern Orthodox believers don’t get involved in discussions over what kinds of worship or contemporary music would attract prospective members or retain their own young people. At the center of their theology of worship is the belief that worship is for God. The only question up for discussion is, “How might I worship God better?” Nowhere is there a consideration of what might thrill the worshiper.
ENTERING HIS PRESENCE
In the 1970s I subscribed to the Wittenburg Door, a magazine known for its religious satire. No topic was off limits. Many of us in seminary loved to laugh together about the latest articles.
The only serious article in the magazine was the editorial column. It was all business, and the one editorial I remember was about worship. Much to my surprise, the editors of this magazine given to satire raised a concern that too much modern Protestant worship seemed bent on being trendy. Churches were competing to see who could have the most innovative style, from worship bands to chancel dance, and drama groups to liturgical readings.
These recollections lead me to ask, “Did the writer of Hebrews understand something we have missed?” I know the first response to all of this could be, “We don’t live under the law anymore, so I don’t think the forms matter.” Certainly you would be correct to say we no longer are bound by the law. But is there something here about honoring Jesus, the great high priest, with the precision and solemnity of worship that my generation has so quickly dismissed as just old or traditional? Certainly the text itself is meant to highlight that Jesus as the great high priest is superior to earthly priests whose experience is only an example and shadow of what is heavenly. Jesus functions in the real place. He is superior.
But what if we considered that we are entering into God’s presence while worship is already occurring, and leaving quietly while it still continues? Would this return us to a missing sense of awe?
EVENING . . . AND MORNING
I was reminded recently of a rabbi’s comments about how we Christians view our importance to God’s work. He said we ought to reread Genesis. It clearly says God’s day was evening and morning, day one. If we accept that order, then when you and I get out of bed in the morning God has already been at his day’s work for several hours. We merely join him at what he’s already been doing. He allows us to join him even though he knows we are not capable of completing any task without him.
Perhaps you remember, as I do, running outside when you were young to help your father or mother with some task. You really weren’t much help; in fact, your parents probably had to slow their work to accommodate you, or even redo what you did. Yet they allowed you to join in it with them. “Evening and morning, day one.”
The humbling point is that none of this, our work or our worship, is about us. It is all about God and always will be. I’m not suggesting we adopt an Orthodox form of worship or revert back to Judaism. I am suggesting that getting out of our own way might be a first step in entering into whatever form of worship our congregation may be using, whether traditional, contemporary, or somewhere in between.
Is God my first thought? Am I conscious that all we do is about God? And if not, can I challenge the minister, worship leaders, elders, and deacons to thoughtfully craft worship so it really does lead me into God’s presence?
A CLOUD OF WITNESSES
I take comfort in trusting that my recently deceased mother spends eternity in praise and worship before the throne of God. There are multiple images in John’s Revelation accompanied by words that are spoken or sung before the throne. Many of those words make up today’s more modern worship choruses like “Thou Art Worthy,” taken from Revelation 4:11, itself a reflection of 1 Chronicles 29:11, 12. Some other words are reflected in older hymns like “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee, which wert and art and evermore shalt be.”
So, whether words are set to modern tunes, tunes from the 1800s, or tunes traceable to the second century, what matters most is that the words direct you to worship God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We aren’t the only worshipers; we join a cloud of witnesses already in God’s very presence.
Karen J. Diefendorf is academic dean at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. She served 13 years in various pastoral ministries and 20 years on active duty as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.