Liturgy and Worship: Background and History

A few weeks ago we gave people the opportunity to pick the sermon themes for the summer and I will introduce today’s theme with the question as it was written and sent to us:

I’d love to hear about the beauty and biblical sources for our liturgy – why we do what we do, what ancient forms it has come from and such. Most of us, even long term church-goers, don’t know this stuff and given the renewed interest by the younger generation, in ancient forms and their meanings, this might touch on a few age groups!

Now I have to admit to you this morning that, as I was preparing for this message, I felt within me some fear and consternation.  Not about the topic, that is, the liturgy.  But that I might not present the topic in a way that was interesting.  Because sometimes, I am told, people get a little bored with sermons anyway, and then, if you throw in some words, like liturgy, which aren’t that familiar to people, then maybe, I was afraid, their eyes would begin to glass over and then they would just check out.  Not that that happens,  but it could.

And I was reminded of a conversation that I had with my mother when I was younger.  One day I was talking to her and I said, “Mom, I’m not going to go to church today!”  And she said, “Well, why is that Jamie?”  (My mother calls me Jamie.)  And I said, “I have two reasons.  First of all, the sermons are incredibly boring.  And second, that have absolutely nothing to do with my life.”  And she said, “Jamie,  you just going to have to go to church anyway.  And I’ll give you two reasons of my own.  First of all, you’re 47 years old.  And secondly, you’re the pastor.  So get off the phone and get into that church.”  So I did.

But maybe the way that we need to start is with some definitions.  What is liturgy?  It’s not a word that we ordinarily use.  We can say this:  the liturgy is the structure of our corporate worship service.  Sometimes we call it the Order of Service.  It’s the format in which we do things.  And you need to have some kind of structure for corporate worship, some kind of a plan we might say.  And every Christian worship service, even so-called “non-liturgical” services do have a structure of some kind.  And so it is important for us to have a conversation about liturgy.

And we can say this:  that the liturgy is like a paving crew.  Many of you have probably seen a paving crew at work recently with all the road work that is being done in the Lower Mainland.  And a paving crew does some very important things as they pave.  First of all, they stay between the two ditches.  And then, secondly, they build a smooth surface upon the foundation that has already been laid for them by somebody else.  And then, they paint lines and place signs that give direction to those that follow.  And so, maybe it is helpful for us to think of the liturgy as a paving crew doing its work.

As we do that, there are some important things to remember about worship and about the liturgy.  If we want to be like that paving crew, we want to stay between the ditches.  Perhaps we could say that the ditch on the one side is confusion over who is the object of our worship.  We don’t want to go in that ditch.  The other ditch on the other side is confusion over what we believe.

So with respect to the first ditch—confusion over who we worship—we are very clear.  In the opening prayer at the beginning of the service, we are very clear about who we are praying to.  We are praying to God the Father, or maybe God the Son, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.  And the prayers usually end in the name of Jesus.  And sometimes in different parts of the service you will hear these words:  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,  and of the Holy Spirit.   When we do that we are saying God’s name as we begin a certain section of the service or at an important part of the service, like at a Baptism, because we want to be very clear as to who it is that we are worshipping.

And this God is not only Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three persons and yet, one God—he is also the Creator, the One who made the world and all that is in it.  He is the Redeemer, the One who bought back the entire world, including us, from sin, death and the devil.  And he is the Encourager.  He is the One who gives us the strength that we need, and wisdom, guidance, and empowerment to live life as his people in this world.  And so we want to be very clear about who it is that we worship.  We have a whole bunch of freedom in worship but we want to stay out of the ditches.

The second ditch—confusion over what we believe—we want to be clear about that as well.  We want to be clear in a couple of ways.  First of all, with respect to salvation, we believe that is all starts with God.  In fact, we would say that salvation is God’s work all on his own; that we by ourselves were dead in our sins as Ephesians chapter 2 describes us.  And saved us by grace through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.

But our desire for clarity also applies to worship.  We say that worship begins with God.  It starts at his initiative.  It begins with his action.  An example from the Bible is in Exodus chapter 20 where introduces the Ten Commandments and he does it in this way, he says,  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).    So he reminds the people what he has done for them.  And then he says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  Then he calls the people and invites them to live as his people in this world.

Another example is found in Revelation chapter 5.  Just a word about Revelation, it is full of symbolic language and the problem is that the interpretation of the symbols was not given to us.  So we have to look elsewhere in Scripture for the meaning behind these things.  And we want to base our theology on the things that are clear rather than the things that are unclear.  So it begins like this:   “1Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne…” (Rev. 5:1a)  So who do you suppose is the one who sat on the throne?   It is kind of a reference back to Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah sees this vision of God high and mighty and sitting on a throne.  So we can say that this is God the Father.  And then,  “1Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (Rev 5:1).  Now there is no explanation as to what that scroll is, but maybe we could say that that is God’s plan of salvation.

2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.

So John is writing about this vision of activity in heaven.

5Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

6Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,…

So who do you think that is referring to?  Sounds like Jesus.

… standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.

So Jesus took God the Father’s plan of salvation and carried it out and watch what happens when he does that.

8And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9And they sang a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

11Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” 14The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

So Jesus acted, he took God the Father’s plan of salvation and the result was… worship—worship in heaven, worship on earth.  And so we have an understanding of worship and of the liturgy that fits with what we see in the Bible.  God acts and we respond.

Now this is totally against what we would see in pagan worship.  Pagan worship goes like this:  I’ll worship this particular god so that I can get what I want from him or her.   So in ancient times, people would think to themselves, “I will worship the god of agriculture so I can have good crops and plenty of healthy livestock.  And this has not disappeared with the passing of time.  We still have gods in our world today but they look a little different.  They are a little more subtle.  And so today, perhaps we say to ourselves in our inner mind, “I will give my life to money, and so that money will give me what I want.  So that money will take care of me.”  Or maybe we will say, “I will give my life to my job, to my work, to what I do, and it will give me, in response, a sense of identity and meaning and purpose.”  Or “I will give my life to my friends, and then my friends will, in return, give me the help and encouragement I need to get through my everyday life.”  And each and everyone of these so-called “gods” will fail us at some point.  And when that happens, because we have built our entire lives upon them, even though we may not have realized it, when they fail our lives come crashing down around us.  And so, in our worship services we want to be very, very clear that it is God first and us responding.

And examples of this from the liturgy are the call and response of responsive readings like we had just before the confession today.   These responsive readings are quite often taken straight out of the Bible.  We also see God’s action and our response in various sections of the service.  For example, after we are forgiven by God we have the opportunity to respond with a song of praise.     After God’s Word is shared we us we can respond with our offering and prayers.  On Sundays when we have Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his Body and Blood and we have an opportunity to respond with song or we may want to sit silently in our seat in silent prayer and respond in that way.  And at the end of the service, there is a blessing for us from God and there is a chance for to respond again in song.  And so our plan for worship, the liturgy, starts with God and has our response in it.

There is a Latin term called Lex orandi, lex credenda which means that the law of worship is the law of belief.  In other words, how we worship must be consistent with what we believe.  That means that the content of worship must fit with what we believe.  For example, do you think that it would be appropriate for us to have in our worship service as a statement of faith something like this:  I thank you God that I am such a good person.  I praise you because I am not like all those other people who need your help so much worse than I do.  I go to church fairly often and I help out in the community and I know that I am already a good person, and because of that you will let me into heaven.  And I just wanted to say thanks for offering to help out, but I am doing fine on my own.  Do you think that it would be fitting to have a statement like that as part of our worship service?  No!  Because where is the focus in a statement like that?  The focus is all on me.  And it is making it sound like I’m the one who is doing all of the important work when really God is the one who is doing all of the important work.  And the other thing that we need to be conscientious about is that the structure of the worship service fits with what we believe.  For example, centuries ago the offering used to be right before Holy Communion.  And during the Reformation some of the Reformers thought, “We should move the offering so it is closer to the sermon because some people might get the impression that they are paying so they can go up and have Holy Communion and we don’t want that.”  So they moved the offering so that it was close to the sermon and further from Holy Communion.  Both the order and the content need to fit with what we believe.

Also, we have this very rich history that we build upon.    There is a strong historical connection that our liturgy has to the past.  Our worship service did not spring up out of the air a couple of hundred years ago.  It goes back many centuries and it has its roots in Jewish worship.

Herod's Temple

The Psalms were the original hymns of God’s people and so we have them into our worship services.  Some of the praise and worship songs are actually based upon those Psalms, so even if we don’t use the actual Psalm, in a way, they are in our service.  Also, our service is based upon the ancient synagogue worship service.  Jews who were living outside of Jerusalem did not have the opportunity to go to the temple for weekly or daily worship services.  So they had their own building, called a synagogue, where they would gather and those synagogue worship services had a set order.  There would be a reading from the Hebrew Bible, what we would call the Old Testament, and there would be a teaching time.

Synagogue at Capernaum

And I found it interesting as I read about this that any respected male was considered qualified to read the reading and then give the sermon.  So perhaps that is something we could think about introducing here at Walnut Grove?  And the other thing that they would have in those worship services is prayer.  And it was a set prayer and sometimes it would be kind of long but it covered some very important things.  So ancient Jewish worship is one source for our liturgy.

Another is the early Church, which added some things, including the New Testament readings and what we call the Gospel readings, the accounts of Jesus’ life.  And we often stand for those readings because we view what Jesus said as being very important.  And they also added the Service of Holy Communion which Jesus started in which he gives us his Body and Blood to assure us that he is with us and he loves us and that he forgives us.  And then the other thing that started to happen in the worship services of the early Church was some creedal statements, some statements that started to sound like statements of faith, things like “Jesus is the Messiah” or “Jesus is Lord.”  And the content of the service began to focus on Jesus Christ and what he has done to save us.

In Mark chapter 2, Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man, and the response of those watching is either revulsion (that someone would dare to say they forgive sin when God alone can do that) or worship.   And for centuries it has been this way, whenever Jesus Christ is clearly revealed for who he is—true human, true God and Saviour of the world—people respond, either with antagonism or with worship.  What Jesus rarely encounters is indifference.

And if our worship, either at home or here together with others, has become half-hearted, then perhaps we have forgotten who we are and who Jesus is and what he has done for us.  For we are a hurting, broken and dying people.  And Jesus Christ comes to us and he gives himself for us.  You and I, we are the paralyzed person on the mat and as we lay there, waiting to die, Jesus says to you and to me, “You’re forgiven!” But he does more than that.  God the Father gave his Son Jesus Christ to be the one perfect sacrifice for the whole world.  And Jesus comes to you as you lay on your mat waiting to die, and he says, “Your sins are forgiven!”  But he does more than that.  He also says, “Get up and walk!”  You see, there’s healing in the words of Jesus Christ.  He brings healing to our wounded hearts, he brings a transfusion of strength to us so that we can face those challenges in our lives that we could never face on our own without him.  And he gives us a calling.  He calls us to be his people in this world, to be salt and light in world that is also broken, and hurting and dying.   He’s made a place for us in God’s family.  He’s made a home for us in God’s kingdom and he’s called us to be a servant of Christ.  What could be better?  Praise the Lord!  Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 1 Aug 2010.)

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