Worship: Worship Looks Back, Looks Forward
The ancient Israelites recited their history as a reminder of who they were in the world, what their relationship with God was, and how they were supposed to respond to the God of their salvation. Their expressed who they were, and how they were to live. Deuteronomy tells us one of their confessions:
My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
Remembering our salvation history is part of our worship. It is part of our confession and part of our understanding of who we are before God and how we are to respond to him in the world. That is one reason most Christians celebrate Advent, Easter and other commemorations of our Savior. These say something about who we are, because they rehearse the story that is central to our lives and our identity. Jesus the Christ defines who we are in the world.
We do not know exactly when the story began. The creation story starts simply “in the beginning.” We do not know when Adam was created, nor do we know exactly when the Word became flesh. We do not need to know. However, we know that the Incarnation happened at a definite point in history, as recorded by the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke. The story is unparalleled good news, and because it is, we celebrate. It is good news for us, and good news for the entire world.
The Christian church has a history, too. In one way, we could say that it began before Moses, with the call of Abraham. In another way, we could say it began with Jesus’ birth, or with his calling of his disciples, or with his death and resurrection. From any viewpoint, of course, we could say that the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 was a significant beginning point for the church. The rest of the book of Acts expands the story, helping us see our connection to the Jesus who died and rose again, and how the church spread from Jerusalem into a worldwide mission. Rehearsing the story, we are reminded of who we are and our call to be about our Father’s business.
Church history marches onward, though most of it did not become part of Scripture, as Acts did. The martyrdoms of Polycarp, of Perpetua, and of many others, help us glimpse the faith of the early believers. The rise of Constantine, the council of Nicea, the writings of Augustine, the rivalry between Rome and Constantinople, were major developments that helped shape the future of the church for centuries to come. Sometimes everyone “did what was right in their own eyes.” Sometimes there was a powerful leader who ruled well, and sometimes there was a leader who abused the people with excessive power. There were times of sin, of captivity, of exile and of restoration.
A significant moment came in 1517, when Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Roman pontiff on doctrinal grounds, resting his case on the Word of God. There were significant milestones in Geneva, in Holland, in England and in America. People remember these milestones, for they help shape our identity. Though we are not Lutherans, we can identify with the stand of Luther. Though we are not Methodists, we can identify with the Aldersgate experience of John Wesley, when he found his heart strangely warmed as some of Luther’s work about the grace of God was read.
We do not want to forget where we have come from, how Christ has led us toward himself, and how grace liberates us from legalism. Many people not in our fellowship have benefitted from our story, just as we benefit from Martin Luther’s. Many people can identify with our struggle, with seeing our relationship with God in terms of our works, in terms of what we do. Many well-meaning Christians still need to be liberated with a new and personal reformation.
But we do not need a new holiday on our church calendar. There is something more important to think about than ourselves, and that is Jesus Christ. He is where our salvation begins, where our reformation begins, where our identity is centered and where our response is given. Our identity and our life are based on God made flesh, on God so humble as to freely choose to be born in poverty and oppression as one of us.
What ironies! Jesus, a Jew, was persecuted by Herod, king of the Jews, but Jesus found a safe place among the Gentiles, in Egypt. But he did not remain in safety — he returned to his people, to be rejected by them in his home town and in the capital city. He was killed by religious leaders who prided themselves on their superior ethics, and by political leaders who prided themselves on the administration of justice.
The Holy One died a cursed death, the Righteous One became sin for us. The Author of Life died — all because we humans could not be saved in any other way. We could not save ourselves. Our only hope was that God himself would come to us as one of us, that he would be without sin and be a sin offering for us.
This is where our identity is — in humility, in suffering, in trusting God from birth to death. Jesus set that example and calls us to follow him. Our story begins, as Matthew tells it, with Abraham. Our story includes Gentile ancestors, a prostitute and an adulterer, and a woman who became pregnant before marriage. The glory of God was hidden in Mary’s womb in what was, as far as everyone else could see, scandalous circumstances. The glory of God is often hidden today, too, isn’t it?
That is our identity — humility and sometimes shame. We don’t look like much, even though the glory of God is living within us. Our story begins in shame, in sin, in God seeking us. We have nothing to boast about; we must simply admit our inability and look to God for mercy — mercy he has already shown to us and guaranteed for us in Jesus Christ. Our story becomes merged with his, a story that includes shame and a glory that is hidden until the resurrection.
Jesus is not only our point of identity, he also shapes the response we give to God. The formula “Be holy, for I am holy” is given shape by the saying “Be merciful, for I am merciful” (Luke 6:36). Or, “Forgive, as I have forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13). God’s graciousness toward us, shown most tangibly in Jesus Christ, carries with it the power to be gracious toward others. In him, we can do for them what he has done for us. This is how ethics is built in the new covenant; this is how grace teaches us to have godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). As he has loved us, we are freed to love others — tangibly, not just in pious sentiments.
We trust our lives to Jesus and know that our salvation is secure in him. We are freed from the fear of death, freed from the fear of persecution, freed from the fear of ridicule, freed from feelings of insecurity. Because we are secure in Christ, we are free to do good works despite the negative consequences that sometimes come with good works in this fallen world — and we are free not to withhold forgiveness until the other person has been punished enough or is sorry enough. We are free to forgive right away.
We are also free in Christ to worship any time, any place. We are free in Christ to meet when it is most expedient for the congregation and the mission field, rather than when it is most comfortable for us personally. In short, we are free to join one another in the stable and make the feed trough our bed, to serve one another in the love of our Savior, to be harmless as doves, wise as owls and always willing to learn.
Time cannot stand still. We can reminisce about and reflect on our journey, but our focus must not stay there. We must move on, for our journey is not yet done. Christ has commanded us, “Go, make disciples, baptize them and teach them to do what I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Our understanding is shaped by our history, but our future is in Christ. Our vision is informed by the past, but it exists for the future. Any attention we give to our history is pointless unless we also ask how it shapes what we do right now, and how it affects our ultimate destination. So where we were five years ago may not be as important as where we plan to be five years from now. What kind of people do we want to be — rather, what do we believe Christ wants us to be?
Whether we look backward or look forward, let’s make sure that we look to Jesus. It is to him that we owe our lives, it is in him and for him that we live and move and have our being. It is his kingdom that we belong to and serve. Christ the King, born in a manger, pleased to dwell with the humble who admit their need for him.
Author: Joseph Tkach