Most corporate worship services begin with an invocation, “A brief prayer near the opening of worship in which the congregation calls on God, particularly God’s Spirit, to be present and give blessing while we worship” (“The Role of Prayer in Public Worship,” Calvin Institute of Christian Worship). Like Pastor Peter Haynes, I prefer to call this the “opening prayer”.
For better or worse, I refer to the beginning prayer of worship as an “Opening Prayer” rather than as the more traditional “Invocation”. Indeed, in worship we do “call” upon the Lord, we lift up our “voices” to God — which is what “invocation” means. However, we shouldn’t be tempted to believe that our efforts invoke, conjure up, or bring about God’s presence. The truth is — “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). The voice of Christ is calling us. He is knocking upon our door. (Haynes, “Opening Prayers”.)
During our invocation or opening prayer, we are asking God to make His presence known. This may be followed by songs that passionately request God to draw near or to reveal Himself. I hear all this and I wonder: “Do we know what we are asking for?”
I came across this recently:
I was asked recently by an earnest young seminarian during a Q & A, “Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?”
Before I realized I was saying it, I replied, “What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God. Half the time I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away. (Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints [New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2015], 8.)
Now I believe God is good, yes, all the time. That doesn’t mean that our encounters with Him are pleasant and on our terms. I recall one of my favourite authors, Annie Dillard, making a similar point.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982], 58–59.)
Ok, ok, I know that God also reveals Himself to us as a loving waiting father (Luke 15:11–32) and a loving friend who washes our dirty feet (John 13:1–20). I fear that we focus only on the immanent imagery of God and ignore His transcendence and end up domesticating Him in our eyes. I still find Moses’s encounter with God in Exodus 3 useful as I think about how we approach God.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians… (Exodus 3:1–8a NRSV)
God reveals Himself as a compassionate God who is fully aware of the struggles of His people and who comes down to us, to rescue us. But He is still God and must be approached carefully.
We need to hold in tension intimacy and awe in our worship. Not easy. But if our God is not awesome enough, is He big enough to save us? To save the world?
*Illustration from freebibleimages.org