Recently I was invited to expound on the book of Hosea. Now that’s a book I haven’t looked at seriously since my time in seminary! As I grappled with the text afresh I came across this verse:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 TNIV)
This is not a theme peculiar to Hosea. It is a sentiment found all over the Old Testament prophetic books. Isaiah puts it this way:
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-17 TNIV)
Strong words. But what is God carrying on about? Wasn’t He who asked the Israelites to come before Him with the appropriate offerings? Didn’t He want His people to be a people of prayer? So why on earth is He rejecting their worship and hiding from their prayers?
As I grappled with the book of Hosea and was confronted afresh by God’s rejection of Israel’s elaborate public worship, I was reminded that for God, discipleship and public worship go together.
What really pains God’s heart is when a people whose hearts are far from Him come before with elaborate public worship that speak of their “allegiance” to Him. It is quite pointless to live your life six days of the week with no reference to God and then come before Him on the Sabbath or during the Festivals and go all out in your formal public worship. God hates that.
God defines worship as the offering of one’s total life to Him, a commitment to obey Him in every sphere of life including formal public worship. Elaborate formal worship without the worship of one’s total life was not acceptable. Too much of it enraged Him and called forth divine discipline.
As I prepared my talks on Hosea I felt that this was a word for today. A fresh rediscovery of the importance of public worship in the church today has led to the tendency to focus on the nuts and bolts of public worship to the degree that it is seen as something that stands alone, apart from discipleship. This is potentially fatal.
Every time I receive a brochure for some conference on worship, I can guess what will be covered. There will be seminars for worship leaders and musicians, sometimes dancers. There will probably be the introduction of new worship songs. And anointed worship leaders will lead participants into new and novel ways of experiencing God. There may even be some teaching on the theology of public worship.
The focus will be on getting your public worship right or making it better. There will be very little indication that public worship no matter how well it is done, is unacceptable to God if it doesn’t come from hearts committed to following Him in every area of life.
There is a need for some clear thinking here. God is not saying that we shouldn’t give our best to Him in public worship. I for one am glad that we have moved away from the days that we sang two songs to “warm up” before the sermon.
I am glad for the fresh appreciation of the place of aesthetics and emotions in public worship. I really appreciate some of the new worship songs. Indeed there is a welcome relook at the theological basis of public worship. I do not want to see us retreating from these developments.
At the same time I am deeply concerned, especially as I look at the Old Testament prophets again, that we do not put asunder what God has put together. And that means always bearing in mind that public worship and discipleship are inextricably intertwined.
Imagine two scenarios.
In one we find a people who struggle to obey God from Monday to Saturday. Among other things, they “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow.” Then they assemble on Sunday and go all out to give God the best public worship they can.
In another scenario, we have a group of people who basically live as functional atheists from Monday to Saturday. They commit many sins of omission. Some even participate in deeds of darkness. Then on Sunday they give God elaborate public worship and have powerful worship experiences.
Guess which group understands the true meaning of worship? Guess which group touches the heart of God?
Perhaps the next time we run a worship seminar we should have teaching on both discipleship and public worship. That’s worship in God’s dictionary.