A preaching assignment a couple of weeks ago drew me back into the text of the Old Testament to reflect on worship. There, with the help of friends, I re-discovered a foundational reality. In the Old Testament, there are basically two words, each of which are echoed in the New Testament, that coalesce the understanding of what worship is.
The first word captures the deep, visceral, heart-felt response to encounter with God. This is soul shaking awe, overwhelmed with the wonder of God’s presence – in the sanctuary, in creation, in meditation on the Way of the Lord. More than just experience, but experienced none the less, this moment of encounter pushes us to the limit of our capacity to respond – and then, beyond. It draws us out of ourselves into self-forgetfulness and invites a wide-range of actions – clapping, singing, shouting, dancing, silence, hands raising, bowing down – all arising out of awareness of being in the Presence of an awesome God, who has shown Himself good and great, Whose majesty overwhelms senses and language, with whole being worship being the only possible response.
The second word is a bit more mundane – but prepares for the response described by the first. The second concept gathers together the soul shaping work and discipline of worship – the mechanics of preparation – setting up the equipment, learning and leading the rituals, writing and singing the songs, weaving the textiles, making the tapestries, building and playing the instruments, and so on. It is often translated “serve” and regularly links to the work of the Levites – the tribe of Israel set apart to facilitate and teach worship and the ways of God to the rest of Israel. So important was their work that God instructed His people to set aside a tithe of their income to give to the Levites in support of them and their task. God apparently knew how easily we get knocked out of alignment in our day to day lives – so He set up a system by which to regularly re-align our hearts in worship to Who He is. And that, in turn, helps us remember who we are, and why we are here!
Worship is more than just the emotional and physical response to feeling the Presence of God. It is also the disciplined work of setting the table for such an encounter – because God is worthy. It is a valuable training of the soul in the disciplines of orientation by faith, without succumbing to the tyranny of feelings.
So – come! Let us worship. And bow down.