We aspire to be a worshipping people. Because God is worthy of our worship, we seek a life that gives Him glory in all we do.
Worship is the act of being attentive to the presence and activity of the Living God. Worship fosters healing, transformation, and holiness. It is the human response to God’s initiative. When we recognize what God has done on our behalf, our response is worship. As a Christ-centered people (which we discussed last week), worship should be second nature for us. I like the way Richard Foster describes worship in his book, Celebration of Discipline: “To worship is to experience Reality, to touch Life.”
To worship is to ascribe value to something. In the English language, the etymology of “worship” is traced back to the word “worthy.” To worship is to deem something worthy of acknowledgement and praise. So when we worship God, we are declaring His worth, His supreme value to us.
In this sense, there is an economic component associated with worship. It has been said that if you want to know who / what you worship, take a look at how you spend your money and how you spend your time. We are making a value statement when we declare that God is worthy of our worship, which makes worship a rational, intellectual process.
Of course, the Bible wasn’t originally written in English, so this definition can only carry us so far. It is helpful for us to look at the biblical sense of the word.
In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, there are many words that are frequently translated as worship. These words are used to express a whole range of activity: singing, bowing down, serving, seeking, and working. When we see these words used in the Scriptures, our understanding of worship moves beyond the intellectual process of calculating worth. These Hebrew words point toward whole-bodied activity. These words connote real physical action. In order to worship this way, one needs to commit one’s whole body to the endeavor.
One of these Hebrew words for worship is abad. Abad has an interesting usage pattern. In some places in the Old Testament, it means, “to work” in the sense of laboring in the field, etc. Here are just two examples:
- Exodus 34:21, “Six days shall you labor (abad) but on the seventh day you shall rest…”
- Psalm 104:23, “Then man goes out to his work (abad), to his labor until evening.”
But in other places, abad is translated, “to worship.” Again, two examples:
- Joshua 24:15, “But as for me and my household, we will serve (abad) the LORD.” In most English versions, Joshua’s statement is translated with “serve”, but the issue at hand is the contrast between worship of idols and worship of the LORD.
- Exodus 8:1, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship (abad) me.’”
In Hebrew, there is a strong link between work, service, and worship. These ideas play off of one another in the Old Testament. And here we see that proper worship of God requires more than mere intellectual acknowledgement. It is more than the cognitive process of ascribing value. Worship is a whole-bodied offering, living and breathing service. Jesus affirms this when He teaches us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” (Mark 12:30).
And this background comes to bear upon the teaching on worship in Romans 12:1: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.
The word translated “mercy” here is actually plural. Paul calls to mind the “mercies” of God he has delineated over the first eleven chapters of this writing. In response to God’s mercies, we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices. This is a theme Paul has already highlighted elsewhere in Romans. Romans 6:13, Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life. Rather than offering ourselves up before the altar of sin, we offer ourselves to God, the one who brought us from death to life.
If we synthesize the teaching from these two sections of Romans, we’re instructed to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Why? Because that’s who Jesus is – He’s the ultimate living sacrifice. So we follow His example. And this part is key: offering ourselves in this manner is our spiritual act of worship.
When we think of worship, our minds immediately focus on Sunday. We think of these acts we’re engaged in this morning: singing, reflecting on God’s Word, praying, taking the Lord’s Supper – we think of the worshipping activity of the gathered church, as well we should. But the Scriptures teach us that worship is also the activity of the scattered church, as we operate as living sacrifices in our homes and neighborhoods and schools and places of work. In this way, our worship on Sunday “spills over” into the rest of our week. Even our service, our labor, and our work can be seen as an expression of worship if it is offered in the manner of a living sacrifice. So we seek to be attentive to the presence of God, not merely for an hour on Sunday morning, but at all times. This is what it means to be a living sacrifice.
Foster notes that one of the features of biblical worship is a sense of “holy expectancy.” When people gathered for worship in the Bible, they believed that God was present. Moses went into the tabernacle understanding that he was entering the presence of God. At the commemoration of the temple in 2 Chron. 5, the presence of God was so thick that the priests could not perform their service. In Acts 4, the building they were meeting in actually shook while the early church prayed. When some dropped dead and others were raised from the dead by the word of the Lord, the early church knew God was in their midst.
Do we live with the same sense of holy expectancy?
When we gather together for worship, do we expect God to show up?
- Do we expect to encounter the same God who spoke to Moses from the embers of a burning bush and declared the ground to be holy?
- Do we expect to encounter the same God Elijah prayed to from Mt. Carmel, the God who answered with fire from the heavens?
- Do we expect to encounter the same God whose presence was so heavy in the Temple that no one could do anything other than to be still and acknowledge the He is the True and Living God?
I suspect that for many of us, the answer is no. If that is the case, how can we cultivate a sense of holy expectancy?
In order for us to enter our time of corporate worship on Sunday with a sense of holy expectancy, I believe we must be nurturing such a view throughout the week. It requires that we are attentive to the presence and activity of God every day, not merely on Sunday morning.
Brother Lawrence lived in France in the 17th century. Born into poverty, he entered military service as a young man, primarily because this was the surest way he could have three square meals a day plus a stipend. While serving in the army, Brother Lawrence experienced a profound revelation. In the middle of winter, he found himself staring at a dead, barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting patiently for the hope of spring. In that moment, Brother Lawrence realized his own barrenness; he himself was seemingly dead, but he felt strongly that God had life waiting for him. He said that the leafless, lifeless tree “first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,” and a love for God that never after ceased to burn. After an injury in the Thirty Years’ War forced his retirement from the army, he decided he wanted to serve God with the rest of his life.
He arrived at a monastery in Paris and asked if he could serve. Because he lacked the proper training to teach others, Brother Lawrence was assigned a menial role in the monastery kitchen. It was tedious work, and Brother Lawrence spent the final 55 years of his life cooking and cleaning and scrubbing pots and running errands at the constant bidding of his superiors. But for more than five decades, Brother Lawrence labored at these tasks – no matter how great or insignificant – as if they were being conducted in the very presence of God Himself. And the result was a life of keen spiritual insight.
Brother Lawrence once wrote, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?” Brother Lawrence lived with a profound awareness of his identity as a “living sacrifice.” He taught that even the most menial tasks – when motivated by the presence of God – could become expressions of worship, expressions of “living sacrifice.”
Such a perspective transforms our “everyday” life into an encounter with God. It’s not just the grand things that count here. Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.” This is an example of one who lives with holy expectancy, an example of a Romans 12 “living sacrifice” kind of life.
In Brother Lawrence’s life, as in ours, worship fosters healing, transformation, and holiness when we are attentive to the presence and activity of God.
To live life as a “living sacrifice” is to live a life of worship. It is a life patterned after the words of Heb. 13:15, Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. As living sacrifices, we offer the sacrifice of praise through Jesus.
In Christ, our whole lives become a sacrifice of praise to God the Father.