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Feb
20

The Risky Nature of Worship

Saturday was one of those typical dreary days of February in the Northwest. Rain and wind and gray and cold. So it was not too surprising when, after an evening stop at a nearby electronics store, the customer service rep commented that coming to his store was at least one exciting way to experience the day. It seemed like a good moment to let him know that I had already experienced some excitement. It went something like this—

“Actually, I just came from a worship service, which was pretty exciting”

“How is that exciting?”

“There’s nothing like the excitement of worshipping God”

“Well, I can imagine worshipping God is very relaxing

I’ve been thinking about his comment for the past couple of days. What an odd statement! I’ve never thought of worship as relaxing. I’ve never thought of it as very comfortable at all. Yes, the worship of God can have a calming effect on frayed nerves. Meeting God can bring a peace to my soul that cannot be humanly explained. But I have never entered a sanctuary to loosen a tie, get in something comfortable, grab a latte, chill out, and put my feet up. The pews may be padded, but much of the rest can be delightfully disruptive.

A couple of years ago I was in Busan, South Korea, and entered one of the world’s largest spas. After steam rooms and baths and saunas, we were given bathrobes, a nice chair to lounge in, and music to soothe the soul. Is this how contemporary culture sees contemporary worship? Perhaps. A world largely driven by consumerism, self-interest, and entertainment might just prefer worship services that have regularity, rhythm, and pleasantness. I am sure many would prefer worship that is relaxing, lovely, and safe. If necessary, one should be able to catch up on some sleep.

But from the beginning, worship has not been so innocuous. Cain certainly did not find the worship of God to have a calming effect. God’s response to his sacrifice of worship led him to kill his brother Abel. Aaron’s sons ignored the prescribed laws in their worship service. After carelessly burning incense, fire consumed them on the spot. Uzzah’s casual approach to God’s holiness was deadly, just as those worshippers in Corinth experienced when they disregarded the holiness required in the act of communion. Ananias and Sapphira did not find the morning offering a benign experience. There is a reason the writer of Hebrews declares, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).

Hikers survey mountains

Even prayer can be dangerous. I am reminded of Eugene Peterson’s little chapter, Praying By the Book, in which he warns that prayer itself is a daring venture. “When we pray we are using words that bring us into proximity with words that break cedars, shake the wilderness, make the oaks whirl, and strip forests bare (Ps 29:5-9).” Hence, he speaks to the indignity all of us pastors are routinely subjected to when someone wants us to start things like worship with “a little prayer.” Sounding like a modern day Elijah with furrowed brow, Peterson responds, “I WILL NOT! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane.” Would that we entered the sanctuary to pray with a bit of that fear!

Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, once wrote a book entitled The Dangerous Act of Worship. I should go back to Best Buy and give a copy of this to the young man who helped me. As Labberton puts it, everything is at stake in worship. In responding to God’s revelation of Himself (which is the very essence of worship), our lives have the potential to be turned inside out. In worship we are exposed to our complacency, our addictions, our greed and our lusts. We are ripped out of our bubble, out of our warm blanket of cultural safety and thrown before His bracing winds. We are brought into the heart of God where God reorders our disorders.

In true worship, I realize this is not a God who exists to placate me. I come face to face with Jesus who did not enter this world to meet our expectations.  He came to carry out the will of the Father, and He calls us to do the same. And this can be unnerving. It often puts us on a dangerous course with the world. And when we gather to worship, maybe we should hold on to our chair. We have entered before a holy God who does not take lightly our complacency. The Word just might pierce our souls, making for a defining moment. The Spirit may rush upon our souls, revealing that something we have wanted amounts to idolatry. We may be pierced with the realization that our spouses deserve better.

If my eyes are truly open, I will likely experience both His kindness and severity, His generous love for me and His Fatherly discipline that points out what is both foolish and evil.  About the only thing relaxing may be the benediction…but this could be perilous as well.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary. He also has a strong commitment to building the church worldwide, partnering and teaching ministries in Lebanon and India.

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