First Sunday in Christmas: Exploring our Worship I: Leviticus 9
Prayer: Almighty and everlasting Father, we live in a generation of great confusion regarding how your people are to worship you. We confess that this is because of our own arrogance and presumption, and because we have not sought you with a whole heart. Be merciful to us now, O God. You are Emmanuel, and therefore we would draw near to you because you have first come near to us in Jesus. Teach us to worship you faithfully. For it’s in the good name of Jesus we pray, Amen!
This is the Second Sunday in the season of Christmas. We do not celebrate the birth of Jesus out of slavish obligation; we celebrate it out of exuberant gratitude. And historically the church has been so exuberant that it has taken at least 12 days to get all the wiggles out. But worship is our continual feast and celebration of the entire life of Christ. Every Lord’s Day is Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and all of the Saints wrapped into one. Every Lord’s Day we celebrate the gospel and the story of redemption unfolding in history. Therefore our Lord’s Day worship is central to the Christian life and therefore it is a very important subject to all Christians. Worship is the beginning and the end of faithfulness, and therefore, it is fitting to begin our new year considering this central matter. In an important sense, worship is what Christians do; it is our main job description. Therefore it is important to know what we’re doing and why we do it.
Old and New Covenant Worship
How does God say that we must worship Him? This is an enormous subject, but the simplest answer is that the Old and New Testaments teach that we are to worship God sacrificially. This sounds scary to some for various reasons. In the Old Covenant, there were bloody sacrifices that pointed toward the cross of Jesus. Hebrews says that Christ’s work on the cross was the final bloody sacrifice atoning for sin (Heb. 10:12). His blood enables us to make the sacrifices which God has always desired more than that of goats and rams: sacrifices of praise (cf. Is. 1, Mk. 12:44). Therefore, Romans 12:1 says that we are to present our bodies as “living sacrifices” which is our reasonable “liturgy.” Hebrews 13:15 exhorts us to offer the “sacrifice of praise.” Peter says that we are a “holy priesthood” called to offer “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet. 2:5). And these “spiritual sacrifices” are offered through Christ, our high priest, offering himself (and us) to the Father, drawing near to the Holy of Holies through his blood (Heb. 10:19-22).
As Hebrews indicates, the act of worship is “drawing near.” Moses and the Levites are spoken of as being those who “draw near” to Yahweh (cf. Lev. 9:5, Ex. 19:22, Num. 3:6). The same idea is present when Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, and he “draws near” to speak to God (Gen. 18:23). Eating of the Passover, was spoken of as “drawing near” (Ex. 12:48). But we must notice that all these acts of “drawing near” are precipitated by God’s own (drawing near) presence and instructions. Normally, through the Old Testament, believers “drew near” through sacrifice, and Hebrews indicates that this is the same in the New Covenant. The difference is that we have the ultimately pleasing and efficacious sacrifice: praise and obedience.
Since our worship is an act of drawing near to the God of heaven, it must be initiated by God himself. And in this sense our worship is based on Emmanuel, God with us, God having drawn near to us. Our worship is centered on Christ and offered in and by Christ. We with the Reformers insist upon solus Christus. Salvation is in Christ alone, by Christ alone, and likewise our worship is the same. Our prayers and songs and eating and drinking and listening and speaking are all offered up in Christ and received as pleasing and acceptable only through the person and work of Christ. Emmanuel is not just good news that God has drawn near to us in our predicament; but that God in drawing near to us, in Christ, has invited us to draw near to him.
Conclusion & Applications
Our worship follows the sacrificial pattern of worship found here (Lev. 9) and elsewhere in Scripture (Num. 6:14 cf. Ez. 45:17). It also follows the general pattern of creation, individual sacrifices, and even the rite of the Lord’s Supper: taking, breaking, remaking, and resting. In an important sense, the Eucharist is the center of our worship; it is the culmination of worship, but the rest of the service is an enacting of the Eucharist itself.
Our worship is in heaven. Following the argument from Hebrews 10 to 12, we see “drawing near” to the Holy of Holies is, by faith, a taste of heaven (Heb. 12:18-29). We are gathering with the faithful (Heb. 11) around the throne of God to be consumed by the fire of God. We are the living sacrifices ascending in smoke to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. This is why we have a processional and recessional, symbolizing our ascent and descent to that mountain that cannot be touched. This is why following the Confession and Assurance of Forgiveness, we speak about lifting our hearts to the Lord (Sursum Corda), acknowledge the presence of all the host of heaven (Preface), cry out with them “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Sanctus cf. Is. 6:3, Rev. 4:8), and finally plead the mercy and grace of God for ourselves, our church, and the world (Kyrie).
As we embark on a new civic calendar year, it is good to be reminded that worship is central. Here God is remaking us: drawing near to us so that we can draw near to him. This transformation is accomplished as God wields the sword of the Word, cutting us up; we are arranged on the altar and the fire of God consumes us by the power of the Holy Spirit. But in that very act, God is re-creating us, and he then sends us back into the world as new Adams and new Eves commissioned and authorized to rule and take dominion.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Final Prayer: Almighty God, Father, Son, and Spirit: we know and believe that you are a consuming fire. We too often read our prayers and sing our songs as though you were far off and distant. But you are a consuming fire, and you are here and you are present with us. Therefore we offer all that we are to you now. We offer our bedrooms and our offices, our computers and our cell phones, our worship and our jobs, our words and our thoughts, our televisions and our checkbooks, our hands and our tongues, our hearts and our minds: all that we are and do. These are all altars to you, the Triune God of the Universe. And wherever we have erected altars to idols, we ask that you would come near to us now and tear them all down.