As I was praying and thinking about the sermon schedule for this year, I found myself being led to begin the year by preaching on worship. Ken Priddy, who leads the EPC’s task force on church revitalization, divides the ministry of the church into four areas which he calls “faith centers”—outreach, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. For a while, I was thinking about doing a series on each, but the discipleship series wasn’t coming together, and so I ended up moving in a different direction.
One of the things Ken notes, though, is that there’s an upward spiral through these areas of ministry. As we worship God, we’re motivated to reach out and share the gospel with others; as they come to faith and are drawn into the church, they become disciples of Christ and learn to worship him; and then they in turn are motivated to share the gospel, and the cycle continues. You can begin talking about that at any point, but it seems to me that worship is the critical element. Worship defines our relationship to God and God is the one who makes everything else happen. At the same time, we have to see that worship extends beyond Sunday morning. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Unless life is a form of worship, your worship has no life.” So we’re going to start by talking about worship, but with the aim of showing how worship connects into the rest of life.
In considering this subject, we need to begin with something I’ve said before, that our worship isn’t about us and it isn’t for us. It is only and entirely about and for God. As I say this, however, I know that some immediately resist that statement. God describes himself as a jealous God, demanding whole-hearted, selfless praise from his people and from the whole world; why is it OK for God to do that? And why would we want to worship a God like that? For that matter, how does that square with Paul’s praise for the humility of Christ, who gave up his glory and his prerogatives for our sake? That’s the Jesus we tell our kids to emulate. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate any of them insisting that everything had to be all about them; why is that admirable in God?
I’ve actually heard a preacher—one I otherwise respected quite highly—come out and call God a narcissist, and then try to make that OK by arguing that God is so great that he’s the only one who has the right to be a narcissist. I don’t think that flies; we need a better answer than that. I also don’t think this is the picture we see in Scripture, and I don’t think it’s the answer the historic Christian faith gives. I believe the answer to this question is to be found in the most mysterious of all Christian doctrines, one which people are often prone to dismiss as irrelevant to our lives: the doctrine of the Trinity.
There’s no question, the doctrine of the Trinity is impossible for us to wrap our minds around. How can God be one and also three? What do we even mean when we say that? It’s hard just trying to figure out what words we can use when we talk about this. All the same, though the Bible never uses the word “Trinity,” this is a necessary doctrine because it’s the only way to reconcile all the biblical statements about God.
Obviously, God is one and there is only one God. Deuteronomy 6 makes that clear. At the same time, in Genesis 1, God—singular—says, “Let us”—plural—“make humanity”—singular word, but plural in essence—“in our”—plural—“image.” Many biblical scholars argue that when God says, “Let us make,” he’s talking to the divine council—to all his angels around him—and that may be how Moses understood this. But then God doesn’t say, “in my image,” he says “in our image,” and there’s no way that includes the angels. God isn’t putting himself on a par with them. Then too, Genesis doesn’t say that God made each individual human being in his image, but that he made us collectively in his image. This passage doesn’t teach the Trinity, but it points that way.
Jesus does as well, and even more. In John 14, he calls God his Father—making himself equal with God, as his Jewish enemies understood—and is close enough to the Father to be able to speak for him. Earlier in John, in 10:30, he has come flat out and said, “I and the Father are one.” Of the Holy Spirit, he says, “You know him, because he lives with you.” Not future, this isn’t talking about Pentecost, this is present tense. How? He lives with them in Jesus. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Jesus, a point Paul picks up in Galatians 4. You see there as well, God sends his Son, and God sends his Spirit. A little later in his career, Paul will tell the Corinthian church, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
The Father is God and Jesus the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and there is only one God; so we have three, and we have one, and somehow those are both true at the exact same time, and that’s God. Even one of the main names of God in the Old Testament allows for that, because it’s a plural form. People have broken their brains trying to figure out exactly how that works, and nobody’s ever gotten there yet. God is far too big for us ever to fully understand who and what he is. Or perhaps we should say, what he are, or what they is; ordinary language just doesn’t express it. All we can do is accept that this is one of those things that’s beyond our understanding—and that it ought to be. After all, any god small enough for us to fully understand would be too small to be God.
This isn’t just about mental gymnastics, though. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something hugely important about God: he’s relational within his very nature. This is why 1 John 4 says God is love. Have you ever stopped to think about that? This isn’t an adjective, like saying that God is good, or God is just. That would have been “God is loving.” Which is true, but not the same thing. Nor is this the same as saying “God loves.” Nor is this equal to saying “Love is God”—that we worship an emotion—because God is personal, not merely a force. Is this just hyperbole? No, because John makes it as a statement of fact. He offers it as evidence to support his assertion that anyone who doesn’t love doesn’t know God. This isn’t just praise of God, it’s a serious statement about his nature and character.
Spoken of any single person, these words wouldn’t make sense, but God isn’t just a single person. Instead, he are three in one, and the persons of God exist in eternal relationship with each other—relationship that consists of pure, unflawed love. We can say that God is love because love is the essence of his nature, because he exists eternally in love among themself. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and this is who God is, and this is why he do what they does. The early Greek theologians expressed this by borrowing the word perichoresis from the Greek—it’s the word for a circle dance in which dancers whirl about in sometimes highly complex patterns, so that there’s constant movement, each yielding to the other and being yielded to in turn. They saw the relationship of the Trinity as a joyful dance of mutual celebration.
This is where we come in, and where our worship comes in. God didn’t create us because he needed someone to love or to love him; he already had that. He created us as an extension of his love. We aren’t children of God in the same way Jesus is, but he created us to adopt us as his children, in order to expand the circle of divine love by inviting us into it and including us within it. Of course, our first ancestors promptly broke out of that circle to follow a rabbit trail, and we’ve been on it ever since; and so God who created us in love is pursuing us in love, and redeeming us in love.
And when we see him jealous for worship, I don’t think we’re seeing the seagulls in Finding Nemo—“Mine. Mine. Mine.” Rather, I believe we’re seeing that each of the Persons of God wants the other two to receive the praise they deserve. We all want that, for those we love. I don’t care half so much what anyone says about me compared to what they say about my wife and my children. Why would we think God would be any different? Jesus points us to praise and worship the Father, and he celebrates the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, when he comes, only wants to talk about Jesus and the Father. The only quotes we have in Scripture which are specifically from the Father amount to, “Look at my Son—I’m very pleased with him.”
Why does God care about our worship? For the same reason Dr. Kavanaugh cares that you appreciate what a great cellist his wife is—because they deserve it.
Photo © 2011 Eileen Sandá. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.