Isaiah chapter 6 narrates a dramatic vision in which the prophet is taken into the throne room of God where he sees God clothed in majestic splendor. In this scene of worship, Isaiah’s experience of God brings him to see God as the ultimate reality, and through this worship experience, Isaiah is transformed.
As I reflect on this scene, I am confronted by questions about how we do worship today. The foremost question to address regarding worship is who do we worship? The obvious answer to this query is of course God. Christianity is a monotheistic faith in which we believe in and offer worship to the one transcendent God. In this belief we share common ground with those who practice Judaism and Islam. All three religions worship the God of Abraham.
Yet there is one crucial distinction that separates Christians from these kindred faiths. From its genesis, Christianity, which originally began as a small Jewish sect, was distinct in that followers of Jesus offered worship to the risen Christ together with their worship of God.
In their singing of hymns to Jesus, sharing sacred meals in honor of Jesus, and praying prayers to Jesus, they gave to Jesus worship that had been traditionally reserved for God alone. Thus, worship in the early church was not only Theocentric, it was also Christocentric; Christ centered worship that acknowledged and responded to what God had done in Jesus.
For these Christians, however, the event that was the definitive work of God to which they responded in worship was the death and resurrection of Jesus. An expression of this can be seen in scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation, where Jesus is worshipped as a slaughtered Lamb.
It is probable that the worship scenes of which John writes in Revelation reflect worship practices of the first century church. Early Christians would give praise and adoration to Jesus, the Lamb, not only because they believed him to be divine, but more importantly, because he had been crucified and resurrected. These worship gatherings were celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, authentic Christian worship, then and now, rehearses and celebrates not only who God is, but specifically what God has done in Jesus Christ.
The worship we find in the early church told a narrative and rehearsed the story of Jesus with theological depth that led to existential transformation. Worship both looked backwards to what God had done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and forward to the eschatological hope of Christ’s return. In doing so, this worship gave meaning and grounding to the believers’ existence in the present world gone awry.
From reading about Isaiah’s experience, and by reflecting on the worship of the early church, we can deduce themes that illustrate the existential results of authentic worship of God. Worship humbles us before the transcendent God. Worship also de-centers our profane existence by drawing us out of ourselves and into the reality of God. And worship transforms and renew us to live the gospel story.
I fear, however, that in our self-centered and entertainment driven world we can lose sight of the theological meaning and power of worship. With the accessibility of various styles of worship, and with a great number of churches shifting to more casual and entertaining styles, I cannot help but perceive a dumbing down of the theology of worship as a potential problem.
This is not true in every instance where contemporary styles of worship are practiced, but these approaches to worship, if not performed with careful reflection, can lead us to ignore the theological drama that relives the Christ event and that grounds the church in the “already, but not yet” of God.
The narrative movement of worship, through historic worship practices that invite participants to relive and reclaim the story of Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, draws us not only into a remembrance of God’s past work in Jesus, and an awareness of God’s present work in us and in the world, but also into the dawning of God’s future triumph over evil.
Worship is the central act of the church through which we offer adoration to God and to Jesus, and through which we encounter God’s presence and goodness through rehearsing the story of Jesus. While worship cannot be defined by style, and worship itself must not become an idol, reflecting on the biblical and historic roots of worship indicate that through the theological drama of worship, we, like Isaiah, can come face to face with God and we too can be transformed.