Posts tagged ‘Worship’

Sneaky Polytheism

File:Mt-olympus gods.jpg
Credit: Mt. Olympus gods / Wikimedia

One of the most startling religious claims made by the ancient Israelites was that their God was the only true God. God Himself argues for His singularity when He says through the prophet Isaiah:

 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from Me there is no God. (Isaiah 45:5)

This echoes the command God gives to the children of Israel through Moses:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Exodus 20:3)

In our religious milieu, unlike in the ancient world, the majority of people of faith are monotheists – that is, they believe there is only one God.

Yet, even if monotheism is common to believe, it is much harder to practice. Isaiah explains why when he speaks of the fall of Babylon:

Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.” Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells. You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 47:8-10)

God’s judgment on Babylon feels horrifyingly harsh to us. But notice what God’s judgment is in response to. It is in response to those who say of themselves:

I am, and there is none besides me. (Isaiah 47:8, 10)

Sound familiar – like what God has just claimed for Himself two chapters earlier in Isaiah?

It turns out that the Babylonians were not just worshiping many gods, they were putting themselves in the place of God, claiming, “We are all who matter! We are all we need! There is no one else who can do what we do!”

Even if theological polytheism no longer appeals to many of us, sociological polytheism is just as prevalent in our day as it was in Isaiah’s. We are incessantly tempted to believe that our moment in history is the pinnacle of history. We understand what those who have gone before us did not and could not. We can solve the problems of the world – and, indeed, must solve the problems of the world – because our forebearers were too doddering to do so. We are quick to quip: “I am, and there is none besides me.”

This kind of arrogance is what leads Isaiah to say: “Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you” (Isaiah 47:10). Our forbearers were not as incompetent as we can sometimes think they were, and we are not as smart as we can sometimes think we are.

So, what do we need? We who declare “I am” need to humble ourselves before the true and great “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We need to realize that having “none beside me” is not desirous, but disastrous. We, in short, need to know our place. We are under God and beside each other. That’s right where we’re supposed to be. And that’s a great place to be.

January 17, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Learning to Give


Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Common Question: What’s up with Lutheran worship?

One of the highlights of my week is weekend worship at Concordia.  It is very moving for me to gather with the people of God and sing praises to God, hear God’s Word, witness a baptism, and receive Christ’s body and blood in Communion.  Lutherans worship in a unique, yet thoroughly theological, way.  In fact, more than one person has asked me, “Why do Lutherans worship the way in which they do?”  It is with this question in mind that I write today’s blog.

First, it is important to understand there are two definitions of worship – one that is broad and one that is narrow.  Worship in the broad sense includes any way which we hail something or someone as god, either implicitly or explicitly.  This definition of worship is part and parcel of the First Commandment:   “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).  According to this definition of worship, we are all worshipers, whether or not we worship the true God, for we all worship a god.  Everyone has something or someone which holds prime place in their life and, as such, they worship this something or someone, for they hail it as god.

Worship in the narrow sense describes an activity that is distinctly Christian.  Perhaps my favorite definition of worship in this sense comes via the introduction to the hymnal, Lutheran Worship:

Our Lord speaks and we listen.  His Word bestows what it says.  Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise…The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him.  He gifts His gifts, and together we receive and extol them.[1]

With this definition of worship, we learn three important things.  First, we learn that worship begins with what God gives to us and not with what we bring to God.  This is why, for instance, the highest holy day of worship in Israel was the Day of Atonement – a day not about what Israel brought to God, but about the forgiveness God gave to Israel (cf. Leviticus 16).  Second, we learn that after and only after God gives to us His gifts, can we respond to God with thankfulness and praise.  This is why, for instance, psalm after psalm celebrates and extols what God has done for His people (e.g., Psalms  107, 118, 136).  Third, we come to realize that worship can happen anywhere and at any time.  For God continuously bestows His gifts of grace and, as such, we can continuously say, “Thank you.”  Martin Luther colorfully quips:

The worship of God is the praise of God.  This should be free at the table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times.  Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself.[2]

The heart and soul of worship, then, is this:  God meets us with His gifts at all times and places and we respond in turn with thanksgiving at all times and places.

The above theology of worship is what guides and informs weekend worship at Concordia Lutheran Church.  It is worth it to briefly outline the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia and consider how each element in one of our services reflects this broader theology of worship.


Each service opens with the name of God:  “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  This Invocation is meant to orient us around the reality that worship does not begin with us, but with God.  Indeed, our whole life in Christ begins with God, for the same name that marks the beginning of worship also marked us in our baptisms.  This is why we baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Further, this name reminds us that we are bound together in Christ, for we call upon “one Lord” and share together “one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).  Luther Reed sums up the beauty of the Invocation nicely when he writes:

[With the Invocation], we formally express our “awareness” of the Presence of God, we place ourselves in that Presence, and invoke the Divine blessing upon the service which is to follow.  We confess our faith in the Holy Trinity, for whose worship we are assembled.  We solemnly call God to witness that we are “gathered together” in His name (Matthew 18:20) and in that name offer all our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (John 16:23).[3]

Confession and Absolution

Part of the reason worship must begin with God is because we would be hopelessly lost if worship began with us, for we are sinners, completely unworthy to somehow storm the gates of God’s presence.  Confession reminds us of this.  It calls us to believe that, in light of the sin which we admit to in Confession, if we are to be in God’s presence in worship, God must come to us!  We cannot go to God.  Absolution, then, provides us with the assurance that God has indeed come to us in the person and work of Christ and still dwells with us according to His promise: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).


Luther famously says of music:

I am not satisfied with him who despised music, as all fanatics do; for music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men.  It also drives away the devil and makes people cheerful; one forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride, and other vices.  I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.[4]

Throughout a worship service, we sing.  We sing because we believe music is a gift from God.  We sing because many fine hymns and songs have been written which confess the gospel of God and express our praise and thanksgiving.  In these ways, God gives to us through music.

Scripture Reading

As the Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Our Lord speaks and we listen.”  Worship would be void and tragic if we did not hear from God!  Because Scripture is God’s Word, we can be fully assured that when we hear Scripture, we hear God.  This is why, at Concordia, we place such an emphasis on being in God’s Word.  From our Word for Today Bible reading program to our Memorize His Word Bible memory program, we want people to listen to the Lord!  And we know people can and will hear from God wherever and whenever Scripture is read.

Apostles’ Creed

The Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Saying back to God what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure.”  The recitation of the Apostles’ Creed allows us an opportunity to do just this.  Because this creed is thoroughly biblical, we can be assured that we are confessing what God has first said to us.  Because this creed is blessedly universal and historical, we can revel in the fact that we join a chorus of Christians all over the world and throughout the ages who confess this same true, holy Christian and apostolic faith.

Children’s Message

The Scriptures are clear on the responsibility we have to share with the next generation the works of the Lord: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power, and the wonders He has done” (Psalm 78:4).  In one of Israel’s creedal biblical chapters, we read, “These commandments…are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).  The goal of a children’s message is to take seriously Scripture’s call to share the gospel with all – old and young alike.  The children’s message, then, is catechetical in nature, teaching children the basic tenets of the Christian faith.


One of my favorite hymns declares:

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.[5]

This is a wonderfully succinct synopsis of the Christian doctrine of stewardship.  God is the owner of everything, even as the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  Out of His grace, however, God graciously shares what is His with us.  The Offering, therefore, is a time to give thanks to God for what He has given us by offering it to Him, for it belongs to Him in the first place.

Prayers and Lord’s Prayer

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians prayed.  Talking to God is part and parcel of being a Christian.  At Concordia, we include with our prayers the Lord’s Prayer because we believe it to be the perfect prayer.  After all, it was taught by our perfect Lord!  One of the beauties of the Lord’s Prayer is that it is a prayer God is guaranteed to answer with a “Yes!” for the prayer is based on God’s promises.  For instance, when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we know that Scripture promises, “God does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).  Thus, we know God will gladly not lead us into temptation, for this is His very promise!


The Lord’s Supper is a weighty moment.  Indeed, it is so weighty that Paul rails against the Church at Corinth when they misuse and abuse this precious meal from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34).  Communion calls for both repentance and faith.  As Scripture directs, we are to “examine ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:28) before partaking of the Lord’s Supper and repent of our sins.  We are also to believe that, in the Supper, Christ offers the remedy for our sins as He gives to us His own body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins (cf. Matthew 26:26-28).  Christ’s presence in this meal is His simple, yet profound, promise.


The sermon serves four main functions:  to convict, to comfort, to call, and to catechize.  In a sermon, first and foremost, we ought to be convicted of our sins and comforted by the gospel.  The sermon also ought to call us to walk according to God’s way of righteousness as well as catechize us in, or teach to us, Christian doctrine and biblical theology.  In this way, we can “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).


Just as the service begins with the name of God, the service ends with the blessing of God.  After all, after being forgiven for our sins, hearing God’s Word in Scripture and sermon, approaching God through prayer, thanking God for what He has given us, and receiving Christ’s body and blood in Communion, how could we not be blessed?  The Benediction, then, is an affirmation of everything that has taken place in the worship service.  We have been blessed by the Lord, and as we go forth from weekend worship, we will continue to be blessed by the Lord.  At Concordia, we include with the Benediction a Commissioning, drawn from Philippians 2:15-16, where we exhort worshipers to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.”  As we have been blessed in worship by God’s gifts, our call is to be a blessing to others by sharing with them these same gifts.  As God says to Abraham:  “I will bless you…and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

So there it is.  This is the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia.  As the service moves from element to element, two things are clear.  First, it is clear that God is meeting His people with His gifts.  Second, the only appropriate response to such a monumental meeting is, “Thank you!”  May you offer God a “thank you” today – and every day – in worship!

[1] Lutheran Worship, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1982) 6.

[2] What Luther Says, Ewald Plass, ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 1546.

[3] Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 241.

[4] What Luther Says, 980.

[5] Lutheran Service Book, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006) 781.

March 12, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

What’s Worship?

Worship is fundamental to the church’s life.  The other day, I came across a paragraph from Ben Witherington III in his book The Indellible Image, where he comments on 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Witherington’s comments on this passage iare helpful in illuminating what is of first importance in worship:

There is no basis in the New Testament for the idea that Christian[s] offer vicarious sacrifices for others or for the world, nor is there any reoffering of Christ to God…One has to import all sorts of Old Testament ideas into the New Testament practice to come up with what some have in “high church” practice.  This is a questionable hermeneutical leap at best.  Nor is the Lord’s Supper seen as a sacrifice; rather, it is like Passover.  It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.  The main sacrifice that believers offer to God in worship or in particular in the Lord’s Supper is what Paul suggests in Romans 12:1:  themselves.  However, we must remember that even this offering in itself is not acceptable; as 1 Peter 2:5b suggests, it is acceptable only through Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice. (356)

There are several aspects of Witherington’s statement worth noting.  First and foremost, biblical worship is primarily about God meeting His people with His gifts rather than people meeting God with their gifts.  The primary direction of worship is from God to man, not from man to God.  This important point is lost in many theologies of worship.  Indeed, Witherington’s opening statement about “reoffering Christ to God” is a reference to Roman Catholic theology, where the worship service, and especially the Eucharist, is conceived of as an event during which the priest reoffers Christ to God in an “unbloody sacrifice.”  The Council of Trent explains:

Forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. (Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Ch. 2)

The Council of Trent could not be clearer.  Worship in Catholicism is believed to be a re-sacrifice of Christ by a priest, albeit in an “unbloody” manner, for the forgiveness of the worshipers’ sins.  This is a patently false view of worship.

Second, it is important to take to heart Withernington’s statement concerning the Lord’s Supper:  “It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.”  In more traditional parlance, we would say that the Lord’s Supper is a “means of grace.”  The great Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper explains thusly: “[The means of grace are] the divine transmission of the grace which Christ has gained for all men [when] it joins immediately to the objective reconciliation or justification of sinful mankind” (Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3, 105).  In other words, the means of grace are the ways in which God’s grace gets “delivered” to His people.  The Lord’s Supper is certainly one of these ways as Christ comes to us with His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Thus, rather than re-sacrificing Christ to God as Roman Catholic theology teaches, the Lutheran Church confesses that Christ is giving His already sacrificed and risen body to us!  Thus, once again, we see that worship is primarily about God meeting us and not about us meeting God.

Finally, it is important to note, along with Witherington, that worship does indeed involve our gifts to God.  But these gifts in no way merit our salvation or gain God’s favor.  Instead, they are only in grateful response to what God has already given us in worship:  His forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Indeed, our gift of ourselves to God would be despicably sinful in His sight were it not for “Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice.”  Christ’s sacrifice of salvation sanctifies our sacrifices to God in worship.

So, the next time you join us for worship, remember, you may have hopped in the car and driven a few miles to come to church, but God has crossed heaven to earth to meet you.  In worship, God is the One coming to you.  God is the One who desires to meet with you.  And God is the one who has His good gifts of grace for you.  And who wouldn’t want to receive those?

July 8, 2010 at 4:45 am 2 comments

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