Worship as Action


Leviticus 1:1-9

We are about to read one of those paragraphs that modern readers of the Bible struggle to appreciate and to find meaningful. In fact I suspect that a good number of them find the paragraph quite alien, even somewhat repugnant. True enough, we do not any longer use blood sacrifice as a sacrament in the worship of the church, but any Christian should be able to see that because these sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s atonement, were in fact the means by which the virtue of that atonement was communicated to people before it was made on the cross of Calvary, what we have before us here is nothing less than the Lamb of God who died for the sin of the world. What is more the principles of such sacrifices as acts of worship remain relevant to our lives and our callings today. The spiritual world is the same now as then. The principles governing our worship are the same now as then. What God expects of us and offers to us in the worship of his house, that too remains the same now as then.

It was and is the great drama and violence of the bloody sacrificial ritual, a ritual that a PETA member would find very difficult to get behind nowadays I think, that forces upon us in the polite company of a Christian worship service in Tacoma, Washington in A.D. 2011 the terrible cost of our salvation and the mighty love that led our Savior to pay it. You have to imagine the scene as it is about to be described, imagine it on a typical hot summer day in Jerusalem: the temple court full of animals upset or in terror at the sight and smell of so much death, the bleating of animals being dragged to the place where their throats would be cut, the rivers of blood flowing across the pavement and being washed into gutters by the priests who are everywhere emptying basins of water to clean up the mess. Listen to this from Alexander Whyte, describing a sermon he heard preached by Alexander Stuart of Cromarty:

“We heard him [scarcely a year ago] deliver a discourse of singular power on the sin-offering as minutely described by the divine [writer] in Leviticus. He described the slaughtered animal – foul with dust and blood, its throat gashed across, its entrails laid open and steaming in its impurity to the sun – a vile and horrid thing, which no one could look on without disgust, nor touch without defilement. The picture appeared too vivid; its introduction too little in accordance with [good] taste. But this pulpit-master knew what he was…doing. ‘And that,’ he said, as he pointed to the terrible picture, ‘that is SIN!’ by one stroke the intended effect was produced, and the rising disgust and horror transferred from the revolting material image to the great moral evil. And, in like manner, this is the Lamb!…This is the Sacrifice! This is the door! This is Emmanuel, God with us, and made sin for us.’” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 265-266]

But we are interested this morning in these sacrifices, not first as they picture of the atoning work of the Son of God but as acts of worship, which, of course, they were, in the same sense in which our participation in the Lord’s Supper is an act of worship, both acts, then and now, acts of faith in the one, once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One scholar reminds us that what we have in a paragraph like the one we are about to read is something akin to an extract from a prayer book or manual of worship from which all the prayers, all of the spoken words, have been omitted. For example, it is very likely that while the man had his hands on the head of the lamb or the goat or the calf he would be confessing his sins or explaining the impurity that required him to bring his sacrifice. But that prayer of confession or explanation is not included in the ritual of the burnt offering. It is possible that a hymn was sung as well at some point in the ritual or that the priest offered a prayer. But these likewise remain unmentioned. So we have the ritual of the sacrifice itself, the things that were done; we do not have the entire service of worship in which that ritual was placed and of which it was a part. [cf. Wenham, NICOT, 55] It is as if our liturgy of the Lord’s Supper were being explained but the prayer said at the table, the institution recited, and the hymns sung and scriptures read during the communion were unmentioned.

Now, as I read the text I want you to pay particular attention to the repeated occurrence of the pronoun “he.” Every time “he” occurs in the text the reference is to the worshipper and to what he is doing.

Text Comment

v.2       A wild animal was not suitable for sacrifice; it had to be an animal from the flock or herd. That may be because a wild animal did not cost the worshipper anything. Or, perhaps more likely, it was because an animal from the flock or the herd, that is, a domestic animal was a more fit or proper substitute for a man or woman because of their proximity to human beings in habitat and function. Unlike, say, a deer, a lamb or a goat from the flock was part of the household.

v.3       In our overfed and meat-eating culture, we fail to appreciate what it meant for the typical Israelite to offer an unblemished animal to God. Meat was a luxury, Israelites did not ordinarily eat meat; an entire animal would have been a great extravagance. Centuries later, if you remember, Joseph and Mary, who were by no means penniless, offered cheap little birds for sacrifice at the consecration of their firstborn son, Jesus, because they could not afford a lamb or goat or calf.

v.9       The washing of the hind legs, which is what is meant, was to remove any traces of excrement from the carcass. The priest who then places the carcass on the altar and the sacrifice itself as it was burned on the altar must be entirely clean and perfectly pure.

Now I asked you to notice how often the pronoun “he” occurred in these seven verses that describe the ritual of the burnt offering. In the ritual there was an alternation of action between the worshipper and the priest or priests. But the worshipper was actively involved from beginning to end. In fact the pronoun “he” occurs seven times in these seven verses, that is, excluding the first two verses of this paragraph, and in six of those seven occurrences the worshipper is described as doing something.

  1. He shall offer a male without defect; which is to say he must select the animal;
  2. He must bring it to the entrance of the sanctuary, however long a distance that may have been for him, in the case of some Israelites perhaps sixty or eighty miles, though, of course, he could have sold his animal at home, taken the money and bought a suitable replacement in Jerusalem;
  3. He has to lay his hands upon the sacrificial animal at the appointed time in the ritual;
  4. He then was required to kill the animal, slit its throat and bleed it dry;
  5. Then he had to butcher the animal; no easy task in the hot, near eastern sun; and then, finally, he had to wash the entrails and the hind legs to make sure that the last part of the animal to be put on the altar was clean.

 

The simple point of all of this is that worship in Israel was not a spectator affair, it was highly participatory. And whether we are speaking of the sacrificial ritual or the singing of hymns or the bringing of offerings or the making of prayers it is the same throughout the Bible. The worshipper of God is an actor; he is always doing. To be sure, the sermon must be listened to, but even then there it is expected that there will be a concentration on the Word of God, the kind of listening that one does who intends to make careful use of the instruction he has received. What James Denney, the Scottish theologian, said about one’s private reading of the Bible ought to be all the more true for the hearing of the preaching of the Word in the high worship of the church. A student once recollected hearing Denney say “that one had to brace and key oneself up when one opened one’s Bible; and one laid it down and took up Punch [or some other magazine] with a distinct and visible relaxation that was not merely mental but bodily.” [Letters of James Denney to W.R. Nicoll, xxxvi]

Is that not right? Must it not be right if, as Paul said, we are to hear the preaching of the Word of God not as the word of men but as the very speech of God himself (1 Thess. 2:13). If the Lord Christ was here in his glory to address you, you would be leaning forward, you would be paying the most scrupulous attention. You would want to be absolutely sure you heard every word and understood every instruction that he was giving you.

But obvious as all of this is in the Bible, there is perhaps no more consistent failure in the history of Christian worship than this failure to keep the congregation actively participating, to ensure that worship always remains action and participation on the part of the church. There is, without question, an important place for the Christian ministry in the high worship of the church, an indispensible place, a place that must be protected and preserved if the congregation is to retain any living sense that God himself is present in their worship and that God himself speaks to his people when they are before him in worship.

But the importance of the ministry notwithstanding, as we see here in Leviticus 1, an active priesthood did not mean a quiescent and passive laity. This man came to church, as we say, and a few a minutes later he was up to his elbows in gore. He worked in worship; no doubt on most days of the year worshippers like this man worked up a sweat doing all that they had to do. First he worked, then the priests; then he had more to do; and then the priests. Together they presented this worship to God; together they completed their offering of penance, faith, love, and thanksgiving.

And in the other sacrifices there was even more to do. For example, in the peace or fellowship offering there was a meal to enjoy with one’s family and with the Levites right there in the temple court, a meal that we are taught in the Bible was the anticipation of the eating and drinking that Christians do today in the Lord’s Supper.

But again and again throughout history this “activity” or “participation” on the part of the worshipper was lost. It was lost when the Lord’s Supper virtually disappeared from many Protestant and Reformed churches for centuries. A few times a year the congregation actually observed the sacrificial meal and then only by sitting stolidly in their places awaiting the arrival of the elements. It was lost when the priesthood began doing everything that needed to be done in worship, first in the medieval church and then again in Puritan worship. The minister did all the talking, he did all the praying, and, at least in the medieval church, he often did all the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. Action was further removed from the congregation when she stopped singing, when singing either largely disappeared from worship or was done by a choir in the larger churches. A man or woman, boy or girl, in many parts of the church and in many times, would say a simple response, an “Amen,” for example, or some short formula, and hardly say another word. He or she would sit there from beginning to end, perhaps stand for the creed or at a few other places in the service, but then sit down again, the only other motion the effort to find some comfortable position on those very uncomfortable chairs.

As I said, this was not the problem only of enemy Christians, Roman Catholics and the like. After the Reformation restored worship to the congregation, the second-Reformation managed to take a good bit of it back. In the Spartan service of the English Puritan tradition, that is, our tradition, the congregation would sing a psalm or two, but otherwise it would do almost nothing but sit and listen: listen to a very long pastoral prayer and to a long sermon.

In the services in which I was raised pastoral prayers were the norm, the members of the congregation did not pray in the service as a rule. But in the one place in the New Testament where the matter is addressed, in 1 Corinthians 11, we learn that in apostolic Christianity members of the congregation, both men and women, prayed in the worship service. You remember that passage. It is not about their praying in worship, it is about what women wear when they pray, but that only makes it the more obvious that in Sunday worship prayer would be offered by members of  the congregation as a matter of course. There may have been something like our pastoral prayer, but it certainly was not the entire prayer of the service as it has so often been in our circles. In fact, there is no clear evidence anywhere in Holy Scripture that the prayers of the congregation ought to be offered on their behalf by the priest or the minister, however appropriate it may be for the priest or minister to pray on behalf of the congregation at certain points in the service. It is the minister who prays at the Table of the Lord, as seems right; he prays in much the same way the paterfamilias prays before the family’s meal at home. What is more, he is standing in the Lord’s place, as ordained ministers do, who himself prayed at the first Lord’s Supper before he distributed the bread and wine to his disciples. It is the minister who prays the invocation at the beginning of the service, as seems appropriate. But where does the Bible suggest that the congregation’s petitions ought to be offered as well by the minister.

There are two devices employed in Holy Scripture to involve the entire congregation in corporate prayer; that is, to make the prayer of the church really the prayer of the church, the prayer of everyone together, two ways to make everyone a participant in the prayer. The one is for everyone to pray a text that has either been printed for the people’s use or has been memorized. The other is for one person to pray and for the rest of the congregation to add its “amen” at the conclusion of the prayer. We employ both devices in our worship at Faith Presbyterian. We pray together the confession of sin, for example, which is printed for our use. We say it together to God. So with the Lord’s Prayer; we say it together.  But at congregational petitions, one leads the rest of us in prayer and we make it our prayer collectively by adding our “amen” at the end. Tertullian said that the “Amen!” of the early church was like a thunder-clap. Ours should be as well. It is a way of making sure that God knows and everyone knows that this is our prayer, not merely the prayer of the one who offered it; we all prayed that prayer, we all sent it heavenward in the name of Jesus Christ. It never ceases to amaze me how just the fact that I must say “amen” at the end of the prayer keeps me involved in the prayer as it is offered, attentive, adding my mental agreement as the prayer proceeds until I add my “amen” to yours at the end of the prayer.

The question of the congregation’s posture, which we will address in a later sermon, is also important as a dimension of the congregation’s action. To kneel, to stand, the raise the hands, all of these actions are forms of congregational participation in the worship being offered to God, all are means of further involvement on the part of the people. In the church services of my youth most prayers were taken sitting, the one posture that is never recommended for prayer in Holy Scripture, the effect of which, I fear, was to make the congregation still more passive and uninvolved in worship. But, then, it would have been hard to stand through a fifteen minute pastoral prayer that covered the ground from Dan to Beersheba! But at least our ministers kept their pastoral prayers to ten or fifteen minutes.

In Puritan New England the opening prayer would last about fifteen minutes, but the longer prayer, either before or after the sermon could last upwards of an hour or even more. A Dutch visitor to Boston in 1680 reported that the minister “made a prayer in the pulpit of full two hours in length.” That was in the morning service. In the afternoon service, he reported that “three or four hours were consumed in nothing except prayers, three ministers relieving each other alternately.” The prayers were often longer than the sermon. [Horton, The Worship of the American Puritans, 11] The impression was unfortunately all too often given that the holiness of a minister was reflected in the length of his prayers. What is more, if the long prayer followed the sermon, as it often did, the prayer, often offered by another minister than the one who preached the sermon, would go over the points of the sermon one by one. In effect, the sermon was preached twice! [Horton, 174]

But quite apart from whether the congregation was paying attention to such long prayers, (I remember as a boy thinking before hand what I was going to think about during the pastoral prayer), whether the people were with the minister from beginning to end, my point this morning is that for all of that time the congregation sat stolidly doing nothing. If it were participating in that worship, it was participating passively, inertly. And I suspect we all know the congregation didn’t even participate that way very well. In the services of worship in colonial New England the minister did almost everything. The only active participation of the congregation occurred in the singing of psalms. Nothing was less like Leviticus chapter 1 than that colonial service that became the template for much of American Christian worship over the past three and a half centuries. It was a minister-heavy service, largely non-participatory on the part of the congregation. This seems very clearly to me to have been a great mistake, a betrayal of Israel’s worship as described in the OT, a betrayal of apostolic worship as described in the NT, a betrayal of Christian worship in the early centuries, and a betrayal of the best instincts that led to the renewal of worship in the time of the Reformation.

Once again there has been throughout Christian history a persistent temptation to take worship out of the hand and the mouth of the people of God and place it instead in the hand and mouth of the priest or the minister.

There are reasons for this, of course. The minister is a professional churchman. There is the expectation that he should be able to pray better, more eloquently, than the average layman. The service will sound better if he speaks than if various members of the congregation speak. It is also simpler, more convenient to arrange a service in which the minister does everything and the congregation does very little. Our congregational petitions, for example, take some organization. Letters are sent; phone calls made as the petitions are sent to the leaders and as the leader secures people to pray. And if the minister is in control there won’t be any embarrassing mistakes made, such as we have sometimes had in our worship here. A man at the microphone in his nervousness or simply as a result of a mental lapse says that we are going to pray for the man or woman who just died rather than pray for his or her family in their loss. Or a name is mispronounced or a circumstance misstated. It happens. But I am less likely to make that mistake than a man who leads congregational petitions or a woman who offers a prayer only rarely in the church. once or twice a year. This was much of the reason for the increasingly minister-heavy services of the Puritan and Presbyterian tradition. There came to be an almost superstitious fear of mistakes in worship. This fear was not unlike the Roman Catholic fear of spilling the wine, once it had become the blood of Christ, which fear led to the cup being removed from the congregation altogether and its participating in the Lord’s Supper only by eating the bread; what was called “communion in one kind.” One has only to read the Bible to realize that these sorts of fears miss the main point. In order to prevent mistakes the very purpose of worship was subverted, namely the active participation of the congregation in its conversation with God and the renewal of the people’s covenant with God.

There are still other reasons why the congregation has so often been replaced by the ministry in the worship of God. In some traditions the real action of worship takes place without and apart from the congregation, as in the Roman Catholic mass in the action of the priest at the altar. In other traditions, such as our own, there is a strong didactic tendency. Everything in the service is turned into an opportunity for teaching and so the minister naturally does all the talking and anything that isn’t didactic, that doesn’t serve to teach doctrine or ethics gets short shrift. But whatever the reason, the church’s worship service is under the control of the church’s ministers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the minister tends to loom larger and larger over time. And nowadays this custom is so deeply fixed that often even lay worship committees perpetuate the congregation’s passivity. Everything is done at the front, by those on the platform. The congregation watches and listens and occasionally claps.

But everywhere we look in the Bible worship involves active participation on the part of the congregation. The congregation’s voice is heard in song and in prayer, as we might expect, but also in response. The congregation moves: it stands up, it kneels. It has gathered before the Lord to offer him gifts, to declare its loyalty, to await his Word, to ask him for help and provision, and to enjoy a fellowship meal with him. All of this must be done by the congregation. It isn’t my relationship with the Lord, it’s our relationship with the Lord that is being renewed and restored, purified and cleansed. It isn’t the minister’s work; it is the congregation’s!

Accordingly, I want you all to realize that our liturgy here at Faith as, I need to say, has been the case in a great many churches through the ages that have done this much, much better than we have. Here, once again, the study of worship ought to humble Presbyterians as we realize that so many basic things in the worship of God have been done better and more wisely by other Christians than they have been done by us historically –  I say, our worship here at Faith has been arranged precisely to include you in everything, precisely to involve you in everything, precisely to make you a participant in everything. Whether it is your posture – from standing, to kneeling, to raising your hands – or your speaking – whether in song, or the various prayers of the service, or the confession of your faith – or your participation in the Lord’s Supper – coming forward to the Lord’s Table as a congregation to eat and drink the sacrificial meal, we want it to be obvious to everyone, and to you, and so the Lord that you, you together are offering this worship to Him.

A book on worship published some years ago, written by a former professor at Covenant College, was entitled Worship is a Verb. Exactly right. He was protesting the Protestant evangelical worship service of twenty-five or thirty years ago. But so constant and so persistent and so powerful is the temptation to mute the congregation’s voice and to still the congregation’s action that the new evangelical service often has even less for the congregation to do. It sings and then it sits and watches and laughs and claps just like any other audience for whom a program or a show is being put on. The congregation listens and watches someone else. But it is supposed to be the actor not the audience in this drama of meeting and speaking with God and renewing the covenant between God and his people. Indeed, there is no audience in this meeting between God and man, there are only participants.

It is ours, brothers and sisters, when we come to worship to expect to being doing something from the beginning of the service to its end: singing, praying, standing, kneeling, walking, eating, drinking, and attending to the voice of God with eager interest and intention. We have not come to sit and enjoy a program, still less to sit and let our minds wander. We have come, the Lord expects us to have come, intending to accomplish something, to do something, and to leave with something having been done! But we can do that together only if we all intend to do so. Intend always on the Lord’s Day to be an actor, a doer, a participant.