Yesterday in our worship gathering we cut the teaching time short to allow more time for prayer, confession, and encouragement. So we covered Jesus’ comments about the living water, and briefly touched on the idea that the Father is seeking worshipers. What follows is the section that I cut out of the sermon on Jesus’ teaching that the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
Our Side: Worshiping in spirit and truth means leaving behind one-dimensional worship.
We are sometimes presented with a false choice between our heart and our head, but there is no reason to prefer one over the other. Rather, true worshipers have a fully enlivened heart and a fully engaged mind. Our heart and mind are not meant to be enemies, nor are they meant to be only halfway involved. In other words, we should seek to be both completely passionate and incredibly brilliant. It doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other, and it’s not like being kind of smart and slightly passionate is a better option. True worship reconciles our heart and mind, and therefore helps to end the alienation within us.
One way this works out in the arena of worship is the false choice between sincerity and competence. A fully enlivened heart will bring incredible sincerity to worship, and a fully engaged mind will insist on the highest kind of competence and craft. Again, it doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other. Think of the example of marriage. Let’s say I sincerely love my wife and want her to feel loved. So every week I buy her chocolate-covered strawberries–you know, because they remind me of the sweetness of her smile and the redness of her lips. And what if every week she had to tell me, “I appreciate your sincerity, but for the last time, I’m allergic to strawberries!” In this example, I would be loving my wife with very little competence.
You may say, in my defense, “Yes, but look at how sincere he was.” What would my wife say? Probably something like, “If he was so sincerely interested in loving me, how could he do it so incompetently?” Sincerity and competence in worship, as in our relationships, are meant to be complementary. Sincerity without competence is sentimentality or–at worst–superstition. Competence without sincerity results in putting on a show or–at worst–trying to manipulate God and others. In our worship, we will seek to be completely sincere and incredibly competent, taking this as one way of understanding the call to worship in spirit and in truth.
True worshipers understand that worship can be both joyful and rigorous. We are probably more apt to like the joy part and recoil at the thought of rigorous or difficult worship. But isn’t prayer difficult? Aren’t all the spiritual disciplines? That doesn’t mean that worshiping in spirit and truth is a burden, though. It is costly, but as in all other healthy relationships, the joy of love that we feel makes the work seem small. Worship as entertainment requires nothing from us, but true worship looks like pouring ourselves out before God. Paul told the Romans, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (12.1). True worshipers understand that worship involves sacrifice and joy, and that these are not necessarily opposed. Paul faced this as he neared the end of his own life, telling Timothy, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4.6). Worship involves pouring ourselves out–that’s our side. Worship is joyful, but it is not easy; It comes from the gift of God, but it is costly.
There is another false choice we face between private and corporate worship. Worship, we are told, is either all about me or it’s not about me at all. True worshipers understand that worship is both personal and communal. Each worshiper is personally engaged, but does not seek to be privately sequestered in the service. Perhaps an image from Martin Luther that I saw recently will help. He said that we are all burning embers that cool quickly when scattered from one another. But bring the embers back together and they will all begin to burn brighter and hotter. He said this is what happens when we worship together. True worshipers reject anonymity, whether it comes from trying to have my own private experience or from believing that I’m just an unimportant face in the crowd.
God’s Side: Worshiping in spirit and truth means getting caught up in the life of God.
Worship isn’t just about what’s happening in a church or on a Sunday morning, of course. But the amazing part about worship is that by faith we believe it’s not just about what’s happening on the human side at all. God is an active participant in our worship–inhabiting the praises of his people, interceding for us in prayer, offering himself to us again in the bread and the cup.
The other side of the head versus heart debate is identity and presence. Our God, active as he is in worship, is a God who makes himself known and makes himself felt. This is why both head and heart are engaged in worship. God is Somebody; he’s not Nobody because he does exist, but he’s also not Anybody, because he has a character and attributes that are of one kind and not another. God is most revealed in love, for as scripture says, “God is love.” God is also not distant, not far from any one of us, but he comes near. True worshipers affirm the loving presence of God in worship, and recognize that our worship is deficient if we ignore either God’s identity or his presence. The historical rituals of the church, even if they can be a mouthful to try praying or reciting together, help ground us in the identity of God that has been acknowledged and invoked for centuries. The freedom in worship to listen, pray, and sing opens us up to sensing the presence of God moving among us. This is why we take communion each week. We try to set the table well, announcing who God is, and that he’s right here!
To take Jesus’ words in a more definite way, true worship is done in the Spirit and in the Truth. Worship in the Spirit is a recognition and reliance on the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in us. Real worship is not just about us taking action, but is a grace given to us by the Holy Spirit as we seek to draw near to God. We recognize the Spirit’s presence drawing us to God, helping us along, praying with us, teaching us, leading us along. Worship is about getting drawn into the life of the Spirit. It’s also about getting drawn into the Truth. Jesus is described elsewhere in John as Word of God, Light of God, Bread from heaven, and the Truth. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and also prays, “Your word is truth.” Jesus shows us who God is. As theologians say, he is the self-disclosure of God. The Christian claim is that whatever anyone might say about God, Jesus Christ is the word God spoke about himself to us.
This is what makes true worship so exciting! We are drawn into the life of God! The real presence of God in the Spirit’s participation. The true identity of God in the Son’s participation. Worship is about entering the Kingdom, being caught up in the life of God now. As Jesus said, if we knew the gift and the one offering, we would surely ask for it and receive it. The life of God is an eternal outpouring of love and honor and glory between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. John tells us in another place, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4.6). That’s why we have all those “one anothers” in the New Testament; because that’s what it looks like for the life of God to be present in us. True worship is about pouring ourselves out before God and trusting that his gracious gift will be to involve us in the eternal outpouring of love that constitutes the life of God.
The key point is that this gift is available to us now in worship. Indeed, the gift is not just available; Jesus says the Father is actually seeking worshipers. He wants to draw us in.