After what has been a necessary time away from the blogosphere, this morning’s devotional work has just led me to a conclusion that is too big to keep to myself. Henceforth – this blog post.
We know this text, many of us:
1 Samuel 15:22 King James Version (KJV)
22 And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
If you grew up with the KJV, you might have an idea about this – but frankly, the biggest proponents of the KJV that I know personally are absolutely not masters of the English language. What exactly is this text saying?
1 Samuel 15:22 New Life Version (NLV)
22 Samuel said, “Is the Lord pleased as much with burnt gifts as He is when He is obeyed? See, it is better to obey than to give gifts. It is better to listen than to give the fat of rams.
Now, there’s a lot that part of me really wants to share about my journey over ten years and counting regarding the theology of worship. This month – February 2018 – marks the seventh year exactly from the time when this blog was ‘re-started’ and from when I understood that understanding and promoting Christian worship was to be the cornerstone of every aspect of my vocation in both life and ministry – using both words and music. In that time, the sacrifices that I have made for ministry have been pretty colossal. The pain and trauma that I have experienced in music and worship ministries – especially in my own church – have been more than language can easily express. God has had to find all sorts of ways to keep me from running away to an ‘easier’ ministry. And even at the start of this year, so many things have gone wrong with trying to drive my theology project forward – except that this time, I have been fighting tooth and nail for what I believe God has called me to do. This time, the thought of quitting has not ever crossed my mind. God has given me some academic and spiritua gifts and my job is to give those gifts right back to Him (see the text above if you haven’t already).
But there is a problem here. I love the way that my good friend Dr. Richard Davidson (a highly respected seminary professor of Old Testament Interpretation) describes the first five books of Isaiah. Isaiah is a ‘young theologian of worship’ rampaging all over the joint telling Israel how they are not on point in their worship of a holy God. And then, in chapter 6, he sees God. Again, chances are you will know about what’s in Isaiah 6 – he sees God, and realises that he’s done. The people have ‘unclean lips’ but so does he – the great promoter of worship truth and truth in worship! What could possibly be unclean about that?!
In seeing God – ‘theophany’ is the technical word favoured by theologians – Isaiah recognises that linguistic truth is ONLY linguistic – God Himself is the God of not only (human) language, but also of human cognition. Without God, there is no psychology. Without God, there is no neurology. Indeed, without God there is no humanity – full stop. (For the Americans, that is ‘period.’). But God is not only a omnipotent creative force – He is HOLY – and absolutely nothing in Isaiah’s language about God and on behalf of God qualifies him to be in the presence of God Himself. Isaiah is more than ‘undone’ in the way we use the word today – his goose is cooked to the point of extinction. He’s preparing mentally to draw his last breath when God purges his lips and a new prophetic vocation begins – one that Jewish tradition asserts will see his life ended by being sawn into two pieces.
So here’s where I’m going: thank you to the Evangelical theologians of liturgy who have been saying that liturgy without ethics is pointless. There is indeed no point in having nice worship services when the homeless go cold and hungry and we do nothing about it. But that’s ‘easy’ enough. We can learn how to be more generous with time, money and other resources. And we get something from that. However, I’d like to share one final version of the text underpinning this blog post – 1 Samuel 15:22, and this time from The Message translation:
Then Samuel said,
Do you think all God wants are sacrifices—
empty rituals just for show?
He wants you to listen to him!
Plain listening is the thing,
not staging a lavish religious production.
Not doing what God tells you
is far worse than fooling around in the occult.
Okay, so that has begun to drift into what would be verse 23 in other more conventional versions – and here’s why this post is being written: the obsessions with planning and executing worship services when we are not in good relationships with our fellow church members and those outside the church community constitute examples of ‘liturgy without obedience.’ We are in liturgical time and space – but yet we are singularly unable to experience what liturgy (corporate worship in any denomination) is supposed to be about – the presence of God Himself in the context of shared worship experience. And when we are obsessing about planning and executing worship services and how things must be timed a certain way, staged and presented a certain way, placed in a certain order and contextualised a certain way…
….in these ways, our worship services are about US. Our wants. Our needs. Our desires. Our aesthetic preferences – for music and even food and drink (agape feasts, communion bread and wine, etc) as well as preaching styles – come first. So in the very act of liturgy, the first commandment is broken – God is no longer first – but in our language He is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived!’
Often when conservative Christians talk about obedience, the liberals get a headache. And as a conservative Christian, I agree with the liberals on this one. We have seen so many defenders of moral rectitude go south and lose their way because ‘obedience’ is not ‘relationship.’ My church is no exception. Obedience is always held up as being important – but when our very action of worship is itself an act of disobedience but we are too blind and self-absorbed to recognise that we are ‘poor, blind and naked’ (check out the message to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3) and instead think that our concept of worship is the only one that God accepts – we are done.
Here’s a very pointed conclusion: as a practising Seventh-Day Adventist by Biblical and theological conviction, I would say that the jingoistic inane folly propagated by many SDA preachers is a heart-breaking tragedy. The ‘ark of safety’ is not any one ‘church’ – it is GOD Himself. We have so much to offer Christianity and the world, but not in the ways that we frequently go about it. And for those of you from other church denominations, you will hopefully be on top of the things your church does well and not so well as far as you are concerned. But the fact that God can be disobeyed in public, corporate worship in ways that are nothing to do with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theology is something which should undermine our confidence in the power of language and drive us into the arms of a God who died for our griefs as well as our sins, and who wants us to hear Him and respond more than He wants our gifts – especially our ‘liturgical’ gifts.
This is why I have refused to promote talented church musicians who do not model Levitical identity. God is not interested in our versions of how our gifts should be ‘expressed’ in church. And that goes for preaching as well. But the church and its administrative structures are not where some of us have been called to work, and I am profoundly grateful that this era of my life is now over for the forseeable future. God is looking for those who may never say ‘yes’ to conventional missional outreach appeals but who – in the quiet of their hearts and minds – have actually said ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit without knowing who the Triune God is. Liturgy is not the highest experience in Christian life – we only experience that by saying ‘yes’ to God – aka – obedience!