“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23)
The year was 1636 and Black Death or bubonic plague was sweeping Europe once again. Pastor Martin Rinker that year buried 5,000 parishioners, an average of 15 a day. As he heard the cries of the bereaved and dying outside his window, he penned these words:
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices;
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God….
Now that’s worship. It’s the kind of worshiper God seeks “one who worships” in spirit. Focus is wholly on God, not on the “flesh” or visible world which was for Rinker full of dread beyond comprehension. And it was “in truth,” genuine, no fakery. As leaders in the congregation, it’s our responsibility to see that God finds among us that kind of worshiper.
But what is worship, after all? After all the centuries of tradition and re-inventing, after all the definitions and re-definitions, what is it we are supposed to help our people do? In Hebrew and Greek the word meant to prostrate one’s self before someone or something: a god, for example, or an important person. In ancient days it often meant to kiss the feet of the person worshiped. It still does in some places. Far out in the desert of Tanzania I was waiting at a lonely telephone outpost when a young man approached. He bowed and began to kiss my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to prevent this “worship,” but the missionary, culturally attuned, told me not to resist, that he was simply showing respect. When the Israelites used the term, gradually the kissing part disappeared because their God was invisible.
What do you think of when you see a picture of Muslims at prayer? Maybe they’re onto something we may be missing. The chief word in the Old Testament for a right relationship to God is not love or faith, but fear – you prostrate yourself before deity with humble awe. We like to think of the the lover, the friend. We seem to have lost the majesty, the grandeur, the holiness -the wholly otherness of our God. Most of us never prostrate ourselves before his majesty.
Since to prostrate one’s self was a way of showing honor and the highest honor was reserved to their God, Jewish people gradually began to include in the idea of prostration, the inner spirit of it, the fealty, the adoration. So when the English translators looked for the right word to translate the Bible term of prostration, they came up with “worth-ship,” because bowing down to express fealty is what you did before people of worth.
Gradually the term “worship” came to mean not only the praise and adoration of one’s heart, but all the outward evidences in religious symbols and rituals. A “worship service” we called it. One of those worship activities is music, so gradually, in 20th Century America, “worship” came to mean praise and adoration in song. So we no longer speak of a song leader but of a worship leader and we mean music.
But not just any kind of music. We invited Phil, a graduate who had returned to faith through the Jesus movement in California, to lead our “worship” in a conference on the campus of Columbia International University. After a day or two of contemporary praise songs, one of the faculty members approached me. “Would it be possible to sing just one grand old hymn of the church?” I passed this request on to our worship leader and he exploded. “I thought you wanted worship!” Thus in the last quarter of the 20th century “worship” came to mean not just music, but a certain kind of music. This newer definition of worship fits well the contemporary psyche since music, more universally than anything else, defines contemporary youth.
When a Bible scholar asked Jesus what was the most important thing, the ultimate, he replied, borrowing from Moses, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. This is the BIG ONE, this is the great commandment.” Then he added, the whole teaching of our Scriptures hangs on this. Sounds like you might say, “A person’s chief end is to love God and be loved of him forever.” It’s so beautiful if you truly love a person you will glorify them, keep the spotlight ceaselessly on the true worth of the beloved. If you truly love a person and he is God, you will honor and glorify him so highly you will worship him, you will bow down in humble adoration, you will sing to high heaven. So to glorify and worship God doesn’t automatically lead to love, but love, to truly love, will always bring praise and worship.
So to worship him “in spirit” is to love him with all your heart. To pursue a lifetime of loving intimacy with him. But it’s not just a worship in spirit, it is a tight connection spirit-to-spirit. Why not worship Him today?