By Bob Hiller –
This past Saturday, my dear wife and I had to turn down tickets to the Colorado Rockies/LA Dodgers game. Good friends of ours had come across free seats and invited us to go. Unfortunately, the kids were quite sick. So for their sake, and for the sake of the babysitter’s health, we stayed home. I will confess, I was a little pouty all day over this. But, it got worse that night as I was perusing Facebook and saw the pics of our friends from their seats…four rows off the field…behind home plate! For you non-baseball fans, that means they had the best seats in the house! At this point, I just became bratty.
I love going to baseball games. It’s been said that going to a ball game is like a return to Eden. There you enter into an enclosed, safe, well kept “garden” where the tenants are free to run and play. It’s almost Sabbath-like aspect as one is forced to stop and enter into an entirely other rhythm of life. You sit and simply take in a game. The sights of the players performing super-human athletic feats (you try hitting a 95mph fastball); the crack of the bat and the snap of the glove; the smell of the grass; adding my voice to a chant or song sung by thousands of fans; even the collective frustration felt as our team has a poor inning, gives up an error, or, heaven forbid, loses the game all serve the cadence of this recreational ceremony. There is hope and lament as we sing, “It’s root, root, root for the home team! If they don’t win, it’s a shame.” (A shame we Rockies fans know all too well). And though, as a fan, you are invited to participate in the rhythm of the game, the main action is on the field. No matter how much you pay for a beer or stand-up or heckle, as a fan you always get more out of the game than you give.
Perhaps there is a correlation in this beautiful experience with what we enter into Sunday morning with the liturgy of our worship services. The divine service is a time and place where we are blessedly forced to stop with our daily routine and enter into an event “rhythmed” by God’s Word. When we come to church, we receive far more than we give.
But, this rhythm of reception is lost on many in the church these days. Many believe the Sunday’s main event is me coming to lay down my “sacrifice of praise” or “offer up my thanks.” Instead of sitting at the feet of our Lord with Mary to receive His gifts, we see Martha as the matron saint of the church service. Worship is yet another thing to busy ourselves with, a thing we are to do. So, we sing about our worship more than our God: “Here I am to worship…” “Once again I lay down my life…” “I give you my heart…” and on and on we go. If we don’t feel we are getting anything out of it, we fear our faith is weak so we work that much harder to get ourselves into some worship mindset. Even calling them “worship services” seems to miss the point because it reduces church services to merely something we do for God. Far better is the language of “divine service” where “the Divine” comes to serve us and we respond with praise.
Last Saturday’s Jagged Contention is a helpful corrective for those of us who think church services are about our action for God. It reminded us of the rhythm of worship: “His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us…The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him.”
When you come to church, to the divine service, you are brought into an entirely new rhythm of life given by Christ: one where you watch and receive, sing and give thanks. You participate, sure. But your participation is like that of a fan (a term much maligned by our pietistically charged American evangelicals). You are taking in what is being given. Sure, you take and you eat and you sing and you pray. But that is only because God comes and He gives, He proclaims, He prepares, and He serves. Christ’s life is the only one which was laid down and is given to you. He gives the sacrifice already made. He even gives you the words to respond with! Delightfully, the liturgy (which is nothing more than God’s Word in the mouths of the people) does not allow us to merely be observing fans. As through His Word our Lord gives, forgives, admonishes, and serves, the Word employs the liturgy to guide us in prayer, praise, and giving thanks.
Much like for me going to a ball game is, nostalgically, a return to paradise, for you the divine service is, actually, the in-breaking of the new creation!
Far from this idea that when we come to church we leave the world behind and enter into some other-worldly spiritual experience, the divine service is where Christ invades our time and reorients us back into the way this world is created to work. For example, no longer do we hide in the shadows, covering ourselves with fig leaves, only to be excused from the garden, but rather, now our risen Lord invites us back into the cool of the day where He speaks absolving words upon our confession. Just like at creation, when the Lord told Adam and Eve, “You see all these trees and plants in this garden, except for my one, take and eat, this is my garden given for you!” He now provides a feast from His cruciform tree of life. At His altar He promises, “You see this bread, this wine? This is my body, this is my blood, given for you…given to you! Take and eat, take and drink!” And we do! The pastor, if he is doing his job, ought then to attack anything that would prevent you from receiving these gifts or would cause you to doubt them. He simply hands over the goods! There, in that moment, is the rhythm, not just of worship, but of the creation itself! Here God gives, we receive!
When we come to the divine service, God performs His sin-killing, life-raising work upon us. We stop, we rest, we take, eat and drink, and we sing! What else can we do?