Lent 1: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone’
This series of sermons during Lent is on the theme of worship: What is worship? What is distinctive about Christian worship? What does it mean for us to repeat the same words and do the same things time after time? How does worship affect our lives?
Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Equus’ is a demanding and uncomfortable play. It traces the limits of psychotherapy and the modern dilemma with religion. The story is of a psychiatrist who is trying to help a young lad who has been blinding horses. Sigmund Freud, ‘the father of psychoanalysis’ is of course famous for suggesting that religion is illusory, a projection of human fantasies onto an omnipotent being: He compared our need for God as like a child’s need for his father. However, the brilliant psychiatrist in Equus sees things differently. He begins to perceive how fulfilling worship and religion can be in one’s life. At one point in the play he explodes with a cri de Coeur that resonates with so many people today:” Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that…. I shrank my own life.’ ( 1)
Now I believe worship to be a natural human instinct, present in human beings since the beginning of time. We live in a world where worship is a natural environment for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and so many others. Human beings were born to worship. And for me it the desire to worship belongs with the primary human appetites, such as food, drink, sleep and sex. St Augustine of Hippo described as a ‘restlessness’ within each human heart: within each person there is a constant seeking for something at soul level, which we experience as deep un-fulfilment and yearning. We try to satisfy this appetite in various ways but unsuccessfully because, like all human appetites, the instinct to worship can easily go awry. The Jewish Christian tradition is very aware of this and calls it ‘idol worship’ or ‘running after false gods.’ (2)
Worship really means “Worth –ship”: what we give worth to, what for us has ultimate value and meaning. So worshipping idols is not merely about bowing and scraping to graven images, but far more about how our attitudes, expectations, assumptions and our loves can be deficient, misplaced, corrupted. It is not that we love too much, but that we often love the wrong things or love the right things/ people in the wrong way. As human beings we have the capacity for worship but it is what we worship that really matters for our life’s sake.
This ‘restlessness’, this profound human instinct to worship, can only be satisfied, can only become ‘true’ worship, when we are not concentrating solely on ourselves or on the various idols we have raised up, but on a greater reality, that the Jewish Christian tradition calls ‘ the living God.’
40 days in the desert
The First Sunday in Lent begins with the story of Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, spending 40 days in the desert wilderness. Centuries before, after escaping from Egypt, Moses and the Hebrew people spent 40 years in the desert. It was there that this bedraggled group of runaway slaves became a nation, the people of God. It was in the desert wilderness that God educated his people. And in the Biblical story of that period we learn two fundamental things.
First, that during these wilderness journeyings the Hebrew people learnt to grasp the idea of one God, monotheism.
Secondly, as indicated by all those laws and rules and regulations that one can read in the early books of the Bible, they believed that this one God was involved in every aspect of life, the nitty gritty of our daily experiences.
Monotheism, belief in one God, distinguished the Jews from the other nations, as did abiding by certain rules and regulations through which they maintained their relationship with God. Worship for them was not about a merely intellectual assent, but involved a practical way of living, which made them distinctive, and in their history has often caused them persecution and hardship. Maintaining their belief in the one God who had called them into a special relationship with themselves became an important distinguishing feature of their identity, a truth that had to be held in a counter cultural way as they lived through government by the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire and the Roman Empire, where gods and goddesses abounded. In fact, not to believe in a pantheon of gods was tantamount to atheism and could cause huge political unrest. Why can’t you conform and do whatever everyone else does? Fundamental to Jewish belief is monotheism in practice.
Christians say the same thing: “We believe in one God”. Not surprisingly in that the early Christians were, like Jesus, Jews. Yet what is so remarkable is how quickly those Jews came to worship Jesus, and worship Him in ways that as good orthodox Jews they had previously reserved exclusively for the one God of Israel.
Now there was a very strong trend among certain scholars, there still is, to say that worshipping Jesus as God was a much later development among Christians and that the apostles thought to Him to be a prophet or a Messiah, in other words a ‘specially chosen human being subordinate to God.’ In other words such a belief was a product of Greek philosophy and theology; it arose out of a milieu where Jewish monotheism was no longer the dominant thought in religious culture. However there is an emerging consensus among scholars who have looked very carefully at the New Testament, and other documents from that time, that Jesus is worshipped as Divine from the early days after Easter.
Within a Jewish context
Paul and the other early Christian writers of the New Testament belong firmly within a Jewish context. It is quite clear that that they, and the early Church, do not add Jesus to an existing pantheon of gods; he is not a new god. Rather, they believed in the one God who had created the world, who led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the promised land, who had spoken through the prophets, and that Jesus is included within the identity of this one God. (3)
For the early Christians Jesus is the interpretative key to the Hebrew Scriptures and to the purposes of God. Paul calls Jesus ‘Kyrios’ (Lord), the basic meaning of which may mean ‘ Master,’ but which was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures ( the Septuagint) as the substitute name for God ( Yahweh). Paul makes the claim, on many occasions in his letters, that Yahweh is now somehow identified with Jesus Christ and that to understand the person of Jesus (who is human and divine) he needs to say something about God’s original purposes for humanity.
In his earliest letter, written to the church in northern Greece, Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians with this prayer:
“ Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (4)
There is only the one verb not two. Here is a God who is one and yet contains Jesus.
It has long been recognised in the study of the New Testament that the Christology (the understanding of who Jesus is) of the early Church was not just a matter of propositional truth claims. ‘We believe this about Jesus, or that about Jesus’. Christ is also the focus of worship and prayer. In the 2nd century the Roman magistrate, Pliny the Younger, describes the practice of Christians chanting hymns ‘to Christ as to a god,’ and there is evidence within the New Testament of this sort of thing too. When St Paul says ‘ with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs making melody to the Lord with your heart “there can be no doubt that Paul had in mind worship directed to Jesus , the Kyrios of Israelite faith, revealed also as God the Father. (5)
One scholar (6) lists the kind of worship in which the early Church was involved:
- A well- established pattern of prayer offered ‘through Jesus.’
- The invocation of Jesus some in the Aramaic language of the first disciples: Maranatha, ( Our Lord comes); or ‘the grace of the Lord be with you,’ and so on.
- Baptism is a ritual focused on Jesus Christ as Lord
- As is the Eucharist.
- Hymns are sung to celebrate Christ’s identity and work
- The offering of physical gestures in worship such as prostration. In the Bible and the wider ancient world, verbal acclamation and praise was often accompanied by physical gestures such as prostration. In most cases in the Old and New Testament this is reserved for the one true God and the Ten Commandments prohibits its use to another deity- or later the Emperor. Yet, St Paul writes that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”
What idols have we made?
God educated His people in the wilderness and in the desert of our own Lent, let Him teach us about worship, what we give our worth to, what has ultimate value and meaning in our lives. What idols have we made into a god, that rule our lives?
Christian worship is distinctive in that we worship God as we know Him in Jesus Christ. Let us read the Gospels, looking and Jesus and seeing God, the God of compassion and love, of forgiveness and affirmation, who challenges to reach out to the poor and the marginalised and to see all as His children. We become what we worship. What God do we truly worship? And let us use the songs and praises and acclamations of the New Testament to deepen our daily prayer life and our worship.
One of my favourite hymns, not often sung, is ‘ Sing praise to God who reigns above.’ It contains these wonderful lines:
‘Cast each false idol from its throne,
For Christ is Lord and Christ alone
To God all praise and glory.’ (7)
‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone’
- Peter Shaffer’s Equus was written in 1973 and most recently performed in the West End in 2007. The quote is from Act 2
- This is outlined and developed by Crispin Fletcher- Louis in his book ‘Jesus monotheism’ (2015)
- 1 Thessalonians 3: 11ff
- Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan seeking guidance and relates some information about Christian practices.
From St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 5:19
- Fletcher- Louis in ‘Jesus Monotheism.’
- New English Hymnal 447, 17th century German hymn translated into English by Frances Cox in the 19th