One of my favorite definitions of worship comes from the famous Hasidic Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined it this way:
Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.
I come from a faith tradition that places a lot of emphasis on outward, passionate expressions of worship. And so naturally I have learned to love it when I can sense God’s presence in powerful ways in the context of corporate worship. However, the other side of the coin is that I have too often approached worship based on my feelings. The truth is that worship has a little to do with feelings, but it has a lot more to do with perspective.
Here is some perspective. It can be an awful thing to approach the altar of God. Altars are where things die. And if God is calling you to the altar he is indeed calling you, at least in some way, to die. Perhaps death sounds a little melodramatic. But we will always lose something at God’s altar. And we hate losing. We hate losing things we are holding onto because possessing something, even something trivial, gives us a sense of control. And we hate to lose our sense of control because our illusion of control is often what gives us a sense of life. And of course all of us hate to lose our life.
The paradox is that the altar that will take my life is also the threshold that will give me new life. Jesus said it this way, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matt 10:39 NLT). This is not just true in salvation, it is true of every altar that God puts before me. There are many stories in the bible in which this is illustrated. I am going to use the Exodus.
We all know the story. God used signs and wonders to miraculously deliver the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh. Not only did the Israelites escape, they escaped with serious loot. Once they got out of town God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to change (again), so that he would be determined to pursue them. Of course, God told Moses that he was doing all of this so that he could deliver them in even more spectacular fashion. One would think that after all the Israelites had witnessed this would be an exciting proposition. But remember what we said about our fear of altars? Of losing possessions? Of losing control? Of losing our lives? Sure enough the Israelites did not enjoy approaching this altar anymore than the rest of us. Here was there response in Exodus 14:10-12:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
I would take the time to poke a little fun at the Israelites if it were not for the fact that I have uttered similar cries so many times. Moses appears to be the righteous one at first when he responds in 14:13-14 this way:
Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
However, that was evidently not the response that God was looking for, and presumably the inward prayers of Moses took on a different character than his brave exhortation to the Israelites. For God immediately responded to Moses with this in 14:15:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”
It is all kind of humorous as a detached observer. The Israelites screaming that they are going to die. Moses trying to scream over them to be brave and be still, while inwardly crying out to God for help. And God snapping at Moses and telling him to stop crying and start moving. It must have been chaotic. I know the feeling, because it is the feeling of the storm of resistance that hits us as we approach the altar of God.
But herein lies the point. When these types of thoughts and feelings are swirling about us we tend to check out of worship. Yet, it is for those very moments that worship was made. Certainly there is a type of worship that is happy, carefree, and light. But the kind of worship that is preceded by threats and fears, confusion and darkness–that type of worship is what I call altar-ing worship. It has the appearance of death in front of the threshold, but it has the surprise gift of life on the other side. We are afraid of the threat of the altar going in, but surprised to find ourselves altered coming out. When we have been altered by the altar we have experienced altar-ing worship.
Did Moses and the Israelites “see the world in the light of God” on the other side of their altar? When they reached the other side they immediately burst into song and dance. Miriam the prophet grabbed a timbrel and led all of the women in song and dance. Their perspective had changed. Their feelings had changed, too. They were lavishing in altar-ing worship. Take another few minutes to meditate on their song. But before you do, consider that thing that you are holding onto. Perhaps this is the day that you lay it down at the altar, and pick up your timbrel on the other side.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, LORD,
shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
‘I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
and my hand will destroy them.’
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.
Who among the gods
is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.
The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, LORD,
until the people you bought pass by.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, LORD, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.
The LORD reigns
for ever and ever.