It’s often helpful to read the scriptures as one large narrative. Without a doubt, the Bible presents the greatest story ever told, spanning thousands of years, hundreds of people groups and cultures, and presents a God that chases after His people with an insatiable desire for deep relationship with us. This wonderful story tells of a God that progressively reveals Himself to His people and was beyond wise in inspiring His people to record His activity throughout so that we may see this story in it’s entirety and effectively build our thoughts and practices upon solid truth.
So what does this have to do with worship?
If we’re going to do justice to the theme of worship throughout scripture then we need to approach it with the whole story in mind. The cross isn’t found in Genesis and the resurrection doesn’t take place in Numbers. Though there is great foreshadowing of the Christ event throughout the Old Testament, it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Ergo, I’m going to begin talking about one of the most important stories of worship in the Old Testament but I want us to view it as a part of the whole. As we’ll see in this great story, this encounter will set the foundation for the theme of worship that will carry throughout all of the Old Testament and bleed (literally) into the New Testament as well. But it’s just the beginning.
With that said, let’s begin.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and then mankind meddled with it. A few blame games and an Eden out-casting session later, Adam and Eve were left without the tree of life and entered into a wrinkle-bound existence. They were forced to begin a new form of life with ups and these new things called “downs”. They could no longer snap their fingers and up pops an avocado tree, they had to work for it now. Seasons and rough weather and a fight for their lives with the lions they once were at peace with forced them to reach out to God in any way they could. Bearing children was rough and painful but still produced joy from a child’s laughter and playful spirit. After all, we’re still created with some God stuff in us.
And so this pursuit of this new relationship with God began. Though He didn’t walk with us, He still talked with us, pursued us, and wanted us to reach out to Him. And we did, in the only way we knew how.
We get a picture of this in the first chapters of Genesis:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. (Genesis 4:2b-4a)
In the most primitive form of reaching out to God, we see Cain and Able try to give God back what He gave to them. It’s cute really. It’s like a 3 year old daughter slaving over a paper canvas using colored wax as her preferred medium and finally handing us her masterpiece with pride and confidence, just yearning for our approval. So we put it up on our refrigerators like good parents do, all the while knowing it’s a piece of trash wholly unworthy of nearing the term “art.” But it’s the thought that counts. Earth to Cain, God created the universe, He clearly doesn’t need your infinitesimal avocados you slaved over. But it’s a start. It’s a simple admission that you didn’t create the dirt, that you aren’t in control, that without God that beautiful delicious green fruit wouldn’t even be around in the first place (can you tell I love avocados?).
So Cain offers his share and Able offers his. Both come to God with the admission that they are unworthy and that God is worthy. But God doesn’t treat them both the same:
The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. (Genesis 4:4b-5)
Hmmm…something about Cain’s offering colored too far outside of the lines to even be considered for a refrigerator decoration. Was it because God prefers carne asada over tree fruit? Did Cain not give enough? Did Able work harder for his gift? Cain still gave something, isn’t that enough?
Let’s answer those questions with another story.
In any good narrative there comes a pivotal moment where the protagonist emerges as the hero. He’s often shaped by his past experiences and uses those to press forward or overcome adversity. But any good story teller will be careful with his words, introducing key phrases at key times, not revealing too much too soon, leaving enough suspense to keep you reading and relieving suspense only to introduce more.
Well past the loss of Eden, God’s sorrow over humanity (and subsequent world-wide drowning to start over), and man’s wildly irrational attempt to build a stairway to heaven, God decided that the 3rd time’s the charm and start over with one man who would build a nation that would absorb and reflect God’s love for mankind. God knew something about this Abram guy was different, that this time it would finally take, that he was made of the stuff that God was all about. And so one day God dropped a bomb in Abram’s lap, kindly letting him know that he was going to soon be the start of the nation of God and that through him every nation on earth would be blessed. That’s some pretty crazy news for a crazy old man and his crazy old wife.
You, me, and God know, however, that this old couple never had any kids, which not only left them without social status but without a plan for this nation-populating project to get going. Enter God’s will, intervention, and divine providence. Enter Isaac.
With a new son and a name change, Abraham’s dreams and God’s plan come crashing together as a game changer for humanity. No longer will Abraham be a social outcast and no longer will God rest with mankind mistaking his many characteristics for polytheism. It all starts here with one man, one plan, and a son (who better darn well be fertile because he’s got a heavy load of reproducing to do in the near future).
As Abraham raises Isaac, things seems to be getting off to a good start. Getting past the weaning and diaper phase, Abraham starts to pour into his one and only son, no doubt teaching him all about this God and this great future promise throughout his preadolescent years. As Isaac grows, anticipation builds for this nation creation to get started. And it’s just about that time too, as Isaac inches closer to puberty, mom and dad are keeping their eyes peeled for a young and fertile baby maker friend for their boy.
Some time later God tested Abraham. (Genesis 22:1)
Dang it. Just when things are going well, right at the verge of fulfillment, God has to swoop down and threaten to take it all away! Are you kidding me?!
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
There’s that word again, except this time, instead of it being an offering of recognition and thanks, it sounds more like the making of a horror flick about demon possession. Because that’s what it would take for me to kill my one and only son, no question about it.
Why would God call Abraham to kill his “only son, whom [he] love[s]” right when this whole party was just about to get started? Wasn’t God the one who gave Abraham the promise and the child to fulfill it in the first place? Why would he want to take His plan away?
But it seems that, for Abraham, all those questions were irrelevant. God spoke, so Abraham went.
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. (Genesis 22:3)
As instantaneously obedient as Abraham was, there’s little question that his emotions were still raging out of control. A mean concoction of anger, fear, doubt, and extreme sorrow must have been tearing apart the ventricles of his heart every step of the journey. It would take a whole three days to finally arrive at the mountain of death (it’s what it should be called), which would mean one last father-son road trip to seal the deal. But there would be no life-lesson talks, no awkward “birds and the bees” conversations during this backpacking trip. There would be no point. Why give good training to a walking dead man? So only silence accompanied this trek. The sound of dirt shuffling under their feet, the donkey’s hoofs clattering on the rocks. The wood for the alter banging together with each step acting as a torturous reminder of what was to come. Abraham had hours upon hours to ponder how this whole thing would go down, endless chances to pack up the tents and head back home, neglecting God’s blatant call but protecting his family. It would have been understandable for Abraham to give up on God, exchanging sacrifice for security. I would have forgave him. But Abraham forged on, no matter how heavy each next step became.
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there…” (Genesis 22:4-5a)
The time came for Abraham and Isaac to make their final ascent. This was the part where the servants stayed behind. Though it would have been faster to build the alter with a few extra hands, the servants may not have been on board with the whole homicide thing.
They had to do this alone.
So there Abraham stood, at the base of the mountain, looking up to the summit, his mind racing a million miles a second, imagining each detail as it would happen. In a trance-like state Abraham closes his eyes and Isaac’s life flashes before him. Abraham remembers God’s initial call, the moment when he received news from Sarah that she was pregnant at last, the first kick he felt from Isaac’s strong legs though Sarah’s belly wall, the day of the birth, the crying and the laughter, the growing, the first scraped knee, the first day of school, his first fight, the science project they build together, the first goal he scored.
Then his memories took a sharp turn being overshadowed by the near future. He began to visualize the next few moments. He would have to lead Isaac up the mountain, tell him to start collecting stones and positioning the wood, somehow convince him that it was alright that they didn’t have a sheep or a goat with them for the sacrifice. The next few images in Abraham’s mind must have brought pain beyond comparison. After the alter was built, he imagined having to hold his son in his arms long enough to get a rope around his slender young body, each wrap of the cord having to endure the screams of his son. After subduing his arms he would gather the kicking legs and immobilize them, leaving no chance for him to wiggle off the alter. With the ropes tied tight, Abraham imagined the anguish of placing his boy atop the alter, looking into his tear-soaked eyes for the last time. But the worst was yet to come. Unsheathing the knife from his belt, Abraham pictured his trembling hands wrapping around the weapon with white knuckles. With excessive nausea and ghost white, quivering lips Abraham would raise the blade above his head. Finally, with obedience trumping love, the dagger would be plunged deep into his only son’s body, forever branding Abraham’s mind with the sights of blood and a breathless promise and scaring his ears with the sounds of his son’s last weak cries. Once the last few twitches of Isaac’s body subsided, he would light a fire, exchanging his only hope for a pile of ash.
All of this is in Abraham’s mind when he’s with the group at the base of the mountain, gazing to the top.
And what word does Abraham use to summarize these thoughts?
Don’t miss it.
“We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Gen. 22:5b)
In a climactic, dramatic narrative fashion, this word, “worship” bursts on the pages of scripture for the first time, revealing itself in all its glory. So let’s pay special attention to this word and all it represents because the base of its character revolves around this story.
Let’s put it simply. Worship is sacrifice.
But it goes well beyond a killing or an offering of thanks, a sign of gratitude, or a token of unworthiness. It encompasses your entire being. What else could cause a father to kill his only son than a force greater than the stars in the heavens? What else could allow a father to murder his child than an undeniably divine force? What else could cause a man to give up on everything he’s worked and dreamed and hoped for than God himself?
Worship is the giving up of everything you are and everything you have for the sake of God. Worship is being willing to follow the command of God no matter what the cost. Worship is exchanging all of you for a whisper of God.
Most of us know the beautiful end to this story, with the angel swooping in at the last second to spare Isaac and restore the promise to Abraham’s tribe. It was a test indeed that Abraham passed with flying colors. Abraham was willing to through with each step because he had the faith to carry him through. This is why this story is so incredible, not that Abraham was willing to do it, but that he had the faith to carry him through it.
Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:19)
Abraham knew he’d encountered the real God early on. Abraham knew that this one true God definitively promised him that this boy, Isaac, would be the seed of the nation. So no matter what God asked of Abraham next, His first promise would be kept; having full confidence that God would raise Isaac from the dead, even if every bit of flesh turned to ash.
This is what it means to worship God. And as we’ll see throughout this narrative, this theme carries through all of scripture. This event acts as the foundation for humanity’s relationship with God throughout all history, beginning with this pivotal moment. Therefore, this will act as the foundation for all of “Rediscovering Worship,” continuously grounding our exploration of the true orthodoxy and orthopraxy of worship.
Welcome to “Rediscovering Worship”