Weaknesses in Worship: Part I

William Willimon is one of most insightful and provocative writers around today, especially on issues of worship and sacraments. He is also a Methodist. That means he has bought hook, line and sinker women’s ordination and other faults of the Methodist church. Despite this, his books are worth reading because he forces you to examine your presuppositions. Also his writing is lively, which makes him fun to read. In his book, A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship, he lists some of the common weaknesses in worship. I am going to take each weakness Willimon mentions and discuss how my church attempts to correct that weakness.

The first weakness Willimon mentions is that many services lack focus and coherence in the acts of worship. “The service moves in several different directions at once. ” In other words the service is just a mishmash of songs, prayers and a sermon with little plan or direction. How does it all fit together? Willimon mentions the use of a lectionary and the church year as solutions to this problem of lack of coherence. We use the church year. However, our lectionary is tied to the word preached and I preach through books of the Bible. So we do not use a lectionary that skips from book to book.

While I am not opposed to either of these, the best way for coherence and direction in worship is to have the service move in a Gospel centered direction. The Gospel is what we preach and our services should have this as their mold. In my circles this is known as covenant renewal worship, but is done by other groups that do not use that name.

Here is how it works. Our service has a specific direction and movement. Each piece of the service leads to the next piece. The service begins with sinners being brought into the presence of a holy God. Those sinners then confess they are sinners and plead the shed blood of Christ. They are then forgiven and sanctified by God’s Word. They eat a meal of peace with God (the Lord’s Supper) and then are sent out to be salt and light in the world. This is how we experience the Gospel in our lives and therefore this forms how we do worship. The pattern is the same every week because the Gospel never changes. Luther was once asked, “Why do you preach the Gospel every week?” He said, “Because you forget every week.” That is why for us at Christ Church, we have the same pattern of worship every week. Below is a short look at our service. If you would like a more extensive look you can go to our church website and look at the “Our Worship” tab for a full liturgy.

Called to Worship by God
Confession of Our Sins
Consecration by God’s Word
Communion with Christ and His Body
Commissioned to Go Out and Preach Christ to the World

Despising the Name of the Lord: Malachi 1:6-2:9

You should most certainly have your Bible open to Malachi 1:6-2:9 while you read this.

Taking up nearly one third of Malachi, this is the longest section in the book. The priests are the target of this section. God asks the priests why they do not honor him as father or reverence him as master. The Lord says that they have despised his name. (vs. 6) But the priests seem to be in the dark. They think they are innocent and therefore ask God to bring proof. God brings proof by bringing two pieces of evidence into the courtroom.

The first piece of evidence is the lame offerings the priests give to God. (1:7-14) The priests think they are holy. They do not see how they have despised God’s name. But God points a finger at their mockery of his law to show how they drag his name through the mud. The priests, who are supposed to carefully obey God’s commands, offer to God lame, blind, and sick sacrifices. (vss. 7-8) Leviticus 22:18-25 and Deuteronomy 15:21 forbid this type of offering. God says even the Persian governor would not accept this offering. Why does Israel think God will accept it? (vs. 8) Israel wants God’s favor (vs. 9), but does not want to obey God. Therefore God tells them they should shut up the doors of the temple. (vs. 10) Their offerings are in vain.

He then reminds them that one day all the offerings will be pure and they will not just be offered in Israel, but in all lands. The promise given in 1:11 is wonderful picture of the spread of the Gospel. Let’s take a closer look at what it is saying. First, these pure offerings will cover the entire earth. The phrase “from the rising of the sun, until its going down” makes that clear. Second, incense was a picture of prayer. So this passage is saying that the earth will one day worship the Lord through prayer. Third, the word “pure” is never used of the offerings in Leviticus. Malachi is saying that these future offerings will actually be more holy than the offerings in the Old Testament. Finally, the Gentiles are the ones making these offerings, not the Levitical priesthood.

God closes his opening argument by saying that Israel has become weary of worship. That is they have become weary of God. (vs. 12-13) The temple was now several decades old. Israel had been hoping for the glory of the Messiah to come soon. But it had not. The priests became weary of coming to God, even “sneering” at the offerings and allowing Israelites to bring unworthy offerings. So God says they are cursed. (vs. 14)

The Lord continues to press the case against the priesthood in 2:1-9. The focus here shifts from the offerings of the priests to their teaching. Malachi begins by issuing a call to true repentance. He tells the priesthood to “take these things to heart.” (vs. 2) He says if they do not heed this call and turn back to the Lord he will curse them. The Lord will curse their blessings. Those good things which the priesthood has will become a burden. Their descendants will be rebuked. (vs. 3) The offerings and the feasts, which are supposed to be the glory of Israel, will become humiliation, as the dung from these feasts are spread upon the faces of the priests. This will make them unclean, unfit for service in the temple. Unlike their father Levi, who taught the word of God, these Levites have caused Israel to stumble over God’s law. (vss. 5-8) So they will finally be taken away, driven from the temple as unclean and unholy because of their refusal to listen to God’s word and refusal to teach God’s word. The Levites were supposed to be glorious, a great light to Israel. Instead they will become contemptible. (vs. 9) If the priesthood refuses to turn from their sins God promises to curse them.

• We must bring into worship what God requires. That means the Bible is our guide for worship. In the New Covenant there is more freedom in worship than the old, but the Bible is still our guide. God expects our best in worship, this means our singing, praying, preaching, etc. must be of high quality.

• We cannot expect God’s favor if we do not seek to obey his commands. To ask God’s blessing, but refuse to listen to his voice is to make a mockery of His Word.

• Weariness in worshipping God is a terrible sin and will place one under his curse. It is easy as we move through our Christian life to become lazy and apathetic in our worship. Time can be a problem in our Christian life. Pastor Dale Davis makes this point when he comments on Genesis 16 and 17. He notes that thirteen years passed from the end of chapter 16 to the beginning of 17. Then he says this, “What had happened during the previous decade-plus. Abraham played veterinarian to his goats, settled scraps among his herdsmen, sat up with Sarah when she had the flu—in short all the sorts of things that one does in the wash-your face, brush your teeth, go to work routine of daily living. And year follows year that way, and Yahweh’s promise goes unfulfilled. Is the writer not telling us that time can be a severe problem for faith?” We must constantly draw near to God in prayer, asking him to keep us zealous for his face. Time can erode our joy and delight in coming into God’s presence.

• Those whom God has called to preach and teach the word, must understand the weight of the task they have been given. Pastors and elders are not priests, but they do perform a priestly duty by bringing God’s word to his people. Malachi says the priests of his day will be cursed because they caused people to stumble over the law. How many ministers will stand before the Lord of all the earth ashamed because their flocks stumbled over the law due to their teaching? All those who teach the word must bear in mind the awful judgment if they fail at the task. Thus James says that not many should seek to be teachers. (James 3:1)