Worship happens when a creature responds appropriately to his Creator’s revelation. God interacts with His creatures, and we have the privilege of engaging Him back. He is always revealing Himself to us in every aspect of our lives, and so whatever we do is a response to Him. Many times, we do not respond appropriately, and this is not worship. It is sin. In fact, a great way to describe sin is that it’s the times when we fail to worship God. Sometimes we defy Him, responding incorrectly or half-heartedly. Sometimes we ignore him. When we choose to respond to something other than God, such as our own desires and fears, or the pressures of the world, this is called idolatry. We’re responding to the creation instead of the Creator, and the Bible is pretty clear that God hates this, because it hurts Him and us. St. Iraneus said, “The glory of God is Man fully alive.” A life is full when it is filled with worship.
Corporate worship is a community celebration of God’s character and works. God’s character and works are a revelation of Himself to us, and our celebration, whether in sorrow or in joy or any other sentiment, depends upon what is the appropriate response to the given revelation(s). When we are reminded of His glory, we fall down and praise Him for such majesty. When we are reminded of our sin, we weep in sorrowful mourning for our own failures. When we are reminded of His redemptive grace, we joyfully adore His goodness and accept it with glad hearts. When we are reminded of His wrath, we stand in solemn awe at His just action. When we are reminded of His heart for the Nations, we reach out to them with loving-kindness. When we are reminded of His long-suffering humility, we love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Bible’s first* mention of a word we translate as “worship” can be found in Genesis 22. God has already revealed to Man that sin will require a blood sacrifice, but now he reveals that the sacrifice required will be the blood of Abraham’s precious son of promise, Isaac. Abraham sets off to respond with the appropriate amount of sorrow and obedience, and tells his servants that he and the boy will go up on the mountain to worship. As Abraham is in the midst of his appropriate response, God then reveals that he has provided a way out for Abraham (and Isaac!) by allowing a ram to take the place of the child. Abraham again responds appropriately by accepting the grace and building a monument to God’s provision with stones and with his very life.
My intent in this essay is only to show that "worship" can be reduced to a universal definition by examining it before it acquired its historical accessories, and that this definition in whole is an appropriate holistic response to divine revelation. It is incumbent upon me at this point to observe that this is concrete and universal, not abstract and esoteric. Abraham's response was (rightly) rooted in his embodiment. Not only the consent of the mind and the will of the heart, but also the conformity of action was in play here. (One could mention in great detail the wholeness of response demanded by the "Great Shema" of Deuteronomy 6). I mention this because, as my friend Seth has said, "Even a universal definition of human worship is historically-rooted. It could not be otherwise." Furthermore, worship is not a matter of understanding the the principles; it's a matter of living the life. We might otherwise be guilty of arrogant gnosticism or ignorant emotionalism.
There are many more instances of this interplay between divine revelation and holistic response in the Genesis 22 passage, but we get the idea. No band, no mood lighting, no clergy, no special time of the week. Just revelation and response – the give and take, give and take of a relationship with the Almighty God. I hope it is obvious that my intent is to show here that in the case of Abraham's worship on that day, other more familiar (to us) elements of worship were not necessary. However, much revelation compounds over time, and God has since revealed many other truths that obligate the modern worshiper to more specific concrete responses. For example, God's revelation through the book of Levitical law bound the nation of Israel to further specifics of response that were both concrete and non-negotiable. I hope to show over the course of a few essays that we as the 21st century church have both new demands imposed upon us by God's progressive revelation and some old demands completely fulfilled (never revoked!).
* One may mention that Job, and not Genesis, is the most ancient Scriptural text. Although the vocabulary of Job does not include a word we would translate as "worship," surely Job's appropriate responses to his unimaginable loss were indeed counted as worship. Likewise, when the wretch finally reaches his breaking point and questions the Almighty, the Accused spends the next couple dozen chapters vindicating Himself and judging the iniquity of Job's inappropriate response (his sin).