Contemptible Worship

Text: Exodus 20:1-11
Date: Lent III + 3/11/12

I remember a church where the usual procedure during the Sunday morning Divine Service was, among other things, when the offering plates (or “collection” as some call it) were brought forward and placed on a shelf on one side of the chancel, a little door behind the shelf opened and the “money counters” would get right to work counting even as the service continued! I have had the experience, I will say in my last parish (to preserve the integrity of the first three I served), that often the person designated to count the offerings would show up after the service without attending that service him or her self, which always struck me as embarrassingly hypocritical. They didn’t seem to be embarrassed or think it at all unusual! These are some of the thoughts that go through my mind as I consider our Lord’s “cleansing” or driving out the money-changers and merchants from the temple.

The Old Testament reading chosen as commentary on today’s Gospel is the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter twenty. As such it leads us to consider the essence of the worship of the one, true God and the sinful tendency at work (as illustrated in today’s Gospel) to destroy or at least divert our attention away from the fact that, as the old hymn says it,
God Himself is present: Let us now adore Him
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple; All within keep silence;
Humbly kneel in deepest rev’rence. (LSB 907)
I limit our consideration to the first three commandments, or first “four” words as the Hebrew has it. This also fits well with the character of Lent as being a time of catechization, teaching or training in the basics of the Christian faith—the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments. Our Lord commanded us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them. Besides the basic teaching of the catechism, of what and how we are to believe, we need also to be taught how to live and how to worship God on His terms in line with His character, His heart, His Word, His Law and Gospel.

There is a debate whether the word “orthodox” comes from the combination of the Greek words “orthos dokeo” (meaning right teaching) or “orthos doxa” (meaning right praise). It is safest to believe it means both right doctrine and correct praise or worship for they go together and affect each other. As there is right and wrong teaching so is there right and wrong worship. Especially in these days of the fad called “contemporary worship,” we discover there are foreign elements and influences that led one of my teachers already way back in 1970 to call it “Contemptible Worship.” All correct Christian teaching and worship is rooted in God and His Word.

The Commandments must be taken with utter seriousness and sincerity. For there are penalties attached for false doctrine and false worship. They begin with the essence of our relationship with God; they begin with God and His deliverance or salvation of and for us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This, of course, was literally true of the people of Israel, an event they were commanded to recall, believe and confess every Passover, every year of their lives. More than that they were to recall, remember and confess their God-given identity every Sabbath, every seventh day of every week. Every Sabbath or Saturday was a little Passover. For us the Passover predicted the deliverance of the whole human race from the slavery of sin and death, and we are to recall, remember and confess that deliverance on the first day of every week, the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter, even in Lent! This is why Sunday became the “Christian Sabbath” and is the one day that proclaims the Gospel better than any other day of the week.

As our identity is in God, the one, true God, so is our faith and loyalty to no one or no thing else. “You shall have no other gods” beyond, in addition to, by the side of “Me.” Luther teaches us to ask, “What it is to have a god? A god is that to which you look for the highest good in your life.” You don’t have to have actual “carved images” or “likenesses” of created things, for an “idol” is anything that commands your attention, love, fear or trust. What does this mean? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” There seems to be especially little fear (that is, awe and reverence) in much worship today. We all, of course, must face the fact, admit and confess that we have and do fear, love, and trust other things and therefore have broken the First Commandment. We must admit it, and confess it, if we are to properly receive the forgiveness of that sin. The wrath of God is in His jealousy and refusal to share His glory or His people with anything or anyone else. The grace and forgiveness of God is in His “steadfast love” that He shows to thousands at a time “of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” This refers to every abuse of God’s name. It, of course, includes all coarse language and cursing. But beyond that it is to lie and deceive by calling upon God’s name. To deceive by God’s name covers every false teaching and false doctrine taught and preached by every false preacher or teacher. “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20) and whether their teaching or preaching squares clearly with the plain Word of God in the Scriptures. Some of so-called “contemporary” worship abuses God’s name by allowing false teaching in little and maybe even big ways.

Finally, “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This is the command behind what we are doing here this morning. It is the command to stop all worldly occupations and receive the holy blessing and rest of God that is primarily in the forgiveness of our sins. Why do you come to church? Answer: “to receive the blessing of the forgiveness of my sins.” How many people, how many Christians answer in that way? And this is where “worship” gets confused with all sorts of other things.

There was no Sabbath day or rest before the fall into sin in the Garden of Eden! That is to say that every day was blessed by God, every day a “worship service” of God by His good creation. Only when the separation, ruination, injury and death of sin entered the scene was there need for God’s Law and Gospel to save us from sin and death. The Third Commandment pointed to God’s work of the creation of all things in six days as the model. The seventh day was set apart and commanded as the holy day. It was the day when all occupation and work was to cease and all attention given to our primary need—not the meeting of the budget of the church or “upping” the average worship attendance, but the forgiveness of our sins.

The Sabbath with its sacrifices pointed to the great sacrifice when God Himself would come and visit His temple in the Person of the Incarnate Word, Jesus. He first visited His temple as the infant Son of Mary. As a twelve year old child, we are told, He visited telling His mother this was His true home and God His true Father. Now He visits to cleanse and purify the temple and to predict His own death and resurrection as the ultimate significance of the temple. When He died it was not for Himself but for the sin of the world, for your sin and mine. It is because of His sacrificial, bloody death on the cross that all sin—the sin of every faithful worshiper of the Old Testament, and the sin of every faithful worshiper of the New—that all sin, your sin is forgiven and taken away, that can no longer accuse you, kill you eternally, or ever separate you from God again.

When He died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38). This indicated that He alone, through His bodily death and resurrection, is the one and only mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 9:15; 12:24). Then, some thirty-five to forty years after His death and resurrection, the old Jerusalem temple was finally destroyed forever. As Timothy Dudley-Smith penned,

No temple now, no gift of price,
No priestly round of sacrifice,
Retain their ancient pow’rs.
As shadows fade before the sun
The day of sacrifice is done,
The day of grace is ours. (LSB 530)

That day is Sunday. On that day we call the main Christian worship service of Word and Sacrament “the Divine Service.” And by that we mean to emphasize that what’s most important, what is to draw our attention always is not our own activity, words, hymns, prayers or songs, but God’s activity and gifts to us. It seems to me the more awareness of what’s really going on in Christian worship, the more silence, spiritual contemplation, “fear,” awe and reverence. The less awareness of what’s really going on…well, why not count the offering right away?