(Un)acceptable Worship

Our help is in the Name of יהוה, who made heaven and earth.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the Assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. […] Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

Acceptable worship, even in the New Testament, is a serious business. Though God is always gracious, that doesn’t make it a simple matter of good intentions (if we even know our own intentions!); though clean and unclean are no longer the basis of morality with the coming of Christ (because we are clean in him and he makes all things new), the story of Nadab and Abihu still speaks to us today, and not only by way of contrast. The Lord help us, that we may offer a pure and holy sacrifice of praise in our liturgy and our life.

Reverence and awe, says the writer of Hebrews, because God is a consuming fire. I’m sure some people still pay lip service to the idea that ‘it’s the attitude’ that matters (to which, in their view, nothing externally observable is correlated), but in my view, since יהוה isn’t an easygoing god, assuming the Bible has no relevant instructions except to come ‘with the right heart’ (taken to mean coming with a heart of the purest intentions, or making yourself have that heart) is exactly the wrong idea.

It is for the gospel itself, of Christ’s work fulfilled in his life and now in us, that I oppose the idea of waiting for pure intentions before coming before the great throne: God himself will purify our worship. If the purity of my heart matters to my approach to God, I’m totally undone. And renew a right spirit within me. This is where the form matters: for the Holy Spirit, amid the worship done in careful harmony with Scripture’s examples and instructions (in musical terms, think counterpoint, not homophony), to work among God’s people. Form will not be neutral: it will either be fashioned according to God’s word, or it will not; it will itself support the message proclaimed in words, or it will not.

But we’ll come, as we are – for can we make ourselves pure without God before approaching him? – to hear and behold again the promise by which he’ll make us new. Not in our vaporous fashions does God meet us, but in the depths of our hearts, before the dark mouth of the abyss, where all that matters is the true myth and the strength of the arm that holds our wrist and will not let go.


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