God’s love is as strong as death, Christ’s passion as fierce as the grave. There are several books included in Scripture that are noticeably different. The book of Esther is one – it is part of the Hebrew Bible often referred to as history, of a young Jewish woman growing up in Persia, with a destiny to save her people. There is, however, in the book of Esther, not a single reference to God.
The Song of Solomon is another one. It is credited to King Solomon, but was probably written centuries after his death. The more traditional name, Song of Songs, is a little more accurate, therefore. In the book, the author mentions God, but never by the Israelite name Yahweh – another uniqueness. In style and in form, it is a love letter between a man and a woman more than anything else. There is passion, love, intimacy, desire – some steamy stuff, in other words. The particular excerpts we read this morning are often included at weddings, and that makes some sense. But why in the world would it be in the Bible?
While that question hangs in the air, we are beginning a worship series this morning on…worship. And over the next few months, we will be looking at the particular form and style of Presbyterian-flavored worship – why we do things in the order we do them in, what the purpose and hope is for worship, how it can shape the rest of our life. In a day and time when worship attendance is on the dramatic decline, we will also look at a more pointed question: why bother?
I’m tempted to just stop there, with these two questions dangling over us – just leave them there, drop the mic, and walk away. After all, there is faithful purpose in tension, in discomfort, in the mystery and even the frustration of unanswered questions. In some ways, I would love to attach these two questions to the ceiling today – namely, why do we consider Song of Songs Scripture and why bother with worship – and then run a string between them, on which we could hang all of our great unanswered questions. Then I remember that we have just recently replaced the roof, and I’m not sure it would be able to withstand all the weight of what we do not know.
So instead, here’s what I’d like us to do. I’m passing around a stack of post-it notes – invented by a Presbyterian, by the way. Take one or more, and pass them along. In the pew pocket in front of you, you’ll find pens and pencils. And during the offering, I want to invite us to write down our great, global unanswered questions. When we leave worship today, I invite you take your own questions of faith and stick them to the baptismal font as you leave. My hope is that they will form for us a kind of collective desire for knowledge, a yearning for God, that connects with the baptismal hope of being born anew, cleansed and renewed.
In some ways, that right there is the purpose of worship. It is a place, a space into which we bring these grand mysteries – the questions that seem to defy answer. And it’s not that they always wrap up nice and neat, tied with a bow. Sometimes, I’m sure, they are meant to be messy. But that may be the very thing that drives us toward God and knowledge of God day in and day out, week in and week out: our search for a deeper purpose, our desire for wisdom.
Our desire for wisdom…could that be the connective thread that hangs onto our Scripture lesson? Song of Songs is about desire. One of the reasons it was included in the Hebrew Bible was an allegorical interpretation that arose early on, that the poetry of love between two people was meant as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, and vice versa. In other words, it was intended as an elegant and intimate description of covenant. God pursued the people with deep desire – and the people, in turn, sought God with driving passion.
When the early Christian community embraced the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, a similar interpretation arose. The love of God for God’s people became Christ’s love for the Church, the Christian community. Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila expanded on this understanding, giving added meaning and passion to the relationship. Christ’s willing, self-sacrificial love was for the sake of the Church; and so, the Church’s covenant with Christ should have that same kind of desire, hope, attraction.
It may be difficult for us to connect with that kind of understanding of Song of Songs, especially with the more Victorian and Puritanical cultural strands that have run through our heritage in recent centuries. And yet, if we can get past those, if we can put our somewhat prudish thoughts aside, even for just a moment, we might be able to get at what it means to be in relationship with the God we know in Christ.
There are three different Greek words in the New Testament that are translated as “worship”. And, not surprisingly, none of them have the meaning “to sit in pews and look at the same wall.” Instead, they each have their own nuance that teaches us something about what it is that worship should strive to be.
The most common one, occurring about sixty times, literally means to prostrate oneself. Think of Muslims at prayer, kneeling, foreheads touching the ground in front of them. Worship is an act of love and devotion toward God.
The second most common word, appearing about twenty times, means “to serve”. This parallels with the Hebrew word for worship, which is the same root as the word “servant”. Everything we do as people of faith is a response to what God has done for us; and so we seek to live for God.
And the third word, appearing about ten times, means “to show reverence and awe.” Our relationship with God is not a partnership of equals; instead, we should be struck to the ground by our gratitude to the driving force of all of creation! That’s why we baptize children, even before they are old enough to grasp any of the meaning – because we know that God was at work in our lives long before we had any clue that this was at work! It’s why we don’t have membership dues or charge entrance fees or ask for tax returns, because our generosity in giving should flow in recognition of God’s generosity toward us.
And when we gather for worship, here, on a Sunday morning, at 11am, it is not because there is something necessarily sacred about the day, the time, the room in which we gather. Yes: there is historical reason for Sundays being the Christian Sabbath, the first day of new creation, the day of resurrection. And yes, history also points back to the Temple and the synagogue as special places for Sanctuary, for worship. And yes, it is true that Moses descended from Mt. Sinai at precisely 11am.
That last part isn't true. But let’s get real for a second: is there a day that doesn’t belong to God? Is there a physical location that can keep God at bay? Is there a time of day where Christ can’t be at work? We set aside this time on this day in this space because we know that if we don’t do it, we will get so busy with the distractions of the world that we may never set our hearts and minds on God at all.
The purpose of worship is love. The goal of worship is intimacy with God in Christ. It may come in prayer, in song, in word, in deed, in fellowship and community, in service and generosity. And if we can do that here, then we might just be able to do it elsewhere, so that our whole lives become ones of worship.
My friend, the author Cathy Townley, writes that “a worship lifestyle is our relationship with God and our way through life.” In other words, worship may begin – or end – here. It may find some kind of familiarity or authentic discomfort here. It may find an anchor or disruption here. But if it is worship, true worship, then it cannot be contained here. If it is, then it ceases to be worship and becomes idolatry, confusing the act of worship with the object of worship.
And that’s the tension that I hope bears out in our time together in the next few months, in a worship series about worship. If all it does it point back to itself, then it really is idolatry, because we have confused the practice of worship with the God whom we are meant to worship. Instead, my hope is that our time in worship would reflect on it in such a way that worship becomes not just a rote activity taking place one hour a week (on a good week), but instead a critical practice that gives meaning and hope to the fullest extent of our lives, moving us from a worship service to a worship lifestyle.
When we do that, then all of these questions that trouble us or nag at us or tie us in knots will cease to be barricades we construct between us in God, keeping us at arm’s length. Instead, they will become part of the bridge, the pull, the drive, the desire, the very thing that encourages our thirst and hunger and pursuit for the knowledge and wisdom of God.
After all, God’s love is as strong as death; Christ’s passion is as fierce as the grave.