Thursday, May 15, 2008

N.T.Wright's Description of Biblical Worship

I have been enjoying reading the writings of Bishop N.T.Wright on the subject of worship. Did you realize that as we worship every week in our church, as Christians all over the world worship, there is worship going on in heaven as well? In the book of Revelation, John was allowed to take a peek at what is going on in heaven. Bishop Wright expands upon this description for us:

"I begin with the spectacular scene in the book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5, where John the Seer is summoned to become for a while a spectator at the heavenly court, watching as the whole creation pours out its ceaseless praise before its creator. This is not a vision of the ultimate future — that comes in chapters 21 and 22 — but of the heavenly dimension of present reality. When John is told that he will be shown “what must take place after this” (4:1), this does not mean that chapters 4 and 5 themselves are a vision of the future; they are a vision of the throne room, where ceaseless worship is made, within which the vision of the future is to be vouchsafed to the seer as the sealed scroll (5:1) is gradually unsealed.[1] It seems in 4:1-2 that “coming up to heaven” and “being in the Spirit” are functionally equivalent; heaven and earth are the interlocking spheres of God’s single creation, and when John is “in the spirit,” he is suddenly open to and aware of the heavenly dimension of what we call ordinary life.[2]
The scene laid out before him begins with a description of the heavenly throne-room itself, rather like the one in Ezekiel 1. God himself is not described, but a sense of his presence and majesty fills the whole passage. We are not surprised when the first thing that happens is worship; though we are perhaps surprised that the beginning of worship is that of the animal, rather than the human, creation. The four living creatures, the lion, the ox, the one with a human face, and the eagle, six-winged like the seraphim in Isaiah 6, praise God ceaselessly with the Trisagion: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Then, in the context of this praise from all creation, the twenty-four elders, representing the people of God from old covenant and new, fall down and declare that God is worthy of this worship, because he is the powerful creator of all. The English word “worship” comes from the word “worthy,” and here is one of its classic expressions: “worship” means acknowledging the worth, the worthyness, of the one who is worshiped. It means gladly recognizing and celebrating the fact that this God is who he is and does what he does.
Already two fundamental points emerge. First, biblical worship is grounded in the fact that God is the creator of all. Any attempt to slide off into a dualism in which creation is secondary, shabby or evil is ruled out. Second, the task of humans is to bring to conscious thought and expression the worship of the rest of creation. Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, but God’s image-bearing creatures, we humans, are called to know that it is so and to put it into words of praise. That is what you do every time you say “hallowed be thy name” or “glory be to God on high.”
All this, of course, takes us back to Genesis 1. God saw what he had made and declared it good; after the creation of man and woman, he declared it “very good.” But Genesis 1 was a project, not a fixed tableau; and the project misfired. In Revelation 5 we see that God is holding a scroll, the scroll which contains, we understand. God’s sovereign purpose for the world; but the scroll requires someone to open it, and John weeps because nobody can do so. More specifically, it requires a human being to open it, and no human being is worthy to do so. But then we look, and see the lion who is also the lamb; the Messiah, the Root of David, who has conquered because he is also the lamb who was slaughtered, and who now sends God’s sevenfold spirit into all the world. He is the one who can now take forward God’s project, not just for human beings but for all creation.
The result is a new outburst of praise. The song of creation is taken up into the song of redemption, and this time there is instrumental music, incense, prayer, and singing: because this is the new song, the song of new creation, the song which opens up the new world of possibility for worship. This is the song which celebrates the Messiah’s saving death and resurrection, and its result in creating humans as kings and priests to bring God’s wise order to the world. When the four living creatures reply “Amen!” at the end of the song, we find ourselves back where we were at the start. Creation worships God the creator, and humans bring that worship into conscious articulation; humans worship God the redeemer, and creation utters a glad “Amen.”"

We get to join this worship when we meet on Sundays. Next time you come into the sanctuary, why not carry this picture of heavenly worship in with you? If you do that, how could you help expressing your joy in God's presence?

1 comment:

matt said...

I like his point about how the Rev. 4 - 5 worship is a statement of what is actually happening now - rather than what could be or will be. Joining in with something that's already happening keeps us from two major worship problems: first, it keeps us from having to feel like we need to manufacture an experience of the presence of God. Second, it changes the verb tense of our worship theology: note how many contemporary songs say "we're going to..." or "we will..." instead of "we are doing such and such". I think this is healthier because we see ourselves as active participants in the worship of God rather than "we wannabes".

Then, worship can connect with the normal, and the day-to-day, rather than just with the intense. If we see that whatever worship we give contributes to the worship that is already going on, we see that our worship is an expression of "on earth as it is in the heavens," rather than "we have liftoff!!!"

Liftoff is fun, really, but ultimately God (as he states in Rev. 21-22) wants the new heavens and earth to come down, transforming the original creation, rather than having us jump ship. This, I believe, is the crucial part of Wright's statement: that our worship connects to the worship that is already going on and extends it into parts of the same creation where it has not been going on in its fullness, if at all.

I think this is much more reflective of Jesus' perspective, too. Instead of us trying to leave this life and (temporarily) remove ourselves to some other reality - as is so often attempted in worship - we are trying to bring the life (kingdom) of the heavens to bear here on earth. Thus, our worship can truly be a proclamation of the Kingdom - that the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near, turn and receive the Good News!