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Why do I support the historic liturgy? Is it because I am drawn to the music? to the pageantry? to the “style”? That I enjoy the singing of Lutheran chorales and Gregorian chant the way that another person enjoys the back beat of a rock song? No, no, no, no.
You see, I am simply convinced that LIFE is liturgical. God created us and placed humanity into this world to be the priest of His creation, to receive from Him His good gifts and to offer up a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. He created us to live in the joy of His presence, to find LIFE in communion with Him. The historic liturgy testifies to this Biblical vision of reality.
“It is indeed meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, Your only Son…and so with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You and saying: Holy, holy, holy…Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
These words confess that the liturgy is meant not to be a blip in time or confined to some Church building. They confess that all of our life, when that life is found in Jesus Christ, is to be doxology. St. Paul put it like this: “That we might BE to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:12). And this fills the Scriptures! Think of it.
Genesis is filled with liturgy from the get go: inside Eden where God walked and talked with men; outside Eden where the way of sacrifice begins and the theme of priest and sacrifice begin to ring through! From Cain and Abel to Melchizedek to the Sacrifice of Isaac. When the Lord was about to bring His people out of Egypt, He told Moses that the sign of being brought out was that “you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Ex 3:12). When Pharaoh is ready to release the people, but not their property, Moses gives a most peculiar answer–and we must believe he spoke the utter truth: “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us, not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” (Ex 10:25,26) And when they arrive at the holy mountain, God explains His purpose to Moses: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peo- ple, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:5,6) And so the Psalm- ist could sing: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to Your holy name and glory in your praise!” (Psalm 106:47)
Being a priestly people was fraught with difficulty. For due to the fall, it was entirely possible for the cultic to come unglued from the spiritual reality of the heart. God through His prophets everywhere decries this: “This people draws near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13) Despite the carefully given instructions and the warning that circumcision must be of the heart and not only in the fleshâ€”that is, that inner and outer self should not come disconnected, yet the old covenant hobbled along only able to point toward the true liturgical life, and being itself but a most imperfect sign of it. It clearly taught that all is gift of the Lord, that He has claim over all things, that the wage sin pays is death, that the gift God would give is life, that thanksgiving is what we were made for.
Consider especially the way that Eden is described in Isaiah 51:3: “For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” So where Zion, there a taste of Eden restored, there joy (always the byproduct of the Lord’s presence – see Psalm 16:11), there thanksgiving and there the voice of song. Get that and you’ll understand then what the Lord is up to in establishing His Church in this fallen world (amid the waste places and the wilderness and the desert). He’s planting here on our fallen soil a colony of Eden, a piece of the age to come, where the thanksgiving is perpetual, where the songs never end.
And so in the vision of the NT, as all that was imperfect in the Old Covenant and its worship is brought to completion and filled to the brim and then overflowing by Christ our Lord, we see that His whole life is liturgy, is praise, is thanksgiving, is communion with the Father, is offering of sacrifice that never comes unglued outer from the inner, that is whole and complete and perfect. He is PRIEST. Dr. Luther once said of this: “Priest is a strong and lovely word. There is no lovelier or sweeter name on earth. It is much better to hear that Christ is called ‘Priest’ than Lord, or any other name. Priesthood is a spiritual power which means no other than that the priest steps forth, and takes all the iniquities of the people upon Himself as His very own. He intercedes with God for them and receives from Him the Word with which He can comfort and help the people. By being priest He makes God our Father and Himself our Lord… He offered Himself once for all, so that He is both Priest and Sacrifice, and the Altar is the Cross. No more precious sacrifice could He offer to God than that He gave Himself to be slain and consumed in the fire of love. That is the true sacrifice.” (Exposition of Genesis 14, Day by Day, p.151)
Christ offers the perfect liturgy, receiving all as gift, offering all in thanksgiving to the Father. Because of the fall, we imagine vainly that life is something we have to cling to to possess; Christ flat out tells us that’s a lie. That it is in the pouring out of life that one receives a life that never can be taken from you. The One who is consumed as an offering in the fire of divine love is given a life that can never ever end!
And this is the life that He has baptized us intoâ€”His own indestructible life. This is the life that He has poured down our throats in the Eucharistâ€”His own indestructible life. And so it is and must be the shape of our lives in this world: sacrifices! For we have no other life than HIS, and His life is constantly a life for others, a life given away and so eternal.
So note the sacrificial, liturgical language of the New Testament writers! It’s everywhere. Here are but a few:
- “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, THAT YOU MAY PROCLAIM THE EXCELLENCIES OF HIM who called you out of darkness, into His marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9
- “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His own blood and MADE US A KINGDOM, PRIESTS TO SERVE HIS GOD AND FATHER, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Rev. 1:5,6
- “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1
- “Because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:15,16
- “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Cor. 10:31
- “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.” 2 Cor. 5:14,15
- “For we are the temple of the living God, as God said… Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” 2 Cor. 6:16- 7:1
- “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Eph 5:2
- “Let there be no filthiness or foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Eph 5:4
- “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Eph 5:20
- “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering on the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Phil. 2:17
- “Put to death what is earthly in you.” (that is, sacrifice it!) Col. 3:5
- “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Col. 4:2
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” 1 Thes. 5:16-17
- “I desire then that in every place men should pray, lifting up holy hands.” 1 Tim 2:8
- “Everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” 1 Tim 4:4,5
- We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat…Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Hebrews 13:10-16
Oh, so many, many more. Does it begin to come clear? LIFE was meant to be liturgy and because we fell from that perpetual thanksgiving and joy of God’s presence, our Lord came into the flesh, and He came to be Priest and Sacrifice, to atone for sin, and to open up the way for us to find LIFE againâ€”and that life, as His life, will be liturgical: where all is a gift from a God who loves and where the praise and thanksgiving redound to Him for the gifts received and where we are privileged to suffer and offer our sufferings under His own as praise to the Father of lights. Liturgy is LIFE and Life is Liturgy. This the Church’s historic liturgy witnesses to us with great faithfulnessâ€”for life is all about praise of God, listening to God’s Word, confessing the faith to others, offering prayers of intercession and gifts of loveâ€”thus carrying the burdens of othersâ€”and receiving from His nail-scarred hands the gifts of His body, His blood, His forgiveness, His life, communion with Him and in Him with all the saints and angels. Do you see? It’s not merely the Church service I’ve described; it’s LIFE, life as God meant it to be and as He is restoring it to be in His Church.
And then there are the glimpses we get of the heavenly worship – Hebrews 12 and Revelation – and it all is very familiar. The throng of all peoples gathered with angels and archangels around the throne of the Lamb and acclaiming the blood that has purchased them for God, falling down before Him, giving glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Spirit forever and ever! The white robes, the golden censors, the prayers of the saints, the martyrs and angels. It’s where all of life is headed: a world of endless doxology, communion, and joy in the Lamb.
Rev. William C. Weedon
Senior Pastor, St. Paul Lutheran Church