Contemporary Traditions (Deuteronomy 30)
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this morning. I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, traditional and contemporary worship. There's a sandwich in many congregations. The older generation wants the classic, traditional hymns and liturgies they grew up with. The middle generation wants more upbeat, entertainment-driven worship. The younger generation wants the historic, more permanent style of worship. This younger generation is seeking something permanent in this maelstrom of uncertainty. The biggest problem for worship planners is how to balance the service so that each generation is content. When there is an imbalance, a group from one generation or another decides to leave the congregation.
Why do people put more emphasis on HOW they worship instead of WHO they worship? People want to take credit for anything they can. Even if it's something as small as worship. But worship is a matter of life and death. A matter of blessing and curse. Blessed worship centers around the person and work of Jesus Christ. This worship brings out Jesus Christ as the God-man. The Redeemer and Savior of the world. The major focus of every worship service is upon WHOM we worship.
But just because we are more focused on WHO, that doesn't mean that HOW isn't important. Worship should be uplifting and edifying for both the oldest members present and the youngest members present. In our specific context, a balance must be achieved so that the Holy Spirit is able to work effectively in the heart of a ninety-five-year-old and a twenty-one-month-old. That's an extreme stretch for a worship planner or a preacher. But the Holy Spirit works as He calls, gathers and enlightens us to worship God. To that end, we have taken a more traditional route in worship. Divine Service on the first and third Sundays of the month. The Service of Prayer and Preaching on the second Sunday. Matins on the fourth and fifth Sundays. On occasion this schedule is changed, but the emphasis is still on WHO not HOW.
I have received requests with quite eloquent arguments for using the same liturgy every week. One reasoned for it being more helpful to mothers of small children. They can't hold a hymnal in one hand and make their children pay attention in the pews at the same time. Have it where they can do it from memory and be able to do both at the same time. Very reasonable, eloquent request. But is it truly a problem if there are two parents in the pew? Renee hasn't been able to have that. She's had to deal with two little ones who can be a bit rambuncious at times. But she was thankful for the consistent schedule of services she grew up with. She learned each of the services from memory. And it didn't take much. Having parts of the liturgy memorized is a great goal. Each of the confirmands is required to memorize portions of the Sunday morning liturgies. Not so they can boast, "I can do 'Service X' from memory." To know how it works and relates to the Christian life in this world. Traditional worship allows a deeper understanding of the faith because of the repetition. This is why Divine Service 3 was the predominant liturgy for almost four centuries in the Lutheran Church and for many more centuries in the Catholic Church. It allows for the "inward digesting" of the Word that we used to pray for at the end of Page 5 and we will today at the end of our worship. The Common Service, the other name for Divine Service Three, is known throughout the world.
Also, the repetition of a worship schedule brings us to a more consistent practice as the Bible calls us. The Church in Jerusalem met daily after Pentecost to worship and receive Holy Communion (Acts 2:42-47). The Church in Troas met and received Holy Communion every Sunday (Acts 20:7). The Lutheran Reformers accepted inherited the practice of receiving Communion every Sunday: "Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord's Day and on other festivals, when the Sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved" (Ap XXIV, 1). The Reformers saw the good in receiving Communion every Sunday. In the centuries following the Reformation, Lutherans backed off from that stance to making Communion hardly ever offered. In the last century, many have striven to reclaim a more frequent reception of Communion in the congregations. When I've received requests from members to have Communion every week, I believe it's a wonderful idea. We should have Communion every week.
But then there is the question of being good stewards of our investment in the new hymnal. If we stick with the same services and refuse to learn the new services and hymns, why did we spend the money to get the new hymnal. Why not just keep the old hymnal? Why bother getting this new hymnal with all the different liturgies and all the newer hymns? Let's just stay comfortable where we were. But we've got this new hymnal. What do we do with it? If we want to be good stewards of what God has given us, we'll have the multiple services. Either on Sundays or during the week. I'm more than happy to do services during the week. That was the major thrust behind the Wednesday evening service. To give more opportunities for our members to grow in the Lord through worship. It failed. When things were supposed to go into full swing, no one showed. In fact, for the entire summer, I had two show up for a Wednesday night service in addition to the organist, the elder and myself. They were thankful for having the opportunity, but no one else wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. The desire has to be there to be effective and active.
But can we get too set in our ways? Absolutely. If we had the same service every Sunday without changing a single thing, we could fall into the idea that anyone who did things differently couldn't be Lutheran. Some could say that REAL Lutherans only use Divine Service Setting Three. We can't learn new hymns because they're new. We want just the old ones. I grew up in a church like that. We sang the same eleven hymns EVERY Sunday. Different order each week, but the same hymns EVERY week. It became very mundane. The sad thing was that the hymns typically had more substance than the sermon itself. Anything suggested outside of the congregation's "comfort zone" resulted in people shutting the hymnal, putting it back in the rack and crossing their arms in protest over their chest. Things I see in this congregation on occasion as well. That's why I admonish the congregation to follow along and read the words of the hymn. There's a reason we're singing this new hymn. Not because it's a new hymn. Because the content of the hymn is very great. By the third or fourth verse, you should have picked up the tune as well. We risk getting too set in our ways for our own good.
There are good points and bad points about traditional worship. It's the same with contemporary worship. It can either be good or bad. Luther's reforms to the Latin Mass were good. They were geared towards deepening the laity's understanding of the service. He replaced the Latin hymns with German hymns. The people knew what they were saying and doing then. He did this to help his parishioners, as is stated in our bulletin this morning: "[T]he Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people" (AC XXIV, 1-3).
But contemporary worship can be disastrous, especially when done to satisfy our own desires or our felt needs. We need look no further than the Bible to see prime examples. Aaron and Jeroboam both built Golden Calves for the Israelites to worship as God. They said, "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (Exodus 32:8; 1 Kings 12:28). Aaron lost track of Moses for the forty days he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. Jeroboam didn't want his kingdom's money going to his enemies. Their contemporary changes were for their own gain. Or what about after the more than 5000 received the bread and fish when Jesus feed them, they wanted to make him a bread king by force (John 6:15). They could be fed forever with this Jesus. Impromptu contemporary worship leads to the temptation to replace God, WHO we worship, with HOW we worship. That's why many stay away from it. To stay away from anything that might point towards us instead of pointing to Jesus and the Gospel.
And many take contemporary worship too far in various and different ways without the crass idolatry in front of them. Many churches, including some in our own district, have immersed themselves and drowned in contemporary worship. These are typically the larger congregations with several hundred in attendance on a Sunday morning. But there is no rhyme or reason to the services. How can you grow in your faith with so many distractions from HOW the worship is set up? It's not impossible, but it can be very difficult.
Worship, as with any of God's gifts, can be misused and perverted into something completely opposed to God. We can make worship into a curse where God gave it to us as a blessing. God gives us worship as a blessing because this is how God has determined to give us the gifts He talks about in the Bible. Through worship we receive God's gifts because worship revolves around His Word and His Sacraments. Through these means, we receive God's grace to live. Moses pointed this out to the Israelites. God is your life. He gives the manifold liturgies for that purpose. The daily offices build up to the sermon and then flow back down in a bell-curve to transition into daily life. The Divine Service builds up to the height of receiving Jesus' body and blood and being able to say, "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word" (Luke 2:29). The Divine Service is designed to have the congregation leave the service on the high note of being prepared for death, just as the aged Simeon who sang those words as he held the Christ Child. As we celebrate the season of Easter this year, I invite you to see exactly what I mean. Beginning with Easter Sunday and continuing to Trinity Sunday, every Sunday service will be done using Divine Service Setting One. Compare the feelings and mindset you have at the end of the service between the Communion and non-Communion Sundays. You might just be surprised about it. God gives us worship so that He may give us life for this world and the next.
God not only gives life but length of days through worship. God gives the Fourth Commandment with a promise: "Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Deuteronomy 5:16). As we "live long in the land" we live with neighbors. God gives us the ability through worship to congregate with our brothers and sisters. Through our adoption as God's sons and daughters, we have the privilege to assemble together and call on His name in worship. We assemble with our neighbors in peace and love, as Jesus commands us: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). We don't seek to associate with those whom we have difficulties. However, we're called to come together with all God's children. Sometimes we don't get along with God's children. In those times the best course of action regarding them is to understand that they are sinners that Jesus died for too. In the best cases, these problems are reconciled very quickly. Many times time and prayer are necessary to resolve these problems. Unfortunately, some problems will not be reconciled until all things are reconciled when Jesus returns again. Then there will be no disagreements. No need for reconciliation.
We seek reconciliation from our neighbors because we come from the same family. Not just God's adopted family. God's physical family on earth. This was true of the Twelve Tribes, because each descended from one of the twelve sons of Israel. They were physically descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--the people who received the promise (v20). But it applies to each of us as well. We all descend from the same family. We congregate together for the same reason we evangelize: all of our neighbors are our family. We all descend from Adam. We want each of our family members to be with us in Heaven. We evangelize to spread God's Word by our words and actions. Words and actions sanctified by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Words and actions that might only plant seed. Words and actions that might water seed already planted. Words and actions God uses to bring about growth in the faith (1 Corinthians 3:6). As we grow in faith, we seek reconciliation more earnestly, knowing that it is the key to a happy life together as God's family.
So we try new things. Some times they work. Some times they don't. But our contemporary traditions continue to bring us closer to God as He continues to feed us with His Word. Let us strive God's life and blessing in all our worship. Amen.