Metaphors are powerful, but this one’s more than a metaphor…
Pastors from time to time are asked by older couples to join with them in what is most often a quaint yet meaningful ceremony. After decades of marriage together, committed husbands and wives sometimes desire to renew their wedding vows with one another. It’s a time for each to remember and recount what they’ve committed to, and to declare their intentions to remain faithful for the next set of years God would grant. As I reflected on this, the more it became obvious to me that this is exactly what weekly corporate worship is.
Continuity of Worship Practice
There are some theologians out there who see a lot of discontinuity between what God was doing in the Old Testament and what He did in the New. I am not one of them. In fact, when it comes to worship, I think those of us in evangelical traditions have been quite underserved in mining the wisdom of the theology and practice of worship in the Old Testament. We tend to too cheaply cry “fulfilled in Christ!” before exploring how we can engage (rather than jettison) the worship habits of ancient Israel. Take, for instance, the annual worship calendar of Israel’s feasts and festivals. Thoughtful Christians who choose to recognize a Christian year (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) can understand that “fulfillment in Christ” means not abolishing the annual worship cycles of ancient Israel, but worshiping through an annual pattern that interprets those Israelite rituals in light of Christ (check out my post about that here).
A Responsive Reading on Two Mountains
One Old Testament worship concept we don’t hear a lot about these days is worship as covenant renewal. When the Israelites gathered for worship at certain times, there was a keen sense that what they were enacting, from sacrifices to songs to responsive readings and prayers, was a renewal of God’s covenant with them and their covenant with God. Recall Deuteronomy 11. Just after God re-gave the Law to Israel and reminded them that the Law was ultimately about their hearts (Deut 10), He tells them about the consequences of keeping and breaking that Law–blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience (Deut 11:26-32). With this (Mosaic) covenant established, God prescribes a ritual of covenant renewal to enact the ratified covenant once Israel enters the promised land. One set of Israelites are to go up to Mount Gerizim and shout forth the blessings of the covenant, and the other set is to go up on nearby Mount Ebal and shout forth the curses. This ritual was intended to help Israel remember their vows and to assure the people that God would remember His.
One Mount to Rule Them All
So what of this worship practice for folks like us who sit on the other side of the Christ-event? Are covenant renewal rituals like this done away with because Christ has come, or is there a way to see these practices somehow re-enacted in Christ? Think with me about another mountain that a lone Israelite would ascend–the hill of Jerusalem. But this time, He didn’t have to shout the Word of God because He is the Word of God. Think about the life’s journey that this Hero took from birth to that final ascent, perfectly obeying the Law of His Father, withstanding temptation and never straying to the right or to the left. This thirty-year journey was His keeping of the covenant, earning all the blessings shouted from Mount Gerizim long ago. And then the final stage of that journey, arriving on the hilltop of Golgotha, was his bearing of the covenant curses–the dread of Ebal–in our stead. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
If Gerizim and Ebal find their fullest expression in Jesus, how could we reimagine those mountainous moments in our worship today? Well, perhaps the elements of historic Christian worship already do this. Worship services that walk through Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon / Absolution are re-enacting Gerizim and Ebal in and through the One who earned their blessings and bore their curses. Confession of Sin is a response to the Christian’s acknowledgement that we have not kept the law (yet again for another week) and justly deserve those forever covenant curses. And yet the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ becomes a two-fold statement that (a) the penalty of those curses has been paid in full upon the cross, and (b) Christ’s successful law-keeping has earned for us the righteousness required by the Law and shouted at Gerizim.
“Look Into Each Others’ Eyes and Repeat After Me…”
This all brings us back to where we started. Many of Israel’s rituals (including the Gerizim-Ebal response) were designed for “remembrance” (a rich biblical word) so that, when they were enacted, Israel would remember and feel yet again the affectionate “I love You” that they so needed to hear from Yahweh. Worship is no less for us. It is the Bridegroom Christ renewing His wedding vows with the harlot He irrevocably loves, the Gomer He won’t let go. It is Christ reminding His Church that he took all the covenant responsibilities (the blessings and the curses) upon His own shoulders precisely so that His wayward Bride was free to return…not having to earn the relationship, but merely receiving it by faith.
Worship is Jesus gazing into our eyes, repeating the vows He made on that bloody wedding day in that open-air chapel of Golgotha: “It is finished.” Worship is Christ’s reassurance that we can stop clamoring for sources of life outside of Him: reputation, power, wealth, relationships…you know, the usual-suspect idols. We can cease scraping for significance in a world that offers it to us in millions of insufficient ways. We can receive our Husband as a gift and rest our weary head on His steady chest.
There is more ground to plow when it comes to engaging practices like Ebal and Gerizim. Perhaps some creative liturgist can write a song or craft a reading that divides the congregation into two or offers a worship leader / congregation call-and-response to more concretely place that ritual in the language of Confession and Absolution. But in the meantime, let’s all tarry for a bit around that mystically wonderful idea that worship is a weekly reliving of a wedding day.