Matthew 15:8 “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
The sainted John Jeske used to point out the beauty and pitfalls of our ability to do things by rote. When you put your shoes on this morning, you might have tied them while talking to your spouse or your children, or listening to the radio, and never even thought about what you were doing. This ability is a wonderful feature of the way God created us. When we do the same thing over and over again, eventually we can do it without even thinking about it. It becomes automatic. It frees our mind up for other, more important things.
That’s wonderful until it comes to our worship. Then this “automatic pilot” feature doesn’t serve us so well. We find ourselves mumbling through the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or the Confession of Sins on Sunday morning automatically. We don’t even think about them. We become guilty of what Jesus warned about: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
What is the problem here?
We might be tempted to blame God for making us this way, but we know that it is wrong to accuse God of evil. God is good to us, and his gifts are good. We are the ones who sometimes misuse them.
People often blame the repetition that takes place in our worship. Maybe if we didn’t always use the same old order and the same old forms, we wouldn’t fall into the trap of not thinking about what we are saying.
But is the problem really with using the Lord’s Prayer? Aren’t these words that Jesus taught us to use in our prayers? And is there really something wrong with the Apostles Creed? Doesn’t it simply summarize the main truths of our Christian faith and confess the Gospel of salvation?
The words of Jesus’ warning place the blame where it belongs–on the human heart. When we come to worship genuinely sorry for our sins, convicted of offending God, convinced that we need Jesus, then these words will not seem boring or lifeless, no matter how many times we have used them. The words of our worship rites and rituals preach God’s grace, which is the antidote for death. And people desperate for the antidote to death are glad to hear them.
We can even learn to appreciate the repetition. C.S. Lewis once said that worship is a little like dancing. It helps to know the order, the form well to really enjoy it, to concentrate on the content without distraction. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing, but only learning to dance.” Likewise, in worship, as long as you are always thinking about what is coming next, trying to figure out the tune, concentrating on saying the words right, you aren’t worshiping so much as you are learning how to use these words to worship.
From time to time there will be change in worship forms. God continues to bless his church with people who have the skills to write music and words that proclaim forgiveness and eternal life. Even J.S. Bach, even David and the other psalmists, were introducing something new to worship when they first put pen to paper. But the real change in worship needs to come from our own hearts, and the Gospel of a God who died and rose to save us can lead us to “regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.”