We are continuing our look at the topic of worship through the lens of language. In last month’s post, I said that the primary subject of the liturgy was God who gathers His people for the purpose of bringing His absolving Word and presence into their midst. In other words, the chief verb of the liturgy is the gift of God’s forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ. This gift, like all good gifts, naturally elicits the response of thanksgiving and praise. Thus, the liturgy creates a forum for conversation between God and his people. Norman Nagel once brilliantly described this liturgical dialogue:
Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise... saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure... The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Lutheran Worship, 6).
Two Parts of the Conversation
- Sacramental (Gift). We use the term “sacramental” to describe the elements of the service that function as God’s gifts to us (Baptism, Absolution, Preaching, Lord’s Supper).
- Sacrificial (Response). We use the term “sacrificial” to describe the Christian’s words and actions towards God that arise out of the faith which God has imparted (i.e. prayer, praise, adoration, and thanksgiving).
The liturgy is like a mountain range with two major peaks – God’s self-giving through the Service of the Word and God’s self-giving through Service of the Sacrament. The illustration below indicates this back and forth dialogical rhythm of communication between God and congregation.
The concerns I have often heard from well intentioned evangelical friends is that traditional or liturgical services are too rote, man-made, or not biblical. This is a valid concern and I like to respond by walking them through one of the Divine Services in Lutheran Service Book (my synod’s most current hymnal), pointing out how nearly every confession, chant, song, hymn, prayer, and response is made up of Holy Scripture, which are thankfully annotated in small print on the far right of each section for validation. The particular style of service may be unfamiliar to those coming from non-liturgical traditions, however the charge of it being man-made or unbiblical is invalid.
This repetition of God’s Word throughout the liturgy can be likened to a verb translated “confess” in the New Testament (homologemen). It literally means to say the “same word.” For example, St. John says:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9)
Thus, in confessing our sins we are saying back to God that same word that He has first said concerning us; in receiving the declaration of His pardon, we respond by receiving that same word in faith. Here is what this conversation looks like in practice:
God says, “You are a sinner.”
Faith confesses, “I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you will my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself.”
God says, “In mercy I have given my Son to die for you and for His sake forgive you all your sins.”
Faith acknowledges it is so...”Amen!”
By saying back to God what He has said to us we repeat what is most true and sure. Having our worship services saturated with the Bible allows God both the first and final Word. For God always takes the initiative, even in worship. Thus, the conversation of the liturgy follows the pattern of 1 John 4:9: “We love, because He first loved us.”
Next month, we will consider the “Syntax” of the liturgy (the structure which provides order and intelligibly communicates meaning through all that is happening).