Biblical Worship Encounters
March 3, 2007 • By Ross Pasley
Pt. 1: Cain and Abel
One of the most important questions facing our churches today is one you wouldn't expect. The question is simple but for some the answer seems illusive. Many pastors explain the answer in theological terms but cannot apply it. Many worship leaders pretend to understand, but struggle to explain it. The current worship resurgence in America is roughly 20 years old and as it matures we are all growing in our understanding of worship. But one question still remains difficult for many to answer. We should all know the answer, but we don't. We should all find the answer because it has profound implications for our lives and our churches. The question is, "What is worship?"
I've heard it said that "worship defies definition, it can only be experienced." While this is true, we cannot shirk our responsibility to understand and articulate what we have already experienced. God came to us. He presses in on us and we as humans are overwhelmed by this interaction. We don't just have experiences without knowledge, and we don't get experiences simply as a result of studying. We need both. We are believers who have experienced God in a tangible way and because we believe the Bible is our textbook on worship, we must strive for both sound doctrine and the mystery-the phenomenon of meeting with God.
This is the goal of looking into the Scriptures-to understand what God-encounters were really like. The Bible is the timeless story of people interacting with and experiencing the God of all eternity. They've left a trail for us to follow. They've supplied clues for our search. And there are secrets to be revealed in each of their stories. They have what we all long for-an encounter with God.
One of the first references to worship in the Scriptures was hidden from me until I noticed it one Sunday while Pastor Ted (my pastor) was teaching through Genesis. It is the story of Cain and Abel. See if you catch it as you read the story.
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 6Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." 8Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" 10The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. 11Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth." 13Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear. 14Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." 15But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16So Cain went out from the LORD'S presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
God Has an Opinion
Did you see it? Essentially, what we have here is two men wanting to offer something to God that was valuable to them (worship). Both brought an offering but only one was accepted. This suggests to us that God is concerned about the quality and form of our worship. We can't just come on Sunday and sing the songs without a heart felt evaluation of our lives before the Lord. He doesn't just want what is easy for us to give. He's not interested in convenient worship. George McDonald, mentor to C.S. Lewis said, "God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy." God is not a hard taskmaster, but he continues to ask for everything, including, and especially, what we find difficult to offer him.
We are in the middle of a great contextualization of worship for this generation. Experimenting with old and new forms is having a positive effect on our worship psyche, tearing down some of our old paradigms and purposeless traditions. However, as we come to God with our new ideas for worship, let's be mindful of one simple fact: God has an opinion! We do have some directives from the Scriptures about worship and what forms it should take. We must remember that the Bible is our roadmap for worship, in our theology, our liturgy and our lifestyle. We measure every lifestyle decision and every creative idea for worship by the Word of God. We can't just offer what we like or what seems valuable to us. We must offer God what he desires and what he requires of us. This is the crux of true worship-surrendering our lives and offering our selves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).
Cain Chose Poorly
We are not told of the instructions that God gave to Cain and Abel concerning their offerings but we are included in the evaluation of the offerings. God rhetorically asks Cain in the passage, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" Why couldn't Cain have just repented of offering something unacceptable at this point? Well, he could have but he was blinded by his anger. His anger stemmed from jealousy and his jealousy came because he was focused on the wrong person. He became consumed in envy over God's favor on Abel. Cain chose Abel as his focus instead of God. When God gave Cain the opportunity to do the right thing, Cain chose to punish his brother instead of surrendering to God's correction. As worshippers, we learn to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, instead of being consumed with what others are doing. Consider what God said in verse 7. When we drop our eyes from his gaze to the world around us we find that sin is right there waiting to have us. But, as we worship him acceptably we find the power to conquer it.
The Stakes are High
As the conversation between Cain and God unfolded we find that Cain realizes the cost of his mistake. Notice what he says in verse 13 and 14. "My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." God made sure he would live, but it is interesting to note that God took away what Cain loved the most-Cain was driven from the land. This was Cain's work that he loved, the fruits of which he had just offered to God a few verses earlier. But that wasn't all. He also realized in that moment the unbearable reality of being hidden from God's presence. How could a man that wanted to please the Lord by bringing an offering be so close to such a great and terrible consequence? It happens all the time in our churches. When we hold our pursuits and desires above what God asks of us, we are in danger of losing the very opportunity we've been given to do what we enjoy. But when we delight ourselves in him he gives us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4).
Lest we forget, let's remind ourselves of God's love. In fact, his laws are evidence of his love. His ways are not oppressive. He is not a heavenly tyrant, enforcing arbitrary rules through harsh discipline. The very thing that God requires of us leads us to the very thing we need the most. When we follow God's design, we experience his presence. Obedience is the pathway to joy and life. As we study these Biblical truths about worship, we will discover the pleasure of a life-changing encounter with God.