Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants [seed] I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
Jesus told the woman at the well that God is seeking folks who will worship Him in spirit and truth. We want to be those people, I think. The trouble is this. As often as we use the word “worship” within Christianity, if we were honest, I think we’d have to admit that we don’t really know what it means, or why we should do it, or what it ought to look like when we do.
Since the 1500’s, the Catholic Church has defined “worship” in a very narrow sense. Ask a Catholic who knows these things, and they’ll tell you that only the service of the Mass is worship. On the other end of the scale, you have modern Protestant charismatics who’d say that worship happens when you sing songs to God. I have a charismatic friend who even goes so far as to divide “praise songs” from “worship songs,” so that, during their Sunday service there comes a discernable time at which they stop “praising” and shift into “worship.” After they’ve worshipped for some extended time, they stop worshipping and open their Bibles and listen to the message. Mainline Protestant churches seem to use the word “worship” as a synonym for “liturgy.” That is, whatever form they’ve taken for the conduct of their morning services, that is worship. So that sometimes you’ll see the morning’s program, the bulletin, which shows the order of events, called the Order of Worship.
Am I going to clear up all this confusion today? Probably not. In fact, as I thought about this sermon this week, I was tempted to think that the best I could hope for was the first rule of the physician. “First of all, do no harm.” But I have pressed on, trusting that the Holy Spirit, working through His Word, can do a work in us today, and change something within us. I believe that today’s message can move us all down the road to becoming what the Father is seeking, folks who worship in spirit and truth, in response to His revealing of Himself to us.
Our text this morning is the first appearance of the Lord to Abram (who of course would later become Abraham the Hebrew) after He called him out of his father’s house. The Bible doesn’t tell us how this happened, but simply that it did. God appeared to Abram and made him a promise. It was a great and glorious promise. If we pay attention to the teaching of the New Testament here, we’ll see that God wasn’t just promising Abram that the Jews would inherit the land of Canaan. Primarily, what God was promising here was that Jesus Christ, Abraham’s Seed, would inherit the whole earth.
So God appears and reveals something of His plan to Abram. God appeared. I’m not sure we grasp how profound that is. God appeared. The invisible, incomprehensible, infinite, unapproachable God…appeared to him. Abram didn’t suddenly conceptualize a Deity. No theological proposition appeared to him. He was not hit with an idea, or a concept. But an Eternal, living Being made His presence real to him in some way.
This was an Apocalyptic moment. How’s that for a scary word? Apocalyptic. We’ve been trained to think that Apocalypse is the End of the World. It’s not. An apocalypse was simply a form of writing that developed around the time of Christ. Technically, “apocalypse” means “revealing”. Apocalypse means the pulling back of the curtain, to show you what is hidden. In apocalyptic writing, the people of God suffer under the oppression of the forces of evil in the world. But we soon learn that our world is effected by another, hidden world, the world of the spirit, where demons and angels are locked in conflict. In apocalyptic writing, at some point, the curtain between our world and that one is pulled back, and God and His angels invade our world from that other side and defeat the servants of the devil. The invisible spirit world invades the world of men, for the ultimate purpose of bringing about the salvation of God.
This is what Abram experienced. The invisible Spirit who is God appeared to Him and preached to him the Gospel. It was by believing these promises that Abraham was counted righteous.
At some point it is natural for us to ask, Why Abram? Why not someone else? These are hard questions, and it is right to finally leave them aside and say, “The secret things belong to God.” Why does God choose one and seem to pass over another? Why Abram? Why me? Why you? God never reveals the Why in His Book, but this much is clear—the choice is His. The first Methodists came up with a phrase to try and deal with this. They called it Preveniant Grace. Simply put, it means God is always first. No man develops a thirst for Living Water on his own. God creates that thirst. No man on his own initiative cries out for salvation, but God’s Spirit deals in secret with a man’s heart to make him despair of his sin and seek to be cleansed. Ephesians 2:8 makes it clear that even the faith by which we are saved is a gift from God, and whole theologies spring up to try and escape that truth and say that man has something to do with it, but God is always previous. God is always first. No man repents and thereby receives mercy. God grants the mercy of repentance to hardened sinners out of His pure grace.
We get cause and effect mixed up. We think that faith earns grace, but the truth is that we have faith because of God’s grace. It is even the teaching of the first chapters of Romans that gross sin does not earn God’s wrath so much as it is a sign of God’s wrath. God in wrath stops restraining you and you fall headlong into gross sin that eventually destroys you. We think we’re sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. We think we die because our bodies wear out and decay, but our bodies wear out and get sick because death is coming.
God chose. Abram didn’t choose. God chose to appear to Abram and reveal Himself.
The immediate result is that Abram built an altar. Building an altar is an act of worship. God appeared and then Abram worshipped. It’s of some importance that we get that in the right order.
That’s the immediate result, worship. Notice the text says, “there”. Not somewhere else, later. Not after he’d had time to consider the Gospel offer and think about whether he was ready or not. Then and there.
God revealed Himself, and Abram then worshipped. I happened to catch several minutes of a PBS special on religion in America, and especially on prevalent ideas about prayer. It was all about, “What does prayer mean to you?” Of course, being PBS, every possible view in the world was represented except orthodox Christianity. They showed Christians, so-called, but they were liberals who didn’t half believe the Bible. But I watched, and alternately became furious and sad. I was angry with the pagans and their blasphemies, but ultimately felt sorry for them. The dominant theme for them was that prayer was an attempt to get to God, whomever or whatever that may be. Prayer is about trying to cross over, to bridge the gap, to reach the unreachable, to know the unknowable. For some, prayer was about trying to find the god within themselves. Yikes.
It is precisely here that the religion of the Bible differs from all the inventions, fables, and superstitions of men. For them, acts of worship are attempts to find God. Like stumbling through an unfamiliar room in the dark, hands out in front of you, hoping that when you bump into something, it will be what you’re looking for. But we know what Abram knew. God has crossed over. Yes, there is a divide. Yes, God’s reality transcends our own, and yes, left to ourselves the best we could do is grope in the dark. But the light has dawned. The chasm has been bridged. God has appeared. And so we worship in response, just as Abram did.
Listen, no amount of worship causes God to do anything. The salvation of God does not come in response to anything, but flows out of His own gracious decision to save. It wasn’t Eve’s worship that caused God to promise that her seed would crush the serpent’s head. It was God’s mercy in the midst of her sin.
Israel’s worship didn’t get God to deliver them from Egypt. He delivered them, and then expected them to worship.
Nobody’s act of worship caused God to send His only Son to pay the penalty for sins on the cross. God did that when we were still sinners, totally incapable of worshipping anything but ourselves.
God is always first. God appears. Then we worship.
As a small note before I go on, notice that Abram built an altar, not a bicycle built for two. God had shown him amazing grace. God had drawn near in an incredible way. But Abram didn’t then go on to mess up the defining characteristics of their relationship. God remained God, and Abram remained his lowly servant. God remained the LORD, the king of all the earth, while Abram scrounged around on the earth looking for materials with which to build. God has drawn near to us in Christ, who took on human flesh and became one of us for the sake of saving us. I fear that we sometimes take that amazing grace as license to remove the distinctions that must exist between us. We take license to become too familiar, and sometimes forget that our prayers are addressed not only to a loving Father, but also to a Holy King. We need that balance in our minds when we worship our God.
God appeared and then Abram worshipped. There are consequences for not keeping this straight.
Very many Christian churches seem to operate with the notion that after they have worshipped for an extended period of time, God will then visit them in a special way in response. Instead of our worship being responsive, the result of receiving His promises in faith, we think of it as initiative. We worship and if we do it right then God responds. Then He will come to us.
This borders on magic, really. Worship becomes manipulative. We make God act through the sincerity of our singing. We make Him draw near.
Then, if we forget what it is that worship is supposed to be responding to, the self-revelation of God, we can find ourselves confused about why we’re participating in a church service in the first place. The whole thing degenerates into going through some religious motions, saying certain religious things at the right time, etc. If you’ve never really gotten the point about participating regularly in church, I suggest to you the possibility that God has not yet revealed Himself to you. After all, if God has not appeared, what is there to worship? What could possibly be the point?
The last consequence I want to talk about is that worship can become traditionalism. There is a difference between tradition, which is good and helpful, and traditionalism, which leads to bondage and spiritual death. One pastor I know named Jim Logan explains it this way. Tradition is the living faith of those who are dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those who are living. Here is how traditionalism happens. God in Christ appears to a man. That man becomes a worshipper. His whole life is changed and he begins to act differently.
Now, it is obvious to everyone that there is in this man’s life a new reality. The presence of God with him is unmistakable. The people who see this are attracted to it. They want it for themselves. The trouble is, they weren’t there when God revealed himself to the man. All they see is the result, the way he worships. They don’t understand this cause and effect relationship. They get it backwards. They think the things he does causes the presence of God in his life. They don’t understand that the Presence of God causes these things he does. So they mimmick what he does, hoping that will bring the Presence to them. That is how traditionalism starts. People try to worship without ever having a revelation of God. They do the same things the man does, but his worship is acceptable, and theirs is futile.
What then shall we say to these things? Paul wrote to the Roman church and explained in detail the salvation of God that is to be found through faith in Jesus Christ. After eleven painstaking, precise chapters of theology, trying to explain what God has done, he says this, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service [or, act of worship].” If you have truly been taught by God, if you have truly received Jesus Christ by faith, then worship. Worship by giving your lives to His service. As Abram built an altar after God appeared, so make your lives altars in service to the One who has appeared for your salvation. Amen.