I am taking a brief diversion from our mediations on Jesus & Sabbath to reflect on a question that was put to me the other day. It is not the first time that this question (though perhaps not in the exact same words) has been asked of me. The question is:
"Can a person perform worship acts incorrectly, or the wrong acts altogether, and still be pleasing to God?" Another form of this question is "Can a person be baptized for the wrong reason and be pleasing to God?"
I think the question is misframed from the start. I compare this framing of the question to the lawyer who is "leading the witness" in a court setting. The framing of the question distorts the testimony of Scripture. In answer to THAT misframed question the answers are ...
Clearly there are worship acts that are displeasing to God. Clearly there are worship acts that are wrong.
HOWEVER The question is, rather, does the Biblical narrative testify to people 1) either leaving a worship act "undone" or 2) performing a worship "act" incorrectly ... and being accepted by God inspite of the reality that it is wrong? THIS IS THE QUESTION.
Framing the question(s) this way highlights what the Scriptures ACTUALLY testify too. What does the Story of God reveal? When we look at the unified narrative of God through Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, to name but a few scenes from that drama of grace, what do we see? They testify too:
1) That yes there are wrong acts of worship
2) That God's People often fail in their attempt to worship properly
AND embedded in the Story we see
3) That CORRECT acts of worship can and are DISPLEASING to God as much as incorrect ones
4) That People can and have (according to the Holy Spirit's testimony) done incorrect worship acts and yet were ACCEPTED by God.
Now anyone with beyond a freshman level knowledge of the biblical story knows that all four statements above are TRUE. Sometimes these themes are juxtaposed in the same narrative.
Nadab and Abihu did get toasted for insulting the holiness of God (Lev 10.1-11). This is a story that is often used to present half of the biblical truth. Yet this disaster is contrasted (by the Holy Spirit) with Eleazar and Ithamar (Lev 10.12-20). What is the purpose of this bringing together two very similar "mistakes" but with radically different results? Why are one set of brothers destroyed and the other set granted healing mercy and divine grace? Do we dare affirm that Yahweh is simply arbitrary!! What do we discern that is the difference: was the difference one of technical precision or was the difference located within the often conflicted human heart? Since I revolt at the notion that the Father of Jesus is purely arbitrary I embrace the notion, highlighted repeatedly in the biblical narrative, that God accepted Eleazar & Ithamar on the basis of knowing their hearts. It shows no respect for either the interity or the authority of Scripture to embrace the first story and hide or deny ... or denigrate ... the latter. Such a precedure reveals more about the person than either God or the biblical text.
Though at times Leviticus 10.11ff, and my next example are characterized as "sugarstick" texts, the Holy Spirit of God saw fit to tell the story of those who did very little according to the "book" in 2 Chronicles 29-30. The story of Hezekiah's Passover is no fleeting moment in the history of God's People according to the Chronicler. By comparison it is one of the longest and most detailed episodes within the entire history of 1-2 Chronicles. The author thought it was THAT important. The Holy Spirit expressly declares that the worshippers did practically nothing associated with the Passover "right" ... and yet it is declared to be one of the greatest worship services in Israel's history (v. 26). For God looks at the "heart" that is "seeking God" (v.19) rather than simply ritualistic precision. Sugarstick or not this text is IN the biblical canon and is written for our learning. How do we integrate it into our theology and what does it say about the God we worship?
In another place one wonders what King David was doing wearing the linen ephod? David is much like any other Mesopotamian monarch of the day in doing this. He is assuming the role of Priest and King. The ephod part of the High Priest's vestments but David was neither Aaronic nor Levite! Yet the Scriptures tell us (2x) that he was wearing it (2 Sam 6.14 and 1 Chron 15.27). This latter text is very interesting indeed. In the context David is bringing the ark back (after the Lord broke out against Israel in the Uzzah episode ... which David later assumes responsibility for). David dresses like the Levites with his "linen robe" (15.27) he wore the linon ephod (v.27) that the Priest wears. As the narrative moves into chapter 16 it states quite explicitly that David offered the sacrifices ...
"After David had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD. Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each Israelite man and woman" (1Chron 16.2-3)
In Second Samuel 6.13 David also is declared to have sacrificed animals as worship to the LORD. After the sacrifices David gave a magnificent hymn to Asaph for the singing worship of Israel (16.7-36). Interestingly enough as this worship service closes at the end of chapter 16 we learn that they sang with all kinds of instruments but the writer says everything Israel did that day was in "accordance" with the Law of the Lord (16.40). This clearly does not mean that David was authorized to wear a linen ephod of the High Priest in the Law of Moses or that instruments were commanded by Moses or that David could offer sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. But it does mean that God ACCEPTED that worship service.
On the other hand in the biblical canon we read of "legal" worship that is rejected by God. Amos roasts the Israelites for their worship. He flays the worship assemblies! God "hates" Israel's feasts, assemblies, new moons, sabbaths and sacrifice! All of these things were commanded, explicitly, in the Law of Moses. Yet God rejects their formally correct worship for the exact same reason he accepts the formally INcorrect worship of Eleazar/Ithamar, David, and Hezekiah. Yahweh looks for the heart that "seeks God." Now that phrase is not used explicitly in Amos 5 but that is the meaning in the text. Israel's interest in going through the motions, in ignoring the weightier matters of the law (sounds like Jesus actually), made the worship stink in God's nostrils!!!
So I stress once again the question is NOT are there worship acts that can be undone and we "please" God. Or are there worship acts that can be done INcorrectly. The answer is yes there are. We want to serve God in purity of heart and we also want to worship as he directs. Yet the question that actually fits the biblical narrative is: "Can one perform an act of worship incorrectly and still be accepted by God?" According to the Holy Spirit Yahweh has done this on more than one occasion.