I love singing Advent songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” They help me remember the longing Israel felt as they waited for God’s promised Messiah. Check out the two cool arrangements of these songs I’ve linked above.
Before Christ’s arrival, Israel knew God’s presence through His priests and tabernacle, but they never could touch and commune with God. They could know about God and enjoy fellowship, but not in the same way that Moses and Joshua knew in the tabernacle. A few had the chance to meet God in theophanies (instances where God revealed himself in human form) like Abraham and Jacob. But the everyday Jew could not meet with God like we Christians can today.
In this virtual world created by the internet and mobile phones, I think we’re starting to understand this dynamic. I spend much of my days interacting with people all around the world online, but can occasionally go a couple days without interacting with people other than my family. I find myself longing for that real connection with people “in the flesh.”
That’s what Israel desired and longed for–meeting God in the flesh. (No wonder they were tempted by the idolatry of the nations around them. Idols can be felt and seen, though they fall short on the relational front.) When Jesus arrived there were some who immediately understood the significance (like the wise men who travelled from the east), but there were many others who preferred their virtual relationship with God. You see a virtual relationship can be managed more easily than a real relationships. Much more challenging with a real God.
Real relationships are messy and require participation from both people. Their are expectations expressed and sometimes unmet. Misunderstandings emerge and require work to rectify.
Jesus’ arrival upset the religious leaders because they could no longer control how people thought about God. Their jobs were at stake. Their paradigms and teachings were being undone with a single sermon. One sentence from Jesus tore down their religious facades and exposed the truth that they didn’t know God.
But we live in a day when Jesus is “with us.” That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us.” Here are some implications for our corporate worship services:
5 Implications for Corporate Worship from Christ’s Incarnation
1. We no longer need an intermediary to tell us about God, God has revealed himself. Now he left the Holy Spirit to dwell in us permanently and be His presence. We don’t need priests and pastors to talk to God for us (though they certainly play a valuable role in teaching us about God and how to know him).
2. Our worship is now eternally and personally significant. Some theologians use terms like immanence and transcendence to demonstrate the difference between God being right here and up there (here is a paper illustrating this). Christ’s incarnation makes both possible. Our worship rightfully reminds us that God is intimately knowable and utterly unapproachable (because of our sin condition).
3. The incarnation allows us to address God directly in worship. While there is a place for songs talking “about” God, our worship now addresses God as “in the house.” He has promised to be with us when we gather in his name and so our worship planning and leadership should demonstrate this reality.
We all know how uncomfortable and awkward it is to walk in on a conversation about us when everyone assumes we aren’t in the room. How much more disingenuous for us to worship God as if He weren’t present? He is magnificently and personally present. But we must ask if that is obvious? Or are we just singing songs, reading prayers and talking about Him?
4. We should expect the unexpected. One of my seminary professors reminds me regularly that you never know what 15 minutes with Jesus will do in a person’s life. Do we really believe that about our worship services? Nancy Beach of Willow Creek Church seems to believe that when writing her book An Hour on Sunday: Creating Moments of Transformation and Wonder. What would happen if Jesus walked into your church this Sunday? Would anything change?
5. We will create new works of art and music
Every artist worth his salt has created a Christmas album at some point. The story fascinates and the music resonates. Just like the Greeks dreamt of the gods marrying mere mortals, we long for real and eternal connection with God. There difference between Christianity and Greek mythology is that Jesus truly did enter human history. And as C.S. Lewis so eloquently stated, we must either call him a raving lunatic or believe that He is who He said He was–the living Son of God. There is no room for calling him a “good teacher.”
It’s very intriguing to me that our natural response to Jesus’ birth is to create songs and works of art. It seems we can’t help ourselves. My kids love to draw pictures when something significant happens and hand it to me joyfully. I think that’s what we do. We’re so overjoyed to be with Jesus that we want to give him something. For many, music is a natural expression of that joy.
Some friends have compiled some new collections of Christmas music that I’ll recommend.
Zac Hicks recorded a fun Irish anti-Christmas carol called In a Byre Near Bethlehem.
Paul Van der Bijl and the Chicago Metro Presbytery Recorded Proclaim the Bridegroom Near. It’s very Americana, but has some great musical diversity.
Bruce Benedict compiled this list of rare Christmas songs.
How does the incarnation influence your worship?
Matt @ The Church of No People says
Hey Phil, great thoughts. It’s always irked me that the church has basically stopped having a tradition of creating fine art to glorify God. Maybe that will change with this generation.
I agree. The Church used to be the steward of the cultural arts, in a way. The Reformation caused some overreactions to art such that certain strands of the church shunned artists and great art. I think we’re right to be wary of the danger of idolatry (worshipping art), but that doesn’t usually stop us from adoring God’s creation (though creation idolatry certain exists). Great art done to the glory of God (like Bach’s soli deo gloria) inspires great thoughts of God and great acts for God.