Brian Sigmon says worship in the Old Testament is more than bloody and fearful.
Be honest. You read that title and expected me to talk about sacrificing goats, didn’t you?
Before you start reminding me of Hosea 6:6 or Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, hear me out. Because worship in the Old Testament is more than bloody and fearful. In fact, I think the Old Testament has a lot to say about worship, much of which can help guide church leaders seeking to reimagine worship for twenty-first century settings.
The Value of Holy Space
The ancient Hebrews had a deep understanding of holy space that is largely lost on modern minds. Put simply, in the Old Testament, God’s presence is more palpable in certain places than in others. The Old Testament contains various, sometimes competing traditions about where these holy places are, but it universally affirms that they exist. In these places, the lines between heaven and earth are blurred and a powerful encounter with God is possible.
God appeared to Israel’s ancestors at Shechem, Bethel, and Beer-sheba, among other places, and these became sites of worship. Jacob’s encounter at Bethel is particularly illuminating, because Jacob sees a vision of a staircase connecting heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob recognizes that this place is an entryway between earth and heaven. He has stumbled onto God’s front porch, as it were, and names the place Bethel, House of God (verses 17-19).
Moses on Mount Sinai, Jean-Leon Gerome, 1895-1900
Something similar can be said of Mount Sinai, a holy place where Moses must remove his shoes (Exodus 3:5) and the Israelites must observe ritual boundaries (Exodus 19:9-15). Here, God descends upon the mountaintop and Moses goes up; God and Moses meet in the intersection between heaven and earth. When the Israelites leave Sinai, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, become this holy space where earth and heaven meet.
Many innovations in worship are being driven by a desire to remove the lines between the holy and the profane, to carry the church’s worship into the world. In such efforts, worship can take place virtually anywhere: outdoors, in coffee shops, in private homes. But as boundaries between sacred and profane are eliminated, care must be taken so that God’s presence can still be felt. However it happens, worship must offer an occasion for our hearts to be lifted up from earth to heaven.
The witness of the Old Testament seems to be that worship should not happen just anywhere. Rather, care should be taken to seek out, recognize, and honor those places where God’s presence can be deeply felt.
As we reimagine worship in the twenty-first century, are we providing a space for heaven and earth to connect, a place for people to encounter God?