Is worship a waste of time?
Isaiah 43: 16-21 Phil 3: 4b-14 John 12: 1-8
Powerful moment… Mary pours out perfume worth a year’s wages, over Jesus feet. And the fragrance fills the house. Such a dramatic moment! Such a waste! What an act of adoration! And she wipes his feet with her hair. It reminds me of the wedding vows ‘with my body I thee worship’. There’s something incredibly sensual about this moment, wiping perfume off his feet with her hair.
It’s interesting that Judas knows it’s a waste. He is responsible for the finances. He knows that you have to find some proportion between expenditure and benefit. And there is no framework that he has which makes sense of this cost-benefit analysis. $60,000 NZ dollars would go a long way to helping the poor. You could set up a trust. You could feed a lot of people.
John’s Gospel tell us that he was a thief, that he has his own agenda here… But thief or no thief, his reasoning can see nothing but pure waste here.
In his world worship is waste… Adoration is overflow and surely waste – a waste of money, a waste of time! Why do we bother with it? What justification could we possibly give for such waste? Surely there is something better you could be doing with your time and your money than gathering to adore Jesus. Seriously… surely God’s concern is not that people gather on a Sunday to flatter him. You could be caring for the poor, or simply taking some time out to refresh yourself in solitude so you can live a better life, at least that might appear useful. How is this thing we call worship (this “love-in” with Jesus) anything other than a waste of time?
Here’s a theologian’s response. It all depends on your point of view. I speak to you as one who has dedicated his life to worship. But I still think the question is worth asking. Is it all a waste of time? There’s a certain kind of realism about what will change the world and what won’t, which can only see this as a complete waste of time.
God’s purpose definitely is to “change the world”. So the question is a good one. And it still remains true that we play a part in that… But how?… what is the broader perspective that Judas needed… and perhaps we need also.
Our Old Testament reading begins to address this issue… In the return from exile the prophet begins to tell the people that God is about to do A NEW THING … do not consider the former things… the past is not the same as the future… He describes that ‘new thing’ like this
For I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
How does God do a new thing for the world? He forms a people who declare his praise. A people who both adore God and who do so publicly, who declare it to the world – in other words a people seen and heard by the world, who are formed by God.
This is the clue… worship is about formation (not flattery). Augustine said: we imitate whom we adore. It is in the overflow, the apparent wastage of our worship, that we are formed and con-formed to the image of God. I learnt recently that the word ‘thank’ and the word ‘think’ come from the same root. When we respond, with the words “thank you”, originally it meant “I’m thinking of you”. I’m looking through the gift to the giver. I see not the gift but the love of the giver. And my response is a kind of overflow. The woman’s perfume served no obvious purpose, unless perhaps it was a “thank you”, part of the excess which is love.
If there is no apparent waste, no pouring ourselves out in adoration … there will be no formation…
And according to Isaiah it is not just the formation of individuals, but of a people that the world needs.
It all depends on your point of view whether worship is a waste of time… In the letter to the Philippians Paul tells of the reversal, in his own life, of what was a waste of time and what wasn’t.
Phil 3: 4b-14
Paul says religiously he was a success story, as a religious leader he was a top dog. Culturally he was a success story. He made it. He was changing the world in all the right ways… for example he was purifying the world by persecuting Christians. But all of this success he ended up regarding as crap (the most well documented case of swearing in the bible) – as genuine waste… waste product… a waste of time… why?
You probably know the story. Paul has a Jesus encounter on the road one day – off to kill a few more Christians – in which he realizes that he is working against God. Just as God became the world’s victim in Jesus death, so Jesus was identifying with his (with Paul’s) victims. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”
And out of the experience of forgiveness (forgiven by his divine victim) Paul starts to see all his success to date as crap “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings”. I want to know THIS Jesus
How? How did he come to know Christ? Paul’s answer is interesting. [aside] Years ago I used to think of knowing Jesus a bit like a buddy-buddy conversation. Jesus or God was my invisible friend… I ended up doing all the talking, but I called it a conversation. I was taught that listening was important, but as far as I could gather it amounted to either interpreting whatever came into my head as the voice of Christ or reading scripture and then regarding whatever came into my head as the Word of God (ideally after a bit of study). Either way I ended up talking to myself. How did Paul talk about knowing Christ.
“I want to know Christ… by becoming like him in his death”
By being conformed… formation is at the center of knowledge. My relationship with my invisible boyfriend was one sided. I did all the talking. This relationship of Paul’s is one-sided too. Paul does all the receiving, we might even say listening.
The talking that matters has already been done… Jesus did it in going to his cross… It’s not just any Jesus or any God that Paul has a relationship with… “I want to know Christ… by becoming like him in his death” The Christ he relates to is the Christ whose life is centred in his crucifixion, and shaped towards that crucifixion (cruciform). That is what the Spirit will work out in Paul’s life.
Formation in this way has a shape…. And its shape is adoration
Which is what worship is at its core… a gathering around the cross of Christ. We are together today to gather around the cross of Christ. All worship should culminate in Communion.
On my blog I recently wrote a piece about my one-time buddy-buddy relationship with Jesus. I called it “Jesus and me broke up”. In that piece I talked about ditching that kind of relationship… for something much more focused… something like ‘adoration of the Jesus who is on is way to his cross’.
The point is the shape of my relationship to Jesus is different now. Hopefully it’s still one-sided, just the other way round.
Paul knows that ‘knowing Jesus’ is a lifelong process. He writes:
“Not that I have already reached the goal [of knowing Christ]; but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
You see, if, in the end of the day, in ways we are not even fully conscious of, we do ‘imitate whom we adore’, if we are formed by his life, conformed to him… then our time is not wasted.
What appears to be a complete waste of time, may in fact be the only way the world is saved.
Bruce Hamill 21.3.10 at Caversham Presbyterian Church