Do not be afraid.
Jesus has been crucified, and as Sunday morning dawns Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. An angel appears, rolls the stone away, and instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from death and is on his way to Galilee. Then, Jesus suddenly appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”
What is their response to this? The two Marys came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus told them “Do not be afraid” and then told them to tell the disciples that he wanted to meet up with them in Galilee.
Once again, something catches my eye. The two Marys first reaction is to kneel and worship Jesus. This seems reasonable, right? But what does Jesus say in response? He says, “Do not be afraid.” And this response got me thinking about worship, particularly the relationship between worship and fear.
I think both pagan worship and early Hebrew worship were pretty much based solely on fear. In those days before science and the enlightenment people felt afraid and helpless, and worshiping God or idols or whatever gave them a sense of control. They believed that if they threw virgins into a volcano or sacrificed goats on an altar or whatever that God would be appeased and keep them be safe. It’s kind of like killing a deer and leaving it out there for the wolves so they will have full stomachs and leave you alone. That’s what they do on the Okefenokee Swamp alligator tours. They go out in the morning and throw out a bunch of chickens so the alligators just lie around all day and calmly watch the boats go by. It’s like a bribe.
They were motivated to worship by all kinds of fears – fear of disease, fear of death, fear of natural disasters, fear of their enemies, fear of the unknown. The early Hebrews certainly believed that God was the direct cause of all bad things. They worshiped God because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. God was both judge and bodyguard, so they needed to stay on his good side:
“Worship no god but me. “Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation. But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws. (Exodus 20:3-6).
If you worship me, the Lord your God, I will bless you with food and water and take away all your sicknesses. In your land no woman will have a miscarriage or be without children. I will give you long lives. “I will make the people who oppose you afraid of me; I will bring confusion among the people against whom you fight, and I will make all your enemies turn and run from you. I will make the borders of your land extend from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give you power over the inhabitants of the land, and you will drive them out as you advance. Do not make any agreement with them or with their gods.” (Exodus 23:25-27,31-32).
Worship really takes a bit of a different turn in the Psalms. Praise as an element of worship becomes more pronounced, but there is still that strong connection between worship and protection and that worship is at least somewhat motivated by fear. They still are concerned about staying on God’s good side as a means of protection. It’s like they are buttering him up.
O Lord, don’t stay away from me! Come quickly to my rescue! Save me from the sword; save my life from these dogs. Rescue me from these lions; I am helpless before these wild bulls. I will tell my people what you have done; I will praise you in their assembly:
Praise him, you servants of the Lord! Honor him, you descendants of Jacob! Worship him, you people of Israel! He does not neglect the poor or ignore their suffering; he does not turn away from them, but answers when they call for help. In the full assembly I will praise you for what you have done; in the presence of those who worship you I will offer the sacrifices I promised. The poor will eat as much as they want; those who come to the Lord will praise him. May they prosper forever!
All nations will remember the Lord. From every part of the world they will turn to him; all races will worship him. The Lord is king, and he rules the nations. All proud people will bow down to him; all mortals will bow down before him. Future generations will serve him; they will speak of the Lord to the coming generation. People not yet born will be told: “The Lord saved his people.” (Psalm 22:19-31).
Below is a picture of King David, who is credited with having written many of the Psalms. He is dancing before the Ark of the Covenant where the Jews believed that God resided. He really seemed to enjoy worshipping. He got so wild that he embarrassed his wife.
It’s interesting that there is no mention of Jesus actually worshiping God. He prays a lot. He frequently gives God thanks. He is never described as kneeling down or bowing down to worship God. There is only one time that there is ever any mention of him singing a song, and that is on the night of the last supper when it says they closed their time together with a hymn. In other words, there is no evidence in the Bible that Jesus ever practiced anything even remotely similar to what we do now in our contemporary worship gatherings. He undoubtedly engaged in all of the normal traditional worship practices of the day, which were more like today’s mainline liturgical church services. He would have recited scripted prayers and affirmations and scripture readings. He also taught, and that’s the basis of today’s practice of delivering sermons. But he never taught people that they should worship more. He told them to pray, not worship. And of course there was the corporate worship going on in the temple with the candles, offerings and blood sacrifices. That was the main worship activity, and Jesus wasn’t wild about any of it. On two different occasions Matthew says that Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6 “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.”
I currently go to a liturgical church and I really enjoy it. I think it is one of the most appealing rituals of Christian tradition. In addition, I have been a “contemporary worship leader” for about 20 years, which is essentially leading people into the “presence of God” through music, spoken word, scripture, movement, and art. I lead a couple of ongoing gatherings each week where there is no liturgy and no sermon – just the various forms of artistic expression. I need both kinds of worship to stay in balance. I also like to go to worship conferences where thousands are gathered together to worship at the same time.
When I worship I give God thanks and praise for my own life, for the goodness of creation, and God’s eternal presence. Worship helps me focus on the spiritual aspect of life and serves as a gateway to transcendent experience. It can also initiate emotional and physical healing. It releases stress. When worship is good, there is nothing like it. It’s like a little taste of heaven here on earth. In worship we open up our hearts and express our love for God and our love for life. In turn, God speaks to us, heals us, and gives us rest. Here are some various working definitions of “worship” by various contemporary pastors, worship leaders, song writers, and theologians:
Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient myster, that majesty which philosophers call the “First Cause”, but which we call our Father which art in heaven. (A.W. Tozer).
Worship is the total response in which spiritual, emotional and physical factors tune together to draw attention to the heavenly Father. (Kenneth Gangel).
Worship is time spent in active awareness of the presence of God. (Paul Richardson).
Worship is God’s enjoyment of us and our enjoyment of him. Worship is a response to the father/child relationship. (Graham Kendrick).
Worship is giving to God the glory, praise, honor and thanks due him, both for who he is and for what he has done. (Leslie B. Flynn).
Worship is an attitude of heart, a reaching towards God, a pouring out of our total self in thanksgiving, praise, adoration and love to the God who created us and to whom we owe everything we have and are. Worship is the interaction of man’s spirit with God in a loving response. (Judson Cornwall).
Note that none of these definitions include the word “fear”. The reason people worship seems to be continually evolving. When I was growing up I thought of it as a ritual that included organ music, singing, scriptures, and prayers leading up to the high point, which was the sermon. In the more ancient tradition of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches the high point of the worship experience is Holy Communion. In evangelical churches it’s the altar call. In contemporary charismatic churches it all leads up to a time of healing. In the kind of “Harp and Bowl” sessions that I lead we wait for that hushed moment when we all feel like God is in the room. Then we sit and soak it in.
Just as the meaning of worship has changed over the years, so has the practice of kneeling. Today in this country it’s a voluntary demonstration of reverence and respect, and people generally only kneel or bow to God. However, throughout history people were forced to kneel before religious idols. They were also forced to kneel before kings and others in positions of authority. It makes sense, because when you are kneeling or bowing before someone you are looking up to them. You are putting yourself in an inferior position relative to the other person who can then “lord over” you. And, when you are bowing or kneeling you are pretty much rendered incapable of making any quick moves. You are at a decided disadvantage. Today when people worship they are usually standing, often with their hands up in the air. The opposite of kneeling.
So here in this scripture it says that when the two Marys saw Jesus they were afraid, so they started kneeling and groveling at his feet in what they considered to be a worshipful state. This is not what I had always envisioned. I saw it through the lens of contemporary worship practices. I saw it as a lavish expression of love, but it was apparently just an expression of fear. And Jesus tells them to stop. He tells them not to be afraid. He doesn’t want them to be afraid of him.
All of this only affirms that Jesus doesn’t want to be worshiped. If he did, he wouldn’t have told the Marys to stop. He would have affirmed them for doing it. No, he didn’t do that. He wanted everyone to listen to him and follow him. He wanted them to trust him and his teachings, radical though they might be. In this particular instance he wanted the Marys to pull themselves together and listen to his instructions. He wanted them to deliver a message to the disciples that they should meet him in Galilee. He wanted them to get up out of the dirt and do something useful. Good advice for all of us.
On the other hand if Jesus returned today and people worshipped him it would certainly be more of an expression of love and respect rather than fear, because the fear seems to have gone out of worship. People know more about the world and they don’t blame God for every little thing that goes wrong. At least most people do not. So maybe if Jesus came back today it would be OK to worship him because I think he would appreciate a little love and respect. Everyone can use a little love.
What does this scripture say to you?