The sign out front is getting people’s attention – especially with the title of today’s sermon: Worship War.
This has nothing to do with the bitter conflict in so many churches between those who like a contemporary worship style and those who prefer a more traditional type of worship. Now that we’re into a second and third generation of contemporary worship, we have even more combatants. And then there is so-called “blended worship” which seems like a reasonable compromise, but makes almost no one happy.
Worship was seen as warfare long before the Gaithers, Twila Paris, and Casting Crowns made their debuts. Let’s go to the fourth chapter of Numbers to see what this is about:
[Read Numbers 4:1-33]
Did you hear anything that sounded like warfare? A whole lot of detail about how the Tabernacle was to be packed up and moved when the Israelite camp was to move, but nothing obviously about war. But it’s there – in verses 4, 24, and 33 as God gives instructions to Moses for the branches of the tribe of Levi: “This is the service of the Kohathites in the Tent of Meeting: the care of the most holy things;” “This is the service of the Gershonite clans as they work and carry burdens;” and “This is the service of the Merarite clans as they work at the Tent of Meeting …”
The word service here can mean simply work – but the way the words are arranged carries a stronger meaning in Hebrew: military service. We use the word service the same way in English when we say someone “was in the service” or we call that person a “serviceman” or “servicewoman.”
Serving in the Tabernacle was like military service. It was engaging in spiritual warfare. Every time a sacrifice was offered, sins were forgiven and broken people were made whole. Every time they worshipped, every time that sin was atoned for, the people move closer to the Promised Land – even if the camp stayed in the same place.
If you remember a couple of weeks ago, we talked about how the Israelite camp was arranged both like a military encampment and like a group of pilgrims gathered for a religious festival – with God at the heart of it all. When we come to see worship as warfare, it starts to make more sense.
When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, it looked more like a religious pilgrimage than a military assault on the city. Seven priests carrying ram’s horn trumpets walked in front, followed by the Ark, and then the army of
Israelites as they marched around the city once a day for six days.
On the seventh day, the priests sounded the rams’ horns – which was traditionally a call to worship – before the Ark was carried around the city seven times. Then the soldiers gave a great shout, Jericho’s wall fell down, and the city was theirs.
You have heard many times from me that God is present in a special way when His people gather to worship. He makes that very clear in Isaiah 30:
The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria; with his scepter he will strike them down. Every stroke the LORD lays on them with his punishing rod will be to the music of tambourines and harps…
In so many words, God says that He will fight for His people – as they worship Him. He will beat the daylights out of their enemies to the beat of the music sung to praise Him.
God will be especially present when His people worship – and will demonstrate His power against His and their enemies in times of worship.
Have you been to a funeral in the church – and this is why I’m a big fan of having funerals in the church – that ended with triumphant worship music? You may have gone into the service – the warfare – feeling discouraged and defeated, but left feeling victorious. The powers of evil suffer another setback and the Church advances when God’s people gather to worship.
That was the case for the Israelite Church in the Wilderness, too. And to facilitate the advance of that Church, God gave to each of the three branches of Levites distinct responsibilities for the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant.
Aaron and his sons were responsible for covering the most holy items like the Ark, the Table of the Presence, the Showbread, some of the dishware, and the Lampstand, gold altar, and bronze altar and their accessories. Although the Kohathites were to move them, they were not allowed to see them.
The Gershonites were to carry the cloth and curtains of the Tabernacle and the surrounding courtyard, as well as the ropes and equipment used for them. The Merarites were to carry the framework of the Tabernacle.
Each group had clearly-defined responsibilities – and no one was to attempt to do someone else’s type of service. The whole system was designed to work like a well-oiled machine. And while the roles were different, there is no indication in this passage that any role was more important than another.
As should be the case in the military. My father served in Patton’s Third Army in World War II as part of a Howitzer crew and then as a rifleman. It bothered one of the members of the Kirkwood Church – Art Young – to no end that he served as a cook in the same war. I had to keep reminding him that every person had a role to play in his or her service, and every person was important – especially the cooks. Napoleon himself is quoted as saying that “an army marches on its stomach.”
While on that subject, I have just finished a couple of biographies of General Patton – and I am astounded at the role that fuel played in the war. The war probably would have ended by Christmas of 1944 had Patton been given all the fuel he needed – but it was diverted to other places along the front, and the result was the Battle of the Bulge, a longer war, and countless more casualties. Lest anyone who drove those fuel trucks think his role in the war was less important than that of a tank crew, infantryman, or paratrooper,
I would refer him to any good history book. Everyone had a role to play in the victory.
And it is the same way in the Church. Each of us has a role to play – a job to do – to make sure the Church worships, wins spiritual battles, and moves forward. The jobs are all different, and the jobs are all important. Some are more front-and-center while others are behind-the-scenes. Some involve making decisions and others involve carrying out those decisions. Some require special skills or training; some require strong arms and backs, some require big hearts. Each of us has been called by God to a particular role or roles in the Church – and each of us is essential to the war effort, because each of us worships.
As with the Levites or the military, there is no room for comparison or minimizing another’s contributions – because we are at war with the powers of evil, and everyone is needed in this service and in this worship service. The warfare just looks different, as Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
And he listed those weapons as well as our armor in Ephesians 6:
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
Truth. Righteousness. Readiness. The Gospel. Faith. Salvation.
The Spirit. The Word of God. Prayer. Sound like a lot of elements of worship, don’t they?
We don’t come to worship angry and ready for a fight – but we do come to worship ready to do the “work of service” – an expression used often in Numbers 4. In fact, our word liturgy comes from the Greek and means “public service” or “the work of the people.” When we worship, we are working as God’s people to advance His Kingdom against the forces of darkness. As Paul put it in Ephesians 6:
…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
You may never have thought of yourself as a spiritual warrior – but your presence here this morning makes you one, if you worship in Spirit and in truth. Worship God with your heart and soul, and you win a battle and move His Church forward.