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Friday, April 04, 2008

The Spirit In Worship

And Mary said, "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour." Luke 1:46-47

In the best Hebrew tradition, Mary's response to a divine encounter is a song of praise. This is such a well known passage, included in the liturgy of some denominational churches and a familiar part of Christmas celebrations, that it is all too easy to rush through it without thinking about its content. But the first few phrases can help us to understand something about the nature of worship.

The Christian Constitution
In 1 Thes 5:23 Paul blesses those he is writing to by saying, "may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless." This verse clarifies what is hinted at elsewhere in Scripture, that we are tripartite beings. There are three elements to our nature. We have no difficulty understanding the concept of body but there is sometimes confusion around the meanings of "soul" and "spirit", both of which are used at the beginning of Mary's hymn of praise. The words are often used interchangeably by Christians but this is incorrect and leads to all kinds of confusion and sometimes to a limitation in our understanding of worship.

In fact, the soul consists of the mind, will and emotions whereas the spirit is that part of us which communicates with God. As one preacher puts it, "I am a spirit, I have a soul and I live in a body." The Lord Jesus taught us that those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He did not say this because worship is a purely spiritual activity, but to emphasise that true worship goes beyond what is going on in our body and soul. Mary's song helps us to understand this.

Body, Soul and Spirit Worship
First, the blindingly obvious - Mary's words were spoken. When we sing songs of worship we use our bodies. We inflate our lungs with air which, when released, passes over our vocal cords to produce the sound shaped by our mouths. Often we use other parts of our body in worship too. We may kneel down, raise our hands or close our eyes.

The soul is also engaged when we worship. We use our will to decide to worship, our mind comprehends the words we use and our emotions are often also involved - we are thrilled by a rousing hymn, inspired to love and perhaps even moved to tears by more devotional songs. This is where we can slip in to thinking that we are worshiping in spirit when, in reality, our spirit has not yet been involved. Even secular music often arouses an emotional response in people but that is not the same as making a spiritual connection with God.

Spiritual Worship
While Mary says that her soul "glorifies the Lord" she states that her spirit "rejoices IN God". Any soul can glorify God by making a decision of the will to do so. A Buddhist or Hindu could stand and read aloud passages of the Bible which speak about how wonderful our God is. This would bring glory to Him even though the reader was making no spiritual connection. He or she might even find the words and concepts emotionally stirring. But they will not be worshiping.

Mary, however, was making a spiritual connection. That little word, "in" is not there simply because of the grammatical structure of the sentence. It shows us that there is communion between God and the worshipper. This goes beyond mind, will and emotion to revelation.

It is impossible to adequately describe spiritual experiences. Unless someone has had an encounter with God they cannot understand. Because a spiritual experience often invokes an emotional response, such as love or joy, or even a physical response, weeping or trembling for example, it may sometimes be explained in the language of body and soul. This can lead to some people believing that if they have an emotional response they are worshiping.

One of my favourite passages is Lk 7:36-50. Here the sinful woman expresses worship physically, wetting Jesus' feet with her tears' drying them with her hair and then pouring perfume on them. The tears show that her soul is also involved as she is overwhelmed with emotion. The Lord tells the Pharisee who complained about her behaviour, "she loved much." He tells the woman, "your sins are forgiven" and "your faith has saved you." This is the nub of the matter. Worship in spirit is a matter of faith, the unavoidable response of the sinner who recognises the extent of their own depravity and the divine love that brings salvation. This is the revelation Mary also had when she said, "my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."

Prayer College Assignment
Five times in Ephesians Paul uses the phrase, "heavenly realms" to describe the spiritual dimension which is outside time and space. This is the place where we connect with God and worship Him. It is where we are seated with Christ (Eph 2:6) and the one place we can experience the totality of what it means to be human because our entire being (body, soul and spirit) can be active in worship. Even experienced worshipers need to grow and be stretched. This week ask the Lord to give you a fresh revelation of Himself that will inspire you to greater and deeper worship.

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