I like using the metaphor of a tennis match to explain the idea of Gottesdienst, because it visually captures the rhythm of worship. Throughout the traditional worship service, the act of “serving” moves back and forth between God and the worshipers. First, God (astonishingly!) comes to us. The Creator of all things chooses to serve his people with a great gift, placing his Name of blessing upon our gathering. As a tennis ball is then returned over the net, we respond to God’s action in the only way that makes sense, by falling to our knees and confessing our unworthiness.
Speaking through his called and ordained servants, God then serves our greatest need through the assurance of forgiveness. In response, we offer a song of praise and words of prayer. We are then once again the recipients of service through the reading of his Word, the great source of faith and growth. And on it goes, back and forth, in a deliberate and beautiful pattern of giving and responding.
But the tennis match metaphor has a significant weakness. It implies an activity played out by equals. Although our responses – our prayers and praise, confessions and offerings – are a core element of worship, they are only that: responses to the great things God is doing as we gather in his name. I am only a hungry beggar. I do not go to worship because I have something I want to say to God, or because I have to show him how much I love him. I go to worship because I am starving, and God has invited me to a feast. Perhaps surprisingly, in our fallen world, the function of divine worship is not primarily to satisfy God’s righteous desire for praise and honor. Rather, as described in the Lutheran Confessions, “The chief worship of God is to preach the Gospel” (Apology XV.42; see also Apology IV.152-154; IV.310).
Worship is a place and time in which Christ’s forgiveness is offered through readings, preaching, sacraments, song. By the Spirit’s work, it is a place and time in which this saving Gospel is received and believed. And as those things happen – as children of God are born and comforted and strengthened – it is a place and time in which we unworthy guests are invited and enabled to join the angels themselves in great songs of “praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”
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