Advent: Worship or Religious Ritual?
If you’re like most of us, there are many routines you go through on a daily basis that are so rote, you hardly think about them anymore. For those who are Christians, the advent season can easily become just that: a religious ritual rather than worship.
But what if God said he wouldn’t listen to your prayers this season? Would you still trust him as being all powerful and righteous? Would you think something is wrong with him or would you look inward and see the problem lies within yourself? This is what Israel was faced with during the days of Isaiah. It’s also the reality we celebrate freedom from at Christmastime, through Christ.
“So, when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen.”
This is the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 1:15 and if you read it out of context, it might leave you a bit stunned. Why would God not listen to those who are worshipping him? We gain some insight into this when looking at verse 12, “When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts?” That is to say, the worship was not heartfelt. The people were either going out of obligation, or they were using God as a sort of vending machine to solve their problems. This is also why in verse 11, God states that he is does not take pleasure in their offerings.
A Sacrifice of Worship
What we bring to God matters. Yet, we must also remember, the people were worshiping “properly” in the technical sense. They were still sacrificing bulls, lambs, goats, and giving incense. All of these things were proper. There was no lack of “excellence” as we would maybe describe worship today. Instead, it was an issue of the heart.
We may be tempted to think that we don’t fall into this category. We don’t offer sacrifices anymore because Jesus came as the sacrificial lamb. Yet, in our celebration of grace, we can lose the heart of our own worship.
Worship or Ritual?
Life is busy, especially around the holidays. We have lists of things to do, invites to send, events to plan, presents to buy. Whatever it may be, we are moving from one task to the next—seeking to be in control of our lives. And in the busyness, our worship can become a simple Sunday ritual.
How often do we reflect on God and his control over all things, including every detail of our life? Or do we only seek him when he is needed?
That’s exactly what Israel did in the days of Isaiah—I will seek God when it is beneficial to me is our song. Because of the sin of Adam, we want to be our own god until we realize we can’t.
This is why advent is so beautiful. As Isaiah continues in chapter 1, “’Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool’” (Isa. 1:18).
Even in the midst of God declaring judgement on his people for their wrongful worship, he calls them back to him by giving them hope. This hope is rooted in a future promise of the Messiah to come. The people longed for this hope to come. Advent reminds us that this is our story too. We join in that longing, desiring for a Savior to come and remove the bloodstained sin from our lives. A day when our worship and devotion to God can be pure.
True Hope in Christ
As Christians, this isn’t the only reason to celebrate advent. The Messiah not only came, but he came and was even greater than Israel could have ever expected. Why? Because he brought true hope in the gospel. He was not a political power to overthrow Rome, but a suffering servant who overthrew death itself. He ascended into Heaven with the promise that one day he will return to restore all things. We now have a new day to long for: the return of the King.
There is great joy in the gospel truth that, even as we long for the second coming, we are called into. This season, we long for the day that darkness will be gone forever, because light came into the world.