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Dangerous Worship

We must avoid dishonest worship, calculated worship, and thoughtless worship in order to truly present ourselves at Jesus' feet.


Have you considered that many of the things we do every day are inherently dangerous? Yet we hardly think about it. Every morning, I take my life in my hands when I steer my car onto the entrance ramp of the Dan Ryan expressway. Not long ago, the Chicago Sun-Times described the Dan Ryan as "one of the busiest, most dangerous highways in the nation."

I was acutely aware of this fact when I first moved to the area from a small town in central Illinois 12 years ago. My commute to work each morning seemed like an exercise in fear—60 minutes of wide-eyed terror, sweaty palms, and heart palpitations. But after about six weeks, I found myself pulling into the parking garage, barely aware of how I got there.

Some of you have dangerous jobs. You work on a machine or in a plant or a mill where one misstep could cost you an arm or a leg or even your life. Even in the relative safety of home, we are beset by dangers that might paralyze us with fear, if we thought about them. Lean the wrong way when you clean the leaves out of your gutter, and you might tumble off the roof. Forget to wash the counter when preparing that chicken dinner you plan to eat this afternoon, and you might poison the whole family!

We are surrounded by danger every moment of the day. But we're not stupid; we take precautions. But have you ever considered that the spiritual life has its own dangers? Chief among them, believe it or not, is the practice of worship.

Worship—true worship—is one of the most dangerous things we do. Whenever we move into worship, we enter a realm of risk. We cross over into territory where the primary risk comes, not from God, but from ourselves.

Dishonest worship

For example, whenever we move into worship, we face the danger of dishonest worship. Whenever we approach God in worship, we run the risk of coming to him in disguise.

When we practice our devotion to God, it can be tempting to come to him wearing a mask. We are tempted to approach God not as we are, but as others would have us be. Contrast this with Mary of Bethany in John 12, who is so open in her devotion to Christ that she scandalizes everyone in the room. Everyone but Christ, that is.

The setting, interestingly, is not a place of formal worship, but a place of fellowship. Verses 1–2 tell us that "Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead." Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.

It is at the dinner table, not the temple, that Mary performs her scandalous act of devotion. According to the culture, Mary would not have been a guest like Lazarus, who reclined at the table with the others. That would have seemed inappropriate. No, her place was to serve the food. But the text says that it was Martha who was serving. Lazarus was reclining, Martha was serving, but where is Mary?

She was serving, too, but in a different, more extravagant way. John 12:3 says: "Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." This act of wiping Jesus' feet with her hair is the perfect paradigm of true worship because, in it, Mary takes her rightful place at Jesus' feet.

This is familiar territory for Mary. Indeed, every time we see her in the presence of Christ in this gospel, she is at his feet. In this particular instance, Mary takes on the role of a servant by anointing Jesus' feet with precious oil and wiping them with her hair. In a way, Mary is even lower than a servant. A servant uses a towel. Mary used that which symbolized her glory as a woman. In a sense, she casts her glory at Jesus' feet. There is a boldness and an intimacy in this action that must have shocked the guests reclining at the table. There is a kind of "nakedness" in her devotion that scandalizes everyone in the room except Jesus.

Now, compare this with the disingenuousness of Judas. Judas objects to what she has done. Interestingly, he objects not so much to what she has done with her hair, but to the waste of so much expensive perfume. Moreover, he gives a disturbingly reasonable explanation for his dismay in verses 4–5: "But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 'Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages.'"

You have to admit that Judas builds a persuasive case. Who can argue with him? But Judas is a man in disguise. Judas is being dishonest on every level here. He doesn't care about the poor. He doesn't care about propriety. He doesn't care about Jesus. He is a thief who steals from the treasury and has just seen a year's worth of income, that could have lined his pocket, poured out on the floor. The devotion of Judas is a masquerade.

A few years ago, a pastor began his message with a rebuke. I won't repeat it verbatim, but the essence of it was essentially this: Your worship, he seemed to say, is too stiff. You need to loosen up. You don't smile enough. You don't clap enough. You don't lift your hands enough.

And I thought, Well, maybe he is right about me. I am not very comfortable with expressive worship. When I lift my hands in worship, it's usually to fold my arms. I don't like standing for half an hour while we sing. I really don't want to clap, or sway, or pump my fist in the air. The truth is, sometimes it's all I can do to sing out loud. So maybe that pastor was right. Maybe my worship is too stiff—too unemotional.

But then there are other services where the implied message seems to be the opposite. There are times when the worship is formal, even liturgical in nature. Your worship, those services seem to say, isn't dignified enough. It's too "chirpy." Too simplistic. It's all heat and no light. It lacks history, theology, and depth. It has no dignity. It has no solemnity. And when I occasionally find myself in a context where the worship is more high church than low church, I worry that such a criticism may be right as well.

I confess to you that liturgical forms, with their public confessions and their creeds, make me feel awkward. When the point comes in the service where everyone else recites the Apostles' Creed from memory, and it dawns on me that the best I can do is the Awana pledge, I feel ignorant and uncouth. And when they come to the place in the order of worship were we are supposed to kneel, I go into a panic. They can't be serious! That's for Catholics and Episcopalians, and maybe Lutherans, but not for Baptists like me! But I don't want to seem crass, so I mumble the unfamiliar words and dutifully bow the knee all the while feeling like I am watching someone else worship.

Either way, whether the form of worship is contemporary or classical, low church or liturgical, it's as if I have been presented with a mask at the door and am expected to put it on when the worship begins. I cater to their demands and try to keep up appearances. But I'm not sure I ever really worship.

Mary's shameless honesty in worship is a good antidote. It is meant to stand out in bold relief against the duplicity of Judas. I find that I need the scandal of her naked devotion, because it helps me to strip away my own pretence in the presence of Christ. When Mary comes to Jesus, she leaves her mask at the door. She is utterly transparent in her approach.

Calculated worship

But that isn't the case with those who are seated at the table with Christ. They are treading on much more dangerous ground. They have moved into the realm of calculated worship. That is territory that you and I should know well. We cross into it every time we approach God in worship. We say, "We're here Lord. Now what are we going to get out of the experience?"

Often, our worship is not meant for God at all, but for us. Still, is that so wrong? After all, there is clearly a sense in which it must be said that worship is for us. Theologian Donald Bloesch has observed: "Proper self concern is not excluded from the worship experience, but it is always subordinated to the glory of God and the wonder of his love."

Our problem is that proper self concern can degenerate into self-absorption. Often, we are narcissistic in our worship. We calculate the value of worship, especially the value of the worship of others, in terms of what it means for us. That is what happened in Mary's case. Judas rejected what Mary had done because he calculated it in terms of his own personal gain.

John 12:5 records Judas's initial objection to what Mary had done: "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." But verse 6 goes on to disclose his real motive: "He did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it." Mark 14:4 provides an additional detail when it says that "some were indignantly remarking to one another, 'Why has this perfume been wasted?'"

Judas and the others watched Mary's worship and concluded, "What a waste!" Judas considered it a waste because he got nothing out of it. The rest of the disciples, taken in by Judas' masquerade, reckoned her worship to be invalid for a different reason. They rejected it on pragmatic terms. They deemed it invalid because it didn't seem to be doing anyone any good. Or at least, it wasn't doing as much good as it could have been doing. Jesus was the only one who correctly evaluated the worth of what Mary had done.

Judas and the disciples weren't the only ones who missed the mark here. Notice what verse 9 says: "Meanwhile, a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead." In other words, the party is for Jesus, but most of the people who show up are there for somebody else. That is often true of our worship as well.

We live in an age where there is great conflict over the nature of worship. We are constantly making judgments about the value of popular compared to traditional worship practices. Usually, when we do so, we use the same standards these disciples did. We either evaluate its worth on the basis of personal gain or pragmatism. If I got something out of it, then it was "good" worship. If I didn't get anything out of it, then it was "lame" worship. Such a perspective is entirely self-centered, leaving God and the rest of the congregation out of worship.

Others evaluate worship from a more utilitarian perspective. We want to know whether the worship helps the church grow numerically. Does it suit the market? Is it competitive in view of what other churches have to offer? I suppose it could be argued that this is an improvement over the other approach, in that it at least considers the tastes of someone other than myself. But it is still a human-centered, rather than a Theocentric, perspective.

For years, we have been leaving the presence of Christ asking one another the same questions: "What did we get out of that?" or "What did the church gain from that?" Mary's example suggests that we have it backward. Perhaps worship isn't about getting something from Christ, although we often do in the process. Worship is about offering something to Christ. What if the true value of worship cannot be calculated in terms of what I take away with me when I walk out the door? What if its real value is measured in what I leave at the feet of Christ?

Marva Dawn has described worship as "a royal waste of time." "Royal" in the sense that it is one of the ways we participate in the kingdom of God. A "waste" in the sense that we must "die to ourselves and our egos, our purposes and accomplishments" in the process. There is always an element of extravagance in true worship.

But don't think that I am suggesting your feelings are irrelevant in worship. I am not saying that you somehow shut down when you come to worship. Worship is not for the disengaged. At its heart, worship is engagement—and not just engagement of our emotions. That, in fact, is the third danger we face in worship. It is the danger of thoughtless worship.

Thoughtless worship

Whenever we approach God in worship, we run the risk of coming to him with the heart racing but the mind disengaged. We need to ask ourselves a painful but necessary question: How much of what moves us in worship these days is pure sentimentality? It has all the emotion of Mary but none of the mind. 

Notice that, as intense as Mary's worship was, it was theologically driven. In his defense of Mary, Jesus makes it clear in verses 7–8 that this act of hers has been prompted by a level of understanding about his mission that had eluded the rest of the disciples: "Therefore Jesus said, 'Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'"

Mark's version of this account makes it clear that Mary understood the symbolism of this act. According to Mark 14:8, Jesus said: "She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial."

At this point, Mary seems to be the only one who has grasped the certainty of Christ's coming death. She alone recognizes how fleeting the present moment is. This is worship with the mind as well as the heart.

As someone who personally enjoys contemporary worship, I have to admit to you that this is not always the case with me. I have to admit to you that some of the worship music I enjoy has all the musical and theological depth of a commercial jingle. At times, the dramas I see presented seem to be little more three minute soap operas, or the service has all the reflective quality of a pep rally.

But before the liturgists among us grow too smug, let me say that there is just as much danger when the church uses traditional forms in its worship. What the high church does may have more tradition behind it. It may have come out of a tradition of deeper theological reflection. But ask anyone who has been raised in a liturgical church, and they will be the first to admit how easy such forms make it to worship by rote.

These forms seem solemn and mysterious to those of us who have rarely experienced them before. But do they seem more holy to us because they are more holy, or simply because they are unfamiliar? What happens when these rituals become so common that they are second nature to us? What happens when we become so comfortable with them that we no longer have to think about them while we perform them? At that point, we not only run the risk of putting the mind on autopilot, we may actually turn off the heart as well.

Contrast this with Mary, who engages in the very familiar ritual of foot washing, but does so with a sense of the theological significance of her actions. The disciples accuse her of acting thoughtlessly. But in reality, the opposite is true. Of all those gathered at the table, she was the only one who was being truly reflective. Mary was the only one who truly understood the uniqueness of the moment they found themselves in—that there would be many opportunities to serve the poor, but only this moment to serve Christ in this particular way.

And in a sense, the same is true of us. We will never again experience a moment quite like this. We may sing the same songs again. We may meet in the same place. We may gather with the same people. But this particular moment will have passed, and along with it, this singular opportunity to express our devotion to the Lord of glory.

John Ortberg warns of the two extremes we tend to fall into when it comes to worship. "Some churches specialize in generating emotion" Ortberg writes. "The platform people are experts at moving worshipers to laughter or tears. Attenders gradually learn to evaluate the service in terms of the emotion they feel. In time, however, the law of diminishing returns sets in. Prayers are offered in highly emotive style and bathed in background music. Stories have to get more dramatic, songs more sentimental, preaching more histrionic, to keep people having intense emotional experiences."

Ortberg warns that this kind of worship is often shallow, artificial, and rarely reflective. He calls it "Scarecrow worship" and says, "It would be better if it only had a brain."

"On the other hand," Ortberg continues, "some churches focus keenly on cognitive correctness. They recite great creeds, distribute reams of exegetical information, and craft careful prayers ahead of time. And yet the heart and spirit are not seized with the wonder and passion that characterize those in Scripture who must fall on their faces when they encounter the living God. No one is ever so moved that she actually moves."

"This is Tin Man worship," Ortberg laments, "if it only had a heart!"

It is Mary, bowed in humility at Jesus' feet, who shows us the third way. She is not afraid to bare her heart before our Lord. She is not afraid to express herself in action. But it is action and devotion that are fueled by theological reflection.


Eugene Peterson once offered these words of warning about prayer: "Be slow to pray," he wrote. "Praying most often doesn't get us what we want, but what God wants—something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray."

He might be saying the same of worship in general. Be slow to worship. Be careful about it. Don't rush into it headlong without considering what you are doing. Worship is not for the faint of heart. It should not be entered into carelessly. The aim of worship is not to get us what we want, but what God wants. And sometimes, by God's grace, that is exactly what happens. Sometimes, by God's grace, our worship transcends our own small desires and accomplishes what God wants.

That is why every time we cross the sacred threshold of worship, we tread on dangerous ground—far more dangerous than any stretch of the expressway you might travel. Because at any moment, our masks may be torn away and our true motives exposed. We may find ourselves face to face with the Living God. 

With our pretenses shattered, we may at last find ourselves next to Mary, on the floor at Jesus' feet with nothing left to offer him except our naked devotion.

© 2006, John Koessler
A resource of Christianity Today International

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


Worship—true worship—is one of the most dangerous things we do.

I. Dishonest worship

II. Calculated worship

III. Thoughtless worship


When we cross the sacred threshold of worship, we run the risk of having our masks torn away and our true motives exposed, leaving nothing behind except our naked devotion.