a ritualistic god

Over the summer in my readings for a class at Briercrest on the Pentateuch with Dr. Eric Ortlund, I was captivated by the rituals in Leviticus, rituals for ordaining, for cleansing, for atonement etc. God is ritualistic. In the O.T we see God establishing very specific ways in which He wants to interact and meet with his people. As I considered these themes, I realized the majority of my Christian life couldn’t be further from this idea of rituals. Rituals and tradition would restrict and limit the ability for the Holy Spirit to move amongst us.

What we were looking for was freedom!

Let me be clear though, all churches have rituals. They do, whether you like it or not, your church, my church, we have ritualistic ways of encountering God.

I spent my early twenties in an ambient worship band (think ‘Explosions in the Sky’ if they had the slightest knowledge of the art of musical crescendo…yes, we were that excessive) and we knew how to get the Spirit to show up. Play some songs to pump everyone up…create some atmosphere (God really likes reverb and delay pedals) and then hit everyone with that 6/8 song (the Spirit loves 6/8) with that really repetitive bridge and its a near guarantee that good stuff will happen. Assuredly we will do that song every week (as a ritual) because we knew it would work…until it doesn’t, and then we would have to find that new anointed 6/8 repetitive bridge.

This continual ritual of doing something to convince God to be with us was the opposite of freedom. It was the opposite of light and easy, plain and simple, it was hard work. The weight and responsibility of God’s felt, and experienced favour and presence was placed on the shoulders of four young, messed up twenty-year olds.

God fundamentally desires to be with us. I truly believe that, however, sometimes He doesn’t come when and how we expect him to. We can do all the ‘right’ things and it can fall flat.

Our rituals, our ways of approaching God aren’t always successful.

In his dictionary on the Pentateuch, T.D. Alexander says, “Sacrifices and offerings are the means for the Israelites to approach God and thus have fellowship with him.”

God ordained specific rituals for broken, and sinful people to fellowship with him. He knew that in our own strength, we didn’t have the means in and of ourselves to attain fellowship with him, to approach him and live. The means he chose to provide for them were even easy to get! They were ordinary foodstuff, meats and grains, if you don’t have an expensive animal, use a cheap one! His desire to be fellowship with them was so great that he made it simple, and he gave very specific instructions, so they couldn’t mess it up. He took the burden of bridging the gap and simplified it.

I constantly live in the tension of trying to carry that burden myself – If I could just do more, or say that prayer better, or pump up the congregation so that they worship more fervently then maybe he will come. I functionally attempt to become the mediator between God and man.

In Leviticus the sacrifice was foodstuff, ordinary things they would have in their lives, in the New Covenant, he gave himself. The burden on us is even less. He made a way, one time, and for all to be in fellowship with the Father, to have access to him, to experience him, to be cleansed and washed and purified by him and he even showed us how to meet with him.

In the Eucharist we see similar instructions and provision given by God. “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 21:19) His body and blood broken and poured out for us to receive and engage with.

The sacrifice of Christ is not something meant to be remembered simply in the sense of having solemn thoughts about how kind and generous the sacrifice was, but is something that is to be experienced, and participated in (1 Cor 10:16). Biblical remembrance is about calling forth the benefits and applying them to our lives in real-time. In John 6 (at the Passover feast!) we see Jesus using this ritualistic language foreshadowing the Last Supper. To those who eat of his body and drink his blood are all the benefits of his sacrifice made available. Jesus is identifying himself with the bread – in other words, the sign points to him, and the bread from heaven requires ingestion (6:50-51). He doesn’t explain this metaphorically, but we are seeing the early establishing of a Sacrament – a means for him to communicate grace to his Church on a regular basis.

In 1 Corinthians 11 St. Paul uses language that implies frequency, and repeated celebration of the Lord’s Supper (See Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians). Predominantly in St. Paul’s correction of the Corinthian church for their departing from the way Christ and his Apostles instituted it (verse 17, 20 and 26).

Jesus, our sacrificial lamb, provides in himself, the sacrifice and the means (his righteousness) for mankind to approach God, and once again lays out a clear blueprint for his people to encounter him in a deeply meaningful, tangible and life-changing way, in the Eucharist. In this breaking of bread, he chooses to reveal himself (Luke 13:30-31) without question, or hesitation.

In an effort to find God, to encounter him in truly deep in meaningful ways much of the Church has typically made the very ritual that he established insignificant and symbolic or have thrown it away completely. When the ritual became rote, and stale, we blamed the ritual instead of looking to the staleness in our own hearts.

Attempting to be free from ritual we are bound up by this constant need to find the next thing that works, to find new ways to convince God to meet with us. When in reality, the very rituals that God ordained are exactly the ways he wants to bring about the greatest levels of freedom.

*Much more could be said about any of these themes (obviously) – if you have any questions or comments, I would love to continue the conversation in the comment section below.

dean stephen barbour

Rob SteeleComment