“Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’… [T]here will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
I’ve often commented in these devotions how study of some Biblical topic will yield results bearing a strong resemblance to the liturgy. Peter’s first sermon and the events which follow are liturgical. The “new song” is the liturgy. The work of the Holy Spirit looks a lot like what the liturgy does. So many of the miracles of Jesus have a liturgical structure.
So much of the Bible is liturgical, and the passage quoted above, the opening verse along with the conclusive comment about joy in heaven, is among the most blatant proofs of the truth that the liturgical is Biblical through and through.
On Sunday morning the world over there’s something in roughly a billion people that says, “Get up and go to this place called the church.” That “something” is the voice of Jesus calling, by the Holy Spirit, not just anyone, but sinners. The sinner gets up and draws near to the Church.
The Church is the body of Jesus Christ. So we can rightly say the sinner is drawing near to Jesus. He’s taking part in the great separation, the Holy Spirit’s separating of sinners from the righteous world. He’s “calling them out” of the world, which is where the word ecclesia comes from, or “church.” Church is where sinners are called out of the world.
Church is God in human flesh locating Himself where the lost sheep, coin, and son are. Church is the shepherd (what “pastor” means) bearing the sheep on his shoulder, the woman picking up the coin, and the father running out and embracing the son.
How is Jesus present in the Church bodily but where two or three call upon His name? Or where sinners are posturing themselves before Him as one who can remedy their sin? Invocation and Kyrie.
And why are they there? To hear Him. Readings and sermon. This is where Jesus teaches the ins and outs of what it means to be in the sinner-Jesus gathering.
Now is where things get interesting.
As Jesus teaches, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. When sinner and Jesus are reunited, by His drawing them to Himself, by His seeking and finding them, there is joy in heaven. Very importantly, this joyful celebration – if the parables are to guide us – happens in the same location where seeker and lost are reunited. The shepherd brings back the sheep and invites his friends there. Same with the woman and the father. Why is this important?
Because the joy in heaven, by implication, is going on exactly where sinner and Jesus find each other. The joy in heaven is located where tax collector and sinner were hearing and eating with Jesus. Heaven is on earth! Unseen, of course, but still on earth. The angels are present there, invisibly, celebrating the arrival of sinner and tax collector to hear Jesus.
Likewise are the angels present in the Church on Sunday morning. They are celebrating the arrival of all the coins dragged in by the woman, the sheep carried in by the shepherd, and the sons embraced by the father. Doesn’t that cover just about every way someone ends up at church, from the three year old “coin” dragged in by mom to the forty year old “son” who has a moment of clarity about where “home” truly is, or from the forty year old “coin” dragged in by habit, to the fourteen year old “sheep” wandering aimlessly around, needing to be carried in?
And what is the nature of that joyful celebration? In the Bible to be joyful is to sing, like the Psalm says, “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.”
So, if the angels are breaking forth in joyful song, are there instances in the Bible where we see heaven opened up, and we get an example of what the angels were singing, so that we can get an idea of what that song might look like?
We get three instances of the angelic song: Isaiah 6, Luke 2, and Revelation 5 and 7. Here they are:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!”
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” … “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
If anyone knows of another instance we get of angels singing and rejoicing, I’d love to hear them. But as far as I know, these are the only words we get of what “angels rejoicing” looks like.
Do these words look familiar? They will to anyone familiar with the liturgy. The first song is basis of the canticle, the Sanctus. The second is the Gloria in Excelsis. The third is the “Worthy is the Lamb.” The first two have been part of the historic liturgy from ancient times. The “Worthy is the Lamb” is a recent addition, but proves there is a way the liturgy can evolve in a non-revolutionary manner.
These canticles demonstrate an important point about worship. Worship is not something “we come up with.” It’s not the product of the “worship team” gathering together Thursday night. Worship is what the angels have been doing eternally. Eternally they have been confessing the Lord’s mercy, goodness, and glory, particularly with regard to His creation. We don’t invent worship; we take part in this worship!
So, the question is not, “Are we going to do the Sanctus or not?” But rather, “Are we going to take part in that reality of worship or not?” Remember, the angels are singing the Gloria in Excelsis, the “Worthy is the Lamb,” and the Sanctus because sinners have drawn near to the Body of Christ that is the Church.
Why would anyone cut himself off from that? Why would anyone cut himself off from that witness of their salvation? It would be like having a birthday party in 1969, and the host informs you, “Hey, guess what, at 9 PM on TV, the Beatles are going to sing ‘Today’s your birthday’ and dedicate the song TO YOU. Let’s watch!” And you say, “No. How about we sing this song I wrote up today.” If you don’t like the Beatles, pick your own analogy – you get the point.
And then we get the Lord’s Supper, the Lord receiving sinners and eating with them. This is the climax of the rejoicing. Each parable ends with a meal as well. Lurking in the background is that something has to die in order to celebrate the sinner’s restoration. Jesus dies for the feast, for He’s both the host and the feast, serving us His very body and blood.
It’s all there, the liturgy: the gathering together of sinners with Jesus (Church, invocation, Kyrie), the hearing of Jesus (readings, sermon), the angelic rejoicing (Gloria in Excelsis, Sanctus, Worthy is the Lamb), and the Lord’s Supper. The liturgy is the earthly manifestation of the Church’s heavenly witness. It’s where angels rejoice over the gathering together of lost sheep, coins, and children, and where the Lord receives them and eats with them.
Can it not get any more clear?