American football is in full swing. As I watch snippets of games and see the devoted fans worshiping...I mean cheering for their teams, I'm reminded of an interview I heard a few days before Super Bowl 49. The person being interviewed was a woman reporter who loved the NFL, and the host of the program led with a question that went something like this: "With all of the bad publicity the NFL is getting these days...a confused commissioner, the concerns of permanent brain damage and early onset Alzheimer's disease among retired players, several high profile stars being suspended or kicked out of the league for spouse and child abuse, and teams being accused of cheating, how can you enjoy something with that kind of reputation?" The reporter responded, "I am concerned about those things and others should be too, but I love being involved in something bigger than myself." When I heard that response, I thought, "You've got to be kidding me!" This woman, who sounded like a sharp, articulate, highly-educated person, was saying that professional football was worth investing her time and energy in because it is “bigger than [herself].”
As I've thought about her response, I've wondered how many of the people who sit through our worship services each week would say that they love being involved in their church (or even Christianity for that matter) because it's bigger than themselves. And then a more startling reality began to dawn on me: there are fans of football teams and other sports that are more faithful, more expressive, and more committed "worshipers" of their teams than many of our congregants are worshipers of the One, True, Living God. Think just for a moment of the time and money it takes for them to get ready for one game. The painted faces, the elaborate costumes, the money spent on season tickets...not to mention the efforts and funds that go to tailgate parties and post-game celebrations. I scoff at their fanaticism, but in reality, there is a part of me that envies their devotion, because on a cultic/ritual level, they are great examples of dedicated worshipers.
The prophet Malachi severely scolded the Israelites and in particular, the priests, for their lack of dedicated worship. He accused them of being bored with the worship of Yahweh. In fact, significant pen and ink is used by Malachi throughout the book to charge the chosen nation with devotion-less worship:
“You also say: “Look, what a nuisance!” “And you scorn it,” says the Lord of Hosts. “You bring stolen, lame, or sick animals. You bring this as an offering! Am I to accept that from your hands?” asks the Lord. “The deceiver is cursed who has an acceptable male in his flock and makes a vow but sacrifices a defective animal to the Lord. For I am a great King,” says Yahweh of Hosts, “and My name will be feared among the nations." Malachi 1:13-14
The warnings don't stop there in Malachi. Look what God says to the priests in Malachi 2:2: "’If you [priests] don't listen, and if you don't take it to heart to honor My name,’ says Yahweh of Hosts, ‘I will send a curse among you.’" Those are strong words about an appropriate heart and life attitude toward the worship of the living God.
We understand that our worship is not acceptable to God because of our fervor or our devotion or any type of sacrifice that we make. No, we have something infinitely better! We have access to "boldly enter the sanctuary" to worship the God of the universe through and because of the blood of Jesus. (Heb. 10:19-20). The mind-blowing realization that we have been invited and sought out by the God of the universe (John 4:23) to worship Him and to know that our sins are forgiven through the blood of Christ should compel us to be the most devoted, enthusiastic, and authentic worshipers in the universe! And nowhere are we told that we have to paint our faces and wear ridiculous outfits!
A pro football team will never be able to withstand the weight of its fans worship. They will lose, players will embarrass themselves with sinful behavior, coaches will call dumb plays that result in game-ending interceptions, and someday, football will be no more. It is not something eternal. As Matt Papa reminds us, Jesus Christ is the only One who can bear up under the weight of our worship.
Each week during football season on the same mornings that the NFL has their services in multiple cities across America, people gather to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. May it be that those of us who lead worship would not only point our people to Jesus but remind them of the seriousness of worshipping Him, and that we would "take it to heart to honor His name." After all, gathering together to worship Jesus Christ and being transformed into His image really is something "bigger than ourselves."
Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.