"Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. Make all its utensils of bronzeÃ¢â¬"its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans." (Exodus 27 verses 2-3 NIV)
As I mentioned before, this passage is not dissimilar to the many chapters before and after it describing the building of the tabernacle; indeed these verses could be easily passed over by the reader without a second thought (as I dare say I have done âand still doâ with many similar passages), but I will attempt to describe the journey which my mind immediately undertook upon reading the simple words, "pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels".
I immediately envisioned the Israelite people camping; thousands upon thousands of tents divided up into families and tribes, thin lines of smoke rising from among them, with children running to and fro in the desert sand. In a designated part of the camp site stood the Tabernacle, with it's white walls surrounding the altars, holy chambers and places of worship. This was a holy place that not just any man could walk into or do as he pleased when inside. Anointed priests had to be regularly cleansed and even then were rarely allowed into certain parts of it.
There were rituals and sacrifices that were essential to the very existence of the Israelite people that could only be performed within these four walls. This was where the God of the Israelites, the very creator of the heavens and the earth came down and communed with man.
After these sacrifices, that were so necessary in paying a man's sins, had finished burning, the afore-mentioned bronze pots and shovels were used to clean out the altar and remove the ashes. Now, it occurred to me that after the Israelites moved on, they would have left many fire scars behind them, many different piles of ashes from all the families that had eaten. Viewing the ground that they walked upon immediately after they left, one would have seen black spots littered all over the vast desert plain that had just housed the huge Israelite community.
But one could not walk through, hours after the Israelites had left, and say, "this pile of coals is more important than that one", or, "these are holy ashes, but those are just normal ashes". And yet, only hours before, those flames were the very thing that kept the presence of God with that people. They were, at one point, very holy embers; yet after the Israelites left, they were just plain, old, burnt ashes.
So what makes something holy? What defines a flame as holy but another flame as unholy? Quite simply, it is the presence of God. A flame is simply a flame, but when utilised as a sacrifice recognised by God, it becomes a holy flame. Likewise, a song is simply a song, but when it is utilised as worship recognised by God, it becomes a holy song.
As musicians regularly leading worship to a congregation, it is easy for us to attach formulas to our worship leading or song composing. But God is not like that; you don't simply perform the correct rituals to please him. He is wild. He sent his son Jesus Christ of Nazareth to die on a cross and rise again from the dead to do away with the rituals, to break free of the sacrifices, and to tear open the dividing walls.
Now He looks directly into your heart, and that is where the holy flames now burn; that is the sacrifice that brings His presence. There is no chord progression that can stir a holy moment; the height of your hands does not beckon the presence of God; there is no catch-phrase that initiates deeper worship. These are all outward expressions of an inward truth. The Holy Spirit works from the inside, out. The Spirit can utilise these tangibles, and He rides the outward expression of our inward position in marvellous ways, but it is only ever a manifestation of a deeper reality, an outcome of an initiating factor.
A pure heart in prostrate worship to the Creator of heaven and earth, that's what initiates worship. Without that, His presence will never be in it. And without His presence, a flame is only good for providing heat and smoke; a song is only good for a catchy melody and beat to tap one's foot to. Without His presence, it will never be holy.
If God isn't the reason, the prize, the first thing that people see and the last thing they remember, then it's all in vain. We as Christians are not aiming to put on more entertaining rock concerts, more impressive lighting shows or better skilled musicians. God is a very extravagant God, His tabernacle was very impressive, His temple was splendidly luxurious, and heaven certainly is not boring or plain. But the entire point of it all must always be, first and foremost, a genuine sacrifice and love for Him. That is what separates music and defines worship music.
Daniel J. Mathew is studying music at Sydney's Wesley Institute and serves as a volunteer for the senior high youth ministry of Hillsong Church, City Campus.
Daniel Mathew's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-mathew.html