Desperately Seeking Transcendence
The church, an institution whose existence transcends present history, struggles to offer its members its own chief good: transcendence.
The church is not made by men. It was not created by an agency. It has no earthly origin. The church is the brainchild of God. The church has existence for one and only reason: God dreamed it into being. God began it. God wanted it to exist.
As the people of God, the church is more about heaven than earth. It is not as if earth created the church. Heaven created the church. The church only lives at all because the Father willed to form a people for Himself by the blood of his Son and the sealing of his Spirit (Ephesians 1). Take away God, and there is no church. There is no worship. There is no people of God.
How strange, then, that churches would grasp after immanence in their weekly worship. How odd that churches would strive “to make people feel comfortable” in their services. There is nothing quaint and glancing about worshipping God in the Bible. Though we view worship in anodyne terms—dimmed lights and flaring guitars—biblical worship centers in holy duties: reading the Word, confessing our sin, singing hymns to God, sitting under the Word preached. These are not immanentist activities. They are holy, set-apart duties of the church.
When we gather for the weekly worship service, we gather as those starved for God, and starved for transcendence. We have been swimming all week in the normal, trivial, earthly, ordinary, and natural. We need the abnormal. We need the essential. We need the heavenly. We need the extraordinary. We need what is above nature. We need the supernatural. This is what weekly worship gives us. It does not fundamentally give us a little “touch from the Lord,” as if all we need is a divine pat on the shoulder, a quick grin from a hall-crossing deity. It gives us a brush with God. We hide besides Moses in the cleft of the rock, expectantly and reverently awaiting the passing-by of the radiance of the appearing of God’s glory. We do not chatter on as we wait; we do not crack jokes as we watch; we do not offer stream-of-consciousness banter as we sit. We can barely breathe, let alone speak, for the specter of God’s holiness we will glimpse as we hear the Word.
Weekly worship is less like a rock concert and more like a hike in the Swiss Alps. It is less like a podcast chat and more like a thunderstorm. It is less like group therapy and more like the lift-off of the Space Shuttle. Weekly worship blesses us with what we do not have, and gives us what we cannot offer: transcendence. A fresh vision of the holiness of God. An encounter as the covenant people of God with our God. This is an experience that is not like anything else. There is no corollary to the corporate worship of the living God. There is no parallel. There is no way to make it like other things because it is not like other things. I am reminded, in trying to capture its feel, of what C. S. Lewis said when he read ancient tales of northern lands.
Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago.
Alpine air. Remoteness. Severity. Alongside true Spirit-fueled warmth and the fiery blaze of gospel preaching that welcomes every sinner to the altar of repentance, the church offers these. It is a factory of transcendence, a forest of fresh spiritual air, a living body that gathers on earth to direct itself toward heaven.
We do well to address ourselves, and structure our services, accordingly.