Worship. It is a word we associate with church services and singing inspiring and moving songs. But at the heart of worship is something deeper and more profound. It’s more than just something we do or feel. It’s a choice, a commitment we make. Worhsip expresses what God means to us, how much we value him. Worship expresses what God is worth.
In our reading from Mark chapter 12 we find someone who demonstrates the true heart of worship.
For Jesus it was the end of an exhausting and disheartening day, verbally jousting with his opponents. He had been teaching in the temple courtyard in Jerusalem, and one after another his enemies came to trap him in his word. “By what authority do you do these things?” they asked. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
Then the Sadducees got in on the act. “Now there were seven brothers,” went their story. “The first brother married and died without leaving any children. The second brother married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since all seven brothers were married to her?”
Then one of the teachers of the law joined in the tag team harassment of Jesus. “Of all the commandments which is the most important?”
None of these questions were designed to get information. None of them were asked in order to learn. All of them were put to Jesus to trap him. To trip him up in his words. To show to the people that he was an ignorant fool. To show him up as the imposter they thought he was.
I mean, paying tax to Caesar or not. It was like throwing Jesus a grenade and watching it blow up in his hands. If he said, “Yes, pay,” well that wouldn’t be popular with the people. And if he said, “No, don’t pay,” well that wouldn’t be popular with the Romans. It was a question that was meant to damn him if he did and to damn him if he didn’t.
This was what Jesus had to put up with all that long day. A bunch of hypocrites. Pretenders. Play actors who had learned their lines well but whose hearts were far from God. The heart of Jerusalem was rotten to the core. Its temple was filled with the smoke from a thousand burnt offerings. The shrine ran with rivers of blood and precious oil. But where was the justice? Where was the mercy? Where was the humility? Where was the fruit that the Lord requires for his labour? Where was the faith? Where was the devotion? Where was the consecration?
Jesus was not to find it that day among the leaders of Israel, but he did find it in the example of a poor widow. She was part of a crowd going into the temple building and walking past the offering box. Many people were putting in lots of money. Probably making a big show of it. “Look at me. Look at me. See how much money I’m putting in. See how much I love God.”
But the widow was keeping quiet. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She wanted to leave her offering and disappear back into obscurity. She didn’t have much to give. She didn’t have much to feel proud about. So she just let her coins drop into the offering box and went her way.
But Jesus pointed her out to his disciples. This was what he’d been looking for. This was the kind of worship that God looked for in his temple. Jesus said to them,
I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
Now in one important sense, Jesus could not be more wrong. She hadn’t put in more. She had put in less. She put in a lot less. In fact it would have been harder to put in less than she did. She put in two little copper coins. The smallest denomination of coins that existed in Jesus’ day. In today’s money she had put in two five cent pieces.
When I was a kid you could buy 5 licorice sticks for 10 cents, but what could you buy these days? You can’t buy a lolly. You can’t buy an apple. You can’t buy a yo yo. You can’t buy a piece of chewing gum. You can’t buy a marble. What’s a five cent piece worth anyway? All it’s good for is change from a $100 for something that is $99.95. Save up enough of them and you could buy a box of matches. But on their own five cent pieces are worthless. No wonder the government’s been thinking of getting rid of them. Two of them is not much better.
But this is the size of the widow’s gift in the temple treasury. It would take a hundred poor widows and their miserable coppers to buy a decent meal for one of the priests or to pay the wages for someone to sweep the temple steps. What she gave was tiny. Minuscule. You would need to look at it under a microscope to check what it was worth.
From this point of view Jesus was wrong. But from another more important point of view Jesus could not be more right. Jesus was measuring the gift not by its size, but in proportion to the power of the giver. The rich people were walking past and putting in their gold and silver coins. But when they went home that evening they would still have plenty where they came from. As a proportion of their vast wealth they gave a part, a share, a percentage. But the widow’s two coins were everything she had. When she walked out, her pockets were empty. She had nothing more to give.
In this way she showed what God was worth to her. How much she valued him. God wasn’t worth 10 cents. He was worth everything. Not a small sacred part that could be dedicated to him but leaving her practically unscathed. But everything. She wanted to give everything to the God who had given so much to her.
This is the true spirit of worship. It isn’t careful. It isn’t cautious. It is extravagant. It is all consuming. It wells up from a grateful heart into a costly gift. But worship isn’t just impulsive or careless. It is a choice we make, a commitment. As king David said,
I will not bring to the Lord offerings that cost me nothing.
Through our worship we tell God what he means to us. In our praise. In our prayers. In our freewill offering. In our commitment to personal holiness. In the sincerity of our repentance. In our service to the community. In our use of money. In the use of our gifts and talents. In the use of our time. We all have what we have. We all make choices with what we have. And the choices we make show what we think God is worth.
In these four small verses Jesus teaches us to turn our value system upon its head. To look at the gift and not judge it on its size, but on its proportion. And Jesus calls on us to follow the widow’s example. When we do so, we give our all to the God who has given us everything. Our life. Our health and strength. Our family and friends. Our home and neighbourhood. Our church. Our town. Our work and rest. We follow, we serve, we worship an extravagant God. Not a God who is careful and cautious, a miser with his blessings. But a God who has given us more than we deserve. A God who has lavished us with opportunities and resources. A God who gave his most precious gift of all: the life of his dear Son.
The apostle Paul wrote,
God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.
He didn’t save him up for a rainy day. He didn’t reserve him as a kind of second instalment once he saw how we were getting on. And Jesus too practiced what he preached. Again Paul writes,
Jesus loved me and gave himself for me.
Not just a part of himself. Not just a bit he could spare. But he gave all he had. Again Paul writes,
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This is the extravagant love of God that does not give in miserly portions, but gives everything generously to us. Not because we were good. Not because we had earned it. But when we were strangers, when we were aliens, when we were enemies, when we were sinners, our heavenly Father gave his best for us.
Today, we’ve been talking about worship. What it is and what it isn’t. It isn’t just a church service. It isn’t just an emotional high singing inspirational songs. It is a decision. It is a choice by which we show what God means to us, by which we proclaim his worth to the world.
And at the heart of Christian worship is a response to the cross of Jesus, Jesus’ priceless gift of his life to us. And we put the sign of that gift on the front of church buildings and at the top of church towers, the sign of the cross, to remind us and to inspire us to follow the widow’s example: to give all we have for him who gave his all for us.