May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary. (2 Chronicles 30:18-19 NIV)
2 Chronicles 30:18-20 records a time when “most of the many people”, from non-Jewish families, “had not purified themselves”, and a strict literal enforcement of the rituals and rules of worship would have barred many from entering the sanctuary to worship God. But King Hezekiah prayed: “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God … even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”
Rituals and rules or traditions of worship are important because they help us draw near to God. They remind us that true worship inspires gratitude and humility, thanksgiving and confession, quietness and trust. True worship rekindles love for God and neighbour. But the Bible warns pastors and priests (and bishops!) against enforcing those very good rituals in such a way that they hinder rather than help people draw near to God.
Hezekiah’s prayer in the Old Testament reminds us that God welcomes all people into his holy presence. It teaches us that divine rituals should never become human rules which hinder us from finding God.
The New Testament records our Lord Jesus warning the devout Pharisees of the same thing (Mark 2:23-27). The Pharisees were zealous in enforcing certain rituals and rules which dictated how people should observe the Sabbath day in honour of God. Jesus teaches them, and us, that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God instituted the weekly ritual of a Sabbath day, not to bless himself, but to be a blessing for human beings. Or, to borrow St Augustine’s famous phrase, to help restless human beings find their rest in God.
The celebration of Holy Week culminating in Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is an annual ritual which churches worldwide observe. May this wonderful ritual remind all of, rather than restrict any from, the loving goodness of God. May our rituals and rules help, and not hinder.
|Bishop Dr Gordon Wong was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020.
He served as President of the Trinity Annual Conference from 2012-2020.