The Experiential Worshiper: Chapter One
Come Join the Feast!
A Banquet Fit for a King
I can never decide which inspires greater delight: the sight of a dining table fit for a medieval king or the mouthwatering smells pouring out of my mother’s tiny kitchen. Ever since our boys were young it has been a tradition for us to spend Thanksgiving with my mom at her third story Victorian flat on Russian Hill in San Francisco. With countless shelves of leather-bound books, carved antique furniture, and sweeping views of the Bay, it is a place so unlike our own suburban tract home that it evokes a sense of wonder in all four of us. Bobby and Luke bound up the long flight of worn stairs excitedly announcing our arrival, followed by my wife, Pam, bearing our culinary contribution to the feast. I typically bring up the rear, lugging bags like some kind of stamina-challenged Sherpa.
My mom loves to go all out for her family. Preparations begin weeks ahead of time: ordering the fresh (never frozen) turkey of unnatural proportions; gathering ingredients for all our favorite family recipes; unpacking heirloom china and crystal; ironing the Italian lace tablecloth; polishing silver tableware and serving dishes. An overhead spotlight illuminates the specially-designed seasonal centerpiece, complete with fresh-cut flowers and candles. Each place is set with three china plates, crystal goblets of varying dimensions, an embroidered linen napkin, and silverware for every conceivable category of food.
Cooking begins days ahead of time with a flurry of chopping, dicing, slicing, and baking. Famous family recipes are consulted like trustworthy sages. The gigantic proportions of each dish matches the alarming size of a bird obviously never meant to fly. The turkey is stuffed, sewn, tied, rubbed, basted, and squeezed into a hot oven. Finally a procession of serving dishes bear this extravagant bounty to the table, filling every available space and overflowing onto a serving table: roast turkey, homemade stuffing, rich gravy, riced potatoes, my sister Leslie’s scalloped corn, my brother Joe’s sweet potatoes, my grandma Mukkie’s Norwegian lefse and kringle, butternut squash, buttery rolls, cranberry sauce, cranberry jelly, cranberry relish, cranberry everything! Then comes the triumphal moment when we all sit down to a feast exceeding the dreams of even the greediest pilgrim.
There are few experiences I enjoy more than a delicious meal shared with people I love. Sitting around my mother’s table, holding hands in prayer, my soul swells with a feeling of gratitude and love for the people so deeply connected to my life. Savoring each bite, my whole body responds with appreciation. Amidst the mmm’s, the laughter, and the conversation, my mind fills with memories of Thanksgivings gone by and a greater understanding of just how blessed I really am. Deep in my heart there wells up a stronger resolve never to take these blessings for granted and to give back to others out of all that I have so graciously received. Sitting at that family feast is like tasting a slice of heaven!
Don’t you wish it was possible to seal moments like that in a jar so you could savor them again when loneliness gnaws at your soul? But of course we can’t; those moments slip through our fingers only to be recalled as distant memories. The hunger remains. The loneliness creeps in. Deep inside we know we were made for something different, that somewhere, there is a table with a place set for us. A place where we belong, where our deepest hungers inside are finally fed.
The Heavenly Banquet
Reading the Gospels I get the sense that Jesus relished a good meal with loved ones even more than I. From the wedding party of Cana to the banquet table of Simon the Pharisee, we often hear about Jesus enjoying fancy dinners with friends and strangers alike. He was so eager to share a table with people of every walk of life that it confounded the sensibilities of religious people like the Pharisees who asked him with annoyance, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Others criticized Jesus directly for this perceived excess, labeling him “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34). So it comes as no surprise that Jesus likened the kingdom of God to “a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:2). So much for clouds and harps! In these verses, we see that a far more biblical image for heaven is the image of an eternal feast hosted by our heavenly Father where we will enjoy each other’s company forever!
To point us toward our ultimate destiny God gave the prophet Isaiah a glimpse of this heavenly banquet: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6). It makes my mouth water right now just picturing it! Clearly Isaiah is talking about more than just food here, but don’t you find yourself wondering what it is about heaven that will fill us with joy like “a feast of rich food” and “well aged wines”?
Centuries later the Apostle John was given an unprecedented peek into heaven itself. He saw God seated on the throne with the Lamb that was slain, surrounded by twenty-four elders, four living creatures, myriads of angels, and ultimately every creature in creation (Revelation 4-5). Do you know what they were doing? They were falling on their faces before the throne and the Lamb, casting down their golden crowns, giving God glory, honor, thanks, and blessing; recognizing his power, wealth, and wisdom. Among other choruses, a continual song rose day and night around this throne: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). All the creatures of creation were experiencing the complete holiness and wonder of God’s very nature and it was evoking in them an unrestrained offering of their whole selves to God in ceaseless worship!
Come Taste and See
Worship is the eternal activity of heaven. God himself is the main course of the eternal heavenly banquet. Isaiah’s prophecy describes nothing less than a complete experience of God in which we give all we are back to him in worship. The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). No wonder Jesus left us with a meal in which he offers us his “body” and “blood” (Matthew 26:26-28). He knew the root of every longing in the human heart is a hunger for God. The gnawing in our souls, the cold edge of loneliness, the constant desire for something more is in actuality our innate desire to be deeply connected to God.
From the beginning we were created for intimate relationship with our Creator. Absolute fulfillment in Eden sprang from the perfect union between God and his children. The tragedy of sin is that it separates us from God and robs us of that union for which we were created. That great leader of the ancient church, Augustine of Hippo, who embraced Christ after a long season of rebellion, came to realize his desire for the things of this world was ultimately driven by a hunger for God. He describes his realization in this poetic prayer:
Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and new. Late have I loved you!
You were within me while I have gone outside to seek you. Unlovely myself, I rushed toward all those lovely things you had made. And always you were with me, and I was not with you.
All these beauties kept me far from you -- although they would not have existed at all unless they had their being in you.
you shattered my deafness.
you drove away my blindness.
You shed your fragrance, I drew in my breath, and I pant for you. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.
When finally we experience the purity and holiness of God everything else pales by comparison. As we begin to taste the fullness of God and give ourselves back to him in self-abandonment it awakens a longing, a burning in our hearts, a hunger gnawing in our souls, driving us deeper into the mystery and wonder of worshiping God with all that we are. The perfect wholeness of Jesus’ kingdom will be realized as every creature recognizes God for who he really is and honors him as such. The divine paradox of the heavenly feast is that we will be most satisfied the more completely we give ourselves away to God and others. This paradoxical truth is what Jesus pointed us to when he said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Are you tired of nibbling on memories sealed in a jar? Is there a gnawing loneliness in your soul telling you there must be something more? Like the young Augustine have you been rushing toward those “lovely things” around you rather than the One who made them lovely? Have you been going outside yourself to seek the One who is already within you? Don’t make the mistake he made and allow the beauties of this world to keep you far from God any longer. You don’t want to look back one day and say with regret as he did, “Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and new!”
Genuine worship gives us a foretaste of the restored Eden yet to come and leads us on the path toward recovering who we really are and why we are here. There is a place set for you, a place you belong, where the gnawing in your soul can finally be satisfied. I invite you—no, I challenge you—to come to the table and join the feast. Come and taste the kind of worship that calls you to give all you are; the kind of worship that will leave you panting and burning with an ever greater longing for more of God!
For Reflection and Discussion
- What is one of the best meals you can remember? What made it so great?
- What are you hungry for in your life? What are some ways you try to satiate that hunger?
- Can you relate to Jesus’ image of heaven as a banquet? Why or why not?
- In what way is worship like partaking in that banquet?
- Read Revelation 4:1-11. When you imagine John’s description of heaven, how does it make you feel? What kind of longings does it awaken in you?
Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, X, 27.38 (New York: Penguin Books, 1961, 1985), p. 231.