A number of years ago it was in vogue for Christians to sport bumper stickers on their cars that said, “God is my Co-Pilot.” This seemed like a pretty good slogan until you rode with someone who actually applied the principle to their driving—for example, Mrs. Reed, who would speak in tongues while careening from lane to lane, with my white-knuckled family in the back praying to the same God for a miraculous safe arrival at evening church. A short time after that a new bumper sticker came out which challenged the first: “If God is your Co-Pilot…switch seats!”

“What does this have to do with worship?” You ask. Buckle your seatbelt, my friend, because we’re going to take a quick trip through the opening of the liturgy.

We begin worship with a song to gather God’s people. Once we are assembled we hear God’s “greeting,” which is usually words from scripture that invite us to worship. Then we sing a song of praise. Suddenly there’s a shift in mood. We abruptly move from standing in an atmosphere of celebration to being seated for acts of contrition. It may seem odd to deflate the energy five minutes into the service, but it makes perfect sense from a liturgical standpoint. In the presence of a holy God, our sinfulness becomes crystal clear. Here’s how Isaiah experienced it:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (from Isaiah 6)

Like Isaiah, our confession of sin isn’t the end of the story. Just as the seraph touched the coal to Isaiah’s lips and pronounced him forgiven, in the liturgy we are assured that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) In response to the good news that we are a forgiven people, we break into a song of joy called the Gloria.

Some people feel they haven’t truly worshiped until they wallow in their sins and give a heartfelt mea culpa, others see little need for confessing sin corporately or water it down with Oprah-esque sentiments like “God, we haven’t lived up to our potential.” Both extremes can be dangerous. Liturgy is just like life—we need to take responsibility for our actions, say we’re sorry (and mean it!), be grateful for forgiveness, and commit to changing our ways.

Liturgically speaking, the most important thing that the confession does is establish from the beginning who is in the driver’s seat. God is holy and we are not. We can worship only because of God’s good grace, not because of our own virtue. We can only give a worthy offering of worship because of Christ, and through Christ. So if God is your worship Co-Pilot…switch seats!

Can’t tell a mea culpa from the Mayo Clinic? Contact Greg: greg.scheer@coscrc.org.