You have a great base already understanding the content of the Divine Service as we have it today. Your question about its origins is an excellent secondary question to ask. I will attempt to answer it as best as I can. However, for a more in-depth treatment I would direct you to Rev. Dr. Arthur Just’s “Liturgy: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” videos available at www.lutheranvisuals.com/Store/liturgy.html.
First, the liturgy of the church is not a lifeless artifact that came down from heaven on gold tablets never to change until the end of time. The liturgy of Christ’s church is a living organism and has grown and been pruned back throughout the centuries.
Looking at Holy Scripture, we are not given an explicit set of words, phrases or music to use. We only have little glimpses into what took place. To begin look at Genesis 3. An odd place to start being this is the chapter in which the fall into sin is recorded, but we also see in the details a wonderful picture of how Adam & Eve worshiped. Have you ever considered why it was that our first parents were anywhere near the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? The reason, I suggest, serves as a wonderful example of our worship today. Adam & Eve were at the very good Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to worship. That is to say, they were gathered at that tree to receive God’s Word of Life to them. Attached to that tree was God’s promise, “Do not eat lest you surely die.” In fear, love and trust of God, they believed completely that true and pure Word and by it they continued to receive life from God.
False worship then is any worship that perverts, even in the slightest, the Word given. “Did God really say?” Or, “Is what was given enough?” False worship redirects attention from the True God to an aberration of God, which usually is the worship of creation, namely the self.
This first example begins the perennial struggle found in the development of the liturgy of the church – who is it that we worship and why?
A distinctly clear example of a prescribed liturgy would have been that of Passover. The Gospel of God’s faithfulness in delivering His people from Egypt was given to the head of house to teach his children what happened that first Passover.
From the garden and Egypt we continue to see the worship of God develop in the sacrificial system of Israel as described in Leviticus. Rev. Dr. John Kleinig’s Concordia Commentary on Leviticus from CPH is excellent in unpacking the Tabernacle worship of Israel.
Looking in the Gospels, we see through little windows an establish ceremony which included particular prayers and Scripture (O.T.). This is seen in Zechariah entering the Holy Place to offer up prayers for the promised Messiah to come and to burn incense for the forgiveness of his and the peoples sins. [Irony: When Gabriel appeared and Zechariah questioned him on the coming Messiah and His forerunner, he was struck mute because he didn’t believe the prescribed prayers he was just praying that hour.]
There was a set lectionary (reading for a particular Sabbath). Jesus on one Sabbath entered the temple picked up the scroll of Isaiah read it and sat down to preach. The scroll was open to a particular place, because the scroll wasn’t like modern-day books. Great care was taken in rolling the scroll made of parchment wasn’t damaged. Also, it is worth noting that nothing is a matter of coincidence for Jesus. He knew what was going to be read that day. He knew it would be about Him, which could be said of every reading on any given Sabbath.
The use the Psalms was clearly established in Jesus’ day, too, as He and His disciples sang prescribed psalms follow the Passover the night of His betrayal, showing that the worship of Israel in the home was also ordered.
The liturgy of the Church did not develop in a vacuum, but is a daughter of the O.T. worship of Israel, which pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. In the N.T. the focus was still Jesus, but from a different vantage point. The proclamation of the Divine Service was now one of completed salvation through Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world. This gracious act and its continued deliver to God’s people throughout time and space is the center of the liturgy. This key point serves as the litmus test for any additions or subtraction. If it doesn’t direct our attention to Jesus and then deliver to us what He objectively did on the cross regardless of what I feel, think or do, then it is not to be added. It for those same reason subtracting something would direct our attention away from Jesus, then it is to be retained.
This all said, things can be added to the liturgy of the church, but it best be done in cooperation with the whole body of believers. This helps to prevent one congregation, one group, or one pastor from falling into a false confession with uncritical additions or subtractions to the church’s usual order of services as handed down from generation to generation.
What we have today in the Church’s liturgies is a pillar of the Gospel of Jesus around which baptized believers throughout time and space gather to fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith. The liturgy is that point at which we can know, that where the Word of God is taught and preached and the Sacraments administered as Jesus gave them, we are not alone, but surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses no one can number.
Rev. Dustin L. Anderson, Pastor
Zion Ev. Lutheran Church, Carlinville, IL