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A Note on the Nature of Worship

 

Hebrews 10:19-25    1 Chronicles 15:25 -28      Luke 4:16-21

 

What is the one church-activity that is duplicated nowhere else in the society? It’s worship, of course. Everything else the church does, and should do, other people and organizations do too. We feed the hungry; and so does Daily Bread Foodbank. We visit the imprisoned; and so does the John Howard Society. We assist the ill; and so does the Heart and Stroke Society. But no social organization overlaps the church in the church’s activity of worship. Since worship is the activity that characterizes God’s people, it’s important that we understand what worship is and why we do it.

It’s important to understand worship for another reason: people can’t be expected to do something over and over, 4,000 times in their lifetime (80 years times 50 times per year), without understanding what they are doing.   Either people come to some understanding of worship, however rudimentary, or they give up on it.

It’s important to understand worship for yet another reason: I’m convinced that if we don’t worship, don’t understand what we are about at worship, we shall soon abandon all the other aspects of the church’s mission. Unless we are re-oriented weekly (at least) to him who is the truth and reality of us and our world, we shall lose interest in assisting the ill and feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned.

At the same time, I’ve learned that even those who have come to church for years appear perplexed about what we do, why we do it, and why we employ words and gestures that we employ nowhere else. Today’s sermon gathers up the most frequently asked questions that have been brought to me or that I have overheard.

 

I: — WHAT IS WORSHIP?

Worship is our acknowledgement of God’s worth-ship. God is worthy; enduringly worthy. He hasn’t been worthy once only; he is eternally worth. He is worth worshipping on account of his undiminished, unceasing worthiness.

If God is worthy, how worthy is he? Paul exclaims, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” If there’s incomparable worth in knowing Jesus Christ, it can only be because he, God-Incarnate among us, is first incomparably worthy himself.

John the Baptist said he wasn’t worthy to bend down and untie the Master’s shoes (the work of a slave). John wasn’t worthy so much as to do the work of a slave? Don’t pity John on the grounds that he had low self-esteem. John never suffered from lack of self-confidence. John the Baptist simply knew himself unworthy alongside, compared to, the surpassing worth of Jesus Christ.

When the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos he was genuinely exiled: however much he longed to go home to Palestine he couldn’t. But John was never “exiled” in his heart; he was never without the heart’s true home. So far from languishing in misery on the island of Patmos, so far from despairing of himself, his situation, the world, even God, he cried out, in the midst of his most vivid vision, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne…thousands and thousands saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.’“

Worship is the acknowledgement of God’s worth-ship. His worth-ship is his never-ending worthiness. To worship, finally, is simply to admit that God is GOD. There is nothing like him and nothing else beside him. God alone is GOD.

 

II: — WHY DO WE WORSHIP?

How can we not worship if God is GOD? If we are grasped by anything of God’s immensity, God’s inexhaustibility, God’s sheer Godness, how can we not fall on our faces before him?

Please note that utilitarian benefit isn’t a motive for worshipping God. We don’t worship God because “paying our dues” on Sunday morning will get us something later in the week that we need and can get in no other way. To worship in order to get something; to come to church in a utilitarian spirit, is to demean God. We don’t worship because we regard God as useful. I find my barber useful, and therefore I go to my barber whenever I need my hair cut. But I don’t worship my barber; I use him. We worship God not because he’s an animated tool; we worship him just because he is who he is: GOD.

And yet while we don’t worship God for what he can do to advance our ‘selfist’ agendas, we worship himfor what he has done for us in accord with his agenda. He has created us. (He didn’t have to.) He bore with his recalcitrant people for centuries (despite unspeakable frustration) as he awaited the fitting moment for visiting us in his Son. He incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth, thereby submitting himself to shocking treatment at the hands of the people he came to rescue. In the cross he tasted the profoundest self-alienation, as the penalty his just judgement assigned for sin he bore himself, therein sparing us condemnation. He has bound himself to his church and to the world even though the world’s sin and the church’s betrayal grieve him more than we can guess. He has promised never to fail or forsake us regardless of how often we let him down. Surely to grasp all of this is to see that we owe him everything; it’s to have gratitude swell within us until we have to express it; it’s to have thanksgiving sing inside us until we have to sing it out of us. We worship as our grasp of what God has done and continues to do impels us to worship.

God feeds us like a nursing mother (says the prophet Isaiah); God forgives us like a merciful father; he is saviour of sinners and comforter of the afflicted and vindicator of the victimized. Then of course we want to worship him for what he has done for us and continues to do for us of his own free grace.

Grace. When Peter speaks of the grace of God he uses the Greek word poikilos. Poikilos means variegated, variegated with respect to colour. To speak of something as poikilos is to speak of it as diversely coloured. God’s grace is diversely coloured? Peter can only mean that God’s grace is many-splendoured. As diverse as the predicaments of life are, God’s grace meets us in all of them; his grace appears with a different hue, a slightly different shade, as our predicaments change. His grace is many-splendoured. Regardless of our predicament, be it perplexity, pain, rejection, sin, disappointment, folly, his grace is many-splendoured — and we can only adore him for it.

And yet even as we worship God initially on account of what he has done and continues to do, we worship him ultimately on account of who he is in himself . God is immense. God is eternal. God is underived. God is indivisibly simple. God is immeasurable; that is, his centre is everywhere and his circumference is nowhere. God alone has life in himself and alone lends life to anyone else. God forever moves amidst all that he has created even as he towers infinitely above all that he has created. God is holy; that is, he is uniquely, irreducibly, uncompromisingly, inalienably GOD. We worship God ultimately as our apprehension of him overwhelms us and we can only prostrate ourselves before him.

I think that Martin Luther more than anyone else was moved at the grace and mercy, the condescension and compassion of God, the self-humbling and self-humiliation of God. I think that John Calvin more than anyone else was overwhelmed at the sheer Godness of God. I think that Jonathan Edwards more than anyone else was startled at the unsurpassable “excellence” of God, as he put it in his idiosyncratic way; the profoundest attractiveness of God, winsome, compelling “beauty” of God. In other words, Luther was moved above others at what God has done for us; Calvin at who God is in himself; Edwards at the magnetism of it all. All three men could only worship as often as they reflected upon God.

III: — WHY DO WE EMPLOY UNUSUAL EXPRESSIONS?

The shortest answer to this question is, “Because the language of worship is love-language; because the physical gestures of worship are love-gestures.”   Think of love-language. When I was a child I noticed two things about my parents that my child’s mind didn’t connect. (i) My parents loved each other ardently and were unselfconsciously affectionate with each other, physically affectionate, in front of us children. (ii) They used peculiar verbal expressions to express their ardent affection, verbal expressions that made no sense to me. Because these verbal expressions made no sense to me, and because they couldn’t be found in a dictionary (that is, they weren’t English words), I assumed they made no sense to my parents. But of course these expressions of endearment

made perfect sense to my parents. Love-language isn’t found in a dictionary. Terms of endearment make no sense to the public, yet are indispensable to people whose hearts are aflame.

Years later, when I had fallen in love, Maureen and I daily used expressions that would have been nonsensical to others — if others had been allowed to hear them — even as these expressions made perfect sense to us just because they bespoke an ardour that no dictionary word could approach.

In the same way the physical gestures of worship make no sense to those outside faith, even as they make perfect sense to those inside.

Not so long ago at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland I saw a woman approach a statue of Jesus and kiss the statue’s feet. To an unbeliever what the woman did was silly, superstitious and unsanitary. But not to her. For on the Sunday morning that I saw her, her heart was one with the heart of a woman, centuries ago, who had kissed the feet of Jesus out of gratitude for relief from a stain that was otherwise indelible.

Of course the language of worship is unusual. Isn’t our Lord unusual? Of course the vocabulary and the gestures of worship are out of the ordinary. Isn’t our salvation extraordinary?

Think about the expression, often used in hymns or liturgy, “holy, holy, holy”. It so happens that in Hebrew grammar there is neither comparative nor superlative of adjectives and adverbs. In English we say, “Apple pie is good; apple pie with ice cream is better; apple pie with ice cream and cinnamon is best.” But in Hebrew we have to say, “Apple pie is good; with ice cream, good good; with ice cream and cinnamon, good good good.” To say, “holy, holy, holy”, is to say that God is holiest; and even then, not so much the holiest of much that is holy but rather uniquely holy, incomparably holy, holy beyond telling, beyond comprehending.

The language and gestures of worship are unusual just because our love for God is oceans deeper than everyday words and gestures suggest. Commonplace expressions will never do justice to our love for him, our gratitude to him, our delight in him.

You show me the husband and wife whose household vocabulary doesn’t contain unusual terms of endearment found in no dictionary and I’ll show you a couple whose love for each other has

petrified — if ever love there was. On the other hand, to know ourselves the beneficiaries of God’s salvation (i.e., to know that only God’s mercy but certainly God’s mercy has spared us ultimate loss) is to be soaked in a gratitude that fires love, a love that seeks to express what is finally inexpressible. As soon as we attempt to express the inexpressible, customary expressions fail us and we use expressions that strike unbelievers as bizarre. Our unusual language doesn’t mean that we have a stunted vocabulary; it means that our language, rich as it is, is finally inadequate for our love for our Lord.

 

IV: — WHY DO WE WORSHIP TOGETHER?

This is a fitting question, since the emphasis in worship is always on togetherness even though faith is an individual act. Martin Luther used to say, “Each person must do his own believing, just as each person must do his own dying.” Nobody else can exercise faith for me. In the same way I can’t believe for someone else. We must each do our own believing. Scripture makes plain that while God loves a people he speaks only to individuals. Since God speaks only to the individual, only the individual can respond. Since only the individual can respond, why do we worship together? We worship together because God ultimately seeks a people for himself. The Hebrew bible speaks quaintly of “God’s peculiar treasure”. God’s peculiar treasure is a people that lives for the praise of God’s glory.

We must always remember that to come to faith in Jesus Christ (something that only the individual can do) is by that fact to be added to the body of Christ (a corporate entity). God seeks a people that witnesses to his intention for the creation before the Fall made a mess of things; namely, an earth populated by a holy people. In the wake of the Fall the earth is populated by unholy sinners. Every time we gather together for worship we attest God’s purpose: an earth peopled by a holy people.

There are 188 images or pictures of the church in the New Testament. The major image is that of a body, a living organism, the body of Christ. A body functions only as there are many different

“members” (to use Paul’s word) and as these members are related internally. A detached leg, a detached arm, a detached torso (hideous to contemplate) not one of these is a body. And even if leg, arm and torso are attached to one another but are related externally, then we don’t have a body: we have a puppet. A puppet consists of many parts, all of which are related externally. A body is present only when there are many members and these are related internally. Only then is it a living organism.

Every time we worship together, worship corporately, we hold up this truth. God so insists on a public declaration of this truth that he has promised blessings to public worship that will never be granted to private worship alone, however essential private worship may be.

 

V: — WHY DO WE DO WHAT WE DO AT WORSHIP?

What exactly do we do? Principally we do three things: we sing, we preach (or listen to preaching)[1] and we pray. Why these?

 

(i) We sing because singing provides a vehicle for our praise surpassing the vehicle of mere saying. People who are elated break into song spontaneously. Singing out loud comes naturally to those whose hearts are singing.

In worship we sing hymns; hymns are poetry; worship-singing, then, is the singing of poetry. Now poetry embodies an intensity, a compression (poetic expression is far more compressed than prose), a passion that mere prose will never embody. The singing of poetry, then, is the ultimate vehicle of praise. If our praise to God were anaemic we wouldn’t need to sing at all; mumbling would do. But just because our praise is boundless our praise has to be sung, and sung with the intensity and compression and passion of poetry.

(ii) Why do we preach (and listen)? Preaching is necessary for one reason: only God can acquaint us with himself. Only God can acquaint us with himself and inform us of himself and form us after himself. God does just this as his Word written is expounded in worship.

To be sure, preaching is a human activity. However it’s precisely a human utterance that God has promised to take up and adopt and render his own utterance. As God renders human utterance his own utterance God renders human speech about him his own speech about himself; and as we are quickened to hear God’s own speech about himself we find that his speech about himself is his word addressed to us. Now we know ourselves addressed as God speaks a word to us concerning himself that we would never be able to hear elsewhere or elsehow.

Preaching is a human event that God’s grace renders God’s event for us as the preacher’s word is forgotten and God’s self-utterance, the gospel, seizes us and sears itself upon us. For this reason preaching is found in worship.

 

(iii) The third thing we do in worship is pray. We pray because we are beggars before God. We pray because we know that what we need desperately God gives uniquely.

John Calvin was fond of saying, “Prayer is the chief exercise of religion”. Prayer is the chief exercise of religion in that it is our final self-humbling before God as we admit that we are so very needy and he is so very generous. Prayer is the final declaration of whether we believe in God and what we believe about God. Then pray we must whenever we worship, for we aren’t so foolish as to pretend we aren’t needy; neither are we so unbelieving as to think that God is stingy.

I said we do three things principally at worship. Actually there’s a fourth: we bring money. And why do we bring money? Don’t say “Because the congregation has to meet operating expenses”, although of course the congregation must. We bring money for a profounder reason. Jesus says we can’t worship God and mammon. According to our Lord there are two rival powers in the cosmos: God and mammon. We bring money to worship – enough money to constitute a sacrifice – as a sign that money is a broken power in our lives. We may possess it, but it doesn’t possess us. Our weekly offering – a crucial aspect of our worship – is a sign that money is a broken power in our lives.

 

VI: — WHO WORSHIPS?

This question can be answered briefly. The church militant worships (we who are Christ’s soldiers and servants now); and the church triumphant worships too (our foreparents who have died in the faith, for whom faith has given way to sight.) The church militant and the church triumphant worship as one.

Years ago an elderly French priest was walking home from church, one Sunday morning, when several youths began taunting him. The youths knew that very few people had been to the village church that morning. They smirked as they said to the old priest, “How many were at mass this morning, father, how many?”

“Millions”, said the old man, “there were millions at worship today.”

“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne thousands and thousands saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.” (Revelation 5:11)

                  Victor Shepherd  

July 2007