Regaining the joy and gladness in our services
Each Sunday God's people gather to worship and praise God. We join our voices with myriads and myriads of angels singing praise to the risen and ascended Lord:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!
Our worship echoes the praise of the heavenly chorus and celebrates Christ's completed and continuing work for us.
Strangely enough, many of today's worshipers seem to close their eyes to the wonder and joy of singing with a choir of angels. These men and women find worship boring and irrelevant and are indifferent about participating.
Why such apathy? A variety of social, psychological, and moral hindrances to true worship prevent many of us from really sensing that we are one with the angel choir. Some people are annoyed by the overemphasis on the sermon, others by the sameness of the services. Some complain about the ugliness of the building, others about the ulterior motives of fellow worshipers. Some are turned off by the mood of the service, others by the morality of a fellow member.
Because of these and other barriers, too few of us are moved to gladness when we come to worship. The psalmist exclaimed, "I rejoiced with those who said to me, Tet us go to the house of the Lord.'" But this expression seems to have lost its forcefulness for many contemporary worshipers.
To regain the joy and gladness in our services we may need a better understanding of what worship is and how we can best bring praise to our mighty God.
Many writers speak about worship as a dialogue between God and his people; I prefer to think of it as conversation, a term that implies greater familiarity and intimacy. A dialogue too often involves the meeting of one mind with another mind; a conversation engages the whole person (mind, body, soul, spirit) with another whole person. When we carry on a conversation, we become animated and emotionally involved.
Worship is an intimate conversation between God and his people. However, the two partners in conversation are not equals. We worship him who is "the great God, the great King above all gods" (Ps. 95:3). He is the Holy One of Israel to whom the seraphim sing the majestic "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isa. 6: 3). In God's presence we must be awed and reverent, for we are his children, not his buddies.
Conversations with earthly fathers, though marked by respect, are still very real. They are loving, yet lively; deferential, yet delightful. So too should our conversation be with the One whom we address as "Our Father in heaven" and whose children we have become in Christ.
Our worship services, then, should be patterned on the model of a conversation between persons. God takes the initiative to call us to worship, and we respond in faith and song. God speaks and reveals to us his attributes and actions, and we reply with confession and thanksgiving. As another writer says, "Our orders of service should reflect the rhythm of divine awesomeness and human acknowledgement."
When we enter into God's presence for worship, we come celebrating his goodness and mercy. J.B. Phillips is reported to have told a company of soldiers in a service center in London that worship can be described as "three cheers for God." This earthy expression captures something of the celebrative mood of public worship.
We are celebrants because we come into the presence of God as redeemed sinners walking the way of sanctified living. The psalmist says that the person who "ascends the hill of the Lord" has "clean hands and a pure heart" and "does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false" (Ps. 24:3-4). Jesus also taught us that it is after we have reconciled broken relationships with others that we come to offer our gifts in worship (Matt. 5:23-24). Perfected worshipers are not to be found this side of glory, but if we want God to truly receive our worship, we must approach him as sanctified and reconciled sinners.
Our celebration always has at least three reference points—a look backward, a look at the present, and a look forward. Maybe that's why J.B. Phillips termed it "three cheers for God": one for what God has done, one for what he is doing, and one for what he will do. After all, our God is the one "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." We praise him for who he is and what he has done.
We look to the past. We celebrate the Creator, the one Whose word brought into being the heavens and the starry host (Ps. 33:6). Isaiah portrays the immeasurable power and wisdom of the Lord in the continuation of this world (Isa. 40:12). The creature praises and celebrates the Creator:
"You are worthy, our Lord and our God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being." (Rev. 4:11)
We also praise God for redeeming us. Old Testament worshipers were invited to "shout aloud to the rock of our salvation" (Ps. 95:1) and to remember and rejoice in the redeemer who delivered them from Egypt. New Testament worshipers look to the far greater victory over sin and death on the cross. We are awestruck by the obedience of Christ, the cross upon which he purchased our lives, the open tomb and risen Lord that secure our justification and give us hope for the future.
We look to the present. Our backward glance to God as Creator and Redeemer needs to be coupled with celebration of the present reality of his great work. Howard Hageman once said "the backward look soon grows pale if there are not also present realities to celebrate, continued experiences of joy and victory."
Whenever a young person in the congregation makes profession of faith, we should celebrate. When missionaries report on their work in Nigeria and on the many signs of God's Spirt at work, we should rejoice. When the social-action committee informs the congregation that eighteen young people are willing to devote their spring vacation to work among and with the poor of Appalachia, we should celebrate the Spirit's work through the young and among the needy. When the evangelism team tells a moving story about Sally's conversion last Thursday, we should all shout "Hallelujah!" God is still at work.
Most congregations in the Reformed tradition, however, are not well prepared to demonstrate such celebration. A spontaneous "Amen!" or "Praise the Lord!" is still rare in our services. Occasionally a congregation will clap after special music to show appreciation, but usually not as an act of worship in itself.
A few weeks ago I felt cheated because I was too inhibited to respond to a great act of God reported in worship. We were informed that a young woman had made a commitment to Christ during an evangelistic visit. The congregation sat in silence. Surely there is a time to be silent before God, but this was not it. Silent when God had moved a heart to seek him? Silent when the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents? At such a time the congregation should raise its voice in verbal acclamation or songs of praise, saying, "Amen, praise the Lord, the power of the evil one has been broken again!"
We look to the future. We not only celebrate past and present deeds of God but rejoice in his prospective deeds as well. Our risen Lord is our ascended King who occupies the throne on high and who will come again to give us the inheritance he has prepared for us (see 1 Pet. 1:3-5). With the early church we say "Maranatha" (Our Lord, Come) and he responds "Yes, I am coming soon" (Rev. 22:20).
In our singing, giving, working, and sacraments we live in the time between the times and anticipate the day when all things will be made new. Together we celebrate our hope for the future as well as our faith in the past and present.
Our conversation with God is not limited to hearing his Word and then celebrating with praise and thanksgiving. Everytime we meet for worship we are called to respond to God's call and to live holy lives before him. God calls us to respond with communal consecration and commitment. Some services, for example, follow the sermon with a "response to the Word." We respond with renewed dedication in the worship service and then leave with God's blessing and his promise that the Holy Spirit will help us live "a life made up of praise in every part."
"All life is worship" is a statement that has been heard in many Reformed and Calvinistic pulpits since the Reformation—a statement no one can or should deny. Worship is more than just the weekly public acts performed in the sanctuary. Zechariah prophesied that the birth of John the Baptist ushered in the day when God would "enable us to serve [worship] him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (Luke 1:74-75).
Paul strengthens this biblical teaching when he urges us in view of God's mercy to offer our bodies "as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship" (Rom. 12:1). In another place he writes, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).
Paul's words echo our Master's words to his followers: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).
Worship, then, is not only conversation with the Life-Giver and celebration of God's mighty acts of the past, present, and future but also the consecration of our lives in the service of the giver of life. In the sanctuary and on the streets, while painting and praying, in singing and sewing, let us seek first the kingdom of God.