Worship in a Beatitude-shaped World

Learning from Psalm 73

Have you ever been in a ­worship service where the ­spoken, sung, or visual message was transformational? You leave convicted that the old way of doing, believing, or speaking was wrong and it is replaced with a new way. Such was the experience of the writer of Psalm 73.

In this article John Witvliet explores Psalm 73 and what it might teach us about worship today—and how it might provide an example for future issues of Reformed Worship. —JB

Once upon a time, an ancient Israelite who was part of the circle of God’s children (Ps. 73:15) started to think that a lifetime of piety and ritual purity was utter vanity (vv. 13-14). Contrary to one of the Psalter’s main themes (see Psalm 1), the righteous did not seem to flourish, but the godless did (vv. 3-12). People outside the community of faith seemed happier than those inside. Trying to figure this out is still, as it was then, a troubling task (v. 16).

But then one day the psalmist’s “heart was grieved” (v. 21) and this Israelite was guided by God (v. 24) to perceive the world more truly. Contrary to popular opinion, godliness is the true way of blessing. While it may seem wise to some to keep God at a distance, true blessing comes from being “near God” (v. 28). Truly our hearts are restless until they rest in God. What a remarkable conversion of perspective! That’s the kind of conversion each of us needs to experience again and again.

Public worship is a superb way to practice not being the center of the universe and learn to see the world right-side up.

For those of us who are celebrating this one hundredth issue of Reformed Worship, its twenty-fifth anniversary, it is important to note that the psalmist’s conversion of perspective happened during worship, “in the sanctuary” (v. 17). We have no idea exactly what that life-changing moment looked like. Perhaps it happened during a sacrifice of praise, a gripping psalm, a priestly blessing, or even at the sight of other worshipers. Perhaps the psalmist heard God’s voice speaking dramatically or perhaps he quietly sensed being held by God’s everlasting arms. We will never know.

But we do know—both by God’s promise and by our own experience—that these kinds of conversions still happen today. Word, font, and table are still “means of grace.” They don’t produce this change automatically or by themselves, of course, and they are not the only means that the Holy Spirit uses to shape and mold us. But because we do these things in response to the life-giving commands of Scripture, we can trust that doing them faithfully is an act of walking in step with the Holy Spirit.

Public worship, then as now, is a superb way to practice notbeing the center of the universe and learn to see the world right-side up. Worship is, by the Spirit’s power, like spiritual cataract surgery that restores vision, clear and true.

Psalm 73 and Reformed Worship

The drama of Psalm 73 points to so much of what I have come appreciate in Reformed Worship over the years. When I pick up RW,

I join a conversation of people who

  • desire to worship God, not to worship worship.
  • realize that we don’t engineer the spiritual value of worship but receive it as a gift.
  • realize that—by the Spirit’s power—worship is formative, not merely expressive; it changes our perspective, shapes our desires, corrects our vision.
  • long for the Holy Spirit to work through our preaching and praying, tasting and seeing, to convert and sanctify us.
  • are convinced that worship at its best immerses us in a countercultural world that fits the second rather than the first half of Psalm 73.

Psalm 73 also sets us on a promising trajectoryfor the future. There are many more voices in the worship conversation today than there were twenty-five years ago when RWbegan. There are probably fifty times more books in print about public worship today than there were twenty-five years ago, in addition to hundreds of online resources. This is something to celebrate! But along with many good partners and fellow-learners, there are also voices in this conversation that, though well-meaning, invite us to

  • think of ourselves as spiritual engineers.
  • lead worship that reinforces narcissism rather than challenging it.
  • shy away from naming the folly of life apart from God.
  • hold back from telling all of God’s wonderful deeds (v. 28).

Over against these voices, Psalm 73 is not merely a warm testimony but a life-giving prophetic warning. It calls us to plan and lead worship that fits the “paths of the godly,” that walks in step with the Spirit.

Indeed, one constructive question for each of us to ask in our local congregations is this: Do our worship services help us move from the first to the second half of Psalm 73, from envy to delight, from restlessness to rest in God—or would the Holy Spirit have to override what we are doing to get that message through?

Psalm 73 and How to Use Reformed Worship

Perhaps this vision also suggests an important way to use Reformed Worship. According to reader surveys, one of the most appreciated aspects of RWis its practical resources—especially when time for planning is tight. I wholeheartedly concur!

But RWalso offers something more—something we would miss if we only see it as a quick-fix solution to last-minute planning challenges. At its best, RWoffers us a countercultural immersion experience. It helps pull those of us who plan and lead services back into the second half of Psalm 73, into a Beatitude-shaped world where true blessing awaits those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart (Ps. 73:1).

Perhaps we should print the Beatitudes in the front cover of each issue, along with the prayer, “May this vision come alive in these pages.”

Next time you pick up RW, consider reading the Beatitudes or Psalm 73 first, and then as you work your way through the magazine, offer thanks for every sentence that points you in the direction of “being near to God.”

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 100 © June 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.