Preaching About Worship

Worship is at the heart of congregational life. Without so much as knowing the word liturgy, the people of God bring their praises and gifts, listen to the Word, are fed at the table, and are strengthened by each other's fellowship. Our congregational worship is good and pleasing to the Lord.

But at times it's healthy for a congregation to pause and think about worship. Why do we have a service of confession and why here in the order? Are prayer requests appropriate and edifying? Why did the council vote to increase the frequency of the Lord's Supper from five to twelve times a year?

Through a series of sermons on worship, the pulpit can be a powerful means for bringing these questions before the congregation and thereby making worship more intense and meaningful. The following texts and themes deal with some basic issues in worship and are offered as guidelines for biblically directed worship. A minister may either build the sermon around the major text(s) suggested or draw on a number of Scripture passages.

Week 1
O Come, Let Us Worship

Acts 2:14-47

Writers on worship are sometimes fond of explaining that the word worship comes from worth and scipe and originally meant "honoring" or "ascribing worth to" someone. That explanation is a fine lesson in lexicography and certainly helps to explain a major component of our worship. But one may well wonder how that definition includes the sermon on world hunger or the announcement in our Sunday bulletin about the pancake breakfast.

In this introductory sermon on worship we should attempt to deal with a more comprehensive definition of public worship. It is helpful io think of worship as a three-dimensional event or happening or communication:

  1. God speaks to his people and offers his gifts of instruction, nurture, and comfort through his Word and sacraments.
  2. The people respond to God with praise, confession, gifts, petitions, and obedience.
  3. The people respond to each other with encouragement and fellowship.

The Acts 2 passage encompasses much of this definition of worship:

  1. God speaks through Peter's sermon (a truly Ghristological message) and in the "sacraments" of baptism and breaking of bread.
  2. The people respond through their conversion, prayers, praise; by asking, "What shall we do?"; and by obediently giving their lives (and money!) to the Lord.
  3. 3. Fellowship (koinonia) is apparent in the miracles of the apostles, in the sharing of goods, and in the people's shared joy and life together.

(This passage is very rich in offering insight into the worshiping community. Even though I will suggest other texts for the rest of this sermon series, I recommend continued reference to this chapter.)

Hymns
All People That on Earth
Do Dwell
(HB 24, PH 100, RIL 120,TH 1)
It Is Good to Sing Your Praises
(HB 20, PH 171)
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
(HB 1,PH 253, RIL 145, TH 50)
When in Our Music God Is Glorified
(PH 512, RIL 508)

Week 2
Enter into His Courts with Praise

Psalm 96; Revelation 4 and 5

Although our worship is not exhausted by ascribing worth to God, that is nevertheless a chief component of worship. A quick trip through a concordance and a word study of praise and sing will demonstrate how pervasive our praise of God is and ought to be. The books of Psalms and Revelation are the mountaintops among the foothills of biblical praise. Temple worship and new-heaven-earth worship are our sight and sound videos that will inspire us in ascribing praise to God.

Psalm 96 is a glorious model of calling the congregation and all people and all creation to ascribe glory to the Lord. A study of this and other psalms and of the worship pattern in Revelation will demonstrate several praise motifs:

  1. We praise God for who he is. "Sing the glory of his name" (Ps. 66:2). "I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever" (Ps. 145:1). The name of the Lord, his holiness, his greatness, his lovingkindness are to be praised and honored and sung.
  2. We praise God for his great deeds.

    "Sing to the Lord …for he comes to judge the earth" (Ps. 98:1,9)- "You are worthy…because…with your blood you purchased [people] for God" (Rev. 5:9). God is worthy of our praise because he has provided shalom for his people in the past and will continue to do so.

  3. 3. Our praise involves singing, instruments, and movement.

Old Testament worship involved both trained choirs and the congregation. So, apparently, does heavenly worship. The psychedelic creatures of Revelation 4 "never stop singing" their chorus of "holy, holy, holy!" and they are joined by "ten thousand times ten thousand" (5:11) angels and by "every creature in heaven and on earth" (5:13). Choir and congregation join in resounding song.

Biblical instruments (see Ps. 150) include brass (trumpet), string (lyre), and percussion (cymbals) and apparently were used both to accompany the singers (Ps. 81:1-2) and to provide instrumental music (1 Chron.25:l).

Some kind of liturgical movement or dance was also part of Old Testament worship (Ps. 149:3), and in Revelation we read of the angels "encircling" the throne and of the elders falling down before the throne. Whole-hearted and whole-bodied worship!

Hymns
All Hail the Power of
Jesus' Name
(HB 132, PH 470, RIL 593, TH 218)
God Himself Is with Us
(HB 13, PH 244, TH 315)
Holy, Holy, Holy
(HB 11, PH 249, RIL 611, TH 87)
Sing to the Lord, Sing His Praise
(PH 96, TH 65)
You Are Worthy (PH 232)

Week 3
May Our Prayers Be Set before You

1 Kings 8:22-53

Prayer is both an intensely private experience and an expansive congregational, and even global, affair. Although prayer in public worship may at times degenerate into collective daydreaming, it ought to be a genuine meeting with the Lord.

Here one can include an explanation of the different kinds of public prayers. The familiar acronym ACTS is helpful: prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication are to be offered in our worship. These elements can be used to structure one prayer (the congregational prayer); they can also serve as the basis of separate prayers offered at different times in the service.

Many of the psalms-which often include the whole gamut of the psalmist's experience—are inspired and inspiring models for our prayers. Another Old Testament model for public prayer is Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8). Although this prayer was offered at a unique occasion, it reflects the ACTS model:

Adoration: vv. 23, 27 (and the first part of the chapter)
Confession: vv. 33-40; 46-51
Thanksgiving: vv. 23—24; 53
Supplication: vv. 28-30; 41-53;52-53

The book of Acts frequently describes the assemblies of the early Christians, and we nearly always find a reference to prayer. The gathering described in Acts 4:23-31 includes a prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and supplication. (And notice the "effect": "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" v. 31.)

Hymns
Father, I Adore You
(PH 284)
Lord God of Israel
(PH 159)
Lord, Teach Us How to Pray Aright
(RIL 261)
The Lord's Prayer
(PH 207, 208, 562, RIL 262)

Week 4
Preach the Good News

Nehemiah 8:1-12; Acts 8:26-39

The proclamation of the good news has always been at the core of (Reformed) worship. Even though proclamation involves response, also in our liturgical dialogue, in this sermon the emphasis is on God's Word of grace coming to his people.

The Nehemiah passage shows some of the dynamics of the Word being read and explained. In this reading at the Water Gate the explanation was apparently necessary because the Law was in a language the people no longer understood. Listeners today often find themselves in similar situations, where cultural and time barriers make the Word difficult for us to understand. The task of preachers is still the same: "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (v.8).

Again, when asked "Do you understand what you are reading?" modern parishioners may say with the Ethiopian eunuch, "How can I, unless someone explains it to me?" (Acts 8:30-31). Even though we have sophisticated theories of homiletics and communication, at a fundamental level the sermon remains the same: "Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus" (Acts 8:35).

The response of the listeners is an inspiration for both preachers and listeners today: First the Israelites cried as they listened to the law, but soon they "celebrated with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them" (Neh. 8: 12). And the Ethiopian asked: "Why shouldn't I be baptized?" (Acts 8:37), and then he "went on his way rejoicing" (v. 39). Now there's powerful preaching!

Hymns
Blessed Jesus at Your Word
(PH 280, TH 220)
Break Now the Bread of Life
(HB 250, PH 282, TH 256)
O Word of God Incarnate
(HB 251, PH 279, RIL 387, TH 267)
Teach Me, O Lord, Your
Way of Truth
(PH 276, TH 451)
Thanks to God Whose Word
Was Spoken
(PH 281, RIL 390)

Week 5
Breaking of Bread and Baptism

Luke 24:13—35; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

The sacraments are a more visible and tangible manifestation of grace. This sermon is not the place for a theology of the sacraments, but the old teaching that the sacraments are a "means of grace" or the insistence of the Belgic Confession (Art. 35) that the Lord's Supper is given for the nourishing of our spiritual lives can set the tone for the message.

When tracing the significance of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament, one finds two strains:

  1. An eating and drinking with the resurrected Lord, with an emphasis on the Lord's victory and ok his presence with his people. We find this emphasis in the Emmaus story and in the other episodes of the disciples eating with the risen Lord. The breaking of bread in Acts 2:42ff. suggests the same spirit.
  2. An eating and drinking with the Lord which focuses more on the suffering anddeath (1 Cor. 11:l7 ff).

In both strains we find the presence of the Lord and the es-chatological promise of "till he comes."

Baptism is also a multi-strained "means of grace." Through baptism we participate in Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5), and we are reclothed in Christ (Gal. 3:27). In this sermon, which focuses on baptism as part of worship, it may be good to stress initiation into the church—"for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism unites us with the worshiping congregation.

Hymns
Bread of the World in
Mercy Broken
(HB 445, PH 310, RIL 551, TH 358)
Come, Ye Disconsolate
(HB 373, PH 538, TH 518)
Father, We Give You Thanks,
Who Planted
(PH 314, RIL 55I)
I Come with Joy to Meet
My Lord
(PH 311, RIL 534)
We Know That Christ Is Raised
(PH 27l, RIL 528)

Week 6
Devoted to Fellowship

1 Corinthians 14:26—39

The previous sermons have (rightly) focused on the dialogue between God and his people. The picture of God speaking and acting in our worship and of the people receiving and responding represents a thoroughly biblical pattern. But worship is not only dialogue; it is also (if I may coin a word) "trialogue." God's people also speak to each other and respond among themselves.

This "trialogue" comes to expression in Paul's description of Corinthian worship. The participation of "everyone" involves response to God but also communication within the congregation. The instruction, revelation, and interpretation are for the building up of the community. Or again, the praying and prophesying (1 Cor. ll:2ff.) and the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:lff.) are largely within the context of public worship and are all "for the common good" (12:7).

Or if we return to the "fellowship" in Acts 2:42ff. once more, we find a model for Christian ministry in the context of worship. Some churches have koinonia groups; here is a sermon opportunity to explain the meaning of koinonia and to describe how fellowship is an integral part of and an outgrowth from worship. Here one can show that prayer requests about unemployment or illness, announcements of births or deaths, and potluck suppers are very appropriate as part of worship.

The main point is that even though worship is a "drawing apart" to commune with the Lord, it always remains a part of our everyday lives of work and play, of family and friends, of joys and sorrows. Worship is worship in community.

Hymns
Blest Be the Tie That Binds
(HB 473, PH 315, RIL 407, TH 285)
Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah
(PH 188, TH 105)
I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord
(HB 435, PH 510, RIL 409, TH 280)
In Christ There Is No East
or West (HB 479, PH 540, RIL 4I0)

Week 7
Righteousness Like a Never-Failing Stream

Amos 5:21-24; Luke 6:46-49

After six sermons on the glorious gifts of worship, Amos 5 comes like a bucket of cold water: the Lord rejects the worship of his people. We feel that chill even more if we translate Amos into our contemporary worship setting: "I despise your Christmas programs and Easter celebrations. I take no delight in your solemn communion services. Even though you give me offerings for missions, 1 will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your hymnals. To the melody of your organ and guitar I will not listen."

Why this harsh rejection? Because the people of Amos's day took God for granted and refused to show concern for their neighbors in need. They lived lives of decadent luxury, of conspicuous consumption, and neglected the poor in their communities.

And Christ repeats this judgment. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6: 46). Our saying "Lord, Lord!" during worship has to be matched during the week as we acknowledge that lordship in our lives.

Put positively, the Lord is asking for consistency between our worship and our daily lives. Our professions in public worship that "we love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves" must find tangible expression during the rest of the week. Do right for people and stick up for the defenseless ones.

If there is that kind of consistency, that kind of integrity in our worship, then God will indeed be pleased with both our offering of praise and with our offering of ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) throughout our lives.

Hymns
O Mighty Rulers,
Can You Claim
(PH 58)
What Does the Lord Require
(PH 293, RIL 176)
Whatsoever You Do to
the Heart of My People
(PH 210)
Where Cross the Crowded
Ways of Life
(HB 507, PH 602, RIL 482)

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.