Scriptures: 1 Chronicles 16:23-31; Psalm 29; Acts 2:41-47
Today we're going to begin a sermon series on worship, particularly Reformed worship. The first thing we want to do is introduce the concept of worship – why we worship, what is worship.
Most people – even those who worship in a church regularly – don't understand what worship is really about. For us to understand our own worship, we need to understand:
Why do we worship, and why is it important?
What is worship (its purposes and focus)?
(Because we're Presbyterian) the development of Reformed worship
What are the elements of Reformed worship?
There are things that make Reformed worship different, and it's not just that we say debts and debtors in the Lord's Prayer, instead of “those who sin against us.”
It's important because we need to know how to worship God. A.W. Tozer said, “Worship is the missing jewel of the church.” Someone else once said, “We have become a generation of people who worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” I want to say that one again. “We have become a generation of people who worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” That's not the right order of doing things.
Why do we worship? We need to consider that. Primarily, one would hope it's because we love God. If we don't love God, there really is no point in worshiping Him. Even when it talks about fearing the Lord in the Scriptures, it's talking about an awe and a reverence, not a terror where we cower. We come before God, we come into the presence of God, to give Him praise, because we love Him.
It's our primary purpose in life. I've quoted this many times, the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 1: “What is the chief end [or purpose] of humankind?” The answer is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” There are two parts there – glorifying God, which we do in worship, and enjoying Him, which we also hopefully do in worship, as we are together.
He is worthy of it, both because of who He is and because of what He has done. As the liturgist mentioned, in 1 Chronicles 16 we see that this is talking about things that He has done, primarily for the people of Israel. He's talking to political nations and groups, saying, “Praise the Lord. Proclaim His salvation day after day.” The Lord saved Israel so often.
“Declare His glory and His marvelous deeds among all people. For great is the Lord and most worship of praise. He is to be feared above all gods, for all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” God is the only true god. “Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and joy in His dwelling place.”
You see all of these superlatives about God, letting us know just how mighty He is, just how strong He is, just how sovereign He is. It even mentions, “Let them say among the nations, the Lord reigns,” at the end of verse 31. It tells us to bring an offering and come before Him, to worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness.
The root meaning of “holy,” as I'm fond of saying, is “separate” or “other,” in both Hebrew and Greek. God is Other. There is no one like Him. God is separate. He has chosen, though, to be among His people. He didn't need to. He doesn't need us. He wants us, because He loves us. That's why we worship. It's a relationship of love.
What is worship? In the book What Language Shall I Borrow? the author makes the following points. There is a great division in worship today between worship that is primarily expressive or emotive, and usually evangelistic, and worship that is primarily formative, more formal, and focused on edification – that is, teaching.
Expressive worship is focused on the worshiper – relevance and being “where they are at” and “do we feel it?” A perfect example of that is what they call “seeker services,” made specifically for folks that do not know the church, do not know the message of the gospel, perhaps, or experiencing it for the first time. They want to draw the people in.
Formative worship is focused on growth, discipleship, and sanctification, and it is often exhortational. Any coach could tell you what exhortational means. A coach exhorts the players to do better, to be more, to fulfill their potential. Oftentimes, particularly in football, the halftime talk is famous for that. The coach tells the players the mistakes they made and how to change it and move on past it.
But notice that that's focused primarily on somebody who already knows Christ. And one of the issues that we come upon is whether to use “traditional” worship language, or to try to “dumb it down” for any visitors, rather than inviting them to learn it with you. There are many who would come to our church who would be confused by what is a “prayer of confession.” They don't normally do that in Baptist churches, for instance, not like we do.
There are many who would be unfamiliar with “affirmation of faith,” particularly in terms of using the Apostles Creed. Most people are somewhat familiar with the Apostles Creed, across different denominations – despite the fact that the most ecumenical creed is the Nicene Creed. Most people don't know that one. So when they see this Affirmation of Faith in the bulletin, they might be scratching their heads – what is that? The question is then, do we take those out, to make those who don't know them more comfortable, or rather, do we tell them what it means, and invite them to join in with us?
Let me give you some of my thoughts. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes: “Worship is the human response to the divine initiative. … Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.” What I like about that is it's responsive. God loved us first. We love Him back. God saved us. We celebrate. God blesses us and provides for us. We give thanks. There's a relationship involved.
I have to admit, I'm more on the formative worship side than the expressive worship side – but then, I'm Presbyterian. But the fact is, in many ways, worship is really for believers, not for nonbelievers. If you don't have a relationship with God, how can you worship God? This doesn't mean we shouldn't have evangelism. We should. And in fact, as I'll mention in a little bit, the early church, in the days of the apostles, actually split their service time, if you will – which, by the way, was a lot longer than an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes.
Worship should allow us to:
Come into the presence of God
Hear from God
Strengthen us in our faith and practice
We experience those things in different ways. For some of us, it's more through music. For some of us, it might be more through the prayers. For some of us, it's through the reading of the Scriptures. And for some of us, it's through the preaching of the Word.
Sometimes we might not feel the presence of God. Sometimes we might not seem to hear from God. That's OK. I give the example of my wife Pauline. There's been a time when she has expressed feeling inadequate, because she doesn't feel God during worship, because she has never had one of those personal experiences of Christ that we talk about.
I've had times in my past where I was so sure Christ was present that if I'd just reached out, I could have put my hand on his shoulder – even if there was nothing there. There have been times when I know I have been filled with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit has been moving through me. Most of those times have been in my singing, but occasionally, rarely, through my preaching as well. I tell people, you feel like a candle has been turned into a blowtorch. Then you're just gutted afterward. You're just drained. It's a hard feeling, but at the same time it's an exultant feeling. I feel like I've just touched the face of God.
But I tell Pauline that I admire her faith more. Because even without feeling it, her faith is as strong – or stronger, I believe – than mine. My faith isn't strong enough to go without that. I cling to those moments when I have felt Christ, when I have experienced the baptism of the Spirit, if you will. Those are the things that I hold onto and remember when I hit a dry time.
It amazes me that someone who hasn't felt those can continue to be so rock-solid in their faith. Of course, Jesus himself told us, “Blessed are those who see and believe, but more blessed are those who have not seen and believe.” The hand of God is even more upon them. So don't feel lesser because you haven't had that exciting personal of Christ as right there with us.
But I hope that you will feel the presence of God in various portions of worship, whether it be in the hymns, and the music that is played, whether it be in the prayers which are chosen carefully for the liturgy, whether it be in the preaching, or the sacraments, when we have Communion. We want you to experience the presence of God. Because God is here.
And we have been called to be together. There is private worship. There is individual worship. We see that in the Scriptures, with God's people, the Jews. They had nine psalms that they were supposed to repeat through the day, every day, certain prayers they were supposed to say. And when they gave offerings, they did that individually, or as a family. I really don't think that on a Saturday they would all queue up in line with their goats and their cows and their doves, waiting their turn. No, they did that on their own, as they came in.
But from the beginning, God called His people to gather together. They had an assembly of the people. Even the early name for the church, eklesia, means “called out.” We've been called out to be God's people. We're a community. We're not meant to be alone. In the early church, the community was paramount. They were always together, as the liturgist noted.
Every single day, they went into the temple. They had services, if you will, at the temple, where they would have the “seeker service.” They would have the preaching. Peter would talk about “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. You can only be saved by the name of Jesus Christ, so accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” (I just did a very poor summary of his sermon in Acts 2. I won't convert three thousand people. But he did.)
Then those who came to believe were baptized, and those who were baptized and became members of the believing community then went apart from that service, and they spent time eating together and praying together. That's when they would have Communion. They didn't have it with the big crowd. They had it with the believers. That's when they had teaching.
Their catechism, by the way, took three years to get through, so by the time they became functioning leaders in the church, if you will, they knew very well what they believed and why. We don't know that from Scripture specifically, but there are a number of secondary writings that we know were used by the apostles. One of them is called the Didache, which means Teachings, and it describes some of the things that they would teach about, and the time frame for them.
They had the offering on their own. Did you know the offering is really only for members of the church? Because we're the ones thanking God for His blessings. I have been at a church that I visited, where they actually said, as they passed the plate, “If you are a visitor, or someone who doesn't know Christ, do not feel obligated to put anything in the plate, because this is the opportunity for the family of God to support the work of God in this community.” It's a pretty impressive thought, certainly not what we would think of today.
The church services then formed even more during the Patristic Age, the time of the Church Fathers, and the order of service as we know it was developed during that period, from about 150-400 AD. They had liturgy, they had prayers, they had creeds.
But by the time of the Reformation, most of the people did not know what they were saying or doing. It was in Latin, and no one spoke Latin anymore. It was all rote – that is, memorized, and people really didn't think about what they were saying. The priest would say something and they would say something back.
I actually saw some of this in action when I was in South America, visiting with my friend in grad school over a Christmas break. There was an outdoor service, and I was sitting next to the family members. There were probably 150 to 200 people there. The priest would say something, and everybody would respond, mumbling in some cases. But there were no bulletins, no Bibles, no hymnals with responses. Nothing. They just knew it. The priest would say something. They would respond back. Unfortunately I don't know if it was Spanish or Latin because I don't know either of them.
In the Reformation, they wanted to get away from that, because they felt that if people can't understand God's Word, they can't understand God. So they made an emphasis on the preaching, and on using the vernacular – that is, the common language. No more Latin. No more Greek or Hebrew even. They put it in German, or French, or English – the language of the people, so that they could actually think about what they were saying.
Today, we maintain traditional forms, without being rigid, but we do keep within certain boundaries. After all, we Presbyterians love to do things decently and in order. Paul mentioned it in one of his letters, and we took it to heart. It's in our Book of Order, in the first section in the preamble.
So if we have boundaries that we have set, and if we have ways that we do things, what are the elements of Reformed worship? If you look at your bulletin, we have the Gathering of the People. It is focused on the community, the invitation and preparation. That's why we have Call to Worship. That's why I tell people to prepare their hearts and minds for worship as we listen to the prelude.
It's a time of getting ready and getting together. Oftentimes, in churches that do it, this is where they have the passing of the peace, where they shake hands with each other and say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and the answer is “And also with you.” So we get together.
The second element is the Hearing of the Word. That is where the Scripture is sung, read, preached, and taught to listeners. This doesn't mean it's the only time it is done or the only time it should be done. You should be having Bible studies, Sunday School, small groups, that you are a part of, so that you can learn the Word.
You should be studying on your own in your devotional time as well. (Though I admit I have already failed in one of my New Year's resolutions. I signed up on a Bible app on my phone, to read the Bible in one year. And I'm already three days behind.) So you hear the Word.
Then the third part is Responding to the Word. Having heard the good news and being encouraged in our faith, we respond to that as joyful disciples. That's where we have Communion and baptism and ordination and installation of officers. That's where we have the offering, in response to God. That's where we have the Prayers of the People, asking for intercession by God for people.
There's where, if we had this sort of thing, we would have testimonials of God's blessing or activity, and I would love to see that – a minute of testimony, if you will. I'm not talking about sharing how you became a Christian – that would be fine, but that's not what it's about. I was in a VBS once as a leader, and they talked about “God-sightings” to the kids. Where are times and places where you have seen God at work? Not necessarily in your own life – it could be in somebody else's life.
Sharing where God is at work, so that everybody is encouraged. Because especially in this culture, with the COVID pandemic and all the wars and the negative culture we have, it is so easy to look down and see darkness, and feel like God has forsaken us. But He hasn't, and we can help each other as we share those moments.
Last is Taking the Word into the World – which is not in your bulletin, and that's OK – that's where we would have Moments for Mission. My son Al just went on a short-term mission trip, and I'm hoping at some point we'll be able to invite him to give a talk – not during the worship service, though it depends on how long it is, I suppose – you probably wouldn't mind if he replaced my preaching for one day – sharing with you folks, who did a lot to help him get there, what it meant to him and what he experienced and how God worked. That's where you might have testimonials of evangelism and outreach. That's where you would share about coming to know Christ.
Finally, we finish the service with the Charge and the Benediction. The Charge is important. I know I say the same thing almost every week, but it's important. Because what I'm doing is, on behalf of God, I am telling you – I'm not asking you – I am telling you to carry the light of Christ into the world, to do what God has called you to do as disciples, to not be just sitting on your pew. Then I give the Benediction to bless those efforts, and remind you of God's love and His presence with you – Immanuel, God with us.
So as we go through this sermon series in the coming weeks and we talk about these elements of worship in greater detail, then we will hopefully come to a greater understanding of what worship is for us, why we worship – so that you know, for yourself, why you come, and why you should come.
I hope, by the end of this time, that it is not because it's your duty, that it's not because that's the only time you see so-and-so, but it's because of your personal relationship with God that you want to enjoy and experience with others who have the same kind of relationship. And through all that, then together we can give God praise and glory in our times of worship.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.