Scriptures: Joel 2:11-17; Psalm 100; Heb. 10:19-25
Reformed Worship: Gathering for the Word
We are continuing in our sermon series on the elements of Reformed worship. Last week, to sum it up, we saw that we were made for worship, God is worthy of worship, and we will worship something – if not God, then something else in this world. Worship means keeping our focus on God, and we do that, hopefully, throughout our entire living.
However we are also called specifically to worship the Lord in a gathered community. We saw that last week in the passage in Acts and how they stayed in community. This week we see it in all three passages. In Joel, God Himself calls the people to “solemn assembly.” During that assembly, they are to do certain things and have certain attitude adjustments.
In Hebrews, we see the author encouraging the listener to live out his faith in a God-honoring way, and that part of that is regular attendance at the worship services. It seems to me that the concept of casual Christianity and part-time membership must not be new, when we read that Scripture.
Doing stuff for the church outside of worship is important, and will be covered more in depth when we get to the week on sending into the world and missions. However, Scripture makes it clear that you cannot persevere in your faith and practice without regular participation in the life of the faith community - in other words, worship.
There are those who are “Lone Ranger Christians,” as I call them. One of them is a really good friend of mine. I've been trying for over thirty years to get him into church. The only time he did come was at my wedding, and he set foot across the threshold and looked up like he thought lightning was going to strike him. He very firmly believes that you don't need to go to church or worship in church to be a Christian.
I have to agree. You don't need to go to church to be a Christian. Your Christianity depends on your salvation, which depends on your relationship with Jesus Christ. However, if you want to be a good witness and you want to grow in your faith, if you want to make progress in that race that Paul talks about, then you need to spend time with the community in worship.
So if we are to worship together, how shall we gather? And what shall we do once we are here? Our passages today, especially Psalm 100, give us some idea. We are talking, by the way, about the part of your bulletin that says “Gathering of the People.”
As noted earlier from Joel, we can see that God calls us to gather. In the passage He declares a solemn assembly of the people to worship Him. The way the nation of Israel did that was by the blowing the shofar, which is a giant ram’s horn. The call to worship would sound something like this:
Click here to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb0A_cPlHlk
(It's amazing that that pure sound can come out of that curly ram's horn.) At the sounding of the horn, the people were to set their hearts and minds in a particular frame or attitude, and then approach the place of worship. That was their literal call to worship, to assembly.
Churches used to have belfries, with bells. A lot of times, the call to worship was that the bells would start ringing. Some of them even had carillons. Admittedly, those carillons, at least the ones I know of, would play throughout the various days of the week. But when it played Sunday morning at 9:00, or 10:00, or 11:00, whenever your service was, that was a call to everyone, that you need to stop talking in the parking lot and head into church. If you hear it and you're still on your way, you know that you're running really close to the line.
Joel tells us we need contrite hearts, and minds ready to receive the word of God. The psalm tells the people to have thankful hearts and give praise to the Creator. So we want to have, as our frame of mind or attitude, then, one which is contrite, thankful, and ready to praise.
Sometimes that can be difficult. All of you have had children and grandchildren, and sometimes, when you're trying to get everybody ready for worship, it gets very frustrating, and you get frazzled. I could always tell how frazzled my dad was by how fast he drove on the way to church. The more irritate he was, the heavier his foot was on the pedal. It was like “let's get there so I can separate from you guys.” It's hard to make that transition, then, to thankfulness and praise and gratitude, particularly if you're not feeling grateful right now for your kids or your grandkids.
So we meet first, outside the church or sanctuary and have fellowship. This is part of getting the mind right, as we share burdens and joys and establish or strengthen relationships. Remember, in Matthew Jesus talked about going to lay your gift on the altar. If you have a problem with your brother or sister, if you're angry, then you need to go and make it right, before you leave your gift – which was for them a form of worship.
We don't have a separate narthex, exactly. You can shut those doors, but it's really a pain. So frequently people will come in here to talk. I would recommend, even if it's a little crowded, staying back in there. The reason is, when we enter the sanctuary, we want to quiet our hearts and minds, as we prepare to receive God’s word, and to give Him the praise and the honor due His name.
Listen to the music before the worship service. Bob picks it carefully. He doesn't just go into iheart.com or something and play a stream. He chooses the music to go with the theme and season that the church is in. When you come in here, then, pray. Pray for the leaders in worship. Pray for the sermon. Pray for God to move in your heart today. We talked last week about how one of the primary purposes of worship is to bring you into the presence of God. And you definitely need to pray for me and my sermon.
John Piper, who is a very well-known Baptist preacher, has a huge church in New York. He was being interviewed by a reporter one time, and he took the reporter to various places around the church. They went down into the basement area, and they had a fellowship hall there, kind of like we do. But there was this little room that he took him to, that was off of the boiler room, but not part of it. There were chairs that were stacked up there.
The reporter was kind of confused. Why come to a storage area? John Piper said, “This is one of the most important rooms in the church.” The reporter said, “Really?” He said, “Yes. Every Sunday morning a select group of elders comes down here, sits in these chairs, and starts praying, from about thirty minutes before the service, all the way through the service – for me, for God's Word, and for the people who are hearing it to be touched by it. Without that prayer, it wouldn't work.”
I thought to myself, Wow! What a support that would be, to know that people are praying for you, are praying for the word that is going to be preached. They don't know what it is. Those elders in Piper's church didn't even get to hear it, I guess, unless they had a speaker going down there, and that would be kind of distracting from the prayer. So they took turns spending time serving the congregation, unseen, as they prayed for the leaders and the people.
So we want to come into here and we want to take this place – sanctuary, holiness, otherness – we want to take advantage of this place, to truly prepare our hearts and minds for worship. Then we have usually a call to worship, or a prayer of the day or a sentence of Scripture.
It's usually responsive, and in some ways this mimics the call of the shofar or the church bells and the psalms of the people as they approached the temple. Remember, their psalms were sung, and a lot of them were sung as they came to the place of worship, not once they were inside – they had other songs there
It hopefully sets the tone and the topic for the worship theme of the day, whether specific or seasonal. Today we had one that talks about the acknowledgment of a power beyond our own and a time for bringing ourselves, as we are, into the presence of the Holy One, and a time for lifting our hearts. So it's talking about why we come to worship. (Did anybody catch that, before I said it?)
Then we sing a hymn of praise or invocation. We always start out by praising God and asking His presence among us, so that we might be strengthened in our worship of Him. Here is the Presbyterian church – or at least in our Presbyterian church – we then have a responsive reading, usually. Again, that is to set the tone for the day and the theme. It helps reinforce the call to worship. Occasionally, as we had today, we have an affirmation of faith, though the affirmation of faith can also go elsewhere in the service.
Then we have a prayer of confession, and there’s a call to confession, much as there is a call to worship, to remind us of our need for God. Sometimes, instead of such a call, there may be a reading of the Law, which is to help us remember how we fail to meet God’s standards, and the grace that God shows us in forgiving us.
This prayer starts out corporate, as we realize that we, the body of Christ, sometimes fail to live up to our potential or calling. Even if you can't relate directly to the words that are being said, I would hope that you would say them anyway with meaning and heart. We do try to make it thematic, to the extent that it may cover issues relating to the sermon topic or the season. This is to help the member get a sense of unity of purpose within the context of the service. 35:14
We give time for silent prayer afterward, to allow for folks to confess their own individual sins, so that their hearts, contrite, may be ready to hear what God has to say in His Word. It's all about getting you ready to hear God's Word. We gather as people, we profess and strengthen our unity, and we prepare our hearts for hearing God's Word.
There is an assurance of pardon, and please note: the person giving it does not forgive us. He or she reminds us that through Jesus Christ, and in Christ, we can be confident we are forgiven, having clean hearts. This is important for us as Reformed believers versus Catholic and Orthodox and even Anglican, who have priests that intercede. We make sure that whenever we do the Assurance of Pardon, we make clear that it's not us that are leading, it's Christ who is the agent for your forgiveness.
This is where freedom and joy might first be experienced by the congregant, as we are reminded of the good news of the gospel. Because of that good news about forgiveness, then we finish with the Gloria, giving praise to God for His goodness, His salvation, and our forgiveness of sins that lets us go back to the kind of relationship we once had in the Garden of Eden itself, where we can see God face to face, and where we have an eternity promised with Him. He didn't have to do this. He did it because He loves us, and He went to extreme lengths for us – each and every one of us. So we sing praise and have the Gloria.
In some churches, during this portion of the worship service, they have the passing of the peace. But these days, so many are concerned with illness being spread that the practice has fallen into disfavor in many place. It does have a Biblical root to it.
I want to note that sometimes, in lieu of the prayer of confession, we have a prayer of adoration. (This always confuses the secretaries, because then there's no call to confession because it's a prayer of adoration, so I always have to write a special note.) This is almost always seasonal and reminds us that God has already accomplished His salvation for all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Days like Easter and Pentecost are fitting times for this.
Actually, we'll probably have a prayer of adoration for most of the time between Easter and Pentecost, because that is called Eastertide. It's a season of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, up until the birthday of the church. It's the time he spent with his disciples before he ascended. It's a time for praise. Yay! Our salvation is accomplished.
So why should we care about all this? Why should we wonder about worship? Why would I go through this almost more lecture-like type of sermon, in sharing this rather than simply talking about the Word itself? Well, given the centrality of the Word in our worship, it is critical that we be in a proper frame of mind and heart to receive it.
And we cannot always – or even for me at least usually – achieve that on our own. We need help. If looked at ahead of time, so you don't stumble over the words, the Gathering part of worship, with its responsive readings and prayers, can give you a sense of where you might meet God that day. It might be in the prayers. It might be in the songs. It's up to your individual spirit and taste, as we mentioned last week. But at least you have a clue as to what's coming, and maybe it can give you an idea of where you can look to see God.
I mentioned last week – and we'll talk about it more in another sermon – testimonial time, and I'm just really taken with this concept of God-sightings. Times where you see God at work in your own life or maybe in the life of somebody else, so that you can be thankful and give praise. Looking at the bulletin ahead of time will put you in that frame of mind to look for God.
Take seriously the prayer of confession and the silent time after. Confession is always good for the soul, and even if you simply can’t relate to the unison prayer of confession, you can still spend the time in silent prayer for yourself. God will hear you and will answer.
Take real joy in the Gloria. Sing it out loud and sing it strong. Don’t be afraid because your voice isn’t what it used to be, or worse. We are called upon to make a joyful noise. And you’re going to be singing in heaven someday so you might as well get used to doing it now. I can't tell you how many people I've who might mouth the words but if I'm near them I don't hear them, and they say, “Well, I don't sing because I have such a terrible voice.” Who cares? We have a really powerful organ and organ player here who makes it easy to follow the music regardless. And singing, even if you can't sing, can be more of a witness than you might know.
When Pauline and I were part of the church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania – that's the church that ordained me into ministry – they did an Easter cantata almost every year. They had a really good choir, and they had a good director. And there was a young woman there named Carolyn Brown. She was disabled.
She had a lot of physical defects, and she could not speak clearly. And she also apparently couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But she joined the choir, and she sang. I swear she knew all the words of the hymnal by heart. I never saw her open the hymnal, ever. But she was singing the words – you could tell.
But some of the people there actually complained to the choir director at one point, “It's hard for me to keep my part when she's singing next to me. Can't you please ask her to not be in the choir? Because I can't stand it.” The director said, “Well, you'll have to stand it or you'll have to leave. Because we're not called to do a professional job. We're called to make a joyful noise.”
One year we had the cantata, and Carolyn was right there on the end (she couldn't stand in the center), and she was singing her heart out as usual. The cantata was recorded, and I happened to have some solos in that particular cantata, so I showed it to some of my co-workers and some other people who were interested who didn't go to the church.
And do you know? Every single one of them pointed her out, and said, “What a wonderful thing – that is so cool that you would allow someone like that to participate fully in the music and worship of your church. They were amazed. They were impressed. And it was a witness beyond measure of what it means to have the love of Christ in your heart.
So make a joyful noise. You don't have to sing solo – that is, so low we can't hear you. This is your opportunity to really open your heart to joy, during the Gloria. Let it take root in your heart during the assurance of pardon, and show it forth in the Gloria.
Each and every Sunday, we’re called upon to come together, by God, for God, and with God, to praise His name. It’s a mandate, a calling, and it is good. When you miss it, you miss something important to your own spiritual health. It’s a time when we can celebrate, a time when we can reconcile, and a time also when we can encourage one another.
My prayer for you is that when you come to church on Sunday morning, that you come to hear the word of God. And my prayer for you further is that when you come to church on Sunday morning, you get what you ask for, and you do hear the word of God spoken to you.
May you give praise to Him for the wondrous things He has done, as individuals and as a church, as we celebrate the good news of the Gospel and then share that with the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.