“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him.” John 4:22
In the children’s rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” the man fell off the wall and broke so badly no one could put him together again. Man has fallen like that, too, but what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not do for “Humpty,” God can and is doing for the human race in Jesus Christ. He is helping us pick up the pieces. He is putting us together again.
If you were to fall and badly break both your legs, doctors would put you in a cast for many months. After the casts were removed you would, no doubt, have lost some of the use of your legs. Physical therapy would be required to help you learn to walk again. A series of exercises on a daily regimen would be prescribed which would eventually help one regain the use of his extremities.
Facing Up To God
The first step in worship is facing up to God. Remember in the Garden of Eden how Adam and Eve hid from the Lord? This fear and avoidance of God is still a part of our broken nature. We, like Adam, do not want God. But we have to face the fact that God wants us! And the Almighty has commanded that we should come forth on a regular basis and talk with Him. He said, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8).
A man once told me, “Pastor, it is strange. I simply don’t feel right when I don’t go to church on Sunday.” I answered, “You are not supposed to!” God has so constructed His universe that those who worship Him regularly by faith in Christ Jesus grow in human wholeness. Those who do not disintegrate like Legion (Mark 5). So naturally one doesn’t “feel” right when he shuns worship. He has missed the Lord’s therapy. His life is in decline. He has disobeyed God’s command to worship and now he has put himself at odds with the entire universe.
Preparing For Worship
The church prepares for worship, prepares to face God, by gathering in the church house at the appointed time. The signal that the divine human encounter is about to begin is usually a prelude. This is a quiet meditative piece of music that serves as a signal for the church to gather. It is a time to be seated, to grow quiet and begin to meditate on the things of Christ. It is not a time to talk, visit or see what others are wearing.
Next someone offers an invocation. This is simply a short prayer recognizing God’s presence. The Lord has promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20). Here, the church simply takes God at His word. “You are here like you promised, O God,” we pray.
The prelude and the invocation can be followed by one more step of worship preparation. This is something known as the call to worship. It is an invitation to the people to present themselves to God for worship. It is a challenge to forget your golf tee-off time, forget dinner cooking in the oven, and concentrate on worshiping God. It is a call to attention.
After the call to worship, the preparation is over, God is present. The people are present. Now the dialogue between God and man that is worship is ready to begin! Karl Barth called Christian worship “the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.” Just think of it! God, the creator, and man, the rebel sinner, sitting down to talk with one another face to face. This is worship!
Worship begins with praise. The psalmist said, “Enter His court with praise!” (Psalm 100). Here the church thinks on the majesty of God. We contemplate the Lord’s mercy, His beauty, truth, and salvation. All of these thoughts well up inside and come out in adoration. It may take the form of hymns: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!” “All hail the power of Jesus’ name.” “Glorious things of Thee are spoken!” It may take the form of a spoken or sung psalm:
“Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live.” (Psalm 146:1-2).
It might take a creative and spontaneous form such as shouts of “Hallelujah!”, “Praise the Lord!”, “Hosanna!”
But whatever form it takes, if you don’t have to praise God, you don’t yet know Him.
You will remember that Adam and Eve were tempted to become “like God” (Genesis 3:5). They were tempted to deny their “creatureliness” by aspiring to be like God, like the creator Himself. This was Satan’s sin, and in Eden he was seeking to share it with man. Isaiah 14:12-14 teaches that Satan sought to make himself like the Most High. He attempted to deny God’s authority over him by setting himself up as if he were his own maker.
We still have this break within us today. People still refuse to acknowledge God’s authority over His creation. People still see themselves as self-made, self-sufficient men. And the Lord insists that we stop and recognize our sin and acknowledge who He is. Praise is such an acknowledgment. It is a recognition by the creature of the majesty of the Creator.
Loren, a Boy Scout leader, took his troops out west on a camping trip years ago. When they reached the Grand Canyon, the boys spent several hours gazing down into the abyss. Then, as if they had enough, they said, “O.K., it’s time to move on!” The scout leader was upset. He had thought a visit to the canyon would be the trip’s highlight. He had planned to spend several days there. Yet the boys had not seemed impressed. Driving on and still pondering the boys’ mild reaction to the Grand Canyon, the troop leader and his scouts reached yet another canyon, this one called Zion. This time, instead of looking down into the abyss, they drove down through it. And the boys were awed. They begged to be allowed to stop and camp in it for several days. What made the difference between Grand and Zion Canyons? In one canyon they looked down. In the other they looked up! And man was meant to look up! He is a creature. His Creator designed him to look up, otherwise he’d think he was the highest point. Therefore, worship begins with looking up into the face of God with praise. Adoration is a recognition of the Creator’s authority and a declaration of our creatureliness. Praise is the melody that flows from the human heart when it is in its place and looking up.
The Rite For the Wrong
After praise follows confession in worship. A Sunday School teacher asked her fourth grade class, “Can anyone tell me what we must do to be forgiven?” Everyone was thinking, “What must I do to be forgiven?” There was silence for some time. Finally a tentative voice from the back of the room said, “Sin?” If that is true then all of us certainly qualify for forgiveness. For we have all sinned, even us Christians. The question is, how do we respond to our sins?
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they hid from Him. But God searched for them. He found their hiding place and said, “What hast thou done?” We have already seen how Adam passed the blame and Eve rationalized. Neither confessed openly. Neither accepted responsibility for his behavior. We still have this break within us today. We still rationalize our sin, hide it, or try to blame it on someone else. One college president handing out diplomas said he felt like the B.A., bachelor of arts degree, was really a bachelor of alibis degree. “Students,” he said, “seem to be more adept at excusing themselves than acting responsibly.” And so it seems for all of us!
It is because we are broken in our ability to confess that God demands confession be a regular part of our worship. Confession is therapy. It is a recognition of our sins before God. It is saying, “I did it. It was wrong. Please forgive me.”
In worship, confession usually starts when the pastor issues the call to confession. This is a statement declaring that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). Actually this statement is God speaking through the minister. It is the Lord walking in the cool of the evening and saying to modern man, “Adam, where art thou? What hast thou done?” It is a call to God’s people not to hide but to come out, face God, and repent of any sins.
Immediately after the call to confession, both the pastor (he is a sinner, too!) And the people confess their sins. They may read a contemporary prayer out loud, they may each pray silently, they might even use a psalm of confession like Psalm 139:23-24.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!”
I once worked a preaching mission in the Virginia mountains. After the service I was out front shaking hands when a small child walked up to me and extended his hand for a handshake. He had been eating candy during the service and green sticky goo covered his fingers. Just as I was about to shake hands with him, his mother came up, grabbed him by the ear and whisked him off to the bathroom, saying, “If you are going to shake hands with someone, first clean your hands!” A few minutes later the child returned, with scrubbed face and fingers. We shook and off he was to play with the other youth. This part of the service is like that, too. Before we come closer into God’s presence we must be made clean. The Lord is holy. We are sinful. But in Christ God has provided the soap and water to remove our sins and allow us to come to Him.
Following our confession come the words of assurance, sometimes called the words of absolution. This is usually a word assuring the people that their sins are forgiven. It might take the form of Isaiah 1:18. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The pastor utters this statement but God is the true spokesman. He says to all who confess their sins, “I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12). The Bible says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12). Indeed, this is a reassuring word! Our sins are washed away! God has wiped the slate clean! He has taken our sins so far away they will never be found again! (We can find the north pole and the south pole. But where is the east or west pole of Psalm 103:12? It is non-existent! And so are our sins!)
Do you see how worship is a dialogue? God and His people have gathered to talk. The people first praise God. Then the Lord calls on everyone to confess their sins. This done, the Lord speaks once again assuring the people of His forgiveness. Now we are ready to move on in worship.
The next step in worship can be thanksgiving.
You have noticed how bars advertise their “happy hours.” One downtown tavern called theirs an “attitude adjustment hour.” Well, this part of worship is something of a personality adjustment time, too. In Genesis 3, when God came looking for Adam and Eve, the man and the woman were anything but grateful. And you will remember the children of Israel during the exodus. God was delivering them from slavery and all they could do was complain and murmur (Exodus 15:24). We still have this ingratitude within us today. A lifeguard at Myrtle Beach, S.C., reported that out of 220 people rescued from drowning by the beach patrol in one season, only three returned to express their thanks.
You heard about the lady who wanted to be a nun? She enrolled at the convent, was told she had to serve three years as a novice, and was made to take a vow of silence for the first year. She was put to scrubbing floors the first year of her apprenticeship, but the time passed quickly and soon she was called before her mother superior for annual review. The mother superior congratulated her on her work and permitted her to utter two words. The novice said, “Work’s hard!” After her second year she was interviewed and allowed two words. “Food bad!” She said. Then, after her third year, she was again called before the mother superior and allowed to utter several words. The novice exclaimed, “I quit!” And with that, the mother superior said, “Well, my dear, you might as well quit. You haven’t done anything but complain since you’ve been here!” It is true, isn’t it? Complaining, ingratitude, murmurings come easily to man. Thanksgiving is a little akin to our nature. We can see all the bad, but can little see the blessings of our condition.
Thanksgiving is therapy for this part of our broken nature. In worship one might thank God in many forms. We can be very creative here. God has just forgiven our sins and a word of gratitude is in order. We would be like the nine lepers cleansed who went away without giving Jesus thanks if we did not turn and count our blessings. (Luke 17:11-19). Our thanksgiving might be offered in silent prayer or a time of testimony. The congregation can sing aloud some song of thanksgiving. A psalm like Psalm 75:1 might even be read from grateful hearts.
“We give thanks to thee, O God;
We give thanks;
We call on Thy name and recount Thy wondrous deeds.”
So far we have seen that worship is like physical therapy. It is designed to restore what is broken in us. It is engineered to help us again face God, praise Him, confess our sins, and express gratitude.
In one of Ring Lardner’s books a character says, “Everybody puts on their evening clothes like something was going to happen, but it don’t!” A lot of people feel that way about church. We all get dressed up, gather at the church house as if something big were going to happen, but it doesn’t. Yet, the truth is that something important is going on in worship. God is offering therapy. And where people do worship, they are made more and more whole.
Have you ever watched a football team warming up before a game? The players gather at one end of the field and do calisthenics. Sit-ups, push-ups, windmills, neck exercises— each player loosens up his muscles getting ready for the game. Worship is like this. It is a spiritual exercise Christians participate in. It’s aim is to get us in shape, to get rid of carnal flab and build muscle. The calisthenics of worship are not push-ups or windmills. They are things like praise, confession, thanksgiving, and hearing God’s word. And the church gathers for regular workouts each Sunday.
Hearing God’s Word
After praise and confession and thanksgiving in worship comes hearing God’s word. So far, man has been doing most of the talking in this conversation we call worship. Now the Lord asks us to grow quiet listening, to hear Him while He speaks.
In the garden both Adam and Eve heard God speak. He told them not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. He even made promises to the man. But then comes the fall. It occurred when the woman listened to and believed Satan’s word more than she did God’s word. But the good news is that God’s word did not end with the rebellion. The Lord did not forsake man. Instead, He came looking. Again Adam and Eve heard God speaking in the form of questions: Where are you? What hast thou done? They also heard God’s word in the form of promises like Genesis 3:15, the prophecy of a savior to come.
Even now, God has not abandoned us. Even now He is searching for us, asking probing questions, and making promises. And even now He lets us hear His voice. In Psalm 32:8, the Lord pledges, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will council you with my eye upon you.”
In Pennsylvania a certain religious group still mines coal using horses and mules. For six days the horses slave in the dark mines. Then on the seventh day the miners bring the animals out and let them exercise in the light. If you ask them why they do this, they’ll tell you, “It’s so they won’t go blind!” Six days one works in the world of darkness and sin, but on the seventh day one comes to worship and exercise in the light! It’s so we won’t go blind.
Thank God He hasn’t left us in the dark! Thank God that His word is our light! During worship we hear God’s word through the reading of Scripture. It is important to read from both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament reading represents God’s promise. The New Testament epistle reading represents an explanation of God’s promises. And the final reading from a gospel represents the glorious fulfillment of all of the Lord’s promises in Christ. Hence it is a time to rise, to stand up in honor of the reading of the Gospel.
The reason the Scriptures are read from different testaments each Sunday and from different places in those testaments is so that the church will get a comprehensive view of the Bible over the period of a year. If it were left up to man, he would probably pick and choose what he wanted to hear from Scriptures. We’d only read and re-read our favorite verses time and again, the ones that affirm us. This is the trouble with the church quite often. We want God on our own terms. But the Lord will have none of that! His terms, His desires, are spelled out in the entire Bible. So it is necessary over the course of a year to let the whole Bible speak from Genesis to Revelation, from the nativity to the cross to the resurrection to Pentecost and more.
After the Scripture is read, there is a sermon. Preaching has been called thirty minutes to raise the dead, thirty minutes to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. God chooses people to preach. He calls prophets to express His truth through their human personalities. A preacher takes God’s “then word” of Scripture and makes it “now” in relevancy.
When I was graduating from seminary, I was frightened at the task of preaching. (I still am.) And one day I asked a veteran pastor and professor, “What shall I preach about?” He said, “About God, and about thirty minutes.” A minister is free to preach about God and anything. There is no subject, no idea, no problem out from under the Lord’s jurisdiction. A preacher can preach on pain, on loneliness, on death, youth, sex or money. He can preach on politics, ecology, love and mercy. A preacher can preach on anything as long as the Bible is his source and authority, and as long as he preaches it in love. As a preacher, I feel at liberty to take my hearers anywhere just as long as I don’t take them out of sight of the cross.
I must admit that preaching is an awesome job. It is a terrible thing to speak in behalf of God! And I must admit it is a task beyond my strength. St. Paul said, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
The other day someone riding with me in the car asked what my favorite symphony was. I explained that I liked Handel’s “Water Music” best. He said he was unfamiliar with that work and asked me how it went. I tried humming it. That didn’t work. I tried whistling it. Then I realized the folly of my attempt. It is impossible to represent dozens of musical instruments with a whistle! If you want to know what a symphony is like you will have to go and listen for yourself. Preaching is like this, too. It is pure folly to try to represent the greatness of God in a sermon. But God chose to save man through the foolishness of preaching. He calls preachers, He chooses mere mortals to represent His truth through their personalities. And you must know that the purpose of preaching is not to point to the minister, but to point to the Christ. Furthermore, the aim of preaching is not so much to inform the intellect, to entertain or provide insight, as it is to motivate. God preaching is always aimed at the will. Its purpose is to get you to go and see for yourself just how good God has been to us in Christ Jesus.
Risen Lord, save us from hoping your gospel is true, from merely thinking about you, from simply liking the Easter story as we do fairy tales. Give us faith to know you, believe you, and to live in you presence. Amen.