What’s Worship?

dancersIn my last post I talked about how worshiping together – physically and weekly – builds up the body of Christ. But there is a problem with making that the focus — we may miss the actual point of worship. Stopping where we left off yesterday, we might get the impression that worship is more about us than it is about God.

Apart from whatever it does for us individually or as a body, God simply deserves our worship. In fact, God is the only One who deserves out worship. And worship is happening, all the time it’s happening. Take in this scene from Revelation 4:8-11:

Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”

So why do we gather for worship on Sunday mornings? First and foremost because God deserves it. This is our opportunity to corporately and publicly acknowledge his worth and to praise him for it. His “worth” includes both who he is and what he’s done. It’s a blessing to us to savor this knowledge and to love him for it. Yes, God wants our knowledge of him to bring us joy and to make us feel secure going into the future. But this can only happen if we focus on him rather than our feelings during worship. Feelings fluctuate. God’s character and promises don’t.

It’s not that feelings don’t have a place in worship. The psalms demonstrate how we’re to offer the full range of our feelings when we worship, without allowing them to become an idol.

Speaking of idols, worship is our opportunity to set God apart from the pack – that pack of goods we’ve turned into gods. John Calvin called the human heart a perpetual idol factory. Jill de Haan writes:

Trusting in one God is no easier for us that it was for ancient Israel. We find it hard to imagine inheriting a “land” of peace and rest without offering sacrifices to a host of minor deities: the gods of education, health and usefulness, career success, and wealth accumulation. Not to mention the gods of technological advancement, political triumph, military might, and border security. We hesitate to bring these realms under the authority of one God, much less one who refuses to be visible or tangible.

Then there is our tendency to turn God himself into an idol – an idol, that is, of our own making. De Haan reflects on an event in her own life:

By being afraid to step into God’s future, I was guilty of idolatry. I was acting as if the future belonged to an unpredictable, capricious deity who could easily hate me! But gods destroying people without moral justification is something we find in ancient Near Eastern mythology, in stories like the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis. Our God has already bound himself in covenant. He has already vowed to love his people (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:8). Why was I mistaking my God for another?

The first of the ten commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The second commandment warns against worshiping other gods, specifically the idols we make for ourselves: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…

The fact that God gets jealous (who would’ve thought?) reminds us that worship is highly relational. The first and greatest commandment, says Jesus, is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Biblical worship is also interactive. We don’t only talk to God, he talks to us. There is a whole section of our worship we call “the Word of God.” We want to hear from God because we want to know his will – his good and perfect will (Romans 12:2).

Which brings up the fact that worship involves not only obeisance but obedience; not just bending the knee, but getting on our feet and obeying what we’ve heard. In the Bible, hearing includes heeding. Our hearing isn’t complete until we’ve done something about what we’ve heard.

This suggests that worship is also work. The word liturgy literally means “work of the people.” The fact that worship is work shouldn’t surprise us. Deep, lasting relationships always require work. It takes work to really listen to a friend. It takes work to sacrificially serve and assist those we love. It takes hard work to endure those difficult stretches where there is tension and discomfort in the relationship. It also takes work to work through our conflicts.

So worship isn’t a spectator sport. It asks for our complete engagement, loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t come to be entertained. If anything, we come to be set free from our perpetual need to be entertained. Worshiping God is the perfect antidote. Sometimes on Sunday mornings I talk about each of us taking responsibility for our own learning. Ultimately we need to take responsibility for our part in everything that happens in worship. This can involve practical things like going to bed at a reasonable hour, looking into our souls and asking God to prepare us for worship once we enter the sanctuary, sitting where we’re most likely to be attentive, or jotting down notes during the sermon.

Worship is also rest: “‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:10-11). “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). We rest in the fact that God can be trusted with our entire story – past, present and future; for whatever we left behind when we came to worship, and for whatever awaits us after we leave.

And worship is ongoing. It’s not supposed to stop after the benediction. It’s this sort of ongoing worship that Paul points to when he says, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). When we leave the building, we join the worship that’s happening throughout creation: “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8).

Finally, worship is witness. When we worship, we witness to God himself what we’ve learned about him and experienced firsthand. We witness to each other that God is good and can be trusted. And we witness to the world that God is worthy of the sacrifice needed to make weekly worship a priority.

So yes, while worshiping God together does build up the body, it’s mainly because worship reminds us whose body we are, and how amazing God is; and because it has the potential to help us get outside ourselves enough to know and love and obey the One that makes us one.

Worship is a lot like love, in that it can’t ultimately or comprehensively be defined. I’ll end with something I wrote about worship a couple of years ago:

Worship is our humble, loving,
whole-life response to who God is
and what he’s done –
deep responding to Deep,
love to Love, will to Will –
expressed through countless, ongoing acts
of adoration, communion, sacrifice and service.

May I suggest worshiping him now, before you click out of this post?

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