Sunday, March 23, 2014

True Worship (a sermon for March 23rd on Psalm 95)

A few years ago I was attending a pastors’ conference at Regent College in Vancouver, and one of the speakers was Marva Dawn, who is a very provocative writer about many aspects of Christian life and worship. She told us the story of how a young man came up to her after the service one day at the Lutheran church she attends. “I didn’t get anything out of that service!” he complained. “Good!” she replied; “We weren’t worshipping you!”

As I said, Marva likes to be provocative! But I actually found that story very refreshing – a very helpful corrective to modern views of worship that tend to be entertainment-focussed. And it’s natural that we should think of it in terms of entertainment. After all, we come here each week and sit in rows of chairs facing the front. Up front there’s a stage, and on the stage people are dressed in costumes, speaking ritual words and performing strange actions. What does that look like, to a normal twenty-first century human? It’s a concert! It’s a play! It’s entertainment! And so the first question in our mind is naturally “Was the entertainment good? Was it fun? Was it exciting?”

But if we understand that we’ve come together to worship God, then that changes everything. Now the most important question is no longer “Did I get anything out of that service this morning?” Rather, it’s “Did God get anything out of that service this morning? Did God enjoy it? Did he like the things we said and the way we said them? Was he pleased with how well we all participated, and with the attitude of our hearts?” And that’s where our psalm for this morning, Psalm 95, is very helpful.

The first thing we see in this psalm is that true worship is focussed on God. But sadly, it’s often true that our services are focussed on anything but God.

Sometimes we focus on the leader – the pastor or priest or lay reader. Is he interesting? Is she entertaining? Some people won’t even come to church if there’s not a priest leading the service – one person told me that he made a point of not coming when I wasn’t here, as if he thought I’d be pleased to hear that!

Sometimes we focus on the form of worship. Can we find the right place in the book or the bulletin? Do we like the music? Is it the good old hymns, or is it exciting rock and roll? And what about the church architecture? Do they have chairs or pews?

Sometimes we focus on our feelings? What am I getting out of this? Does the service make me feel happy? Is it inspiring and uplifting and so on?

The biblical view, however, is that worship is for God. We come together each week to give to God the best that we can offer of our praise, our prayer, our singing, and our listening to his Word. Look how this psalm helps us to focus our worship on God by using four metaphors for him.

First, God is ‘the rock of our salvation’ (v. 1). The ‘rock’ metaphor, of course, points to God’s strength, God’s reliability, and our security in him. So this metaphor encourages us to lift our eyes up from our problems, worries and fears, and to fix our minds on the strength and reliability of our God.

Second, God is ‘a great king above all gods’ (v.3). Of course, when this psalm was written the author assumed that there were other gods, and last week we saw that even today there are other gods that tempt us: things like money and possessions, success, nationalism, and so on. The writer is reminding us that the one true God is supreme over all these other pretenders.

Thirdly, God is the creator of everything that exists. Verses 4 and 5 say:
In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land.
So we go from one extreme to the other: from the deepest caverns to the highest mountains, and from the wetness of the sea to the dryness of the land. And notice how the word ‘hands’ is repeated at the beginning and end of this section: ‘In his hand are the caverns of the earth…his hands have molded the dry land’. The writer is reminding us that God’s ‘got the whole world in his hands’, as the song says.

Fourthly, God is the shepherd of his people. Verse 7 says,
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
This of course reminds us of Psalm 23, that we will be looking at next week: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ – and also of the words of Jesus, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).

So as we come together to worship, this psalm encourages us to focus on God – our rock, our king, our creator, our good shepherd. How are we to respond to him? Verse 2 says ‘Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving’, and verse 6 adds, ‘Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker’. This is the proper response to the greatness of God: to bow before him in praise and adoration, and thanksgiving for all his blessings to us.

But what’s the nature of this worship? What impression do we get of it as we read the psalm? This leads us to the next thing: not only is our worship focussed on God, but it is also joyful and lively. Look at verses 1-2:
Come, let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

‘A loud shout’! Doesn’t sound very Anglican, does it? When I was a boy I used to sing in the church choir, and every Sunday evening we would chant the service of Evensong using the traditional chants. But when we got to the line, ‘and make thy chosen people joyful’, the way we chanted it often made a mockery of the words themselves – it sounded more like a funeral dirge than a prayer for joy!

Of course, we must add that there is also a place for sadness and lament in Christian worship, and God is not telling us to pretend that we’re happy if we’re not. Personally, I’m glad that we use the psalms each week in our worship, because the psalms help us to be honest about this: many of them, as you might have noticed, are laments, or prayers in time of trouble. But nonetheless, it remains true that in general, focussing on God is meant to lead us to joy: ‘Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation’ (v.1).

In this context we need to think for a minute about the place of music in our worship. The psalms of course were originally written in Old Testament times to be sung. Those of you who are familiar with traditional Anglican chant will know that it tends to make the psalms sound sombre, but if we pay attention to Jewish music today, we might suspect that originally the psalms sounded rather different! Michelle Guinness, a Jewish woman who married an Anglican minister, says that one of her first reactions to Christian worship was to say, “What on earth have they done to our psalms? How have they made them sound so miserable?”

So it’s good for hymns and songs to be lively and full of joy in the Lord. But of course, we also need to remember that the number one issue is not whether we enjoy a song, but whether God enjoys it - and I suspect that his enjoyment is most likely tied to the attitude of our hearts as we sing to him.

So our worship is meant to be full of joy: joyful hearts, and also joyful faces. Somebody once said, ‘Looking happy in church? That is suspicious behaviour!’ But I contrast that with my experience as a young Christian when I used to attend a Thursday evening prayer and study group. Those were wonderful times of experiencing the presence of God and the power of God, and I used to look forward to them all week long. I remember my excitement on Thursday mornings, thinking, “Tonight’s the night!”  Why was I joyful? Because the presence of God in that group was so obvious, and I looked forward to it every week. And if God is really here, as we say he is, then let’s not be afraid to express our joy to him.

How do we do that? How do we express our joy to the Lord? Well, that leads us to the next thing: our worship is not only focussed on God, and not only joyful and lively, it also involves both our souls and our bodies. Look at verse 6:
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

Marci and I once attended a prayer and praise meeting in an Anglican church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. We were singing the song, ‘His banner over me is love’, and the leader was encouraging us to do the actions. Our bishop, Vicars Short, was there, and he was doing his best to do the actions, but he did them in a very restrained and minimalist sort of way, barely lifting his hands over his head at all! And this from a bishop who wasn’t afraid to lift his hands high when he was praying the Eucharistic Prayer!

The whole person should worship God – not just the mind and heart, but the body too. And so, for instance, it’s right for us to kneel and bow as a sign of respect for God; this is perhaps especially appropriate when we confess our sins. I note however that kneeling as a sign of respect for someone is less common in the world these days; nowadays we tend to stand to show our respect, and this was common in Bible times too – standing in the presence of the King. So in our worship we stand to praise God and give thanks to him, when we say the Eucharistic prayer, for instance, or when we sing our hymns. And at times we also sit to listen carefully to God’s word, or stand for the gospel to show our respect for the words of Jesus.

Other gestures are also commonly used in worship. Many people like to make the sign of the cross to remind themselves that we receive all our blessings from God because of Jesus and his death on the cross for us. That’s why priests and pastors use the sign of the cross when they say the blessing at the end of the service. Other people like to raise their hands when they pray, which was a common way of praying in the Bible. And then, of course, there are the sacramental acts that almost always include some bodily action. So we pour water over someone in baptism, and we eat the bread and drink the wine of Holy Communion. We anoint the sick with oil, and we often lay hands on people when we pray for them.

So don’t be shy about using your body in worship! Remember the woman who expressed her love for Jesus by breaking a jar of perfume, anointing his feet, and drying them with her hair? I suspect we might have been embarrassed if we had been there, but Jesus wasn’t embarrassed – he commended her. Her actions reflected the desire of her heart to show love for Jesus, and we also can use our bodies to show our love for God in worship.

So we’ve seen that worship is focussed on God, joyful and lively, and involves the use of both souls and bodies. Lastly, true worship involves listening to God’s word. Look at verse 7:
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

In our services of worship, too, we want to listen carefully for God’s voice. And so each Sunday we read the set readings from Old Testament, the Psalm, the New Testament, and the Gospel, and each Sunday we have a sermon as well. I have to say, also, that the modern obsession with short sermons is just that: modern! When John Newton wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, most sermons were an hour long! In the second century Justin Martyr wrote about early Christian worship; remember that in those days people had to get up before dawn to worship, because Sunday was a working day like any other. Nevertheless, Justin says this: ‘the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles are read, as long as time allows, and then the leader exhorts us to imitate these good things’.

Why is this biblical content in our worship important? Because verse 7 reminds us that God is our shepherd, and the thing about God’s sheep is that they listen to the voice of their shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27). Personally, I think that loving God and worshipping him involves paying far more attention to what he wants to say to us than to what we want to say to him. That’s why the Bible readings and the sermon are not an interruption of our worship, but a vital part of it. And of course, we’re told not to harden our hearts: the message we hear is to be received and put into practice, which is an act of worship that lasts longer than the service.

So to recap: worship is supposed to be focussed on God, as an act of praise and thanksgiving to him, and of course this is especially true of the Holy Communion service, which focuses on Christ’s great love in laying down his life on the cross for us. In worship we’re called to give ourselves unreservedly to God – souls and bodies, hearts and minds and wills – listening carefully to his Word and quick to obey the message we hear. This is true biblical worship!

So let’s end by asking ourselves: Do I need to get my focus off of myself, and onto God? Do I need to stop asking ‘What did I get out of that service?’ and start asking ‘What did God get out of it?’ Do I need to be freed up to express joy with my whole person, speaking enthusiastically, singing joyfully, using soul and body to worship God with all my heart? And do I need to pay more attention to the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Bible readings and the sermon, remembering that Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27), and that the psalmist says, ‘Oh that today you would hearken to his voice! Harden not your hearts’ (7b-8a).

May God help us all, as we join together every week in offering him the true worship that is his due. Amen.

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