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When We Worship

You woke up this morning and came to worship. Why did you come? What do you hope to experience?

In Psalm 84 the psalmist sings:

How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Psalm 84 eagerly longs to come to the house of the Lord and encounter the living God. Later in the psalm it says, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.”

There is no place that worshipper of God would rather be than in the courts of the Lord.

Another question: How many times have you done this? Let’s say you have been coming to a church for 30 years and you attend worship at least 40 Sundays per year, not including certain special services. Then, you have been to 1,200 worship services in your life. (You can do the math for your own circumstances.)

Many of us have come to a church week after week to do this thing called worship. We come because we see some kind of value in it. What is the importance of worship?

I believe that communal worship is the most important thing we do as a church. It is the one time we are all gathered together. We sing together, pray together, and receive a message together. Our worship services pump blood to all parts of our body. If we stopped having worship I suspect the other things that we do as a church would shrivel up.

Many things have happened as a result of the pandemic including the shutting down of churches. People are uncertain as to how this will affect church life but my hope is that people will have a new appreciation for what it means to gather for worship having been without it for so long.

This time uniquely strengthens our faith, forms our identity as Christians, and our life as a church like no other. The purpose of this sermon is that we would be refreshed in our understanding of what we do when we worship, and to remind ourselves about the value of worship

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote in his diary, “I have been to Church today, and am not depressed.” What a commentary on what he was experiencing week by week. I wonder what his pastor was like? I wonder what the music sounded like in his church?

How sad that people can go to a church and leave depressed. It is unrealistic to think every time we come out of a worship service we will be walking on the clouds, but hopefully we will have some encounter with God which can never be depressing.

Unfortunately, one of the places we go wrong with worship is when we seek the experience instead of seeking God. We want our songs to be sung. We want things to be done to our liking. The prayers not too long and the message exactly what we need to hear. I confess Sunday mornings can be more a religious program for us than a worship service for God. But then are we worshipping God or are we really worshipping ourselves? I suppose one of the questions we could ask to measure a worship service would be not did I like the music, the order, the message, but did God like what happened today? Because worship primarily is for God not for us. Think about that and hear it again: worship primarily for God, not for us.

Worship is central to keeping our relationship with the Lord. Human beings are created to worship and we either worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or we worship something else. G.K. Chesterton said that when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything. Worship grounds us.

Jesus’ custom was to go to worship every week.[1] And if I truly want to follow and be like him how can I not make worship my habit?

Christians of every tribe, color, language and nation gather to worship every Lord’s Day. Whether in large downtown tall-steepled buildings, small country churches, cathedrals, huts, houses, gymnasiums, theaters, under trees, or in bamboo shacks with dirt floors, Christians gather to worship God. I attended a worship service in a bar one time.

Psalm 96 says, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” “…in the splendor of his holiness.” It suggests to me I need to understand and get in touch with who this God is – his greatness, that he is worthy, to be feared, that he reigns, and the splendor, majesty, strength and glory that is his. It suggests that what we do should honor God, that what we do here should be done in a certain way.

I want to use Hebrew 10 as the text to help us appreciate more fully what we are doing when we worship. First, we draw near.

In Hebrews it says “let us draw near to God.” When we come to a church with other Christians we draw near to God. We get close to encounter him. Do not take drawing near to God for granted. It was not always the case that people could do this.

We draw near to God, it says, because we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place was a small room in the middle of the Temple in Jerusalem where only the high priest could enter, and that, only once a year on the Day of Atonement to pray for the forgiveness of the sins of all the people. It was the Most Holy Place because the direct and very presence of the Lord dwelt in that room.

A large and thick curtain divided the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple where other priests and worshippers could go. The high priest would pass through the curtain and enter the Most Holy Place with the blood of animals that had been sacrificed.

When Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple was torn in two, signifying that the way had been opened for all people to enter into God’s presence. Through Christ’s body and blood which is the ultimate sacrifice we are allowed to draw near to God ourselves.

That is why the cross is such an essential symbol in worship. It tells us that we can be in God’s presence and get close to him. The door has been opened to everyone. The way has been made clear for us to God. There is no more special access. We all have backstage passes to be with God.

We draw near to God in full assurance that we are presentable to God. The high priest had to sprinkle blood on the altar in the Most Holy Place for the sins of the people. But now, we have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, God’s own Son. We don’t have to go through any wild religious or spiritual gyrations to draw near him. Maybe you’ve had a bad week, a bad month, a bad life. Don’t ever say, “God doesn’t want to see me.” Take hold of Jesus’ cross for you and come near to God.

Second, we draw near in sincerity. In Hebrews 10 it says we draw near with a sincere heart. The word for sincere means “real, genuine, loyal.” We come as we are. We don’t have to feel particularly holy or that we have it all together, but we also don’t have to feel like we need to be particularly needy. We may come glad or sad, grieving or joyful, up or down, but we always bring who we are before the God who accepts us, loves us, can change us, or who will give us what we need to bear what we carry. We don’t need to hide from God or others.

The third reality when we worship is that we strengthen our faith. It says, “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.” The stresses, strains and burdens of life can wear down our hope. We can feel so defeated. We can doubt, wonder, and get anxious.

This phrase to “hold unswervingly” means to keep a tight grip on our faith. Weekly worship tightens our grip of faith reminding us who we belong to and what we are about. Our hold might not be huge but even just the slightest tightening of our grip can get us through another week. And it is not just about how tightly we can hold to this hope, but also remembering how tightly God holds on to us. We are reminded of the promises of God in which we place our hope.

Down further it says, “let us encourage one another.” Part of the strength we receive is the uplift we get from being with others. Sometimes it is in sharing what we are going through with others. Sometimes it is in praying with or for others. The songs, the message, the prayers, the people all renew us for another week of living for God. We might be challenged. We might feel like we have been humbled. We might get convicted. But there should always be some sense of joy, hope and encouragement.

I hope we never leave, like Robert Louis Stevenson, feeling depressed. It is a time to get “filled up”.

The fourth thing when we worship is that we do this with others. Worship isn’t primarily a private enterprise. It says do not give up meeting together as some others do. It can be so tempting not to gather with others because there are so many others things we could be doing. But to give up meeting with others is not the way of our faith. When we are in the mountains or thinking about God at home that is not the worship of which the Bible speaks. An ember that is separated from the fire grows cold and eventually goes out. The list is long for excuses and reasons for doing something else on Sundays. But isn’t the way of Jesus. As I mentioned before it was Jesus’ habit to go to his synagogue every week.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to those who are homebound, sick, or forced to stay in because of things like COVID. There are circumstances that prevent some from meeting together.

But worship is meeting together, and in the meeting together we can encourage one another and who doesn’t need encouragement? We need encouragement in our faith, in our struggles, as we come out of weeks filled with adversity. We need encouragement to keep walking the path of Christ.

I come from California where we have massive redwood trees that tower hundreds of feet in the air. But they have a relatively shallow root system. The enormous weight of the redwood trees is supported, in part, by the interlocking of a tree’s roots with those of the other trees around it. As followers of Jesus we need “interlocking roots” with other believers in the church to withstand the enormous weight of life. We need others to spur us on to love and good deeds in a world that is self-centered and self-consumed.[2]

Gathering with the believers is just a fundamental act of our Christian lives. In the meeting together is where we spur one another on to love and where we can get encouragement for our Christian lives.

The fifth reality when we worship is expectation. We gather to worship “all the more,” it says, as the Day of Christ approaches.

If you knew the Lord was going to return on Monday, would you be in church on Sunday? Could you imagine what our churches would look like if God somehow announced to the world he would return tomorrow?

I confess I don’t come on Sundays thinking about Christ’s coming. Someday the Lord is coming back and we want to be ready for his appearing. But it usually isn’t at the forefront of my mind.

We worship with the expectation that we will be with him someday. When we worship we keep that in view. It might be a distant view, but it is in view. It could be tomorrow. We worship with an expectant heart. We want to be ready for him.

When we worship the biggest reason is not to get some spiritual high though some spiritual energy is always welcome. Nor is worship about seeing people although the relationships are important. Nor is the most important thing to get information. The biggest reason we worship is because God came for us in Jesus Christ. He redeemed us and made us his people. He is our God and we are his.

The book Chasing Francis is about a pastor from an evangelical mega-church who kind of has a breakdown in his church’s fast-paced attempt to do more and more. So the pastor takes a leave of absence and goes to Italy (good place for a break) where he gets connected with some Franciscan monks. While there he discovers the writings and life of St. Francis of Assisi. The mega-church pastor discovers a totally different way of living the Christian life, that isn’t oriented around success, bigger-is-better, and hype.

He’s having a conversation with one of the monks about worship after they have returned from a service. The Franciscan monk asks him what time church started that morning. The pastor thought it was an odd question since they had gone together. He shrugged and said, “Around eight o’clock.”

“Wrong,” the monk replied. “Church started the moment you got in the car….The liturgy began the moment you started separating yourself from this world so you could join the rest of the body of Christ.”

Think about that – worship starts the moment when you separate yourself from this world to gather with the body of Christ. When Christians gather for worship we are just responding to what God has done. Though you and I got up this morning and made a conscious decision to come to this church for a worship service. God has initiated this time. Every worship service is us responding to what God has done for us in the life, death, resurrection of Christ, and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. That’s why worship services are held on Sundays. That is the day our Lord rose from the dead.

If worship is primarily our response to God, then we need nor deserve any credit for coming. The impulse to pursue God originates with God.[3] God is always previous.[4] He is already here to meet you and me. He waits for us to draw near to him. What we are doing started long ago.

How people draw near to God Sunday by Sunday varies from church to church, from people to people, from nation to nation. There are all kinds of labels for worship now because there are so many styles: traditional, high church, charismatic, emergent, post-modern, free. Different people worship God in different ways.

God gives no specific instructions or command in the Bible that says how our worship services should look like. Certain things have always been essential parts of Christian worship like singing, praying, the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the sacraments of Communion and Baptism, giving of offering, joyful noise as well as reverent silence.

But God doesn’t seem to care how those things are done as much as the reasons and the spirit with which they are done. How we do things is variable. But why we worship and that we worship is not.

Why do you come? And what do you do when you are here? We draw near, just as we are, gaining a tighter grip on the hope we have in Christ, gathering with others, in expectation for the Day when we will meet our Lord.

[1] See Luke 4 [2] NIV Application Commentary, George Guthrie, p.352 [3] A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, p.12 [4] Friedrich Von Hugel, quoted by Tozer

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