The use of the term “temple” before the actual temple was built indicates that the term could be used even long ago in a more general way to refer to the house of the Lord. In David’s time there was no permanent building but there was a place of worship and there the presence of God was eventually embodied by the ark of the covenant, the altar and the work of the priests.
This morning we begin a new series of Sunday morning sermons devoted to worship. By “worship” I mean the corporate, what the Anglicans call the common worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. I mean the rite or ritual of the Sunday morning and evening services of the Christian church. Now it is true that the Bible teaches us to think of our entire life as worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” [3:17]. Our daily life is to be a service offered to God in love and thanksgiving. That being so, it shouldn’t surprise us that some have pitted that life-worship against the ritual worship of the church on the Lord’s Day, as if it would be unnecessary for Christians to gather for formal worship, for a worship service, if our entire lives are to be worship. But the whole Bible stands squarely against that conclusion. The Bible knows the worship of the Christian life day by day – worship as a way of life – and it knows the distinctive worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. It knows what we might call low worship and high worship and makes repeated distinctions between them while emphasizing both.
Indeed, Psalm 27 is in a certain way a study in contrast between those two dimensions of worship and at the same time a way of seeing how they belong together. The psalm originated as the expression of an individual believer’s heart. It is the overflow of the emotion of David’s own communion with the Lord in the daily run of his life. It was originally a private prayer about David’s trust in the Lord in teeth of life’s difficulties, especially in his case as the king, in the face of his enemies. But near as David felt the Lord to be, much as he trusted in him during his trials – what he calls “the day of trouble” – it is chiefly for the Lord’s house, for the worship of the church, the temple or tent, that David here expresses a longing for. It is there, in that worship, that the king expects to find his greatest help, assurance, and joy. You find this same thought elsewhere in David’s psalms, for example, famously in Psalm 63. David was praying out in the wilderness, being hunted by Saul, but what he was longing for was the worship of God’s house. In the Bible low worship and high worship are never pitted against one another. They are different expressions of the same reality: that the Christian owes his very life and his hope of eternal life to God and must offer his life back to God in thanksgiving, in obedience, in consecration because from God and through God and to God are all things. If God is worthy to be praised, as he is, then Christians should praise him in every conceivable way and if the Christian life is as it is always taught to be in the Word of God both a private life and a public thing, an individual and a corporate thing, then Christians should worship God both privately and together. Or, to put it another way, the life lived always in the presence of God is and must be punctuated by actual visits to the house of the Lord to participate with the saints in the worship of the Lord. [Craigie, 232]
So it is that in this series we are going to consider our public, corporate, or common worship as Christians. There are many reasons for such a series of sermons and for such a series now. There have always been many reasons for Christians to be knowledgeable about worship and to have firmly held and biblically faithful convictions concerning their practice of worship together on the Lord’s Day. And some of those reasons are made particularly urgent by the circumstances of our own times and circumstances.
- For example, among the standing reasons for a commitment to the corporate worship of the church, of the Lord’s house, is that such worship is a subject to which the Word of God devotes considerable space. Huge tracts of the Old Testament and more of the New Testament than you might think are devoted to this subject. If Holy Scripture makes it a major theme, then we are duty bound to study its teaching carefully and lay appropriate weight upon it. We are never free to pick and choose among the subjects of the Bible. We are to let the Bible teach us what it will as it will. And the Bible is full of the subject of the church’s worship and full of emphasis upon that worship.
- Second, again and again in the Bible the church’s worship is made an index of the church’s spiritual state, the quality of her faith and her obedience. A malformed or corrupt worship, or a worship badly offered is a sure sign of the church’s unbelief and disobedience. Whether it is the chicken or the egg, and I think the evidence suggests that the corruption of worship is often the cause as much as the result of a creeping unbelief among the people of God, the nature of the church’s worship is unmistakably a marker of spiritual health or ill-health. The church’s public worship is one of faith’s vital signs. So often in the Bible unbelief in the church is addressed as a problem of wrong worship, even when such worship was being offered to Yahweh himself. That is, unbelief and disobedience took wing in the church when the true God began to be worshipped in the wrong way. People thought they were worshipping the Lord God, thought they were doing it in a more relevant way, a more interesting way, a more popular way, but God saw in that worship instead the beginnings of unbelief. When God’s people worship aright, worship according to the Word of God, worship with the right sort of heart, spirit and mind, they are always safe and in the way of God’s blessing. When they begin to find other ways of worshipping God, for whatever reasons, and with whatever motives, historically, all hell has eventually broken loose.
- Third, as long as we live in this world, as long as we are growing in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord the Bible teaches us we are being prepared for the Lord’s house, our eternal home, as a house of worship. You will have noticed that all of the worship that we are given to see in heaven in the Book of Revelation is corporate worship, the worship of the church together. There is no individual worship described in Revelation. Highly individualized Americans may well think that the private worship of the believing heart must be that which most pleases the Lord, but it is not so. As we read in Psalm 87:2 (a verse that every American Christian should take time to memorize):
“The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are said of you, O city of God.”
When we are rightly worshipping together as his people, when our hearts are one in the praise of God, in the confession of our sins, in the confession of our faith, in making the promise of our lives, in enjoying communion with our God in the sacrament, we are anticipating heaven and we are doing that which comes closest to what our Savior redeemed us in order to do. Corporate or public Christian worship in this world, when rightly offered to God, is the concentrated anticipation of the life to come!
- Or, in the fourth place, I might justify this series of sermons on corporate worship because worship happens to be a very controversial subject in our time and has disturbed the church and separated Christians from one another who hold to virtually exactly the same understanding of the Christian faith. People have strong opinions and quite different opinions about how the church ought to worship our God on the Lord’s Day. Last Thursday Florence and I had lunch at a pizzeria across the street from African Bible University in Kampala, Uganda. Our guest was the choir director of a large PCA church. He was in Uganda for a week of music instruction at ABU. It is a small world! We had a fascinating conversation about worship music and choral music, sharing many views in common as we did, and, along the way in the course of the conversation, he told us about some of the controversy that they had experienced in his church, had experienced and were continuing to experience about the worship the congregation offers to God on the Lord’s Day. Some people had come to that church for their music and others had left the same church because of the same music. I doubt very many of those people could provide an intelligent argument for the worship they prefer, an argument that actually considered the salient factors concerning sung praised raised in Holy Scripture.
Fact is, in certain significant ways, we worship here at Faith Presbyterian in a manner quite unique in our local area and, some respects, relatively rare even in our Presbyterian Church in America. I am unaware of any evangelical church in the Tacoma area, apart from our own church plant in Puyallup, that worships as we do, and even Resurrection does not worship in every respect as we do. Are we right? Are we wrong? Does it make any difference? Surely when we are, as we claim, in the very presence of the living God as a congregation on a Lord’s Day, surely then of all times we ought to know what we are doing and why we are doing it and that we are doing the things God has told us in his Word we ought to do when we are before him in worship. I suppose people visit this church and decide not to stay with us probably more often because of our way of corporate worship than for any other reason. Should we continue to do what we do or should we make changes to make our worship service more similar to that of other believing churches around us? I want you all to have informed convictions about worship, biblical convictions. I want you to care about divine worship and to care about giving the Lord our very best. Even if you are not in agreement with our way of worship, I want you to know why we do what we do. We want you to know what our convictions are, we have reasons – we think they are biblical reasons – and we should all know what they are, especially if we are going to enter fully, completely, personally, intentionally with understanding into each part of that worship as it is offered to God.
- A fifth reason, a point I will make later in the series, provides still another reason for this series at this time. American evangelical Christians as a rule know very little about worship, their ministers are poorly taught in the subject, it gets very superficial attention in the Presbyterian seminary curriculum and not much of even that, and so even when they are responsible for the worship of a church they tend not to study the subject very deeply, they continue to know little about the history of Christian worship, its principles, or it controversies. We do not discuss worship very intelligently because we don’t know much about it. We tend to content ourselves with talking off the top of our heads and with opinions that have no learning behind them. Presbyterians by and large don’t know worship’s distinctive vocabulary and would be hard pressed to provide an intelligent, learned explanation for any particular thing they do in worship on a Sunday morning, even though the Sunday service is the public face of their church, the only thing that their entire church does together, and, ostensibly is the center of their ministry. We have imagined for centuries now that we know a great deal more than we do about the worship of God and how it is to be offered. It is high time we learned the full extent of our ignorance and began to correct the problem!
- But, in the final analysis, none of the foregoing reasons, important as each is, is the primary reason for this new series of morning sermons. The importance of worship is not first and foremost its controversial aspects or its power to divide Christians from one another; it is not even its power to train us for heaven or the danger of corrupt worship. Indeed, there is a better reason to study worship than even the large place given to the subject in Holy Scripture. What I want to say is that there is nothing theoretical, nothing merely doctrinal about an interest in the worship services in which we participate Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. It is an intensely practical matter with enormous implications for our living of the Christian life.
The great importance of this subject and so the justification for this new series of sermons on our public worship lies in the fact that Sunday worship, for better or for worse, more profoundly than anything else in life, has power to shape or form our persons as Christians. Worship not only shapes in a deep and permanent way our understanding of reality, our view of God, our view of sin and salvation, our view of the world, of our life in the world, and our view of our eternal destiny. Worship also shapes our character, expresses and directs our desires and longings, and strengthens or, alas, weakens our proper loves. We are, in many ways and to a degree I think few of us realize, we are as we worship on the Lord’s Day and our corporate worship actually forms our very selves in extraordinarily important ways. Worship in a profound and often unrecognized way forms what we are nowadays inclined to call a Christian worldview, a philosophy of our life. At least worship ought to do that. I would say it inevitably does, but poor worship does it poorly. We might equally say that corporate worship is the greatest – it is not the only to be sure but it is the greatest – instrument or engine of Christian discipleship. But worship forms more than merely our thinking; it forms our wishing and our hoping and our longing and our loving; forms them, animates them, strengthens them, and preserves them. More than any other means, public worship shapes the Christian mind, the Christian heart and the Christian life; that is, the entire Christian personality. It forms and then strengthens the conscience and makes vivid the unseen world. But most Christians do not realize this, in part because poor worship influences them much less than it should, and in part because some Christians do not agree that public worship has this profound, subtle and pervasive influence in forming our personalities, or have never thought about its power to do so.
If you had asked a typical evangelical Christian in the days of my youth what was it that really made the difference between a great Christian life and an also-ran, mediocre Christian life – what was it that would separate the men from the boys so to speak in spiritual things – he would have been very likely to answer: “Your Quiet Time.” In 1947 a pamphlet entitled Quiet Time was published by InterVarsity Press. It ran through many editions and hundreds of printings and sooner or later virtually every evangelical Christian young person read that pamphlet. There was nothing wrong with the pamphlet; it is quite fine in fact in its emphasis on daily Bible reading and personal prayer, on personal, private communion with God every day. Such also was the great emphasis of a number of prominent ministries of discipleship in those days. Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, emphasized nothing so much as the daily communion of the soul with the Lord. And, of course, daily communion with God is essential.
But in those years there was rarely if ever any counter emphasis on the Lord’s Day worship of the church, a subject that receives vastly more attention and emphasis in the Bible. We read David’s psalms as manuals of private worship and we missed the rather obvious fact that he considered the church’s worship more precious to him and more important to his life and that those same psalms functioned in their final state as hymns for the public worship of the church. The emphasis on public worship that is found everywhere in the Bible was omitted in the teaching of the Christian life in the years in which I was being raised in the church. It never occurred to me as a boy and then a young man that the Lord’s Day worship of the church did more to form my Christian person, shape my desires and affections, and direct my priorities in life than my daily personal communion with God was going to do. My Quiet Time – personal prayer and Bible reading – that would tell the tale. That is what I was taught and that was what I believed. And, to be sure, our worship services in those days had relatively little power to shape the person in the way they might have. They were largely thoughtless, they lacked important biblical emphases, and were dominated by the sermon. They were more sermon services than worship services. The preacher himself spoke of those services as “the preliminaries and the sermon.” Christians suffered under that system and withered under it and didn’t even realize it was happening!
That was not the worship service we are taught in the Bible. Again and again we learn in Holy Scripture that the church’s worship will tell the tale over time, will either make or break a deeply godly life. Worship will define our life by shaping what we live for and why, and how strongly we feel those convictions. It gives animation to our faith, hope, and love and by forming in us the habits of a life lived from, to, and for God. Why after all does the Bible contain such large tracts of teaching and regulation concerning worship, concerning the rituals that were to be repeated endlessly in the worship of God’s people? Because those rituals have the power to form our lives at their foundation!
Man is a creature of worship: homo adorans. In some ways man is more homo adorans than even homo sapiens: he is more a worshipper than he is a thinker. He is a creature that desires, that longs for things, that is moved and stirred by things, a creature who loves and whose loving more profoundly shapes his life than even his thinking. It is this that makes Christian worship so critical to Christian experience and the Christian life: it is a concentration of life, of our very selves. Every Lord’s Day we return to our truest selves, express in powerful ways the longings of our hearts, rekindle our aspirations, purify our motives and set clearly before ourselves the goal or the end or the purpose of our lives. Worship, by animating our affections – by which I mean our emotions, our attitudes, and our loves and hatreds – and setting them on holy things, purifies them; and sends them on their way to creating a godly, a faithful, and a fruitful human life. If we do not worship God we will worship something else instead. Human beings always worship, they cannot help themselves; and their lives will be as their worship, they cannot help that either.
So the most fundamental question of any human life is: what does this man, this woman worship. And the great importance of right worship is that it creates a person who worships what he should how he should. Wrong worship often deceives even a Christian into thinking he is worshipping one thing when he or she is worshipping another. This is what has happened so often in the church’s past. In the words of our Lord Jesus, the living God was honored with the church’s lips, but the church’s heart was far from him. And what was the proof of that? They worshipped God in vain, not according to the Word of God but according to the traditions of men. [Mark 7:7] They had decided themselves how they were going to worship God and that wrong worship, while they thought they were offering it to God, was in fact taking them away from him.
I read recently a fascinating analysis of modern American culture as a culture of worship with the mall as the sanctuary. We don’t naturally think of the mall as a temple, but the more I read this analysis the more I realized that that is precisely what it is, nowadays, and those who go there are, in many ways, worshippers in that temple. The liturgy of the mall sets before its worshippers who make pilgrimage there the good life, not a life of moral goodness, the mall has nothing to say about that, but of success, pleasure, acceptance, and fulfillment. The mall is not simply a market where necessary products are purchased. This is the worship of a highly evangelistic and now catholic or worldwide faith, the faith of materialistic consumerism. It is, alas, now a much more unified vision of life than that of the fractured faiths of the older religions such as Islam or Christianity. Listen to this:
“Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped by and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall – the liturgies of mall and market – that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, [what saves us, what makes us happy] which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our own desires and actions.”
“…liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.” [J.K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 25-26]
It is not hard to see how all of this is so. We know how familiar everyone is with the world of the mall, its priests and its rituals: from the sales clerk to the cashier, the changing rooms, the shopping bags, the exchanges, the many different stores selling the same kinds of things from which we are free to choose. This is a sanctuary in which one is taught not to leave until one is happy. Nor is it difficult to see the religious vision of the mall: the redeemed are those who have acquired the things the mall has to sell them that will give them pleasure, makes them feel at peace with the world, and perhaps most profoundly, makes them feel young. The mall is not really a place for older people. It is a spiritual culture, worship for the young, for those who can still believe that what they buy will fulfill their lives.
On Wednesday of last week, in the chapel service of African Bible University, Dr. Palmer Robertson recalled his days at African Bible College in Malawi where he had taught before assuming the leadership of the new campus in Kampala, Uganda. He remembered some of the Malawian proverbs that he had learned while he taught there. One memorable proverb went like this: “No one ever walks through the hind legs of an elephant twice.” Important words to live by! Another Malawian proverb is: “If you are ugly, learn to sing.” But here is another one, more serious: “Where the elders are the grass is green.” That is certainly a biblical idea. The goal of life is maturity, experience, and the wisdom, faith, and thoughtfulness that can come only from years of walking with the Lord, with your Bible in your hand as your faith is shaped by the experiences of life and by the constant worship in God’s house. In the Bible and in many human societies – though none any longer in the Western world – youth is not and never has been the goal of a well-lived life. What you want to attain is a seasoned life that is undisturbed by the alarums of the world. But that is not the redemption, that is not the good life that is promised at the mall; that is not what the worshippers in that sanctuary are seeking, that is not the end toward which the rituals of the mall direct the soul. The ritual of the mall does not form in its worshippers a love of maturity in mind and life, the soundness of judgment that comes with age and is able to distinguish between the fleeting and the permanent, between the trivial and the genuinely important. The mall would perish if too many Americans ever grew up!
Nor in the worship of the mall will you find any inkling of God in his glory as the Creator of heaven and earth, nothing of his nature as a consuming fire, nothing of the last judgment, nothing of the moral nature of human life, nothing of eternity at all. No wonder a society of people who make pilgrimage to the mall and practice its rituals hardly ever think of such things! Their hearts, minds and selves have not been formed by those rituals to think of God or care for him. How different they must be who make their pilgrimage instead to the house of the Lord, who are there more often than they are at a mall, and practice with a full heart the rituals of his house!
And we could speak of other institutions that have liturgies in similar ways and that convey a view of salvation and of the good life and of saints and sinners as surely and powerfully as any church service. We could speak of the sports stadium or arena as a sanctuary full of worshippers or of the university with its promise of a good life and the rituals of American higher education that are to form the person who aspires to that life. All around us are worshippers performing their rituals and all around us those rituals form a particular kind of person. We want to think that we ourselves have simply created in our minds our vision of life and that is what we are becoming. It is not so for any human being. It never has been.
This is precisely what we learn of Christian worship everywhere we turn in Holy Scripture. The rituals of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, constantly repeated, not only shape our understanding of ourselves and of God, they create and sustain our desires and loves in specific ways, and form the sort of people we become. That is, worship ought to do that for Christians. But to do so it must be right worship rightly offered. That is what makes the subject of what rituals our worship ought to contain and how they ought to be performed so vitally, personally and practically important. And, thankfully, everywhere we look in Holy Scripture we find in the church’s worship the very rituals that are designed to create a certain reality in the Christian mind and heart. Worship is meant to leave its mark and it will, for good or ill. We want and need it to be for good.
Gratitude to God is formed in the expression of praise, more powerful expressions than the individual can manage by himself or herself and in the experience of the forgiveness of sins. Humility and the love of it is formed in the confession of sins. Faith is formed by the constant repetition of the Word of God. Love is nurtured in the giving of gifts and so on. As these rituals become habits, the desires associated with them become deeply fixed in the heart and the conscience and the life.
You parents know well how the rituals of your home shape the character of your children and eventually ineradicably instill in them the loves and hatreds of a truly Christian heart, from which every part of a true Christian experience and a true Christian obedience will come. Your family circle has its rituals and by their constant repetition a child comes to love what you love, to hate what you hate, to aspire to what you aspire to, and so on. The heart takes its shape by the repetition of ritual, whether the confession and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, or by grace said at table or by the giving and receiving of love between parents and children or by the constant correction of bad behavior when it occurs. These things do not function once for all, but by repetition they form the deep structures of our lives.
Worship is not, as some of you and you young people especially might be tempted to think, simply that obedience you are required to perform every Sunday. It is the vital center of your life. More than you realize it is what more than anything else will make you the person you ought to be. It is, in fact, what will make you the person you will become, like it or not, for good or for ill. But right worship, rightly offered: everything good in your life will come from that.
And that is why David, who enjoyed wonderful intimacy with the Lord God every day would nevertheless say:
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”