Worship and Witness


 


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This morning we conclude this series of sermons on the high worship of the Christian church, the Lord’s Day worship of the congregation. It is, we said, a subject we ought to address from time to time, being the main thing we do as a church and the only thing that we do all together and given the emphasis placed on right worship in the Bible. In twelve sermons we have considered 1) the practical importance of this worship as the primary engine of Christian discipleship, the event and the activity more full of consequence than any regular event in a Christian’s life; so says Holy Scripture; 2) we noted that the entire Bible, OT and NT alike is the authority for this worship and the source of its regulation; 3) we considered the nature of this worship as a) conversation with God, b) the renewal of our covenant with him, and c) a recapitulation of the gospel, a going over that holy ground every Lord’s Day to re-center us in the salvation of God; 4) we argued that this worship is action in every part and element, a service in which the congregation, far from being a spectator, is an active participant; 5) we noted that in the Bible this worship should offered by the whole man, body and soul together; 6) we spoke of the register in which this worship ought to be offered to God, the need for the ministry and the congregation to aspire to the highest register of artistry in music, architecture, preaching, etc of which it is capable; 7) that, all the more in our day, the church’s worship must hold before the congregation the majesty of God so that we remain impressed with the importance of fearing him as well as loving and trusting him; and, finally, 8) we argued last time, from this same Psalm 145, that our worship must continue the heritage of Christian worship through the long reach of the history of the kingdom of God, and, though in the forms of our own culture, be obviously and intentionally the ritual of the Christian ages. Along the way we have considered the elements of a properly ordered liturgy, as we learn them in the Word of God, the importance of their order in the ritual, the place of Word and sacrament as the two major foci of a Christian service of worship, and so on.

For our final sermon, another subject sermon, I chose to introduce our subject with the same text I read last week in regard to the sermon on “Worship and History.” I am particularly interested in v. 12.

Text Comment

Psalm 145 is the last psalm of David in the Psalter and the last of eight acrostic psalms, psalms in which each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. You will notice that the psalm has 21 verses though, as you may know, the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. The letter nun, or “n” is missing in the Massoretic Text of Psalm 145, the Hebrew text that underlies all English translations of the Old Testament. That is to say, the verse that would begin with nun is missing. But the ancient translations of this psalm had a verse that started with “n” in its proper place in the psalm, and now we have a manuscript of the psalm from Qumran that also has a verse beginning with “n” in its proper place. You will see that the editors of the ESV have placed that verse in brackets between verses 13 and 14 where it belongs in the order of Hebrew letters and where it is found in the texts that have it. The verse beginning with the Hebrew letter “n”  almost surely accidently fell out of the text and is properly restored to it, though rather than confuse everyone the editors of the ESV did not renumber the verses after 13.

v. 12    The point is not that Christians will go from church and tell others about Christ. They should certainly do that, but in historical context that is not the sense of the verse—the Israelites were not evangelists per se. There is no great commission in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible. Rather, the making known to the children of men happens in worship and through worship. It happens in the very singing of this psalm!

It is not only here that the worship of the saints is said to bear witness to the world of God and his works. It is a theme that appears again and again in the Bible. Sometimes we have it in a similar statement as here in Psalm 145:12, for example, in Psalm 105:1:

“Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!”

In such a case it is the worship of the congregation that spreads the fame of the Lord abroad. Sometimes the obligation is more specific, as when the Apostle Paul speaks of the impression made upon an unbelieving visitor who happens to be present in the church’s worship (1 Cor. 14:23). Paul there is concerned that Christian worship leave the right kind of impression upon  unbelievers who witness it directly.

John Calvin made a point of speaking of the church’s worship as having a greater purpose than simply the benefits that it conveys to the church and to individual Christians. It also serves, he said, as a testimony to the world. And it does this, Calvin thought, in two quite different ways. First it testifies to the presence, the nature of God, his goodness, and his grace to the world – that is, the world comes to know what is said and done in Christian worship and is affected by that testimony – and, second, the same worship serves as an act of separation. That is, the church gathering for worship, singing God’s praise, confessing their sins to him and receiving forgiveness, confessing their faith in him, hearing his Word with a promise to obey, eating and drinking before him, all of this very clearly and firmly delineates the difference between the church and the world. One way our worship bears witness to the world, in other words, is that it publicly demonstrates that those who are not there are not Christians and do not belong to the household of God.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us that one purpose of the sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – is to “put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world (XXVII, i).” Well what is true of the sacraments is true of every part of a well-ordered worship service – the singing of praise, the offering of prayers, the hearing of the Word of God, the giving of offerings – all of this puts a visible difference between those who belong to the Church and the rest of the world. And by defining that difference in the different ways a worship service does it raises a testimony to the world on behalf of the truth and advertises in a public way what is missing from the unbelieving life. [cf. J.D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding, 144-145]

In other words, we worship God not only because it is right that we do so, not only because we need what that worship is appointed to convey to our hearts and lives, but also that men and women may be witnesses of our worship and may follow our example. Remember what the Lord said to the woman at the well: the Heavenly Father is seeking people to worship him in spirit and in truth. In our worship we are showing such people the way and inviting them to walk in it.

Now, this happens in many different ways. Naturally enough, we wonder what sort of influence our worship might have upon our society and our culture given the fact that the unbelieving community is not present in our services, certainly not present in numbers. How will what we do in church of a Lord’s Day affect their way of thinking about God and about life if they are not there to see what we do and hear what we say? Well, in fact, in many ways. They do see what we do and hear what we say.

I doubt many of us realize the extent to which Christian worship has left its mark on our society and on every society in which the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has really been established. Worship as a Sunday service has left a mark, more so than, for example, preaching has left a mark. That mark, that influence may indeed be fading in our time, but it has been and is nevertheless still considerable.

For example, think about the effect of the presence of so many Christian sanctuaries that dot the landscape of our land. Everywhere you go there are churches, buildings built for no other purpose but divine worship. People in some of those churches may no longer worship God, but the building was constructed in the first place for that purpose and that purpose only. Everyone knows what such structures are for and there is nothing like them anywhere else in the architecture of our culture. And no one should mistake the aura of sanctity that still attaches to such sacred space. One walks into such a church, no matter the Christian denomination and no matter the observer’s faith or lack of faith, and one finds himself or herself in a different world. Consciously or unconsciously the observer must admit: “There is a people, whether or not I am among them, that gathers here to worship God.” The cumulative effect of all of this public and objective demonstration of the practice of Christian worship, I’m quite sure, is to make many more people think there is a God than would think so otherwise!

When Solomon spoke of worshippers at a distance praying toward the temple in Jerusalem, or when he spoke of aliens, non-Israelites praying at the temple, he was acknowledging the tremendous impact upon the collective soul that a sanctuary can have. It is, I think, a great loss, that for the first time in thousands of years this fact seems to escape many Christian leaders. We have folk in this congregation who have their devotions in our sanctuary during the week, just as many have long turned aside to enter a church when they have felt the need to pray..] It is, after all, a house of prayer, using that term “prayer” in its larger, grander sense. The sanctuary itself bears silent but powerful witness to God.

Is there no connection between the fact that the Pacific Northwest is a virulently unbelieving culture and the fact that there are so many fewer churches dotting our landscape than one would find in other parts of the country? I have often commented to people that one very obvious difference between taking off at SEA-TAC airport and at other American airports is that once one has reached the tree line he sees so many fewer church steeples. A culture is inclined to believe in God, at least in some fashion, when they see his houses of worship everywhere they look.

Another means by which Christian worship has impressed the reality of God and the truth about him upon the society and culture is through the music of worship. When asked what message he thought we should send to other civilizations in the rocket sent out into space some years ago, the biologist Lewis Thomas of the Sloan-Kettering Institute replied, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Then he paused and added, “But that would be boasting.” [Cited in W.F. Buckley, Happy Days, 444] But, of course, much of Bach’s music and much of the most celebrated of his music was music for the church and for the worship of the people of God. Whether the passions or the cantatas, the hymn arrangements or the chorales, this was the music of Christian worship. Indeed, it was a principle of Bach to insist that even his elaborate compositions remain church music. [W. Gurlitt, J.S. Bach, 115-116] And so it has been that if a person comes to love the great music of the Western tradition, like it or not, much of what he will love is the music of the church and of the church’s worship of God. In the past the church produced the noblest arts to adorn her praise of God. And the culture couldn’t help noticing.

What is true of Bach is true of much of the canon of Western music. You can measure the impact of church music, music for Christian worship still today by how much of it makes its way into Hollywood movie scores and how much of it continues to be sung in settings of naked unbelief. Florence and I had the pleasure of hearing the Seattle Symphony and Symphony Chorus perform Handel’s Messiah last Christmas and, of course, everyone stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus” and heard the praises of the Lord Christ sung straight from Holy Scripture, praises which otherwise most people in that hall that night would never hear. Who in America today has not heard in a variety of forms John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” and who does not know its opening line:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Lest you forget, that is the music of Christian worship and its text is the theology of the Christian gospel, but it is also a piece of the fabric of American culture, as is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and, strange to say, the lovely mid-20th century English hymn Morning Has Broken. One of the most discouraging aspects of contemporary Christian music is that it partakes of the disposable quality of top-40 songs and is unlikely to leave such a mark or make such an impression upon the culture as a whole. A work has to become a hymn widely sung in the church and sung for many years before the culture comes to know it. You never hear contemporary Christian music being sung or played in Hollywood movies because it is indistinguishable; it is not identifiable as the music of the church and of Christian worship. The witness of Christian worship is weakening in our culture for this reason.

But the influence of Christian worship percolates through the culture in still more ways. The other day I heard a commentator use the famous phrase “God moves in mysterious ways.” I’m sure if he had been asked where that phrase came from he would not have known. He probably would have guessed that it came from the Bible, like other famous biblical phrases, such as “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” But the fact is, the line comes from a William Cowper hymn, a hymn we have in our hymnal and continue to sing because it so beautifully encapsulates the Christian doctrine of the providence of God. The simple fact is that in whatever way that phrase entered and was stored in the furniture of that man’s mind – and many others like it – it originated in the worship of the Christian church.

But there is another important way that Christian worship bears witness to our culture, or, at least, has in the past and ought to today.

It is Christian worship that almost alone in our culture now bears a regular and public witness to the seriousness of life, to the supreme majesty of God in comparison with the finitude and sinfulness of man, and to the burden of eternity. Here is P.T. Forsyth, the English Congregationalist, writing in the middle of the last century, making a point still more obviously true in our day than it was in his.

“There are few dangers threatening the religious future more serious than the shallowing of the religious mind… Our safety is in the deep. The lazy cry for simplicity is a great danger. It indicates a frame of mind which is only appalled at the great things of God, and a senility of faith which fears that which is high. Men complain that they are jaded and cannot rise to such matters. That may mean that the matters of the world absorb all the energies of the great side of the soul, that divine things are no more than a comfort. And, if so, it means much for the future of religion, and much which is ominous. And the poverty of our worship amid its very refinements, its lack of solemnity…is the fatal index of the peril.” [Cited in Wells, God in the Wasteland, 118]

Fact is, we are all going to die, sooner than any of us thinks. Eternity looms before us and before eternity the great Day of Judgment. These are impossibly solemn things. If true, they make every other interest, every other consideration in human life to pale in comparison. In a universe in which there is a hell – and a great many people, including people we would not regard as Christian believers, still believe there is such a place and such a state – I say in a universe in which there is a hell and in which there is the possibility of being cast forever from the presence of God, that prospect cannot be ignored or forgotten without utterly denaturing human life.

Think of the gate to hell that Dante described in one of the opening cantos of his Inferno, upon the arch of which gate was written:

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain…
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things created were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

There is a great deal of hell already in our world. We see it and smell it everywhere we look. But so superficial, so sentimental, so thoughtless is our culture, our society that few people ever give a serious thought to the possibility much less the actual prospect of divine judgment. Where in all of human life do we find a public witness borne to the solemnity of human life and to the eternal value of a human life; a life so valuable, so morally consequential that it must last forever in weal or woe? There is but one place, and I fear in many cases it is disappearing even from there: the worship of the Christian church.

If there is one thing that the gospel of Jesus Christ should make a man or woman it is serious. The substance of the Gospel is profoundly serious. The issues it raises are impossibly serious. Christian worship is supposed to reinforce that seriousness, banish lightheartedness and levity and replace it with weighty joy. Rightly ordered and offered Christian worship will always do this and has always done this. It is why unbelievers still want to get married in a church, it is why people stop by the church to ask if I would baptize their baby – a solemnity that reassures them precisely because it is a solemnity –, it is why William and Kate sang Christian hymns and heard Christian words spoken at their wedding, and it is why so many people who are not Christians nevertheless want Christian words to be spoken at the funerals of their loved ones. There is something serious, something profound and deep, something redolent of sanctity and majesty that is very difficult to find anywhere else in our culture nowadays. These are things for which the heart of a human being craves because he or she is made in the image of the everlasting and eternal God, and has been created for higher, nobler, holier things.

Look, unbelievers know they do wrong. Chesterton was certainly right when he spoke of the uneasy conscience as the most universal of human experiences. People know they are sinners. They may not know the half of their sin, but they know that they don’t meet the moral standards they themselves accept and hold others to. But they don’t make it personal. They never make it personal. They don’t typically accept that they have personally offended God himself. That they have acted against him. They never think that they have repudiated God’s rule and as much as spit in his face. They never think that! But in the distance they hear the echo of a congregation confessing its sins to God and receiving forgiveness from him; they see as it were in dim shadows a congregation of Christians bowing before the Living God and acknowledging his absolute authority over their lives. It is their only hope to see that through the shadows and the mists of life and to hear that through the din of modern life.

But, you ask, do they hear that; do they see that, even dimly? Yes they do. In a thousand ways the witness of a Christian congregation seeps out into the culture. In early Christianity, not at the beginning but several centuries later and only for a time, the practice was widespread that only baptized Christians could remain for the second half of the Sunday service. This was clearly not a practice of apostolic Christianity; it developed later under the influence of the mystery religions and, thankfully, did not last very long. It was called the disciplina arcana, the “secret discipline.” Not only non-Christians but even catechumens, those being prepared for baptism, had to leave the service after the sermon. What is more, unlike the early apologists for Christianity, such as Justin Martyr, they did not describe or explain what the congregation did behind closed doors. The idea was to keep it a secret until after a person’s baptism qualified him or her for participation in the Lord’s Supper. This created some confusion and misunderstanding and led to some sinister rumors among the large numbers of people coming into the church or curious about her now that Christianity had been formally recognized in the empire. What were those Christians doing behind closed doors? Was there cannibalism going on? After all, they talked about eating flesh and drinking blood. Was there incest being practiced? They talked of one another as brothers and sisters. And so on.

But the fact is, the character of Christian worship, its shape and substance nevertheless, no matter the effort made to keep it quiet, did become known and people did learn both the what and the why of Christian worship. And a great witness to the truth was raised in the culture by that means. It is an immeasurable advantage to evangelism when the people to whom a Christian speaks are already to some extent familiar with the message. That familiarity is what the public witness of worship has always provided: it has prepared the ground for sowing.

The fact of the matter is that the world has always been fascinated by Christian worship. It can’t help itself. It is drawn to it either in revulsion or in longing. Why? Because God is there; because in it human beings are actually relating to the Living God. And because in every human heart has been buried a sense of this God who draws near every time a Christian congregation gathers for worship.

This public, relentless witness is the value and the worth of Christian worship in another way. All of this, of course, is beside its primary purposes: besides the offering of love and thanksgiving to God by a justly grateful people and besides the salutary effect of rightly ordered and sincerely offered worship on the hearts and lives of individual Christians whose light, as a result of their participation in worship on the Lord’s day, should shine more brightly and who, because of the impact of that worship on them, will be more often asked to give a reason for the hope that they have.

But to have such effects and to bear such witness to the culture, Christian worship must be rightly ordered and rightly offered. Hence this sermon series which is now complete. As Christian worship becomes less and less what it has historically been, is less and less the worship taught us in Holy Scripture, its witness will fade and with it the culture’s sense of God and of the reality of his presence in the world.

There are many things you can do as an individual Christian; we are more likely to spend time talking about those things. But there are also many things of great consequence you can do only as part of the church. These things get less of our attention though they may prove to be some of the most important things that we do. And one of those things is to be an active contributor to worship that bears a consistent and constant witness to the world around us that God lives, that he is our maker and our lives belong to him; that he is the Great King, the judge of all the earth; that he is a God of boundless and endless love, that he has made terrible sacrifices to redeem the world from sin and death, that he has called us to live a life like his own in purity, peace, and love, that he will enable us so to live that life by his grace and Spirit, and that he will never turn away anyone who comes to him in faith.

That is what the world must know – to be honest that is all the world absolutely has to know – and it’s ours to remind her of these greatest of all things every Lord’s Day.