READ : Psalm 84:1-12
Worship comes in as many forms and styles as there are cultures and people. However, cutting across all of the variations, the focus of worship should be on Christ helping us to remember that it’s God’s nourishment sustaining us and not our own effort.
In today’s program we focus on the subject of Christian worship. Think about worship for just a moment. What sort of sounds and associations does that word trigger for you? Worship comes in as many forms and styles as there are cultures and people. In fact, the most important source book for contemporary Christian worship isn’t American, or contemporary, or even Christian. It’s the Jewish Psalter of the Old Testament. Here is Words of Hope broadcast minister David Bast with some reflections on worship drawn from one of the great Psalms of worship, Psalm 84.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. . . .
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. O Lord Almighty, blessed is the [one] who trusts in you.
Psalm 84, NIV
The 84th Psalm is a song for worshipers of God. It is the testimony of a person who loves the Temple, the House of God, who misses it and yearns for it with all his heart. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!,” he sings. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord . . .” (v. 1ff.). In this song the Psalmist sings of his longing for God’s house, but really it’s for God himself – “my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (v. 2).
Apparently something was preventing this man from going to Jerusalem and worshiping in the Temple there. Perhaps he was in exile, far from home, or maybe he just lived some distance away and was waiting for his turn to come for the Temple duty. Whatever the case, the psalmist misses the courts of the Lord’s house from which he has been too long absent. The song describes his envy at all those who, unlike himself, live permanently within the Temple precincts. He even includes the sparrows and swallows that nested in the open-air colonnades which ringed the courtyards of the Temple.
Some time ago I was in Calcutta, India. I was at a meeting in the old Anglican cathedral in the city center. It was a warm, sunny day, and the windows were open. As I sat near the front of the church, I noticed swift-flying birds darting in and out of the building. They had built their nests among the ceiling beams near the east wall, high above the altar. I couldn’t help but think of this verse: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God” (v. 3).
Like those birds, I sometimes long for a place of quietness and safety, a holy place, a sanctuary from the noise that fills our world. Working and playing, buying and selling, accumulating goods, adding up experiences, chasing ambition, pursuing pleasure, listening to the loud clamor of all the voices telling us where to find it – don’t you ever get tired of it all? Don’t you wish you could stop for a while and let the silence flood over you, and feel awe in the presence of the Creator?
“Blessed are those who dwell in your house,” this ancient songwriter says; “they are ever praising you” (v. 4). This man’s real longing was not for a place or a building but for the living God. He wanted to stay in the Temple not because of the happy memories or nostalgic associations of that place. Now, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but that isn’t what moved the Psalmist. Nor was it that he merely was filled with the desire to recapture some kind of exciting experience. It wasn’t so much the songs that he missed, or the music, or the sights and the sounds and the smells of the worship ceremonies. Or if it was those things, the psalmist only missed them insofar as they enabled him to enter into a deeper experience, the reality of knowing God, the experience of the presence of God. The reason Temple dwellers were blessed is because they were always engaged in worshiping God, and that meant they could come into contact with the person of God himself. Their lives were given over to praise and fellowship with God – and believe it or not, that’s the highest joy any human being can attain.
Coming back to the Temple once again, the psalmist expresses his preference for this place instead of any other place, in no uncertain terms. “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (v. 10). The term “doorkeeper” might conjure up for us an image of a man in a funny suit standing in front of a hotel calling taxis and opening car doors for people in expensive clothing. But in fact, the doorkeepers at the Temple were responsible for all sorts of service. It wasn’t glamorous or exciting work, but it was important. The singer of Psalm 84 testifies, “I would rather have the lowest job in God’s house than live like a king in the world’s palaces.” Just to be near God, to know him, to live in his presence, even humbly, is better than the very best that the world can offer.
There are incomparable privileges and indescribable blessings for those who know and love God. This psalm is rich with both, telling us what God is, what he gives, and what he reserves for those who are his own. He is our sun and shield, the source of all life and light and blessing, as well as the protection from all harm and danger. He gives favor and blessing, grace and glory. And he withholds . . . nothing. “He holds back nothing good from those whose lives are his” (v. 11, NIrV; cf. Rom. 8:32). And that is why we worship.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN WITVLIET
David Bast: Worship is one of those things everyone knows what it is, but do we really? How would you define worship?
John Witvliet: I think we use the term worship to describe the praise that we offer God where we ascribe worth to God and say that God is at the center of our life, and that’s one meaning of the term, but another meaning of the term is when we use it to refer to the worship service that happens on Sunday morning, and that includes praise but includes a lot of other things too. It includes our listening to God and our celebrations of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and it’s a related use of the term but it’s distinct.
David Bast: Let’s talk a little bit about the worship service because that’s the context, I suppose, in which most of us will associate the action or the activity. It seems like today there’s a movement in at least evangelical churches to almost define worship as singing. You’ll even hear people in a worship context say, “We’re going to devote this period now to worship.” And what they mean is singing songs for twenty minutes or so.
John Witvliet: Exactly.
David Bast: There’s more to it than that.
John Witvliet: I think so. I think they’re using that term worship in the first sense we talked about, in the sense of praise, but I like to think of the worship service as a way to live out, to enact, the whole relationship we have with God, and that involves both speaking and it involves listening, and the back and forth of communication with God, listening to God’s Word and then responding. And our response comes in so many different forms. It comes in praise but it also comes in acts of dedication, confession of sin, and when life isn’t going well, lament. I mean, biblical faith gives us models for honest prayer before God in all these different ways.
David Bast: So it’s not just one kind of thing that involves us in worship or even one kind of mood or feeling.
John Witvliet: Right, in fact, I think that one way to think about Sunday morning is to think about: Are we balanced and honest in our approach before God? Is there a balanced diet of all these different responses, of praise, dedication, confession, lament?
David Bast: Would you say it’s possible to worship without emotion?
John Witvliet: I think that one of the mistakes that we’ve fallen into in some parts of the church is equating worship and emotion. Emotion certainly is involved, but we shouldn’t think that true worship involves conjuring up a certain emotion. That’s one of the things that Christian faith delivers us from. We’re not conjuring up a certain emotion. We’re receiving God’s gifts of grace and that may involve great exuberance or it may involve great contemplation on our part, contemplating the mysteries of God and the grace of God, but the beautiful thing of the Christian gospel is that worship isn’t dependent on creating a certain emotion.
David Bast: Yes. Sometimes I think we feel or maybe people in general feel that they haven’t really worshiped unless they’ve triggered a real strong emotional reaction or response.
John Witvliet: Exactly. I like to think of the emotions in worship as a byproduct of what’s happening and not the main ingredient. Or it’s not the main purpose of what we’re doing.
David Bast: And different emotions are appropriate.
John Witvliet: Exactly.
David Bast: Not always just celebration.
John Witvliet: The beautiful thing about the Christian faith is that we are led to an honest relationship with God. You can’t have an honest relationship, humanly speaking, and have it be just all happy all the time. Life isn’t that way. And God invites us to come to him at any point in our life journey.
David Bast: I was thinking earlier about the whole question of body language in worship and posture in worship. And in one way contemporary worship has reinjected that for many of us. Many of us grew up in evangelical churches where it was pretty much “Sit still” and the only body language might be, “Bow your head in prayer.” But that’s changed, hasn’t it?
John Witvliet: Exactly. And some churches, of course, emphasize bodied exuberance, raising of hands and clapping, and other churches emphasize in body penitence as people kneel for prayer. There aren’t too many churches that do both.
David Bast: But that might be good.
John Witvliet: I think so. I think in moving toward more holistic, honest, balanced worship, I’d love to see more churches do both and not just one or the other.
THE RECIPROCAL NATURE OF WORSHIP
As David talked further with Dr. Witvliet about worship, they began to explore the reciprocal nature of worship – the fact that in worship we not only give something to God (our praise and thanks and love and our sorrows and burdens as well), but we also receive something from God. Worship is a spiritual filling station. It is the time and place where God gives us nourishment for the journey.
John Witvliet: It’s a giving and receiving, like any relationship that flourishes. It happens when we both give and receive, and that’s the joy, whether it’s in a marriage or a relationship of parent and child. Isn’t it interesting that we use that use term relationship to speak of what we have with God. I believe that’s what the Bible teaches and what we live out in worship, so it’s the joy of giving and receiving really.
David Bast: Worship is much more necessary for us than it is for God.
John Witvliet: Oh, that would be right.
David Bast: We’re not providing something that God needs from us, I mean, he’s complete in himself.
John Witvliet: One of the beautiful images for what happens in worship is that we receive nourishment for our spiritual journey and the Lord’s Supper, that’s certainly a central image, but really for all parts of worship, the preaching that we hear, scripture that’s read, sacraments that are celebrated, and the prayers that we offer are part of nourishment on the way, and we can’t live without it.
David Bast: You mentioned just a little bit ago the Lord’s Supper, and this is another thing that strikes me. The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, as many Christians call it, is really the focal point for most Christians’ worship in the world. If you just take the totality of the Christian church, most people find that as the center point, but it isn’t really the center point of worship for evangelicals.
John Witvliet: Often it functions sort of as an appendix to the worship service, or it happens fairly infrequently and I love the idea of balance in worship, balance of word and sacrament that we receive God’s gifts to us through the word and in the sacraments. It’s a reciprocal relationship between those two.
David Bast: Why do you think it is that evangelical worship has tended to kind of shortchange the sacraments or the Lord’s Supper in particular?
John Witvliet: Part of it may be a reluctance to give importance to something that is so embodied, that’s so physical and involves touching and the breaking of bread and eating, and some of it probably involves a theological understanding that says this is just a mere memory exercise to help us recall Jesus’ death rather than thinking of it as spiritual nourishment for our walk with God today.
David Bast: Yes. And maybe a bit of a fear of idolatry.
John Witvliet: Exactly. Yes, fear of idolatry, fear of superstition, fear that people will think that somehow this will automatically bring God’s grace in their life.
David Bast: But a right understanding of what that act means can be very enriching, can’t it, to our worship lives?
John Witvliet: Exactly right. It’s spiritual nourishment for us. It’s one of the ways God has given us to draw us closer. Think of it a little bit like a wedding ring and a marriage ceremony. It doesn’t have meaning in and of itself but it’s a beautiful expression, not just a symbol but an active expression of what is happening there, and it’s a little bit like that with our relationship with God.
David Bast: Yes. It’s a means of acting out our taking Christ and receiving Christ.
John Witvliet: And to do so with the congregation, with people who are gathered, and we can’t worship on the Internet. We need to be together as Christians and to take the bread and the cup with other people as a strong sign of our unity and togetherness. That’s very powerful in this world that’s so fragmented, I think.
David Bast: Yes. We were speaking earlier about a book by a Scottish theologian James Torrence. The book’s called Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, and I was very taken by his thesis and I know you appreciate it too, but let me just read for you how he defines worship. He says that “worship is participating through the Spirit in the communion the Son has with the Father. It’s a gift of grace.” React to that.
John Witvliet: I think often when we worship, we sometimes picture God in our own minds as rather far away and sometimes as a little boy I used to picture God as sort of up in front through that stained-glass window in the front of church. It was a child-like way of thinking about where God was but God is present with us. God’s Spirit works in our hearts. God’s Son perfects the prayers that we offer. God is very active in our worship, and we’re right in the middle of that. And that’s a very powerful way of thinking about what happens on Sunday.
David Bast: And it really isn’t just our effort. It’s not just our whipping up something or our acting out something or saying or singing or speaking. I was really taken by that idea of being drawn up into Christ and joined to Christ and being allowed to kind of share in his relationship with God the Father.
John Witvliet: Perfect worship is happening. Jesus is offering it all the time and we get free participation in sharing in that. What an insight to deliver us from so much frustration and guilt. Good worship and true worship is not our accomplishment to achieve. It’s a gift we receive from God. That’s an amazing discovery.
David Bast: And again, it speaks a little bit to the problem of individualism or isolationism. We never really worship alone or by ourselves. True worship is worship that is in and through Christ, just as we pray in Jesus’ name or we pray through Christ. We may not even realize what we’re doing, but what we’re really doing is entering into the prayer that Christ offers to the Father and joining in that.
John Witvliet: Exactly. We sometimes end our prayers with that phrase, “In the name of Jesus” or “In Jesus’ name” and we say it kind of quickly, and we don’t think about what we’re really saying, but that’s a pretty breathtaking line if you really think about what’s happening there, that Christ is perfecting these prayers, that we are sharing in Christ’s perfect worship, and this is true of prayers that we offer by ourselves, but it’s even in a more palpable, direct, dramatic way a part of what happens on Sunday.
THE KIND OF WORSHIP THAT GOES BEYOND SUNDAY
Finally, David and John discussed the kind of worship that goes beyond Sunday and the confines of our church buildings and fills all our days – and our lives – with service.
David Bast: There’s worship but there’s also mission. There’s service. There’s obedience. There’s trying to do the work of God in the world, and that’s really the work of Christ. It’s the mission of Christ, and so as we enter into the one, we worship through him. So also we serve through him, don’t we?
John Witvliet: Exactly right. There’s a beautiful relationship there. In fact, I think that there may even be another use of the term worship yet, to refer to what happens in all of life. When Romans 12 talks about the spiritual worship we offer to God, I think there it’s talking about what we do 24-7.
David Bast: Yes. Present yourselves as living sacrifices.
John Witvliet: Exactly. And so what happens in corporate worship with God’s people in a community of faith is like a crystallized expression of that. And it really is significant only when it’s connected, when it’s integrated with all of life, 24-7.
David Bast: And so worship without obedience or service or mission would be sort of empty – empty words.
John Witvliet: Exactly. It’d be like a wedding between two people who have no relationship.
David Bast: But on the other hand, mission without worship is just sort of do-goodism.
John Witvliet: Exactly. And it’s not right. Worship keeps us focused on Christ. It helps us remember that it’s God’s nourishment that sustains us and not our own effort again. Otherwise we’re working hard thinking that finally this religion thing is all up to us. And that’s a pretty hard way to live.