(A sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2010. Note: this is the first of a six-part series on "The Way Forward" in which I am helping First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald plot a course for our future ministry.)
Scripture: Psalm 150
I have suggested that the way forward for the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald can be successfully navigated as we define ourselves as follows: “The fellowship of believers gathered as the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald will live out its identity by worshiping God, by following Jesus, and by being formed by Scripture.”
As we move along through these next few weeks I hope it will be made clear that the three components of that statement really can’t be separated—worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture fit together and feed into one another; after all, the Christian life is a holistic life. At the same time, though, the ordering of those the three components is intentional and important.
So why do we put “worshiping God” first?
It is because the church is all about God as God is revealed to us in his Son Jesus Christ and so everything that we are and everything that we do is based on the one basic fact that God is worthy of our praise and devotion. Indeed, the basic meaning of the Old English word from which our word “worship” derives is to attribute worth to someone. So when we say that we worship God we are in fact saying that God is worthy of our praise.
Why? The answers to that question are legion, but the primary answer is that God is worthy of our praise because God has, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, privileged us to have a personal relationship with God that gives us real life, that gives us eternal life. God is the primary fact of the universe, certainly, but more to the point, God is the primary fact of our lives. God is the Lord of the universe but also the Lord of our lives. God is our all in all, the one without whom we cannot do, the one who gives meaning to everything. We are because God is and without God we are not. How, then, can we help but praise God?
God is the focus of all our worship because God is the ground of all our worship. Many have spoken of worship as involving the revelation of God and the human response to that revelation. As Catherine LaCugna has said, “One finds God because one is already found by God. Anything we would find on our own would not be GOD” [Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), p. 109]. We can worship God only because he has revealed himself to us. We can’t find God on our own; we can only be found by God.
And God has revealed himself to be our Savior. The Hebrews worshipped God on the other side of the sea because they had just been saved by God. The women at the tomb fell down and worshiped the resurrected Jesus because they knew that in his resurrection something wonderful had happened and that something wonderful was salvation and eternal life. In all of the events of our lives, including our experiences of corporate worship, we are responding to God in accordance to God’s self-revelation. We are constantly responding with our lives and with our praise to God in God’s fullness.
God is the instigator of our worship. As Psalm 51 puts it, “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise” (v. 15 KJV). It all begins with God; it is all about God.
If worship is going to be focused on God’s revelation to us then our worship must necessarily give much attention to the Bible. As many have noted, the supposed allegiance of Protestants, including Baptists, to the Bible is not reflected in the small amount of time given in the service to the reading of Scripture. Some would say, “Well, we give half the service to preaching that is (hopefully) based on the Bible.” Yes, but there is no substitute for reading and hearing the Word for yourself. The synagogue practice, from which the early church drew most of its worship practices, was to read significant passages of Scripture. We learn about God through his word and our services should be structured around our biblical texts for the day.
If worship is God’s revelation to us and our response to that revelation, then it follows that worship is a dialogue. Dialogue is by definition a conversation between two or more people. As one worship manual puts it, “In Christian worship we respond from the depths of our being to God’s mighty acts, particularly to the act of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Thus worship is a dialogue between God and God’s people” [John E. Skoglund and Nancy E. Hall, A Manual of Worship, new ed. (Valley Forge: Judson, 1993), p. xvii]. God shares God’s self with us and we share ourselves with God.
Have you ever wondered why we call this activity a worship “service”? The German word for worship (Gottesdienst) means “God’s service and our service to God.” Our word “service” is from a Latin word meaning to serve as a slave. As James White said, the German word “reflects a God who ‘made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave’ (Phil. 2:7) and our service to such a God” [James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 23]. Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave; in worship we serve God by emptying ourselves and giving ourselves to him.
Thus our active participation in worship is so important. Worship is not a spectator sport; as Soren Kierkegaard said so many years ago and as has been repeated by many, in worship the audience is God, the actors are the congregation, and the prompters/directors are the worship leaders. Our worship is to be active, not passive. That’s one reason that congregational singing is so crucial. We open our mouths and let our service to God ring out in our singing. Is your singing imperfect? So is all your service—celebrate what God has enabled you to do!
The importance of active worship is one of the reasons that it is important to include congregational readings of various kinds in our worship services. Baptists worship in the Free Church tradition; that is, we have no set forms of worship prescribed for us [Cf. Skoglund and Hall, Manual, p. xiii]. We are free to worship as we please. Our tradition is to worship God with a simple dignity that is God-focused and Scripture-based. Still, participating in responsive readings and litanies and confessions is a good way for us all to be involved actively in worship.
For example, we have begun each Sunday to speak together a brief and basic affirmation of our faith. That affirmation reminds us of the central reality on which our lives as Christians are based; it is the reason we are here. Such an affirmation also contributes to our dialogue with God. As Franklin Segler, who taught for many years at Southwestern Seminary, said, “Such an affirmation of faith may help to keep worship alive in dialogue with the living God” [M. Segler, Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice (Nashville: Broadman, 1967), p. 159]. But the main point I am making is that our worship should be active and not passive. We are to be actively engaged in the entire service: sing when we sing, pray when we pray, read when we read, proclaim when we proclaim, give when we give, respond when we respond.
The dialogue of worship is first and foremost a dialogue between God and us. But it is also a dialogue between those who are worshiping. Referring to Ephesians 5:19, Milburn Price said, “Though the divine-human dialogue is central to an understanding of worship, there is another ‘conversation’ within the context of worship…. In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul gave an admonition to ‘speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19, NIV)” [Gary A. Furr and Milburn Price, The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), p. 3]. So in our singing and speaking together we are encouraging one another in our faith, hope, love, and service. The praise of God is the main thing worship is about but a side effect of the worship of God is that we acknowledge our oneness in Christ and we encourage one another in our pilgrimages.
You may have realized along the way that everything I have said about worship this morning could be said in general about our lives as Christians. There’s a reason for that. Our entire lives are lives of worship because our entire lives are lives of service. Worship is not an occasional activity; worship is a lifestyle. We are the saved people of God who, because of his sacrificial service to us, now offer our sacrificial service to him. Our life “in here” and our life “out there” are of one piece. In all of it we are responding to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. In all of it we are praising God. In all of it we are growing more and more into the image of God.
As Christians we want to immerse ourselves in the ways of God and in the life of Christ and we are taught of both of them by Scripture. I will have more to say about it next week but let me say today that this is why we are building what we do around the Christian year and the seasons of that year such as Advent, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost. By intentionally following the Christian calendar in our worship we intentionally immerse ourselves in the ways of God, in the life of Christ, and in the teachings of Scripture.
The approach to worship that we are taking also speaks to why our emphasis will be on the week-to-week, day-to-day worship of God—that is exactly the schedule on which we follow and serve and live.
But it all begins with the worship of God because of who God is and what God has done and how God has revealed God’s self to us. Thanks be to God!