A Call to Worship
BY DAVID N. SAMUEL
Psalm 96:9“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness:let the whole earth stand in awe of him.”
Why do we meet together for worship? The Book of Common Prayer gives us a very good and exhaustive answer, which we find in the Exhortation to Morning and Evening Prayer, immediately after the Scripture sentences. The reasons stated are these:
First, “to acknowledge and confess our sins” and to receive forgiveness from God. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The Lord Jesus himself has given us the parable of the Pharisee and the publican both going up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee felt no need to confess his sins or to seek forgiveness. The publican does, and confesses his sins and acknowledges his unworthiness. And Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
The confession of our sins is the right and proper way to begin our worship and to approach God. We find the principle exemplified throughout Scripture. Isaiah in the temple, when he saw the Lord high and lifted up, immediately cried out, “Woe is me! for I am undone.” Peter in the boat, when it dawned on him that he was in the presence of the holy Son of God, cried out, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
If, like these, we come into the presence of God empty, we shall go away full. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.” So sang the Virgin Mary in Magnificat, and such must be the experience of all who come to worship God in spirit and in truth.
That then is the first thing we must do when we come to worship God. Much modern liturgy has set aside the confession at the beginning of the service and begins with praise. The Reformers thought otherwise, and they were right, and exemplified in their services the need first to confess our sins and to seek forgiveness and grace.
Secondly, “to render thanks for the great benefits we have received”. Giving thanks to Almighty God is an important part of worship. We have much to be thankful for. There is first of all “common grace”, that is, “our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”. God has created human beings with minds and spirits, above the brute creation, by which we can acknowledge our Maker and return thanks to Him for common mercies. We sink to the level of the animal, or below, if we neglect to do this. But there is also “special grace”; God’s “inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ”. The Christian believer has so much more to thank God for, since by grace through faith in Christ he has been made a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
Paul singles out unthankfulness as one of the root causes of sin. In Romans 1 he writes generally of the moral condition of mankind and states, “that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.” He then goes on to point out what were the consequences of this unthankfulness. They “became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”. They became idolatrous and as a consequence licentious. All this flowed from unthankfulness. Martin Luther in his comment on this passage has the following to say about the sin of unthankfulness: “Take note of the order of the stages of perdition. The first is ingratitude or the failure to be grateful. Thus Lucifer before the Fall was ungrateful to his Creator. It is the result of self-complacency: forgetting the giver, one delights in accepting the gifts as if one had not received them. The second is vanity: one feeds on one’s own self and all that is created and enjoys that which lets itself be used, and so one becomes necessarily vain… The third is deluded blindness: deprived of the truth and immersed in vanity, one necessarily becomes blind in one’s whole feeling and thinking because one is blocked in upon himself… Therefore the fourth is to be in error toward God, and this is the worst because it leads to idolatry. To have come this far is to have come to the abyss. For to one who has lost God, nothing is left but to be exposed to every kind of turpitude that the devil invents.”
What a dreadful commentary upon the wickedness of mankind in every age, particularly the present, which all arises from one source, unthankfulness; the failure to acknowledge that “every good and every perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights”.
Thirdly, “to set forth his most worthy praise”. One of the delightful parts of worship is the singing of God’s praises. Praise is different from thanksgiving. We praise God for what he is, holy, almighty, gracious, merciful, wise, all-knowing. These are some of the attributes of God. We praise him because he is God and we are his creatures. We get some insights into God’s glory when we look at the world he has made. For example, the Psalmist declares, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 & 4). Looking up at the night sky we get some faint intimation of the greatness and glory of God who made the universe, his power, majesty and wisdom; for “the heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1).
But most of all we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, “who is the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person”. The apostle draws a parallel between the revelation of God in nature and in the person of Christ when he writes: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The revelation of God’s character in nature is complemented and surpassed by the revelation we are given in Christ his Son. The Christian then has every reason to praise God for the revelation of himself which he has given to us first in creation, but secondly and supremely in his Son Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, “to hear his most holy Word”. Hearing the word of God from the Bible and through the preaching of the Gospel is worship, for God speaks to us through his Word and through the servants of the Word. When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush he told him to put off his shoes, for he was standing upon holy ground. And Moses hid his face and worshipped. The same is true for us. Wherever God speaks to us through his Word, we are in the presence of God and we are to worship him. As William Cowper has put it,
Sometimes people have the idea that the worship finishes with the hymn before the sermon and that what follows is merely listening to a man giving us his views and ideas on religion and the state of the world. And we must confess than in some churches that is a pretty accurate description; but it ought not to be so. If the servant of God is a faithful minister of the Word of God, he will seek to bring to his hearers the very words and message of God himself. In the sermon we shall encounter the truth of God and hear him speaking to us, and the only proper response to that is worship and submission. “I heard thy voice,” said Adam, “and was afraid.” And Isaiah declares, “Hear ye the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.” (Isaiah 66:5). Hearing the Word of God with godly fear and submission is indeed true worship of the highest sort. It is something which is not common today in the churches, because both preaching and hearing have sunk to a very low level and lack seriousness. Like much else in worship today, the sermon has become entertainment. But if we rightly understand it, it is the Word of God which quickens us and makes us spiritually alive. “Born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Peter 1:23). It is the Word of God which cleanses us from sin. “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). Faith is imparted and strengthened by the Word of God: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). We see, then, how hearing the Word of God is an indispensable and fundamental part of worship.
Finally, “to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.” We have both the need and the opportunity in worship to ask our heavenly Father for what we require for our physical and spiritual well-being. It is true, as our Lord says, that our heavenly Father knows all our needs before we pray, but he likes to hear us ask him and turn to him with our petitions. The Bible teaches us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). God is the source of every blessing and is unchanging and faithful. Since that is so, then it is clear that we must go to him for what we need, and we may go with confidence for he bids us come, and because we come in the name of his dear Son, Jesus Christ.
As John Newton put it, in his inimitable manner,
The public worship of the church is, then, an occasion when we can bring all our requests before God, and seek his help and blessing. In that way we can ease our minds of anxiety, fear, and care; which is why Paul says, “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6 & 7).
These are the reasons we gather for worship. It is good to keep them before our minds as the Prayer Book helps us to do.