From last week: Jesus Christ is at the center of God’s mission. Jesus Christ is at the center of worship. When our worship is focused on God we cannot help but be turned outward into mission. Of course this means that something real takes place in the assembly we call worship. It means that we have a "close encounter of the HOLY kind." Throughout Scripture we see that those who draw near to God and his holy presence are also drawn into his mission.

The Kingdom of God has broken into our world. The writer of Hebrews was aware of this; he understands the connection between God’s rule, God’s mission, and worship of God. "Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be destroyed, let us be thankful and please God by worshipping him with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire." – Hebrews 12:28-29. We lament the decline in mission and evangelistic fervor. We lament the decline in worship attendance and heartfelt worship. Perhaps we haven’t understood how these problems are related. We’ve isolated the problems. We have tried to inspire mission and evangelism by alarming ourselves and others with an unbalanced emphasis on sin and the fate of the lost. We have tried to manage worship and increase attendance with an unbalanced emphasis on obligation and procedure. These attempts are unbalanced because both are missing the same thing: A vision and experience of God’s holy presence and the good news of his kingdom rule.

Good worship is about awe, not strategy. Worship happens when people become aware that they are in the presence of the living God. This happened when Moses and Isaiah realized that they were standing on holy ground. This isn’t the same as being afraid of God. That will drive us away from Him. It isn’t the same as feeling sentimental about God. That reduces God to what Jim McGuiggan calls "the heavenly sweetheart." If we are afraid of God, then how can we ever know him and how can his news be good; if God’s only purpose is make us happy then how can we call him Lord? These reductions of God’s presence and his good news diminish God and approach him as a force to be manipulated. But when we are in awe of God we are aware of His power and goodness and we are compelled to worship. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, describes awe: "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offence; or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

Awe should not be reduced to a single emotion. Awe includes many emotions. For instance, we can be in awe of beauty or majesty. We can be in awe of power and strength. We can be in awe of talent and artistry. We can be in awe of mystery and wonder. Likewise, reverence should not be reduced to a single emotion. It does not simply mean sedate. For instance, we show reverence of marriage at a wedding and it is proper to be joyous. We show reverence for life and loved ones at a funeral and we feel grief and sadness but also may recall happy memories. Awe and reverence involve many moods and styles but they have one thing in common – response!

Reverence and awe are linked to the worship of God and it is instructive to take a look at the Hebrew and Greek terms Scripture uses for worship of God:

shachah – to bow down
proskuneo – to kneel
latreuo – to serve
thusia – to sacrifice
phosphora – to offer up
homologein – to confess, to profess.

Worship is a verb. These are responsive verbs. Our response embodies our allegiance and devotion to the awesome God we encounter in worship. God has revealed his power, his mercy, his majesty and his grace. He has even awed us by drawing near to us in Jesus Christ and sacrificed his life for us. Awe and reverence are about more than "shock and awe" demonstrations of force. Do you recall how this time last year many were moved by the "Passion of the Christ?" No one watched that movie in a sedate, calm, reflective atmosphere. People were moved with grief and sorrow. They were, in the words of Scripture, cut to the quick. I remember at the end when the risen Christ leaves the tomb someone shouted "YES!" and applause broke out. This wasn’t exhibitionism. It was awe and reverenc! The film also convicted people. Some responded by changing their lives. This is what happens in worship: God’s presence and his actions are revealed and we respond ...

The Dynamic of Response: We respond to God simply because he is God. We respond to God because of what he has done. We praise him because he is worthy of praise. Preaching declares who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do. When we gather around the Lord’s Supper we are remembering and proclaiming the nature of God and the activity of God. All of this is response to God. This is how worship of God differs from worship of other Gods and powers; God has acted first. Worship of false gods and devotion to powers demand a "quid pro quo." There is an exchange or a transaction. In pagan worship and magic, the devotee offers something or promises something in order to gain a favor or a blessing from the god or power. This really isn’t different from our myriad forms of idolatry: I give my money away to any number of vendors and I expect a return for my money. I give my time, information, work to someone else and I expect some sort of satisfaction in return. Sometimes we try to get into this relationship with God and it warps our worship and discipleship. We assume that if we put in our hour a week on Sunday and take the communion, do a few good works and always give our tithe, then God will take that into account and he will either bless us here and now or he will consider our record when it is time to determine who gets into heaven and who goes to hell. This backwards perspective reduces worship to putting in our time and it reduces mission and ministry to manipulation or bargaining. [Read Romans 12:1 – "In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship."] Did you notice the antecedent? As one version says, "considering what God has done, is this too much to ask?"

Our Response to God involves elements that we can speak of separately, but we must be careful not to break these down and separate them completely. On the one hand we have the substance of worship: these are things like the preaching of God’s word, praise, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, prayer, the public reading of the word, confession, and thanksgiving. We include all the actions, forms, and traditions that God’s people have always used to participate in worship and encounter God’s presence. On the other hand, there is the experience of the worshipper and the worshipping church. This involves current events, language, issues, problems, feeling, style, style of church music. For instance, worship after 9/11 was a little different than most Sundays. Why? Because God changed? No, but the questions we had for God and the feeling of our hearts were different. When a local congregation experiences a tragedy, perhaps a sudden death of a beloved member or leader, their worship that Sunday is going to be different than the congregation that on the same Sunday celebrates because people they have been praying for respond to the gospel. Each church participates in the same substance of worship, but their experience is different. That’s biblical; the psalms are a collection of Israel’s worship songs. Not every song comes from the same experience. Sometimes the psalmist is angry, confused, sad, thankful, joyous, or reflective. The experience can also vary because of culture. Our brothers and sisters, the Iglesia de Cristo, are worshipping like us but not like us. The language is different. The style of singing is different. Here in our annex our brothers and sisters, the Lao congregation, are worshipping like us but not like us. This is also true of other North American churches that use English but different styles of singing and worship. The substance of our worship is the same, but the experience may be different.

When the substance of worship and the experience of the worshipper combine, worth is ascribed to God. That is the core dynamic of our response to God’s presence and his mighty acts. Combined, these elements represent our way of participating together in our worshipful response to God.
Another way to describe these elements and to show their connection is to speak of the content of worship, the structure of worship and the context (or style) of worship. Preparation for worship is not ritual that allows God to manifest among us. It is not a prescribed order that obligates God to accept us. Preparation for worship prepares us and orders our minds, bodies, and spirits to respond to God. It prepares us as a collective group to participate. We are not always good at coming together. We have different opinions and different ideas, different tastes and preferences, but our response is not just individual. We experience his presence and activity among us not only as persons, but as a people. In the next few weeks we will be considering these layers of our response and how they enable us to participate in awe-inspired worship and then experience how that turns us inside out to participate in God’s mission.

The content, structure, and context of worship are layers of worship. Content is the essential layer – the core or kernel. The others are not unimportant, but there is an essential order here. For instance, we can focus on the context, or style, of worship and if the content is not evident, then our worship is empty. Here’s how we practically experience each of these:

Content: Enacting the Gospel. At the heart of worship is the gospel. In worship, everything we do "enacts" the gospel. By that we mean that everything participates in and communicates the gospel event. Baptism is connected to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection. Preaching affirms the gospel event and gives testimony to how that gospel power is worked out in our lives.
Structure: Embody the Gospel. The form of our worship is defined by the function – to enact the gospel. This middle layer is also the bridge between the content and the context. So we embody the gospel in ways that are particular to our culture.
Context: Engage the Culture. Most discussion about worship is limited to this layer. Most planning and experience remains here. This is often where the "Worship Wars" take place. But if we go back to content and enact the gospel – God’s saving event in Jesus Christ then we find a way through our conflicts over personality and personal taste.
1 Corinthians 15:1-4 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

You are all invited to participate in this Gospel by enacting the rule of Christ in your life. May the content of Worship be the content of our lives! Worship is response, so may we all respond by proclaiming the gospel of Christ as we sing Victory in Jesus ( #470). You are also invited to respond by asking for prayers of encouragement or thanksgiving and offering yourself as a living sacrifice – that is worship.

Discussion Guide
  1. What do you typically think of when you hear the word reverence? Why?
  2. How can one be joyous and enthusiastic but at the same time reverent? How can one be passionate and reverent at the same time? (Example: Do you consider the "Passion of the Christ" movie a reverent treatment of the story of Jesus' crucifixion? Would you consider the movie a sedate and calm portrayal? If you answered "yes" to the first question and "no" to the second, how do you reconcile this with a definition of reverent that means sedate and calm?)
  3. What do you think of when you hear the word awe? What emotions are involved in awe?
  4. Do you agree that worship is primarily a response to God? What are we responding to? (Read Psalm 66, among others)
  5. Think of all the many worship assemblies you've attended. Despite the differences, what things did they have in common? Do these things enact or embody the gospel of Christ?
  6. Continue thinking about those many worship assemblies: Why were the styles different? Did it have anything at all to do with the experience of the worshippers?
  7. How can we grow in our worship and learn to ascribe worth to God? Will it help us to get back to the heart of worship?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 27 February 2005

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