What Is Worship?

Fourth in a YAFI (You Asked For It) Series,
Delivered June 27, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Revelation 15:2-4
2 And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside
the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the
number of his name. They held harps given them by God
3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great
and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways,
King of the ages.
4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are
holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have
been revealed.”

All across America as I speak, worship is taking place much like this. Listen carefully. Rays of late afternoon sun gild the hushed sanctuary filled with hundreds of expectant worshipers, world leaders among them. From the vaulted ceiling a camera pans the scene. Holding their breath as one, the congregation watches the mitred priest walk down the aisle, and slowly approach the chancel. His brightly colored vestments adding to the joyful ambiance. There is not a cough nor a whisper as he kneels on the lush carpet seeking divine blessing for the offering. Several moments of prayerful waiting follow. The bishop stands and grips his scepter. All eyes in the assembly fasten themselves on this man exuding a holy calm. All ears are tuned to hear the awaited announcement. Finally, the tap of his staff of authority is followed by a deeper silence. The flock in unison gazes at the pure chalice. Then a grand oratorio of praise explodes reaching the celestial realm. He raises his scepter and approaches the altar. One voice, then another, then another exult, “That is his third birdie today!”

What is worship? It is a good question. When you took that worship survey last year, you requested a sermon dealing with that question. Worship is the most important thing that a human being can do. It is the zenith of what it really means to be human. Worship is the most important thing you and I will do this week. Even if we should discover the cure for cancer on Wednesday. Worship is the most important thing the church does. So, we had better get it right, shouldn’t we?

But there is a heresy afoot in the church that makes it tough to get worship right. The heresy is this: the creeping tendency to replace the doctrine of the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the congregation. Which translates into, ‘Hey, let’s do worship in ways that make us feel good.’ Ways we like, rather than what necessarily pleases God.

So, if you and I are going to get worship right, we had better start by asking ourselves a question. The question is this: “Is worship primarily for us, or primarily for God?” If we are going to get worship right, we had also better get our grammar straight. Worship is not a noun. It is not something that we go to. It is not something we attend. It is not something we observe. Worship is a verb. It is something that you and I do. Which means that we can go to church and not necessarily worship. It means that we can show up in the sanctuary Sunday after Sunday; but in reality, be totally absent from worship. If we are going to get worship right, we ought to go to those places where we find what authentic God-pleasing worship looks like.

One of the best places to do that is in the book of Revelation. In a number of spots in that book, God reveals what kind of worship is most pleasing to him. Let us take a look at one of those places this morning. I would invite you to turn with me this morning and keep you bibles open during the sermon, to the fifteenth chapter of Revelation. Let’s take a look this morning at verses 2-4. This is the Word of God. The apostle John writes:

And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

Join me as we pray. Now Father, as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What exactly is worship? Let me begin by telling you that first of all, worship is a victim. It is a victim of our culture. I want to hit on at least four aspects of our culture, four cultural influences that tend to seduce you and me continually; do a job on us, moving us from what authentic worship is, to what I would call pseudo-worship.

The first is the fact that you and I live amidst an entertainment culture. Everywhere we go today, we expect to be entertained. Even if you are alone in an elevator there is music playing. We even have TV shows about being entertained. Entertainment Tonight. We want to be continually on the edge of our seats. We want to be made to laugh. So we have remote control switches and we hit the buttons until those things are a part of what is happening. We want to be entertained. We expect it, and if we are not careful, even as committed Christians we can tend to bring that quest for entertainment into a place like this on Sunday morning. “Here I am God. Entertain me!”

The only problem with that is, is that what worship is all about? You see, God will only receive worship that is authentic. Worship that is pleasing to Him. Is worship all about being entertained?

If we come here on Sunday mornings and our quest is chiefly to be entertained, then I think we have missed the boat as to what worship is all about. We pastors know that a lot of folks come on Sunday morning wanting to be entertained. So, we are always, always tempted to supplant the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the congregation and try to do a stand-up comedy act, or be a storyteller rather than a preacher of the word and a worship leader.

I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Neal Postman’s little book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In that book, he shows how all of us are pervasively influenced by this culture of entertainment, and not always in a good way. Worship is about a whole lot more than being entertained.

Secondly, you and I also exist as part of a therapeutic culture. The mantra of that culture is ‘fix me.’ Psychiatrists, pastoral counselors, therapists, they are having a heyday; and I’m all for them. We are all finding out that we are dysfunctional. The Bible said that from the very beginning. We are told to search out our inner child, and then hook up with therapies that will bring healing into our lives. Here at Central we offer you one avenue of that in our Healing Service this evening. There is nothing wrong with seeking after healing. The problem arises when we take legitimate desire for healing and begin to make that the focus of worship. ‘God , make me better’ replaces ‘Praise you Lord’ as our opening hymn. When that is the case, then our worship is what needs healing.

Thirdly, we find ourselves living amidst a highly politicized culture. Now hear me right. The Christian faith can and does speak to every issue of human existence. Our faith ought to be the primary thing that shapes our politics. But often times, it is vice versa. Often times you can wander into a church and wonder if you have stumbled into a political rally rather than a service of worship. Whenever political ideology – be it from the right or the left — supplant the Word of God, which overshadows and judges all political human endeavors; when the Word of God is supplanted by political ideology, then you might have a political pep rally, but you are not worshiping.

Fourthly, all of this comes together in the fact that we also live in a consumer-oriented culture. Where everything is, ‘Me, me, me…’ Worship is really all about me, right? Fix me. Entertain me. Make me feel good. Pump me up. Recharge my batteries. Make me feel better. And if you don’t, I’ll go down the street to the church that does. Or I’ll find another god who will revolve around me.”

When me-centered, human-centered worship is what a church is all about, they really are a part of the cult of narcissism; not the Church of Jesus Christ.

So, what does authentic worship really look like? What can we learn from this mysterious exotic vision that is given to the apostle John in the fifteenth chapter of Revelation? A vision of folks standing on the shore of a glassy sea, mixed with fire. Sort of an end times Lake Erie. Remember when Lake Erie caught on fire twenty years ago or so? A glassy sea mixed with fire would probably be red in color. For John and his readers back in the first century, this would have been an unmistakable image of the Red Sea, and of the Exodus. Of how Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea and to safety. God’s victory over those who would destroy His children.

If you read the fifteenth chapter of Exodus, you will read how once the children of Israel had gone through the Red Sea, they then gathered on the shore and they sang. They sang the song of Moses. And now in the text before us, we see that at the end of time, that song is still being sung by the saints as they gather around the shore of that glassy sea mixed with fire, and are given harps by God. (By the way, this is where the idea of plucking harps in heaven comes from.)

What is worship? This text before us gives us a few significant pointers as to what authentic worship looks like. The first thing that we pick up from this text is that authentic God-pleasing worship is God centered. It is God focused. Look at the song of Moses and that of the Lamb in verses 3 and 4. Tell me, who is the song directed to? Who is this song about?

At the funeral of Louis XIV, perhaps France’s greatest king ever, the cathedral was packed out with mourners. The funeral was held at night time, and the only light in that vast cathedral was one lone candle right by the casket containing the mortal remains of that great monarch. At the appointed time, the court preacher got up to address the assembled clergy and the dignitaries of France. He ascended the pulpit and then he reached out from the pulpit and snuffed out that lone candle which symbolized the greatness of the king. And then in total darkness he uttered four words, “Only God is great.”

Worship has got to be based on the sovereignty of God. Only God is great. Only God is worthy; worthy to be worshiped.

The second thing that you and I can take away from this text is the fact that at the heart of worship is song. The Christian faith as I said last week, is a singing faith. Music can express feelings and deep things from our heart that prose cannot. It can express our praise to God in the ways that just words cannot. Singing is so important. That is why all the hymns and praise choruses we sing and hear, they are a vital, vital part of an authentic worship experience. That is why when we talk about what kind of service we are going to have, the fights break out over what kind of music, because music is so very important to us as Christians.

Atheism is song-less. At the funeral of that noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll, the funeral notice explicitly stated, ‘There will be no singing.’ But heaven will be vibrant with song. And so must our worship here and now, if it is to be authentic and pleasing to God.

The third thing that we can take from this text this morning, is the fact that authentic worship is always a response. It is always a response to victory. The victory that God has won for us in Jesus Christ.

Some of you are going through very tough times. Some of you if you are asked, what is your self image? You would say, “Well, I am successful, I’m doing okay.” Others of you would define yourselves as being failures. But I am here to tell you this morning, that in light of this Word, you are primarily, first and foremost a victor because, connected to Jesus Christ, you are part of that victory that he has already won.

Look at verse two of your text. Here the apostle John says that this victory is a superlative victory. It is triplicate victory. It is a victory he says, over the beast, and over the image of the beast, and over the number of his name. Which is John’s way of getting the point across to you and me that in Christ Jesus, there is complete, utter, total victory; that nothing evil can ultimately triumph over you and me because of who God is, and because of what He has done for us through the life and all-sufficient perfect sacrificial death of the Lamb, his son Jesus Christ.

If you are a Christian, you are on the winning team. Victory is yours and mine. So, we come here Sunday after Sunday to celebrate victory. Not our victories. The victory that is ours in Christ Jesus alone.

I want you to look at this song of Moses and of the Lamb in verses 3 and 4, and I want you to look at the adjectives that are there. You and I need to lose ourselves in these adjectives if we are going to truly worship this morning. Adjectives that describe who God is. Almighty. King of the ages. Holy. Adjectives that describe what he has done for you and me in Christ Jesus. His ways are just and true. Marvelous and great. Righteous.

As you and I lose ourselves in those adjectives describing who God is and what he has done for us; as we lose ourselves in understanding of who God is, and the fact that he is here. It is then that we become awesomely overwhelmed with the reality. That is the presence of God. When you and I are bowled over by the loving, gracious, holy, magnificent presence of God, it is then that all of those desires to be entertained, and fixed, and coddled, and to be in control begin to dissipate and you and I begin to worship in spirit and in truth.

So you see, worship always begins on a note of victory as we come into a place like this, and then turn our heads, and our hearts, and our entire beings over to this God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and through his mighty acts in Christ. That is what true worship is all about.

Jesus came not just to save you and me. He didn’t come just to rescue you and me from bad habits. He came that we might also be restored to authentic God-pleasing worship. And so Sunday after Sunday as we gather here to celebrate the victory; as we gather here and we begin to learn to sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, it is then that right here and right now, God is honored. But also, we become a part of that fulfilled vision that John sees in this text, as one day we with all of the saints of God gather on the shore of that glassy sea mixed with fire and sing the song of Moses and the Lamb on into eternity. That, God says, is our destiny. And that is His promise to you and me in Christ Jesus.

Join me as we pray:
Lord God, what a privilege to exercise the full height and breadth of our humanity by gathering here this very day to worship you. Lord, we can’t do that on our own. We need to be filled with your Holy Spirit, and prodded and stretched. And so we ask that you would continue to do that. Not just today, but throughout our lives. That you might receive the glory and the honor and the praise that only you deserve. Lord continue to mold and shape the worship of this congregation, that it might exalt Jesus Christ, lift him up high, and through that witness to the world, you then might draw all people to yourself. What a privilege to partner with you in that endeavor Lord. We lift to you our thanks and praise now, in Jesus name. Amen.