Worship as the Center of Church Life

Third in a Series on Central’s Core Values,
Delivered January 24, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Revelation 22:8-9
8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had
heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who
had been showing them to me.
9 But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with
your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book.
Worship God!”

Worship is as dangerous as it is wondrous.Dangerous because if you and I don’t get it right, then what we do is wander off into the quagmire of idolatry and blasphemy. Remember last week I said that bad theology hurts people? Well bad worship, at best disappoints God and breaks his heart, at worst it insults him and spits in his face. My friends, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape. Worship is what you and I have been primarily made to do by God.

When you and I worship we rise to the apex, the greatest height of what it means to be a human being.In fact, what we are doing right now here in this sanctuary this morning is the most important thing that we will do this entire week.And so we better get it right.

Help me answer this hypothetical telegram that arrived this week. It was simply signed, “God”. And all it said was, “Your 11:00 o’clock service makes me gag. Change it.” What would we say? How would we answer God? “We like it?” “It’s what makes us comfortable…” “It’s those 8:30 people that need to change. We’re mature and balanced. Besides God, this is the kind of music that we know you like.” “We don’t want to change this.”

Big question.In fact it is the most important worship question.Who is worship for? Us, or God? And however you answer that, then what’s the most important thing on Sunday mornings when we worship? How we feel or how God feels about worship?

What if a service that we think is just awesome makes God wretch? What if a service that we find rather strange and boring actually gladdens the heart of God? Who is worship really for? Who do we most care about when we come and worship?

Those are important questions.Those are somewhat hard to answer questions. Let me let you in on a little secret. Worship will always be boring and somewhat meaningless if you have never accepted Christ and surrendered your life to him. But even if you have, even if you are a mature, born again, Bible believing, Christ centered Christian, you and I are still prone to worship the wrong things.

And as we continue our sermon series on Central’s Core Values, we encounter someone who has fallen into that very trap this morning. Somebody no less than the apostle John himself, the person who probably knew Jesus as well as anyone has ever known Christ. And yet he is going to blow it in worship. A reminder to you and me that no matter how committed we are to Christ, no matter how much we love Christ, we are still prone to worship the wrong things. And we are going to see this morning the apostle John in the text before us royally blow it – so much so that he is not “touched by an angel,” he gets slapped by an angel.

Let’s see what happens. Turn with me, and keep your Bibles open during the sermon as we look this morning at verses 8 and 9 of Revelation 22. This is the Word of God.

I John am the one who heard and saw these things [he is talking about everything, all the visions that he has seen throughout the book of Revelation]. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Do not do it!I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets, and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God.

Join me as we pray: And 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.

In his book entitled One Holy Passion, R. C. Sproul tells about a time when he was touring Washington and they went through the Capitol building, and he was just in awe of all of the historic art that is in the hallways of that grand building. And he said he was just taking it all in and having a great time until their tour group paused under the great dome of the Capitol. And then he says all of his nostalgic and patriotic bubbles were popped when the tour guide called their attention to the mural that has been painted all across that massive dome. The tour guide said that “the work is a herculean effort that rivals Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.” And then she said, “The title of the mural is The Apotheosis of George Washington.”

And Sproul said he was horror stricken because he knew what apotheosis means. You do too, don’t you? It means the deification of, the elevation to divine status. And if you go to Washington, go to the Capitol and look up there and you will see. That mural depicts George Washington being welcomed into the pantheon of gods by other pagan deities. Now at best maybe Washington was a nominal Christian, probably a deist. But still that’s an insult to him. More so, it’s an insult to the American people, and ultimately it’s an insult to almighty God. George Washington is not God.

And John Calvin says that any time worship is given to any part of the creation rather than the Creator, then the glory of God is diminished. And that’s exactly what happens with the apostle John in the text before us this morning. He’s blown away. He has been blown away by all the sights and sounds, all the whistles and bells that he has encountered through the first twenty-one chapters of Revelation. He is awe-struck, and he wants to worship, which of course is the natural human response when confronted with the almighty majesty and glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. And so he wants to worship, but he does the wrong thing. He goes for what is convenient and comfortable rather than what’s authentic, and he falls at the feet of the angel who has been his guide through this visionary journey. And the angel says, “Now wait a minute, don’t do this!I’m just a fellow worshiper like you! Worship God!”

And you know, it is bad enough that John falls at the feet of this angel, but “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” – this is not the first time that John has done this. If you flip back in your Bible to Revelation 19 verse 10 you see John has already once before fallen at the feet of this angel and has tried to worship him, and the angel has had to rebuke him and correct him once before! So the angel says to him, “Don’t worship me, worship God. ”

And we hear the angel say that, and we say, “Well duh, we know that,” and yet you and I turn right around and do the same thing. Even if we are committed Christians we do the same thing. This is a reminder to us that if John, one who had been an eye witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who probably of any person who has ever lived had the most intimate personal relationship with Jesus, if he does it, then how much more prone are you and me to do the same kind of stuff? You may ask, “Well, Ron, what are you talking about? How?” “I don’t worship anything but God.” Even as a committed Christian, you and I are sometimes prone to worship other things.

For example, sometimes we are prone to worship pastors. Now Charles Spurgeon was undoubtedly the greatest preacher in the 19th century. He was so good they had to build the Metropolitan Temple in London to pack in the 6,000 or so folks who would show up on Sunday mornings to hear him preach. One Sunday, Spurgeon was going to be out of town. So he got a “Rev” friend of his to fill in for him. As the service progressed that morning, it soon became apparent that Spurgeon wasn’t there, and it kind of spread through the congregation. Literally hundreds of people began to get up out of their seats and head for the doors. Now that visiting preacher that day had enough theological spunk that he jumped up in the middle of that service and said, “Stop! If you are here this morning to worship Charles Spurgeon, then keep on going. But if you are here to worship Jesus Christ, then we invite you to stay. ”

Or sometimes you and I are prone to worship our feelings — the way we want to feel, or the way we want a worship service to make us feel. If we come in here on Sundays mornings more concerned about how we are going to feel than about how God is going to feel, then we probably need to be slapped a little bit by an angel. Or sometimes we are prone to worship a certain style of worship. “Contemporary worship! That’s where it really is, that’s what God really likes!” “No, no! Traditional worship, that’s the real worship.”

Sometimes we fall in love with the whole idea of worship itself. I heard about an old monk that on his deathbed said, “What I’m going to miss most when I die is the Mass. “You fool! The Mass is about being in the real presence of Christ, and you are going to be in the unveiled glorious real presence of Christ – the mass is going to mean nothing there!

Or sometimes you and I are prone to worship a certain place, or a building, or a sanctuary. In my former church in San Antonio, in the chancel there is a beautiful stained glass window. It’s called the Ascension Window. It has been there since 1906. Well back in the 60’s, the building committee and the elders of the church decided that they were going to remodel the chancel. And as a part of the plans, they were going to take the Ascension Window and move it to a side transept where there was a vacancy for a stained glass window. And in the chancel they were going to drop a dark blue cloth and against that cloth was going to hang a bronze Celtic cross that was forged in Scotland.

If you go to that sanctuary today, the Ascension Window is still there. The Celtic cross hangs from an arch over the chancel where you can hardly see it. And the reason it’s still there is because at that congregational meeting Dr. George MauzĂ© was announcing these plans to the congregation, and a member of the church jumped out of his pew, ran up and shoved Dr. MauzĂ© aside from the communion table and said “Over my dead body” and organized a group that said “we’re going to fight that to the death. ”

We say here at Central that worship at the center of church life is our third core value. Which means we better get it right. Which means we better understand what authentic worship is really all about. The word worship comes from the Anglo Saxon wirthscope which means “to ascribe worth to”. And whatever you and I ascribe ultimate worth to is our god. Now the word worship in both the Old and New Testaments — in both the Greek and the Hebrew — is always a verb. It is always something you and I do, it’s never something we go to, to observe. And it literally means in both the Greek and the Hebrew “to fall down or to bow down before” just like we see John doing in verse 8 of our text. He gets that part right.

And authentic worship is always a response to a genuine encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ. Now here’s where John blows it. He’s gotten some of it right. He’s had a genuine encounter with Christ. He falls down and worships. But he does so at the feet of something grand and glorious, an angel, and yet something that is penultimate. You see, pastors, apostles, angels, buildings, feelings, contemporary worship – those things may be grand and glorious, well sometimes pastors can be grand and glorious, but they all have one thing in common – they are penultimate. And anytime you and I are in worship and our focus is on something penultimate, then we do not worship in spirit and in truth. Because our focus is always to be on the ultimate, which is God himself.

Now it is easy to get distracted in worship. Worship is hard to do right. It is keeping your focus on Jesus Christ and keeping that relationship intact during worship. That is not an easy thing to do. We are easily distracted by all this good, grand, and glorious penultimate stuff. So John falls at the feet of this angel. Now I said that if you are not a Christian, there is always going to be this automatic disconnect between you and worship. But even if you are a committed Christian, I know a lot of Christians who still tell me that they are bored to tears when it comes to worship. And I’ve got a couple of theories for why that is the case.

Theory number one is this: because some pastors really are boring. And some congregations just plain lack passion. There are congregations out there that go to church rather than go to meet Jesus Christ. There are congregations out there and pastors out there who have handled the holy so much that their hands have become calloused. And so they find themselves just kind of going through the motions of a service, mouthing the hymns and prayers instead if falling down before an almighty majestic God in passionate love for Him because He has poured out His very blood and guts for them on Calvary to open the door for eternal life and salvation.

But I will tell you this. Be careful, be very careful about ever calling a church “dead. “Be careful about ever walking out of a service because it seems “dead. “Because Jesus always keeps his promise. The promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them. “And I’ve never seen a “dead church” where there wasn’t at least two or three believers in it. So ultimately, you see, it doesn’t depend on whether the pastor’s boring or how fired up the congregation is around you, a true Christian should be able to worship anywhere, because they are going to seek Jesus Christ, not the penultimate stuff. You see, bottom line, you and I are responsible for our own passion in worship.

But secondly, the reason worship is boring for even a lot of even committed Christians is because they have never discovered the Biblical paradigm for worship as ritual drama. If you read the book of Revelation you see that there is all kinds of guidelines for worship there. In fact, God reveals that worship really is a ritual drama where the people of God, believers, come together and rehearse the mighty acts of God in Christ Jesus.

And so what we do here on Sunday mornings can be likened to a play. Now if you have ever been a part of a play, you know that you need a minimum of at least three things. You need actors, you need a director, and it helps a whole lot if you have an audience. Okay, let’s think of what we are doing here this morning as ritual drama, as a play. If I asked you, “Okay, what’s the audience? “I bet a majority response would be, “Well, the congregation. “If I said, “Well who are the actors? “You would say, “Well Jerry, and Bruce, and the choir and you. “If I asked, “Well, who is the director? “You would say, “I guess that’s God. He’s up there kind of directing this. ”

That’s exactly why worship is so boring for so many people, because it is all backwards for so many people. Who is the audience in worship? Almighty God. Who are the actors? Who are the directors? They are the pastors, we are actors too, we’re kind of player-coaches. When you walk into a church to worship, you are walking on stage. When you are handed a bulletin, that is your script. Those are your lines!

Let me try to bring it a little closer to home. Let’s say you paid $60 a shot for a couple of tickets to Les Miserable on Broadway. You fly up to New York City. You have been waiting for this day for so long. You go to the play. It is supposed to start at 8:00 and it doesn’t really get started until about 8:30. Then it starts, and you notice that half of the orchestra is kind of talking amongst themselves while the other half is playing. Then comes the time in your play for your favorite song, and the guy who is the lead singer sings about half of it, then he stops and gets a cigarette. Well, I mean seriously, how are you feeling about now? It is a good thing that the chairs are bolted down so that you won’t throw one, but you storm out of there – you want your money back! But think about this – what price has God paid to witness our performance here this morning? The very life of His son.

When I greet at the door after worship I overhear a lot of things that you all don’t think I hear. I’ve got pretty good ears. My eyes are going, but my ears are still pretty good. A comment I hear a lot when they think I’m out of earshot, someone will turn to their friend and say “How did you like the service? “Which is code for, “Was the sermon any good?” Folks, that is not a legitimate question that any of you can ask. Not because I’m protecting myself. Uh uh. I’ve preached some stinkers, I know it. That question can only be legitimately be asked by the heavenly host as they gather around the throne of God at about 12:15 every Sunday when we finish. And they ask God, “How did you like the service?” The only question you and I can legitimately ask as we leave worship is this question – and we ought to ask this question every time we leave worship — “How did I do? How did I do?.”

Worship is the center of church life here at Central because it is the most important thing we do. We place missions in a high priority here at this church, and sorry Jerry, but worship is more important than missions. Listen to this quote from a great missions pastor, John Piper. I love this. “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church – worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Let me say that again – missions exists because worship doesn’t. In other words, wherever there is not worship going on, that’s a place where we need to send missionaries. Piper goes on to say, “When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity, but worship abides forever. ”

Worship is the most important thing we do at Central. And worship, authentic worship, is all about taking our eyes off ourselves, off of how we feel, off of how we hope we feel when it is all over, off of the cafeteria that is coming up afterwards, and focusing on God. If worship is the center of who we are as a congregation, then what are a few ramifications of that practically speaking for our life together? Let me give you five.

The first is this, that worship is the hub of everything we do here at Central. I want you to picture Central, and everything we do as being like a wheel, and worship is there at the hub, and then everything else we do emanates out of worship – the spokes: Youth Ministry, Missions, Sunday School, Prison Ministry, you name it. Now at the very center of the hub is Jesus Christ. Our worship is Christ centered. Christ is the still turning point. The hub turns around Him. He remains still. And as our worship authentically turns and revolves and focuses around Christ, what happens to the wheel? It moves. But also, remember your Physics? When a body like that revolves, what kind of force is generated? Centrifugal force. Worship, authentic worship, generates a centrifugal force that then propels you and me into acts of missions and justice and mercy.

Secondly, worship at the center of our life means that you and I must continuously wrestle with the prevalent heresy that is in the evangelical church today. And the heresy is this that the doctrine of the sovereignty of the congregation has become elevated over the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In other words, in our consumer-oriented, materialistic culture, you play to what packs them in. And so, hey, we’ve got to please the congregation. And so, if you want this, we’ll do it, rather than asking, “What does God want us to do? ”

That is a subtle dangerous shift in doctrine, and I’m not going to let it happen here. The worst thing to happen in terms of worship would be to give you guys a survey, to get it back, and to say, “Oh this is what people want, and so we just design worship for what they want.” Well, what you want may not be what God wants you to have. The only legitimate way to construct and design worship is to go where God has revealed what he wants, in His word, and to design worship along those lines.

The third ramification for our life together as a congregation with worship at the center is that we are committed to excellence in worship. That means Jerry and Murray and I never give you a “Saturday Night Special.” We work on our sermons all week long. It means that in terms of music, we go after the best. That’s why our search committee is doing an international search for the best Director of Music Ministries that we can find. It also means that we plan worship in an authentic way with integrity. You’ve got a Worship Committee that is a creative think-tank and is coming up with some marvelous things. It also means that you’ve got a role. Remember you’re one of the performers. You’ve got to prepare as well. That means you need to ask yourself: “Can I come in on Sunday morning and be at the top of my game, and really perform and give God my best if I’ve been up until 2:00 Saturday night?” It’s a question you need to ask.

God deserves nothing lest than our best in worship. Committed to excellence. Do you come here on Sunday mornings really prepared to meet Jesus Christ, or to just go to a worship service? That makes all the difference in the world in how you and I worship, how we answer that question.

We are also committed to teaching about worship. That’s why our children are in Children’s Worship not just singing songs, but learning how to worship in spirit and in truth. That’s why if you are in a small group, I would encourage your small group to do a book study on worship sometime. A great book that is out there right now is by Robert Weber, Blended Worship. Great book. I would encourage your small group to do that in 1999. Occasionally we have Sunday school classes on worship. We need to continually learn to do it better. We are committed to teaching.

Lastly, we are committed to the Reformed theological concept of the entirety of our lives really being an act of worship. Jesus is Lord of everything or He is Lord of nothing. He is just as interested in what you and I do on 4:00 on Tuesday afternoon as what we are doing in this sanctuary right now. The totality of our lives is worship. We are committed to that here at Central — making our whole lives an act of worship of the almighty God. So authentic worship has very little to do if anything with entertainment or pumping you up to get you through the rest of the week, or liturgical correctness, or getting all my needs met, and feeling good, or any of that kind of stuff. Those things are all penultimate.

Worship is all about focus. Rifle shot focus. Falling down in passionate love before Almighty God who has made you, and has loved you into being, and has redeemed you in Jesus Christ. After Arturo Toscanini had finished conducting a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the audience went wild. They rose to their feet, they began to cheer and shout and Toscanini began to wave his arms violently for them to stop. And when silence kicked in, he then pointed to the orchestra and said, “You are nothing!” And then he pointed to himself and said, “I am nothing.” And then at the top of his voice, he screamed out, “Beethoven is everything! Everything! Everything!” Folks, let me tell you. Pastors, apostles, angels, traditional worship, contemporary worship, how you and I feel, those things in one sense are nothing. God is everything, everything, everything. Worship God.