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On more than one occasion in my life I have been caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm of a crowd of people gathered together in a football or baseball stadium or in a basketball arena as we cheer on our favorite team. It may not be anything that you would do if you were sitting in front of your TV screen at home, but when you come into the company of others who have gathered inside the place where the game is being played you find yourself getting caught up in the atmosphere of what is going on.
Sometimes a voice will come over the sound system saying something like, let’s make some noise. Perhaps the words defense will flash across the scoreboard, and before you know it everybody in the arena is standing on their feet rhythmically shouting out the words defense at the top of their lungs. I have even seen it happen that some people do not want to shout or cheer for the home team that is playing, but others in the crowd will stand up in front of them and start waving their hands and cheering and urging everybody around them to do likewise. Before long a whole section is on its feet cheering and shouting and stomping their feet and clapping their hands all because one exuberant fan had encouraged everybody else to join in.
Let that image of people coming into a sports event all pumped up and ready to cheer for their favorite team serve as the best way to understand what is being asked for in Psalm 95. Imagine that you are on your way to church one Sunday morning and as you approach the building you can feel a sense of excitement in the air. The closer you get to the church building the more clearly you can see the crowds of people that are gathering for the service that is about to begin.
Then you can hear the sounds from inside the church drifting outside through the open doors and windows. Someone inside the church stands up and begins to say to everyone who has gathered that day, “O come let us sing unto the Lord, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” Then someone else says, “The Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods.” Finally the shouts reach a fever pitch as the whole congregation says together, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.”
That is the background for Psalms 95. It is a psalm that tries to describe what was happening in Israel as people started approaching the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. One person would cry out, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord.” In response to that another person would say, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” Then together they would all sing out, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” In other words, Psalms 95was a congregational call to worship; it was one believer telling another believer that it was now time to celebrate the God we serve through songs and shouts of praise.
Does that describe how you come into the house of the Lord? Does Psalms 95 begin to describe what happens here at Antioch when we gather inside the house of the Lord? I dare say that if all of us went to an athletic event together we would not be shocked if someone verbally cheered the home team, and we might even stand up and raise a cheer ourselves. How strange, then, that a similar enthusiasm about God does not take place when we come together on Sunday morning.
This morning I want to challenge this paradox of enthusiastic participation in sports and silent sitting in church. Today I want to suggest that we do not come out to church to visit with God, we come out to worship God as the Bible describes worship. That means that we have come to rejoice before God, to give thanks to God, to sing our praises to God and to humble ourselves and kneel in the presence of God.
We do not come out to see or speak with one another; we come out to lift our thanksgivings unto the Lord. We do not come because church attendance is the proper thing to do; we come because God has been good to us and we want the world to know it. We were sick and God healed us, we were sinners and God saved us, we were overwhelmed by the burdens and cares of the world and the Lord made a way somehow. The words of Psalms 95ought to establish our reason for being here today; “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker). If you have not come to church to worship the Lord you have come to church for the wrong reason!
The question we need to ask and answer is what we mean by the word worship and what action is required in order to engage in worship? In order to address those issues, I want to use the old approach to writing a good news story, the writer task is answer six questions in the first two or three sentences; who, what, when, where, why and how. Let me apply those same principles to a discussion and a description of Christian worship. There are several things to consider when you begin a discussion about worship. On the one hand, there are matters that pertain to the forms of worship. Therefore, you are concerned with what you do, where you do it, when you do it and how you go about doing it.
These are important considerations, and they involve such things as the type of music that is used, or the order of worship that is followed or the version of scripture that is employed and many other matters of form.
However, it is important to remember that worship is not primarily about form. Before you get caught up in the issues of form and formulas (what, when, where and how), you need a compelling answer to the other two questions which are who and why. These two questions deal with the function of worship, and once you can answer the question of function the questions about form will take care of themselves. As in aerodynamics and other forms of engineering, form follows function even where worship is concerned. Once you know who is being worshipped and why such worship is deserved the matters of how to go about that worship can quickly be resolved.
Please notice that Psalms 95 is about both form and function. It is about the issues of what, how and where and when. “O come, let us sing to the Lord . . . let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms . . . let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” All of those invitations to worship are maters of form and, as such, they deserve our attention. But note that Psalms 95is not preoccupied with matters of form. The psalmist also pays close attention to the matter of function.
The first thing you have to consider when you are coming to worship is whom it is you are coming to see. We are coming into the presence of God, the author and creator and sustainer of the whole universe. We are coming into the presence of the God who was, and is and always will be. We are coming into the presence of the God about whom the songwriter said, “Before the hills in order stood or earth received her frame, from everlasting thou art God and to endless years the same. The first thing to consider about worship is this matter of in whose presence we are standing.
The second thing to consider about worship is why we should do it all. Notice that if you cannot answer the question of why the issues of how and where and when make no difference at all. There is no right way to worship God if there is no good reason to worship God. There is no right time or place to worship God if God has not done something that makes our worship make sense. In Psalm 95 the people were asked to worship God because of who God was and because of what God done. There was an answer to both the who and the why questions. Worship God because he is a great God and a great King above all gods. Worship God because he has been our rock in a weary land and our shelter in the time of storm.
Let me give you two words to remember as you think about the right reasons for coming out to worship God. The first word is SOVEREIGN! That is who God is; he is the sovereign Lord of the whole creation. There is no spot on earth where God is not sovereign. There is no place in the universe where God is not sovereign. There is no power or government or political regime that can outlast or overrule the God we serve. I worship God because God is sovereign. Everything else in creation comes and goes, but God lasts forever. God is sovereign. Nations and rulers rise and fall, but God remains on the throne forever. God is sovereign.
We are in the midst of a political season, and to hear people talk you would think that the future of the world depends upon which of the two major party candidates is elected. Let me make something clear from a biblical point of view; George Bush is a Republican, John Kerry is a Democrat, but the God we worship and serve today is sovereign. In Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout the world, God is sovereign. Presidents can leave office, but the country goes on. World leaders pass from the scene of history, but the world goes on.
The ancient empires of Egypt and Rome have vanished from the earth, but our sovereign God is still orchestrating every movement in creation. The Third Reich collapsed, the Soviet Union broke apart, the British Empire has lost its global reach, but our sovereign God is still praised and worshipped unto the ends of the earth. We worship the Lord because the Lord is sovereign. Jesus captured that for us in the closing lines of the Lord’s Prayer when he teaches us to say, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” God is sovereign.
Consider the first stanza of a great Christian hymn as we pause to consider that we worship God because God is sovereign.
O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars; I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee. How great thou art. How great thou art.
There is a second word I want to lift up along with the word sovereign, and that is the word SAVIOR. It is amazing to consider what can happen in our lives when the saving power of a sovereign God is used on our behalf. Not only is God deserving of worship because of who God is (sovereign), but God is also deserving of worship because of what God has done (savior). Psalms 95:1 puts it right up front when it says, “Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” I want to underscore one thing in particular, and that is the many and differing ways by which the saving power of our sovereign God has been at work in our lives.
Let me talk with you about how God can be your savior. Many of us were born in circumstances that appeared to be dead end streets. We had no political connections and we had no friends with influence in high places. We were the victims of racism or gender discrimination. It seemed as if the world had already decided that our lives would be lived out in poverty and obscurity. But then the lord stepped in and saved us from the circumstances of our birth. I know there is somebody here who is still amazed when you consider where you started and then look around at where you are right now. You know you did not get here by yourself; it had to be the hand of the Lord that reached down into that urban ghetto or that rural sharecropper’s cabin or that single-parent family or that house where your father was in prison and your mother was in the streets. But the Lord reached down and saved you and sustained and blessed you and brought you.
Just like God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a land of blessing and prosperity, somebody here today knows that God saved you from the dream-killing and hope-killing circumstances of your early life. Now, when you consider that the sovereign God has been your savior in that first sense, don’t you feel like coming into his presence with thanksgiving? Don’t you want to make a joyful noise to the rock of your salvation?
There is another way by which God may have saved some of us, and that is when he rescued us from death or danger. There must be somebody here who was in an accident and you do not know how you came out alive. There must be somebody here who was gravely ill and the doctors had given up on you, but you are sitting here today saying to yourself “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” If you are honest with yourself today you will agree that the words of Amazing Grace are a description of your life’s journey:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
T’was grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
In my own lifetime I have had cancer, but God saved me. I was in a car crash that should have left me dead, but God saved me. I was in an airport in New York in 1976 when a terrorist group set off a bomb and killed many others, but for some reason God saved me. I look back over my life and see that time after time God has stepped in and saved me from danger and from death. That is why I am not ashamed to say, O come, let us sing unto the Lord. Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. On more than one occasion the sovereign God has worked to be a savior in my life. That is why I say,” O come, let us worship the Lord, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.”
However, there is a third sense in which God has been our savior, and this one applies to all of us. Sin had a strong grip on our lives and it was leading us into places, and around people and getting us involved in practices that we could not break. Someone once said that sin takes us where we did not want to go, it costs us more than we wanted to pay and it costs us more than we ever thought we would have to pay. Is there anybody here today who did not have to struggle with the reality of your sin?
Maybe it was an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Maybe it was a fascination with pornography or excessive gambling. Maybe it was pride and the prejudice that makes us lookdown on those who do not look us or live near us or behave like us. Maybe it was stealing, or gossip, or adultery or hatred. Maybe it was a violent temper, a greedy nature that kept you from sharing with others no matter how great their need, or perhaps it was a lying and deceitful tongue that caused everything but the truth to come out of your mouth. I do not know what your struggle with sin has been, but I do know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Now hear this Good News. While we were still in our sins Christ died for the ungodly. While we were still doing wrong Jesus was working to get our lives right. While we were saying no to God, God was saying yes to us on Calvary. Not only are we saved from the circumstances of our early lives, and not only are we saved from danger and death that surrounds us every day, but we are also saved from the sins that can rob us of abundant life in this world and that can also deny us eternal life with God in the world to come.
Today I invite you ask this question; who have we come to worship? When you start thinking about the fact that God is the sovereign Lord of all creation, you will not need to worry about when or where or how to engage in worship. You will just start praising God because of who God is. Then I ask you to consider why we should worship God? What has the sovereign God done in my life that I should come before him with thanksgiving? If the Lord has saved you from the perils of your earlier life, worship him. If the Lord has saved you from the dangers and near-death encounters that have tracked you through the years you ought to worship.
Most importantly, however, if you know that the Lord went to the cross to pay the price for your sins, you ought to worship him. If you know that the Lord looked beyond your faults and saw your needs and washed your sins away with his precious cleansing blood, then you might not find it hard to say, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” Worship is not about how to do it, or when to do it, or where to do it. Worship is about who is being worshipped and why that worship is deserved. So consider another verse from a hymn that was referred to earlier in this sermon.
And when I think that God his son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul my savior God to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art.
O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Marvin A. McMickle is Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.