One of the things that strengthens Christians is worship. But very few subjects these days generate the confusion this one does.
Which "experience" is worship? Celebration? Repentance? Contentment? Brokenness? Wonder? Fellowship? Humility? Which "act" is more worshipful? Clapping? Crying? Raising hands? Bowing one's head? Kneeling? Falling on your face? Laughing? I have worshiped and done all these things. And I have done all these things without worshiping. It is simply wrong to confuse "worship" with "worship experiences."
We have to be careful lest this rebuke from Jesus apply to us: You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men (Matt. 15:7-9).
Worship is not significant to Christian growth because of the feelings it produces. Such an understanding misses the point of worship altogether. It makes worship into something more focused on the worshipers than on the One being worshiped. Good worship doesn't call attention to itself. It is self-effacing and self-denying in nature.
Worship is the lens through which we see God most clearly. It always points to a reality beyond itself. It beckons us into God's true and ultimate reality putting all other things into perspective in the process. It reorients our world-view and, in the words of one song we use occasionally, serves to "reclothe us in our rightful mind."
I appreciate what William Willimon says on this point:
Why do you come to church on Sunday morning? "I come for a moment of peace, to get away from my problems," says one person. Another disagreed. "I come to church only to get motivated to live a better life in the real world.
In the first person's view, Sunday morning is a time to escape the problems and pain of the "real" world. In the second view, Sunday worship is a time to get the energy or insight to go back to the "real" world where the action of faith really is. Both views assume that the "real" world is somewhere other than in the world of worship.1
Worship seeking the face of God and getting past our self-centeredness and preoccupation with ourselves for the sake of an encounter with him is true reality. And we are called into that reality when we meet as the Family of God at Woodmont Hills each Lord's Day.
Many of you have heard me refer to authentic worship as the "Holy Wow." For some of you, perhaps that very expression sounds offensive and smacks of irreverence. I certainly don't mean to be sacrilegious by using it. Let me explain what I mean.
Years ago I filed away an article on worship that has helped me tremendously. Its author raised the question "But what actually is worship?" and sought to move his readers toward an answer by pointing to two radically different events of worship in Scripture.
The first begins with the King of Judah being marched against by three armies simultaneously. "After this, the Moabites and Ammonites with some of the Meunites came to make war on Jehoshaphat" (2 Chron. 20:1). Informed of what was happening, Jehoshaphat knew he could not save his people. So he called the nation together and stood before its people and pleaded with the Lord. "O our God, will you not judge them?" he prayed. "For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you" (2 Chron. 20:12).
In his powerlessness and despair, this prophetic word came to the king: Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. He said: "Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you'" (2 Chron. 20:14-17).
And this was the reaction of all who heard the prophet's words: "Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord" (2 Chron. 20:18). Of course they did! They received an immediate and sure promise that their needs would be met from the sufficiency of God's grace. And isn't that what we've always believed worship was? And can't we worship in those electric moments of release from our problems? Hold on! I said there were two events of worship to examine, and the second could hardly be more opposite to the one we've just explored.
Consider the experience of the man Job. He is prosperous. He has a wife and children. He is healthy, and his life is filled with promise. With incredible swiftness, his world came apart at the seams. A series of tragedies bowled him over.
"One day when Job's sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, a messenger came to Job and said, "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, "The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, "The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, "Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!" (Job 1:13-19).
And this was Job's response: "At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship" (Job 1:20).
King Jehoshaphat had encountered a God beyond his understanding who was doing more than he had dared hope for. He wasn't simply giving the army of Judah special boldness or a Joshua- or Gideon-type military tactic. God was going to do it all! He would fight the enemies of Judah for them and tell a nation and its king simply to watch. What do you do when you are confronted with a God so big that you can't figure out his power and goodness? In your smallness and powerlessness, you simply say, "Wow!"
But Job got no promise of relief. He found himself crushed by the weight of a broken heart and tormented with unanswered questions. Did God do this to me? Did God allow this to happen to me? Where is the fairness in this? And what did my children do to deserve being caught up in whatever this is that is happening? In totally dissimilar circumstances from Jehoshaphat, Job too found himself confronted with a God too mysterious for him to figure out. So he tore his clothes in mourning, fell to the ground, and said, "Wow!"
In every circumstance when a believer allows himself to be confronted by his God, he will worship. God, rightly perceived, will always be a God too big too big in His forgiveness, too big in His love, too big in His judgment, too big in His grace.
If worship is not happening among God's people today, it is because we have shaped our concepts of God to fit our own understanding. We have measured Him by our intellect and felt quite free to expect Him to answer all our "whys," as though our brains were adequate to handle his answers.
We have worshiped only when we decided God had lived up to our expectations. And having brought Him down to our level, we have little reason for falling with our faces to the ground in our utter amazement at a God too big.3
Worship, then, is not a contrived experience. It is not something a few of us can make you do on Sundays. And it certainly is not a performance for you to critique. As soon as we come to our Sunday assemblies looking for, expecting, and critiquing our experiences, we have debased the most elemental feature of worship. We are not God-conscious but self-conscious, not seeking God but seeking our own satisfaction.
Or maybe we should think of worship as discipline. It is learning to enter into God's world-view valuing spiritual above material, long-range above short term, integrity with suffering over compromise for profit, life with God that includes the frustrating mystery of unanswered questions over life with a cute god eager to be your personal genie of instant answers for a suitable "love offering."
Maybe we have a hard time entering the spirit of Sunday worship meaningfully because of what we do the other six days of the week. We court the god of materialism the other days and expect to meet the Father of Spirits on Sunday. We sell ourselves for every possible short-term advantage Saturday night and feel frustrated that we left feeling empty of the long-term God of Eternity on Sunday morning. We put all on the altar of career and personal fulfillment in the "secular" world and feel cheated that we can't experience "spiritual" fulfillment on the Lord's Day. We demand that God be a docile E.T. or genie in a bottle throughout the week and then gripe that the singing or prayers or sermon didn't move us to the burning-bush sense of mystery Moses felt on the mountain.
Are you Jehoshaphat today? Did you come here about to burst with joy and ready to say "Wow!" to a God too kind, too generous, too wonderful in his blessings to you this week? Or are you Job this morning? Are you demoralized and smashed with grief upon grief, frustration upon frustration? Did you show up in a daze feeling that you had nothing to say to the Lord today that would be worshipful? Perhaps you can simply look toward God and whisper the "Wow!" of exhaustion and confusion before a mysterious God who whispers back in your darkness and says, "I love you and the story isn't finished yet."
Be still, my soul. Wait for him. O Lord, come! In the meanwhile, it will strengthen you to worship.
1 William Willimon, The Bible: A Sustaining Presence in Worship (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1981), p. 85.
2 David Needham, "What Do You Do With a God Too Big?" Moody Monthly, January 1984, pp. 19-20.
3 Needham, "What Do You Do?" p. 20.