What does it mean for Christians to worship? Now praise and worship may seem like such obvious parts of our religious and practice that they hardly require any further explanation or justification. But for over a year now, I have lived and done ministry in Boulder, Colorado, which is as close to being a “Post-Christian” setting, as probably any place in America. So being around the CU campus, we can never assume that people understand or know about even the basics of Christian theology and practice, which would include worship. This fall semester with Christian Challenge we’ve chosen Psalm 71:17-18 as our focal verses. Psalm 71:17— “O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare your wondrous works.” Looking more closely at the second part of that verse, what does it mean to declare the wondrous works of God?? When I think of declaring God’s wondrous works, on thing that comes to mind immediately, is worshipping God, and praising His Name. Because worship is such a fundamental dimension to our Christian lives, it really bears a closer examination. We never want to be in a position of just going through the motions—of doing something simply because it’s tradition, without really understanding why. When we worship, we need to understand the theology behind that, and the heart attitudes that should accompany our approach towards praising God.
I’ve titled my post—“When it comes to worship, are you an amateur?” Now what is an amateur? Often in our society “amateur” can carry an almost pejorative connotation, describing someone who is not that skilled, or who is just dabbling in an area. But an amateur can also be understood, as the opposite of a professional. Therefore an amateur does something not because they’re paid to, or expected to, but because they simply love doing it. In fact, the etymology for the word amateur comes to us from a French word which literally means “lover of.” The question then is when we worship God, what is our motivation? If we are amateurs, then it means we worship God strictly and solely out of love for Him, and for no other reason!!
The date was February 22, 1980, and in Lake Placid, New York, during the Winter Olympic Games, one of the most famous scenes in the history of American sports unfolded. It was the USA vs. Soviet Union hockey game, which the Americans won 4-3. Now why was it such a big deal that the U.S. team beat the Russian team in hockey? Why is the game called the “Miracle on Ice”?? Why do people still talk about this moment in time, even those who weren’t big hockey fans? Listen to what Dave Ogrean, former executive director of U.S.A. hockey had to say: “It’s the most transcending moment in the history of our sport in this country. For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.” What was so compelling about this victory though? How did it capture the public imagination so completely? Well of course the Cold War was at its height, so there was a strong rivalry between America and the Soviet Union. But the real reason it’s so celebrated is because of the discrepancy between the two teams. The Soviet Union fielded a seasoned, professional squad of their best players,—some of the greatest hockey talent in the world, in fact. They masqueraded as amateurs but many were in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and financed full-time by the state. The Americans on the other hand, were true amateurs—all college players. So the “Miracle on Ice” wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact if it had been American pros beating Soviet pros. But amateurs beating professionals made it the perfect underdog story that captured everyone’s imagination. The U.S.A. team weren’t paid, they weren’t pros—they were amateurs, who played for the pride of representing their country and the love of the game.
So then, as worshippers, how can we be amateurs—praising God purely for the love of who He is and because His character and nature deserve it? Well first I would say, we need to avoid a couple of pitfalls that can lead us to worship God for the wrong reasons, and with the wrong heart attitudes. The two pitfalls that I speak of are worshipping from a sense of obligation, and with a sense of entitled expectation. To worship from a sense of obligation would mean that we are operating with a legalistic mindset: we have to worship God, otherwise He might punish us or condemn us. But you see God doesn’t want or need our lip-service. If our hearts are not praising Him with overflowing love—our praise doesn’t mean much. In Matthew 15:8 Jesus discussed the people who would praise God simply out of a sense of obligation from the law. He said “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” Christ is actually quoting there from Isaiah 29:13. So a legalistic approach to worship had been a problem going all the way back into Old Testament times, and it can still be an issue today. Whenever we worship unthinkingly, mechanically, out of mere habit—we’re in danger of offering to the Lord an inauthentic and even phony form of worship that He has no interest in receiving.
The other pitfall is worship from a sense of entitled expectation. Now let me clarify, I used the qualifying adjective “entitled” here, because we should approach the Lord with expectation. We should go into worship with an idea that we are going to experience God, and be in His presence. That’s totally fine—but what we don’t want is the kind of expectation where we worship God while looking for something in return. In many churches today one can hear versions of a Prosperity Gospel that tries to formulate God’s blessings to you in some sort of materialistic ratio. But that’s not a Scriptural message at all! We worship God, and in doing so He may well choose to bless us—or not, but we worship Him regardless. One of the best examples of this attitude comes in Daniel 3:17-18. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, the three young Hebrew captives, are facing certain death in the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the statue of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Listen to their response before the King’s threats: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” These three brave young Jews are confident of God’s blessing and intervention for remaining faithful, and worshipping Him only. But they don’t feel entitled to it—so whether God saves them or not from the flames—their mind is made up. True worship is about stripping away any other false or lesser motivations—and coming to God out of a purse sense of love and devotion.
Ted Williams played left-field for the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1960. A Hall of Famer, widely regarded as perhaps the best pure hitter ever, Williams remains the last player to have ever hit over .400 in a season. Famed novelist John Updike once described Williams in these terms: “he radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose…For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is… maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.” John Updike’s admiration for Ted Williams came from the fact that he consistently offered his best—regardless of whether it was a big game, or there was a pennant at stake, how much money he was making, if there was a big crowd…Williams gave his all out of a pure love and respect for the game of baseball.
So as we think about worship…will we consistently offer God our best when we come to praise Him? Having discussed some of the pitfalls of improper worship to avoid, I now want to discuss three things that authentic worship should involve. Focusing on these things will help us I believe to worship God out of pure love, and to bring Him our best. First, authentic worship involves rejoicing. Now this may seem rather self-apparent, and it may even seem that rejoicing is a synonym for worship. But let me suggest that while worship should naturally involve a spirit of rejoicing, it’s nonetheless something we have to at times make a conscious choice to demonstrate, with our hearts and our spiritual attitude. Now rejoicing within worship is natural in part, because God brings about rejoicing and praise simply for who He is—His greatness, goodness, love, mercy—all the attributes of His character call out for our praise. And we were created in God’s Image, according to Genesis 1:26, so that our purpose is to worship Him. Listen to some of the words from Psalm 96: “For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised…give to the Lord the glory due His name…let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all its fullness; let the field be joyful, and all that is in it.” I love those verses because they show how natural and organic it is that we should praise God. Humans were created to do so—and nature itself instinctually rejoices before its Creator. This calls to mind Luke 19:40–where Jesus is making His triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the cheering crowds, and some of the Pharisees grumble about this display of enthusiasm. And Christ responds: “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”
So rejoicing is a natural part of worship, and our response before God. As the last seconds of the “Miracle on Ice” wound down, broadcaster Al Michael’s famously exclaimed “Do you believe in miracles?? Yes!”. One of the most remarkable things about that hockey game though was its aftermath. People didn’t just turn off their TV sets and go to bed. There are stories of cars driving around the neighborhood, honking horns. Some travelers listening by radio actually pulled off the side of the road, and began cheering. Complete strangers out in public embraced one other, in some cases crying. A spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America” began amongst the crowds of spectators in the Ice Arena in Lake Placid, and in the U.S hockey team’s locker room. That next week, Sports Illustrated had as its cover a photo of the jubilant American team celebrating their victory—and you could see huge American flags being waved in the crowd behind them. There was no caption on the cover, because virtually the whole country knew what had happened and had celebrated. There are so few occasions in life which can cause spontaneous, community, and even nation-wide celebrations to occur, and this Olympic Hockey game was one of them. But as natural as it may be to worship in a spirit of rejoicing, we must never forget that to rejoice is always a deliberate choice. Because there will be many times in your life when circumstances may make it difficult, when you won’t feel much like praising God, or rejoicing, and the challenge is to find it in your heart to do so anyways. Two quick Scriptural examples of this: In Job 1:21, Job has just received the news that he’s lost everything—home, servants, property, and all his children. What is his response? “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job chooses to still worship God even amidst the direst of situations. Then in Acts 16:25—Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi. They’ve been savagely beaten, and are facing a difficult and uncertain future—and what do they do? In the lonely hours of the night, they are praying and singing hymns to God! They choose to rejoice, and to worship. And such a deliberate choice provides a powerful witness—a literal earthquake ensues, and as a result their very captor—the jailor and his entire family are converted.
So authentic worship involves rejoicing, and it also involves remembrance. One of the reasons we worship, is to recall how God has worked in the past, to celebrate what He is doing in our lives at this present moment, and to acknowledge our belief that He will continue to work into the future. But that first part—recalling God’s past works, is a key component. The Psalms are the natural place to turn if we want to talk about worship in Scripture—they were after all the original hymnbook of the Jewish people. And many of the Psalms address this theme of remembering God’s past works. Psalms 78, and Psalm 105 are just two examples—they recall God’s work through the Covenant, through the Patriarchs, deliverance from Egypt, the coming to the Promised Land—all these great milestones of Jewish history. To praise God then involves remembering, bringing to mind His mighty works—and the great things He has done. Remembrance within worship can be very personal too. Psalm 51 is David’s poignant cry of confession, and his longing for forgiveness after his sin with Bathsheba. In Psalm 51:12 he calls out to God: “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation.” David wants here to remember—to recall the joy he once felt in serving the Lord, and in being one of God’s chosen people. When we worship as believers, as Christ-followers, we too can remember. We should look back to our baptism, or to that moment we first experienced the Holy Spirit working in our hearts—we should think back to when we first made a decision to follow Jesus. And then those memories should strengthen and encourage us—and enliven and enrich our experience of worship. Because the problem is—our sinfulness can make us all too easily overlook these things. One of my favorite movies is a British film which came out in 1981 called Excalibur. As you might can gather from the title, it’s about the legend of King Arthur, and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a wonderful epic, full of swords and sorcery, classical music from Wagner, castles, shining armor—the whole bit. One of the best scenes comes at nighttime though. Arthur and his knights have received reports that the once-divided kingdom of Britain is now fully allegiant to King Arthur. The wizard Merlin gathers the soon-to-be Knights of the Round Table in a circle around their king. A fire blazes and they gaze up into a starry sky as they listen to Merlin’s speech: “Be silent! Be still!…and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then… this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, ‘I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!’ For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Merlin recognized that it would be all too easy in the future for the Knights to forget about the unity which had been forged around recognizing one King for the land in Arthur. So he tried to get them to focus on that moment—and remember it always. We are naturally forgetful, and so we continually need to engage in worship to remind ourselves about what the Lord has done for us. I think this in part why Paul tells us in Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice.” The act of worship then can restore our memory, and bring us back to a recognition of what God has done for us, and who He is.
Finally, for our last “R”—authentic worship involves rehearsal. How is this so? Well worship is what’s happening at this moment in heaven. Revelation chapter 4 gives us a glimpse into the Throne Room of Heaven—and there the angelic beings are engaged in a continual worship of God. So when we worship here and now, we are rehearsing for what will one day be the primary activity of heaven. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12—“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” Our worship at the present moment is always going to be imperfect, because we are sinful persons living in a fallen world. But one day—we will worship God perfectly, because we will be fully in His presence, redeemed and pleasing in His sight. This will be true worship in heaven—and until then, we rehearse for that glorious moment with our worship here on earth.
So let’s return to that question I began with—when it comes to worship—are you an amateur? There is a great song sung by Michael W. Smith—“Heart of worship.” I love the chorus: “I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus. I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus.” If we’ve made worship into anything else other than a pure love of God, and praising Him for who He is—then we need to repent. The heart of worship, as that song says—is all about Jesus—because through a relationship with Christ we are able to authentically worship God. I talked about three signs of authentic worship—rejoicing, remembrance, and rehearsal. If we will walk with Jesus, and keep Him foremost in our mind as we worship, then I believe we can embody those three characteristics with our praise. And we can worship as an amateur—out of no other reason than the purest love—which is but a reflection of the even greater love that God has demonstrated for each of us—by sending His Son Jesus!!!