The Heart of Worship

Last week, we began a look at the subject of worship. And I said that it’s a topic that we need to study, first of all, just because of how important worship is. Worship is what we were created for. All of creation gives praise and glory and honor to God, and that’s what we are called to do.

But secondly, I said that it’s important for us to study the topic of worship because we tend to have such a limited understanding of what worship is. I made the statement last week that the New Testament says very little about the outward forms of worship, but it says a great deal about the heart of worship

This heart-centered emphasis on worship is seen in the words of Jesus that the hour is coming and now is when worship will not be located in Samaria or Jerusalem, but will be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

And we see it again in Matthew 15 where Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me.” (Matthew 15:8–9). Jesus made it clear that worship that does not come from the heart is vain, it’s empty, it’s worthless. The fundamental issue of worship has nothing to do with what kind of songs we sing or whether we take the Lord’s Supper before the sermon or after. The issue is, where is our heart?

I made the observation last week that, in the New Testament, the gathering of the church is never referred to as “worship”. There’s not even one mention of a “worship service”.

In fact, the word that was used most often in the Old Testament to refer to worship (proskuneo) is virtually absent from the New Testament letters. Paul, especially, preferred to use a word for worship (latreuo) that puts the emphasis on a worship that manifests itself in everyday life.

We see this in Romans 12:1, where Paul says that we as Christians should present our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

So my conclusion was that the essence of worship is not external, localized acts, but a heart-centered, focus on God that expresses itself not primarily in church services (although what we do here is important) but primarily in daily expressions of allegiance to God — in the way you do your job, the way you handle your money, the way you keep your marriage vows, or speak up for Christ.
We also talked last week about the definition of worship and I said that worship is always focused on God. Our English word “worship” is actually a shortened form of “worth-ship.” The act of worship is focusing on Almighty God and acknowledging the true worth of God. Or, to put it another way, it is to give God the glory.

Worship is an act that shows how magnificent God is, that reveals or expresses how great and glorious he is. Worship is all about reflecting the worth or value of God.

We see this in Philippians chapter 1. Here in this chapter, Paul is talking about the fact that he is in prison, and he doesn’t know what the future holds. He may soon lose his life for preaching about Christ, or he may continue to live and have more opportunities to serve God.

In Philippians 1:20, he says, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”

His desire was that “Christ will be honored in my body”. Different translations translate that phrase, “Christ will be exalted in my body”, “my life will bring honor to Christ”, “Christ will be magnified in my body”. And I especially like the way the New Century Version translates it — “I will…show the greatness of Christ in my life here on earth, whether I live or die.”

That’s the very essence of worship, because that’s what worship is – it’s honoring God, exalting God, bringing honor to God, showing the greatness of God in our lives.

And I closed last week’s lesson by saying that, when we truly realize that, we will no longer confine worship to something that happens inside these four walls. Worship doesn’t stop when the closing prayer has been offered. And worship doesn’t stop when we walk out that door. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31).

But, as I pointed out last week, that doesn’t mean that what we do here every week is unimportant. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing, as we bring our worship that we have been involved in all week long and we put it together with the worship of everyone else here so that we collectively offer that praise and glory to God.

So, this morning, I want to think a little bit about the worship that we engage in together, collectively, with a particular emphasis on the heart of our worship. And I want to suggest four things that I believe are essential if we are going to have the proper heart of worship.

1. Worship is a Time of Praise

Unless we understand that our primary reason for being here is to worship God, to honor Him and show Him just how much we appreciate Him, then we will always go away being disappointed in what takes place in this building.

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who became disillusioned with religion as he had seen it during his lifetime. As a result, he became rather cynical about the church but in his cynicism, he was still able make some very important points

Kierkegaard once said that he saw worship of God like a play. Now, a play has basically three components. There is the audience, the actors and the prompter. Kierkegaard said that, in this play called worship, the audience is the congregation, the actors are the ones who get up on stage, such as the preacher and the song leader, and if God plays any role at all, then he is the prompter.

And I think that that’s how a lot of folks view the worship service. The preacher and the song leader are performing in front of the audience, so it’s only natural that they be critiqued. So, as we leave, we make our judgments. The preacher was too short or too long (usually too long), he was too boring, too shallow, too deep. The song leader pitched the songs too high or too low, sang too fast or too slow, chose the same old songs or chose songs we didn’t know. But you see what happens? Since these leaders “perform” in front of you, you feel that it is your responsi¬bility as an audience to critique their performance.

And God, if he plays any role at all, is merely the prompter. I mean, isn’t that what we often hear prayed? “Lord, help the preacher to have a ready recollection of the things he has prepared.” In other words, we want God to help out if the preacher ever forgets his lines. God is the prompter.

But let me suggest to you the way I think worship ought to be viewed. Using that same imagery of a play, God is the audience. And the actors are not the ones up here on this platform but rather consist of everyone in the congregation. So the critique, if there is one, needs to be made, not of those up here at the podium, but of the participation and attitude of each and every one of us. The preacher, the song leader, the others who stand up here are the ones who are the prompters. We merely help the congregation along in its performance. And God is the audience.

Now that’s a different perspective than perhaps we are used to, but I believe it’s a much more Biblical approach. Why do we come together to worship? Are you here hoping to see a good performance? Are you here because you feel obligated, because it’s what you’re expected to do? Or maybe your worship has become somewhat of a ritual, something you’ve done over and over so many times that you don’t even think much about it. Maybe it’s even reached the point of being a burden, something you have to endure for a couple of hours a week.

The reason that we ought to come together to worship is to praise God, but I think we sometimes forget that. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that when we come together for worship, we’re here to receive, rather than to give. And I realize that we come together to edify one another, to build one another up. And so, anytime I come to worship God, I’m going to gain something in return. But, if I come to worship primarily for what I’m going get out of it, looking for everyone else to exhort and to encourage me, then I’ve come for the wrong reason. Worship, if it is worship at all, must be directed toward God.

In Psalm 116:12, David said, “What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits to me?” What shall I render to God? What can I give to him? What can I do for him? And time and time again, David answers that question in the Psalms: we give him praise, honor and adoration through our worship of Him.

“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Psalm 67:3-4).

“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15).

Remember when Moses came to the burning bush in Exodus 3? And God told him to take off his shoes because he was on “holy ground”. Not because the sand surrounding the burning bush was any different than the rest of the desert sand. But because that spot was made sacred by the very presence of God.

In the same way, those of us who are Christians are on “holy ground” when we come together to worship each week. Even when our numbers are small, God is in our midst. There’s nothing special about this place, but wherever God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit are present, we ought to respond to that presence by figura¬tively taking off our shoes in reverent, worshipful praise.

We are the presence of Jeho¬vah God, Creator, Ruler of the Universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Think about it. We have the privilege of having an audience with the King of all creation. We can enter his palace, kneel at his throne, speak our humble praise, and receive his divine blessing.

And that ought to bring spontaneous praise from our hearts and lips. “How Great Thou Art!” “O Worship the King!” “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow!”

Above anything else, worship is an opportunity for us to magnify the name of God, to exalt God, to praise God for who he is, and if we have failed to do that, then no matter what else we may have done here, our time has not been spent in worship.

2. Worship is a Time to Listen

I heard about a 6-year-old little boy who sat restlessly during a long sermon. He got the chance later to ask his father what the preacher did the rest of the week. The father said, “Oh, he’s a very busy man. He takes care of church business, visits the sick, ministers to the poor…. and then he has to have time to rest. Talking in public isn’t an easy job, you know.” The little boy thought about that for a while, and then he said, “Well… listening ain’t all that easy, either.”

And he’s right. But listening is an important part of our worship experience. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 5:1, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.” When you come into the house God, draw near to listen.

One of the verses that is often used to shape our worship is Habakkuk 2:20, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” And sometimes this verse is used to indicate that we all need to whisper when we’re in a church building. But the context has to do with comparing God to all of the heathen idols. The reason we keep silent in the presence in the presence of God is that, unlike all of the heathen gods that people make, our God actually has something to say.

We need to realize that worship is not only a time for us to speak to God and to offer our praises to him, but it is also a time to open our ears and our hearts to God and listen to him speak to us through his word.

Turn with me to Nehemiah chapter 8. This book is the story of Jews coming back to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity. And under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they began to rebuild the walls of the city and eventually the temple.

But when their work was completed and the Jews realized that this work had “been done with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16), they were called together to worship God as a community. Notice some of the elements of this worship.

a. The people assembled

“All the people of Israel gathered together” (Nehemiah 8:1, NLV)

b. Ezra read God’s Word out loud

“And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand.” (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

Keep in mind they didn’t have pew Bibles, and they didn’t have Bibles in their home. In fact, it’s likely they had rarely had opportunity to hear this book read while they were in captivity. So Ezra the priest stood before the assembly on a raised platform (8:4) and read it out loud. And he read from “daybreak until noon” (8:3).

c. They listened attentively

“And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:3)

It’s evident that these were people who were hungering and thirsting to hear what God had to say. They listened while they stood for five or six hours (8:3).

d. The people responded

“And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (Nehemiah 8:6)

This was not a passive crowd. When Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, they all lifted their hands (a symbol of praise and prayer), said “Amen, Amen!” (a formal sign of agreement) and “bowed down and worshiped with their faces to the ground” (an act of awe and submission before God). These listeners understood that when God speaks, he looks for a response from us.

There’s this beautiful conversation here between God and his people. God actually speaks to his people through his Word, and we believe that he does the same thing for us today. When Ezra read the Law of God, it was voice of God speaking to the people.

And then we speak to God through our words and actions. And God listens! He is not distant and uninterested in our response. He listens for our response even more eagerly than we listen for his voice. Our responses can take on a variety of expressions. We have tears, we lift our hands in prayer and praise, we say “Amen” in agreement, we bring offerings, we sing. And in all of it, we are speaking to God.

One of the beautiful things about worship is that God and his people carry on a conversation together! We have a dialog with God. But it begins when God speaks and we listen.

3. Worship is a Time of Confession

The prophet Isaiah wasn’t what you would consider an evil man. He wasn’t a thief, an adulterer, or a liar. He wasn’t a drunkard or a murderer. Isaiah was a godly man. His character and his life were so godly, in fact, that God selected him to be his prophet.

But, despite his moral goodness, the prophet Isaiah didn’t feel so good in the presence of God. When he was called to be a prophet, Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

It’s important to understand that true worship doesn’t pro¬duce exclusively good feelings. Coming into God’s presence gives you a humble perspective from which to view not only his greatness and goodness, but also, by marked contrast, our own smallness and unworthiness. If we acknowledge the greatness and holiness of God, we must also recognize the truth that we fall far short of what is expected of us.

In Luke 18, Jesus talked about two men who came to worship God. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:10-13).

Now, that’s a passage we’re all familiar with. We dis¬cuss in our Bible classes how the humility of the tax collector was preferred to the pride of the Pharisee. But, folks, let’s be honest, which of those two men most accurately represents our worship?

It’s so easy to come together and worship, thinking, “God, you need to appreciate what I’m doing for you. I could have stayed in bed this morning, it would have been so easy. But you need to be proud of me. I’ve put you first. Not like all the rest of those heathens who don’t make the effort to get out and worship.” Anybody here ever felt like that? Let’s be honest.

When’s the last the last time you came to worship and were unable to look anybody in the eye because you felt so unworthy. Worship should be a time to remind us that we are all sinners who have been saved by the grace of God. Conviction of sin is not a one-time, pre-baptism, glad-it’s-over experience. Personal sin must be acknowledged repeatedly and regularly in our Christian lives.

As Christians, we need to say to God, “Have mercy on me, Lord; I have sinned. I’ve been too proud to apologize to my wife. I selfishly work overtime for money and promotions at the expense of my family. Sometimes I doubt your Word, and I make excuses for not praying. I’ve not been giving my employer a full day’s work for a day’s pay. Forgive me for lusting, swearing, a lack of gratitude, ignoring the needs of others. Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy!”

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9). Confessing our sins is never a pleasant thing to do. Nor is it an easy thing to do. But it’s an essential part of worshipping God with the right heart.

4. Worship is a Time of Commitment

In our worship services, we often have a time following the sermon that we call the invitation. It’s a formal opportunity to respond in obedient faith to Jesus Christ. And our worship service is a good time, though cer¬tainly not the only time, for a person to make that commitment to Christ.

And worship is also an opportunity for those of us who are Christians to recommit ourselves to Christ and to his kingdom. It is a time for dedication and rededication, for surrender and submission. It is a time in public worship when every worshiper participates by yielding a bit more fully and sincerely to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

It is to the shame of 21st century Christianity that many of us seem to know so little about commitment. We live in an age that has been called “the age of indifference”. People don’t want to commit themselves like they once did. And that’s true in a lot of areas. It’s true in our jobs. Workers are no longer dedicated to turning out the best work they can but rather, they want to get the largest paycheck for the least amount of work. It’s true in the area of marriage. People want the fringe benefits of marriage — sex and companionship — without a real commitment to one anoth¬er and without responsibility.

Unfortunately, there are also some in the church who want the fringe benefits without the commitment. They want the hope of eternal life but not a life of service. They want the privilege of prayer and fellowship, but don’t want any obligations. They want to acknowledge Christ as the Savior of their lives, but hesitate to acknowledge him as Lord of their lives.

But those of us who are Christians need to remember that when we stepped forward to declare our faith in Jesus Christ, when we submitted ourselves to be baptized, then and there we made a commitment. We made a promise to Christ to be faithful in worship, blameless in our behavior and zealous in our desire to do God’s work.

Our worship together is a time to renew that commitment.

Conclusion:

As we seek to worship God in spirit and in truth, it is essential that we make sure that our worship is heart-centered. Because if our heart is anything other than what it should be, it makes no difference what we do here in this building. We may come together every week for “worship service” and sing without any instruments, eat the unleav¬ened bread and drink the fruit of the vine every first day of the week, but if our heart isn’t right, it’s all vain, worthless, of no value.

That means, among other things, keeping praise of God as our focus, opening our ears and our hearts to his word, being willing to acknowledge our unworthiness, and viewing worship as a time of recommitment, a time to pledge our allegiance, a time to acknowledge in our hearts to God our desire to put him first, our desire to serve him better, our desire to draw closer to him.

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