The Gift of Congregational Worship: Part Two
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In a previous article we saw how congregational worship is not a gift we offer to God, but a gift we receive from him. In this article we explore how what we get when we ‘unwrap’ this gift from God.
I used to walk to work each day and as I walked I would pray. Typcially I would start by confessing my sin. At the end of the street I would turn up through some trees. More times than I can remember, as I walked through those trees. I would start looking forward to our Sunday gathering when I would hear words of forgiveness. It’s not that I thought I was unforgiven as I walked through the trees or that I would somehow be more forgiven come Sunday. But I longed for the moment when I would hear Christ’s words of forgiveness from the mouth of another person.
The reason was that moment forgiveness is not a just feeling conjured up by me. It is an objective reality, coming to me from outside of me. It literally comes from outside as sounds waves hit my ear drums. Often those words are reinforced by a song. Indeed sometimes I would stop singing and allow 150 people simultaneously to declare God’s forgiveness to me in Christ. In my head I knew it already, but now it was as if the grace of God washed over me, carried on the voices of his people.
Worship is a gift to reassure our doubting hearts
The writer of Hebrews brings his exposition of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ to a conclusion by saying that as a result we have ‘confidence’, access, ‘assurance’ and ‘cleansing’ (Heb. 10:19-22). By grace through Christ we can draw near to God. But notice how he continues: ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Heb. 10:24-25)
Why do we meet together? Not to do something for God, but to encourage one another. If our experience of confidence, access, assurance and cleansing is to be sustained then we need to meet together. Our hearts so easily waver and doubt. Martin Luther describes them as ‘brittle’. So we need to hear again and again the gospel promises. The goal of worship is not to build up God, but to build up one another. We find the same emphasis in Colossians 3:16: ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘The Christ in [our] own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.’ In other words, our hearts can be plagued by doubt, muddled by sin, weighed down by guilt, and so our faith falters. And then a Christian speaks. It might be in preaching or leading or singing or a conversation. But in those words your hear the voice of Christ. They come to you from outside. This is not your internal monologue with all its confusions. These words come as an objective reality, speaking good news to your heart.
Bonhoeffer links this to what the Reformers called our ‘alien righteousness’. We are not made right with God because of anything within us. Instead what makes us right with God is the righteousness of Jesus. It comes to us from outside of ourselves. So we need a word from outside. Bonhoeffer said:
Christians encounter both death and life only in the Word that comes to them from outside, in God’s Word … In themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ … Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves.
Worship is a gift to recapture our wandering hearts
‘Encourage one another daily,’ says Hebrews 3:13, ‘so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ All through the week the world around us says other things are more worthy, more important, more beautiful. All the time we are being drawn away for the worship of God. Every L’Oreal advert tells us not, ‘God is worthy’, but ‘You’re worth it.’
The voice of the world around us is loud and often it drowns out the voice of God. But for an hour or two each Sunday morning we come together and we join our voices. We join our voices to drown out the voice of the world. Together we cry join with the voices of heaven and sing: ‘You are worthy … because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God.’ (Rev. 5:9-10) We come together to remind one another of God’s worth, to call one another away from false priorities. Together we are re-tuning our hearts and We’re re-aligning our affections.
So you owe it to your brothers and sisters to encourage them with heart-felt praise. You have got to take a deep breath, stand tall, take your hands out of your pockets and throw yourself, body and soul, into worshipping God. Why? For the sake of your brothers and sisters. You are sending them out into a hostile world and a seductive world. So you had better make sure their hearts are captured for Christ, that they have a new determination to live lives of praise, that they with a renewed sense that Christ is worthy. Imagine you discovered your child was being offered drugs. You would not stand with your hands in your pockets, mumbling, ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ You would implore them with every fibre of your being. Your brothers and sisters face a danger more deadly. They are being offered destruction by Satan himself. So you had better implore them to see the worth of Christ with every fibre of your being.
We need to see congregational worship as a profoundly pastoral act. People turn up on a Sunday morning weighed down by worries, guilt, shame, fear, weariness, temptation. All week they have heard the lies of the world, often presented in the most seductive ways (after all, advertisers are good at their job). But we have an opportunity to allow the word of grace to be heard so that Christ speaks to people’s fear and guilt, so that Christ’s grace lifts their burdens and Christ’s glory recapture their hearts.
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Words by Tim Chester
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 32.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 31-32.