Thanksgiving offers us an opportunity to reflect on this often misunderstood dimension of Christian experience.
What is Thanksgiving, if it is not praise and worship? The annual holiday not only gives Christians a chance to celebrate with a truly spiritual, God-honoring perspective, it also forces us to reflect on the basic meaning of worship itself. In fact, every gathering of Christians ought in some way to be marked by the thanksgiving-day spirit so nobly, powerfully expressed in Psalm 150.
But consider first two axioms. The first is a simple fact: God made us to worship; the second is an unsettling confession: Most of us do not do it very well.
God made us to be worshipers. Life has no other purpose than to be rendered up to God in adoration and gratitude. “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). The Shorter Catechism reminds us that the true end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” God made man for a purpose, and that purpose is worship.
However, most of us do not worship very well. A. W. Tozer noted correctly that worship is “the missing jewel in the evangelical church.” In most places worship is subordinate to preaching, evangelism, Christian education, and pastoral care. It is all well-intentioned, but questionable. Even in some of the noteworthy models of church growth, the prime Sunday morning hour is viewed as a preaching service. Once the “opening exercises” are dispensed with, everyone can concentrate on the high point, namely, the sermon.
Worse things could happen to the gathered believers, of course—but so could better things. Tozer says it well: “The purpose of God in sending his Son to die and live and be at the right hand of God the Father was that he might restore to us the missing jewel, the jewel of worship; that we might come back and learn to do again that which we were created to do in the first place—worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, to spend our time in awesome wonder and adoration of God, feeling and expressing it, and letting it get into our labors and doing nothing except as an act of worship to Almighty God through his Son Jesus Christ.”
Because we miss this truth we get our priorities wrong. After an individual is converted we immediately make a worker out of him. But God’s intention is otherwise. God wants a convert to learn first of all to be a worshiper, and after that to be a worker.
By reflecting on the truth of Psalm 150 we can get our spiritual house in order. It is not enough to know God meant us originally and primarily to be worshipers; we also need to know that his will in the matter of worship is clearly spelled out.
Psalm 150, the summary psalm of the Psalter, teaches the where, why, how, and who of worship. While this psalm is not a legalistic rule for contemporary worship, it is an important biblical standard to which we can relate what passes for worship today.
Praise God in his sanctuary … praise him in his mighty expanse. When God’s people gather together, it is for the purpose of worship, which includes adoration, confession, instruction, and response. Most any place in God’s creation can become an informal sanctuary. Why not worship on the freeway, in the classroom, in the laboratory, even in the supermarket? God is there—and he is worthy.
Praise him for his mighty deeds. Peruse the Psalms and you will be treated to a recital of God’s goodness: he has created us as the apex of his universe; we are important (Psalm 8); he leads us into pleasant places (Psalm 16); he provides all that we really need (Psalm 23); he forgives: no sin is too great (Psalm 32).
God answers prayers (Psalm 40); he takes shelved sinners and restores them to usefulness (Psalm 51); he provides grace as we grow old (Psalm 71); he gives us his Word to guide us (Psalm 119); and when all others fail, we find that he is entirely trustworthy (Psalm 146). As the contemporary gospel chorus puts it, “God is so good; God is so good; God is so good, he’s so good to me.” He deserves our praise.
Praise him according to his excellent greatness. All his works notwithstanding, God is worthy of our worship simply because of who he is. Wasn’t that Isaiah’s experience in the temple when he was awe-struck by the one who is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6)? The sons of Korah said it for us, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 48:1).
The psalmist suggests that we praise God with trumpet sound, with harp and lyre, with timbrel and dancing, with stringed instruments and pipe, with loud cymbals—yes, even with “resounding cymbals.”
Is this a bit too much for us? Does this sound more like a Saturday night youth concert than a Sunday morning worship service? Perhaps the fault lies with our image of worship as a solemn, even morose experience. As the Devil says in The Brothers Karamazov, “Everything would be transformed into a religious service: it would be holy, but a little dull.” Often true, isn’t it?
Worship frequently degenerates into a formalism that is devoid of vitality and spiritual life. Biblical worship, I contend, is celebration. That is not to say we are to be flippant or careless (see Psalm 89:7), nor that we gather in order to exchange emotional highs and get spiritual goose pimples. When I was a child, I was given to occasional restlessness during church services. I was admonished to “sit still, you’re in church.” Somehow I got the wrong message. My folks never intended it—but I was getting the impression that God was a grouch; I wasn’t convinced I could ever enjoy him. I’ve changed my mind or, better yet, the Bible is changing my mind.
The characteristic note of Old Testament worship is exhilaration. No wonder we read, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’ ” (Psalm 122:1), and, “Let the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad” (1 Chron. 16:10). Many churches need a healthy dose of Psalm 100: “Shout joyfully to the Lord … Come before him with joyful singing … Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (vv. 1, 2, 4).
Worship should both fill the mind with God’s truth and the spirit with God’s joy. How strange that we can yell till we are hoarse at the World Series—and on Sunday turn as cold and lifeless as drugstore Indians when we are confronted by the most earthshaking news in human history: the invasion of our planet by God. That is worth getting excited about. Let’s have more spiritual celebration; the saints in Scripture did.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Worship is not the exclusive domain of the preachers, liturgists, instrumentalists, and vocalists. The only qualification is that we breathe and, of course, that we love God. Have we ever left church complaining that we got nothing out of the service? Sure we have. But, let’s be clear about one thing: worship is not something done for the laity; it is an experience in which all share. The question is, “What do we bring to the service?”
Worship in Scripture is filled with participation by the laity. They were involved in sacrifices (Exod. 20:24); in bringing offerings (Neh. 10:39; Deut. 12:11; Psalm 96:8); in providing music (2 Chron. 5:13); in giving thanks (Psalm 35:18); and in confession (Isa. 1:16).
One notable thing about a New Testament church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling he had the privilege of contributing something to it. “To sum up, my friends: when you meet for worship each of you contributes a hymn, some instruction, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or the interpretation of such an utterance” (1 Cor. 14:26, NEB).
Stephen Winward has said that the “most obvious (and some would maintain the greatest) weakness of some forms of Protestant worship, is the undue predominance of the one man ‘conducting the service.’ There is a ministerial monopoly.… How can this state of affairs be rectified?”
It is well for us to affirm that worship is like dialogue. Like Jacob’s ladder, worship is a stairway on which there is a movement in two directions: God comes to man, and man goes to God. When we worship we should meet him with our adoration, our confession, our pliable will, and the offering of ourselves and substance.
Years ago I read A Faith to Proclaim by James S. Stewart. In the chapter on “Proclaiming Christ” there was a section entitled, “When the Church Rediscovers Christ.” When I come to church expectantly, it does not matter if the room is poorly ventilated, if the choir is flat, or even if the sermon is prosaic. If I have an encounter with the living Christ, I have worshiped. Worship is to meet him.
That experience can occur anywhere, by any believer with his God, and ought to be a moment of deep spiritual exhilaration. For this purpose we were created.
A Weatherman’S Thanksgiving
And now … because Thanksgiving is a particularly significant holy day to me, I’d like to step out of character as your weather reporter for a few moments and share something with you. It is a bit of wisdom out of the ancient past. Within this wisdom is a secret—the secret of making every day a Thanksgiving day.
Most human beings are in one of three broad categories insofar as they relate to Thanksgiving. Each of us is invited to a great feast—a feast we call life. The food is superb—the wine incomparable. Some sit down to this feast, wolf the food, drool the wine out of the corners of their mouths, get up and walk out of the banquet room without word or glance.
Some there are who eat and drink with obvious relish and a sense of impersonal gratitude, yet never look toward God the Most High—their Host—who sits at the head of the table.
Others, unlike these heedless ones, cast warm, bright smiles of appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving toward the One who is the Giver of ail gifts.
But then there are those who prefer to sit at the feet of their Host—to bask in the effulgent light of his smile—not spurning the feast, but choosing him in preference to all his gifts.
And lo, to such as these, angels of the Lord come bringing even choicer viands and more splendid wines—gifts greater than the ransom of ten thousand kings. Reverently they place them at the feet of those who love the Most High God—the Giver of all gifts—above all else.
Thank you for listening—we return you now to WKWF.
STEPHEN J. CONSTANT
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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