If a visitor from another planet attended a service of Christian worship anywhere in the world, he wouldn't have to be especially perceptive to discover that praise is the very essence of our worship.
If this visitor came to an Episcopal Church service of Holy Communion, he would hear it referred to as our "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." We have a service of morning prayer at which the priest turns to the congregation and says, "Praise the Lord," and the people respond, "The Lord's name be praised." Our visitor might hear, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation," "Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven," or "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." Praise is so much a part of worship that to praise God means to worship him.
I want to talk about praise and worship. I do that because this is a service of worship, and I've found it a good idea to stop and ask ourselves what we're doing, and why.
Praise is an expression of enjoyment
Praise is one of those words I thought everyone understood until a student of mine came to me with great impatience, saying, "I could never praise a god who sits on some heavenly throne somewhere demanding the praise of his people. What kind of a god is that?" I'd never before thought of it like that. My young friend was considering the extravagant words of the Psalms. Over and over the psalmist enjoins us to praise the Lord, bless the Lord, magnify the Lord, or exalt the Lord. What kind of a god is it who has to be told a thousand times a day how great he is?
All of us know people who have to be assured of the beauty of their face or the truth of their ideas or the excellence of their virtue. We think there's something wrong with a person who has to be told over and over again how great he is. Is our God like that? Is our God like the wicked queen in Snow White, who stood before the mirror and said, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of us all?" "Oh, you are, Lord. Surely, you are." Is that the kind of God we have? If so, I seriously suggest you walk out of this church and have nothing to do with him.
Have you discovered that around every person of wealth and prominence there seems to gather a group of people willing to give lavish praise so as to extract some kind of favor? Is the church a group of people hovering over their god, telling him how wonderful he is just to extract some favor? If that's what the church is, walk out. Who needs it?
Have you ever noticed that when you have done something that fills you with great joy—a book you read, a place you visited, a movie you saw, or something you did—it is natural for you to tell your friends that they ought to read that book or visit that place or see that movie? People instinctively praise whatever they enjoy. You don't have to tell a young man to praise the virtues of his girlfriend. That's doing what comes naturally. You don't have to tell a hiker to praise the countryside or a sailor to praise the sea. People always praise what they enjoy. Here's another psychological law: enjoyment, when shared, is actually increased.
For many years, I've traveled extensively. Sometimes my wife does not go with me, but she has a wonderful ability to enter vicariously into my joy. I can tell her what the Lord has done, and she enters into it. There's something about enjoyment shared that actually increases it.
Let me give you a definition of praise: Praise is the spontaneous overflow of enjoyment. Maybe that's why praise often seems so artificial in church. I wonder if it's because our people have rarely understood that we are bidden to enjoy the Lord.
There are two shocking things in Scripture. Here's the first: The Lord says, "I delight myself in you." If the Lord said, "I endure you," we'd understand it. If he said, "I forgive you," we'd know we need it. But what he said is "I delight myself in you." I can't imagine why God, who has the fellowship of angels and archangels, would want fellowship with you and me. That's slumming of the first order. He can keep the company of angels and archangels. Why would he want to fellowship with us? Our God says he delights in us.
Here's the other shocking thing. The Scripture bids us to delight ourselves also in him. In Episcopal churches, we've never learned that. We've learned to keep God in honor and reverence. To a lot of people, that means keeping the Lord at arm's length. "Don't get too close," we say. The idea that we should actually enjoy the Lord seems indecent to people. Church is probably good for you, like medicine. But the idea that you're supposed to enjoy it or delight in it is not firmly rooted in the hearts of a lot of American churchgoers. Other people in other churches and other denominations have gone way beyond us in understanding that we are to delight in the Lord. Praise is the spontaneous overflow of enjoyment.
So the real question is: Do you enjoy your God? If there's no enjoyment there, there'll be no praise. You may say the words and sing the songs, but there'll be no praise there. Praise arises naturally. It just overflows when there's delight in the heart. Presbyterians have a great catechism, and the first question is this: "What is the chief end of man?" They answer, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." You see, they've got it exactly right. It couldn't be said better because to glorify God rightly would certainly be to enjoy him, and to enjoy him rightly would certainly be to glorify him.
Some worship is displeasing to God
Praise is a part of worship, but it's not all there is to worship. Worship is a more extensive term. Three passages of Scripture have become important to our congregation in understanding what worship is all about.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, the Lord is complaining about the worship of his people. He says, "I can't stand your worship. I hate your singing, and your prayers make me ill." That's a rather loose translation, but what the Lord actually says is "Who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?" The Lord is upset with the worship of his people, and he says why a few chapters later: "These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." It's easy to come to church, drop anchor, and rise and fall with the tide.
Do you know how easy it is to stand up in a church and go through the motions? Are you aware of the fact that you can sing a hymn of praise and not praise God at all? You can read a prayer and not be praying. You can go through a ritual and a ceremony and never once touch the living God at all. As this passage tells us, there's a kind of worship that God hates. God hates worship that's a matter of ceremony, ritual, and words when the heart is not engaged with the living God.
We read about another kind of worship in Matthew's gospel, chapter 15. The Pharisees come to Jesus to complain to him about his disciples. They say, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat." It wasn't because of dirty hands they were so upset. They had reduced worship to a series of fussy little rituals and ceremonies. Along came Jesus and ignored the whole lot; so did his disciples.
Jesus had an irritating habit of not answering questions directly. Here he turned to the Pharisees and said, "And why do you break the command of God, for the sake of your tradition?" Lest they misunderstand, he had a specific example ready for them.
The Ten Commandments say we are to honor our fathers and mothers. And rabbinic tradition for centuries had understood that to mean we are to support them in their old age if that becomes necessary. In the day that Jesus lived on earth, the priests in Jerusalem had worked out a neat little trick. They said to the people, "If you will give to the temple what you would have used to support your parents, that money becomes 'Corban.' " That means they were excused from fulfilling the commandment of the Lord to support their parents. Jesus at that point quoted Isaiah's prophecy: "They worship me in vain."
Have you any idea how easy it is to substitute human traditions for practical obedience to the Word of God? I'm thinking of a woman whose life passion is the length of candles on the altar. If the priest's stole is the slightest bit out of balance, it absolutely invalidates the service for the poor woman. I have a theory about her. I think that people who do not have a growing personal relationship with the living God often fasten to the externals of worship. You begin to tamper with the external, and you're touching the thing nearest to God that they know anything about. When persons have a sustaining relationship with the Lord God, they can worship with the old prayer book (we would say in our church) or the new prayer book or no prayer book. They could have candles or no candles. They understand that these are external things. These help, but they're not necessary.
What do you have to do to have a church? Do you have to have a building? An altar? A pulpit? A lectern? What do you have to have beyond a people who gather in the name of Jesus Christ, who are assured of his presence with them as they come together to hear the Word and celebrate with their God?
About that time, the disciples came up behind Jesus and whispered in his ear, "Do you know you're making the people angry?" Jesus uttered one of those timeless remarks. He said, "Every tree that my Father has not planted will be uprooted." I've come to think in these days when God is pouring out his Spirit all over the earth and there's a great wave of renewal. In all of our ecclesiastical forests, there are many trees that really were not of God's planting. In these days when I see wonderful things being made alive by the power of the Spirit, I see other things dying at the same time. Both are the work of the Spirit.
I'm thinking of a small-town church in upstate New York. They'd had a rector in that church for over 35 years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young priest. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.
Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, "I don't know what's wrong, but I have a feeling that there's something wrong."
The man said, "Well, Father, that's true. I hate to say it, but it's the way you do the Communion service."
"The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?"
"Well, it's not so much what you do as what you leave out."
"I don't think I leave out anything from the Communion service."
"Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalice and wine to the people, he'd always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would—"
"Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition."
So the younger man called the former rector. He said, "I haven't even been here a month, and I'm in trouble."
"In trouble? Why?"
"Well, it's something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?"
"Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn't shock them."
For over 35 years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, "The Church of the Holy Radiator." That's a ludicrous example, but often it's nothing more profound than that. Traditions get started, and people endure traditions for a long time. They mix it up with practical obedience to the living God. All of us know that practical obedience to the Word of God takes precedence over traditions of men; still, we need reminders.
There's a third passage that's important to us in understanding worship. It arises out of the ministry of Jesus to the woman at the well. You remember the conversation eventually turned to worship, and she said to Jesus, "Our fathers (the Samaritans) worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said, "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
There's one kind of worship God hates. There's another kind he calls vain or empty in his sight. But there is one kind of worship God seeks: worship in spirit and in truth.
God must be worshiped in truth
What does it mean to worship God in truth? Jesus said, "I am the truth." The word he used to describe himself was aletheia. That word for truth comes from a primitive root lethos or veil, such as a woman might wear over her face. The prefix a means "without." Just as the word theist means "a believer in God," an atheist is one who does not believe in God. The word aletheia really means "something that is finally exposed." The veil has been removed. So when Jesus said, "I am the truth," no wonder he was able to say, "he who has seen me has seen the Father. For I and my Father are one."
This means to me that worship that is Christian worship will center in Jesus Christ. You see, we don't call ourselves theists, as though we are simply believers in God. No, we call ourselves Christians because we believe in the God who has revealed himself fully and finally through his son, the Lord Jesus Christ. There are many churches that talk about God and ignore Jesus Christ. You can't do an end run around Christ and get to God. He is the way.
So you see, Christian worship will center on the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God has exalted as head over all the universe. One who has died for us, risen by the power of the Spirit, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God, and will one day return to establish an eternal kingdom. That's the Lord Jesus that St. Paul said, "we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord." I think worship that's pleasing in God's sight will not be worship of a vague, divine deity somewhere, somehow. It will be the God who has revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And since what we know about Christ comes to us through the Holy Scriptures, stop and think about it a moment. Is there anything you know about Jesus that came from any other source than the Holy Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments? There really isn't, is there? That means to me that worship that is pleasing in the sight of God will be rooted in the Word of God. We're not called to preach ourselves, our own opinions. We're called to set forth a message that centers in Jesus Christ, and is rooted in the Word of God. We need to hear the Word of God week after week.
So I believe that worship that's in truth will center on Jesus Christ, his life among us through the Holy Spirit, his word given to us, through which we can be fed and challenged, by which we can be directed, our steps guided and a word which becomes a strong sword in our hands.
God must be worshiped in spirit
But he said also he must be worshiped in spirit. What does it mean to worship God in spirit? I don't think it means peppy hymns or songs, although there's nothing wrong with singing peppy hymns and songs. I think when it talks about worship in spirit, we can be instructed on that through the apostle Paul. Paul said, "I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present yourself a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual worship."
What is spiritual worship? Fundamentally, it's the offering of ourselves to the Lord God. No husband can do this for his wife. No wife can do this for her husband. No parents can do this for their children. No clergyman can do this for his congregation. You see, whether or not you worship God today does not depend upon your being present in this service. You could be present in it and never once worship God. Fundamentally, it's not even listening to a sermon with a degree of interest and intelligence. It's not even the singing of songs of praise or hymns. At the very root, it is the offering of yourself as a living sacrifice to God.
You see, what God asks of us fundamentally, is the presentation of our life to him. It's the acknowledgement that he is our creator, and we belong to him by creation. Now that's true of every person on the face of the earth. But we also belong to him by redemption, and not everybody knows that. Not everyone understands that through Jesus Christ we can receive the gift of new life and that we can offer that life day by day in the service of the world, empowered by God's Holy Spirit. That's what true worship is.
So let's review. What's praise? Praise is the spontaneous overflow of enjoyment. Do you enjoy your God today? If you do, praise will be the most natural thing in the world. If you don't, praise will simply be a matter of words spoken, songs sung. But it will never rise into genuine praise.
What's worship? Worship is more than words spoken, songs sung, and services attended. Those things can be done without ever worshiping the Lord God. Worship is not offering words to the Lord. The Lord said, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." That worship the Lord hates.
Another kind that's empty and vain in his sight is our substitution of our religious traditions for practical obedience to God's holy Word. Worship centers in Jesus Christ and his promise to be present wherever we gather in his name. The Lord is here today not because this is a church. Scripture tells us that God does not dwell in temples made with hands. So God isn't here because this is a church building. When the night comes and these doors are locked, God is no more present in this building than he is in the street in front. The truth is that he's come this morning because you came, and even if two people come together in his name, he is in their midst.
The Lord is present here now. Do you feel gratitude and praise in your heart rising to him—"Lord, we bless you. Lord, we worship you. Lord, we magnify your holy Name. Lord, we exalt you." Those are extravagant words to people who know nothing of our delight for God and his delight in us. Do you enjoy him?
What about the offering of your life to the Lord God? I tell my people and myself that worship doesn't take place unless and until we take our lives and offer them to the Lord.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my hands, and let them move in the impulse of thy love. Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee. Take my moments and mv days; let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my voice, and let me sing always, only for my King. Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold. Take my heart. It is thine own. It shall be thy royal throne.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Terry Fullam was the rector of St. Paul's in Darien, Connecticut, the author of seven books, and an internationally-renowned speaker on church renewal who conducted missions in more than 25 countries. To find out more about his biblical teaching ministry and to access his sermons, please go to the "Life on Wings" home page.