May 5, 2014

Worship Directions Single Post

This blog post is distilled from a series of sermons preached in late 2005.

Part One: Being enjoyed by God!

Our action as we approach God,
and our reaction when we meet His presence.

From the title of this blog you can see I’m planning to write for a few pages about worship directions.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to say “kneel, sit, stand, lift your arms” - this book isn’t about those sort of “directions”, but about the “In” and “Up”, the “Out” and even the “Beyond” – of worship.

Whether you have ever realised it or not, you exist to share in the joy, the pleasure that God experiences in loving us.

“You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created everything, and it is for your pleasure that they exist and were created.” Revelation 4:11, NLT.

You’re here for God’s pleasure. That’s ultimately the most basic definition I can come up with for worship.

Why is it that we would want to give God pleasure? Because He is worthy. The phrase “You are worthy” in one form or another is found all through the Bible. The word “worship” is the modern form of the Old English word weorþscipe, (worthship) which simply meant to acknowledge or declare the worth of something.

Have you ever woken up on a Sunday and wondered if it was worth getting out of bed that morning to get in the car and head off to the ‘worship service?’ Wondered if it was worth foregoing the nice weather and the beckoning beach? Weighed up the time spent sitting through some music you may not even like?

I don’t know whether you thought it was worth all those things. But the nub of the question is, is God worth those things?

L’Oréal may have cheapened the phrase “because you’re worth it” as an advertising tag line, but our activity of worshipping God is in a very real sense us declaring that He is worth it!

Our participation in a worship service is our expression, our declaration, our recognition of the worthy–ness of God. It doesn’t give Him anything that He lacks. It doesn’t add worth or goodness. But it displays to the world, in the visible and tangible actions and reactions of our lives, some of the incalculable greatness of God.


Before I go much further I want to dispel a possible misconception. That God demands our worship like an egotistical dictator. There is probably no person so unpopular as the one always fishing for compliments (I have learnt not to do that, sometimes when you go fishing you just catch an old boot!). Or the person that demands attention and flattery.

C.S. Lewis is one who for a time felt uncomfortable with the  frequent commands of Scripture to praise and worship God. Until he recognised it was not so much God that demanded worship, as that our nature requires worship to fully appreciate and enjoy God! Yes, we are created for God’s pleasure, but He gains His pleasure by observing our delight!

Lewis speaks of this in a chapter of his book Reflections on the Psalms, saying:

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.”

The relationship between our delight and God’s pleasure, the effectiveness of praise and worship, is well summarised by John Piper when he says - “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him!”

We will revisit this idea later, but I wanted to set here as we start the true end for which we seek in every worship direction – being glad in God’s glory!


A few paragraphs ago I used the words ‘actions’ and ‘reactions’ in trying to define worship.

I  looked up some other definitions of worship, and they use words like—adore, admire, esteem, exalt, love, magnify, respect, reverence, rejoice. I’m sure had I kept going I could find some even down at the far end of the alphabet.

Did you notice they are all verbs? Action words? Another way of understanding worship is to recognise that worship is all of these things done for the reason of approaching the divine. Our action when approaching God.

Which brings me to my first directions. Which way do we go when we worship?


Part Two: Up

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Isaiah 6:1.

Now to start, I am not saying up because God in some way lives above the clouds in the ‘sky’. As if we could forget worship as the way to approach God and instead buy a ticket on a space shuttle to get there!

But ‘up’ in the sense that God is bigger than us, greater than us, as Isaiah reveals:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9, NAS95.

The Bible talks of our worship, our prayers and our praise going ‘up’ to God in the sense that they leave our mouths, our hearts, our minds. And as God is so much more in his being – so much greater than us – they rise from us to Him.

On a recent trip to the UK a highlight was a visit to Salisbury cathedral and to stand looking up at its impressive spire. I am also something of an amateur astronomer, and gazing up at the stars on a clear dark night is, to me, awe inspiring. In the physical act of looking up, I find my mental and spiritual perspective changing. Some things grow, others diminish.

There is a reason that for centuries church architecture emphasised the vertical. Not to point to a God who was ‘up there far away’, but to lift our gaze from the things that distract us, and help us to go up, to worship God.

Many Psalms express the motion of lifting up.

“Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”
Psalm 24:7-9.

“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;” Psalm 25:1.

“Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds--his name is the LORD--and rejoice before him.” Psalm 68:4.

“Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” Psalm 86:4.

“Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning; For I trust in You; Teach me the way in which I should walk; For to You I lift up my soul.” Psalm 143:8, NAS95.

There’s something energetic about lifting—about lifting up. It requires action. It requires work. Our will is involved in worship. (Sometimes, unfortunately, our won’t is involved as well!)

Worship is a choice that we make. It can be costly in terms of effort. That’s one aspect where the worth of it comes in. You’ll go the effort to do something, if you think it’s worth it.

Is God worth the effort of lifting up your voice, lifting up your heart, lifting up your soul, lifting up your hands? I believe He is!

Though it oversimplifies things, it can be helpful to call the ‘lifting up’ that we do – praise.

It is tempting to just think of praise as the words which we might say or sing, but the Bible suggests that it is much more than only our words.

“In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD.” Leviticus 19:24.

The fruit of the land was given as an offering to the Lord — and it was praise.

Now while it is true that fruit, unlike money, grows on trees, it still cost the Israelites something to bring it as a sacrifice. They had to forego just hoarding it for themselves to eat or trade as they pleased. It represented something of value, of worth, and so was worship.

Which brings me to an important point: a sacrifice, even of praise, is meant to cost us something

“And they shall come… bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the Lord.” Jeremiah 17:25 KJV

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Hebrews 13:15.

I am sure we’ve all been guilty of leaving a service and saying “I didn’t get anything out of worship today,” when actually we were meant to be putting something into it!”

Jeremiah above uses the verb “bring”, Hebrews speaks of praise being “offered”.  Rather than evaluating worship as a consumer, engage in it as a producer! Ask yourself what did you bring today to worship, and maybe ask what did it cost you to bring?

Many years ago when I was at University in Sydney I was part of a Church plant, and every week at some time in the service the worship leader used to stand at the front and urge us to ‘give a clap offering’ to God.

I hated it. It seemed forced – and it was forced – but one Sunday morning in the midst of the singing the Holy Spirit spoke clearly to me that it would ‘cost’ me something to do what the leader invited, but that was OK because then it would actually be a sacrifice!

A wonderful episode that illustrates this can be found in the life of King David.

Having offended God, David planned to build an altar and offer a sacrifice at the place the prophet Gad had revealed. The owner of the site, Araunah, saw the King coming, and offered him the site, his oxen, and even the carts and yoke of the oxen as wood for the sacrifice.

Let’s see the conversation the Bible records.

“Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what is good in his sight. Look, the oxen for the burnt offering, the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. “Everything, O king, Araunah gives to the king.”… “However, the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God which cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.””
2 Samuel 24:22-24, NAS95.

David rightly recognises that it would not be his sacrifice, his offering, if it cost him nothing to bring it.

It cost me some of my comfort, my dignity, and my pride to “bring a clap offering”. It may not have been what I would have chosen of my own accord, but it can be argued that what I find easy to do in worship costs me less than what I find awkward, and as David observed should I only offer the Lord that “which cost me nothing”?

The cost of praise may be developing a willingness to participate in something a bit out of your comfort zone.

But more likely, and more often the costliness of praise and worship is in making the effort of will, of choice we have to make to set our mind on God, and to ‘lift’ our soul before him.

It is not always easy to lift our soul. What makes lifting hard is heaviness.

It is not always easy to lift our soul.
What makes lifting hard is heaviness.

Recently my daughter brought all her school books home in her backpack - she put it on the scale and it was well over 20kg (almost 50lb). That’s a backpack that you wouldn’t really want to go walking far with.

Lifting is hard because gravity and the weight of what you’re carrying work against the fact that you’re trying to lift it. It’s an effort.

We often have a spirit of heaviness in our souls, in our hearts, and lifting can be harder than any physical weight. But the Psalms urge us on – lift up your voice, lift up your soul, lift up your heart. But we answer back – I’m depressed. I’m struggling. I’m troubled. I’m in a bad mood. I’m whatever. That’s heavy. That’s hard to do.

Making the effort is something vital, in the real sense of vitality (vite = latin for life - think vital organs!).

Have you ever noticed that in the Psalms David talks to himself a lot? Talks to his soul, talks to his heart. “Oh my soul, bless the Lord. My soul’s feeling heavy, but I’m going to tell it to get it back together and try and do something.”

If we lift our spirit of heaviness to God, he will change it, actually we are told he will exchange it.

“To console those who mourn in Zion, To give
them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3, NKJV.

We can move from being weighed down by circumstances, to being able to ‘rejoice greatly’!

“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”  Isaiah 61:10, NKJV.

If this talk of effort has alarm bells ringing because you know that we are saved by Grace, just let me say it’s true our salvation, our redemption is something given to us, freely, and not earned. I’m not saying the effort we put into worship in some way earns us God’s favour. But while Grace is opposed to earning, it’s not always devoid of effort!

We no longer choose the purest lamb from our flock, the one worth the most and sacrifice it at an altar. We no longer change our money for ‘temple money’ and come to tables in the church foyer where we buy a dove to be killed in a ceremony that makes us ‘clean’ to approach God.

There isn’t that type of ‘costliness’ in worship that there was in the Old Testament temple practices.

Instead of those things, we bring our thanksgiving, our praise, our worship!

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.”
Psalm 100:4.

But lifting up, bringing, sacrificing is a choice we make, even a calculated choice, based on the worth-ship we want to ascribe to our God.

Part Three: In

Worship also involves the direction of IN!

“My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips will praise You.

So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.
When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches,
For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life to destroy it,
Will go into the depths of the earth.
They will be delivered over to the power of the sword; They will be a prey for foxes.

But the king will rejoice in God; Everyone who swears by Him will glory,
For the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.”  Psalm 63:1-11, NAS95.

David saw God in the sanctuary. David was fortunate.   Few people in the Old Testament had the privilege of entering the Holy parts of the Sanctuary, where God dwelt in a special way. In that sense – most of the time – the Old Testament believers worshipped God at some distance.

Unfortunately we often do that too!  But we needn’t, we can worship God sitting on his lap! We can worship God embraced in His arms.

Now we can all enter in to the Holy Place through Jesus.

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,  by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,”  Hebrews 10:19, 20.

And the way we tread that open pathway of the new and living way, is by worshipping. We undergo some ‘movement’ in worship,  our praise goes up, but we, our very selves go in.

In one way this is still related to the ‘up’ dimension of worship.

If our praise goes ‘up’ to God because we picture Him as greater, as higher above us and our worldy circumstances, then when we approach God in worship, we also go ‘up’ to be with Him.

I imagine it as like a small child that runs up to a parent.

If you are a parent, think how often, when your child came to you as a toddler, did you then bend down to lift that child up, to pick them up, hold them at your level – and love them.

Worship is –  in the beginning – our running to God (the in) then it is God lifting us (the up).

The exchange from the spirit of heaviness to the garment of praise is what happens when we approach God in worship and that drawing near to Him causes us to ‘rise’ with him – be lifted up by him, and in Him. His nearness dispels our heaviness, our fears, even our failings. They drop away replaced by his presence.

Worship also has an in direction because our inner being is the place from which praise and worship springs.

“Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” Psalm 103:1.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  Proverbs 4:23.

The Lord offers to soften our hearts, to make them hearts of flesh not of stone, (Ezekiel 36:26) to create in us a new heart. Because it is from the heart that our expression of the worth-ship of God comes.

It is “from the fullness of the heart that the mouth speaks” Luke 6:45. Choose to worship God until there is peace and joy in your heart – then from your heart full of peace and joy – worship God.

Another worship in is that worship opens us up in a way that leads to the indwelling presence of God.

We found many occurrences of the phrase “lift up” in the Psalms a few pages ago. Often the things to be lifted up are the ‘gates’ of the city.

Isaiah associates our praise with our ‘Gates’

“No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.” Isaiah 60:18.

In some sense each of us is like a walled city and as we praise we open up,  we lift up our gates.

“Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.” Psalm 24:7-9.

Opening the gates of the city was an act of becoming vulnerable. A risk. A cost. Yet in the case of this particular coming King, a risk worth taking!

At the start of this chapter we saw that we were created for God’s pleasure. But rather than it being anything special we do or say that pleases Him, I think it is our presence close to him, our movement on the worship directions, our drawing up and in, that warms His heart.

“The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  Zephaniah 3:17

One of the most touching things for me in life was to become a father and to have a little daughter after 13 years of being married but childless. Cradling her I used to sing her to sleep, but once she was asleep I didn’t just put her down in her cot and say to myself she’s asleep now, so I can go and do something else.

I’d often keep singing over her anyway. I would make up little songs about her. I would sing little songs over her, even while she had no idea – because I loved doing that. Because I loved her being near to me.

One of the most touching things for me in life was to become a father and to have a little daughter after 13 years of being married but childless. Cradling her I used to sing her to sleep, but once she was asleep I didn’t just put her down in her cot and say to myself she’s asleep now, so I can go and do something else.

I’d often keep singing over her anyway. I would make up little songs about her. I would sing little songs over her, even while she had no idea – because I loved doing that. Because I loved her being near to me.

As Zephaniah says, The Lord will rejoice over you in singing. You’ve never known how welcomed you were in his presence!

Our action in worship, drawing in and up to God brings Him pleasure. Here in Psalm 16 we discover our reaction to his presence. And in His presence there is fullness of joy, healing and peace, and pleasures forevermore.

“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psalm 16:11.


Part Four: Out

“Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.”  Psalm 96:3.

“The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.”  Psalm 97:1.

“From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfil my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him--may your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,”  Psalm 22:25-27.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”  Habakkuk 2:14.

Another direction of praise and worship is that it goes ‘out’. We come together with others and declare, proclaim, make known the glories of God.

There is good reason for our praise to go out.

One is because God ‘deserves’ to be known as good and loved by his people. Another is because it is through seeing and hearing our worship that others come to know God.

Romans 10:14 says “how will they believe if they have not heard?” And praise and worship, either preached, or sung, or shown through actions, touches lives in a profound and effective way.

A number of places in the book of Acts, for example the day of Pentecost and afterwards, has the believers declaring the praises of God, and the onlookers drawn by the spectacle of the disciples worshipping, then hear and respond to the Gospel.

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46, 47.

The Bible also reveals a connection between prayer and worship.  Sometimes people might call it the ‘harp and the bowl’ of Revelation 5:8

“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:8.

In the lives of worshippers both will be found, and in history, times of great revival have often been birthed in prayer, and then grown through song. Both key elements of worship.

John Wesley, along with George Whitfield, began praying and preaching in Britain in the 1700s. Preaching not in churches but in the open air, they also wrote new songs, based often on popular tunes of the day, and also original melodies. This publicly visible prayer, preaching and singing helped gather and focus the crowds, and also touched their inner being with the words of the Gospel.

In fact, while a lot is owed to John Wesley, few people today read his sermons, but many millions still sing his brother Charles’s songs!

Among the familiar hymns of Charles Wesley are:

  • “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”
  • “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”
  • “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

There is something enduring about the ‘worship arts’.

We all know what it is like to have a song running round in our heads, or to have an image in our mind that we can’t shake.  But few, if any, go around day to day with some sentence from a sermon stuck in their brain!

In the way that the addition of music moves words deeper into our memories, our visible, observable expressions of praise and worship endure and reach into onlookers hearts in a way that often mere words of propositional truth can not.

I am sure we can all recall times when our curiosity has been roused by seeing someone elses gladness or our attention drawn to their exclamations of joy.

When we see the response, the reaction to the goodness and presence of God in others worshipping, it makes an impact, and it is attractive to onlookers in the same way!

Psalm 145 tells us the result of our praise and worship as it goes out.

“Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no-one can fathom.
One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.
They will speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you.
They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving towards all he has made.”  Psalm 145:3-13.

As our worship goes out, it draws others in, “so that all may know.”

Worship is also outward when it is part of our shared experience in the community of believers. While Christianity is indeed a personal faith, it is not meant to be a private one, and worship together is seen as the norm in the New Testament. We are not just to “tell the world”, we are also to “tell the church!”

When we come together we are urged by Paul in Ephesians to spend time –

“speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;”  Ephesians 5:19, NAS95.

Why the distinction, is it just three ways of describing the same thing? Or if there is some distinction what might the difference between the three be?

I recall once being told – in all seriousness I think – that Psalms were the 150 to be found in the Old Testament. Hymns were the numbered and old songs found in the hard cover book handed out as you came into church, and spiritual songs were the new fangled ones put up on the overhead projector!

Psalms, I believe, are pre written scripture that is sung. For the New Testament church the Psalms we have collected in our Bible were a ‘song book’ used as they met (though usually from memory rather than as an actual book!)

Hymns, I believe are other human compositions. Someone sits down and writes lyrics and music that become a song (hymn) of praise. It is often believed that some parts of the New Testament, Philippians 2:6-11 for example are portions of hymns composed for use in the early church.

 “who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:6-11

and another example is:

“Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!
Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, For Your judgments have been manifested.” Revelation 15:3-4

So what are Spiritual Songs?  Some people would say it is ‘singing in tongues’. In much the same way the Bible talks about speaking in tongues, in an unlearned language of prayer, then spiritual songs are when people begin to sing in tongues.

Paul mentions it in a letter to the Corinthians.

“So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” 1 Corinthians 14:15.

However,  I would say that while the term spiritual songs  includes singing in ‘tongues’, it is far more than that.

After all, not everyone speaks in tongues, but everyone – I believe – can sing ‘spiritual songs’.  I understand the terms to refer to songs that are composed spontaneously. The singer’s mind is not so much thinking it out ahead but their Spirit is emotionally responding to the beauty of God revealed to them — and so you might sing, in English, or tongues, or whatever vocalisation you use – a song that is something very much ‘of the moment’.

We have one example in Luke 1, where Mary ‘sings’ to the Lord her hearts response to the news the angel brought her.

“And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever.” Luke 1:46-55

Tertullian, an early church leader, writing in about the year 180 AD  describes a Christian ‘worship service like this.

“each is invited to sing to God in the presence of the others from what he knows of the holy scripture or from his own heart” (emphasis added)

As Paul had said in Ephesians 5:19 – Singing and making melody “in your heart”.

If you have never tried to sing a ‘spiritual song’ then let me encourage you to have a go!

In the last chapter I mentioned learning about God’s delight in our worship from my experience loving my daughter as a baby.  When she was a toddler she also taught me something about ‘spiritual songs’. My wife and I would be astonished to sometimes hear her in her bedroom singing quite profound and moving words.

The songs were about or to God, but not ones that we were familiar with. So I remember going to her and asking did she learn the song at her school, because I knew it was not one she had learned at our church, but no, she was just lying in bed making up a song.

I think they were spiritual songs and if as a six year old our daughter could do it, then I trust we can all learn how to do some of that too.

As the apostle Paul would encourage us

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:16, 17.


Part Five: Beyond

Beyond Compare

If you read through the Bible you’ll find there are many times where there is an attempt to compare the one we worship to something. Their attempts generally go to show that whatever it is that we’re using as comparison is insufficient! See how often, instead of saying God is like, we find that God is beyond!

Sweeter than.

“They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”  Psalm 19:10.

“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  Psalm 119:103.

Higher than.

“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”   Psalm 61:2.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9.

Better than.

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.”  Psalm 63:3.

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; Psalm 84:10.

Greater than.

“Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.”  Exodus 18:11.

“Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with yours.”  Psalm 86:8.

“For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD? Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings?”  Psalm 89:6.


Beyond Imagining.

Our God is beyond compare but more than that, He is beyond imagining!

When we come to think about and read about God we probably have some mental images, some ‘imagining’ in our minds. It might not be the bearded old man on the clouds –   but even if we know our mental picture is not quite right – we probably have one. But God is beyond any imagining.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,”  Ephesians 3:20.

We worship a truth that is beyond what we can ever hope to know. We don’t worship a wooden idol or a carved stone, but even so we still have a mental image or idea of God. It is important to realise that whatever “imagining” we have, it does not fully describe or explain what God actually is like!

We only need to read the prophets as they try in vain to describe heaven and the worship that goes on there. Read the passages in either Ezekiel or Revelation where the writers talk about the living creatures –  the appearance of heaven that goes on about being covered in ice and coals and torches – and moving backwards and forwards.

As I looked they sang and they had wings everywhere, and they had feet and they moved this way and that way.  Then there were wheels and the wheels were turning and the wheels were here and there and they went up and they went this way…

I’m sure some people tried to paint pictures out of those passages of Ezekiel and Revelation and ended up using an awful lot of paint and canvas because the picture is ever changing.

It’s ever changing because nothing that we imagine – no picture – which is static or fixed could captures what God is like.

I often say when preaching on such passages when we read those description that they are “ever changing images of never changing truths”.

There is a God behind those images.  There is a God behind our imaginings and our mental pictures but He’s behind and He’s beyond those things.

We will never fully understand God.

Alec Motyer puts it beautifully when he says that such descriptions of God and Heaven are “Pictures drawn in the colours of this life… That project the perfection of the life to come.”

I don’t know if his words inspired songwriter Vicky Beeching, but she eloquently elaborates on the theme saying:

Trying to describe the eternal using earthly words is like trying to scoop up the whole ocean into the palm of your hand.
We’re like children with crayons trying to copy a majestic Monet, or Van Gogh.  It’s crazy that we should even try.  So we step out by faith not sight.  Bringing our childlike worship to him.
Loving the one that we’ve not yet seen.  Seeking to the one who is beautiful beyond our wildest imaginations.  Joyfully struggling for words.
We will continue in our worshipful quest of expressing the inexpressible, describing the indescribable, pronouncing the unspeakable, explaining the unfathomable, and painting the invisible.”

We will continue in our worshipful quest of expressing the inexpressible, describing the indescribable, pronouncing the unspeakable, explaining the unfathomable, and painting the invisible. Vicky Beeching

One of the early church writers expressed the mystery of the indescribable God by pointing out that no one can ever get to the other side of God to describe what He’s like!

Someone could go on the other side of a mountain or the other side of a tree or the other side of a sculpture and tell you what is beyond, but no one can go beyond God to tell us what He’s like. We can only glimpse the portions we see from time to time.

He tries to reveal himself to us as much as He can but it’s beyond our imagining.  In fact this is one of the profound reasons for the incarnation, the “word becoming flesh” and dwelling amongst us.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”
And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” John 1:14-18.

No one but God could reveal God to us!


Beyond Circumstances.

Our worship, besides going beyond what we picture in our minds, beyond what we imagine, needs to also go beyond our circumstances.

It’s all too easy to worship just based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But the Bible shows worship as going beyond our situation.

“Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,  yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.” Habakkuk 3:17, 18.

How can someone do that?  In pain and sorrow, in tragedy and sadness, say “I will rejoice, I will be joyful?” We might go so far as to say we will put up with the problems, and try stoically not to grumble too much – but to say we will rejoice?

Part of the answer is recognising that we are not expected to resign ourselves to ‘fate’.  To just accepting those things, or welcoming them. We don’t have to be glad they have happened!

1 Thessalonians 5:18 is sometimes misquoted - it says “in everything give thanks” – not for everything!

We can honestly tell God of our pain, of our trouble –but with that said – we can still acknowledge that He is good!

In the first chapter I talked about the cost we pay, showing the worth of worship.

When everything is going great it might not cost us much to worship.  In very real terms it costs us more when circumstances are bad  – but God is good all the time  – deserving of our praise.  Our worship has to go beyond our circumstances.

I am continually in awe of the apostle Paul, who after facing shipwreck, imprisonment, whipping, beating, abuse and deprivation could worship, seeing beyond his circumstances in a way that brought a new perspective. That he could descibre such hardship as: “momentary, light affliction” that  “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,” (2 Corinthians 4:17).


Beyond Words.

There is a short verse in the Bible where Jesus tells us about worshipping God.

“His worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24.

We rightly contend to have good theology, right truths expressed in the words that we sing or say in worship. But the words of themselves are not worship.

Researching for this sermon series I found someone had used the Wizard of Oz to help explain the differences between worship in spirit and truth.

John Ortberg and Pam Howell, in “Can You Engage Both Heart and Mind?” Leadership (4-1-99) wrote:

Some churches specialize in generating emotion. The platform people are expert at moving worshipers to laughter or tears. Prayers are offered in highly emotive style and bathed in background music. Stories have to get more dramatic, songs more sentimental, preaching more dramatic, to help people keep having intense emotional experiences.

It develops people who have a “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). They become worship junkies, searching for whichever church can supply the best rush.

This is Scarecrow worship: it would be better if it only had a brain.

On the other hand, some churches focus keenly on intellectual correctness. They recite great creeds, distribute reams of information, craft careful prayers ahead of time. And yet the heart and spirit are not seized with the wonder and passion that characterize those in Scripture who must fall on their faces when they encounter the living God.
No one is ever so moved by the service that they actually move!
Such worship is dry—it does not connect with people’s deepest hurts and desires. Rarely does it generate awe or healing, and never raucous joy.

This is Tin Man worship: if it only had a heart.”

One has ‘spirit’ and one has ‘truth’. One may be demonstrative, the other declarative, but worship goes beyond just one or the other.

As a worship leader, at times I question how strongly to lead songs that call for some physical expression, especially when I’m not sure how comfortable the congregation are to turn such words into action.

At such times I am helped by recalling a description of someone in worship that I received some years ago.

You may be familiar with the name of Joni Earakson. Joni became a quadraplegic in a diving accident as a teenager, and was the subject of a film and a number of books, and has also expressed her faith in art, drawn with a pencil grasped between her teeth.

During the time I was initially preaching the sermons that have become this book, I received an email from Sam Storms, who my wife and I came to know while living in the USA.

He was speaking at a conference, and Joni was there too. Sam describes the night like this:

The worship that night began with the rousing song, “We are Marching in the Light of God” It was great to hear so many Reformed folk singing and, yes, actually moving (ever so slightly!) while they sang! But nothing could compare with what was happening on the right hand side of the stage.

Joni handles her wheelchair as deftly as any Formula 1 driver on a racetrack. No sooner had the music begun than Joni began to “dance”. As much as a quadriplegic can dance, she danced. Joni has just enough movement and strength in her hands and shoulders to grip the controls on her chair and maneuver herself without the aid of others. Suddenly the chair began to move with the music. She thrust forward, then backwards, then forwards again, then backwards. Smoothly, and yet with obvious passion, she turned to the right, then the left, then the right again.

Suddenly, the forward and backward and side to side movements gave way to spinning….Joni began to turn her chair in circles, first clockwise, then back again. If she ceased her movements, it was only so that she could lift her contorted hands as high as her paralysis would allow. It wasn’t very high, but who’s measuring!

How Joni moved and “danced” is secondary. What’s amazing is THAT she did. What struck me… was that a woman who has suffered so horribly and painfully and persistently for 38 years so loves her God and finds him so utterly worthy of her trust and hope that she WANTED to dance.

Joni shared in her message how she struggled spiritually in the early days and months after her accident. She wrestled with bitterness and self-pity and anger at God and longed to die rather than live in that condition. But here she was, 38 years later, celebrating God, enjoying God, honoring and glorifying God. Not simply in her mind or her spirit but with her body as best as that body could worship.

I was standing, as were most of the others. All of us could choose when to sit down, were we to tire of being on our feet. We could easily clap or shove our hands into our pockets. Throughout the conference, up till that night, I had taken for granted that I could walk out of the auditorium under my own power and feed myself and tie my shoes and bathe and run and go to the bathroom without anyone’s help. Joni, and others like her, don’t take that for granted, because they can’t do any of those things. Yet, there she was, “dancing” in joy and delight and singing…

Then he says this, “I thought to myself what she wouldn’t give to do what you and I can but won’t.”

“I thought to myself what she wouldn’t give to do what you and I can but won’t.”

That’s worth repeating.

“What she wouldn’t give to do what you and I can but won’t.”

Joni was worshipping God with her body.  She longs to praise and celebrate her God, not simply in mind, spirit and soul but with arms and legs and hands as well.

That comes easily for the rest of us, at least in the physical sense, yet many are terrified of doing any of those things.  Raising our hands, kneeling or clapping or even dancing.

Worship goes far beyond words.  You might not be very comfortable doing anything like that in public and that’s okay by me, but I would urge you in private to allow yourself some degree of worship beyond words.

Some people might dance as freely as a ballerina every Sunday and for them perhaps they need to know that worship goes not just beyond words but even beyond dance!

Worship is also expressed in righteousness and justice!

Amos chapter 5, one of those little prophets in the Old Testament says this, “

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand  your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”  Amos 5:21-24.

Justice and righteousness – and beyond those in the New Testament we find Mercy and Compassion – are the things God calls us to have as part of our acceptable worship to Him.

How are you living your life?  How am I living my life?  Are we acceptable to God?


Beyond Belief.

Another beyond is that our worship can be beyond belief!

That doesn’t mean we have to do things that you’d never believe, but that even though we might believe all the right things about God, our worship needs to go beyond just assenting to the right ideas. In the end, it is not belief that makes it worship..

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.” James 2:19.


Beyond Doubt.

Tied to what I have just said, that belief alone does not constitute, (make up) worship, in the same way neither does doubt negate or disqualify worship!

You really can’t force yourself to believe something. If you believe something, you believe it.  If you don’t believe it, you don’t believe it.  If you have doubts, you have doubts.  You can’t really help that.

Coming to God – if you have doubts about something and try to tell him that you don’t doubt – makes you dishonest,  and you’ll probably feel uncomfortable about that and so will God.

But despite doubts we can still worship, because worship goes beyond doubt.

You are probably familiar with the passage in the New Testament where there’s a boy who’s sick and his father comes to Jesus and he says, “Oh Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”

“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”” Mark 9:24.

Jesus doesn’t condemn him and say, “Well, I can’t help you until you get rid of that unbelief.  I’m sorry.  While there’s any doubt there I won’t perform a miracle.”

No, He takes the belief and Jesus says, “Great.  You put your belief in the right place.”

Something I am grateful to God for showing me is that the greatest enemy of faith isn’t doubt.

Something I am grateful to God for showing me is that the greatest enemy of faith isn’t doubt.

The enemy of faith in God is misplaced faith in something other than God.

You can have faith in God but have some doubts and God will still accept your worship and God will still honor you.

But if you have faith in God and are at the same time trying to have faith in some “idol” (your own strength, enough money, popularity, or some other thing) that is when God will be upset.

The disciples, after they had seen Jesus resurrected, came and gathered around him and it says when they saw him they worship him but some doubted.

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Matthew 28:16-17.

Thats an astonishing passage! They were able to worship even though they still had niggling doubts.  That’s natural in their life.

However, as finite, not to mention fallen, human beings, there are times when our faith may be shaken, when circumstances may lead us to question our most basic beliefs. Perhaps we have doubted God’s providence because the forecast rain never came and our crops withered and died. Perhaps we have doubted God’s love because of a painful situation in our family. Perhaps, because a fervent prayer seems to have gone unanswered, we have wondered whether the God we worship even exists.

Yet, despite our doubts, we continue to worship. And, despite our doubts, God accepts our adoration and praise”.   Robert P Mills.

Worship goes beyond doubt.  Don’t ever think that doubts prevent you from being able to worship God - or from that worship being pleasing.

A double minded man isn’t necessarily one who has faith and doubt mixed up.  It’s one who is trying to do two different things at once and please God and Mammon at the same time or God and Baal or God and whatever else that you have in your life that you might be trying to please.

In fact sometimes in the midst of pain and doubt, to turn to worship is the best thing we can do.  Sometimes in circumstances that are difficult, to turn to worship is the best thing we can do because we can get in touch with an eternal perspective.

Perhaps to sum up this beyond aspect of worship is to quote the great commandment as it appears in Mark chapter 12.

When Jesus is wanting his followers to understand what sums up all of the Old Testament and explain the things that need to be done to please God.  He says this,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Never miss that little word all that’s in there.  Don’t just love the Lord your God with your heart, your soul and your mind and strength.

Don’t just love him with word and movement.

Love him with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.

Become a worshipper with all your life.

Never miss that little word all that’s in there.  Don’t just love the Lord your God with your heart, your soul and your mind and strength.

Don’t just love him with word and movement.

Love him with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.

Become a worshipper with all your life

Worship goes beyond an hour on a Sunday morning.  Worship goes far beyond that.  Worship goes beyond the 30 minutes that you might spend a day, or a week,  reading some devotional book. Worship goes beyond this span of 80 or a 100 years that we might live on this Earth.

One of the things that is so much a part of being a person – being human – is to get our self-esteem out of what we do, to get our self-esteem out of what we have accomplished.

The thing is that if we get our self-esteem in what we’ve accomplished and we haven’t accomplished much we have low self-esteem!  If we find our self-esteem in what we do and we can no longer do it we lose our self-esteem.

I think that our identity needs to be something that goes beyond the 80 years that we spend here.  If I find my identity in somebody who preaches and teaches then a few hundred years from now  – I won’t be doing that anymore!

Much better is to find your identity in whatever it is that will never end.  It’s why God seeks for himself worshippers.

I sometimes suspect that there are those who hold back in their Christian life because they intuitively know that God wants worshippers, but the idea of worship they have is limited. I have come across those who have said “I really don’t like music so to be on a cloud with a harp and in a choir is not going to be my idea of heaven,”

But to embrace their identity as a worshipper is still the best thing they can do because as we have seen worship goes way beyond just music and song.

Just as worship is our action in approaching the divine, I believe worship is our reaction on encountering Gods glory.

In the same way that we have a response on seeing a sight like the Grand Canyon for the first time, or hearing a beautiful song, or tasting a wonderful flavour - We have an emotional response that comes upon encountering God.

For some of us it is when we are singing, for others when we are moving. When whatever we do reveals something about God to us, it’s that emotional response to God that makes us a worshipper, and it’s that worship which will shape our identity into eternity.


Not Beyond Reach.

But the best thing about worship is it’s never beyond reach.

All these things – the act of worship, the heart of worship, the one that we worship – are not beyond reach.

We don’t do all these things in our endeavor to move from here to approach God and fall short.  It’s not that we have to learn a better way of meditating, it’s not that we have to become better at some act of worship so that we can approach God more closely.

We might need to be aware of some directions in worship, but the distance is not something we need to try to cover! Worship is approaching the divine, but he is never beyond reach.

All we have to do is set our heart toward him and he approaches us.

James 4: 8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” or, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”

It doesn’t matter if all you can manage is to raise your hands a little or to half sing a song or even just to hum along or to perhaps just sit looking at the words and thinking “God I’d like to know you better in the way that these words, the person that wrote them seems to know you.”

Whatever step you take in worship, God is never beyond reach.  If you need more of God in your life, if you want to feel more of God in your life, point your heart in these worship directions.

In, Up, Out and Beyond.

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