MESSAGE FOR MARCH 15, 2009 ON BALANCE IN CORPORATE WORSHIP

 

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MESSAGE FOR MARCH 15, 2009 ON BALANCE IN CORPORATE WORSHIP

"Music and Coporate Worship."

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon.

Fifth in a brief series on corporate worship

 

          Our God is a God of many and different attributes.  One the one hand, he is a God of great love and mercy.  He shows deep compassion and is long suffering.  He is the Suffering Servant who became a willing sacrifice for our sins.  We can know him personally.  He is approachable and instantly accessible to us through prayer.  He lives within all genuine believers by the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, God is also all-knowing, omnipresent and all powerful.  He is infinite in power and glory.  He is holy—sinless angels do not dare to look upon him.  He is the Judge of all and Absolute Lord over of all creation.  He is the Creator God—who spoke the Word and the universe materialized out of nothing.  He is not like us. These different sets of attributes of God often elicit different responses from his worshippers.  Yet, both in our daily, moment by moment worship of God and when we come together corporately, we are called to worship this God in response to all of his manifold splendor and glory—his power and holiness as well as his compassion and mercy.  As we continue our brief series on what the Bible has to say about corporate worship, the question we seek to address this morning is—“How can our corporate worship of God reflect his manifold attributes?” 

          This is not an abstract theological question.  The very different ways that believers answer this question has been the source of much conflict over corporate worship in many churches.  This question highlights part of what separates two polar extremes in the church on this issue. Tim Keller calls one of these imbalanced extremes, “historic worshippers” –those who believe that all contemporary worship is “incorrigibly corrupt. The other extreme he labels “contemporary worshippers” who make statements like “pipe organs and choirs never reach people today.”[1]  This question of how to worship a God who has these many different attributes is not the only issue separating these two camps—there are others--but it does explain part of the dividing line separating the two.  On the extreme end of the historic worship continuum are people who believe that God’s holiness and power and other similar attributes require that corporate worship should be marked only by reverential fear and awe.  The people at this end of the spectrum tend to look with suspicion on any sort of joy or celebration in corporate worship. 
          On the extreme end of the contemporary worship continuum are those who believe that their great personal intimacy with God who is their Father and best friend dictates that corporate worship should be an explosion of joy filled with emotional, individualized and sentimental expressions of their closeness to God.  These people have only a vague idea of what reverence is and they rarely express that in worship.  As worshippers, all of us fall somewhere between those two extremes on that continuum and where we sit on that spectrum influences the kind of worship services in which we feel most comfortable.  Ideally, where we sit on that continuum is the result of a careful study of the Scripture and deep personal theological reflection, but more often, where we are owes more to our church background.  If a person grew up Lutheran or Presbyterian in the 60’s (and feels ok with that) they are probably closer to the historic worshippers.  If someone was saved within the Pentecostalism of the 70’s, (and they remain in that group) they are probably more comfortable nearer the contemporary end of things.

          This morning, we want to search the Scriptures to find a Biblical balance between these two extremes.  We must first however examine the Bible’s testimony of God’s attributes, specifically two of his broad attributes that, according to the stereotype, coincide with these two differing approached to worship.  That is--we must give a very brief overview of some Biblical texts that display first, God’s transcendencethe “otherness” of God and second, God’s immanencethe “nearness” of God.  Generally speaking, those who stress the importance of reverence in worship of God tend to do so in response to his transcendence, while those who most often stress the importance of expressing intimacy with God tend to do that in response to his immanence.  We are defining these two attributes very broadly to keep things as simple as possible.

          God’s transcendence and his immanence both speak to how he relates to his creation.  God is transcendent over his creation in that “he made it and rules over it.”[2]  God is far above his creation.  There is an “otherness” to God---he is not like us—he is unique and stands in the solitude of himself.  David says in Second Samuel 7:22, “22 Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you…”   God’s holiness and majesty and splendor and greatness and infinitude would be grouped under this broad understanding of his transcendence.  God is immanent in that he “remains in” creation.[3]  God is with us—he has spoken to us through his word. God became a man and lived among us.  If we are in Christ, we are his friend.  The Bible teaches both God’s transcendence and his immanence.  We see his transcendent holiness displayed in countless Biblical texts.  Some of the more bracing examples of his holiness are seen in places like Exodus 20:18-19.  Immediately after the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandment, we read, “18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
          The Jews had seen only a dim reflection of God’s holiness in the smoldering mountain, the lightning and thunder and the sound of the trumpet, but that was enough for them.  They feared for their lives and so they authorized Moses to speak to God on their behalf.  This is a display of reverence for God.  They showed their reverence by physically backing even further away from him and by requesting that they not to relate to God on a personal level at all.  They would relate to God through Moses.  We see this dynamic again when God calls Isaiah to be his prophet.  As Isaiah beholds God in his exalted and regal splendor as the King who sits on his throne, high and lifted up, his initial response is recorded in 6:5  5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!  Isaiah sees this One whom angels with veiled faces worship by singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth full of his glory” and he is emotionally and psychologically overwhelmed by him.
          Two chapters later he says in 8:13, “13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”  The word translated “dread” means to “cause to tremble.”  God is holy and we are sinful.  Therefore, an encounter with him might very well “cause us to tremble.”  Falling prostrate on the ground is the perhaps most common response to people who are confronted with God’s holiness.  In Revelation chapter one, we read that the Apostle John beheld the glorified Christ and he “fell at his feet as though dead” [Rev 1:17] when he encountered the holiness of the exalted Christ.
          The primary Hebrew word for worship in the Old Testament and the word for worship used most often in the Greek New Testament are both literally translated, “to bow down.”  Reverence for God is implied even in the main Biblical words used for worship.  Because God is holy, his people must be reverent in worship.  Not only is God transcendent in his holiness, he is also transcendent in his “otherness.”  He is other.  God is not simply a much larger version of ourselves.  He is essentially different from us and when people in the Bible encounter God in his otherness, reverence is the most common response.  In Mark four, the disciples are in a fishing boat when a terrifying storm pummels their boat to the point of sinking.  Jesus is asleep on a cushion as the storm batters their boat.  In terror, they call on Jesus who wakes up and rather matter-of-factly stands up and says to the storm, “Peace, be still” and the waves immediately and dramatically calm.  In verse 41, we read the disciples’ response. “41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  
           When Jesus displays his divine authority over the elements, the disciples show great reverence toward him. This is the LION of the tribe of Judah.  People revere and fear lions—and this Lion is in a class by himself. We see this again in Hebrews 12:28-29.  In response to our salvation and the unshakable nature of God’s kingdom, the writer responds by saying, 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.”  Reverence and awe are acceptable in our worship to this consuming fire of a God.  He is other—not like us—a consuming fire. 
          If God’s transcendence were the only divine attribute taught in the Scripture, one of the implications for us would be that our worship would be exclusively characterized by awe and reverence—holy fear before this transcendent, holy God.  But the Scriptures also speak of God as being immanent—near to us—accessible to us.  We see this most clearly in the incarnation of Christ. God has come near to us and has dwelt among us in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His disciples did not exclusively relate to him in reverence.  They were not in a constant state of awe and fear when they were with him.  In the gospels, his immanence brings out other forms of worship from those who loved him.  In John 12, we see a very sincere form of worship, but it could not be called exclusively reverent.  In verse three we read that while Martha was serving dinner and Lazarus was reclining at the table with Jesus, “3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” 
          This is most certainly a form of worship, but Mary is not trembling here, she is wiping expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus with her hair.  This is an example of great intimacy shown by a worshipper in response to the immanence of Christ.  Intimacy with God in response to his immanence is also seen clearly in the Old Testament.  The Psalmist writes, in Psalm 42, 1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.  2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?   3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”  4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”  David here is panting, thirsting, yearning after God and pouring out his soul to him.  He is no trembling here—he is yearning for him—“When shall I come and appear before God?  This is profound intimacy with God as he recalls going with the throng to God’s house with glad shouts and songs of praise.  In Isaiah 54:5 God tells Israel, “5 For your Maker is your husband…”  “Husband” speaks of the most intimate relationship one person can have with another.  Jesus tells us to address God in prayer as “Our Father.”  This is why J.I Packer and so many others have said, “The Christian name for God is “Father.”  There is intimacy here—God is our Abba, our Father.  Jesus is not only the Lion; he is also the “Lamb of God.”  People don’t typically tremble in the presence of a lamb. 
          We see another form of intimacy with God in David’s worship in Second Samuel chapter six when he and the priests are bringing back to Jerusalem the Ark of the Covenant—the throne of God.  In verse 14 it says, “And David danced before the LORD with all his might…”  The word translated “dance” here describes a particular kind of Ancient Near Eastern dance where the dancer whirls and whirls around.  Instead of trembling, David is here displaying a “whirling worship,” if you will.  There is intense joy, extreme exultation.   As we saw last week from the Psalms, the Bible is filled with expressions of joyous exultation, many of which convey an intimacy with God.  In light of our call to worship this transcendent and immanent God, how do we worship in a way that reflects or does justice to both these sets of divine attributes?  And in light of the Scriptural examples of both reverence and intimacy, how do we balance a reverence for God with an intimacy to God within corporate worship? 
            Here are two answers that I believe represent the Bible’s teaching in response to those questions.  First, expressing reverence for God and intimacy toward God in worship are not mutually exclusive to each other.  One reason many believers today don’t honor God in their corporate worship is because they make the unbiblical assumption that a person shows either reverence toward God or intimacy or joy toward God, but not at the same time.  Let me sight a few verses that show us that it’s not either reverent trembling or intimate joy and yearning, it’s both.  First, in Psalm 2:11   David says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”  That command is ridiculous if fear and trembling and rejoicing are mutually exclusive.  Here you have reverence—fear and trembling--mixed with the intimacy of rejoicing.  We are called to rejoice with trembling.  The reason why reverence and intimacy should not be separated is because God’s transcendence—his holiness and otherness is never separated from his immanence—his nearness to us.  We mustn’t treat those attributes of God as if they are mutually exclusive to one another. The Bible doesn’t separate them and we’ll see more about why we must not in a moment.
        Earlier we quoted the first part of Isaiah 54:5 as an illustration of God’s immanence—God is a husband to his people.  But that verse also teaches God’s transcendence—his holiness.  It says in full, 5 For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.   It’s true that God is referred to as a husband and that surely conveys his immanence, but he is also called “your Maker,” “the Lord of hosts,” “the holy one of Israel” and “the God of the whole earth” all of which trumpet his transcendence.  God clearly feels no need to separate his transcendence from his immanence.  We also earlier quoted Hebrews 12:28 where God is revealed as a consuming fire to whom we must show reverence and awe. 
          But don’t miss the first part of the verse that tells us how else we are to respond to this God.  28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.”  There is obviously no contradiction in God’s eyes between, on the one hand, responding to him as our consuming fire with reverence and awe, and also with gratitude—“…let us be grateful…  Thank-you, God!  Celebration is implied here right alongside reverence.  Finally, let’s look at Isaiah 57:15.  15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  God is high and lifted up, he inhabits eternity, he dwells in the high and holy place--his name is Holy.  But in the next breath he says that he also dwells with sinful people and not with the powerful and famous, but with the contrite and lowly spirit—to revive the spirit of the lowly and the heart of the contrite.  This is poignant tenderness from God.  Again, the transcendence and immanence of God are on display side by side.
         Because God does not separate his transcendence from his immanence, we must not separate our reverence for him from our intimacy with him as if they were like two Pyrex beakers filled with different chemicals.  No.  Reverence and intimacy are like two chemicals that have been brought together to form a chemical compound—sodium chloride--salt, or H2O--water.  Our reverence and intimacy for God must be kept together.  The catalyst that brings together these two seemingly incompatible responses and binds them together is the Person of God in his transcendence and his immanence.  We must express both of these affections in our worship to God.  Sometimes we may experience more joy and tenderness and yearning toward God, while at others--more awe and wonder and amazement, but we should never think that one response mutually exclude the other.  As we have seen, the Bible teaches that we should express reverent joy in response to his manifold Person.  We are called to express reverent intimacy to God.  Frankly, one of the big problems with many who worship within the sphere of contemporary evangelical corporate worship is that they throw out all reverence in the name of joy and intimacy.  That’s very shallow and unbiblical.
        That’s not recognizing God as immanent and transcendent. Frankly, that’s not acceptable worship—that’s a party--and if taken to extremes, it can be blasphemous.  God becomes our “bud” who doesn’t care how we worship as long as it is filled with passion.  Likewise, the stereotypic imbalance within historic worship is showing reverence toward God, but with no joy or a sense of intimacy with him.  In this extreme, God becomes so “other”—that we cannot reach him at all and there is no passion because this God is so distant that you really can’t know him on a very personal level.  That’s not Biblical either.  And that takes us to our second answer more directed toward the question—what is the balance between worshipping God in his transcendence and worshipping him in his immanence?  When we understand the relationship between God’s transcendence and his immanence as he relates to us, we will be able to see the relationship between worshipping God with reverence and with intimacy.  Here’s one way to explain that relationship and help us discover the balance between reverence and intimacy with God in worship.  That is:  When we worship God, we must do so understanding that his immanence with us is meaningless apart from his transcendence.  To put it another way—there can be no true joy—no wonder in genuine intimacy with God unless he is transcendent.  The fact that God is transcendent in his holiness and his otherness is what makes his immanence with us so infinitely precious.
          This is very important because it has many implications that go well beyond corporate worship.  Here’s what this means.  If God isn’t so holy that he is rightly to be held in fear and trembling, if God isn’t high and lifted up in the dazzling splendor of his transcendent majesty, if God isn’t a consuming fire, if God isn’t able to speak to the wind and wave and make the storms cease, if Jesus isn’t so glorious that his glorified face causes his best human friend to a fall into a dead faint—if all that transcendent holiness and otherness are not part of his character, then the fact that he is our husband and father is drained of all significance.  What gives meaning to God’s mercy and grace and patience and kindness and generosity to us—his immanence--is the fact that the One who stoops to love us in Christ is the infinite, holy, Almighty, Creator God who rules over the entire universe. 
          If God isn’t magnificent in his splendor, there would be no good reason for David’s soul to pant and thirst for him. The reason he was whirling around in the streets, dancing with all his might before the Lord as the ark was brought into Jerusalem, is because of the extreme joy that entered his soul at the prospect of having the Lord of the universe dwell among his people in Jerusalem.  When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume, her deep intimacy with Jesus was motivated by her profound reverence for him.  Although she couldn’t know the full extent of how different he was from her, she certainly expressed sincere reverence for Jesus by doing the work of a slave and wiping Jesus’ feet, using her hair as a rag.  This was an intensely humbling thing to do—like what someone would do for a beloved and mighty King.  Also, the oil she used was “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard.”  One scholar estimates that it would have taken 300 days wages to buy this perfume.  Mary wasn’t expressing only intimacy with Jesus here—her response to Jesus was riddled with deep reverence and wonder.  Her reverence for Christ is what drove her to this level of intimacy with him. God is our Father—intimacy.  But he is our Heavenly Father--transcendent intimacy.  Jesus is the Lamb of God, but he never stopped being the Lion of the Tribe of Judah—not for an instant! 
            The best illustration of the relationship between God’s transcendence and his immanence is in the gospel itself.  In Christ’s incarnation, the transcendent, enthroned King of the universe comes to earth to live among us sinners.  What gives the immanence of Christ’s incarnation meaning is that the babe in Bethlehem was the Almighty, infinite GOD of all creation.  What causes us to worship God for the profound immanence he showed in the death of Jesus is that the One who hung up there as are our bloody sacrifice was God.  Amazing love, how can it be, that THOU, MY GOD, shouldst die for me?”  If the immanent Lamb of God isn’t also the transcendent Lion of Judah, then we are not only lost in our sins—but the cross is utterly drained of its wonder.  What gives weight and glory to the immanence of God’s loving compassion for his children is his transcendent holiness that tells us we could never have earned his love—only his wrath apart from Christ and the cross.  His holy, transcendent wrath is what makes his immanent love for us so amazing—we don’t deserve it.  Because he is holy and must punish sin, only through the infinite cost of his Son could his love be purchased for us. We must see that as we relate to God in worship—we must never divorce our reverence for God from our intimacy with God.  Our intimacy toward God must never be in a vacuum—but must remain in the context of God’s transcendence.  The fact that an infinite and holy God--who created the universe and rules over every centimeter of it--would want to be with me and call me—a fallen, sinful creature his “friend”—is what ignites Biblical, God-honoring  worship.
         When we separate out reverence for God from our intimacy with him, our worship ultimately becomes self-centered instead of God-centered.  Instead of being amazed by the fact that God in his great condescension would call us his friend, Jesus becomes “my friend”--as if it were a special honor for Jesus to be numbered among my friends.  In that sense, Jesus is not MY friend—I have by grace been made a friend of Jesus.  Although there are an increasing number of good, God-centered praise choruses being published, there are far too many that don’t have the smell of reverence about them and they feel more like, as someone has said, “Jesus is my boyfriend” love songs.  Songs and hymns that have only this sentimental or emotional appeal are not reflective of a Biblically balanced view of God.
        Likewise, if we sing of God’s transcendence, his otherness, his holiness without an understanding that this God has come to us in mercy and grace in Jesus Christ and died for us to make us his treasured possession, then our worship will be sterile and lifeless.  C.H. Spurgeon said, “I can admire the solemn and stately language of worship that recognizes the greatness of God, but it will not warm my heart or express my soul until it has blended …with the joyful nearness of that perfect love that casts out fear and ventures to speak with our Father in heaven as a child speaks with its father on earth.  My brother, no veil remains.”[4]  The veil that separated a holy God from sinful humanity has been ripped away and we can come into his holy presence and know his love for us because of Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s immanence.  May God give us the grace to worship God in reverence and intimacy in response to the gospel that reflects God’s transcendence and his immanence for his glory and our joy.


[1] Carson, D.A. Editor, Worship by the Book, Keller’s chapter is titled “Reformed Worship in the Global City, p.193

[2] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.267

[3] Grudem, p.267

[4] As quoted in “Worship Matters,” Bob Kauflin, p. 163.

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