In Praise of Worship

What is it to be a worshipper of the one who created the universe? Given the way we do church today it’s not surprising that many see worship and singing as synonymous. Neither is it surprising to note that the ‘praise and worship industry’, if I can call it that, is big business.

Sometimes you get the impression that worship is primarily for us – to meet our dreams and our needs – and that it’s about feeling good about myself, God and the world.

However WORSHIP, like a multifaceted DIAMOND,
is much more than that.

Certainly, singing praise is part of worship, in fact one of its highest forms as C.S. Lewis wrote: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise”. For Christians, praise of God is natural, however it is simply not all there is to worship.

When we gather in our buildings on Sunday mornings we call it ‘worship’ acknowledging that every part of our time is part of the act of worship. This includes our praying, confession, silence, being still, scripture reading, listening, taking notes, giving an offering, baptism, playing an instrument, communion, and greeting each other.

Sadly, we easily slip into thinking we have worshipped if we’ve been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. But, this is a very limited view worship. Worship is much more than an event within the four walls of a building.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

The iconic Trevi Fountain in Rome was begun by Salvi in 1732, and completed by Pannini in 1762. That’s my wife Jenny standing beside it.

Earlier this year, Jenny and I had the privilege to visit a number of art galleries across Europe. We saw works of art by people such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, and one of my favourites Van Gogh. While visitng the Louvre we caught a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile as recorded by da Vinci; and on another day marvelled at the perfection of Water Lilies painted by Monet. All these artists are household names, even though many of them died hundreds of years ago.

How is it that we know their names today? Throughout the centuries they have been admired by thousands of people who marvelled at their beauty and grace while acknowledging the skill, genius and character of the artists. The art remains a living legacy to the one who created them. So today in art galleries around the world, works of art are displayed each revealing something special about the one who created them.

Here we see a simple yet profound principal at work: created things reveal things about their maker. Whether that thing is a painting, or a sculpture, a birthday cake, music, a landscaped garden, or a dress, the principal doesn’t change.

The same is true of the earth and the universe, as they too are created things. In Psalm 19 the psalmist says,

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

In other words, the universe is a giant canvas displaying the work of a creative genius.

A painting is not just the work of an artist, but also reveals the nature of an artist.  So too creation declares the essential nature of the one who created it. Paul says in Romans, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20)

Throughout the Bible all things in heaven and earth are consistently implored to praise their Creator. It doesn’t matter whether they are heavenly creatures, angels, celestial bodies (the sun, moon, stars, waters), or the earth and its oceans, skies and land, if they are created they are to praise their Creator. Living creatures are not exempted either. Animals, birds, fish and bugs and everything that moves are called to give glory to their maker.

This is the essence of worship and the foundation of all praise,the relationship between a creature and their creator. That’s why you and I are inherently worshippers.  We are the handiwork of a Creator.

David after Michelangelo

This is a copy of Michelangleo’s David. The real one is inside the nearby Accademia Gallery which was shut the day we were in Forence

What does this mean for our understanding of worship?
It helps us begin to appreciate how worship has more to do with who we are than what we do. How does a work of art bring praise to its maker? How does the Mona Lisa bring glory to da Vinci? By being nothing more than being all that da Vinci painted it to be. The Mona Lisa just needs to be the Mona Lisa.

So too a star needs to be a star, a mountain a mountain, and an ant an ant. ‘Worship’, for them, is about being all they were created to be. It is the same for human beings. Worship is much more than singing in a purpose-built building on Sundays. It is as natural as eating or breathing. Just being all we were created to be we can exalt, honour, and bless the Creator at all times. As Martin Luther said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”

Conceiving of worship in this light gives new meaning to our understanding that we are a special creation of God’s, made in his image.

While every part of creation displays something of its Creator, there are qualities or attributes of God that can only be seen through humanity. Questions like – What is the Creator like? What is the Creator’s name? What kind of God is the Creator? – are asked by humans alone in all creation. Why do we ask them? It has to do with being made in the image of God.

God’s creativity, fellowship, community, mutual respect, justice, mercy, compassion and industry and so on, are only fully seen in and through humans. Being made in God’s image, we reflect these unique attributes of our Creator in a way no other creation does. Such attributes are more clearly seen in the way we relate to each other than it does in our singing.

From this perspective worship is not a part of life, it is life. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor 3:31) The early Christians, liberated from the constraints of the old law, saw their lives as a continuous act of worship. As Romans 12:1-2 Paul clearly states: we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God – this is our reasonable act of worship.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that Christians went to a place to worship. Archeologically there is no evidence that they had buildings purposely built and set apart exclusively for Christian worship. In fact it never says they ‘went to church’! For them worship was a lifestyle reflecting the image of their Creator.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t meet together, in fact the writer to Hebrews is very clear about this (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, the question is what should our gatherings be like? Interestingly, after saying we should meet together, Hebrews goes on to say that we need to encourage one another.

Throughout his letters Paul is clear that the overriding purpose of meetings is for the strengthening of God’s people, the church. In a stinging rebuke of the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul’s makes clear that their lack of love for each other showed they were living inconsistently with what it meant to be God’s people (Read 1 Corinthians).

Most people today would say that we worship God when we gather together, but the New Testament is clear, we don’t gather primarily for worship. It is true that by gathering we do worship God, but that is not why we gather. We gather for the purpose of encouraging each other and seeing each other built up. As British theologian I.H. Marshall wrote, “While it is true in the broad sense that everything which the Christian does will be ultimately directed to the glory of God, it is simply not the case that the purpose of Christian meetings was understood as being primarily and directly worship [in a ritualistic sense], homage and adoration addressed to God.”

When we gather together we do so as part of the family of God – to meet with our Creator and to meet with others. Our aim is help one another know, believe, and follow him.

Despite what one might glean from church services and Christian books, whether or not you are a real worshiper is not determined by your attendance at church services or how well one might sing. True worship is better determined by how quickly we forgive, how well we handle our finances, and what we do when no one is looking.

Worship is not confined to buildings, and it is much more than music or singing. Worship is what we do as we live for God in every aspect of our lives. So, let’s worship our Creator!

Stephen L Baxter

Bridging the Gap

Have you ever gone to an event and felt completely under-dressed for the occasion? Or have you been somewhere where you feel totally out of place?  Odd One OutMaybe you have had the privilege of meeting a very important person face to face and felt utterly out of your depth. That is the picture the writer of the book of Hebrews has in mind when he explores the reality that Jesus is our Great High Priest.

In the back of the writer’s mind is the picture of the grandeur of the awesome creator God and we are being ushered into the throne room of this Supreme Being of the universe. How would we fare? My guess is we would feel completely under-dressed for the occasion, totally out of place, and utterly out of our depth. We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves! We would be totally at a loss.

This is the reason we still need a priest today.  Although all our sins have been forgiven, each day we still need to live in relationship to the Almighty God.  And if we have a small glimpse of the majesty of this God, we will understand that we would be somewhat uncomfortable in God’s presence. We still need a mediator or priest, one who bridges the gap between us and our Creator.

We wouldn’t know where to look or how to conduct ourselves!

As human beings living in a fallen world we have many needs.  We face discouragement and doubt, temptation and guilt, opposition and persecution, suffering and trials.  How can we know that God cares for us in any of these struggles?  How can we find mercy and grace to meet us at the point of our need?  As we come before God’s holiness in our brokenness, what right do we have to expect anything other than condemnation and judgment?  We not only need to know that through the work of Jesus on the cross our sins are forgiven once and for all, but also that we are in constant need to be renewed in relationship every day.

The writer of Hebrews shows how a lack of appreciation of the ongoing priestly work of Jesus for us each day not only robs us of a great part of our Christian heritage, but means we will remain an immature baby Christian. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people live boring Christian lives or are dropping away.

Christ’s work as High Priest is relevant to our lives, not just in the abstract sense that we know his death has paid the price for our sins, but in the earthy reality of our daily lives.  Here in the midst of our struggles and weakness we have the resources available to meet and deal with our stress, doubts, sin, guilt and depression. Jesus not only deals with our sins, but meets our need when we are tempted in our weakness (Heb 2:18; 4:15), are in need of mercy and grace (Heb 4:16) , are discouraged and doubting (Heb 6:17-20), are accused by Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and are wearied by opposition (Heb 12:3).

Knowing we have a Great High Priest who understands our journey in all its weaknesses gives us a basis to endure, without growing weary or losing hope.

I pray that you might hear the encouragement of the book of Hebrews and take advantage of all Jesus our Great High Priest has to offer.

Stephen L Baxter

FACING TIMES OF NEED

What are your times of greatest need? It may be sickness or grief, depression or despair; it could be times of doubt and unbelief, or times where addictions and obsessioTroubled manns such as money, movies, sex, sports, spending or drinking binges, or even unbalanced priorities gain control of your life.

In our series on Hebrews at Hobart Baptist we have recently explored the invitation in Hebrews 4 to approach the “throne of grace” with confidence and boldness. In times of need we are encouraged to do so, for here we will find grace and receive mercy.

Where do you turn in your times of greatest need?

The image of the “throne of grace” here in Hebrews is a picture of entering into the very presence of the Almighty God, Creator of all things. Here, in the throne room, the atmosphere is charged with splendour, majesty and awe. Entering into such grandeur we can guess how we might feel. On the one hand, unsure of the reception, we may feel overwhelmed, hesitant, and fearful. Yet, depending upon our perception of what awaits us, perhaps we could also be excited and elated.

The book of Hebrews encourages us to enter with boldness and not with fear. Sadly, too often too many people perceive God as a cruel, distant, and unloving taskmaster who doesn’t care and because of that, they turn away from God. Yet in Hebrews we find a quite different picture. Here God is shown to be full of mercy, grace, patience, love and faithfulness.

And why? Because we have the greatest priest the world has ever known, Jesus, advocating for us. As a human being he understands and empathises with our weaknesses. He stands alongside us ushering us into God presence. He declares that he is our brother and pleads our case for us. He presents us before God and we are accepted. We receive mercy and find grace.

That is not to discount God’s displeasure with our sin and the fact we are sinners. There is a profound reality to our sense of unworthiness to receive such a welcome. Yet, this is the good news – Jesus has dealt with any unworthiness whether real or felt, and we can enter into the God’s throne room, confident of the reception we will receive.

Our task is to stand alongside Jesus allowing him to represent us and accept with gratitude the gift of life and relationship, all the while ignoring any feelings of guilt, shame or hesitation. We stand and receive the mercy and accept the grace we have been given.

So whenever you feel distant from God and feel like running away from his presence the encouragement is to stop and think again. In your time of need, whatever the need, you are invited to be bold and enter with confidence into the presence of God. Not because you deserve it, but because you have been given the privilege as a gift. So no matter what you feel about yourself or your situation, you are guaranteed a reception which is full of mercy and grace because of the work and presence of our great priest – Jesus.

Have a go – practice coming into his presence knowing you are loved, valued and accepted.
Stephen L Baxter

Jesus? Think again

At Hobart Baptist, we are currently working our way through the book of Hebrews, perhaps the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament apart from Revelation. One commentary describes Hebrews as “a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles.” So although the logic and flow of thought are unusual for most modern people, careful and patient study yields rich results. For people who like puzzles

Written as a work of encouragement for a church under pressure, and drawing heavily on Old Testament themes, it focuses in on Jesus and explores the implications of his humanity and divinity for day-to-day practical Christian life. It aims to lead us down a path of faithful and confident trust in Jesus Christ.

However, in arriving at a place of faith and confident trust, Hebrews stretches our perception of Jesus causing us to think again of who he is and what he has done. What we find is that there is a vast difference between Jesus, as we conceive of him, and who he actually is. We discover that the mystery of Jesus, God becoming human, is full of mystery. It reminds us that God is never exactly like we imagine. As author and pastor, AW Tozer, said “The child, the philosopher, and the religionist have all one question: ‘What is God like?’” The answer to that question is not limited to what we can imagine.

As the prophet Isaiah records God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways;” (Is 55:8) and Paul wrote years later, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). God, the one and only Creator God, is incomprehensible to us creatures and is capable of surprising us at any time, any place and in any way. Such is the mystery, sovereignty and freedom of God that we are required to hold loosely the way we see him.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”

No matter who we are, our image and conception of God is filtered through the limitation of our human imagination and moulded by our needs, experience, dreams and wishes.

Our journey through Hebrews tests, prods and challenges our preconception and calls us to allow our understanding of God to be remoulded, reframed, renewed and refreshed. It invites us to allow our reasoning to be still and hearts to wonder. To fix our thoughts on Jesus without trying to categorise, explain, prove or nail down who he is, but allow ourselves to be swept into the beauty of who he is and all that he has done for us.

What our minds find incomprehensible our hearts recognise and acknowledge. Hebrews encourages us to keep our hearts in awe and worship so as to safeguard us from the arrogance of thinking we know all about God.

I would be interested to know if your perception of Jesus has changed while studying the book of Hebrews.
Stephen L Baxter