The Discipline Of WorshipErwin W. Lutzer | January 19, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Worship is a part of everyone’s life—even an atheist’s. But we often think worship is about a location, a mood, or a feeling when it’s actually about ascribing worth to God and honoring Him. It’s not about us.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer shows us how, with joy, attention, and honor, we can participate in worship through music, giving, and obedience.
God deserves nothing less.
I want you to know that everybody worships. Atheists worship. They may worship themselves. They may worship pleasure or money, but everybody worships. The question is not really whether we will worship but rather what we will worship or who we will worship.
We have some myths about worship that need to be exploded. One of the myths is that worship is a matter of place. All that you have to do is to show up at the right place at the right time, and somehow worship will happen automatically. Not so! Jesus, in fact, speaking to the Woman at the Well, said that the time used to be that people would worship only in Jerusalem, but now you could worship all over the world in spirit and in truth. And you can worship in strange places. And you can worship in places where there may not be a lot of aesthetics, but you can still worship. And just because you come to a place where worship happens doesn’t mean that you will worship.
I had somebody say one time, “You know, our church meets in a warehouse,” he said, “and I just can’t worship in a place like that.” Well, we all maybe wish we could worship in a Gothic cathedral. If you know anything about architecture, you know that the Gothic style… Immediately your eyes go to the skies, and you see the tall, narrow, high windows, and you see the beautiful pillars, and light is let in, because the whole intention was to give people a taste of heaven while they were on earth.
We were in Notre Dame this summer and we saw that—a great Gothic church, a famous Gothic church. But I want you to notice and to realize that it’s possible to be in a place like that and not worship, even if you are looking up, enjoying the architecture. It isn’t simply a matter of place. It isn’t simply a matter of ritual, hearing the right words, or even singing the right songs.
Perhaps, though, the greatest myth is that worship is all about me. Do I enjoy it? There was a rabbi to whom some people came, and they said, “You know, we don’t like the liturgy because it doesn’t express how we feel. Change the liturgy.” And he said, “The real issue isn’t whether or not the liturgy expresses the way in which you feel but whether or not you bring your feelings in line with the liturgy.”
Now we, of course, have theological differences with the rabbi, but he was really onto a point. The issue isn’t really how I feel, though feelings are important, as we shall see. But the real issue is whether or not God is honored, and whether your heart is right so that God can be honored by you. Worship in its most basic form is “worth-ship.” We are ascribing worth and praise to God, and therefore it is really a God thing first and foremost. And you and I are blessed in the process and we finally find out why we were created, but that’s a secondary benefit. The real question is: Was God honored?
Eugene Peterson said these words: “Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves, and attend to the presence of God. Worship is the time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God, not because He is confined to time and place, but because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless, that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we will have no chance of attending to Him at other times and in other places.” Worship is attending to God. I love the phrase, “We interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves.”
Now, the question is “How do we worship, how do we learn to worship and how does worship become a transforming experience?” That’s the agenda for the next few moments.
In the Old Testament we have a marvelous example of how worship is to be conducted. In fact, if you take your Bibles and turn for a moment to Hebrews 9 (I say Hebrews because Hebrews is giving us a summary of what was taking place in the Old Testament.), you’ll notice it says in verse 1: “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.” Do you notice that it says that the first covenant had regulations for worship? The priests didn’t say to themselves, “Well, all that we have to do is to show up and worship will happen.” There were regulations. There was a procedure. And as a result of following that procedure, they were entering into the presence of God. They didn’t want to barge into the Holy Place, or even the Holy of Holies, and say, “Well, we’re here. Now let’s worship.” God says no. There’s a procedure to be followed.
And then in the next few verses we have a discussion of what is known as the tabernacle. The tabernacle area, that worship area, was about 45 feet long and 15 feet wide, and it was really… You think of in terms of thirds. One-third of it was the Holy of Holies, where they entered only once a year. The other two-thirds was the Holy Place, and in the next verses the author of Hebrews discusses that, and outlines the articles of furniture that is in it. But he says in verse 8, “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” No permanent sin was taken away in the Old Testament. God set it aside and waited for Christ to die. And then it says they are only a matter of food and drink and various washings, regulations applying until the time of the new order. Well, we’re in the time of the new order.
But do you notice that the text says that this was an illustration. And so what do we learn from the Old Testament priests regarding worship? If we learn this, I guarantee it will change us forever.
First of all, when you entered into the worship area, before you got actually into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, there was a courtyard. And at the beginning of the courtyard, the entrance, the first thing that was there was a brazen altar, an altar made of brass. In the tabernacle times it was about 7-1/2 feet by 7-1/2 feet (It was a square.) and about 5 feet high. And on that altar sacrifices were continually offered. In fact, they had shifts of priests because the Bible says that the fire was never supposed to go out. And what you had was your bulls and goats, and you had sheep continually being offered.
You say, “It must have smelled terrible.” It did smell terrible. And the reason that it smelled so terrible is that God was saying, “I want you to know that your sin is terrible and it smells terrible,” and so symbolically these were offered literally, but they were symbolic of the coming of Jesus Christ. That indicates, in effect, the salvation of the priest, but I want you to know that in the New Testament, this imagery is carried over for us.
Turn to Romans 12. You’ll notice it says in verse 1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
We offer our bodies now. God doesn’t want a bunch of dead corpses, but God does want all that we are on that altar. When that lamb was slain, he came to the end of his own plans for sure. When that lamb was slain, he had no more rights. Now he may not have been slain voluntarily. We voluntarily, though, give ourselves on this altar, and there’s a sense of personal yieldedness that we have before we can even really approach God properly. We stop at the altar and we yield.
And in the process of yielding what do we give to God? We give Him our bodies, yes, but in a sense we give Him ourselves. We give Him everything. We give Him our families. We give Him our children, both the ones that are following the Lord, and the wayward ones. We give Him our past. We give Him our future. We give Him our future decisions. We give Him our vocation. There is nothing that we take from off the altar. We say we want to be as committed and surrendered as the Lamb who died there. And that’s the way we then prepare for worship. So we give our past and our future, and all that we are, to God.
Now hang on to that for a moment because the next item of furniture that was there in the courtyard area was the laver. Now the laver was a bowl of water—a huge bowl. Solomon, in fact, made it such a big bowl that it was called actually a “sea.” And then he had ten other lavers too. It was a basin. And the Bible says that the priest was supposed to wash his hands, and wash his feet before he went any further into the presence of God. The laver signifies cleansing. And you see, if our consciences are not cleansed, how are we going to worship God? How are we going to sing the songs of Zion when there’s something wrong inside, and we are out of fellowship?
Now let’s just make this very practical. Here’s somebody who watches a degrading movie on Saturday evening. The conscience is defiled. There’s something going on in there and he doesn’t stop at the altar. He bypasses the laver before he comes to church because he doesn’t really want to deal with this issue now and to have to humble himself before God again. And so he comes to church. Or let’s suppose the family (and now we’re even getting more personal) has an argument before church, especially about getting up and getting into the car on time. All of us can identify.
You know, we had three daughters, and at one point all of them were teenagers. And I believe in those days we had only one bathroom. Can you imagine? Now you are starting to get the picture. And now, you know, the pastor wants to get to the church early, and everybody else can’t figure out why he wants to get there early. And you know that sometimes one of the most unholy hours of the week is just before church. I heard an amen here on the platform. (laughter) And what you find is that, you know, the wife, God bless her, is trying to get these kids ready, and the husband is in the car and he’s on the horn, and then they come to church and they all find their places, and now sing Holy, Holy, Holy, and Let’s Praise the Name! And they’re thinking to themselves, “I’d better resolve this. This isn’t right. Why did she do that?” Their minds are far away. They’ve not been to the altar recently, and they most assuredly have bypassed the laver. There’s been no cleansing of the conscience.
And immediately three things happen. First of all, all joy drains from your heart. How can you rejoice when you have this matter of conscience, when there is something that is happening, that has just happened, or will happen in the future? That’s the second thing that happens—immediately your attention is drawn away. And because your attention is drawn away, it’s hard to concentrate. The hymns are there—yes. You see the words but your mind is somewhere else. You can’t focus.
So three things happen. The joy is gone. The focus is gone. And then something far worse happens. God is not honored.
That’s why Jesus said, “This people worship me with their lips. They’re singing the right songs. There’s no problem with the lyric. They’re singing the right songs. They are saying the right prayers, but their hearts are far from me because they’ve not been to the altar and to the laver.”
And while I’m on the topic let me say this. You see, when we come to church on Sunday we have to recognize that even if, during the week, we’ve been to the altar and to the laver, the simple fact is that we pick up dust along the way of life. And the priest had to wash himself just before he went into the Most Holy Place. And in the very same way, when we come into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning where we are going to worship corporately and we’re going to worship now together, it is so important to give yourself the opportunity and the friend who is sitting next to you the opportunity to bow their heads and to make sure that if they haven’t been to the laver recently, now is the time to do it. Now is the time for confession. Now is the time for yieldedness.
Why do you think Dr. Satre plays the organ before the worship service begins? The real reason isn’t to give you an opportunity to see whether or not your vocal cords are able to speak loudly enough despite the music. It’s to say, “Folks, you know, we are going to be worshipping God. We are going to be singing His praises, and we need God to come and tune our hearts to sing His praise.” This is our opportunity to say with our lips exactly the way in which our heart feels, and to bring together lip and heart so that we can honor God, and so that we can sing together in a way that praises His name.
Could I ask you a question? What did you bring into the sanctuary today that distracted you, that was not part of the altar? Did you bypass the laver? Did you just walk in and say to yourself, “Okay, what is the hymn? What is the Scripture reading?” You kind of participate but, you know, it’s all out there. It’s all dissipation.
Before we come into the Most Holy Place, we stop at the altar, and anything that is unyielded we say, “Jesus, I give this to you. I surrender this to You. I give You everything.” And then we say, “I confess my sins to You. I acknowledge…” And the more honest we are in that confession, the more God begins to pour grace into our soul, and we say, “Now I am in harmony with God,” which is what confession means. It means to be in agreement with God. Now when I sing the songs, I mean the songs. It isn’t just a matter of words. It is also a matter of heart, and God is honored.
Third: now we get to participation. We’ve stopped at the altar. We’ve gone to the laver. Now what happens? Now we begin to participate. Turn to Hebrews 13, just a little further in the text. We were in chapter 9 all too briefly I might say, but now in chapter 13 it says this in verse 15. What do we do now that we’re in the Holy Place? What do we do now that the worship has actually begun after we are prepared? Hebrews 13:15 says: “Through him then let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Continually a sacrifice of praise!
Now, what we do then is we do this primarily through song—primarily through song; in other ways, but certainly the Scripture is another way as seen in today’s bulletin, but primarily through song. The Bible says we have songs and hymns and spiritual songs, and you’ll notice in our bulletin today… I do give you permission to look at it this time while I am preaching—normally not, but this time it is legal. Notice hymn 87—May Jesus Christ Be Praised. Then we sang Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him. The chorus was Worthy of Worship. And then think of the songs of worship that our special soloist brought to us. Everything was God-directed. Everything was “praise Jesus.” Everything! Why? It’s because the Bible says we bring to Him the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips. And primarily—not exclusively but primarily—all of the music should be God-directed.
All over the country people ask me, you know, “Is Moody Church…?” In fact, I was in California this past week for a couple of days ministering there, and people asked me, “Now is the worship at Moody Church contemporary or is it traditional?” And I guess what they mean is, you know, “Do you sing the hymns, or do you do the contemporary thing?” Well, I have to say this, and this is my opinion, and it’s a humble opinion. Now, my staff knows that all of my opinions are humble. I believe here at The Moody Church we have achieved, under God’s grace, one of the most beautiful balances of worship music that anyone could ever expect or hope for. On the one hand we say, “Yes, the hymns of the faith are important.” Some people say, “Throw out the hymns.” Listen, some of the hymns have some of the best theology, some of the most God-directed thoughts that one could possibly imagine. And we want to hang on to that. And for people who don’t like it I’ll say this to you, that as you begin to sing those songs, they become a part of you, and it would be wrong to simply say, “We have nothing to do with that tradition; it is too traditional.” But think of all of the wonderful choruses and the modern music that is written.
In fact, when I was at this college and seminary speaking, they sang a chorus (I believe it was on Wednesday evening) that was so beautiful. And I don’t think we’ve ever sung it before, and I asked them to send it to me because we have to sing it here at The Moody Church.
Sometimes we have an orchestra. Sometimes we have drums. Sometimes we have special music. We’ve got someone who plays the guitar, and we do it differently. You say, “Well, when your worship committee meets together, you know, is it always just, well you know, “We begin with a prayer, and then we do this, and then we begin like that, you know?” I want to tell you why we’re doing that. That isn’t just because there’s some tradition we inherited. All worship should have certain elements. In fact, let me comment on that in a moment after I’ve said something about the second part of worship.
You’ll notice what it says here in Hebrew 13: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” I need to tell you today that giving is worship. Did you notice that in the Old Testament (We read it today in the Scripture reading.) it says, “Come into His courts and bring a gift?” In Hebrews 9:9 it says that they offered both gifts and sacrifices. Do you notice that when it’s time for us to receive the offering, I always say, “We continue our worship”? And you probably think it’s just a segue that I use to try to connect the two together. It’s not. In the Old Testament times it was unthinkable that somebody would come into God’s presence and not bring a gift for God. And I suspect, and I think our records might indicate, that there are hundreds of people who attend Moody Church week by week who never bring a gift for God.
You know, when my wife and I are invited out somewhere for dinner, she always wants to bring a gift, you know, even if it’s a box of chocolates. You bring something! And here we’re coming to God, and we’re giving Him His praise, but that for some people might not be too costly. For some it shall be, as we shall see in a moment. But we don’t understand that it is not just a segue. Worship is saying we have now praised God. Now we bring a gift to God. We bring something for the Almighty.
Don’t ever in your mind think that you are giving money to Moody Church, because then if we do something you don’t like, you’ll be able to say, “Well, look what they did with that money.” Give it to God. Bring it to God with a heart of joy. Of course, we need financial assistance, but Paul says in Philippians, “You sent me money, and even if I didn’t need it, it did you some good because it was an aroma and a sacrifice with which God was well pleased.” Isn’t that what life is all about, knowing what pleases God and doing it? So what you do, whether it is little or much, whether you can afford a little or much, is not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is you bring a gift to God.
And then the Bible goes on to say that we should obey the leaders in verse 17. You say, “Well, how do we do that as a church?” We don’t have leaders maybe who are up here all the time. Well, I need to explain it to you this way. Within God’s providence (It’s His undeserved providence.), I am the primary speaker and preacher for the leadership at Moody Church. That doesn’t mean that others don’t do it. Thank God that they do, and they do an awesome job, but it’s just that I happen to be the primary one, so if you want to obey the leaders and submit to their authority, you are listening to the message. You are saying, “What is the exhortation? What is the message that is being given today? What vision is being painted in my relationship with God?”
You know that this is a series of messages on the disciplines of the soul, so you ask yourself, “How do I apply the message on meditation, the message on prayer, the message on worship, and then next week the message on silence? How do I apply this?” because what we’re here to do is to be taught, and in the presence of God you expect to be rebuked and challenged and convicted and encouraged and forgiven and given insight. You are expecting all that to happen.
You say, “Well then, why the sequence that you have in the bulletin? Is it just a tradition?” No! You look at the bulletin and what do we have? First of all, we begin with an invocation. We’re saying, “God, we know You exist everywhere at all times in all places, but now that Your people are being together, would You give us what the older theologians called the manifest presence of God?” We want God to dwell here with His people, and we want people who are coming in (new people and visitors) to say as they leave, “You know, surely God dwells in that place with those people.” So that’s why we have an invocation.
Then notice that we sing hymns of praise. We read the Scriptures. We receive the offering. We have a message. And all of worship should encompass these elements. The only question we as a worship committee have is, “What is the best sequence?” And if we ever think that the sequence should change, and from time to time we do change the sequence, it’s only because we think it might make a better flow. But this is worship. This is us in the presence of God with this kind of variety and intention.
And what an opportunity it gives us. Just imagine what it is like to be in the presence of God after you’ve been to the altar and the laver, and you come here saying, “God is here, and I’m going to be here to praise God.”
You know, the issue is not whether we are so traditional or contemporary. I mentioned a moment ago that I think that we have achieved a marvelous balance. (I guess for now your job is secure, Jerry.) But the real issue is a matter of heart. The real issue is whether or not God is pleased, and that is determined actually probably almost always before we get here rather than when we get here.
Two concluding lessons! First, worship is always costly. Some of you probably read this and you said, “Well, why the sacrifice of praise? It doesn’t cost much to praise God. My goodness, we sang songs of praise today, and talk is cheap.”
Some people know what the sacrifice of praise is because they praised God in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of heartache, in the midst of difficulty, in the midst of a bad marriage, in the midst of the death of a child. That is a sacrifice of praise with which God is well-pleased. It’s always costly.
Do you remember Abraham? What an awesome story. He’s asked to sacrifice Isaac, and immediately in the morning after the Lord tells him that, he leaves and he goes. And then when he gets to the mountain he says to the young men who are with him, “You stay here with this animal (They had a donkey that brought some of the wood.) and I and the lad (my son) are going to go yonder (Catch it now.) and worship.” Did it cost Abraham anything? He was willing to put his son to death, believing that God would raise him from the dead. I mean, you talk about cost!
Do you remember David? David was given a threshing floor. This guy said, “I want to be kind to you. I want to give it to you.” The average person would have said, “Hey, that’s really great. That’s really a God-thing.” David said, “You know, when it comes to building a worship center, I will not offer to God something that doesn’t cost me anything. I’m going to pay you because I don’t want cheap worship.”
When Job’s ten sons were put to death, and they died because of fire and because of wind (and the whole bit) and ten fresh graves are on the hilltop, the Bible says that Job fell on his knees and worshipped. Did it cost him something? You’d better believe it cost him something. And it costs us something because we come to worship, and we yield and we give ourselves to God and we say, “I have no more plans of my own. From now on my plans are your plans,” and we become honest in our confession of sin and dealing with that which defiles the conscience. And now we come into God’s presence, and now we are going to be enjoying the sacrifice of praise and the sacrifice of giving because we give sacrificially. We give until it costs us something. We’re not free-loaders. And now we begin to understand why all worship costs. If it’s cheap, it probably doesn’t mean that much to God.
The second lesson! You really can’t worship within the church if you don’t worship outside the church. You know, if your life is not a life of worship on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, it’s very difficult for you to suddenly come in here and say, “Oh, now it’s worship time.” To put this clearly, I think it’s very difficult for us to pour water on the blessed Holy Spirit all week and then expect to strike up a fire on Sunday, you see, because worship in a sense is a culmination of who we are. We love God. We serve God. We are in the Word. We are praying. We are yielding. We are being cleansed. And now we come together, and whenever possible, we come together on time. If I don’t stop soon I’m going to start meddling. We come together on time. Why? It’s because God is here, and the people of God are here, and we expect God to show up in conviction and in joy and in worship and in rebuke and in hope—everything together. Worship!
Bishop Pike, you remember, the liberal whose son committed suicide, believed that his son wanted to talk to him after the boy died because the clock on the wall would stop at a certain place at the time that the boy committed suicide. This is after the suicide. The clock would stop at that time, and so he went to a witch and didn’t know that he was actually talking to a demon who was inspiring the witch, and thought that he was talking to his son. And he published a book which I read years ago on that. And one of the questions he asked his son was, “Do you hear much about Jesus on the other side?” The boy said, “No. No, Dad, we don’t hear too much about Jesus here on the other side.”
Could I humbly suggest that if you die and go to a place where you’re not hearing a lot about Jesus, that you’re in deep trouble? And at the end of the day, worship and all of the praise that is being offered to God is really preparation for heaven, because in heaven there will be endless praise. From beginning to end we’ll be singing Glory to the Lamb. And the songs that we have been singing here on earth are going to be enlivened and maybe given some new words, and maybe even some new tunes. And all of us are going to be able to sing like the soloist that we heard this morning, and maybe even better. And all of the praise is going to be God-directed. And on earth we are training for heaven. And that’s why we worship.
Some of you perhaps have never really worshipped because you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior. That’s the beginning point. I encourage you to receive Him as yours, as your sin-bearer because He died on the cross for sinners. And through connecting with God He will birth in you a desire to worship the King and to worship the Almighty and become a worshipper for the rest of your life both in the church and outside the church where it all begins.
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, we ask today that in grace You will enable us to come into this place Sunday by Sunday, having stopped at the altar, having spent time at the laver, so that our focus and heart can be entirely God-directed. Oh Father, come to The Moody Church we pray. We know that You are here, but by Your blessed Spirit, manifest Your presence. May this be a place of love, a place of understanding, a place of communication, a place, Father, where new souls are born into Your kingdom. And we pray today that the desire that You have given to the Woman at the Well, the Father seeks such to worship Him. We pray that You might find hundreds of people at Moody Church responding to that call. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.