Why Church Sermon Summer Series
“What is the Point of Worship?”
CTS Seminary Intern, Ms. Nicole Jiskoot
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2023 – Nicole Jiskoot
When I was five, I had a sleepover with a friend of mine from my Kindergarten class. That Sunday morning, I went to church with her family. I will not say which one, but it was a different denomination than my Presbyterian upbringing. The music was familiar, but the preacher railed at us, for what seemed like hours to my limited attention span, about the ugliness of our human sins. I distinctly remember him telling us that God wanted to vomit us out of his mouth. Naturally I went home in tears, and my mother immediately called our pastor who filled my little mind with love and rainbows and butterflies (at least that’s how I remember it – I’m sure there was deeper theology involved). When I was a little older, I saw a repeat of that kind of sermon when I watched the 1960 Disney movie, Pollyanna. Every Sunday, that fire and brimstone Reverend gave the people of the congregation “sour stomach.”
There are several myths about worship that are equally unsettling. First of all, many people see church as a hospital for sinners. However, this implies that any of us could ever truly “be cured” of sinning, at least in this lifetime. Another myth is that church is just “what you do.” I went on a date – only one mind you – with a guy who felt that way. He said that church is what you do to learn how to be a good person and raise good kids, not to mention to make good business connections with other “like-minded,” quality people… after an hour of talking to me, he commented I might be “too Christian” for him. I agreed! Finally, many people see church as where you go to get “refueled” each week, so that you can face life and all its challenges. While I confess to having fallen into at least two of these categories at some point in my life, all of these images of church are misleading at best.
Dan Kimball, author of a book entitled “Emerging Worship,” cautioned that too many people treat their worship service like an automotive service station. Just like the myths I shared, worship is where they go to “get fixed” and “fill up their tanks.” Instead, Kimball points out that the Greek word that is often used in the New Testament for “worship” is proskuneo, which derives from the word pros, meaning “toward,” and kuneo, meaning “to kiss”! Imagine offering a kiss to the attendant at the service station! Rather, Kimball points out that worship is supposed to be the place where we offer ourselves – our lives, our prayers, our praise, our confessions, our finances, and our service – to God.
Thinking back to the Disney reference, little Pollyanna later asked the Reverend whether he liked being a minister. She told him how she and her missionary father used to love reading the “glad passages” in the Bible. “You know,” she said, “the happy ones, like, um… ‘Shout for joy’ or… ‘Be glad in the Lord’… you know, like that. There are 800 happy texts! Did you know that?… And my father said that if God took the trouble to tell us 800 times to be glad and rejoice, he must have wanted us to do it!” Pollyanna understood that true worship is an act of love and devotion to the One who calls us to be glad and rejoice!
But how exactly do we do that? Life is not always cause for celebration. Plus, we are indeed sinners in need of care, and sometimes we need the church to care for us. So, what is the point of worship, anyway? Are we supposed to float through life with a “Don’t worry, be happy” kind of attitude?
Well, the order of worship in the Reformed tradition speaks to a different narrative altogether. Now, I don’t have time to go into a detailed description of what “Reformed” means – it took months of seminary classes to delve into that topic. Let me just say that as Presbyterians, we are considered “Reformed,” as opposed to Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal, and our theology essentially stems from John Calvin. The history and theology is rich and deep – well worth studying when you have the time and energy!
For now, I’ll give you a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the Reformed order of worship in four movements – Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, and Sending. In fact, if you have ever worshiped with Decatur Presbyterian before, you may have noticed similar headings printed in the bulletin. These will provide a cheat-sheet to what I will share with you…
First of all, we read in Psalm 100:1-2, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” The first movement in our order of worship is to Gather Around the Word. Actually, it is important to note that in Reformed theology, it is always God who calls us to worship. We do not call ourselves. Our worship is in response to God’s call… but more on that later.
This past semester, I took an amazing worship course called “Sacred Space, Time, and Liturgical Imagination.” One of my textbooks was entitled Worship for the Whole People of God by Ruth C. Duck. In the introduction, she talked about five theological emphases for understanding worship, the first of which is worship as ritual. When we worship in our sanctuaries, or our “sacred spaces,” we see and create visual art representations, such as this week’s painting by Lynn Evans. We see beautiful floral arrangements, the cross in the chancel, and the stained-glass windows… (By the way, Lucia Sizemore sent me the cutest “Family Circus” cartoon of a little girl sitting with her mother in church. Looking up, the girl commented, “Churches are smart. They have pretty windows, but you hafta come inside to see them.”) We also hear organ voluntaries and anthems, played and sung by incredibly talented musicians. We taste the bread and cup during communion. We offer love to one another through touch as we pass the peace of Christ. And, of course, we make a joyful noise to God as we come into his presence, using our voices to sing, confess, and to praise God through liturgy and music. Therefore, the Psalmist and Pollyanna would agree that as we gather together each week through the ritual of worship, the first point of worship is to rejoice and be glad in the Lord!
Yet, who is this God that we worship? That was the first question we had to ask ourselves in my Reformed theology class. How do we learn about God? How can we understand the point of worship if we don’t understand who we are worshiping?
Years ago, when we were still living in Lakeland, Florida, I happened to mention to my young son that we cannot know exactly what God looks like or how God sounds. (I’m sure this was in response to a line of questioning from him during a car ride to the grocery store.) Layfe quickly retorted that he knew exactly what God looked like and how he sounded! After all, he spoke to everyone from the pulpit every Sunday. I realized at that moment that my son thought the pastor was God!
Similarly, another pastor friend of mine said that he and his wife had lovingly told their 5-year-old daughter that Jesus lived in her heart and loved her very much! One night, she must have eaten something that gave her some indigestion. Her parents awoke to her screaming and ran to her bedside. She told them that Jesus was trying to come out of her chest! It took several TUMS and some further explanation to calm her down!
We laugh good-naturedly at the innocence of children, but are we as adults any better at understanding the nature of God? Psalm 100:3 says, “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” We often say that humans are made in the image of God. There is a great deal of theological significance to that statement. If we worship a Triune God, a God who is in relationship with Godself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), then, as Ruth Duck writes, worship is relationship, as we ourselves were created to be in relationship with God and each other. Hebrews 10:25 urges us not to neglect worshiping together, so that we may encourage one another. True worship is communal in nature.
Ruth Duck also speaks of worship as revelation. The second movement in our order of worship is Proclaiming the Word. At first glance, this seems to refer very basically to what I am doing now – preaching a sermon. However, we must always remember that first and foremost, the Word is God incarnate, revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The Word is also revealed in the reading, hearing, and interpreting of scripture. Finally – and this is the scariest part for me as a future pastor – the Word is revealed in the proclamation – through the sermon… talk about pressure! Thankfully, I have often heard pastors say that the Holy Spirit sometimes speaks to parishioners through messages that were never actually part of the sermon. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit reveals God to us through the revelation of God’s Word, the second point of worship is to be drawn into deeper relationship with the Triune God who created us in God’s own image.
Once the Word has been proclaimed, the only choice we have is to Respond to the Word. Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.” Ruth Duck notes that worship itself is our response to God. In the Reformed tradition, this response includes an affirmation of faith, which again is a communal response. We speak our faith aloud among those worshiping alongside us, but we also speak with those who have gone before us. When we recite the words of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the Confession of 1967, and the Belhar Confession to name a few, we stand alongside those from different times and contexts. Augustine of Hippo wrote his own set of confessions in the 4th century AD, one of which was on the topic of “What do I love when I love my God?” He answered that question by writing:
“But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any body or the rhythm of time in its movement; not the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifest sounds; not the perfume of flowers, ointments and spices; not manna and not honey; not the limbs so delightful to the body’s embrace: it is none of these things that I love when I love my God. And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and an embrace – a light and sound and perfume and food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with radiance which no space can contain; there a music sounds which time never bears away; there I smell a perfume which no wind disperses; there I taste a food that no surfeit embitters; there is an embrace which no satiety severs. It is this that I love when I love my God.”
As Augustine beautifully illustrates, the third point of worship is that when faced with the deep, abiding love of God, we must respond to God’s Word in the only way possible– with praise and thanksgiving.
Yet, this loving relationship with God and others longs to move out beyond the church’s worship within the sanctuary. Psalm 100 concludes with verse 5 – “For the LORD is good: his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Once we have gathered, heard the Word proclaimed, and responded to the Word, it is time for the sending, which for some people just means they finally get to leave and have lunch. However, I like the way DPC changes the imagery of the congregation being “sent” to “Following the Word into the World.” The Spirit continues to guide us as we go out from this place. We think of ourselves as completing worship either after the benediction or the organ’s closing voluntary, but really, our worship of God does not end in this space or time.
For Ruth Duck, this is the 5th theological emphasis. Worship is rehearsal. The rituals we performed, the revelation and relationship we experienced, and the response we offered are all practice for what we should be doing as we reenter our daily routines. We should be practicing themes of love, justice and peace everywhere we go. Why? Because God’s love endures forever, to all generations. To love the LORD our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, is to worship God with a joyful noise, to come into his presence with singing, and to enter his gates with thanksgiving.
May it be so. Amen.