Scripture: Psalm 96
Our psalm today might be a little hard to hear in this strange time and place we live in ravaged as we are by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its emphasis on singing – something we are unable to do safely together at this moment. Three times in the first 2 verses we hear the imperative to sing! O Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to Lord all the earth. Sing to the Lord and bless his name. We all want to sing O Lord, but alas we cannot for the sake and safety of others.
While the psalm might be hard for us to hear right now it does raise a question that I think is vitally important for us to grapple with:
What is worship?
Perhaps that seems might seem like a silly question to ask in the midst of a worship service, but it is something that I have been pondering more than ever over the last 7 months. While we might have been able to give a fairly straight-forward answer for most of our worshipping lives, the global pandemic has changed things. For half of this year, we have been unable to worship the same ways we have been accustomed to – we were forced to worship online, or by watching worship on our television screens, or we had to figure out our own worship at home or perhaps we were not able to worship at all.
Even now as we have returned to worship, everything is not the same – we need to keep our distance, we wear masks, we can’t sing and on and on. Worship as we knew it is no longer a reality, and won’t likely be for a long time. Whether you are here in person or tuning in online, perhaps you are wondering if this is really worship, since it doesn’t look or feel like what we are used to.
And so it is important to ask ourselves if this isn’t worshiping, or at least if it doesn’t feel like worship, what is worship?
Our psalm, which we heard Rachel sing this morning, begins to answer the question although even this psalm doesn’t fully plumb the depths on what true worship is, for that we would likely need many lifetimes to discover.
Psalm 96 is part of a series of psalms called enthronement psalms, poems and songs which are chock full of praise and adoration of God, psalms which honour and magnify God as Lord and King.
These psalms would have been used in Israelite worship in acts of praise for God’s mighty works, extolling and celebrating the character and qualities of God, and they offer a template to think about, who we worship, why we worship and finally how we worship.
While the answer to ‘who do we worship?’ might seem obvious, it is nonetheless important to address because as the Psalm reminds us the world is full of ‘other gods’ though they are merely idols created by human hands, nothing compared to the Lord who made the heavens and the earth (Psalm 96:5).
The subject of our worship needs to be the God who created heaven and earth, it needs to be the God that we have come to know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it needs to be the God who is revealed in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. If our worship is directed anywhere else – to money, fame, political or religious leaders, control of other or whatever else we might worship – then we are not worshipping the living God, but rather an idol who cannot give us life, but rather takes away from our abundant life.
Psalm 96 is clear that the God who we worship is the Lord of Heaven and Earth; This psalm emphasizes the glory, the strength and the majesty of God more so than his mercy and grace which we find in other psalms, and I think it is important for us to remember sometimes the awesomeness and power of God – God’s mercy and grace are vitally important but they are effective and salvific because God is the all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe, the two go hand in hand.
If that is the ‘who’ of worship, then the next question is why do we worship?
This is an important question because the truth is that God does not ‘need’ our worship. God is complete in God’s self without all of the blessings and ascribing that our Psalm commands us to participate in. After all, how can we bless God, after all, it is God who blesses us with life, creation and everything else we might typically bless someone with. So what does it mean for us to bless God? What does it mean for us to ascribe to the Lord glory and strength?
In the context of worship blessing God means recounting the saving work of God, it means praising and thanking God for what God has done throughout history and throughout our lives; in the context of Christian worship, it means thanking God for Jesus and for his defeat of Sin and death at the cross and in the empty tomb.
Worship, therefore, serves as an acknowledgement and a reminder – an acknowledgement of God’s action and the blessings he has bestowed upon us and a reminder lest we forget the ways in which God has saved and blessed us amidst the chaos and busyness of our lives. Additionally, because we know there are other ‘gods’ or ‘idols’ which compete for our worship, compete for our time and attention, worshipping the one true God becomes all the more important – it centres us and our lives on the one Lord who can bring us fulfillment, peace and abundant life.
Worship is not merely about us though, Psalm 96 is clear that worship is a missionary endeavour, worship is a proclamation about the God we love, the God we honour and glorify.
All of the ascribing God’s wondrous qualities and character and all of our recounting of God’s work is not for God’s benefit, nor is it solely our own, but it is meant to serve as a window for others to see the wondrous God that we see; it is meant to be an invitation for others to know the saving work of God, to experience His power and glory, to receive his mercy and grace.
In our day and age, we have perhaps become a little shy about the public nature of our worship and our call to ascribe to God all of his wondrous characteristics and attributes. We don’t want people to think that we are pushy or intolerant, we don’t want to be accused of shoving God down people’s throats.
The author of Psalm 96 had no qualms about any of that. Worship in the context of the Psalm is a public declaration about God, not as a means of judgement but rather as I said earlier as an invitation. Even when God is seen as a judge, as he is in verse 10, God is a judge who judges with equity and the nations’ response is pure joy and praise.
Which all brings us to the how of worship. When most of us think about how to worship, we probably think about a particular form of worship: which songs or hymns are sung, whether there is incense or not, what prayer book we use, what vestments the priest is or isn’t wearing and so on. And while those are all parts of what worship can be, Psalm 96 has a far grander vision for worship than merely what we do in church on a Sunday morning.
Worship for the psalmist is a way of life, it is the public declaration of God’s saving work and of God’s character through the life of the community of God’s people and in the individual lives, we live in the world.
Although we cannot physically sing together here in this space, the song of love and forgiveness which we have heard in Jesus can reverberate through our bones, it can shape the life of this community, it can ring out in the ways we love our neighbour as ourselves; it can spread from heart to heart as we serve the poor and the lowly; the song of love can change and overthrow the oppressive systems of racism, sexism and elitism to mirror the equity found in God’s Kingdom.
And so what is worship? Worship is your life, worship is our lives, that are in communion with God, bearing witness to and magnifying God’s Love, God’s Forgiveness, God’s Power and God’s Glory to the world which needs to hear it – through our words, through our actions and through our very lives.
Video of the service including sermon available here