The Decablog has been rather quiet in recent months due in part to both of our time being taken up with some non-blog writing projects (and, you know, stuff like ministry). In fact, the Decabloggers plan to spend about a week in May collaborating on a project we are both very excited to develop and see how the Lord might use. More on that when the time is right.
I (Alford) have found myself engaged in several writing projects, one of which has been the adaptation of a Sunday School series on the Church at worship into a readable format. Because I have not had much time to devote to Decablog specific writing, I’m posting some excerpts from this work in progress below. Keep in mind that it is a rough draft and is excerpted from all over a very large document, but feedback and suggestions are always welcome. I may do this with some other projects in the coming months as well.
On the terrifying beauty of worship:
The great hymn writer Isaac Watts beautifully described the church at worship with the following refrain:
How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores
How can something be both sweet and awful at the same time? Is that not an oxymoron, akin to a dark sunrise, or a lovely horror? How can something be sweet and awful? As we begin this study of the church at worship, we need to first see that far from being a contradiction, that short line contains the glorious reality of the church at worship in all its terrifying beauty.
To understand it, we first have to understand that the word ‘awful’ was in the past used in a slightly different way than it commonly is used now. When we say ‘awful’ now, we are typically making a negative judgment; we are saying that whatever we attach that adjective to is bad, ugly, dangerous, or repulsive. But what is at the root of the word itself? It is the word awe, a word that describes wondrous shock, the overwhelming sense of encounter with glory. It is a word drenched in humility, one that clearly ascribes to its intended object a vastly higher place and position than the one who utters is. It captures the heart of the Prophet Isaiah when he saw the vision of heavenly glory in the temple:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 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 6:1-5, ESV)
So in the manner Mr. Watts employs the term that which is awful is that which is full of awe. Truly, this the only appropriate way to describe an encounter with the living God of Scripture. Pastor Albert N. Martin describes the experience of Isaiah as one being shattered. It is indeed a shattering experience to get a real sense of the awful presence of the living God.
Yet to describe an encounter with the Lord as awful is only to deal with half of what Mr. Watts says in his hymn, for he also says this encounter is sweet. That truth is also no less evident in Scripture. Our God is the one who came to us in the incarnate divinity of Jesus Christ. He is the God who draws near, who personally encounters men and women in such a way that they react like the woman in Luke 7:36-50. She was seen as filthy and was therefore despised by her peers, yet felt she had such a sweet access to Christ that she could kiss his feet and wash them with her tears. Our God is a consuming fire according to Hebrews 12:29, yet the incarnate Second Person of this triune consuming fire took the little children into his lap and tenderly blessed them. Truly, how sweet and awful is the place, with Christ within the doors!
On the legitimacy of worshiping God for His glory revealed in creation:
It is critical to not depreciate these forms of worship. Personal prayer and Bible reading need little explanation, but those are not the only legitimate moments of special worship that happen outside the gathered church. I remember being a young kid and going on duck hunting trips with my Dad. We would get up before dawn in temperatures well below freezing, load up a small boat and set out into the marshes of Eastern Washington State. The water would often be frozen over, so we would have to use the bow of the boat to actually break a path through the ice. The dog and I would compete for the best seat, with the dog either usually winning or just sitting on top of me. We would eventually make it to our intended location, my Dad would make extremely bad coffee, and we would watch the sun come up as we waited for the morning flights of ducks and geese to start their calls in the foggy air. Words fail to describe the silent beauty of the first rays of sunlight hitting the frozen ice and rolling hills stretched out before us. My father was never accused of being a talkative man, but in those times he would speak freely of the sense of wonder he felt, and of how his heart was in these moments turned in praise to the Creator of this stunning symphony of sights and sounds. He often used the word worship.
The above story could scarcely be more unlike a church service (except for the bad coffee), but it was a moment within life uniquely and particularly focused on worship. Any who balk at labeling it as such should probably reread the first half of Psalm 19.
On the Word-centric nature of the Church at worship:
There is more to being Biblical than merely quoting Bible verses. The point is not simply that the church should read the Bible and hold it in high regard. Those things are, I hope, a given. Rather, the point is that the entire context of Church Worship is Biblical is the sense that it is tenaciously Word-centric. Not only is the Bible the supreme and unique authority (as was argued in the Introduction), the Bible provides content and meaning to every thing the Church does when it gathers together. This is why the preached Word must have priority and centrality in the worship of the Church. It is the Word which not only mandates, but also explains and gives significance to everything the church does when she assembles in worship. Without the Word we would not know Who we are praying and singing to. Without the Word our sacraments would be empty rituals at best. Without the Word our sermons could never transcend the level of a motivational talk or group therapy session. Yet when the Word is not only an attendant feature, but is the very animating life of every element within New Covenant Church Worship, then the Biblical Context begins to be truly realized. It is not by accident that pastoral ministry is described as the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).
On Church worship as the epicenter of spiritual life, and the paradoxical liberty of a principled approach:
We have established the basic definition of worship, have discussed the various forms this worship takes in different parts of our lives, and have examined the context of New Covenant Church Worship which sets it apart as unique and central within the Christian life. I have many family members who lived through the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. A year or so after that event, my Grandmother took me on a visit to the epicenter. It was in the hills outside Santa Cruz, in a densely forested area. The trees were lying about in a jumbled heap as though some giant child had been playing with them and left out his mess. Clearly, the epicenter is where the heart of the action is.
The church at worship is the epicenter of our spiritual lives. It follows that our God would take a unique interest in what goes one there. In fact, he has given us nonnegotiable Biblical principles to guide us as we think though what we do in worship and why we do it. We often don’t like the idea of having to submit to laws and guidelines. Many of us never liked to color within the lines, but we must learn to harmonize the freedom of liberty with the faithfulness of submission. The old Westminster Confession of Faith reflected this balance wonderfully. In the chapter on Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience, it tells us that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. But this same document also says in its chapter on Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day that the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
The careful reader will notice that the one section which emphasizes liberty and the other which emphasizes submitting all worship to Scripture are actually completely complimentary and dependent on one another. A radically Biblical approach to worship liberates the consciences of Christians from the novel inventions of their fellow men. No mere man has the right to compel a Christian to worship in any way he cannot demonstrate as authorized by the Word of God. Holding tenaciously to Scriptural prescriptions for worship is the cure for the manifold diseases which distract and derail the church at worship. This does not mean that God has given us an exacting schedule to follow in our Sunday morning worship service, but it does mean that the principles he has ordained for us in his Word are absolutely binding, and therefore paradoxically liberating.
(by: Nicolas Alford)