This past June I gave a series of exhortations defining Christian worship as our all of life response, empowered by the gospel of Jesus, to who God is and what he has done. This definition raised another question though, namely, if our worship of God is supposed to be one continuous act – every moment of every day of our lives – what makes worship on Sunday morning worship unique? Or, if our entire lives are supposed to be an act of worship to God, why is there something special about worshipping together on Sunday morning as opposed to Monday afternoon? If we’re already supposed to be worshipping in our homes, with our families, and in our communities, then why do we carve out this time – like right now – to gather for worship?
My answer to these questions is that while worship is our all of life response to God, corporate worship is where our all-of-life-response-to-God is learned, formed, and shaped through a series of corporate liturgical acts. My aim in this message is for each of you to leave this morning with a deeper understanding of our liturgy and a glad-hearted enthusiasm to fully participate in each of the liturgical acts within our service to the end that Jesus would be exalted in us and we would be filled with his joy.
Admittedly, as far as Baptist churches go, the fact that we use the word “liturgy” makes us a little weird. The term “liturgy” has gotten a bad rap. And not just among Baptists – it seems like many churches, and especially among those whose main objective is to be culturally relevant and engaging, want to distance themselves as far as possible from all things ‘liturgical.’ It’s unfortunate that for many people “liturgy” is synonymous with stuffy, boring, rote, heartless, and legalistic. And, the associations here are not entirely unwarranted as there are some liturgical traditions that very well could hear Jesus tell them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…” (Matthew 15:8). So, clearly, there is a real danger for churches to run off the tracks by getting all the words right and having their hearts all wrong.
That said, the word “liturgy” simply means the form or order of a public worship service. So, “liturgy” is not actually as spooky of a word as it sounds to our modern ears. In fact, in this general sense, it means that every church – even the most hip, relevant, seeker-sensitive church on the block – is liturgical because they follow a particular form or order in their worship services. The question then is not if we will be a liturgical church – for even an “unplanned”, unordered service is impossible because to plan to have no plan is still a plan, and a very bad one at that! So, the question before us is, what kind of liturgy will we follow?
The way a local church answers this question says a ton about what that church believes about the nature of man, the purpose of the church, and the sovereignty of God.
For instance, many churches use a liturgy that opens with a band rocking-out like they are playing a show at the US Bank Stadium; then, the pastor – who looks freakishly similar to Ryan Seacrest – walks up to give “four-principles to change your life”; as he finishes the band comes back up to play a closing ballad while the pastor instructs that “with every head bowed and every eye closed” those who have been especially moved during the service should raise their hand to make a commitment to Jesus.
Now, I don’t despise these services – I fully trust that in many cases the hearts of the leaders are right before God and their desire truly is to honor him and see people come to know Jesus. And, I have no doubt that God, by his Spirit, uses these services to genuinely save people. But, it is worth pointing out that embedded within this particular liturgy is the belief that people are fundamentally emotionally-driven; that the purpose of the church is to create an emotional, moving experience; and that God’s ability to work in the hearts of the people is largely dependent upon the church’s effectiveness – albeit, with the help of the Holy Spirit – in creating that transcendent experience.
So, at Cities, we do not want to be people who honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from him; and we do not want to be people who are so concerned with having our hearts emotionally stirred that what comes out of our lips is really irrelevant. And, acknowledging that both pitfalls are ever present dangers for us, I believe there is a middle way.
Where Does Our Liturgy Come From?
Look at Isaiah 6:1-8 with me.
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!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Notice five things here:
- Implicit in the passage is that God revealed himself to Isaiah. Nowhere from the context of ch. 5 or anywhere else in the book do we get the idea that Isaiah initiated this heavenly vision. God, by his volition alone, was pleased Isaiah into his presence.
- What are the first things that Isaiah takes note of? The glory and majesty and splendor of God. From the way the passage reads, it’s as if Isaiah’s senses were overloaded by the resplendent beauty he was beholding: God is exalted on his throne; mighty angels hide their faces in reverent awe of him as they endlessly praise his holiness and glory to one another; the foundations of the universe shake as God speaks and the radiance of his perfection fills the whole scene with smoke.
- What is Isaiah’s response to God’s glory? He cries out, “Woe is me!” Overcome by everything that he has witnessed and confronted with the holiness of God, Isaiah’s only response is to confess his unworthiness and imperfection.
- Notice how God does the unexpected. It would make sense that God would judge Isaiah according to his sinfulness and the rebellion of Israel. Instead, before Isaiah even thinks to ask for mercy or grace, God sends an angel to remove Isaiah’s sin and guilt. God atones for Isaiah’s sin and purifies him.
- Lastly, see how God does the unlikely. God does not need any man to go and do his work or communication for him; yet, God so often chooses to work through humble means. We see that here as God commissions Isaiah – a man who has just been given fresh vision of God’s holiness and received unthinkable mercy and grace – to go and proclaim whatever God would have him say to the people of Israel.
Now, I hope the order of this story seems somewhat familiar. This whole scene is, pretty much, an outline of our Sunday services.
While our liturgy is not based solely off of Isaiah 6:1-8, this passage is one of the clearest, most succinct summaries of what the whole Bible teaches about the nature and order of worship. From Genesis to Revelation, Christian worship is always characterized by God’s self-revelation and man’s response to what God has revealed. In this way, Christian worship is an on-going conversation between God and man.
Our Liturgy is Conversational
Let’s look at the five-‘C’s of our liturgy and see how these acts both mimic the biblical patterns of worship and formulate a conversation between God and us.
The first act in our liturgical conversation is the “Call to Worship.” Yes, we have a prelude song where the band is playing while folks are walking in, and we have a couple of announcements before the call to worship, but the official mark of the start of our service is when one of our pastors steps into the pulpit calls us to worship with a declaration from God’s Word. As we’ve seen in Isaiah 6:1-4, and as we know from Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”), John 1:1-4 (highlighting God’s creation and animation of the world, including us), and from several other places in Scripture (ex. Psalm 19:1; Job 38-41), God is always the initiator of our worship. The reason we are here this morning is because God has mercifully invited us here and graciously chosen to reveal himself to us. So, the call to worship is God initiating our liturgical conversation by revealing his glory to us afresh and inviting us into his presence.
The natural reaction to beholding God’s glory is awe, wonder, and reverence. So it was for Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-5) and that’s how it ought to be for us. When confronted with the glory of God there are two ways we respond: First, we join the angels in declaring “Holy! Holy! Holy!” This is why our services typically open with songs that help us see God’s holiness and praise him accordingly. Secondly, we are made aware of our sinfulness and rebellion as the light of his glory exposes the filth remaining in our hearts and lives. Just as Isaiah did, we respond to the revelation of God’s perfection by confessing our imperfection. This is why the second act of our liturgy is “Confession.”
Upon the confession of our sin, God takes over the conversation by coming to us with the sweetest, most unbelievable news in all the universe: Jesus has died in our place so that our sins may be forgiven and never held against ever again. We see this pattern in Isaiah’s own encounter with God as God mercifully purifies him and promises that his sin has been atoned for (Isaiah 6:6-7). So we too are purified and promised that when “we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The Assurance of Pardon, is a sort of hinge in our service. By God’s gracious forgiveness of our sin, he also sets us apart from himself, marking the third act in our liturgy, “Consecration.” We are not just on-lookers, merely given the ability to see the glory of God but left out in the cold away from his joy and fulness. Rather, we are brought near! We are “in” with God. We are children of God, our Father; Jesus is our brother; and the Spirit of God is alive in us. This reality springs up affections for Jesus, our Savior, and gratitude to God for his steadfast love and grace – which we express through singing, praying, and reading historic creeds that have beautifully captured this good news. We want more of God! We want to know him more fully! We want to trust him more whole heartedly! We want to know his will for us; what brings him delight, and what displeases him. These desires cause our hearts to hang on every word that God would say to us. And so, we attentively listen to the reading of Scripture and to the preaching of God’s Word.
This time of consecration always leads us to Communion, the fourth act in our liturgy. Communion is the most physical and tangible, or embodied act in our service. As the pastors bring to us the bread, representing the body of Jesus given for us, and the wine, the blood of Jesus poured out for us, we are in space and time reminded of how God has come to us in Christ, even while we were running from him (Ephesians 2:1-5). The chewiness of the bread and the potency of the wine engage our senses and remind us that just as the bread is solid and the wine is wet, Jesus really did live among people like us, he really did share this meal with his disciples in that upper room, he really was crucified, and he really did rise from the dead! But, communion doesn’t only cause us to look back, it also causes us to look ahead as the tiny bite of bread, the thimble-full of wine, and the simple table before us captivate our imaginations and whet our appetites for the wedding feast that awaits us, the Church, when Jesus, our Victor, returns. Then, on that day, we will eat ’til our bellies burst and drink until we laugh so hard it hurts while we are seated together around the table with our glorious Lord, Savior, and King.
Since we still await that day, the fifth and final act of our liturgical conversation is hearing God’s commission to go out and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them all Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20). Just as Isaiah was told to go, we are reminded there is work to be done, seeds to be sown, and harvests to reap; and we, as God’s children, have graciously been tasked to do the work. So, filled and fueled by the words of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, and assured by the promised presence and power of Jesus, we are sent out into the world as light in the darkness.
This is our liturgical conversation: God speaking and us responding.
The Liturgical Dance
Now, let’s get practical.
Everything that I’ve just said about our liturgical conversation is the ideal. In an ideal world, we hear the call to worship and are filled with awe and wonder before God. Ideally, we are so humbled by the confession of our sins and moved by the assurance of pardon that we want to sing out or find ourselves “hanging on every word God would say to us.” Ideally, our imaginations are engaged in communion as we both remember calvary and look forward to Jesus’ second coming. In a perfect world, we’d leave each service on-fire to go and make disciples.
But, this isn’t a perfect world. We enter into the service groggy or stressed from waking up late and rushing to service. We have kids that cry or kick our seats during our times of “silent confession.” We get text messages in the middle of the sermon. We get hungry and start thinking about lunch. Or we are distracted by relational hurts or physical aliments. Often, I experience a combination of all of these. So, given our weakness and imperfections, how are we to participate in and get the most out of our Sunday morning liturgy?
I have found it most helpful to think of each act in our liturgy as the steps in a dance.
Hilly and I started taking dance lessons about four months ago. For anyone who knows me, you know that the main reason I started playing guitar was so that my hips would always be hidden and I’d always be on stage, off the dance floor. So you can imagine, learning to dance has not exactly been easy for me. There has been a lot of clumsiness, counting in my head, and rigidity in my hips and knees. In fact, for the first few weeks, it was frustrating because I didn’t feel like I was dancing, I was just counting and trying to keep up with the steps. But, little by little, I’m starting to count less, loosen up more, and actually feel free to move and spin my wife around on the dance floor. Little by little, I have stopped thinking about the steps and started dancing.
I think we do well to view our liturgy the same sort of way.
Firstly, every one of you this morning is a necessary participant in our liturgy. In other words, since you’re here, you ought to see yourself as being on the dance floor. This is not “Dancing with the Stars” where the professionals – your pastors, deacons, or the band – get up and put on a show for the congregation to consume. Rather, this is more like a swing dancing at the Wabasha Street Caves where everyone is a participant and contributes to the energy of the event. Because God’s revelation demands a response from his people, our liturgy necessarily requires the participation of you, the congregation.
Secondly, if you’re new to Cities, I want to affirm that it takes a little while to “learn the steps.” Admittedly, you may feel a bit clumsy at first and our services may seem unusually rigid. That’s okay! The hope is that you would ask questions about elements you don’t fully understand and continue to press in so as to “learn the dance.” And, eventually you will. Eventually the pattern will be so engrained in you, you won’t even think about one move to the next and it’ll feel like second nature. I also think you’ll be surprised to find how quickly those things that feel rigid now will end up providing greater freedom in expressing worship and adoration to God.
Thirdly, for all of us – whether it’s your first time here or you've been coming since our first service – hear me say the goal of our liturgy is not to celebrate our liturgy itself. Just as the goal of learning steps in a dance is to enjoy dancing, the goal of our liturgy is to enjoy Jesus and celebrate his gospel! At Cities, we worship Jesus. Not our liturgical style or preferences. To be sure, I and the rest of your pastors think that our liturgy is the most impactful way that we can steward the time we have in our Sunday services, but it’s all to the end that Jesus is delighted in. So, my hope is not that you would be boast in our liturgy, but that through our liturgy you would have greater cause to boast in Christ.
Bringing It Home
Okay now, what’s the goal or the point of this sermon? As I said at the beginning, I had two aims this morning: that you all leave this morning with a deeper understanding of our liturgy and, more importantly, that God would grow within each of us a glad-hearted enthusiasm to participate in the each of the liturgical acts of our services.
Now, a good question is, why is my participation so crucial? There are several answers to this question, for time’s sake let me offer one.
Corporate worship is not just expressive, it is also deeply formative. Now, for most people today, we think of formation as primarily an intellectual endeavor; as if all we need to do is think rightly, then we will automatically do the right thing. Thinking rightly is important, but we need more than just information to change us. We need renewed affections as well. We can receive information passively, but our affections must be engaged in order for them to be shaped. Therefore, our liturgy walks us through the gospel story and, as we actively participate in the story, we start to learn and create new gospel instincts. Or, to use the dance analogy, we don’t just listen to someone talk about the dance, but in our liturgy we actually learn and are formed by the liturgical steps within the gospel “dance.” Learning and and actively going through these steps every single Sunday is absolutely vital when we realize that the dance doesn’t stop when the service ends, but it continues into our everyday lives. Just as Hilly and I leave our dance lessons and practice the steps we’ve learned over and over in the kitchen until we’re not thinking about the steps but are just dancing, so it should be with our Sunday morning liturgy. Here we learn the steps, the acts, and the movements of the Christian life so that we can continue “the dance” in our homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods.
Think about it like this: Every morning that you wake up is an opportunity for a call to worship. God has put air in your lungs, opened your eyes, caused the sun to rise again, and he has given you his Word that he might reveal himself to you afresh. Every time you sin, you have the opportunity to confess your sin and receive God’s assurance of pardon. Every time you feel that alone or abandoned, you can rehearse the truth that God has consecrated you for himself. You are forever united to Jesus by the power of his blood shed for you and bound by his Spirit who lives inside of you. Every time you are discouraged and your life feels empty, you have an opportunity to practice the steps of communion with God, remembering how in Jesus God has provided for you and that in his second coming he will quench every one of your thirsts and longings. Finally, when you are tempted to believe that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, rehearse the commission that God has given you: Jesus is in authority, he is at work, and all over the globe he is reconciling people from every tribe, nation, and tongue for his glory.
We often talk about corporate worship at Cities as the heartbeat of our church’s life. The heartbeat isn’t the whole-sum of our life, but it is what pumps life into the rest of our weekly activities. Therefore, our Sunday morning liturgy is not intended to be restricted to Sunday mornings. Rather, your participation in Sunday worship is intended to shape the way you worship, the way you relate to God, and the way you see your place in his world for the rest of the week.