Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
May 22, 2005
The Centrality of the Word in Worship
This morning I want to continue dealing with the importance and implications of God being the center of our congregational worship.
American Moral Decline
A lot has been said in the last few decades and in particular since the late 80’s about the quick moral decline our nation as been experiencing. I do not need to detail out for you this decline because all of us are aware of it. The rise of homosexuality as a political and social force. The garbage that is presented as entertainment in the movies, on TV and in magazines. Jails are filled up faster than they can be built. Political scandal is business as usual. A third of all children are now born to a mom who does not have a husband, and that rate is more than 70% in some communities.
One of the more vivid evidences of this moral decline is seen in the major discipline problems experienced with High Schoolers in 1960 as compared with today. In 1960 the major problems included: Chewing gum in class, cutting in line, fist-fights, not having your shirt tucked in, and the dog chewing up your homework. Schools now regularly battle drugs in class, knife fights and shootings, cursing at and physically assaulting teachers, Teen pregnancy, abortion & venereal disease, gangs, and not doing your homework because you cannot read.
All sorts of things have been blamed for this. Conservatives usually target political and social liberals because much of what they have advocated has allowed these things to occur. When people are no longer held responsible for their actions then they quickly degenerate into irresponsibility. The devil and his demons also get a accused quite a bit because the evil in immorality is so obvious. Liberals tend to blame our capitalistic system and greed for not caring and paying enough in taxes to meet all the needs that are out there.
Let me put the blame for our nation’s moral decline where it belongs even though we do not like it. It is us. Bible believing Christians are to blame. Why? Not because we have not been politically active enough, though there is truth to that. Not because Christians have not made a lot of noise about some of these issues, for we have. Not because we have failed to give of ourselves and finances. American Christians have given freely to many causes, so much so that we are often easily duped into giving to what turn out to be unworthy causes and fraudulent scams. It is not even because we do not gather together enough to pray, though there is certainly a weakness there too.
The reason we Christians are to blame for our nations moral decline is because as a whole, we no longer truly worship God. Now if that statement seems like quite a stretch to you, then it shows that you have either missed some of the sermons the last few weeks, or you have not paid close enough attention, or I have failed make my message understandable.
It has been my effort to make it clear that the true worship of God is not some sort of religious exercise in which you give reverence, honor and glory to God. Those exercises can be easily feigned with a heart that is far from God. I have already pointed out from Isaiah and Jeremiah that such was the case with Israel. Isa. 29:13Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned [by rote,]. Jesus repeated the accusation 700 years later (Mt. 15:8). The same continues to occur in our day.
True worship must take place in every aspect of who you are. Everything you do and think are to be done with His glory in mind (1 Cor. 10:31).There is no separation between the secular and the sacred. The Lord Jesus Christ is to be first in every aspect of your life whether it is mundane or extraordinary. There must be a deep craving for relationship with the living God by those who truly worship Him (Ps. 42).
True worship of God affects your character. There is humility because you recognize your sinfulness and that you deserve nothing. There is joy because you understand the mercy and grace God has given to you. There is peace and contentment because the purpose of your existence is no longer tied to the circumstances of this world, but rather to the eternal perspective of God’s glory. There is patience because you reflect God’s longsuffering nature, and you know who will win in the end anyway. There is personal holiness because you know that the greatest way that you can bring glory to God is living in the manner He commands. Besides, it is the best way to live anyway. There is also love. Love not only for what you like and that which reflects God, but also love for lost and dying men and women. You hate their sin because God hates it, but you also want them to know and enjoy what you have been given by God. You have the compassion of Christ for the lost multitudes and you desire to bring them to salvation and its eternal relationship with God, for that too both brings Him glory and multiplies it by adding additional voices to the chorus of praise.
If I am a true worshiper of God, then I will keep the proper goals in mind and not get sidetracked. It is at this point American Christianity has failed. Because the true worship of God has declined, so also has its ramifications in the lives of individual believers. Because the worship of God has become more man centered, so has the Christian. The non-Christian is then seen as an enemy to be feared and fought instead of victims of sin and Satan’s terrible deception who need to be loved and brought to our Savior, Jesus. They are the mission field.
We need to understand that even the current cultural battle over America’s future is spiritual in nature. This battle will not be won in the political arena or through boycotts or other forms of social pressure, though we must do those things. America’s moral decline speeded up despite electing morally conservative politicians in the 80’s and it continues that way even with an evangelical Christian in the White House. Our battle is not political, for it is not against flesh and blood. We are in a spiritual battle, and we are fighting for the glory of God by proclaiming the gospel and teaching them to obey whatsoever He has commanded (Matt. 28).
Christian’s are to be responsible as citizens, so in this nation that includes the political process. We are to vote. We do seek to bring godly influence upon those who govern us. I am to pray for those who are in positions of authority (1 Tim. 2), and as Christ’s ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I let them know of their responsibility to God as His minister (Rom. 13). They need to know what God’s Word says about whatever issue is at hand. The goal is to honor God by declaring His Word whether they obey it or not.
The same is true of boycotts and other means of social pressure. It would be foolish to aide those who seek to destroy what you hold dear, and it is shameful to be a financial supporter of those who advocate what God declares abominable. This is simply an aspect of our separation from sin (2 Cor. 6:17) including even the appearance of it (1 Thess 5:22). In addition, society has always benefitted from the social pressure brought about by Christians being present within it. But again, the goal is not to get others to bend to your will. The goal is to honor God.
Dealing with the debauchery at Disney is a case in point. Some years ago the American Family Association called for a boycott of Disney products. When the Southern Baptists and other groups joined in that boycott they simply formalized what Christian’s should have been doing a long time ago. If my goal in life is to honor God, then why would I want to purchase products from a company that continues to advocate what is abominable to Him? Even more to the point, what product are they offering that is honoring to God that is worthy of the money God has entrusted to my stewardship?
If I want entertainment, then why not use products put out by Family Entertainment Network, Focus on the Family and Hanna Barbera and other companies that are God honoring instead of those that are dishonoring to Him? And even more to the point, if I am a true worshiper of God, then I want to push beyond even what is just neutral. I want to be proactive in teaching my children about God and setting before them godly role models. Why then would I want my kids to learn the alphabet, colors, shapes or numbers with Mickey, Donald and Goofy when they could learn it with Bible heros or some of the creatures God has made? Why would I want my kids learning to sing, “You Can Fly,” with Peter Pan when they could be learning songs about God with Psalty or Patch the Pirate?
I can tell you why because it was the reason I failed my sons in their early years. 1) Disney’s products were cheaper. In our case they were mostly given to us. 2) We didn’t want our sons to be culturally ignorant for his age, i.e. all the other kids were using or seeing these products. Well guess what? I was wrong. God is not given glory for a child’s ability to name the seven dwarfs or Santa’s reindeer. God is glorified when a child can quote Scripture and accurately tell the gospel to His friends. God is honored when a child sings hymns while playing. The same is true for teens and adults. God is not honored by your ability to keep up with the latest shows, movies, music or fashions. Paul even warned us that we have to actively resist the world’s pressure to mold us into its image (Rom. 12:1,2). God is honored when you life reflects godliness in every area of your life including your entertainment choices. Are you and your children doing what is culturally acceptable, or God honoring?
Is this radical? Of course it is, but that is the nature of true Christianity. Can there be a more radical change than to be dead in trespasses and sin and then be made alive together with Christ? (Eph. 2:1,5). Now I am not advocating that we all become, as the saying goes, “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good,” meaning that we fail to see and be involved in the problems around us, but that is not what we are doing. The failure in American Christianity is that it is so “earthly minded that it is no heavenly good,” meaning it is so absorbed in the world’s values it no longer honors God and cannot point the way to heaven. The issues here is neither a boycott or a legalistic view of life. It is an understanding that there is not a dichotomy between the secular and sacred. God desires that I view everything from His perspective and seek to honor Him. His kingdom and His righteousness are put first. The things I will face in live will range from various levels of evil, to neutral, to various levels of good ending at what is best. The godly man not only avoids evil, he also finds that neutral is not enough. The freedom to do something is no longer enough reason to do it and so he pushes on into what is good, better and best.
This brings me back around to my point about true worship being based in making God first in every aspect of your life. When I am doing that then I am affecting the world around me. I am concerned for my neighbor and if he has heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am attentive in helping others understand what God has said so that they can live accordingly. I am an advocate for righteousness on a personal level with personal involvement even though it may require a sacrificial cost. People are both confronted and encouraged individually and so society changes from the bottom up. This is what Paul and his companions did on their missionary journeys going from place to place. The pagans recognized their impact and complained they were turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). It is God through His Holy Spirit and the proclamation of His word that changes nations and that is the only way the battle for this nation can be won.
The Centrality of the Word in Worship
What has this to do with worship and the importance of preaching in a worship service? Your greatest form of worship of God is a radically changed life lived in conformity to His will, and it is the proclamation of His Word that brings about this change. Paul states in 1 Cor. 1:21 that God was well pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
People often misquote and misuse John 8:32 saying “the truth shall set you free,” but the whole sentence is, Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, [then] you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Truth is not some free-wheeling abstract that exists independently. Truth is tied to the Bible, God’s Word, for it alone is true. The validity and veracity of everything is determined by its conformity to the Sacred Scriptures because they alone are the revelation of what is truly real. That is why Jesus says that His disciples will only know the truth if they continue in His word. They benefit by being made free. Free from what? Certainly not free to abandon responsibility and do whatever they want, but free from the controlling influence of the lies of sin and Satan. Free to live in righteousness in a way pleasing and honoring to God.
Please understand that this is the pivotal point of true worship. True worship occurs only when the individual does so inspirit and truth (John 4:24). The clearest expression of true worship is not what occurs when everyone meets together to sing, pray and study the Scriptures, it occurs in lives that bring glory to God on a daily basis. These are lives lived in holiness, lives lived in obedience, lives lived with God being first in every aspect of it. These are lives which abide in God’s word, know the truth and are freed from the bondage of sin and can live for Christ. This is why the proclamation of God’s Word is central in our worship of God when we come together. Worship without the Word is worthless because it is only the truth of the Word that moves me to holiness.
Now some may question this and advocate what has become popular in so many churches. The sermon is reduced to a brief message, or what can be properly called “a sermonette for Christianettes.” The time is then taken up with what many claim is the true worship – singing songs, praying, giving praise and testimonies. Worship, they argue, should be a celebration – a happy, joyous time. Some have gone so far to say it should be the atmosphere of a victory party. Any speech given should be akin to those given at an awards banquet rather than a lecture given at a professional seminar.
John Stott has given a very good answer for the priority of preaching in his book Between Two Worlds. Here is what he says, “Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other. All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God, because it is the adoration of his Name. Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching. For preaching is making known the Name of the Lord, and worship is praising the Name of the Lord made known. Far from being an alien intrusion into worship, the reading and preaching of the word are actually indispensable to it. The two cannot be divorced. Indeed, it is their unnatural divorce which accounts for the low level of so much contemporary worship. Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded in its fullness, and the congregation begins to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before His throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable.”
It is only as the revelation of God through the Bible is proclaimed that we can truly known Him, and we can only truly worship Him to the extent that we really know Him. It is through the truth of God proclaimed that I come to know the truth so that I can be free to worship Him. It is through sound Biblical preaching that I am both given insight into Scriptures and challenged to live accordingly. My individual worship and desire for personal Bible study is stimulated through solid expository preaching.
Consider as well for a moment the practice of early church. In Acts 2:42 we are told that right after the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost, those early Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These are their elements of worship, and their foundation for worship together was the study of the apostles’ doctrine. Why? Because it is the basis to know what is true and what is false, what is genuine fellowship and what is simple friendship, what the “breaking of bread” (here probably a reference to communion) is all about, as well as what is real prayer and how to properly talk to God.
The great tragedy is that these things do not mark the American church. The title of a recent book on homiletics (the art of preaching) demonstrates this decline – “20 Minutes to Wake the Dead.” Short sermons designed to attract the attention of people who are not interested. Even among those that might still give a half hour or more to the message, the study of the Apostles’ doctrine has been traded in for sermons that are marginally Biblical at best. They are full of clever stories and anecdotes that can swing emotions from laughter to crying. The modern preacher strives to be interesting, fun, exciting, and impressive. The best word for modern preaching is probably, “entertaining.”
Modern “fellowship” is not the same either. It is not marked by efforts to help one another become more like Christ through the encouragement and admonition that can only come when people know each other well. Instead, the fellowship in most churches tends to be very shallow. The conversation will remain on safe topics and would never stray into personal areas like, “what area of holiness is God working on in your life now.” No, we all smile at each other and keep the masks on and play the game. Everyone leaves feeling lonely, but still secure that no one has breached the walls and found out how they are really doing and the sins they are struggling with. We want people to still think we are something we are not.
Prayer also remains shallow because it is self-centered. The requests are for fulfilling your own desires. People will quote part of Psalm 37:4 that God will “give them the desires of their heart,” but because they do not study for themselves, nor do they know how to do so even if they tried, they fail to see the context of the Psalm and that the promise is conditional upon delighting in the Lord’s will. They also fail to look up related passages such as James 4:3 which tells us that God will not give to people who ask with wrong motives, to consume it on their own pleasures.
Yet, the claim is made that contemporary worship is the best there has ever been. They have traded the real thing for a facade, an imitation that moves emotions, but does little to promote actual holiness or help them conform to the image of Christ. The amount of time, energy, and money expended to create an emotionally moving atmosphere claimed to be worship is incredible, yet it is all in contrast to the instructions and examples of Scripture.
There is nothing wrong with emotions and even their display in the worship of God. The psalms are filled with references to different emotions – sorrow, grief, sympathy, joy, delight, jubilation, laughter, crying, shouting, singing. But the Bible is also clear that the quest of worship is not emotional. Feelings are not to lead worship. The whole thrust of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is to correct the chaos that resulted from their selfishness and quest to gain a “spiritual experience.”In proper worship all is to be done for edification (14:26) and the proclamation of the Scriptures is preeminent. The “one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (14:3)But “if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (14:24,25).
The effect of emotional activity is a good feeling. The effect of truth is the worship of God. Again, enthusiasm and emotion are great and we should be able to display it, but unless they are inseparably linked to the truth, they are meaningless. Worship without the word is worthless.
Exodus 32 gives an example of this worthless worship. Moses had been gone for 40 days and the people became restless. They had Aaron make a golden calf which would represent God. After making the calf, Aaron declared the next day would be a “feast to the LORD” (Vs. 5). They rose early and brought burnt offerings and peace offerings. They then sat down to eat and drink and then rose up to play. God was not pleased, for it was not true worship. It was false worship. The final result was about 3,000 people being killed in God’s judgement (25)
Nehemiah 8 gives a good example of true worship. Ezra the scribe began to proclaim the Scriptures from early morning to mid-day and the people stood attentively listening. Then “Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” The proclamation of the truth brings about worship.
Many claim that they want their worship led by the Holy Spirit, so they give lots of time in their service for that to occur. Again, what does the Bible say? John 16:13 states that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth that will guide us to truth. His objective is to glorify Christ by disclosing Christ (John 16:14). The manifestation of His power is in the bold proclamation of God’s word. That is the story of the book of Acts. Jesus told the disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them and after which they would receive power to be Christ’s witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:8).When the Holy Spirit did come in Acts 2 those who were filled with Him began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance (2:4). What did they do? Did they have a party? A celebration of some sort? Did they do what modern worship advocates do? No, they proclaimed the “mighty deeds of God” (2:11), and then Peter got up and preached a very powerful and bold message resulting in those present who did not yet know Jesus being pierced to the heart and crying out asking what they must do to be saved from God’s wrath. In Acts 4 Peter is again “filled with the Spirit” and again preaches boldly. When the Holy Spirit leads worship the result will be the proclamation of God’s Word. If that does not happen, then you have a right to question what Spirit is leading.
True worship is not some ecstatic experience without meaning or content. It is not a good feeling apart from comprehension of the truth. True worship is a heartfelt response to the truth of God and His Word. It is offering to God praise, prayer, song, giving and living based upon His revealed truth. Emotion is the subjective factor in worship which is governed by the objective factor of truth. The proper blend of emotion regulated by understanding, and enthusiasm directed by God’s Word is found in Col. 3:16.
“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We are to “sing our praises with understanding (Ps. 47:7), and that only happens when the Word of God is central in our life, and in our worship.
Next week we will be looking at the proper place of music in worship.
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.
Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times “worship” is said. Talk with your parents about the importance of the Bible in true worship.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.
List some of the things that indicate to you that America has morally declined. Why do you think America has declined morally? Explain. What is true worship? Explain. What are the ramifications of true worship on the individual? How have you seen this in your own life? How do you respond to non-Christians? Why? What involvement should Christians have in politics, social movements, etc.? Why? How separated do you live from worldliness? Explain. Do your decisions regarding entertainment reflect true worship of God? How? Why? Why is Scripture so important to true worship? Explain. What was the practice of the early church? How do modern American churches compare with those practices? What is the place of emotion in worship? Explain. Why was Exodus 32 false worship? Why is Nehemiah 8 true worship? Compare the two. What is the Holy Spirit’s role in true worship? What did the Holy Spirit do in Acts. How does your worship of God affect the other areas of your life?
Sermon Notes – 5/22/05 a.m.
The Centrality of the Word in Worship – Selected Scriptures
American Moral Decline
Whose to Blame & Why?
Ramifications in the Individual
Ramifications in Society
The Centrality of the Word in Worship
Edification: 1 Corinthians 14:3, 24,25
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