Reformed and Always Being Reformed:  Our Presbyterian DNA
II. Worship:  Glorify God!

Psalm 95: 1-7 & 1 Corinthians 14: 23-33

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 23th January 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

If there is any psalm that captures the theology and heart of Reformed-Presbyterian worship, it is, I believe, Psalm 100.  The arrangement we just sang of this text is one of my favorites.  “Shout for joy to God all the earth – Alleluia!  Praise the Lord!  Serve the LORD with gladness and come before God singing for joy. Enter God’s gates giving thanks, and the courts with praise.  Give thanks to the Lord, give thanks and bless God’s name.”  Why? “The Lord is good; God’s mercy endures forever.  God is faithful; God is faithful from age to age.”[1]  The same spirit is captured in Psalm 95, “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!  Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”  What a theology!  What a spirit of jubilation!  What an affirmation of whom God is and who God is towards us!  These psalms are visceral; they find their origins deep within the heart and spirit, in the gut of the believer who has come to know the goodness of God.  They are existential, beating with the pulse of life.  To recite these psalms, to sing them, to make them our songs of praise to God is to find ourselves coming alive, coming alive through the worship of God.

These psalms, especially Psalm 100, capture the spirit of Reformed theology because Reformed theology has been shaped by the spirit of these psalms.  There was a time in the Reformed church in Switzerland, Holland, and Scotland when the only acceptable music was the singing of the psalms.  You see, the knowledge of Yahweh’s goodness and faithfulness to Yahweh’s people, made especially real for Christians in the face of Jesus Christ, calls forth from within God’s people the desire to worship, to praise, to adore, and to sing out with joy to God.  God’s grace calls forth a human response.  It’s almost automatic.  The human response to God’s grace is gratitude.  In fact, the life of the Reformed Christian may be summed up as the continued response of thanks and praise for the never-ending grace of God made real in Christ Jesus.  It’s all about grace and gratitude, grace and gratitude.  The awareness of God’s grace in Christ brings with it the desire to worship God, it almost comes naturally without effort, the desire to gather with other Christians because you want to be around other people who have also discovered the radical truth of God’s redeeming love.  You want to be with other people who also “get it,” who just want to offer praise and share with others what God has done in their lives this week.

As we enter our 125th anniversary year, it is good for us to remember who we are as Presbyterians and what makes us ‘tick’ as Reformed Christians.  The first question of the Westminster Catechism (1649), which stands at the center of our Presbyterian identity, is this:  What is the chief end (or purpose) of man?  And the answer, man or humanity’s chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him for forever.  There was a time when many Presbyterians had this entire catechism memorized.  This was common on the frontier in the early 1800s.  Actually, to this day at Princeton Seminary, there is a $100 scholarship which dates back to the mid-1800s for the person who can completely write out the catechism.  What is the chief purpose of humanity?  In other words, if asked what is the purpose of human existence, why are you here, why do you exist, where do you find the fullest meaning of your life?  The answer is – when we glorify and enjoy God.  This begins with worship.

The worship of Yahweh through Jesus Christ is the most important thing we do as Christians and is not to be taken lightly.  Worship is the only indispensable thing we do as a church.  Everything else maybe be omitted or even neglected to some degree.  The elders, deacons, and trustees are not essential – important, but not essential.  Neither is the finance committee or the Christian Education Committee, or the Sunday School for that matter.  We don’t need a building, we don’t need offices, and office managers, and computers, and copiers.  We don’t need church suppers.  We don’t have to be engaged in social justice issues or even mission – they are important, but not essential.  We don’t even need ministers.  In the Corinthians text Paul lists the elements of worship, but there’s no reference to a worship leader or minister.  Each one comes with a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  What matters is that one comes to worship – to gather with believers and offer praise of thanks and joy for the goodness of God. 

Scripture demands that we worship Yahweh.  Some might see this as odd and maybe narcissistic on God’s part.  The command is not to make our lives more difficult or to add one more burden to our lives, but given to us because God knows we need it!  We need to worship.  We are born to worship.  Perhaps Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) should have included it in his hierarchy of needs, along with shelter and food.[2]  Human beings are created to worship.  The problem is that this propensity doesn’t necessarily means we want to worship God.  There are plenty of other competing deities that receive our adulation and praise.  The Bible tells us that to be human means to worship Yahweh, which means, in some sense, to not worship Yahweh we become or are non-human, or inhuman, or dehumanized.  The worst sin for the Hebrew people was idolatry because they knew (in ways that we need to remember) that you become what you worship; your life reflects your deity.  We need to worship Yahweh – it is what makes us human and we can look to the one who was truly human to show us this.

We must remember that Jesus went to worship and he went because he wanted to, because he needed to.  He didn’t go to be entertained or because he felt like it or because it was the Jewish thing to do.  He didn’t go to get something out of it; he didn’t go to feel better about himself or to feel good.  He didn’t go because he liked the choir or the sermon.  And he didn’t go to worship in order to escape the pressures and problems of his world.  He went to worship because there was and is a God to be worshipped, one truly worthy of our greatest praise and adoration.  He went because he knew our ability to be truly, authentically human was contingent upon our ability to worship the One who has given us life and redeemed us, who loves us and adores us.  When we worship and the more our worship is focused upon God and God’s love and justice, the more our praise is in response to what God has done in Jesus Christ, the more our lives and the church along with it will reflect this praise in our lives. 

What Jesus has shown us is that the God who calls us to worship is a God of mercy and forgiveness, who wants to be close with us.  God’s command to worship is another way of saying: “You need me to know what life is about.”  God invites us to “hang out” in God’s presence.  What is more, God invites us to get caught up in God’s life.  So often we heard about the need “to invite God into our lives,” which is not a bad thing.  But what is more important is that our lives are in God’s life.  God longs for our life to be lifted up into the life of God, to truly experience the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The God who extends this invitation is love.  And when we know and feel, taste and see that God is love, then our response will be praise and adoration, thanksgiving, and most of all, joy!

I’m stressing these themes because somewhere along the line we Presbyterians have come to see worship as heavy, emotionless, ponderous, and at times too cerebral – all in the head and not enough in the heart.  It is the “frozen chosen” gathering for a chilling experience that leaves lots of people cold.  Worship is about fire!  Energy! Passion! Life!  It is not meant to be a requiem mass for the dead, but a celebration of the Living God who brings the dead back to life – who has brought us back from death into life itself.  We are to embody a resurrection life!  Worship in the Presbyterian tradition, to use a good Scots word, is sometimes described as “dour.”  But, as the Scots would say, “It does nae hae to be.”  “It does not have to be.”

Actually, the contemporary Scottish theologian, James Torrance, might have found one of the sources of this attitude.[3]  In his vast comprehension of the Christian experience he has identified in the church a certain image of God that he considers very dangerous.  “Our concepts of God,” he writes, “have been dominated by Plato (c.427- 347 B. C.), Aristotle (384-833 B. C.), and Stoic concepts of God.”  These Greek understandings of God have made their way into the Christian tradition to such a degree that we have to work very hard at separating the God of the philosophers from the God of Abraham and Jesus – because they are not the same God.  Torrance argues that the Greek philosophers saw God “as primarily the giver of natural law, the contract-God of Western jurisprudence who needs to be conditioned into being gracious by law being satisfied.  The contract-God will only be gracious if there is merit.”  This reference to “natural law” is very common in Roman Catholic theology, influenced as it was by Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225 or 1227 – 1274), and we hear it discussed in the context of controversial ethical issues.[4]  Presbyterians don’t talk about a natural law.  The important point Torrance is making, however, is that if we see God as primarily the contract-God who requires a following of the law, God as law giver produces a certain type of worship and behavior on our part.  We worry about disappointing such a God, making a mistake, breaking the law, doing something wrong that would bring God’s wrath.  And we also worry about what we might do to make this vengeful, angry God happy with us again.  Are we forgetting that Jesus is our savior?  If this is the God we have in our minds, and then hear this is the kind of God who demands worship, then no wonder people are fearful before such a God, never bother to go to church or go to worship, worship somberly, seriously, with no affect, with no warmth, with no joy.  How can you stand or sit to pray to such a God with joy?

But, Torrance makes clear in good Presbyterian fashion, Yahweh is not a contract-God, but the God of the Covenant, the God who remains faithful to God’s people – even when they are faithless (and we are) toward God.  The God of the Covenant is, as John Calvin (1509-1564) knew, the “fount of all goodness” who pours out upon all people (this was one of Calvin’s favorite images of God), even in their sin, grace upon grace and blessing upon blessing in Jesus Christ.[5]  God is first known as a God of love, not a God of law.[6]  The God of Covenant comes to heal and to forgive, to die, to redeem, to ransom, to reconcile the world to Godself – to do whatever it takes to bring the lost sheep back into the fold.  This is the kind of God you can get excited about.  This is the kind of God who calls forth praise and adoration from people.  This is the kind of God who just makes you want to shout – for joy!  This is the kind of God who warms our hearts and enlightens our minds, and causes our feet to jump – for joy! 

And this joy sends us out beyond the walls of the church to the world.  What is our chief end?  Glorify God and enjoy God forever.  This is not limited to worship, but it begins here.  Or we might say worship doesn’t end with the benediction or blessing, it continues in the way we live our lives, we become God’s benediction and blessing when we leave here in all we do seeking to glorify God. 

I can’t tell you what it will look like in your life, heck it’s difficult to define what ‘glorify’ means.  This past week I was talking with Dorothy about how one explains the word ‘glorify’ to children.  It’s not easy for children or for adults.  You have to figure that out for yourself – but I can tell you it will have something to do with mercy and kindness, justice and peace, love and forgiveness.   You know and will know if you’re living your life to the glory of God.   All of this will be clearer the more you value and cherish worship, the more you throw yourselves into worship, the more you open yourself to God’s presence here in this community, you will discover what you need to do to glorify, to honor, to esteem, and adore God in your life, with your life. 

[1] Paraphrase and arrangement by Hal H. Hopson, written for the Bicentennial of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).  The Psalter:  Psalms and Canticles for Singing (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993.)

[2] Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York:  Penguin, 1975).

[3] James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 35, 103.

[4] See his Summa Theologica.  “Natural law” is often part of the Roman Catholic argument against contraception and informs its statements on homosexuality, for example.

[5] Calvin’s fundamental image of God is fons omnium bonorum, the spring or fountain of all good.  Cf. “ It is not enough simply to hold that God is one who should be worshipped and adored by all, unless we are persuaded also that he is the fountain of all good, so that we should seek nothing anywhere but in him.”  Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), I. 2.1.

[6] Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement:  A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (London:  T & T Clark, 1998).