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Psalm 95

Come, let us sing for you to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King of above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The seas is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did in Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Every week when we gather for worship my son who is 8 years old, about 15 minutes, maybe 20 on a good day, leans over and says in that voice every parent knows and hates, “Why is this so long? Everything is so long. When will it be Children's Worship Time?” (CWT is when the kids in our church, aged preschool through grade 4, head out for a time of worship together, hear a Bible story, and then break off into classrooms to learn about the Bible, God, and Jesus.) Every week I lean over to him and say the same thing, “You know the rhythms of our worship. You know the order where things go. What part of the service are we in right now and what part of the service is yet to come?” And he thinks for a minute, looks at the bulletin, and he says, “We have to pray and we need to do the offering and we need to do the children's blessing and then we get to go.” The prayer he is waiting for is the prayer of confession in our worship. It comes in different forms: sometimes it's a song, sometimes it's spoken, sometimes it's responsive, sometimes it's silence. But he knows to wait for it. After the prayer of confession there's usually a song and then the offering happens when a decanter walks up to the front to tell us what ministries and mission of the church we are supporting today.

After the youngest kids go to Children’s Worship Time (and my son has run out of the sanctuary), my daughter, who is 10 and in Grade 5 stays back because she is learning how to sit with the rest of us for worship. She knows to get out her notebook because it's time for “the long prayer” and then Daddy will get up to preach. Sometimes she takes notes but most of the time she doodles and draws pictures for herself.

I mention this anecdote because it shows how we know and can anticipate the form, or the movement, of our worship together. There is a distinctive pattern to the flow of our worship. And this pattern is not accidental. Now, most churches discerned for themselves how to move through this flow, whether it is by responsive liturgy or by song, whether it is by spoken instruction or by silent movement, whether it is framed with patterns and readings of scripture. Sometimes it is led by a pastor, sometimes by liturgist, sometimes by a member of the worship team. Every church, and every worship service, follows a pattern for its worship. Sometimes those are explicit, sometimes those are implicit; sometimes they are based on a traditional or denominational liturgy, sometimes they are contextually discerned.

And while the Bible describes many instances of worship and the worshipping community, only in a few places does it prescribe what that must look like (if this sounds like an interesting rabbit hole, try googling “The normative principle and the regulative principle for worship”). Taken as a whole, Psalm 95 is a short model for what worship can look like.

Psalm 95 begins with an invitation, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord…” We are invited to sing, we are invited to shout, we are invited to come before him with Thanksgiving and to extol him with music and song. There is an invitation to come into the presence of a living God. The invitation naturally flows into a revelation of the one who invites, “For the Lord is the great God, the Great King above all kings.” Worship begins with God, with his activity in drawing us near; and with our praise of who he is. Worship acknowledges the worthiness of God to be praised as the one and only God, transcendent over all the earth. He made the earth – from its depths to its mountain peaks – the sea and all that is in it. And so, all the earth praises him (cf.  Ps. 19).

This is what happens when we see God. But when we see God more clearly for who he is, it also has the effect of seeing ourselves more clearly in relationship to him. And so, naturally, it humbles us and moves us in confession. And so Psalm 95 continues, “Come, let us bow down in worship. Let us kneel before the Lord, our maker.” The Hebrew word translated “worship” in this verse (Heb. shahah) literally means, to depress, to prostrate oneself. In fact, there are three verbs stacked together in Hebrew to convey this idea: bow down, prostrate, kneel. Looking at the movement of the first 5 verses to verse 6 & 7, Tim Keller says, “While adoration comes from seeing a God of glory, submission comes from seeing a God of grace, one who is our covenant God, who redeemed us and brought us as sheep into his fold.”[1]

God invites us to see the fullness of who he is and also to bring the fullness of who we are into his presence. That includes our brokenness and anxieties, our sins and transgressions. With a humble and contrite heart, we come in confession (cf. Is. 66:1-2 for a similar movement as an encounter with God in worship).

In Psalm 95, worship then moves to hearing the voice of God: “Today, if only you would hear his voice…” The humility of confession moves the worshipper to listen to God's Word; to hear it, to study it, and to reflect on its truth for our life in the world. The remaining verses served as an opportunity to rehearse the redemptive acts of God. To remember the things he has done before; to declare his salvation. And consequently, to declare what happens when you reject him or ignore his word.

The first part of Hebrews 4 is in many ways meditation on the promise offered through worship in this Psalm as an invitation to the rest of God. There, we read what sounds paradoxical, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” (Heb. 4: 9-11) Entering God's rest means resting in him, but also requires every effort to make it true in our hearts and experiences. The rest that is offered is Jesus Christ – is being found in Jesus Christ; a member of his body, the church. And for that we must worship. But we must also recognize that true worship is worth the work. Hebrews 4 then connects this experience of rest to the very Word of God, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Heb. 4:12)

The rhythms and habits are important, and God uses them to transform our hearts and our minds so that we might offer ourselves as living sacrifices (cf. Rom. 12:1-2) - but they have to become more than just ways to measure time to the next best thing. How particular church chooses to structure its worship isn't up for me to debate on these pages. Instead, I pray that you, dear reader, see meaning in the structure and that your work to worship well will reveal God to you.

Lord our God, thank you for the gift of worship. Thank you for those who lead me in worship each week. Thank you for the amazing ways you reveal yourself in my church’s worship together. Help me to be a more willing worshipper and to do the work of resting in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] Keller, Songs of Jesus, 236.