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Here’s a picture of some worshippers (football crowd); and here’s another (rock concert audience); and here’s another (Christian festival). These three crowds of people all have some things in common: first, there’s a focus for their adoration, be it a football team, a band or Jesus; second, there’s a real passion being shown – they’re excited and joyful in their celebration; third, there’s a great sense of companionship and unity – what we might call fellowship; it’s all about belonging to a tribe…and in many ways we can all be a bit tribal.

When I was at theological college, one of our occasional lecturers was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey. He lectured on worship, and a phrase he frequently used was “Man is a worshipping creature.” It’s as if it’s embedded in our DNA that we have to have something or someone in our lives as a focus of our worship. You may not agree exactly that everyone is a worshipper; but we all certainly have priorities in our lives, people or things that we will always put first above everything else: it could be our family, our children, our job, our golf, our garden, anything really which plays an important or significant part in our lives.

So what does the word worship actually mean? Well, it’s not simply about an hour or so of a service on a Sunday morning. It’s about our whole lives. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12 where he tells us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice which, he says, is our reasonable worship. It’s all about giving or offering to someone or something what you think they’re worth or worthy of. If you’re a passionate supporter of your local football team, you’ll pay a fortune to travel the country and even the world to see them play: you’ll buy the latest strip at an exorbitant price, and you’ll know and sing all the team anthems on the terraces. If it’s a band that’s your passion, you’ll have all their albums, you’ll be online the minute booking opens for their latest tour, you’ll queue early to get a position as near to the stage as you can, and you’ll sing along because you know all their lyrics.

So what if it’s God that’s your passion, the person who’s most important to you? How do you worship God? Today, I’m opening up a subject that we’re going to look at in more depth over the next two months. We’ll look next week at one of the first worship songs in the Bible; later on, we’ll think about God’s presence in worship, why singing is part of worship, and also why we can also worship without music at all; we’ll reflect on what it means to worship in Spirit and in truth, and we’ll think about using our bodies in worship.

But I want to begin right at the heart of the Bible’s own song book, the book of Psalms, and Psalm 96. This psalm was written by David – we know this because it’s also found in 1 Chronicles 16 where David gave this psalm to the priests to sing, along with their musical instruments of lyres, harps, cymbals, ram’s horns and trumpets (quite a music group!) to celebrate the placing of the Ark of the Covenant in the tent specially prepared for it on its return to Jerusalem.

In this great psalm of praise, there are seven instruction words which might help to give us a clue as to what God expects of us as worshippers:

  • Sing (verse 1)

The word sing or song appears 229 times in the Bible. From Moses and Miriam in Exodus to the elders around the throne of heaven in Revelation, singing was a way of praising and worshipping God. Notice in verse 1 that the singing is directed at the Lord: like our opening song this morning (Worship God with the morning sunrise) some of our songs are directed at ourselves, where the singing in this psalm is directed at God. The first focus of worship is away from ourselves and towards God.

  • Declare (verse 3)

This is quite a special word, because it’s also the word used for taking a census, or counting the people. What it really means is that we should list the great things which God has done, spell them out and tell people about them. I’ve often heard those words, usually wrongly attributed to St Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” It’s a quotation which has the important message that it’s our lives rather than our words which witness primarily to our faith in Jesus, but it’s also become a bit of an excuse for not speaking out when we could do about our faith. There are times when we really need to speak up and declare God’s goodness in our lives.

  • Give (verses 7 & 8)

There are two lots of giving in these verses: first, there’s giving the glory to God which he is due; then second, there is giving an offering. Giving God the glory which he is due is right at the heart of what worship is about. God has created this amazing universe with this wonderful planet perfectly adapted for human life; he’s given you and me life, he’s guaranteed our forgiveness for all the ways we’ve offended him, and he’s adopted us as his children. How much he deserves our praise and glory, hence the giving of an offering, but the offering mentioned here is a very particular offering. If you take the trouble sometime to read perhaps one of the more tedious parts of the Bible, the opening chapters of Leviticus, you’ll find out all about the different offerings which the Israelites had to offer. Their first sacrifice was a burnt offering of an animal, and this was a sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins. However, when they’d offered this sacrifice, they then had to offer a sacrifice of grain, and this was intended to be a thanks offering for the forgiveness received as a result of the burnt offering. (Aren’t you glad Jesus finally did away with all this?) It’s specifically the grain offering which is being referred to here in Psalm 96. So David is emphasising in this psalm the people’s thankfulness for all God’s goodness to them.

  • Come (verse 8)

David then tells the people to come into his courts. He was calling them to be together at the place where God dwelt, and, for the time being, in 1 Chronicles, that would be where the Ark of the Covenant was; later, after the building of the temple, it was the Holy of Holies into which only the priest could enter. In the Old Testament, God was thought to dwell in certain places, so the people needed to gather there for worship and to offer sacrifices. Jesus tore down that barrier which separated us from God’s presence because he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us always. So, of course, we come into his courts here together this morning; but you also come into his courts when you meet during the week as a home group; you come into his courts whenever two or three are gathered in his name, because he’s always here with us.

  • Worship (verse 9)

Worship here – and very often in the Bible – is about the position of our bodies. Here, it is specifically about bowing down and prostrating ourselves before God. We’re going to talk more about this later on in the series, so I’m not going to say much today: just that prostrating oneself is just about as lowly a position as it’s possible to take. Today, when a priest is ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, he has to prostrate himself before the altar as a sign of his complete submission to the will of God for his life. So worship is also about our submission to God’s will not just for Sunday morning but for the whole of life.

  • Tremble (verse 9)

Now this is one of the most fascinating words in this psalm. It sounds as if it’s all about trembling in our boots out of fear; but it’s a much more nuanced word than that. It means to be in anguish with the kind of pains you get when you’re in labour. Now if I know anything at all about labour pains (and that’s only by proxy, sitting next to my wife on three occasions) they’re absolutely awful but the result at the end is absolutely fantastic! Listen to Jesus’s words to his disciples in John 16:

                  I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world

                  rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.

A woman giving birth to a child has pain, because her time has

come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because

of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So with you:

now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you

will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.

So Jesus uses a similar image himself to tell his disciples that, whatever suffering they may go through, there is pure joy to come.

Just to be clear, there are other places where different words are used to indicate that people will tremble in fear before God in his judgment, but this isn’t one of them.

  • Say (verse 10)

Finally, we’re called once again to speak out. We are to declare the Kingship of our Lord, and David concludes the psalm with a glorious vision of the future where the earth is restored to its creation glory, and when the whole of creation, animate and inanimate, sings for joy at the return of the King…and we’re called to live in the light of that glorious future which is promised to us as God’s children.

So what’s involved in our being worshipping people? Well, it involves singing, speaking out, giving glory to God, bowing down, having fellowship together, possibly suffering as we live out our lives in this fallen world, but always aware that a wonderful future awaits us. And finally, with Paul we’re to present ourselves as living sacrifices. Just as the animal sacrifices were a mean of grace and forgiveness for those who offered the sacrifice, so we are called to be people who proclaim God’s grace to a needy world. That is every bit as important a part of our worship as anything we’ve done this morning. May God help each one of us to worship him in every moment of the day as we bear witness to his love and his saving grace.


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