The “Why” of Worship
In a recent sermon I spoke about worship, specifically how easy, and dangerous, it is to lose focus on “the main thing”, which is a
transformative encounter with the living God.
Along those lines, I have developed a series of posts on worship, beginning with this one: the “why” of worship. It will be followed by the “what” of worship, and finally the “how” of worship. In less than 1000 words I obviously can’t go into too much detail, but hope to offer some helpful principles, rooted in scripture, that might allow us to experience worship in such a way that we are transformed.
In his book Simply Christian, NT Wright observes that, “when we begin to glimpse the reality of God, the natural reaction is to worship him. Not to have that reaction is a fairly sure sign that we haven’t yet really understood who he is or what he’s done.”
Our English word “worship” comes from the Old English “worthship”, i.e. acknowledging the “worth” of the one being worshipped. Worship can be a noun, the “thing” of worship, and a verb, the “action” of worship.
In the Old Testament, the most common word for worship is almost always used as a verb, thus emphasizing the “action” of worship, and worship was understood as a response to the action, the revelation, of God.
In Genesis 24, Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, worships after God answers his prayer. In Exodus 4, the Hebrew people worship after Moses tells them that God has “remembered His people and heard their cries”, promising to deliver them from slavery in Egypt. In Judges 7, Gideon worships after God promises to use him and his army to win an improbable victory.
In the New Testament, the verb used for worship means “to bow down”, and is used in two basic ways. First, as in the Old Testament, people often worship in response to the action of God. In Matthew 2, the Magi worship Jesus as the promise that they would find the “king of the Jews” was fulfilled. In Matthew 14, the disciples worship Jesus after Jesus walked on the sea and rescued Peter. In John 8, the man who was born blind worshipped Jesus after Jesus restored his sight. Both Matthew and Luke report that, after seeing the resurrected Christ, the disciples worshipped him.
However, we also find the verb “to worship” used in another context: that of asking God to act. In Matthew 9, Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, comes and bows down before Jesus, imploring him to bring his daughter, who had died, back to life. In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman bows down before Jesus, begging him to free her daughter from an evil spirit.
I believe that we ought to come to worship for these reasons as well.
First and foremost, we worship to offer praise and thanksgiving for the action of God in resurrection of Jesus. During Easter season, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray, “chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken away the sin of the world. By his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.” However, it is also appropriate to come to worship in order to praise and thank God for answered prayer in your own life – a spiritual breakthrough, healing, reconciliation, or any number of other acts of God we might experience.
It is very possible, though, that you might come to worship with a specific burden – a broken relationship, a lost job, sickness, confusion, or even anger toward God. It is 100% appropriate to offer that burden to God, to cry out to God, pleading with God, imploring God to act, to show himself.
I’ll conclude with a final observation on coming to worship, rooted in Matthew 28. The disciples are gathered together in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. Their response, of course, was to worship. However, the text reads that, “they worshipped and doubted”. If you are experiencing doubt in your relationship with God – doubt of God’s reality, God’s presence, or God’s goodness, it is tempting to avoid worship, either out of guilt or thinking, “What’s the point?” However, this text shows us that doubt is entirely appropriate in worship. In fact, I would suggest that worship and prayer is the best context in which to work out your doubts, which we all experience at one time or another.
So, as we think about worship, as we prepare for worship, it is essential that we remember why we worship. We worship primarily in response to the revelation of God, which, for us, comes primarily in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, it is also appropriate to come to worship to offer praise and thanksgiving for God’s revelation in your own life. Also, if you are carrying a specific burden, bring that to worship – cry out to God, imploring God to act in accordance with his nature. Finally, bring your doubts to worship. Doubt and worship are not incompatible. Worship is the best context in which to work through your doubts, whatever they might be.