THANKSGIVING: THE HEART OF TRUE WORSHIP

C. S. Lewis reminds us that we cannot ultimately worship apart from others. God calls us into fellowship with other worshipers.

The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion; some kind of regular assembly for regular worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles. So we must be regular practising members of the Church. Of course we differ in temperaments. Some …find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well. For the Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.[i]

Worship is a much misunderstood concept. Far too many assume that worship is what transpires at church, or during the singing dimension of the service. But worship extends into our lives. Worship ultimately is an attitude that we carry within our hearts. It is the grid that we interpret life through. Are we filled with gratitude and thanksgiving as we see life through the lens of a loving God, or are we so broken within that we are filled with hurt, bitterness and anger at how life is being played out differently than what we want or expect? That which captures our affections, and which we trust in and desire for, can become the object of worship in our lives. As we celebrate Thanksgiving each year, it is important to understand that the nature of a thankful heart is really one of the deepest expressions of true worship. We need to ask ourselves some question: Are our hearts filled with a deep gratitude toward God? Are we rejoicing over His amazing grace in our lives? Are our eyes lifted upward to God regardless of the trials we are currently facing in the here and now?  Here in Psalm 95, we find worship expressed in a variety of ways. In Psalm 95, we have three elements that reflect the essence of genuine worship.

THE NATURE OF WORSHIP IS AN EXPRESSION OF REJOICING

Worshipers are celebrants. They are filled with thanksgiving. It is a genuine attitude that comes from a heart of gratitude. We can certainly learn from the simple expressions of a child’s heart in expressing exuberance and joy, revealing how God overcomes the challenges that the enemy presents to us, as God uses the weakest members of humanity to overcome the dark devices of the enemy of our soul. 

LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.[ii]

Derek Kidner explains the meaning of the text.

With all earth and heaven proclaiming God in verse 1, the rising discord of foes … enemy … avenger presents a challenge which God meets with ‘what is weak in the world’, the immaterial (by the mouth) and the immature. But, as Palm Sunday was to show (Matt. 21:15f.), the free confession of love and trust is a devastating answer to the accuser and his arsenal of doubts and slanders.[iii]

What Kidner is pointing out is that God uses the weak and foolish things of this world to confound and confront the attacks of the enemy. Even as Jesus explained to the Pharisees who were trying to silence the praise of the people on Psalm Sunday. We learn the power of simple trust from children, and the need to express our praise to God which silences the doubts and fears within our own hearts.

A. In Psalm 95 we find several ways in which we ought to come to God.

The Psalmist exhorts us to come. Worship begins by coming into the presence of God. But we find that the coming must be with a certain amount of delight and excitement. Just like a child coming to those he or she loves.   

Come, let us sing for joy 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.[iv]

Here we see the celebration element of worship. The shout, the enthusiastic greeting.

The most conservative of Jewish sects is the Hasidic who are fanatically devoted to Jewish ritual and custom. Surprisingly, joyous dance is a part of their worship. Their founder said, ‘To be sad is a sin.’[v]

That may be too strong of a statement, but the idea behind the expression is simply coming into God’s presence ought to bring joy to our hearts. That is one reason why we ought to be a people filled with expressions of praise to God. This praise ought to be a way of life, a continuous pattern of thought and expression. The Psalmists captures this sentiment very powerfully in Psalm 34:1, “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” The apostle Paul picks this idea up in his letter to the Thessalonians. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.” Even in the most difficult and painful of experiences, when anxiety would attack us, we ought to express gratitude and thanksgiving. The apostle Paul writing from a prison cell states:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.[vi]

In other words, regardless of what our current situation is we need to live in an attitude of gratitude. This is not a life where we are in denial of pain, problems and times of mental anguish. Rather, as Paul is stating for us, we are to bring even these trying times to God in prayer, but with an attitude of thanksgiving.

What is the Psalmist saying to us here as it relates to being a worshiper? That we need to come to God with delight. How many of us came or are viewing or listening today with excitement and delight? How many of you could hardly wait to enter God’s presence with His people? Or if watching on stream, are excited to be a part of this service? Are we coming only out of habit and routine? Why? We must come prepared to worship. Some of you right now are elsewhere in your mind. You are thinking of other issues. Maybe problems, difficulties and challenges are overwhelming you. The enemy would have your mind fixed on trying to solve the problem. True worship connects with God. True worship looks to God and in that moment, the issues of life are now seen in their proper perspective. When we are in God’s presence in an attitude of worship, we find new hope. That’s the outcome of meeting with God.

Zechariah promises us, that many of our difficulties cannot be solved solely with human resources. It cannot be done in the wisdom and power of human ability alone. God’s workings in our lives comes through the supernatural agency of His Spirit changing our hearts, our aspirations, and desires. Many times God changes our problems by changing our attitudes. He changes us! There are other times when we see God address the issues powerfully, though unexplainably. God told Zechariah that his mountains, his overwhelming issues, would not be addressed by human ingenuity.

Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the LORD Almighty.

What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground.[vii]

What a great encouragement when obstacles are reduced by the Spirit of God. What obstacles do we need to be reduced in our lives? Let us fix our eyes on God rather than the difficulties. Let us cast our cares on Him. Let us allow the work of God’s Spirit to prevail over our mountains and reduce them into level ground. During an interview with pastor and author, Eugene Peterson, he was asked a number of interesting questions regarding the nature of pastoral ministry. As he responds, you realize it has everything to do with worship.

Interviewer: Today, people come to pastors for help with addictions, abuse, incest and other complex problems that didn’t seem as common a generation ago. What can a pastor do for someone that a mental health provider cannot?

I guess I want to question the premise. Do pastors face more difficult problems today than in previous generations?

I know this is a mixed-up, difficult, damaged generation. But it’s arguable that the main difference today is not how much people are hurting, but how much they expect to be relieved from their hurting. The previous centuries suffered just as much; in fact, probably much more. Just think of all the illness, death in childbirth, infant mortality, plagues. The big difference today is that we have this mentality that if it’s wrong, you can fix it. You don’t have to live with any discomfort or frustration.

Interviewer: What do you do, then, when a parishioner assumes you can fix his or her problem?

You have to go back a step and ask, ‘Why am I a pastor? What is my primary responsibility to this congregation?’ The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, ‘Let us worship God.’ If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity.

I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us.

If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work.

Interviewer: My guess is that the average person coming for pastoral care doesn’t understand that.

In large parts of North America, leaders of the church have adver­tised, ‘The church is a place to get your problems met. Come, and we’ll show you how to be success­ful in your life and family. Meet a lot of good friends.’ They’ve abdicated this primary call to worship, in an attempt to satisfy the consumer.

Interviewer: So what should pastors promise people?

I’m not sure pastors or the church are in the business of promising anything. That’s not what we were called to do. We’re called to be witnesses, to call people to discipleship, to engage in the formation of a spiritual life in Christian character.

There’s an element of promise in the nature of the gospel, but it’s usually so different from what people expect that they don’t see it as a promise.  What is my business? If we enter the human-potential business, we’ve lost our calling.[viii]

B. The Psalmist moves on to give us the reasons why we ought to worship. 

1. The first reason is based on who God is. Our God is worthy! The word worship literally comes from an old English word, speaking of worth. God is of great worth and therefore worthy to be worshiped. There is no one like Him. In a world filled with false gods, our God is the king over all. Here the Psalmist acknowledges that people will falsely worship, idols.

For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.

The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.[ix]

The expression of the depths of the earth to the mountain peaks is a merism, which is the idea that this includes everything in between the two extremes. The Psalmist points to God’s greatness above all the idols that men worship. He is the Creator of all. He is the one that formed the great geographical landscape in which we marvel at. Many of the ancients believed that the “seas represented a power even older than the gods, not conquered without a bitter struggle.”[x]

In this first reason to praise God is the power of His creative acts. We worship God because everything comes from Him. He is the maker of all things. He is the giver and sustainer of life.

THE NATURE OF WORSHIP IS AN ATTITUDE OF REVERENCE 

In true worship celebration must turn into awe. Many believe that this psalm was sung at the feast of tabernacles, a harvest festival to express thanksgiving. As the celebrants came to the temple with rejoicing and entered the courts of God, they bowed in humble adoration in the presence of the Lord. That physical expression of bowing down reflects the correct attitude that we must come into God’s presence with humble adoration.

A. One meaning of worship is to prostrate ourselves before God.

The apostle John in the book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of Jesus, and John’s response is humble prostration at his feet. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17).”

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.[xi]

The reserved and private actor, Alec Guinness, revealed an unusual story of following a compelling impulse to run through a London street and then fall on his knees. In his autobiography, Blessing in Disguise, the actor described one such scene.

‘I was walking up Kingsway in the middle of an afternoon when an impulse compelled me to start running. With joy in my heart, and in a state of incredible excitement, I ran until I reached the little Catholic church there…which I had never entered before; I knelt; caught my breath, and for 10 minutes was lost to the world.’ Guinness was at a loss to explain his actions. He finally decided it was a ‘rather nonsensical gesture of love,’ an outburst of thanksgiving for the faith of the ages. The actor dashed into that church not long after…when he ended his pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.[xii]

B. The second reason that the Psalmist mentions as a reason for our worship is that we are His people. 

The first reason is that God is worthy. Now we come to the amazing element of our lives. We are His covenant people. We have a relationship with the God of the Universe and the God of all ages. We are described as the sheep of his pasture.  He is the Good Shepherd of our souls. What does a Shepherd do? He feeds the flock, He leads the flock, He protects the flock. We are in relationship to Him. May we never lose a sense of the wonder that God called us, revealed Himself to us, brought us into His forever family at such a great cost: the death of Christ. May that overwhelm us into a continual attitude of gratitude and worship.             

THE NATURE OF WORSHIP IS IN OUR OBEDIENT RESPONSE

We have not worshiped until we have carried out that which God has called us to do. We have not worshiped until we obey what He’s asking us to do. It is the idea of application. We have not experienced the word of God until we apply it to our lives. Intellectual knowledge does not transform our lives, simple obedience does. The Psalmist is taking us into a worship service. There, bowing in the temple, God speaks. In a worship service we are called to respond to the voice of God. His word speaking into our lives. The temptation is to become unresponsive to His call.        

…Today, if only you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at 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.’[xiii]

To hear in the Hebrew language is more than just listening, but it’s the idea of obedient response.  That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:9).”

The impact of genuine worship produces change in a person’s life.

If worship does not change us, it has not been worship. To stand before the Holy One of eternity is to change. Worship begins in holy expectancy; it ends in holy obedience.[xiv]

Even though the Psalmist gives us an insightful understanding of a past event, worship is not in the past, but a call in the present. Today… if you hear his voice. What was the result of their indifference to the voice of God and word of God?  We find that they disregarded God’s word by not acting on it in faith. If God calls us to forgive those who have sinned against us, then to forgive is an expression of worship.  If God calls me to love my enemy, then to love them becomes an act of worship.  If God calls me to obey my parents, then to obey them becomes an act of worship. If God calls us to submit to those in authority, even though we may not agree with it, but we know that it is neither immoral nor illegal, then this is an act of worship. What happens when we ignore God’s voice, when we disobey what His word is telling us to do?  We forfeit God’s blessings. “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ (Psalm 95:11)”. The word anger is translated in other Bible versions as disgust. God was disgusted with the antics of the Israelites in the wilderness. After witnessing the great plagues in Egypt and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea where they were spared and delivered from the Egyptian armies, it wasn’t long until they were complaining about their condition. Though they wandered around in the wilderness, God supernaturally provided for them with manna and streams of water from the rock. God spoke to them from the mountain. All they could do was complain…  “I want to go back, I want the leeks, cucumbers and onions of Egypt…Where has Moses gone? I’m tired of this manna day in and day out!  Who does Moses think he is?” Name a complaint, they came up with it. The rest that the Old Testament Israelites forfeited was a rest from their wilderness wanderings. They didn’t enter the land for forty years. The promised land was their place of rest. So, how does that apply to us today?

The writer of the book of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7-11 and states that these are not just the words of the Psalmist, but the words of God, the Holy Spirit.

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.

That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’

So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.[xv]

They did not enter into rest because of an evil heart, a sin-filled heart. How does the writer here describe that heart? As an unbelieving heart, or a heart that is not trusting in God. They did not enter the land, but the danger for us today is that we won’t enter into God’s rest. We won’t enter the promises that God has for us. We won’t experience the blessings of God. His spiritual provision, His joy, His peace…  Our disobedience reflects our hearts’ condition. The danger is to criticize and complain during a time of testing. Massah means testing. Meribah means to quarrel. Here they thought they were quarreling with Moses, but they were actually quarreling with God. God allowed tests to reveal the condition of their hearts. God allows tests in our lives to reveal what is in our hearts. Will we continue to trust in Him, and rejoice in Him? Will we continue to express our gratitude and thanksgiving? Or have we been guilty of criticism, complaining, blaming, and accusing? Folks, the problem is within us. It is a heart condition.

Meribah and Massah is a reference to the incident at Rephidim in Exodus 17.

The whole Israelite community set out from the desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

[Note: God led them to this place] 

So they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘give us water to drink.’  Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you put the LORD to the test?’

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’

Then Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.’

The LORD answered Moses, ‘Walk on ahead of the people.  Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 

I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’  So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’[xvi]

What was the real issue? Is God among us or not? Or we could rephrase it and state it this way: Where is God in our current situation? We wonder that when we ask the question, ‘Why would God allow this?’ What we need to realize is that God is with us in this time of testing. God will not leave us nor desert us. 

What is the condition of our heart? Are we thankful? Are we truly worshipers, rejoicing, showing reverence toward God, and responding in obedience to His Word? How are we responding to the test and challenges that are upon us? This hour is an opportunity for us to manifest God’s grace in our lives to those around us so that they can find the same hope we have. The great need is for a changed heart, a trusting heart. Let us pray like the Psalmist: 

“Teach me your way, LORD, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name (Psalm 86:11).”

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[i]     C. S. Lewis as quoted in Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root, ed. The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishing House, Inc., 1990),105-106.

[ii]     Psalm 8:1-2, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii]    Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72 Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, Vol. 15, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 83.

[iv]    Psalm 95:1-2.

[v]     Robert C. Shannon, Worship,1000 Windows, Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997.

[vi]    Philippians 4:4-6.

[vii]   Zechariah 4:6b-7a.

[viii]   Interview with Eugene Peterson, Leadership Journal, Spring 1997, 20-22.

[ix]    Psalm 95:3-5.

[x]     Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 14b (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1975), 344.

[xi]    Psalm 95:6-7a.

[xii]   Preaching Today.com, illustrations- cited from Terry Mattingly.

[xiii]   Psalm 95:7b-10.

[xiv]   Richard J. Foster, as quoted in: Edythe Draper, “Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World”, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992).

[xv]   Hebrews 3:7-12.

[xvi]   Exodus 17:1-7.

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