Certain words have certain associations. With fish we associate chips. With salt, vinegar. Or pepper, perhaps. Then what does the word 'worship' bring to your mind? Some people think straight away of what goes on in a Sunday service. Some think of just one part of what goes on - namely, the singing. But those ideas of 'worship' are too narrow. Matthew's Gospel says this about how the Lord Jesus was tempted at the beginning of his life's work:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'If you will bow down and worship me.' Jesus said to him, 'Away from me, Satan. For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'' (Matthew 4.8-9)
And Satan wasn't tempting him to miss church. The temptation was about who Jesus would serve with his whole life. 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.' So 'worship' means serving God with our whole lives. It's about our number one commitment. It's about who we live for. A friend of mine married a girl called Jane. And another friend said to me once, 'You know Phil would do anything for her. He worships her.' The women present may take that with a pinch of salt. But let me say this. Jane is a vegetarian and Phil's pretty much become a vegetarian in order to be married to her. I call that 'worship'! And as I remember they used the old words in their marriage service:
I, Phil, take you, Jane, to be my wife,to have and to hold from this day forward, etc, etc,to love, cherish and worship.
And by worship he meant, 'I will live to serve you, I will live for you.' Now since their marriage I'm sure they've expressed their love verbally and physically to one another countless times. But the worship that's expressed verbally and physically has also to be expressed in the worship of daily practical love, otherwise what's said verbally and physically is empty. And so it is with worshipping God. To worship God means to serve him, to live for him, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To aim to please him in our thoughts, our words and our actions. But just as a husband and wife make time to express their worship to one another, so we need to make time to express our worship to God like we've done tonight. A church service isn't the whole of our worship of the Lord - any more than sex is the whole of marriage. But it does express our worship of him. And it refocusses our hearts on him for the coming week. So, what are we supposed to do in congregational worship? Well, the letter to the Hebrews is a good place to go for an answer. It was written to Christians who were wavering in their faith, and staying away from church. Which is why it says, 10.25:
Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing
And the whole letter tells us the kind of things we're to do when we meet. They're not everything we should do in our services. And you can do all these things outside church services, as well. But these four things should certainly be part of church services. First, LET US LISTEN TO GOD SPEAKING (Hebrews 1.1-2, 2.1, 3.7) The first step in worshipping - ie serving - someone is to listen to them. Let's say you wanted to serve me after the service by bringing me a drink. And you bring me black tea with five sugars. It's really kind, but I have it with milk and no sugar. And anyway, I'd prefer a coffee. You can only serve me effectively if you know what I want. And you can only know what I want if I say, and you listen. And it's the same with the Lord. Worship begins with listening to God speaking. Hebrews 1.1-2:
In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, [that's now contained in the Old Testament (OT)] but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son [that's now contained in the New Testament (NT)].
So, God has spoken. And to cut a long story short, the Bible is what he's said. Hebrews 2.1:
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
Which is why the centrepiece of our services and our small groups is the Bible. It's why we have the Bible read publicly. It's why the aim of the sermons is to let the Bible speak today. But you might be thinking this sounds less exciting than your heading promised. 'Let us listen to God speaking', you said. And now you're on about an old book, rather than a contemporary voice of some sort. And some people are very dissatisfied with the way God has chosen to communicate. And it leads them to try to listen to him in other ways. Some people try to hear an inner voice. Some people put what the NT calls prophesy centre-stage, so that the Bible is side-lined. A friend of mine went to speak at a University Christian Union. He gave a talk from a Bible passage, after which the President got up and said, 'Well, I'd like to thank David for his talk. And now we're going to hear God really speaking.' And the next half hour was spent with people coming up to the microphone telling the others what they thought God was saying to them. I wonder what would have happened if someone had gone up to the microphone with a Bible in their hands. And they'd said, 'I've got a word from God.' And they'd read out Psalm 95, which we said at the start tonight. You can well imagine people saying, 'That's not a word from God. That's just the Bible. That's Psalm 95!' Well, look over to Hebrews 3.7, where the writer quotes that Psalm. Look how he introduces it:
So, as the Holy Spirit says:'Today, if you hear his voice,do not harden your hearts.'
The Bible isn't just the words of long-dead men. It's the words of God, given by the Holy Spirit through the words of men. And God doesn't change. So what he said is what he's still saying to every generation. Which is why Hebrews 3.7 puts it like that: 'As the Holy Spirit says.' And that applies to the whole Bible. Open it anywhere and you're looking at what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church today. Worship begins by listening to God speaking, which means listening to the Bible. Secondly, LET US DRAW NEAR TO GOD (Hebrews 10.19-22) Worship begins by listening to the person you're wanting to serve. So, going back to the marriage illustration, a couple will make time to communicate - what they like and dislike, what they want, what pleases them. But there's another area of communication which is vital to all relationships. And that's communicating about failure. On the one hand, saying sorry and asking forgiveness. On the other hand, doing the forgiving and assuring the other person that nothing's changed. And that's true of our relationship with God. We aim to worship and serve him. But we fail on a daily, hourly basis. To put it another way, we aim not to sin. But we still sin. This side of heaven there will always be that inconsistency on our side of the relationship. And that's why we need to draw near to God in faith and in prayer, to say sorry, ask forgiveness and find assurance so we can set off to please him again without being paralysed by guilt and uncertainty about where we stand with him. Which is what Hebrews 10.19-22 is about:
Therefore, brothers, [and 'sisters' is understood] since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, through a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God
In the OT, the Lord came up with a visual aid to show how sinful failures like us could still live in relationship with him. He told them to build a tent called the tabernacle, with a dividing curtain - behind which was the Most Holy Place, which symbolised God's presence. And the curtain symbolised that there was no way into God's presence for sinful people like us. It was a giant 'No Entry' sign. 'Danger of judgement; do not enter,' it said. But the other part of the visual aid was sacrifice. If you were an OT believer, you brought something like a lamb to the tabernacle. You confessed your sins over it and laid your hands on it. That symbolised the lamb taking your sins on itself and becoming your substitute. And then a priest would kill it. That symbolised the judgement your sins deserved. And then the priest took the blood into the tabernacle as a sign to the Lord that a substitute had died for you, so you could be forgiven. (Hebrews 9.1-10 summarises all this.) And that was all no more than a visual aid. It didn't solve the problem of us facing judgement. It just pointed to how Jesus would one day solve it, by dying on the cross as the one sacrifice for all sins for all time. Verse 19:
Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place [ie, God's presence] by the blood of Jesus, through a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body [ie, through his death and resurrection], and since we have a great priest over the house of God [ie, since Jesus is our representative in heaven], let us draw near to God (vv19-22)
You might say, 'But I feel such a failure. I don't feel any confidence about being accepted by God. I feel so distant from him, even here.' Well, look at verse 19 again. It doesn't say, 'Since we feel confident to enter God's presence.' It says, 'Since we have confidence to enter' - as in, 'have been given confidence to enter'. It's not something we have to feel. It's something we have to trust God has given us, through Jesus' death on the cross. Literally, verse 19 says, 'Since we have authorised access.' Sometimes when I have people round for Sunday lunch I send them on ahead with the keys because I'm delayed here. They may feel a bit uncomfortable letting themselves in to my flat, with the neighbours' curtains twitching, but it's a fact that I've given them the key. I've given them access. I want them to go in. Well, as sinners we'll always feel uncomfortable about our sin. That's healthy: after all, who feels comfortable about letting down someone they love? But God has sent his Son to die for our complete forgiveness. That's the key to God's presence. And he doesn't ask us to try to feel we've got access. He asks us to believe that it's a fact. Back to verse 19. Again, it doesn't say, 'Since we have confidence to enter by how well we've been doing as a Christian this week.' It says, 'Since we have confidence to enter by the blood of Jesus.' Ie, it's nothing to do with how well or badly we've been doing. It's entirely to do with Jesus' death which makes us acceptable just as we are. But you might say, 'Well, how do you draw near to God? Well, verse 22: 'with a sincere heart' - literally, a truthful heart. Ie, we're to be honest. We're not to hide things from God, even the worst things. He knows about them anyway. And that's why, for example, we have a prayer of confession near the beginning of our services. We don't pretend we don't sin any more, now we're Christians. So, draw near with a sincere heart. But also, verse 22:
in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water.
If we only have the sincere heart - ie, honesty about ourselves - we end up morbidly introspective. As someone put it, 'A fresh look within is a fresh look at sin.' The Lord tells us to come to him with faith - ie, looking out to Jesus who died for us. And faith says, verse 22, 'Lord Jesus, here are all the things on my conscience, on my heart. I am sorry for them. And I am going to trust that your death has cleansed and forgiven them. I am going to trust that in your sight, my track record is washed clean, and you have nothing against me.' 'Full assurance of faith.' Some of us tonight will be lacking assurance of our relationship with God because of some area of settled disobedience. And we know it. And God doesn't mean us to feel assured if that's the problem. He means us to face the issue. But others will be lacking assurance because our faith is partly in ourselves. We think God accepts us at least partly because of our efforts to please him. And if that's your problem, you need to put your faith fully in what Jesus did on the cross and zero in yourself. Look again at verses 19-20. If you're a believer, why does God accept you tonight, just as you are? The answer is Jesus. Jesus and nothing else. Not your sorrow for sin, not your regret, not your determination to change. Jesus. He is the key. You have access. Just as you are. And that's why, after the prayer of confession, we have what the service sheet calls 'Assurance of Forgiveness'. Not that anyone up here at the front can forgive you - God alone can forgive sins. But we can say to one another, 'If you're being sincere with God and your faith is in what Jesus did on the cross, then God's word assures you that you're a forgiven person.' We draw near to God when we pray, especially when we confess our sin and ask forgiveness. We also do it just by lifting our spiritual eyes to him in the words of hymns and songs. The Psalms speak of lifting our souls, or lifting our hearts, to the Lord. And our music leaders couldn't have chosen much better words tonight. Let me read again from that hymn we sang earlier:
Before the throne of God aboveI have a strong, a perfect plea:A great high priest, whose name is Love,Who ever lives and pleads for me.My name is written on his hands,My name is hidden in his heart;I know that while in heaven he standsNo power can force me to depart.When Satan tempts me to despairAnd tells me of the guilt within,Upward I look and see him thereWho made an end of all my sin.Because my sinless Saviour died,My sinful soul is counted free;For God, the just, is satisfiedTo look on him and pardon me.
(Charitie L de Chenez)
Let us draw near to God. Thirdly, LET US LOOK FORWARD TO HEAVEN (v23) Go back again to the illustration of marriage - only this time, before the marriage, to engagement. The Bible says that being a believer is like being engaged or betrothed by God. God has entered into relationship with us, but we're not yet literally living with him - not under the same roof. He's in heaven. We're on earth. So like any sensible people who are engaged, we're to be looking forward. Verse 23:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
Hope is the Bible word for our certainty of a future in heaven. In English, 'hope' has an air of uncertainty about final outcomes - as any Arsenal or Charlton supporter will tell you today. But in the Bible, the word 'hope' means future certainty. And (v23) the hope we profess is that we will be with God in heaven - not because we're good enough, but because Jesus died to let us in. He's the key to access to God in prayer, by faith, now. And he's the key to being with him in heaven when we die. And the Bible says:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
And that's another thing we need to do in congregational worship. Because nothing out there is saying to us, 'Hey, remember heaven! Remember this isn't ultimately the real world.' Nothing on TV, in the papers, in the adverts, is saying that. I think the times I'm most reminded of heaven are the times I spend here, as we sing about it, read about it, hear about it. At the very least it comes every week in the creed:
He ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
We talk of people losing their grip on reality. And Hebrews says: heaven is ultimate reality. Being in God's visible presence - no more room for doubt, no more falling in sin, no more minority existence in a world either hostile or indifferent to God.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
Let's not lose our grip on reality. Let us look forward to heaven. Fourthly and finally, LET US ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER TO KEEP GOING (vv24-25) The last thing to say about worship - serving God with our whole lives - is that it's not easy. So we need encouragement. You'll no doubt have observed the phenomenon of married couples getting together with other married couples and talking about marriage. 'Being coupley,' as people say. Which reflects the fact that committing yourself to love, cherish and worship just one other person for life is (to understate it!) not easy, however much you love them. Encouragement is needed from other people who are in it together with you. And it's the same with worshipping the Lord for life. It's not easy, as the Hebrews knew. Glance down to verse 32:
Remember those earlier days, after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.
They knew what it was to leave church and go back to being in a minority of one in an often hostile majority. They knew what it was to think it would be easier not to be a Christian. They knew what it was like to get discouraged and isolated and begin to drop out. So verse 24:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching [ie, the day we meet Jesus face to face].
What does that tell us about congregational worship? Well at its lowest, it says: come! If you're a believer, come! Not just because you need the encouragement of other Christians, but because they need the encouragement of you. And simply be coming, you're an encouragement to others. If each of us had decided tonight that it didn't matter whether or not we came, and we'd all stayed away, there would have been no encouragement. As it is, your presence has reminded your fellow-believers that they're not in it on their own. They might be a minority of one for most of the week, but they're not in it alone. And you've experienced that same encouragement. So, at its lowest, this says: come! But it also says, 'let us consider how we may spur one another on.' And we can only do that effectively if we know one another. And in a church this size, we can only really get to know others by joining a smaller group - a Home Group, or a student Focus group, or CYFA, or one of the mid-week groups. I know people who meet informally in pairs or threes once a week to share news and pray for one another. I've known people who've done that over breakfast, in lunch hours, or last thing at night. And if you're a Christian, but not in one of those things I've just mentioned, you're missing out on a source of encouragement that God says here he wants you to have. And others are missing out on the encouragement God says he wants you to give them. What is worship? It's serving the Lord with our whole lives. Then what is congregational worship? Why do we meet like this?
To listen to God speaking. To draw near to him in prayer and song. To look forward to being with him in heaven. And to encourage one another to keep worshipping him. Until either we meet again, or he comes again.