“If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”
That’s a favourite quote of mine from Steve Brown’s book, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God. It asks and partially answers the key question of Psalm 149: “What is real worship?” Here’s the Psalm:
“Praise the Lord.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honour
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them –
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Praise the Lord.”
So how do you worship? There’s a myriad of ways, according to this psalm, but Psalm 149 has four distinctives that need to be honoured if worship is to work.
First, worship “works” when it is fresh.
It must have in it a spontaneity, an immediacy, something now, something human, something fresh. “Sing unto the Lord a new song…” I don’t think the Psalmist is telling us we can’t sing our old favourites. Nor is he is urging us to only pick the latest celebrity specials. No, he’s just saying “Stay fresh!” Be personal, spontaneous, be natural! Don’t allow yourselves to get trapped in something hackneyed and clichéd, which sounds a little like Steve Brown’s description of “a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis”!
Ultimately, it’s not a question of style or volume or genre; it’s whether we bring a fresh expectation to worship; it is whether we are going to open up and let our passion rip. The Psalmist throws out a few hints:
“Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.”
We are celebrating God’s creativity (our “Maker”) so our own creativity is bang on target. We are celebrating God’s choosing (“Zion’s King”) so our gratitude is appropriate. We are rejoicing through “dancing” so physical expression and movement is entirely natural! And we are “making music with tambourine and harp” so our own creativity (“making”) is pulled in to the mix, in terms of rhythm (tambourine) and melody (harp).
And it is “we” that do all this, creating a human orchestra of worship, producing harmony (and not monotone monotony). That means that, second, worship “works” when it is in community. Worship happens primarily (but not solely) in gathered fellowship. It is not just individual performance, it is not just personal feelings, it is not simply private experience… for worship to “work,” it needs to be corporate, social, and in community.
And, as someone put it, “We is more than a whole bunch of little I’s.” When we come together to worship, we find that God’s spirit does something in the whole of us that is greater than what He does in each one of us personally. God has a way of working through a gathered people. Worship requires our presence, before God and before one another. Worship requires that we belong to one another. Worship is not just private enjoyment. The shared experience would be compromised. That terrible, wonderful, exciting, frightening expectation that God Himself might be in our midst, that would be lost. To the Psalmist, worship has to be in community, it must be in fellowship.
Next, third, worship works when it has joy as its bottom line. “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church.” Worship is more than passing out information or a sort of sung statement of faith; it is celebrating release, it is finding hope and strength and freedom. Worship is joy. “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let then sing for joy on their beds.”
Joy is the “without which, nothing” of worship. Sure, there are times when the mood of worship is sombre and subdued; there is a time to mourn, a time for quiet. Even so, and especially at the darkest point, the bottom line is joy. There is one non-negotiable, and that is that God loves us. That God cares for us.
The most real thing about you is not that you are broken, but that you are loved.
And the Psalmist says, “The Lord takes pleasure in his people.” He has joy in us! He rejoices over us with singing. He lifts us up out of the “miry clay” and sets our feet upon a rock, and that is why we experience joy. “He adorns the humble with victory.” Whether worship is appropriate with a full-throated shout or with a tiny whisper, it is always rooted down deep into joy. Jesus went to the darkest place, to the cross itself “for the joy that was set before him.” It is not denial to rejoice in the middle of grief and anxiety; it is the truest thing of all.
And finally, don’t miss this one. How do we worship? How does worship “work”? We worship with a fresh approach, we worship in community, we worship in joy; and, finally, when “church” is over, then our worship spills out into the streets and is not confined to the building. Because here we have been empowered by His spirit, we are able to do bold things, big things, justice and righteousness things. That too is the “how” of worship. That is how worship works.
So the last bit of the psalm is not an additional idea but a conclusion… it’s the point towards which worship drives:
“Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains or iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.”
It can be so nice in here! Sweet and protected. Safe. And out there is conflict and danger. In here, perhaps we may contain the mess, but out there, there may be the language of hatred, prejudice, filth and fear.
But this –this!– is the most significant “how” of all. How do we worship? With mission in mind. With a militant heart and a desire to do God’s will, out there where it counts. How do we worship? With a song on our lips, a prayer in our hearts, of course, but with “out there” on our minds. With a willing spirit, to be empowered for justice and a witness. With a consciousness turned toward the power of Christ, so that the fight against evil becomes bearable and the struggle against oppression becomes winnable. The most significant “how” in our worship has nothing to do with what music we use, with how loud things are, with how long the service lasts. It has everything to do with how we go to the streets, how we go to the world out there, and what our worship empowers us to do. For worship calls us, empowers us to claim the kingdoms of this world for our Lord and His Christ.
Because this stuff -this Sunday morning stuff- is not it. Not even remotely. This place is just a giant phone-charger, so that you can continue to communicate properly once you leave. You meet God with your family here, and then God sends you on mission. It’s a mission to Supavalu, to Lidl car park, to the mean streets of South Main, or Innishannon or Enniskeane. It’s wherever you live and whatever you do. You worship and then live out love in your homes, or find strength to teach tricky kids, or design aeroplanes, construct land-drains, farm chickens, enforce the law, practice medicine, buy and sell goods, work the phones, fix the computer. You worship here and then leave to tackle just one more impossible family situation. And in our worship we find glory! Strength and honour and power and glory! Just as the Psalm says, “This is glory for all his faithful ones.”
Fifty years ago in an American city a man stood before a large crowd and led them in worship. They did all the usual things. They prayed, they sang, they heard the Scripture. And then he preached. In his message he said:
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, I won’t mind. Like anyone else, I would like to live a long life. … But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.“
And when, a few hours later, gunshots rang out at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, Jr. died, but he died knowing that his worship had gone to the streets. And the Psalmist says, “This is glory for all his faithful ones.”
Lord, fill us with laughter and joy in the sheer pleasure of being with you. And let the music touch our toes and send us out into the streets where you would have us go, salt and light, into the hopes and fears of everyone we meet. Let our worship work.
For God’s sake.