What do we do when we worship God?


When I became an Anglican (from a background of a different church tradition), I was at first quite puzzled by the choice of Scripture passages that Anglican (that is, Church of England) services kept coming back to—the Benedictus (Luke 1.68–79) in Morning Prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1.46–55) in Evening Prayer, and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2.29–32) at night. For one thing, all these come from one gospel and one section of that gospel. For another, if you were going to repeat a small number of passages again and again, are there not other passages you would choose first? How about the hymn to love in 1 Cor 13? Or the summary of the gospel in 1 Cor 15? Or the ‘Christ hymn’ of Paul in Phil 2? Or John’s magisterial prologue in John 1? (Of course, most of these do find their way into Anglican liturgy in the form of credal affirmations or canticles.)

It took some time for me to realise the importance of the passages from Luke as programmatic summaries of what God was doing in Jesus: fulfilling the hopes of his people Israel in bringing forgiveness, true liberation and peace (the Benedictus); enacting the Great Reversal of God’s grace over against human pride, following the pattern of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel (the Magnificat); and bringing to completion God’s plan not just for Israel but for the whole world, in anticipation of Jesus’ followers being his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (the Nunc Dimittis).

The other passage that puzzled me was the choice of Psalm 95 (also known by its opening words in Latin, pointing back to the influence of the Vulgate translation), the Venite, and its alternative Ps 100, the Jubilate. But it has slowly dawned on me that Ps 95 offers a comprehensive account of what worship involves.

1. Invitational: ‘Come…’

The repeated refrain of invitation, ‘come let us worship’, has been picked up in both modern (‘Come, now is the time to worship’) and traditional (‘Come let us join our cheerful song’) hymnody. But its importance here reflects the essential direction of travel in the worship encounter. Although there is a consistent theme of the worshipper as the one who seeks (for example in the thirst of Ps 42, the metaphorically interpreted desire of the Song of Songs, Jesus’ teaching on persistence in prayer in Luke 11, and those who seek Jesus throughout the Fourth Gospel), the primary note in Scripture is of God seeking us, rather than the other way around.

It begins with God seeking Adam and Eve in the garden in Gen 3.9, and ends not with us ‘going to heaven when we die’ but the New Jerusalem coming from heaven to earth in Rev 21.2. In between it is expressed in God choosing his people, not they him (Deut 7.7), in his tender longing for his people as they go astray (Hos 11.8), in his seeking and saving the lost (Luke 15, Luke 19.10). Whether faith came to us naturally out of our curiosity, or as a surprise when we were least expecting it, the underlying theological reality is that our worship is a result of God’s initiative, and not ours.

In the antiphon of divine-human encounter, it is God who issues the call and we who offer our response.

2. Corporate: ‘…let us…’

There are plenty of individual psalms, in which the psalmist expresses personal faith, seeking, frustration and questioning of God—faith is at all stages a personal reality. Yet, throughout Scripture, the relationship of God with his people is first and foremost expressed corporately, and the personal flows from this. This is especially clear in the corporate regulations for worship in the Pentateuch, but continues to be evident in the corporate descriptions of life and worship in Acts and the Pauline letters.

Personal experience is rooted in corporate practice, flows from it and is nourished by it. The psalmist anticipates that his personal longing expressed in Ps 42.1 would be met in the corporate experience of Ps 42.4. A similar prioritising of the corporate in our families might reduce the loss of faith in the teenage years; and encouraging corporate rather than relentlessly personal devotions might enable us to engage more effectively with the non-book cultures around us. English used to distinguish between the singular ‘thou’ and the plural ‘ye’, but since we have shifted to the ambiguous ‘you’, we lose our awareness of this essentially corporate nature of faith (though it can be regained by reading in another language that retains such distinctions).

3. Physical: ‘…shout aloud…bow down…’

There is no mistaking the physical nature of worship that is envisaged here at every stage. The first invitation is to ‘shout’, and the Hebrew term is used both of the cry that calls the people to war and of the great belly-roar of triumph over one’s enemies when victory is won. It suggests a kind of visceral roar of celebration, and makes us wonder why the frisson of physical experience that we find on the football terraces Saturday by Saturday isn’t also present in our worship Sunday by Sunday. Though the presence of God might at times lead us to awed silence, most often it will call on all our physical skills of music-making, and involve physical actions of ‘bowing down’ and ‘kneeling’. One of the great recoveries of the charismatic renewal movement was the importance of bodily experience and expression in worship, and this should be a feature of all Christian worship.

I was particularly struck by this physical element last week when attending an in-person service (when did we ever anticipate having to make this kind of qualification?!). Because we  could not sing together (even though there is no evidence that singing presents any risk of infection), we listened to singing from the front—and it was beautiful. Listening to a real person singing in your physical presence is quite different from listening to something on the radio, the computer or the television; as John Leach has pointed out, there are multiple physical, bodily aspects to the experience of singing.

And so these opening three points about worship offer a particularly poignant challenge to our current situation, since they all depend on understanding ourselves not as brains (or souls, or spirits) on sticks, as it were, as though our bodily reality was merely incidental—but as body-soul unities, in which our bodily coming together corporately, to express our worship to God in gesture, is a physical expression of spiritual truth.

4. Theological: ‘The Lord is a great King above all gods…’

There is, in the first half of this psalm, a constant interplay between large theological claims and exultant affective response. There are three massive theological ideas around which the response of worship orbits; in reverse order: God as creator; God as the only true god; and God as the saviour of his people.

Recognising that Yahweh is ‘our maker’ focusses on the creature/creator divide, and the fragility of human existence in contrast to the power of God. But the theme also includes God’s sovereignty over the created world; it is worth noting the binary contrasts (depths/peaks, sea/land) which both function as merisms that take two extremes to include everything in between, and also reflect the theme of separation in the creation account of Gen 1.

Recognising God as king makes explicit an idea which is implicit in the earlier parts of Scripture but which become increasingly visible in the period of the monarchy and reaches its full flourishing in the preaching of Jesus of the coming ‘kingdom of God’. Although here expressed in henotheistic terms (God amongst the gods), the contrast easily moves into the absolute monotheism that we find in Isaiah (‘There are no other gods beside me’, Is 45.5; compare the similar movement in 1 Cor 8.4–6). In the NT, the kingdom of God is contrasted with the kingdom of this world, and the two are in eschatological contrast. And in a world of competing spiritual powers, it is the God of Israel who saves his people.

There is no divide here between understanding and affective response, between thinking, feeling and acting. Worship is rooted in theological understanding, and theological understanding inevitably leads to a response of worship.

5. Dialectical: ‘extol…bow down…hear his voice…’

The first half of the psalm includes some striking contrasts which we might have missed because of our familiarity. The first note is one of celebration, exalting in the salvation that he brings to his people and rejoicing in his mighty power. If this feels like a move upwards, then the contrast comes in the move downwards, bowing in humility and awe in verse 6. Both the upward movement and the downward are essential in worship—God is the source of our joy, but God is no mere celestial chum with whom we party.

What is most fascinating is the way that these two movements are aligned. We mighty expect a response of awe to God’s power—but in fact this leads to celebration, since the psalmist is convinced that God is for his people and (essential) on their side. What leads to wonder is the fact that this mighty God, in all his power of creation, salvation and defeat of his enemies, a God not to be trifled with, is the tender shepherd of his people, one who knows their needs and meets them with his provision. This God is not vulnerable instead of being mighty; he is both, and the wonder comes in the holding together of the two convictions.

6. Repentant: ‘Do not harden your hearts…’

The second major dialectical tension in the psalm is one that Anglican liturgy can barely cope with, and only manages by making the ending of the psalm optional in liturgical recitation. There is the sharpest of contrasts in the unfettering joy and commitment expressed in the first half, and the stern warning of judgement that awaits us if we do not repent and belief in the second. It is the kind of contrast we also struggle with in the teaching of Jesus, when reports of calamity provoke Jesus’ response: ‘Unless you repent, you too will perish!’ (Luke 13.3, 5). Not exactly gentle Jesus, meek and mild and inclusive.

But this tension points to the reality of respectable Christian leaders who end up being abusive, congregations with good biblical teaching who are oblivious to the world around them, and all of us as we come to God with distinctly mixed motives. Worship services which focus on celebration and find the downbeat of confession of sin too stark a contrast with the upbeat of feeling good about God ignore this tension at their peril. The language of the BCP in describing sin as an intolerable burden to miserable sinners needs to be recovered.

7. Canonical: ‘…as your ancestors did…’

The psalm begins with a hint at the story of God’s dealings with his people in the mention of the ‘rock of salvation’, but this story become clearly (and uncomfortably) explicit in the second half. Worship of God by the people of God is rooted in the particularity of God’s dealings with his people and their response to him. Indeed, some psalms, like Ps 136, are entirely structured around the story of our experience of God as his people. The general refrain ‘His love endures forever’, which on its own is in danger of becoming a theological slogan, only makes sense when understood in the light of the particulars of God’s action.

In a similar way, it is striking that Paul assumes that the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel has become the story that now belongs to the mixed Jewish-gentile group of followers of Jesus in Corinth, so that they are all inheritors of this canonical story of faith (1 Cor 10.6). Reading Scripture when we meet, and thus locating ourselves in this story, is not something that leads to worship—it is a constituent part of the worship itself. Christian worship will understand Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of this story—but it will not ignore the earlier episodes.

G K Chesterton commented (in Orthodoxy):

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

For our Christian worship, ‘the dead’ are the saints who have gone before us, in whose footsteps we follow.


Responding to God’s initiative, confessing our sins, celebrating in song, locating ourselves in the story of God’s people, reflecting on theology, living with tensions and contrasts, and expressing all this in bodily action as we meet together—all these are essential parts of our worship as we meet together. If any of them is missing, God is reduced, our worship is diminished and we are the less for it. (Published previously.)


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28 thoughts on “What do we do when we worship God?”

  1. Thank you, Ian, for this piece. It’s so very helpful.

    I like the invitation in Common Worship Morning Prayer to say the ‘alternative’ canticles, some of which are mightily refreshing and deeply meaningful, especially #62 ‘A Song of Redemption’. It draws on the passage in Dick Lucas’s series on Colossians nearly 50 years ago that caused the ‘penny’ of faith to drop for me. And it’s also the passage set for my funeral!

    All I would say, don’t throw in an alternative canticle at short notice. Stories of an archdeacon doing this one morning in the cathedral and the bishop scrolling through his device trying to find it whilst everyone else simply turned to page 620!

    I echo the issues around singular and plural personal pronouns. I would add my feeling that far too much contemporary worship song is written in the first-person singular for when worship is clearly a gathered occasion. It’s shame because in English both first-person pronouns are monosyllabic (‘I’/’we’) and writing in plural would make no difference to the scansion.

    On the offering of beauty and response to God in worship, although it’s far from everyone’s cup of tea, as a Catholic Charismatic, all the bling and holy smoke, as well as swinging from the chandeliers, and for those physically able to prostrate themselves, all add to the drama and devotion involved in worshipping and waiting on God.

    Reply
  2. “The primary note in Scripture is of God seeking us, rather than the other way around.”

    Yes! Sermons and literature are awash with their references to Jesus as king—but kings don’t generally seek a people.

    In contrast, I suggest for its depth and breadth, the marital imagery is the Bible’s dominant conceptual metaphor. God reached out to Israel, took her as a ‘wife’, and Jesus arrives on the pages of the NT as a bridegroom seeking a bride.

    In comparison the kingdom imagery is more two dimensional—Jesus says he has prepared a place for us so where he is we can be also, but in most cultures the vast majority will only ever see their king on television and will probably never go into his home.

    Despite this the marital imagery is neglected —as far as I am aware my treatment of it is the only comprehensive analysis of it in the academic literature.

    Incidentally, God repeatedly said that he loved Isarel, but apart from Jeremiah 2:2 am not aware this was ever said to be reciprocated.

    Reply
  3. Ian references Eden and specifically Genesis 3:9.

    A Jewish bridegroom was obligated to provide his wife with food clothes and a relationship (Exodus 21:10 —a home is not mentioned but assumed). All the Jewish marriage certificates found from NT times affirm this.

    So, in Eden, God provided a home, food, and a relationship (Genesis 3:8) —and then just before they leave Eden he reaches out and clothes them (Genesis 3:21).

    The remarkable parallels between Eden and the promised land have been pointed out by others (e. g., Seth D. Postell, “Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanak”) —thus Adam typologically prefigured the relationship with Isarel as God’s ‘wife’ —and ultimately that of the church.

    Reply
    • “The primary note in Scripture is of God seeking us, rather than the other way around.”

      So, just as God takes the initiative with us, despite decades of feminism, women still tend to want the man to take the initiative.

      Thus even the Bumble App has ditched its biggest selling point – which was that only women could initiate the conversation.

      Reply
      • “So, just as God takes the initiative with us, despite decades of feminism, women still tend to want the man to take the initiative.”

        A. That totally depends upon context
        B. God isn’t a man. Isn’t masculine. Isn’t male.

        Reply
          • “In the Bible’s marital imagery God is always portrayed as masculine.”

            And you don’t think that was anything to do with the culture in which that portrayal was written?

          • Andrew,

            “And you don’t think that was anything to do with the culture in which that portrayal was written?”

            Yes. God was using the cultural understanding—an understanding common to most of the ANE—to illustrate something about himself.

            That is how metaphors work, and the marital imagery is a metaphoric (non-literal) imagery. If contemporary marriage did not represent a truth about himself I suggest, as an evangelical, that Scripture would not have employed it.

          • Andrew,

            “Oh well if it’s in The Times then obv it has to be true”

            Bumble clearly thought the stats were true otherwise they would not have changed their strategy.

          • “If contemporary marriage did not represent a truth about himself I suggest, as an evangelical, that Scripture would not have employed it.”

            And that’s fine. But as a classical Anglican I also understand that tradition is a guide and not a strait jacket. God is not limited by the culture of a particular time. It does represent a truth. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is never going to be available to us.

          • Andrew,
            “And that’s fine. But as a classical Anglican I also understand that tradition is a guide and not a strait jacket. God is not limited by the culture of a particular time. It does represent a truth. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is never going to be available to us.”

            I think you have misunderstood my point? A metaphor can be tricky concept to handle.

            A metaphor has two conceptual domains —we can call them A and B. The metaphoric statement is A is B —when it is not true.

            An example is Jesus is the son of God. Here the conceptual domain human sonship—conceptual domain A, is illustrating Jesus’s relationship with God — conceptual domain B.

            In other words, the nature of human sonship in NT times, domain A, was thought to illustrate the relationship with God, domain B.

            If in subsequent generations or cultures the nature of sonship changed—it would not mean that the relationship of Jesus to God would change to match that. Thus, if shepherding in 20th century Britain was taken over by robots and they also slaughtered their sheep—it would not mean that Jesus as the good shepherd is now a robot who slaughters his sheep. The culture at the time the metaphor was given illustrates an eternal truth.

            So, as I believe the Bible writers were inspired by God—when they selected a culture-specific domain in their time, it was chosen by God to illustrate what he is like—and as we are told that God does not change—he will not change if the culture changes.

            Of course, if we do not believe that the word of God is inspired, we could argue that the Bible writers imagined that God was just like the human marriage they knew—and so projected that onto God.

            But once you believe the Bible is not inspired by God, you can of course believe whatever you like.

          • Thanks Colin, I understand how a metaphor works.

            “The culture at the time the metaphor was given illustrates an eternal truth.”
            It can. It might. But it isn’t necessarily so. It still has a cultural element.

            And one can still believe the bible is inspired but not have to accept that it is the only or final word that God speaks.

        • … and I did say ‘tend to’ – which I think means usually.

          And I am of course talking specifically about dating—the Times had an article which included some stats which they thought were behind the Bumble decision.

          Reply
        • Andrew Godsall writes:
          “A. That totally depends upon context
          B. God isn’t a man. Isn’t masculine. Isn’t male.”
          Four (genuinely open) questions on this, Andrew.
          1. We know from the Holy Scriptures that ‘God is spirit’ and does not have a physical body.
          But do we know for a fact that ‘God isn’t male’? Where is our Scripture on this?
          Is maleness essentially a physical, creaturely thing?
          2. Why does Scripture universally speak of God as male? Why does Jesus, whom we acknowledge as God Incarnate, always speak of God as male and as Father? Was Jesus mistaken (culture-bound) or pretending? What language is the Church (the Bride of Christ) authorised to use in speaking about God?
          3. Why do we speak of the Son begotten of the Father rather than the Daughter born of the Mother? Is the Father-Son relationship declared in the Trinity a projection onto God of human biology (Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity) – or is it an eternal, divine fact that precedes creation?
          4. ‘Classical Anglicanism’ (= the consensus of Western and Christian faith on the Trinity and Incarnation before the Reformation) affirms the Father-Son relationship as ‘generation’ and the Father-Spirit relationship as ‘procession’. How are they different if Fatherhood is not an essential ontological fact about the First Person of the Trinity?

          Reply
          • Is there some sense in which, following the incarnation, that God is in fact male, at least as pertains the Son? If the Son became a literal human male, and continues to be so, even with a resurrection body, does that mean that God, in a very real sense, is male?

      • Probably, but just remember that the ‘bride’ is actually made up of both men and women. That may colour our understanding of the bridegroom/bride imagery.

        Peter

        Reply
    • And at the eschaton just as Adam married his own body – Eve – so Christ ‘marries’ his own body – the church, the ‘body of Christ’ thus bringing the imagery in a full circle back to where it started.

      Reply
  4. Thankyou Ian, a timely exposition on Worship following on from our meditations on Pentecost.

    At the centre of any Bible is a Prayer and Praise Book
    God’s service stands not in dead ceremonies, but chiefly in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
    We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord.

    The first act[ion] of the church newly born was to Magnify God
    ACTS 2 V 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
    The wonderful works of God.—Better, the great things, or the majesty, of God. The word is the same as in Luke 1:49.
    The word points, as has been said above, distinctly to words of praise and not of teaching.
    [the wonderful works] More literally, the great works of God. So (Acts 10:46) of the first Gentile converts on whom the Holy Ghost came it is said, “They heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.” And of those to whom the Spirit was given at Ephesus (Acts 19:6), “They spake with tongues and prophesied.”[ Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers] et al
    [The essence of the prophetic was to declare the heart and mind of God.]
    Paul exhorts the Colossians
    2:6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
    2:7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
    2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
    To take us beyond espousals Paul then speaks of marriage then he exorts the individuals I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service ROM 12 V1
    A living sacrifice.—“How is the body to become a sacrifice? Let thine eye look upon no evil thing, and it hath become a sacrifice; let thy tongue speak nothing filthy, and it hath become an offering; let thy hand do no lawless deed, and it hath become a whole burnt offering. But this is not enough, we must do good works also; let the hand do alms, the mouth bless them that despitefully use us, and the ear find leisure evermore for the hearing of Scripture. For sacrifice can be made only of that which is clean; sacrifice is a firstfruit of other actions. Let us, then, from our hands, and feet, and mouth, and all our other members, yield a firstfruits unto God” (St. Chrysostom)

    Thus we do not belong to ourselves but by His and our acquiescence,
    1 Cor 6:20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s
    Paul and the Mystics , Job, Joseph, David etc worshiped God in whatever place conditions or adversities they were placed; as Bunyan, Rutherford,
    Brainard etc.
    2:6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
    2:7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
    2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
    Worship is not just for Sundays! It needs lots of exercise and patient, reinforced training. “I will bless the Lord at all times”

    Reply
  5. Somewhere Jim Packer has written that he had memorised the BCP Morning Prayer and that he said it to himself (and to God) as he did his morning walk, as his daily devotion. Packer went on to say of Psalm 95 that true worship is only possible when it is preceded by true repentance. I often think our Sunday worship would be a little more real if we did the confessing and repenting part a bit more deeply.

    Reply
  6. Quite so James [10:13]
    I had long pondered what the nature of this “Power” was that Jesus promised.
    The first facet was obviously worship [He will glorify me -Just as Jesus glorified the Father]
    Paul hammers this out in Ephesians
    5:16 Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
    5:17 Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.
    5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;
    5:19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;

    As a youth I was puzzled how the Psalmist would/could praise God seven times a day
    Or Daniel prays three times a day; I naively felt that one needed to be some kind of monk. However, Pentecost was the answer.
    ROM. 15:8 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:
    15:9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.
    15:10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.
    15:11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.
    James5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
    Ian has broadcast some good seed; one wonders what grounds it will fall on?

    Reply
  7. Some questions from above for Andrew Godsall (in case this was missed):
    Andrew Godsall writes on the Bible’s language and imagery for God:
    “A. That totally depends upon context
    B. God isn’t a man. Isn’t masculine. Isn’t male.”
    Four (genuinely open) questions on this, Andrew.
    1. We know from the Holy Scriptures that ‘God is spirit’ and does not have a physical body.
    But do we know for a fact that ‘God isn’t male’? Where is our Scripture on this?
    Is maleness essentially a physical, creaturely thing?
    2. Why does Scripture universally speak of God as male? Why does Jesus, whom we acknowledge as God Incarnate, always speak of God as male and as Father? Was Jesus mistaken (culture-bound) or pretending? What language is the Church (the Bride of Christ) authorised to use in speaking about God?
    3. Why do we speak of the Son begotten of the Father rather than the Daughter born of the Mother? Is the Father-Son relationship declared in the Trinity a projection onto God of human biology (Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity) – or is it an eternal, divine fact that precedes creation?
    4. ‘Classical Anglicanism’ (= the consensus of Western and Christian faith on the Trinity and Incarnation before the Reformation) affirms the Father-Son relationship as ‘generation’ and the Father-Spirit relationship as ‘procession’. How are they different if Fatherhood is not an essential ontological fact about the First Person of the Trinity?

    Reply

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