Gravity and Gladness
The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship
It puzzles me that pastors and worship leaders, who have been in the ministry for 10, 20, and 30 years, don’t recite more Scripture at key points where it would be so powerful. The communion table is right here, and I usually stand here, or now Kenny or Dan.
If you’re preaching after or before the communion service, there is just a brief moment where you’re setting the table, trying to gather the people’s hearts and minds to the significance of this moment. When you do that you don’t need a book. You don’t need any notes, not if you’ve been in the ministry for five years.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
You know that. You don’t need to read that. Now, it’s not wrong to read the Bible, but it says so much to your people. He knows this. He loves this. He lives in this. He’s looking at me. He’s talking to me. So there’s a little sermon on Bible memory for the sake of worship leadership at the table, in preaching, between songs, and prayers of praise. What should you do in prayers of praise?
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:25–26).
Worship leaders are full of cries to God.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
If you’re going to be a worship leader, you just ooze this. Live there. Live in the Psalms. The Psalms are the worship book, the prayer book, of the church.
Thank you, Bob, for being here. Thank you for leading us. I don’t usually, at these seminars, get to speak into worship like that. That’s why I’m so fired up. I’m just loving it. If you’re a worship leader and sovereign grace music is newer to you, take heed. There’s all kinds of things that could be said about what he did and didn’t do over there. But, thank you.
And Bob will be here after lunch for an hour for you to ask questions, if you can hang out then.
The Experience of Being Satisfied in God
Now we want to pick up where we left off last time. We were trying to make the case, in point number two on the outline, that as you move in the Old Testament to the New — from the temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, the colors, the tassels, and the just glorious, beautiful, expensive ornaments on the tabernacle and then the temple — things change significantly. Jesus becomes central as the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, and all our worship centers on him. Place becomes less important. Ceremony becomes less important. None of them are evil, but it’s a shift in focus.
I argued that the focus of worship intensifies as an inward experience of the heart. And now we are wrestling with what that experience is.
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Matthew 15:8).
Whatever is happening there, it’s not worship. So then, when the heart is near him, not far, what’s it doing? What’s it feeling? What’s it experiencing? That’s what we’re talking about now.
I argued that God is supremely passionate about God. He created the universe to go public with his glory. It’s totally about him, and we should join him in that so that we sing in a way, pray in a way, preach in a way, welcome in a way, and live in a way that calls attention to how great he is. Everything we’re doing and saying is communicating: “He’s great. He’s awesome. He’s satisfying. He’s everything to me.” That’s what life is for. All of life is for that, and there are just a few unique things that can happen when the church gets together to say that kind of thing.
Then we posed the question: So isn’t that egomania on God’s part? Isn’t that megalomania? We talked about Brad Pitt, Michael Prowse, C.S. Lewis, and Eric Reece — all of whom stumbled over God’s God-centeredness in the Bible. They stumbled over God telling us it’s all about him, as well as Jesus saying things like, “You have to love me more than you love your dad” (Matthew 10:37), and Eric Reece replying, “Who does he think he is?”
My argument, and we got just a little ways into it with C.S. Lewis’ quote, is that God is the one being in the universe for whom the exaltation of himself is the most loving thing he can do for us, because he is the supremely beautiful and satisfying one.
Remember the cartoons? I am made, not to find my greatest satisfaction in me and how great I am, even my sinless self, but I am made to direct my attention outward toward one who made me, redeemed me, adopted me, and intends to show himself to me forever with increasingly beautiful sites of his infinitely satisfying greatness, so that I don’t think about me. That’s what those cartoons were saying. “You’ve never felt more insignificant. You’ve never felt more alive.”
That’s the law written on the heart of Nature Valley advertisers, and you can spot things like that in culture. You want to be a culturally attuned person that can tie in to your generation wherever they are. You can do that, if you’re not sucked into the culture, shaped by the culture, and made the culture, but you have this massive Godwardness overall culture, you can spot these little lichtommens, these little openings that come through. That was a German word that I learned 40 years ago.
They are little places in the forest, when the trees are so thick you can’t see the sky, that suddenly open up into a blue clearing. It’s like a revelatory moment. You might have thought it was night, but it’s not night. It’s day. There are places like that in culture. As you walk around the darkness and the forest of culture, suddenly there’s some line in a movie or something on TV, and you say, “What was that?” You say to your workmate the next day, “Did you see that? I think that was a God thing.” Then you’re into it. Pointers everywhere when you’re alive to God’s breaking into the darkness of advertising or whatever. We could talk a lot about that, couldn’t we? You can find them even in horrible things like the situation at Penn State.
God’s Love for Us in Pursuit of His Glory
So all I’ve done to answer the question of the egomania accusation is point to C.S. Lewis. I haven’t given any Bible yet. So let’s look at a little bit of the Bible on this issue, because this is just huge. If you’re going to join God in making much of God on Sunday morning, you just have to have it settled in your mind that it is good news that God makes much of God.
If you have this inkling inside that you don’t like it, you’re going to steer away from it. You’re going to gravitate toward man-centeredness. You’re going to love God because God is man-centered. And if you love God because God is man-centered, then you will be man-centered. It will flavor your worship. People will taste it. They will think, “This seems to really be about how great man is or how wonderful life can be right now.”
So here is Jesus praying in John 17:1–5:
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you…
So Jesus says, “Father, here I am. I’ve been faithful 30 years. The time has arrived. Make me look magnificent. Reveal to the universe how glorious I am, that the Son may do the same for you.” So this is an intra-Trinitarian conspiracy to magnify each other.
…since you have given him all authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all who you have given him.
Then maybe you could say, “Oh, isn’t that about us? He’s giving us eternal life isn’t he? For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life (John 3:16). It’s about our life. He loves us, doesn’t he, John?” Keep reading.
…And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
So yes, it’s all about you knowing him. It’s all about you loving him. It’s all about you enjoying him. If you want it to terminate on you, you want to be God. You won’t feel loved until God makes you God. But if you’re willing to just be a creature, who’s made to find his ultimate satisfaction in God being God, you’re going to be happy with this kind of eternal life.
…this is eternal life, is that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.
I think that statement is all proleptic, and he is about to complete it on the cross and in the resurrection. The whole thing will be a display of what he’s like and how glorious he is.
…And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
Jesus laid down much of his external, divine glory as he took on flesh and made himself able to perish. Now he’s saying, “All right. I have done it. I have finished it. And I’m coming back, and I expect to be enfolded back into the full display of all that I am as the Son of God.”
Now, here’s the link. Here is how that connects with you, and how it becomes love. At the end of the chapter, in John 17:24–26, he says:
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory…
So when Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy that was set before him, what do you think that was? I think it was this.
He is saying, “I am going to be enveloped into the radiance of the Trinity, and I’m bringing them with me. I died to bring them with me, and they’re going to surround us, and they are going to be shining like the sun with that same radiance because I’m going to glorify them. They’re going to see my glory, and this is the joy that sustained me through the cross.”
…to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Do you see what that is? The infinite love — and that is not a rhetorical world, but a factual, mathematical, and literal word — that the Father has had, now has, and always will have for his Son, who is the radiance of his glory and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3), the love that the Father has always had will be in his people. And what kind of love is that? It is an infinite energy that flows from the Father to the Son and the Son back to the Father. These two have, in the Spirit, loved each other with energy that makes this universe look like a firecracker. That’s the love of the father for the Son.
You cannot overstate the energy. You think there’s energy in a supernova? You think there’s energy in a black hole? You think there’s energy in galaxies upon galaxies? They’re not. They’re like a nut in the pocket of God. God’s energy in loving his son, now that’s worth talking about. Just get a feel for the magnitude of that simple phrase — “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
That it may be in them means that the love the Father has for the Son is now in us. If you read Jonathan Edwards on the Trinity, I think he’s exactly right here that the love of God is in me is what the Holy Spirit is in me. The Spirit of the living God is the person who carries the energy of the Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father, which moves into me by the Spirit. Frankly, if that were released entirely in this body, I would blow to smithereens in this world.
What do you have to have for that to be fully experienced? You need, what’s called in 1 Corinthians 15:44, a spiritual body. If you even got a millionth of that with your physical eyes, these little teeny, round balls in our head — if you got a millionth of the brightness of the glory of God into this, it would explode and go out of your head. You need to have a new eyeball. It’s called a spiritual eyeball. I think it’s still a physical eyeball. I don’t think God hates stuff. He made the world, and he’s not going to throw it away like garbage, as if to say, “Now we just have angels.” Stuff matters to God, but it’s going to be different — a spiritual body.
And all that means is it’s going to be a body capable of handling this forever and increasing. The reason I say forever and increasing is because God is infinite, and I will always be finite. I don’t ever become God. I move towards God-ness. The divine life is shared with me, but I don’t ever become God, which means I’m always moving towards infinite grasp, infinite understanding, but I never get there. The meaning of infinite is that I am always approaching it. It takes your breath away. For eternity we will be increasing in joy.
Children ask the best questions, right? If you say that to a child, they’ll just go, “Where did he come from?” They’re able to be struck with the obvious glories.
So the conclusion of those two little passages is that, for Jesus to make much of Jesus, for God to make much of God, for the Trinity to make much of each other, is not egomania. It is the greatest gift he could give you because he’s going to fold you in. He’s going to include you in. So worship on Sunday morning is helping people get in that. It invites them in to taste more of what the Father feels for the Son and to taste more of what the Son feels for the Father.
This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).
Let the Father’s Spirit get in and you will feel that way about Jesus. You will feel that he’s super pleasing, infinitely pleasing.
Edwards on the Glory of God
My favorite dead theologian outside the Bible is Jonathan Edwards. The paragraph I’m about to quote is the most important paragraph I’ve ever read in Edwards, and almost anywhere else outside the Bible. The implications this has for preaching and the implications this has for worshiping seem to be never-ending to me.
Let me read it. I hope we’re over the hump of thinking that God seeking his own glory is a beautiful, proper, wise, loving, and gracious thing for him to do. Edwards said:
God glorifies himself toward the creatures in two ways: (1) By appearing to…their understanding, and (2) in communicating himself to their hearts and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. God is glorified not only in his glory being seen, but in its being rejoiced in…
So I use language like this: In worship two massive things matter — God being understood truly and hearts being awakened and enlivened duly. Duly means due to that. If that’s true, what we just said about him, then there’s a due experience from the heart, an appropriate, fitting, and proper response. And it isn’t small. Where either of those is missing, worship goes haywire. If truth starts to drift away because the church is becoming liberal and the Bible is becoming negligible, then this becomes emotionalism. If this drifts away, all you have is doctrine, this becomes intellectualism. These are the wrestling matches in the church today. Underneath a lot of worship wars is this tussle between the place of the emotions and the place of the mind.
Edwards just gets it so together it seems to me. When those that see it delight in it, so both, God is more glorified than if they only see it. So woe to us if we are doctrinally perfect and heartless. Edwards continues:
…His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that he might communicate and the creature receive his glory.
That sentence is huge. God made the world that he might communicate and we then receive his glory. That’s why the world was made, which is one of the most important things you can settle on.
…and that it might be received by the mind [you are a rational creature] and by the heart [you are an emotional creature]. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also of his approbation of it and his delight in it…
Now, that sentence has become life-shaping for me. See what it says? I love theology. I like to read theology. I like to read my Bible. I like to understand sentences, paragraphs, books, and arguments. I want to know what God is like. I don’t like fuzzy pictures of God. People slip in weird things when pictures are fuzzy of God. I like a God with edges and contours. He is this, and he’s not that.
I don’t think God is honored when you say, “Oh, all I have is mystery. I don’t know what he’s like.” This is a big book. It has sentences in it, but there’s plenty of people mocking propositional truth. Well, what are you going to put in the place of “God is love” (1 John 4:8), “God is just” (Psalm 11:7), and “God is holy” (Isaiah 6:3)? I would die for those propositions.
You’re going to take them away? You’re going to put some nice and squishy in there? It just comes down to grunting in the end if you wreck propositions.
All that to say, I love it. If we got this right, there wouldn’t be so many emergent types and there wouldn’t be so many anti-propositional types. If the church was doing this better, young people wouldn’t grow up in churches that seemed mindless or emotionless, and therefore they wouldn’t have to make stupid choice. They’d grow up in a church and say, “This feels whole. This feels human. This feels Godward. Why would I want to go over there and draw pictures on the wall, light candles, sit on rugs, and grunt?” Again, Edwards says:
He that testifies his idea of God’s glory does not glorify God so much as he that testifies also of his approbation of it and his delight in it.
So when I say this is life-shaping, I mean that I write book after book, preach sermon after sermon, just to say that. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. All I did was take Edwards and make it rhyme. And Edwards got it from the Bible.
The End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards is the most important book I’ve ever read outside the Bible. It’s short. The first half is very philosophical. The next half will blow your socks off because it’s all Bible. And that’s where it points.
Therefore, when God commands us to pursue joy in him, he is both loving us and honoring himself. He is seeking worshipers by calling us to seek our joy in him. Here are some passages that convey this:
- Philippians 4:4
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
- Psalm 100:2
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
- Psalm 37:4
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
- Psalm 32:11
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
- Psalm 16:11
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Sorrow in Worship
What about confession? Now, this is a question asked last night. So let me tackle this for a few minutes. This is really important because I know that at this point you might say, “So you think, really, the only worship that honors God is happy worship? You think the feel of worship should always be upbeat and always be overflowing with happiness?” Those who know me and Bethlehem know that’s absolutely not the case.
If anything, I lean in the other direction because of how much sadness there is in the world, how much brokenness there is in my church, and how I want those people to be able to taste and see that God is good in the most horrible experiences of life — the 9/11 experiences, the cancer experiences, the wayward kid experiences, the most horrible moments. That is exactly where I want this to be real.
Can sorrow be worship? Yes. And all our sorrows should be. Are you sad about anything right now? I think you are because you’re in a world like ours. So everybody should be sad about something all the time. It just changes in the news and in your life. “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) means you’re always weeping. “Rejoice with those who rejoice” means you’re always rejoicing. So if you don’t have a theology that can be sorrowful yet always rejoicing and rejoicing yet always sorrowful, then you’re going to read your Bible and stumble over these “always” statements.
For example, in Romans 9:2 Paul says:
“…I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers…
And maybe someone would say, “Excuse me? ‘Unceasing anguish’ doesn’t seem to fit with ‘rejoice always.’” And Paul, I think, would look at them and say, “It does.” If you’re not old enough or haven’t gotten near enough to God to experience that, then be patient. You will. You will find yourself weeping your eyes out at some moment where your heart is deeply satisfied in God. You will.
You will get the phone call that she has died, and you will go to your bed, kneel down, and weep for two hours. And inside you will be saying, “Thank you. Thank you that I had her this long,” or, “Thank you that she didn’t suffer long,” or, “Thank you that she stood strong,” or, “Thank you that have sustained me,” or, “Thank you. God, I love you. You’re my all. What do I have if I don’t have you at this moment?” You’ll know what that means. You will know what these tears do not mean and what they do mean.
I don’t think this contradicts our thesis that the inward essence of worship is satisfaction in all that God is for us in Christ. The reason is this: If the sorrow we feel is caused by other people’s loss of joy in sickness, or poverty, or calamity, or death, then our sorrow is really a beautiful statement of desire that they have the joy in God that would satisfy them and glorify God.
This sorrow is an honor to God. This sorrow that they don’t have joy is coming from our joy. If you had never tasted joy in God, you wouldn’t be sad that they don’t have it, would you? It’s your profound, deep experience of tasting God that makes you sad that others don’t have it. And the sadness can be profound.
Or if our joy in God is threatened by our own suffering, or our own prosperity, or our own sin, or our own personality, we should feel sorrow about this, even a measure of anger or hostility toward the sin in us that lets circumstances threaten our joy in God. This sorrow, if it’s a godly sorrow, will show that our hearts are grieved at not seeing God more clearly and loving him more dearly.
The grief shows that deep down we really do want God and want him to be our treasure and our joy. So this sorrow is a way of saying that God really is our treasure, and that joy in God will be the final satisfying state of our souls to his glory. Therefore, it is fitting that corporate worship have seasons of quiet reflection, confession, and repentance. Those do not contradict the statement: The essence and heart of worship is a being satisfied with all that God is for us and Jesus.
There are paradoxes in repentance, aren’t there? Think about this. If a person is dead to Christ — he’s not born again yet, just dead, and has no taste, like the songs we were singing, for heavenly things — how does that person come to experience genuine repentance for that? I don’t think a person can feel genuine repentance for not delighting in God until they’ve tasted delight in God. The Holy Spirit has to give a touch, a living touch. It’s called new birth.
One of the first things — I’m tempted to say the first thing, though maybe first and second don’t even work here — is this tiny, maybe very tiny experience. I would guess for a child it is very tiny, but there’s this experience. Sometimes it’s explosively immediate and powerful. Sometimes it’s tiny. But it is an awakening of the taste buds of the soul for things that once were totally boring and disinteresting; namely God, the cross, grace, wisdom, love, power, substitutionary atonement, heaven, justification, sanctification, etc. Suddenly, you taste and there’s this sense: “What was that?”
And the next thing that comes is, “What have I done all my life? It’s all been garbage. I’ve been eating garbage. All my life I’ve been thinking it was sweet, but this is sweet.” So repentance, ironically, is the fruit of joy. Sorrow is the fruit of joy.
Are you following me? I don’t want to say it too paradoxically. All I mean is that in order to feel genuine repentance for how you have fallen short of treasuring God, you have to treasure him. You got to taste that he’s treasurable. He’s awesome. It makes you say, “Where have I been? And where has he been? Now, there he is offering himself to me, and I am undone.” And then, by grace, you’re mended, and you begin to grow in your ability to enjoy him.
Let’s pause to see if there is a question on that. This may be one of the hardest things to get our minds around — that sorrow, repentance, brokenness, and tears in worship services are not contradictory, necessarily, to saying that the essence of worship is being satisfied in all that God is. We live in a fallen age, and we’re always on the way to where we want to be, and we grieve that we’re not there. Anybody have a question about that?
Circumstances and Satisfaction in God
The question was asked: How do you help people get to that experience when so much of our joy is attached to our circumstances? For example, when my car breaks, I get sad; when the stock market goes up, I get happy. That’s real, and I would just say that is our life calling, both with our own sanctification and our people. That’s why I come back to suffering again and again.
My answer is: You teach and you try to model what the Bible says. Not only to rejoice in that, namely the hope of the glory of the grace of God, but also —
…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…
You teach them that. You go to James and teach the same thing. You go to 1 Peter and teach the same thing. You show all over the Bible that the Bible doesn’t offer you your best life now. It offers you Christ, who is a rock underneath you through all of the sorrows.
Over time, this has happened in Bethlehem, not to everybody, because we’re all over the map in terms of length of being here and spirituality. One of the most deeply gratifying things to me about being here is the number of suffering people who find this, not only a safe place, but a strengthening place. We don’t blow off suffering, and we teach on the importance of it. Job is one of our favorite characters. We can’t believe that he fell on his face and said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Ten children were dead. You don’t say that lightly in a church of 4,000 people, because they are dead, along with a lot of other sorrows. But, you do say it.
When we first sang Matt Redman’s song Blessed be Your Name, I was standing right here. And you know who was standing right next to me where my briefcase is? One of our missionaries. He’s in Syria. That’s why he’s not here. Their baby had just died. They had come home from Syria.
They had stopped in Turkey, trying to have the baby and save it, but ended up losing it. They came home to recover. On the first Sunday they were here it was the first time we ever sang that song. As a side note, I’ve got real strong convictions of how that song should be sung, but I don’t want to be too hard on you, because you’ve all done it differently than I think it should be done.
But we got to the moment in the song where it says, “He gives and takes away. He gives and takes away,” and I was watching this man, thinking, “Just a few weeks ago in Turkey, God took their baby, and we’re saying that in this song.” Can you believe we’re singing that?
So at that moment, I don’t want the drums. I don’t want this to be a hard, driving sound. Sometimes I feel like I want to scream at certain places, “Do you realize what you’re saying here?” I don’t think young people by and large do. Worship leaders, you need to help young people. Young people haven’t had a lot of experience. They haven’t tasted a lot of pain. They’re just happy with a good tune. But it is unbelievably hard to say what we say in that song, what we sing — and we should sing it.
So all this is to answer your question. You sing the truth as well as preach the truth. I just think “He gives and takes away” should have a different feel about it. Hands extended down low as if you just handed God your baby. That’s what I feel when I hold my hands out like that. Owen was the name of this man’s son, and he had just died when we were singing this.
Worship leaders have a huge responsibility to get moments right in the life of a church. It’s a miracle when it happens; when I don’t get depressed at a transmission that goes out and it’s going to cost $1,200, and I wanted to give it to the church, but I don’t have it anyway. I mean, who does not get discouraged when things like that happen? But we preach to ourselves. We preach to ourselves, and put Bible truth underneath it. That’s the end of this point.