The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship

Session 3

Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning

My alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. this morning and I dragged myself out of bed. I took a shower. I went to my study. I closed the blinds on the 11th Avenue side, and I knelt down at my bench that is designed for me. And I opened my Bible first to Proverbs and then Isaiah, and I read these words in Isaiah 34:2:

For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
     and furious against all their host . . .

Then I paused, lingered, and tried to let that have its God-designed effect on my heart. That is simply a sweeping, stunning statement. The Lord is enraged against all nations. And I thought of our session in which we discussed gravity.

Enraged at the Nations

Now, when you’re reading through the prophets, you stumble across things like that regularly. And the world doesn’t think that way often, that God is angry at all the nations, furious at all their hosts. This is not a mild displeasure. This is fury, rage. And so I simply had to come to terms with the God who is so infinitely holy that the way the nations relate to him infuriates him.

That’s one side of my personal devotions this morning. I thought of John 3:36, because that is such a pivotal verse in the Gospel of John, where it says:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

Now that word remains signifies Isaiah 34:2. The wrath of God is already there on us and every nation. He is furious in his omnipotent power against sin, and those who commit it. And there’s one escape: he sends his Son into the world to die under that rage and absorb it off of us if we will believe in him. And if we won’t, the wrath of God remains on us.

That was the next thought I had in my devotions, which wasn’t in the text, I just needed it. I needed it because he had just told me he’s furious at all the nations and nothing worse can be conceived than the fury of an omnipotent God against you. Nothing can be conceived worse than an omnipotent God, furious against you. And that’s what he says he is.

So I have to have an escape. I have to have some relief. I cannot live under that. I cannot survive under that kind of horrible cloud. And that’s why the gospel exists. So I went to John 3:36 and said to Jesus, “Thank you. I do believe in you. I do fly to you now, cover me with your perfect righteousness and cover me with your all-sufficient atoning blood and avert from me this fury.” And of course, Jesus says by his word, “That is what I came to do. You’re safe. Relax. You’re in the eye of the hurricane. You’re not in the wind.” So I kept reading, and that took about 10–15 minutes for all that to happen. And I kept reading and I came to what I wrote at the top of my Bible. I don’t know what year I wrote this but it was Isaiah 35, a beautiful chapter.

Sorrow and Sighing Shall Flee Away

It’s following that chapter of God’s rage. I’m just going to read you the whole chapter. It’s not long. I want you to savor the beauty of this word. So what I’m doing right now is just illustrating gravity and gladness. That’s all I’m doing. Out of my life this morning, this is what I would like to happen in our corporate gatherings — a mingling of these glimpses of God. Here’s Isaiah 35:1–10:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
     the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
it shall blossom abundantly
     and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
     the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
     the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
     and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
     “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
     will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
     He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
     and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
     and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
     and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
     and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
     the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
     and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
     It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
     even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
     nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
     but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain gladness and joy,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Gravity and Gladness

That’s the chapter that comes right after the statement about how the Lord is furious with the nations. You cannot enjoy Isaiah 35 if you don’t know the God of wrath — you can’t. You will dumb it down. You’ll make it superficial. You’ll make it thin. You’ll make it romantic. You’ll make it an image of your own immediate desires for something. But if you put it right after chapter 34, it will land on you a different way. In fact, I memorized Isaiah 35:10 once. It says, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing.”

The ransomed, the redeemed, that’s those who have run to Jesus, pleaded his mercy, escaped the wrath of God, and been rescued and ransomed and redeemed from his wrath. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion (that is, the place of the King) with singing. Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.” And I circled that in my Bible. I circled that phrase everlasting joy.

In fact, when I was finished with my prayer time, I got up and went to my computer, I turned it on, I double clicked the Accordance icon, went to my Hebrew, and read this verse in Hebrew to see what the phrase was for everlasting joy. And the phrase is simḥat olām. simḥat is joy and olām is age, or eternity. So it could be translated, “the joy of the age,” or, “the joy of the ages.” Everlasting joy awaits you. Our joy here is very embattled. It’s up, it’s down, it’s thin, it’s gone, but there is a day coming when the ransomed of the Lord will go to Zion and all sighing will flee away. There will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more crying, and only everlasting joy. And the God of rage will only be for us, mercy. So that’s a flavor of what I mean by gravity and gladness.

Worship and the Coming of Christ

Let me review where we were in the last session or the last couple and bring us up to where we are now. I began by giving you a New Testament argument that Jesus took hold of the Old Testament word for worship (hishtahava or prokuneō) and dealt with it in such a way that he stripped it of its localized, external focus and radically intensified it as an inward experience. That was my argument, which is why I think that word, prokuneō, disappears virtually in the epistles of the New Testament and the language of temple, the language of sacrifice, and the language of priestly service all becomes delocalized and de-externalized, and it becomes an inward experience expressed now everywhere. That’s the emphasis. All of life, all of ministry, all of eating, all of drinking, and whatever else you do becomes a way of reflecting the glory of God. That’s the emphasis of the New Testament.

Then we shifted over to pose the question, “If you’re saying the New Testament is radically intensifying the inward nature of worship as a heart experience of God, what is that experience?” That’s the question we posed near the end. What is that experience? And I argued that the essence of it, not the whole of it by any means, but the heart and essence of it is being satisfied with God. Being profoundly content, happy, joyful, and thrilled, admiring who God is, is the inward essence of worship.

Then I said that that fact itself, modeled for us in God’s own passion for his glory for himself, doesn’t quite get at why this is worship. To do that you have to ask the question, “How is God’s pursuit of his own glory loving?” And we closed the last session by reading CS Lewis’s section from Reflections on the Psalms, where he said that God’s demand that we praise him bothered him when he was an unbeliever, because he said it sounded like an old woman wanting compliments. Those were his words.

The Consummation of Joy

Michael Prowse is a columnist for the Financial Times in London and wrote a book review a few years ago, expressing in our time, in this generation, exactly the same burden, concern, and anger that Lewis had in his unregenerate days. He said, “I cannot understand a God who demands that people get down on their knees, and demands that people praise him, and demands that people love him. That sounds like a weak tyrant who desperately needs the approval of his creatures or of his subjects.” That’s Michael Prowse from the London Financial Times a few years ago.

This is not uncommon. I heard Don Carson say the other day on a tape I was listening to online — he goes around and he does the evangelist talks at universities — that the questions in the last 30 years have dramatically changed from what students used to ask about and what they presently ask. The one illustration he gave was that they used to ask more apologetic-type questions, like, “How do you know the Bible?” Now, the more common type of question, the one he chose to mention, is precisely this one: “What kind of a God would be so egocentric as to demand that people praise him all the time? How can you worship a God who is like that?”

So you have C.S. Lewis, Michael Prowse, and the witness of Don Carson showing that we’re not just making up this problem. The Bible’s portrait of God as pursuing his glory and creating you for his glory and demanding that you eat and drink and do everything to his glory is a problem for a lot of people. So the question that I raised is, how is it loving? Because that’s the issue. This doesn’t look like love to be always advancing your own self. If you were to advance your own self all the time, you would not be loving; you would be vain, arrogant, proud, and self-centered in a vicious, sinful way. And yet for God, it’s not sinful. And Lewis’s quote said that what he had never noticed was that the demand that we praise him is the demand that we do what we always do, in fact can’t help but do with everything else we enjoy.

We praise wines. We praise songs. We praise singers. We praise sports. We praise sunsets. We praise babies. We praise jewelry. We praise weather. We praise churches. We praise everything that we happen to enjoy it. And then he added this key statement that the praise is not just tacked on to the joy; the praise is the joy in consummation. It completes the joy. If you’re cut off from it, then the joy is not complete, if you don’t get to praise it.

Sharing in Joy

I remember the weeks after I first read that in Reflections on the Psalms in 1969 or whenever it was in my days in seminary. The ordinary, simple, practical illustration that I saw in my own life was this. I used to go in the library at Fuller seminary and all the magazines were on a rack. And one of them was the New Yorker. The New Yorker is a sophisticated literary magazine. I don’t even know if it still exists. I assume it still does.

But in those days it had probably half a dozen cartoons in it. These were very sophisticated cartoons, we’re talking almost 40 years ago, so you wouldn’t know any of them. But anyway, I walked over and every month I would just go through and look at the cartoon. And now I’m in a library looking at cartoons, which are supposed to make you laugh. And I would see a really clever political cartoon and inside I would love it. I would think, “This is so cool!” And everything in me wanted to say, “Look at this, look at this.” What is that? I was interpreting that experience in terms of CS Lewis’s words about praise. What is it about me that makes me say, “Yes, I’m enjoying it, but my joy feels limited, frustrated, and truncated until I can say, ‘Look at this!’ and have somebody else laugh with me.” And then my mind began to just go all over the place.

I remember as a boy, a teenager, watching Red Skelton on television. Most of you don’t know who Red Skelton is, but he was a comedian and he was really weird. And I hated watching Red Skelton by myself because I wanted somebody to laugh with. So I would go get my mother and say, “Red Skelton is doing one of his monologues, come here,” because my mother laughed like crazy. She would laugh untill tears ran down her nose. And we together would feed on each other’s enjoyment of this humor. These were little lessons, little pointers to something very profound that when God commands you to praise that which is infinitely praiseworthy, he’s doing it for your sake as well as his sake, because your praising that which is most beautiful and most satisfying is not some kind of demanded to tack on; it’s the completion. It’s the consummation. God wants the fullness of your joy and the fullness of your joy can only be found in him.

The Glory of the Son and the Father

That’s where we ended last session. I have here a biblical foundation for what Lewis says. That’s kind of a reasoning way of talking. Now, this is just plain old Bible, which is more important and more solid. Here’s Jesus. What I’m doing now with these verses is just taking a minute to show you that, biblically, God’s pursuit of his own glory is love. That’s what love is.

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, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, 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. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (John 17:1–5).

Those first five verses of this priestly prayer in John 17 are all about Jesus and the Father and their glory and Jesus’s prayer that he would be glorified. He says, “Glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify you.” There’s a conspiracy between the Father and the Son to glorify each other. Jesus is praying, “You glorify me, and then with the glory that you glorify me I’ll be able to glorify you, and there will be this glorious, complete, intra-Trinitarian glory. He says, “Father glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had.” This prayer for you, for his people, begins with a prayer for his own glory to be completed back with the Father.

Now, if you just read those first verses there, you’d say, “What a strange prayer. I mean, this prayer is all about him, it’s all about himself. It’s not about me. It’s not a prayer for me. It’s not a priestly prayer. It’s an ego prayer. Father, I glorify you. You glorify me and I’ll glorify you. Do that.” What kind of a prayer is that?

It’s a prayer preparing for these words at the end. This is the end of the prayer:

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, 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 (John 17:24–26).

Brought into the Glory of Christ

The reason it is loving for John 17:1–5 to be a petition to God that the glory of the Son be restored with the Father after his humiliation on the earth is that he’s preparing a place for us to join him in that glory. He says, “I want them to see me in my glory.”

If you believe that the prayer of Jesus for you in John 17 is a loving prayer, then you will say that these words here are love, and they are. Love labors at great sacrifice to itself in order to satisfy the beloved on that which is most satisfying forever. That’s what love does. Love labors at great cost to itself in order to bring the beloved into the fullest and longest satisfaction with what is infinitely satisfying forever. That’s the definition of what love does, and that’s what God does when he pursues our enjoyment of his glory.

The most important paragraph that I ever read in the works of Jonathan Edwards is this paragraph, and you’ll see now the connection with worship, I hope:

God glorifies himself toward the creatures also 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 by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.

That means right doctrine is good, and reflecting the value of God by thinking right thoughts about him is good, it’s just not enough. He 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; and that it might be received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it

Now, that paragraph is of all the things probably that we will talk about in all of these sessions, the most significant paragraph outside the Bible for what it means to worship God in life together as a church, because God glorifies himself in our understanding him truly, and our affections for him duly.

Spiritual Emotions in Proportion to the Truth

Many people do not grasp that God is not glorified in their lives the way he should be until they enjoy him the way they should. The implications of that are massive: we will pursue right understanding for the glory of God and we will pursue right affections in worship for the glory of God.

Somebody asked me last night about how these two work together — truth and affections, emotion or experience and the objective truth. And there’s a quote from Edwards about that. I was so moved by it and so helped by it years ago that I think I just about have it by heart. It goes like this. Edwards said, as a preacher, “As a preacher, I think it’s my duty to raise the affections (that’s just his old 18th century word for spiritual emotions) of my hearers as high as I possibly can provided they are being raised by truth and that they are conformable to the nature of the truth that raises them.”

That’s a very significant sentence. It drove the pastors in Boston crazy. Charles Chauncy hated that sentence. By Edwards saying, “I consider it my duty as a pastor to raise the affections of my people as high as I possibly can,” he thought that was pure enthusiasm. We would say, “Charismania.” But when Edwards adds, “Provided that these emotions and these affections are being raised by truth and provided that the nature of the affections themselves are conformable to the nature of the truth,” all protections are given from abuse. I love that sentence. That is what I consider my job to be as a pastor. It’s an impossible job. I cannot create spiritual affections.

There are a lot of pastors who don’t realize they can’t create spiritual affections because they know they can create carnal affections. They can make people laugh. They can make people cry. They can do anything with their rhetoric, but it’s not spiritual. When he says that the emotions should be conformable to the truth, he means that if you’re talking about hell, you don’t want people to laugh. I have seen pastors talk about hell with a little grin on their face, just a little grin. And as I try to interpret, what is that face? What does that mean? They’re talking about a terrifying topic and there’s a little grin on their face.

The Imperative of Joy

The one time I can remember my interpretation was that this pastor was dreadfully uncomfortable moving away from happy times, a happy feeling in the church. He was just dreadfully uncomfortable moving away from happy times. He welcomed them in a way to be happy. He told stories in a way that helped them be happy. He wanted this room to feel good. And then he was going to talk about hell and in order to not completely go there, he kept up a face that said, “I really am still kind of light and happy.” That’s weird. Hell isn’t something you grin about. It’s just not. We have to go there as a people. And so when Edward says, “I’m going to raise the affections of my people as high as I can,” it means that if he’s talking about heaven he wants that kind of thrill, and if he’s talking about hell he wants terror. If that happens, it’s the work of God. If it’s rooted in truth, you can’t manipulate those kinds of things. If you try you’re going to mess it up.

So when the Bible commands us to rejoice in God — as Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice,” or as Psalm 100:2 says, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” or as Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord,” or as Psalm 32:11 says, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,” or as Psalm 16:11 says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” — which it does in those verses, it’s demanding that we do that which will give God most glory. Because being satisfied in God is the way he’s most glorified.

Sorrow and Satisfaction in God

Now, I want to spell out some implications of this for Sunday worship. But before I do, I want to pose this question: what about godly sorrow? I’m saying the essence of corporate worship is being satisfied in God. So maybe you’re thinking, “Does that mean there should be moments in the service in which people are broken, sad for their sin? And if so, how does that fit? Have you turned all of worship into good times and happy feelings by using the word satisfied as the essence?”

That’s a really good question and I ought to be pressed on that because I really believe worship services should carry us from “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3), to saying, “God, I’m unworthy” (Isaiah 6:5). Then the coal comes, touches the lips, and God says, “I have taken away your sin” (Isaiah 6:7). Now, that moment right there is not a happy. It feels like, “In your presence I feel so unworthy. I’ve treated my wife so badly. I’ve neglected my kids. I’ve looked at pornography. I’m just so rotten. I hate even being here. It’s just awful. I feel terrible.” Is that worship? Here’s my effort to deal with that. Can sorrow be worship? Yes, and all our sorrow should be. Not all of it is, but all of it should be. I don’t think this contradicts our thesis that the inward essence of worship is satisfaction and all that God is for us in Christ.

And here’s my reason for thinking that. 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 beautiful — it’s a beautiful statement of desire that they have the joy in God that would satisfy them and glorify God. Sorrow is an honor to God. One way I said it is like this. Let’s say you’re weeping. Suppose you have friends in Galveston, Texas, and their house is just ruined. It’s ruined. The insurance won’t cover it all and there are very precious things that they forgot to take with them or couldn’t take with them, irreplaceable things, and they’re just ruined. And they call you in tears and you cry with them. You both cry. Can that be worshipful and can that be an expression of satisfaction in God?

And the sentence goes like this, “The weeping of compassion is the weeping of joy impeded in the extension of itself to another.” Does that makes sense? It’s the weeping of compassion. They’ve just told you of their losses. You love them. You feel what they feel and you want them to be happy. You want them to be content in God and you want them to be freed from this pain, and that desire isn’t reaching its fulfillment because they’re not where you’d like them to be. You’d like them to be restored. You’d like everything to change. And all that desire that they share your joy in God is being impeded because those of circumstances and that tearful sense of, “I would love to lift your burden.”

Lamenting the Loss of Joy in God

A day before yesterday Chuck, our worship leader downtown, lost his dad, and I called him. Everything in me said, “Chuck, I want to hug you.” And he said, “The call is good enough.” But I couldn’t get at him. I couldn’t get to him. And that feeling I think is very honoring to God, because what you’re saying is, “I’m content in God and he has met my needs. He is so satisfying. I want to extend it to another but I can’t extend it as fully I would like, and tears come to my eyes because of it.” So I just think those moments of compassion over others’ hurts are very worshipful moments if that’s the dynamic of your heart.

Here’s the issue about yourself, in your own sins. If our joy in God is threatened by our own suffering or our own prosperity — both can threaten our joy in God. Anything that would threaten my joy because of me, not others and their suffering, should make me feel sorrow, even a measure of anger or hostility towards sin in us that let circumstances threaten our joy in God. This sorrow, if it is a godly sorrow, will show that our hearts are grieved at not seeing God more clearly and loving him more dearly. This 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.

That’s complicated, but it’s real, I believe. In other words, I’m saying that sorrow over your sin, if it’s understood rightly, because sin is a failure to see and savor God fully, and therefore go after other things for satisfaction than God, signals a deep down delight in God that is not being experienced the way you’d like it to be experienced. And you’re sad about it, you’re broken about it, and God loves that. It reflects his worth. He delights in the brokenness and the tears of those who fail to love him as they want to love him. Therefore, it’s fitting that corporate worship have seasons of quiet reflection, confession, and repentance. That’s not a contradiction to the point. There are four massive implications of this for our life together in worship, but we’re going to take a break here and we’ll come back in the next session and look at those implications.