The Word That Kindles Worship

Showing the Glories of God

Preaching as Worship: Meditations on Expository Exultation | Rom Lectures | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School | Deerfield, Illinois

The point I wanted to get across this morning was that the aim of biblical preaching is to bring people to worship God. One of the ways I tried to justify this biblically was to say that the aim is faith. Paul said, “My preaching came . . . by the demonstration of Spirit and power so that your faith might be . . . in the power of God.”

And the essence of faith is the spiritual apprehension of the glory of God in Christ and the hearty embracing of all that God is for us in Christ, so that the thirst of our soul is satisfied in God. Therefore, worship is implicit in saving faith because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So Biblical preaching always aims to quicken and sustain God-exalting satisfaction in God.

The Task and Essence of Preaching

James Henry Thornwell expresses this thought in a letter he wrote about beginning his ministry in South Carolina in 1834. Henry Ward Beecher called Thornwell “the most brilliant minister in the Old school Presbyterian Church.” Thornwell said,

I felt that a new era had commenced in my life in that I was no longer a citizen of the world, but an ambassador of God, standing in the stead of Jesus Christ and beseeching men to turn from the unsatisfying vanities of a fleeting life and to fix their hopes on the enduring sources of beatitude which surrounds the throne of God. (Douglas Kelly, Preachers with Power, 64)

In other words the task of preaching is to warn people about the futility of the broken cisterns of sin that hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13), and to compel them with truth and power to come to the fountain of living water that satisfies forever.

“When preaching is worship, the people will be moved.”

Ho! Every one who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
    Come, buy and eat.
Come, buy wine and milk
   Without money and without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread
    and your wages for what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good
    and delight yourself in abundance. (Isaiah 55:1–2)

That’s the essence of preaching. The best way to glorify an inexhaustible fountain is to keep on drinking and to keep on being so satisfied with that fountain that nothing can draw you away. And therefore the task of preaching is to display the all-satisfying glories of God in such a way that the power of all competing pleasures is broken and God himself holds people captive, because in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).

Preaching as Worship

And I argued this morning that preaching can make its own music. It doesn’t need to domesticate its message and limit it to scratching where people itch. And it doesn’t need the music of organ or piano or synthesizer or guitar to make its God-exalting theme palatable. What it needs is the Spirit-given singing of the soul of the preacher. When the worship-seeking word comes, it must come worshipping. When preaching is worship, the people will be moved.

James Stewart, the great Scottish preacher, has a section on this in his book, Heralds of God, where he says,

If in a congregation one soul here and another there may be receiving, as the sermon proceeds, some vision of the majesty of God, some glimpse of the loveliness of Christ, some revelation of personal need beneath the searchlight of the Spirit, is the ministry of the Word to be minimized or regarded as less divine . . . than other parts of the service? Is not such preaching worship? (Stewart, Heralds of God, 73)

And I would simply stress that it is worship — not just because it awakens a satisfying sense of God’s glory in the people, but also because it exhibits a satisfying sense of God’s glory in the preacher. That is what we will talk about tomorrow.

The Pursuit of Preaching

But before we get to that, we must make clear that preaching pursues its aim of worship not merely through the preaching exultation, but through expository exultation. The song of his heart has power, but it is God’s power only when he is singing over the truth. Therefore, I defined preaching this morning as expository exultation. Not just exultation, but expository exultation. By exposition I mean exactly what John Stott means in his book Between Two Worlds,

It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Of course, if by an “expository” sermon is meant a verse-by-verse explanation of a lengthy passage of Scripture, then indeed it is only one possible way of preaching, but this would be a misuse of the word. Properly speaking, “exposition” has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor pries open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is “imposition,” which is to impose on the text what is not there. But the “text” in question could be a verse, or a sentence, or even a single word. It could equally be a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of the text is immaterial, so long as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it. Whether it is long or short, our responsibility as expositors is to open it up in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately, relevantly. . . . (Stott, Between Two Worlds, 125–126)

When I call preaching “expository exultation” that’s what I mean by “expository.” “To expound Scripture,” Stott says, “is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view.” And what is there in Scripture mainly is God. The all-pervasive, all-important, all-surpassing reality in every text is God. Whether he is commanding or warning or promising or teaching, he is there. And where he is, he is always supreme. And where he is supreme he will be worshipped. Therefore the overarching, pervasive, relentless subject of preaching is God himself with a view to being worshipped.

Awaken a Passion for God

Therefore when we ask — as every preacher must ask who knows this aim of preaching — How can I awaken the slumbering passions of God’s people for the surpassing worth of knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ? How can I kindle the flame of knowledge and faith that says, there is none like Christ, there is no treasure, no pleasure, no perk, no profit, no prize, no reward, no wife no child like Christ; “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”? How shall we preach to beget and sustain such a passion for God?

The answer is at least this: in our preaching we must display from Scripture week in and week out the glories of God in Christ. It won’t do to briefly say that Christ is great or that our mission is to glorify God, and then hasten on to speak of other things. Oh how many preachers in pulpits and teachers in Christian colleges and seminaries and Christian counsellors account for their God-neglecting sermons and syllabi and sessions by saying: “Well, God is the foundation of all we say, we assume that; we take that for granted.”

“The all-pervasive, all-important, all-surpassing reality in every text is God.”

But more and more I have come to believe that God does not like being taken for granted. The whole point of the creation of the universe is to display God. The heavens are telling the glory of God; day unto day pours forth speech. The point of the incarnation is to display God. The point of preaching is to display God. The analogy of God as a foundation is an utterly inadequate analogy to account for how God relates to our work. Cement block foundations are indispensable, but who thinks about them, talks about them, loves them, worships them. They are forgotten.

Out of the Basement, Put on Display

God did not put his glory on display in creation and redemption in order that it might be taken for granted as a foundation underneath the building of our church activity, or the school of our academic enterprise, or the clinic of our psychological techniques, or the house of our leisure. Woe to us if we get our satisfaction from the food in the kitchen and the TV in the den and the sex in the bedroom with an occasional tribute to the cement blocks in the basement. God wills to be displayed and known and loved and cherished and worshipped always and everywhere and in every act — especially preaching.

We will awaken worship in our people when we stop treating God as an out-of-sight foundation for all the other things we like to talk about; and instead start talking about the glories — plural, glories — of God himself and his Son Jesus.

  • His value and worth;

  • his triumphs past, present, and future, over sin and death and hell and Satan;

  • his knowledge that makes the Library of Congress look like a matchbox, and quantum physics like a first grade reader;

  • his wisdom that has never been and never can be counselled by men;

  • his authority over heaven and earth, without whose permission no demon can move an inch;

  • his providence, without which no bird falls to the ground or a single hair turns gray;

  • his word, that upholds the universe, and keeps all the atoms and molecules together;

  • his power to walk on water, and cleanse lepers, and heal the lame, and open the eyes of the blind, and cause the deaf to hear, and to still storms with a word, and raise the dead;

  • his purity never to sin;

  • his trustworthiness never to break his word or let one promise fall to the ground;

  • his justice, to render all accounts settled either in hell or on the cross;

  • his patience, to endure our dullness for decades;

  • his endurance, to embrace the excruciating pain of the cross willingly;

  • his wrath, that will one day cause people to call out for the rocks and the mountains to fall on them;

  • his grace, that justifies the ungodly and his love, that dies for us even while we were sinners.

In other words, if we want to beget worship through preaching we have to bring the glory of God up out of the basement, and put it in the window. And then we have stop speaking about it in vague, passing generalizations about God’s glory, and begin to describe the specific contours of his perfections. The task of the sermon week in and week out is to help our people bring into sharp focus a fresh picture of why God is the all-satisfying Treasure of their lives. People are seldom moved by vague allusions to the greatness of God. They need to see some particular, concrete, stunning representation of his greatness. Some fresh angle on and old glory that makes people say with Paul: “I count everything as loss for the surpassing value of knowing this Christ.”

For example, last week I was reading my devotions in John 8, and this word bolted off the page: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he shall never see death.” Now there’s a text for the glory of the authority and power of Jesus. Who today could stand before a TV camera and look out over the world of humankind and say, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” In other words, “I have absolute power over death and I have absolute authority over the life of every human being. If you keep my word, just when death raises its ugly face and reaches out its horrid claws, in the last split second of your life I will come and take you. You will not even see grisly face.”

You either put that man behind bars or you bow down and worship. But you don’t trifle with him. If our people are going to worship, they must see the glories of Christ and be satisfied with all that God is for them in Jesus. That is the task of preaching. Show them the glories.

Let Them See from the Text

One last thing. Just as there is a tendency today to take the glory of God for granted and to keep it in the basement as the assumed foundation for other topics, in the same way there is a similar tendency to hide the actual wording of the biblical text as the unseen foundation of the sermon. There seems to exist the idea that to tell people to look with you at the words and phrases of the text as you make your points from the text is academic or pedantic — that it smacks of school and lectures which have boring connotations and so don’t hold the attention or stir affections, let alone assist worship.

Well, I want to end this afternoon by pleading otherwise. Our people need to see that what we say about God comes from the word of God. We should not ask them to take our word for it. We should show it. Our aim is to show the glories of Christ with the authority of God’s words not ours. Our ideas about the glories of Christ are of no great importance. What matters is what God says about the glory of God. And it matters that the people see that it is God who says it and not us. And showing them the very words and phrases and clauses that display the glory of Christ does not have to be pedantic or boring.

I am pleading not merely that what you show of Christ really be from the text, but that you demonstrate to your people that it is from the text. That you deflect the authority away from yourself to the text, and that you enable them to see it and hold it from the text for themselves.

From Joy He Sold All He Had

I close with an example. My aim in preaching is that God be glorified through the people’s being satisfied in him. That God become so gloriously all-satisfying in their lives that nothing can lure them away from him. I open to them Matthew 13:44 and read, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.”

“The goal of God, life, and preaching is God-exalting joy in the kingdom of God.”

And I say to them, “Look at this. How valuable, how precious is the kingdom of heaven? Is it valuable enough to lose everything you have in order to get it — your house, your wedding ring, your car and stocks and retirement portfolio and books and computer and clothes and health insurance?” And they say, “Yes, it says that here: he sold all he has to get that field — to have the kingdom.”

And I say, “Yes, so far so good. But how valuable is it really? Is that all Jesus wanted us to feel — that the kingdom is worth losing everything for? That we can count everything as rubbish for the surpassing value of having the kingdom heaven? No, there’s another phrase here. Don’t miss it. It makes all the difference in the world. It has made all the difference in my life. It makes all the difference in my preaching. Do you see it? Do you see it in God’s word and not my word?”

“‘And from joy over it, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.’ It’s the joy that drives him.” The power to ‘let goods and kindred go,’ the power that overcomes the health wealth and prosperity ‘gospel,’ the power that severs us from all the fleeting pleasures of sin, the power that binds us to God and holds us there enthralled is the joy of the all-satisfying glory of the kingdom of God. Read it. Read the very words. ‘And from joy over it’ — from joy, he sold all that he had. All sacrifice, all obedience, all worship is the impulse of this joy in God.” This is the goal of God, the goal of life, the goal of preaching: God-exalting joy in the kingdom of God.