The gift-receiving part of the worship service

I sometimes worry that people treat the blessing at the close of the worship service as just a fancy way to say “Good bye, see you next time.” In reality, these are powerful words God invites us to receive as coming directly from Him. As you receive the blessing before you leave, God affirms that you do not go out alone: He is with you to guide and strengthen you in everything that lays ahead of you in the upcoming week.

I love the article that Pastor Lee Eclov wrote entirely about the blessing (a.k.a. benediction) in which he describes it as “sort of an uber-promise:”

[The blessing] doesn’t tell us what God will do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people…  I wonder if the best analogy would be that it is God’s wedding vow spoken to his people. It’s his way of saying, “I take you for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and death will never part us.” The benediction is like God renewing his vows to us.

This is more powerful than someone just wishing you well before you leave to go somewhere. It’s also much more appropriate than ending the service with a command to obey. As The Worship Sourcebook warns, a command at this point in worship could “imply that the Christian life is only about working hard to earn God’s favor” (p. 367). No. Instead of this, God pronounces His unfailing love to you.

At Trinity Christian Reformed Church, I invite everyone to respond to the blessing by saying “Amen” in unison. It’s a way of the congregation declaring “This is indeed so. We receive God’s blessing.” I’ve seen people hold their hands out during the blessing, palms up. This is very appropriate, too, as it shows how God’s blessing is something to be received. Like a gift our gift-giving God is eager to give.

Palms up graphic found via Google

Blessings, of course, need not be reserved only for worship services. May I leave you with two right now? The first is one Dr. Neal Plantinga regularly spoke at Calvin Theological Seminary chapels when he was president there. The second one is likely the most famous one in the Bible from Numbers 6.

God go before you to lead you,
God go behind you to protect you,
God go beneath you to support you,
God go beside you to befriend you.
Do not be afraid…
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.

The melodious part of the worship service

Why do we sing in worship services? Why not simply use spoken words? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, the Bible is filled with songs. The very first words uttered by a human being are poetic. In fact, upon seeing Eve for the first time, I think Adam actually breaks out into song:

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh…”

Following their harrowing escape from Egypt, Moses and Miriam sing praise to the Lord. The Psalms were originally sung, enabling people to express devotion to God in virtually every emotional state known to humans. In jail, Paul and Silas sing in the middle of the night either to assure themselves of their Savior’s presence to because they were assured of His presence (or maybe a bit of both).

When we begin the first song Sunday morning, we’re not really starting something but actually joining our voices in the singing that has been ringing out since the dawn of creation. We join with those who have gone before us in a meaningful way to express ourselves and worship God.

Graphic of people singing found at worshipblogger.com

Second, words set to music penetrate our minds and hearts in a way that regularly spoken words do not. Mike Cosper, who used to serve as a pastor of worship and arts in Louisville, Kentucky, explains this well:

Songs have a way of sticking with us… Songs stay lodged in our memories, their words showing up in our thoughts when otherwise, we might struggle to speak. Songs are both a reference point and a tool; a resource that enables us to articulate our faith while we live in the wilderness of everyday life…

As we sing these songs, we not only pray the words, we absorb them. They equip us with language that describes our experience. We cling to them like life preservers when our faith is challenged.

In a difficult moment, it’s a song that might give me some strength and hope. I have heard numerous stories of families gathered around the sickbed or deathbed of a loved one, someone who is mostly unresponsive yet perks up as the family begins to sing his or her favorite songs. Words set to music trigger a unique response in us, sometimes all the way to our dying moments.

Third, as we sing because we are created to. We are made in the image of God – the God who sings, according to the prophet Zephaniah. When we sing, we’re imitating our Creator.

I think Zephaniah’s prophesy is the only place in the Bible where we read of God singing; all the other instances record the songs of people. What blows me away is what God is singing about – not His own greatness or the beauty of creation. I’m in His mind as He sings!

The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in His love He will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.

It kinda makes me want to joyfully break out in song.

The time-traveling part of the worship service

I love mind-bending time travel stories. Some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek use the time travel plot device. I’m fascinated by how messages were sent through time in the movie Interstellar. And I’m just a sucker for the Back to the Future trilogy.

Doc Brown and Marty McFly watch the Delorian disappear into the future in Back to the Future

You can only imagine how excited I was to realize that there’s a point in a worship service where it feels like I do some time traveling.

Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist), I feel I’m being brought back to the past. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we re-enact the last supper that Jesus shared with His disciples before His death. The words and actions resonate through history: “This is my body… This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins…” Through our eating and drinking, we symbolically proclaim “the Lord’s death.”

I need to add, however, that we proclaim the Lord’s death “until He comes,” to finish the apostle Paul’s quote. There is a future aspect to celebrating the Lord’s Supper in that it helps us look forward to gathering around the table of the feast of the Lamb in the new heaven and the new earth. Speaking symbolically, Jesus Himself said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” The Lord’s Supper takes us not only to the past, but also creates anticipation within us for the future as it gives us a foretaste of it.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper helps us recognize God’s work in us and the church in the present. It unites us to fellow Christians throughout the world who hold to the faith. What’s more, through it the Holy Spirit does something within each believer personally. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely He nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with His crucified body and poured-out blood” (Lord’s Day 28 Q&A 75). Notice the present tense: Through the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Stained glass window at St Michael the Archangel Church, Findlay, OH; from the Wikipedia entry on Eucharist“nourishes and refreshes my soul.” It is a means of grace that not only connects us with the past and creates anticipation for future but also blesses us in the present.

The past, present, and future come together when I gather with my church family around the Lord’s table. It’s a moment in eternity (and perhaps eternity in a moment) filled with richness and grace.

The acrobatic part of the worship service

You might think that when it’s time for the sermon, you have reached the part of the service where you are the most passive – just sit back quietly and take it in.

Microphone and congregation graphic found via Google

In The Preaching Life, author and Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that we look at both the preacher and the congregation as two acrobats performing a routine in the circus who both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment and trusting each other not to let go. The routine will only be a success if both acrobats play their part.

Similarly with the sermon: As the preacher actively brings God’s Word to the people, the congregation also has an active role to playThe Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor in receiving it. With candor, Pastor Taylor writes:

A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher from whom they clearly expect to receive good news. (p. 77)

And that says nothing about how we can actively prepare for and follow up with a sermon. Several ways come to mind:

  • praying beforehand for the preacher as s/he speaks and for myself that I may listen well
  • familiarizing myself with the day’s text(s) before the service starts
  • allowing the prayers and songs after the message to strengthen in my mind the theme and point of the message
  • reviewing the text and message with family or friends over lunch following the service
  • taking a practical step in living out the implications of the text and message

When both the preacher and the congregation see themselves as two acrobats, two active players in the process of hearing God’s Word, we’ll be blessed with some of the best sermons ever preached.

The counter-intuitive part of the worship service

You wouldn’t be the first person to suggest to me that we drop the part of the worship service where we gather the offering. After all, it can take up to five minutes – if the deacons or ushers simply had baskets by the door into which people could drop their money as they exit, we could add something more meaningful to the worship service. (Or just be out the door sooner.) It doesn’t seem like the most effective use of time, does it?

I, however, believe that gathering the offerings every Sunday is a very effective use of time. It is effective in reminding me that everything I have comes from God. The old hymn still rings true:

“We give Thee but Thine own,
whate’re the gift may be;
all that we have is Thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from Thee.”

I need this constant reminder in a world that wants me to believe it’s my talent, effort, connections, or just dumb luck that brings me what I have instead of seeing God’s providing hand in it all. The reality is that I’m giving to God something that’s already His.

I also need the offering to help me practice acting the way God does towards me – generously. Reflecting the One we follow, Christians are called not to first of all be go-getters but go-givers (as Lee. C Camp reminds me in Mere Discipleship), and Sunday’s offering is one consistent place I can practice that. It reminds and equips me to continue behaving that way as I walk away from the worship service and into the week even if the culture surrounding me makes me feel it’s counter-intuitive or even foolish to let go of that money.

I’d also argue that the offering is one of the more “practical” moments in the service where I put faith into action. The Worship Sourcebook describes it well: Giving to the offering “helps us connect our adoration for God with our life of discipleship” (p. 241). It prompts me to discern what other gifts God is inviting me generously return to Him and share with others – gifts of time, possessions, energy, and love. What’s more, the offering is a token or symbol for how I want to offer to God all of me.

Offering graphic found via Google

God may very well use a 5-minute offering to help me remember this everyday stuff and put it into action.

The ridiculous part of the worship service

I’m not sure how well known this is, but as God’s people, we don’t actually confess our sins in a worship service so that we might be forgiven. As Arlo D. Duba writes in Reformed Worship:

We confess our sins because we know and have the assurance that our God is a gracious and forgiving God who, while we were yet sinners, sent Christ to die for us, received us in baptism, and for Jesus’ sake forgives our sins. So we dare to approach the throne of grace with confidence, not with fear. (RW June 1999, p. 16)

Although it is rightly a solemn, introspective moment in the service, it is also a moment of celebration: Even as we confess our sins to God and one another – honestly owning up to our failures – we are assured that in Christ we are forgiven. Not “maybe forgiven” or “possibly forgiven if we’re lucky.” We are “assured” that God’s amazing, boundless, cleansing grace is for me and you. As The Worship Sourcebook puts it: “We confess sin in the context of the covenant Lord’s love shown to us through Jesus Christ” (p. 81).

Forgiveness graphic found via Google

Need I point out that this is the Lord who knows every single thing about you and me? He knows every nasty, secret thing I’ve ever thought. He knows every unethical scheme I’ve concocted. He knows every rotten thing I think I’ve gotten away with. He knows every ignorant, hurtful word I’ve uttered. This is the Lord who shows love and mercy to me in Christ!

It’s almost ridiculous that the great and perfect ruler of the universe chooses to call me one of His children. Yet that is the truth I claim every time a worship service includes an assurance of pardon following the confession of sins. Somewhere along the way, every genuine worship service and every true act of worship echoes with this Gospel, this Good News.

The honest part of the worship service

I’ve heard that including a time for the corporate confession of sins is becoming increasingly rare in worship services across denominational lines. I suspect for some, it’s difficult to integrate into a service filled mostly with praise. Perhaps others fear that dwelling on our sins will frighten away seekers who were not expecting to be reminded of their mistakes.

The fact is that any relationship will not flourish without honesty, and that’s true for our relationship with God. Things go best when we can freely express our hopes as well as our fears, our praise as well as our lament, our gratitude as well as our guilt. Confessing our sins both privately and corporately allows us to bring out into the open what everyone already knows: The God we worship is holy but we are not.

Even though he wrote it in Calvin Seminary’s Kerux student newspaper over a decade ago, my colleague Craig Hoekema made an analogy that sticks with me to this day:

When we don’t confess, I think we are ignoring who God really is and the seriousness of our offense. It is a bit like going to a Presidential Ball in jeans and t-shirt. And even though the President himself has a suit/dress waiting for us, we just proceed with the evening and never take time to change. I think that if we’re gathered as a sinful people in the presence of a holy God, then we are lying to ourselves and each other if we don’t explicitly and intentionally address our sin every single time.  (Kerux, 21 Oct 2004, pp. 1-2)

Recognizing something is wrong is the first step the Holy Spirit uses to move us to do something about it. How can we want something to be fixed if we don’t even acknowledge that it’s broken?

Confession graphic found via Google

Our time of corporate confession in a worship service enables us to honestly assess who we are and where we fall short. But even better, it sets us up for hearing the best news of all: that God is eager to clothe us with His mercy. (More on that next time…)