Reformed worship: The gathering

Scriptures: Joel 2:11-17; Psalm 100; Hebrews 10:19-25

Last week we began a sermon series that’s going to continue through to Lent. Last week I told you that I could probably have written a sermon on every single portion of the sermon, and if fact if you Googled it online, any of those topics that I had, you would find multiple sermons on every single topic.

In the same way, you could find multiple sermons on everything we’re going to cover today. It’s going to be a fast-paced sermon today, and hopefully you’ll be able to keep up, because I didn’t get to make a handout this week.

Last week we discovered that we are made for worship. We will worship something – if not God, then something else in this world, or someone else. We found that worship means keeping our focus on God, because He is worthy of worship, for who He is, and for what He has done.

Now, we hopefully keep our focus on God throughout our entire living, but we are also called specifically to worship the Lord in a gathered community. There is a purpose for coming here on Sunday morning, beyond fellowship.

There is a biblical mandate and foundation, supporting our worship and its form. And there’s a flow to worship, that hopefully, as we get through all of the sermons in this series, you will see and understand, as you look at the bulletin and as we move through the worship service.

We saw last week, in the passage in Acts, how they stayed in community together, how they went together to the synagogue, how they gathered together to worship, they would go up into the upper room together, and they would have Communion and a meal and offering and things like that.

Now this week, we see it in all three passages. God Himself calls the people to solemn assembly in Joel. During that assembly, they are to do certain things and have certain attitude adjustments. They’re supposed to have contrite hearts.

In Hebrews, we see the author encouraging the listener to live our his faith in a God-honoring way, and that part of that is regular attendance at worship services. It looks like the concept of casual Christianity and part-time membership isn’t new.

Now, let me say that doing stuff outside the church, for the church, outside of worship, is important. This will be covered more in depth when we get to the week on sending into the world in missions. However, Scripture makes it clear that you cannot persevere in your faith and practice without regular participation in the life of the faith community.

In other words, worship. You need to come and be amongst the community of faith, to receive their support and encouragement, to experience the presence of God in a way that is qualitatively than when you’re doing it in your devotions at home.

So if we are to worship together, how shall we gather? And what shall we do once we are here? Our passages today, especially Psalm 100, give us some idea. As noted earlier from Joel, we can see that God calls us to gather, and in the passage He declares a solemn assembly of the people to worship Him.

Now, the way that the nation of Israel did that was by the blowing of the shofar. That’s a ram’s horn. They would have men come out and blow them to call the people to assembly. It would sound something like this.

Click here to listen.

That’s what you call breath control! I have to admit, I like our bells better than the shofar. Nevertheless, it called the people, and after the sounding of the horn, the people were to set their hearts and minds in a particular frame or attitude, and then approach the place of worship.

Joel tells us we need contrite hearts and minds, ready to receive the word of God. The psalm tells the people to have thankful hearts and to give praise to the Creator. So the people would gather outside the place of worship, down below, and they would walk up the hill, to the place of worship.

That’s what so many of the psalms are called psalms of ascent. They would walk up the hill to the temple or the synagogue. And as they did they would sing, and it might sound something like this.

[Plays recording of a capella group singing Psalm 100]

Now, I have to say that they wouldn’t have sung that tune. That wasn’t created until 1557. But they would have been walking up, singing a capella, giving praise to God, singing the psalms, because that’s what they did. They didn’t have praise choruses and stuff like that.

The psalms were their praise choruses. And they would sing praise to God even as they approached the place of worship, putting themselves in the right frame of mind to hear God’s word.

So we answer God’s call to assemble. And we need also to have an attitude that is ready to receive God and His word. I know sometimes that can be tough. Those of us that are parents can understand sometimes the difficulty with arriving at church in a proper frame of mind.

I remember when I lived in Bellevue, Nebraska. Our church was in Omaha, and it was a full half hour away from where we lived. There were three of us teenagers, and one bathroom that had a shower. Sunday morning would come, and of course it would get closer and closer and closer to the time we had to leave.

We always sang in the choir, so we couldn’t just slip into the back a little late. We needed to be there early if possible. Finally my dad would chivy us all out to our Econoliner 150 van, and we would head out, from home to church.

You could hear him muttering to himself at lights when they turned red, and his foot would get heavier and heavier on that accelerator pedal, as he was trying to get us there in time for worship. I’m sure that he and my mother, by the time they got there, were probably not in a frame of mind that was conducive to worship.

It can be tough. That’s why we have fellowship outside the church and sanctuary. We have a wonderful room over here, or when the weather is nice, outside. We can meet together, and it’s part of getting the mind right. We share burdens and joys, and re-establish and strengthen relationships.

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew, when he talked about laying your gift on the altar. He said if you have anger at a brother still, then don’t do it, because you’ll get nothing from it. Instead, go find that brother, make things right with him, and then come to worship.

So you have the opportunity before church to make things right, to experience that reconciliation, to experience that encouragement, and to put yourself in a proper frame of mind. So when we enter the sanctuary, after having done that, we quiet our hearts and we quiet our minds, as we prepare to receive God’s word, and to give Him the praise and the honor that’s due His name.

We listen to the music, or watch the video that Ruth spends time preparing to help you with this task of being ready to hear the word of God. If you don’t want to do that, you can pray. Pray for the leaders in worship. Pray for the sermon. Pray for God to move in your heart today. Prayer is an absolute essential.

There was a wonderful story that I read about John Piper. Maybe some of you have heard of John Piper. He’s a fairly prolific author, a well-known preacher, and he has a church in New York City. One day there was a journalist who was going to visit him.

The journalist met an old man (he didn’t realize it was John Piper at first) who offered to take him on a tour through the church. He said sure, so the man showed him the sanctuary, he showed him the organ, he showed him the fellowship area, and he showed him the chapel.

Then he took him downstairs and showed him the boilers, because they had new boilers that they had put in. And there off of the boiler room was a little door, unmarked. John Piper pointed to that and said, “There is the heart of the church at the worship service.”

The author of the article said, “I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean’?” He opened the door, and there were six chairs there. That’s it. Six chairs. And John Piper said, “Every Sunday, before worship begins, six of our elders volunteer, and they go downstairs from about half an hour before worship, and they pray for the people, for the pastor, for the preaching, for God to be present in worship. And they stay down there and pray throughout the entire service.”

(Now, their services last a little longer than ours, so they’re down there, probably, for a minimum of two hours.) Piper said, without that fire that’s being lit and sent up by the Holy Spirit, worship would be nowhere near what it should be. That was John Piper.

And I have to agree. Pray for the people. Pray for worship. It’s critical. It’s important. And it’s a ministry that anyone can do.

Now, getting to Reformed worship, we start the service with Gathering to Hear the Word. That can include the prelude, which can help us to put our minds and hearts right, if we’ve been distracted, even before worship.

We can then have the call to worship. Sometimes there’s a prayer of the day or a sentence of Scripture that can precede it. Now those prayers are done by the worship leader. But the call to worship is usually responsive, and in some ways it mimics the call of the shofar or the church bells and the psalms of the people as they approached the temple.

It hopefully sets the tone and the topic for the worship theme of the day, whether specific or seasonal. You see, in worship we try, every Sunday, to have a coherent theme throughout worship. Sometimes it deals with my sermon topic, like today. Sometimes, during Lent, during Advent, it’s going to be seasonal, as far as the hymns that are selected, the prayers that are selected, etc.

There is a unified whole that is supposed to be there, so that hopefully you can come in, you begin to have yourself set in a frame of mind here for the Gathering, you hear the Word preached, you respond to that Word, and then you go forth from this place ready to share that Word that you heard from God. And you are clear about what it is that God wants you to share because of the whole of the service and its flow.

So we have this call to worship that sets things up. Then we have a hymn of praise or invocation. We always start out by praising God and asking His presence among us, so that we might be strengthened in our worship of Him.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise.
Be thankful unto him and bless his name, for the Lord is good.

That was our hymn of invocation today. That was a call for you to do this.

We then have a prayer of confession, and there’s a call to confession, much as there is a call to worship, to remind us of our need for God. Sometimes, instead of such a call, there may be a reading of the Law, which is the first Ten Commandments, to help us remember how we fail to meet God’s standards, and the grace that God is showing us in forgiving us.

This prayer starts out corporate, as we realize that we, the body of Christ, sometimes fail to live up to our potential or calling. There may be times when we have something in the prayer of confession that you sit there and say, “That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

My wife told a story about when she was growing up, the church she was in was very much into “causes.” So they would confess sins like environmental insensitivity and not recycling and things like that. She said that we do all those things so why do we confess them?

But the point is, that at that point, the church as a whole may fail to do that. You may individually recycle and be environmentally sensitive, etc., but the church as a whole may not. So we have this corporate prayer, and you are part of the body of Christ, by the way, so – it’s not exactly guilt by association, but you have a responsibility as well.

So we have this time where there is a corporate calling to prayer. And we try to make it thematic, to the extent that it may cover issues relating to the sermon topic or the season. This is to help the member get a sense of unity of purpose within the context of the service.

We then give silent prayer time, to allow folks to confess their own individual sin, so that they, with their hearts contrite, may be ready to hear what God has to say in His Word. Following the silent time, there’s an assurance of pardon, and the person giving it, by the way, does not forgive us.

There are denominations where the priest or the pastor or whoever is up front is the one who forgives the people. But we, in the Reformed church, have the leader remind us that through Jesus Christ, and in Christ, we can be confident that we are forgiven by Christ, and have clean hearts.

This is where freedom and joy might first be experienced by the congregant, as a reminder of the good news of the Gospel. We finish with the Gloria, giving praise to God for His goodness and His salvation, and our forgiveness of sins that lets us go back to the kind of relationship we once had in the Garden of Eden itself, where we can see God face to face, and where we have an eternity promised with Him.

I have to tell you that the Gloria should be a time of loud praise, a joyful noise. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” I know that some of you don’t want to sing. “Oh, I can’t sing well enough. My voice is terrible.”

When I was in Michigan, one of my favorite people in the church was Barb Heseltine. I loved her to death. But she would not sing. Six years, I tried to get her to sing. She said, “My voice is so bad that if I open my mouth, my family starts to move away from me.”

But who cares? You want to make a joyful noise. You want to sing His praise out. I’m going to talk about that a little more later. I’m going to talk about why we should care.

I mean, think about it. You’ve just been granted forgiveness and the promise of an eternity with God. It should be a time of celebration. In some churches, during this portion of the worship service, we have the passing of the peace, and people shake hands or hug, and say, “Peace be with you.” The response is “And also with you.”

It flows out of Paul’s recommendation to “greet each other with a holy kiss” and it’s emblematic of reconciliation with each other as well as God. We’re invoking God’s peace to whomever we greet, and they respond by wishing us the same. That peace only comes through salvation in Jesus Christ, and can only be shared fully with the other saints of God.

Now, these days so many are concerned with illness being spread that the practice has fallen into disfavor in many place. It also, in small churches, I have to say, falls into a practice of extended greetings rather than passing the peace. So it takes time away from the worship service and the focus away from God. So people just don’t do it as often anymore.

Sometimes, in lieu of the prayer of confession, we’ll have a prayer of adoration. This is almost always seasonal and reminds us that God has already accomplished His salvation for all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Days like Easter and Pentecost are fitting times for this/

So as we come to understand what the Gathering is, as we finish up here, you might ask the question, “Why should I care, as long as the worship leaders get it right?” Well, given the centrality of the Word in our worship, it’s critical that we be in a proper frame of mind and heart to receive it, and we cannot always or even usually achieve that on our own. It’s something that needs to be understood, so that we can be deliberate about preparing ourselves in worship.

You know, if you look at your bulletin ahead of time, so you don’t stumble over words, the Gathering part of the worship, with its responsive readings and prayers, can give you a sense of where you might meet God today.

Take seriously the prayer of confession and the silent time after. Confession is always good for the soul, and even if you simply can’t relate to the unison prayer of confession, you could still spend the time in silent prayer for yourself. God will hear you, and He will answer.

Take real joy in the Gloria. Sing it out loud and sing it strong. Don’t be afraid because your voice isn’t what it used to be, or worse. We’re called upon to make a joyful noise. And guess what? You’re going to be singing in heaven someday. So you might as well get used to it now. I told you about Barb. But I also want to tell you about something else. This can be more of a witness than you might know, this singing out and making a joyful noise.

When Pauline and I went to Langhorne Presbyterian, the church that ordained me into ministry, we sang in the choir, and it was a good choir, and there was a young woman there named Carolyn Brown. She was physically deformed, very severely physically deformed. And she could not shape words.

Apparently, according to the altos, she also couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But she loved music. She loved singing. She knew the words of every single hymn by heart. You could just ask her, what this hymn is, and she would start mouthing the words. After a while, if you got to know her, you could understand most of what she said.

But we had an Easter cantata one year, and some of the people in the choir had gone to our director, Holly, and said, “We can’t deal with Carolyn being in the choir. She throws us off. If she doesn’t go, then we will.” Holly said, “Do what you have to do.” And she kept Carolyn in the choir, because she believed it was important for Carolyn to have that opportunity to experience and express her joy.

So we had this Easter cantata. I had a couple of solos in it, and it was recorded. I took it to some of my friends at work, and I played the recording for them. I have to tell you, every single one of them noticed Carolyn.

And every single one of them, individually – because they weren’t together in the same room – said, “How wonderful that you would let somebody who has that kind of handicap participate in the choir and sing with so much joy.”

People noticed her joy, and people saw, through her presence in the choir, just a glimmer of the grace of God that we’re supposed to be showing to each other all the time, and to be sharing as a church. The Gloria is your opportunity to really open your heart to joy. Let it take root in your heart during the assurance of pardon, and show forth during the Gloria.

You know, each and every Sunday, we’re called to come together, by God, for God, and with God, to praise His name. It’s a mandate, a calling, and it is good. When you miss it, you miss something important to your own spiritual health. It’s a time when we can celebrate, a time when we can reconcile, and a time also when we can encourage one another.

My prayer for you is that when you come to church on Sunday morning, that you come to hear the word of God. And my prayer for you further is that when you come to church on Sunday morning, you get what you ask for, and you do hear the word of God spoken to you.

May you give praise to His name for the wondrous things He has done, as individuals and as a church, as we celebrate the good news of the Gospel and then share it with the world.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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