John Murray and Reverent Worship
One Sunday morning, after the church service ended, the late Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary was approached by a student.
“Graded our papers yet, Professor Murray?” the student asked. Murray was silent, almost certainly leaving the student bewildered and embarrassed. The next afternoon, Murray found the student and walked arm in arm with him and explained his lack of response. “I had gotten so much of a blessing from the sermon, that I did not want to lose any of it by talking to you about that then.”
For many of us, worship is one more thing we put on the calendar of our week. And when we arrive to worship with our fellow Christians, it is not really anything that spectacular with which we hope to come in contact. We sing a few songs, listen to some perfunctory prayers that make one wish Protestants loved written liturgies, listen to sermons that are remembered as much for their attempts at cute humor as for their heart searching application, and go our way as if nothing phenomenal happened. And, in fact, not much of real significance has taken place.
Certainly one can go too far in requiring a rigid solemnity that is out of place for Christians who believe in free and unmerited forgiveness purchased by Jesus for them on the Cross and secured by His resurrection. However, it seems out of place to be talking about the football game one is going to watch later on that afternoon while at the same time attempting to hear a sermon on the terrors of final judgment and hell or the glories awaiting believers in the new heaven and new earth. One might suspect that I am suggesting that worship only occurs on Sunday and among other people. I am not. I think believers worship each day of the week. Yes, there is that general sense in which all of life ought to be worship for the believer since the believer sees work, play, family, social and political institutions, and all of life operating under the sovereignty of God. However, there are certain things that are specifically directed toward God in a way that work and play cannot be. Reading Scripture and praying are both directed immediately to God for example. And, one cannot pray well or read Scripture with any profit if one is distracted by other things like the TV in the background or the constant interruptions brought on by the iPhone.
My point is that leveling worship to include all of life has the potential to make all of the activities traditionally associated with it meaningless, extinguishing as it must the ability to determine the proper time and place for our activities. Most people think that sexual intimacy is a wonderful thing, but wonderful as it is, would it really be acceptable for a Christian couple to engage in it as an act of worship in the presence of others? Or, would it be helpful to engage in it while one is attempting to pray or read the Scriptures by oneself?
The upshot of all this is to suggest that our American churches need to recover a sense of coming into the presence of God that will make us come with awe, even at times to react as John did in Revelation 1 when we hear His voice and fall at His feet as though dead. Our comfort at the thought of free forgiveness and the all-powerful Fatherly embrace of God ought to excite us so much that we can speak of it only in hushed tones.
I suspect that one of the reasons why our worship is often experienced as such a casual thing is that we are operating with a picture of God in which He is basically like us but just a bit bigger. If this is so, then His willingness to send His Son, the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, will not be a strange act in which every law of divine decency is broken but rather an expected act that any person of power ought to perform if he can assuming that such a person is loving. Until we get a handle on a robust doctrine of God, then we can expect that most of the time, our meeting together for worship will be a meeting together of humans with humans but little else.
Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX.