07.03.11 The Acts and Purpose of Worship, Psalm 95
Many of us listen in worship like we’re listening to
music in our car—it better be entertaining. In reality we should be listening like
we’re taking a hearing test. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.
- There are a number of attitudes in
worship, and actions that go along with them.
- What it means to “enter God’s rest.”
- The purpose of worship is to hear God’s
- Questions for further reflection.
Psalm 95 can be broken down into two halves: (1) the
acts of worship, and (2) the purpose of worship. In the first half, the Psalm
talks about what we do, namely rejoice, praise God, give thanks, and worship
God in reverence. We do this, it says, because God is our Creator, King, and
Shepherd. These are the ways God relates to us. God is our origin and ground “in
whom we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is our Ruler Whom we
trust is in control and bringing all things into right relationship. And God is
the One who calls, guides, provides, and protects us.
The Psalm also offers these examples of such acts of
worship: singing, hollering (making a joyful noise), bowing, and kneeling. In
our church, we practice these principles of worship by singing songs of praise
and thanksgiving, moving forward to receive communion, standing at times,
raising our hands, lowering our heads, and praying to God as Creator, Sovereign,
But what is the purpose of worship? This is the
theme of the second half of Psalm 95. It makes reference to one or two events
in the life of ancient Israel during their time in the Wilderness—between enslavement
to Egypt and arrival in the Land of Promise. Exodus 17 presents the event at
the beginning of the Wilderness; Numbers 20 presents it towards the end.
Whenever it happened, the bottom line is that the people were not allowed to
enter the Land of Promise—here referred to as God’s “rest”—because of the “hardness
of their hearts.”
The Newer Testament book of Hebrews reads like a
sermon. If looked at from this perspective, then the Bible reading would be
this latter half of Psalm 95. Focused on at length in chapters 3-4, Hebrews quotes
Psalm 95 and interprets what it means to enter God’s “rest.” There are at least
four ways to understand this phrase in Hebrews.
(1) Daily overcoming of temptation. Hebrews urges
its hearers to not fail to enter God’s rest. And the way we do not fail is to
rely on Jesus as both example and aid. Hebrews 4:14-15 summarizes this point.
(2) Hebrews calls us to rest from the
religious work of sacrifice. We are no longer to rely on animal sacrifices to
effect our communion with God (cf. Hebrews 7:27). Instead we are to
(3) Rest in the religious work of Jesus as
priest. Because of the sufficiency of his ministry, no more animal sacrifices
are required (Hebrews 9:11-12). Hebrews 10:11-14 summarizes both of these last
(4) “Resting” in God means, finally, growing into
maturity spiritually. In Hebrews 5:11-6:2 the preacher chastises his or her
congregation for not moving beyond the basics, listing issues of repentance and
baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection, and eternal life. To me, this sounds
like the kind of concerns a new convert would have, and given the context, this
is a pretty sure bet. So to “enter God’s rest” doesn’t just refer to an
afterlife (I think it probably does refer to this also in Hebrews). But I
believe Hebrews is talking about what we do NOW, on this side of death, in THIS
life. We are to become mature (number 4) by doing numbers 1-3.
And entering God’s rest depends, in Hebrews and
Psalm 95, on hearing God’s Word. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden
your hearts.” (Psalm 95:7) “We must pay the greatest attention to what we have
heard.” (Hebrews 2:1) “In these last days, God’s Word has come to us through
his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) In the words of John’s Gospel (chapter 10), we are to
be the sheep who know and follow the Shepherd’s voice.
So the purpose of worship is to become God’s sheep
more and more. It is to enter God’s rest through hearing, believing, and obeying
God’s Word in Christ. And so the question for all of us who prepare, lead, and
attend worship really is, “How can we best proclaim and hear God’s Word?”
In our church, you will notice how integrated the
various elements of our worship service are—all in an attempt to proclaim and
hear God’s Word. The Call to Worship, the song selections, the prayers of
reconciliation and consecration—all employ the language of the Scripture of the
More than that, all the service opportunities we
make throughout the week and year are our faithful response to hearing,
believing, and obeying God’s Word which is proclaimed in worship. Our prayer is
that this sermon, and this series on “Worship: Why we Do what we Do,” will help
you to hear God’s Word and to respond in faith, that we might all be God’s
sheep and enter God’s rest.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Turn in a study Bible to Exodus 17 and
Numbers 20. Read the cross-references to other passages that deal with this
event (like Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3-4). What do you think the problem was—why
did God prohibit some from entering the Land of Promise? How do the various
explanations find parallels in your life? In the life of your church?
- Read Hebrews in its entirety from the
perspective that it’s a sermon. How does this style of “listening” to the
Scriptures make a difference in what you hear? How does it change the way you
listen to sermons at your church?
- In what ways have you “hardened your
heart” when God has spoken to you in scripture, sermon, sacrament, or
otherwise? How have you forfeited your experience of rest?