O Come, Let Us Worship!

Sermon by Ligon Duncan on September 13

Psalms 95:1-11

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 95. It’s a joy to be with you this morning and I want to reflect a little bit on what it is we do when we come here and why. And I’ve had the special privilege of being able to do that for the last seven years simply as a member and attender of this body, usually sitting up in the gallery, listening to my pastor and the other pastors of this congregation lead us in worship. And it’s given me the opportunity to reflect a little bit on what we do here. And all of us ought to think about this a little bit.

For instance, it has struck me as I’ve listened and participated in worship for seven years now at First Pres simply as someone sitting in the pew like you, that our services are characterized by density and by efficiency. Now what I mean by that is, the worship services of First Presbyterian Church are dense with Scripture. There’s not many places that you can turn where you’re not going to bump up against Scripture. And that’s good! They are also efficient. It has struck me over and over, because in my job now I get to worship on every continent, in every kind of situation, in all kinds of churches, so I get to see a lot of different things done in worship services now. I’m not sure, in all of the places that I’ve been all over the world in the last seven or so years, that I’ve seen a more efficient service in this sense – that we pack a lot into about an hour. We do a lot. We do a lot of singing, we do a lot of reading of Scripture, we do a lot of praying, we do a lot of preaching in an hour. It is a very efficient service.

I could say other things about our services as well, but my guess is, most people when they come to First Presbyterian Church, aren’t thinking about those two qualities of density and efficiency. That’s just come out of my reflecting on what’s happening here over the course of the last seven years. My guess is, the thing that many people that are maybe not familiar with First Presbyterian Church notice, is that we don’t have a praise band and a worship team and that we sing hymns and that we have an organ and we have a choir. That probably is the first thing that people notice. Now if that’s not the first thing, then the first thing that will be noticed is that the preaching is expository. That is, we’re working through Bible books. And over and over – I don’t know whether you’re still hearing this, David, in new member classes, but when I was here, over the course of seventeen years, those were the two things that were most often said. “They preach through the Bible,” and they would often say, “The worship is formal” or “The worship is high.” I had to constantly explain to people, “No, we’re not trying to be high church here. We’re just trying to be Presbyterians and do the ordinary means of grace. We’re not trying to be ritualistic and such. Everything that we’re doing is driven by the Word of God, filled with the Word of God, ordered by the Word of God.” Those two things would be mentioned over and over.

So I’m wondering now – I can’t get into each of your minds – but as you reflect on what it is that we do here and why we do it, what are the thoughts that come into your mind? Just think about that for a moment. Today, I want to look – and we’ll do this next Sunday too out of Psalm 96 – I want us to reflect on what happens when the congregation gathers. This has also, by the way, been something that I’ve been thinking about the last six months. So not just the last seven years but the last six months when things have been so disrupted in COVID-19. There were periods of time when we couldn’t come together. I remember in the early days, David, we’d have maybe a few people in here and most people watching at home. Then, there was a long period of time, nobody in here. And then we’ve been able to gradually come back, but we’ve got these things on our faces and we’re spaced out and we can’t hug one another like we want to hug one another and talk to one another and fellowship with one another in the same sort of way. So that period of time has gotten me thinking about what it is that we do when we gather for worship.

So before we even start this morning, let me quickly outline Psalm 95 for you and then tell you what I’m up to. I’m really up to just one thing. I want us to think about what it is that happens when we come here. And let me just go ahead and give you my one sentence. Gathered praise – and that’s what we’re doing; this is gathered praise. The people of God are gathering to praise Him. Gathered praise glorifies God, disciples us, as we respond to the Word by the Spirit. Gathered praise glorifies God, disciples us, as we respond to the Word by the Spirit. Really, that’s my one-point sermon today but there are four parts to this psalm and those four parts feed into that one point. So I want you to see the four parts.

Look first at verses 1 and 2. You recognize that as a call to worship. I used that as a call to worship for years and years at First Pres. Many, many Presbyterian pastors have used verses 1 and 2 and then again verses 6 and 7 as a call to worship. So there is initially a call to worship but that call to worship calls us to a worship that comes with rejoicing. So there’s a call to worship that emphasizes our rejoicing as we come. Then, look at verses 3 and 4. There is a reason given for our worship. Why would we come with rejoicing? The reason is given in verses 3 and 4. Then again, back to verses 6 and 7. There’s another call to worship, but this call to worship emphasizes reverence. So the first call to worship – rejoicing; second call to worship – reverence. Now here’s the neat thing. As far as I can tell in this psalm, it’s not the pastor giving this call to worship. It’s you calling one another to worship. It’s the congregation calling itself, encouraging itself to worship. So you’re giving reasons and you are calling to one another to come worship God. Then in the last part, which really begins at the end of verse 7, the last phrase in verse 7 is actually the beginning of the last part of the psalm that runs all the way to verse 11. Then, the narrator of the psalm speaks – maybe that is the pastor stepping in – and gives a quick word of introduction and God Himself speaks to you. And it’s this part of the psalm that gets picked up in the book of Hebrews and applied directly to us as Christians. And that part of the psalm is a warning about our not receiving God’s Word.

So there’s a call to worship that calls us to rejoicing, there’s a reason for our worship, there’s a call to worship that calls us to worship God reverently, and then there’s a warning about our not receiving the Word of God. Those are the four parts of the psalm. Let’s look to the Lord in prayer before we read it. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We need it more than we need food, but we cannot understand it and it will not do its work in us unless our hearts are made responsive and our eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit. So we ask for the illumination of Your Holy Spirit. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it in Psalm 95:

“Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

What do you come to worship to do? What do you come to worship for? What are you looking for when you gather with God’s people under His Word under the means of grace to give to Him the glory due His name? One thing of course we ought to want when we come to worship is we ought to want to meet with God. You know, it’s easy in our culture, and this is the most amazing and unique culture that I’ve ever lived in. And I’ve lived here for over half my life now, but I’m still amazed by the social realities of this culture. And let me just say, in a complementary way, I love the social dynamics of this culture. I don’t believe I’ve ever been anywhere else in the world where people have a greater enjoyment of other people. They genuinely enjoy other people; they love being with people. It’s reflected in the social customs of Mississippi. Whether it’s at a football game or whether it’s at a rehearsal dinner or whether it’s a party for friends, an engagement party, people love to be with one another. And I know that is often an attraction on the Lord’s Day to be able to be with one another when we haven’t been with one another throughout the week. But fundamentally I hope there are some other things going on. It’s not just that we want to be with one another and fellowship before and after church or before and after Sunday School, but we want to be with God. We want to meet with Him. We want Him to deal with us. We want Him to speak a word into our hearts. We want to be encouraged. We want to be comforted. We want to be strengthened. We want to know that He is real. We want to know that He cares for us. We want to remember what He has done for redemption. I hope some of those things are things that you think about when you come to worship.

But did you realize that when you come to worship, when you gather with God’s people, you’re not only coming to do something and to receive something – and one of the somethings you receive is the blessing of God. You’re, in that sense, you’re like Jacob who won’t let the Lord go until He blesses you so it’s very significant that the last thing that happens at every worship service at First Presbyterian Church is what – you receive a blessing from the lips of the pastor that comes from God’s Word that is God giving His people a blessing. Which, by the way, is a practice that goes all the way back to the book of Numbers and God telling Moses to tell Aaron, “Don’t let the people come here to offer sacrifice. Don’t let them go until you bless them. And when you bless them say, ‘The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.’” So I hope you’re coming for that blessing because that’s part of what’s happening when we gather for worship.

But did you know something is happening to you when you come to worship? You’re not only coming to glorify God, you’re not only coming to receive His blessings – and not, “Oh Lord, won’t You give me a Mercedes Benz!” That’s not the kind of blessing I’m talking about. I’m talking about every spiritual blessing in Christ in the heavenly places. People in desperate situations all over this globe receive that blessing even though their lives are at peril and they are facing poverty and destitution in many ways; they receive that spiritual blessing when they gather to worship. But do you understand something is happening to you when you worship? You are being discipled. You’re being discipled. God’s forming you; He’s making you into a disciple in worship. And that’s why the instructions of this particular psalm are so important. It’s because not only did they tell us the kind of attitude and motivation and posture that we ought to have when we come into worship, not only did they explain a little bit of the logic of what happens in worship, they tell you a little bit about what the Lord is doing in your heart and life in worship.

Let me give you one example. One of the new things that is done at First Pres since I left is the prayer of confession and the assurance of pardon. Now when David reads the words of assurance of pardon, or maybe even if you read a confession, a prayer of confession together, just by the hearing of a prayer of confession or the reading of a prayer of confession and the statement of the words of absolution or pardon or assurance of pardon by the pastor, you know that that does not make you repentant and that does not forgive you of sin. But what’s it there for? Well, one thing it’s there for is so that you never forget the Gospel. One thing it’s there for is that you never forget that you need to repent. One thing that it’s there for is to remind you that God is more ready to forgive you than you are ready to repent.

So in other words, it doesn’t magically bring about forgiveness, but it puts rails, it lays down tracks in your heart to show you how to come back to God. And believers need that every single week, every single day. So the service is doing something to you there, not magically, but by the Word of God something is being provided to you that reminds you of the Gospel over and over again, reminds you of the importance of repentance, shows you how to come back to God, and assures you that when you repent God will forgive you and accept you, not because of yourself but because of Christ. That’s a wonderful thing for the service to do. And you see, the service is doing something to you there. If you have ears to hear, if you have eyes to see, the service is doing something to you. It’s actually working the Gospel into your daily experience so that you can’t get away from that way of thinking.

A Call to Worship God with Rejoicing

So also the very first call that you get in this psalm is doing something to you. Listen to the language. “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” So you hear the emphasis on rejoicing and thanksgiving. So our public worship is to be characterized by a genuine display of gratitude. We are to come into His presence with thanksgiving and whole-souled praise and rejoicing in God. Now, I notice that the joyful exuberance of a lot of worship services are more derived from the musical accompaniment and musical style than they are the heart posture of the people present. So we’ve got to bring that attitude of rejoicing and gratitude with us if our worship is really going to be a whole-soul response of thanksgiving and rejoicing in God.

A Reason for Our Worship

Now where does that come from? The next stanza of the psalm tells you. The next stanza. Look at verses 3 and 4. “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” Both the hymn that we sang, “How Great Thou Art,” and the choir anthem emphasize this theme – the greatness of God! Our God is so big! How great Thou art! You made everything! So the reality of God’s creation of the world, the reality of His providence over the world – “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” we sing – those realities prompt what? Thanksgiving and rejoicing. “Even though my life may look like a mess, Lord, I know that You made this world and it’s under Your control and You’re greater than anything in it.” Many of the ancient people around Israel believed that the sea was older than the gods. But Psalm 95 tells us God made the sea just like He made everything else. In other words, there is a reality that is bigger than this world that controls our attitudes living in this world. And worship is trying to bring that reality to bear on your heart, so that when you confess in The Apostles’ Creed that God is the what? – “Maker of heaven and earth” – that’s designed to do something to you and one of the things it’s designed to do to you is to get you to believe it and live like it.

I’ve told you before that one of the elders at First Presbyterian Church Columbia, South Carolina was converted by hearing Genesis 1:1 read. Why? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – what would convert you about that verse? Realizing that God made everything and his realizing, “I’m not living like God made everything. I’m living for myself. I’m living like I’m the most important thing in the world and God made everything. If that’s true, then I’m in trouble!” That’s what started it. Now what’s important about that to note is, only the Spirit can open your eyes to respond to God’s Word that way. No telling how many times he had heard that word read or read it himself in his life. But on that particular occasion when his pastor read Genesis 1:1, his eyes were opened and he was converted by the Spirit by the Word of God. But what was happening is that the Word was doing something to him. He may have thought that he had come there to engage in an activity called worship, but actually something was being done to him when he came there. In this case, conversion, which is a very good thing to happen in worship! But it was the reality that God is the Creator that came to bear on his heart.

Now by the way, this is not the only reason that you have gratitude or thanksgiving or rejoicing when you come into worship. There are lots of reasons why we worship. This is just the reason that’s focused on in this particular part of the psalm. There are actually other reasons that are given a little bit later. But the reality of God’s creation in providence is what this particular stanza focuses on as to why we ought to come in with rejoicing and with thanksgiving.

A Call to Worship God Reverently

Now another call to worship comes. “Let us worship, bow down and kneel.” Notice all that language. It’s the language of humble adoration. Do you remember that phrase that you just sang, “And when I bow, in humble adoration”? That’s what this is getting at. In other words, in worship you can’t worship without humbling yourself before a God who is greater than you. The first rule of theology is that there is a God. The second rule of theology is that you are not Him. And that means in worship partly you’re coming in to say, “God, You are God and You are great and I am small before You.” Because normally it’s what we want that’s big in our lives. That’s what’s big in my life. What I want is big in my life. And if what I want is the biggest thing in my life, how will I relate to God? I will relate to God like He is the best bellhop in the known universe. He can get me what I want. But when I come into His presence and realize He is great and I am small, what I want must be submitted to what He wants because in the end I come to understand that what He wants is for my best, and sometimes what I want is not for my best. And hence, the second call to worship is, “Come before your God and bow before Him. Prostrate yourself before Him. Humble yourself before Him. Adore Him in His greatness. Put everything in perspective in your life.” Notice again, something is being done to you when you do that. Something is being done to you. The whole of your life is being put into perspective.

A Warning About Not Receiving the Word of God

And then finally comes this – I mean it’s really an interesting way to end a psalm of worship, isn’t it? A warning. It’s a warning. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” Now the whole rest of the psalm is a warning against disobedience, hardening the heart, grumbling. Ultimately, all of it boils down to this – not taking God at His Word. So don’t pass by the little phrase, “Today, if you hear His voice,” because I hear echoes of this psalm – just listen to what’s come right before. “He is our God. We are the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice.” Does that remind you of anything? It reminds me of John 10 where Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And what does He say? John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice and they follow Me. My sheep hear My voice and they follow Me.” I wonder if Jesus has this part of Psalm 95 in His mind as He speaks in John 10.

Interestingly, a few years ago when Sinclair Ferguson was becoming a professor at RTS, Bob Cara, my provost and I, were doing the theological examination. Now just imagine doing the theological examination for Sinclair Ferguson! But let me tell you, it was like a three-hour worship service. And about two hours into the theological examination, Sinclair said, “John 10:27 has been the verse that has oriented my entire ministry. My whole ministry has been designed to help the sheep hear His voice. My whole ministry is to help the sheep!” That, again, was just one of those moments you just want to stop and say, “Could we just pray for a few moments right here?” And then he elaborated what he meant about this. Here’s the thing. It is not, it is not something that is simple and automatic to hear His voice because there are other voices inside of you and outside of you that are vying for your attention. It is a great thing when you can hear the Savior’s voice, the Shepherd’s voice over the den of the noise that’s going on in your heart and outside of you because the world’s shouting messages at you 24/7 and your heart is shouting messages as you 24/7. Even in your sleep, even in your dreams your heart is shouting messages at you. And to hear His voice is a great thing. It’s a great work. And so Sinclair just explained that “As a pastor, I am constantly trying to make sure that those who are the sheep are hearing His voice and those who are not yet sheep but will become sheep will hear His voice for the first time and follow Him.” So evangelism and edification in that one sentence. “My sheep hear My voice and they follow Me.”

Now that means all of this Word – remember I was saying at the beginning of this message that one of the things I was impressed about was the density of the worship services at First Pres? There’s just a lot of Bible in the worship service. Why is that there? Not because magically reading a bunch of Bible, praying a bunch of Bible, singing a bunch of Bible gets you saved or leads you down the merry path of your best life now, but because the Spirit uses the Word that He spoke and wrote to get you to listen to your Shepherd so that you follow Him. It’s a means of grace. So all of that Bible, all of that Word in the worship services at First Pres is designed to make sure that you listen to your Shepherd’s voice and follow Him. The whole idea is that you hear the Shepherd’s voice, you hear the Savior’s voice every single day.

Now interestingly, in this passage, notice what He says. “They put Me to the proof, they put Me to the test,” verse 9, “though they had seen My work.” They had seen the exodus but they weren’t listening to His voice. Well friends, we’ve seen greater. We’ve seen the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve seen the thing that brought about the forgiveness of sin in the death of Christ on our behalf. We’ve had the Gospel preached to us that we would acknowledge ourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, without hope, save in His sovereign mercy, and that we are to receive and rest on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel. We’ve heard the Gospel preached to us over and over. We have seen His work, but are we listening to His voice?

There’s the other thing. You can’t worship God and not listen to His voice and follow Him. And what that is, is it’s a warning against hypocrisy. Right? “We’re going to worship God with our lips, but our hearts are going to be far from Him.” So what’s the solution to that? Hearing His voice. The whole end of the song is a reminder to you, “Don’t come to this worship service at First Pres filled with His voice and not listen to His voice!” But we’re all keenly aware that that can happen to us. It can happen to me; it can happen to you. It has happened to our friends. Friends have sat here under this Word and their hearts have been hard and their lives have been hypocritical. And what that means is, first of all, don’t miss the word “today.” Today. Don’t put off dealing with the challenges to hearing His voice in your life today. You know, long before we become confirmed hypocrites we are assaulted by a million hypocrisies. Right? Long before we become confirmed hypocrites we are assaulted by a million hypocrisies. So today, let’s ask God to open our ears to hear His voice in all this Word that you meet in the worship of First Pres every Sunday. Because what’s the goal? In gathered praise, we glorify God, we are discipled, He disciples us, by our – what? Hearing His voice, listening to His Word, responding to His Word, believing His Word, taking His Word seriously. And we can only do that by the work of the Spirit in our hearts.

So this psalm is about worship, and I want you to think about what it is that you come to do, but also what this service is meant to do to you when you come. And I want you to put your trust in Christ and be determined to hear His voice and to realize that only the Spirit can enable you to do that. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Open our ears to hear the Shepherd’s voice. We pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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