What does gathered worship do? Sometimes it can make our souls soar. Other times not so much. It is easy to understand why non-believers scratch their heads at Christian worship. If I saw a small group of people awkwardly singing, listening to someone talk about an old book, and sharing a tiny amount of bread and wine, I’d scratch my head too.
As I anticipate returning to Poland for the European Leadership Forum, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by so many during the Communist era. Russian Baptist pastor, Yuri Sipko, remembers Christians who were sent to prison camps or lost their jobs or their children. “Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy. It’s just a search for comfort.” Challenging words, but ponder this thought: “You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see this world is a lie.”
What does gathered worship do? It declares that this world is a lie.
At the end of Revelation 3, we find that famous verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking. He was knocking on the door of the church at Laodicea, but would they open the door and let him in? They thought they had everything they needed, but actually, they desperately needed Jesus. As we turn to chapter 4 and John’s great vision from Jesus continues, we find the heavenly door is open for John to come up and participate in the ultimate worship gathering.
In Revelation chapters 4-5, we get to glimpse the ultimate worship gathering, and it reminds us what gathered worship does. Here are five things that gathered worship does:
1. Worship centres us around God’s throne. (4:1-2) In worship, we are invited, by Jesus, to gather at the throne of God. In Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, he points out how we live in a world that feels like a storm-tossed sea. We are thrown all over the place by every wind, every wave, every advert, every news story, every problem, and every threat. But as Christians, we have an anchor that holds us firm, gives us a circumference, and centres us. God is on the throne, so there can be a constant source of stability in my heart and life. Gathering with God’s people to sing his praise is an anchor point in the frenetic chaos of life.
2. Worship gathers God’s people around his throne. (4:3-11) In this glorious vision, there is layer upon layer of rich meaning. The vibrant colours seem to reflect God’s holiness and justice, as well as his life-giving nature as the Creator. The 24 elders probably represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Church (there is debate on all these details, of course). Perhaps they represent God’s great work through the centuries to reveal his plan and rescue people for himself. Then there are the four living creatures – a picture of God’s creation (noble, strong, wise, and swift), and some have seen here four glimpses into the person of Jesus Christ. God’s people, God’s creation, all falling down and worshipping God on the throne. In worship, we are united together, not only with one another but also with God himself, in the uniquely trinitarian worship we find in the Bible.
3. Worship points us to Christ and his payment. (5:1-7) At the start of chapter 5, John is struck by the disconnect between God’s greatness and the need of humanity. The sealed scroll, Earth’s title deed, God’s plan of judgment – its existence underlines that no human is worthy to open the seals. Even apart from the judgment context of Revelation, our gathered worship cannot be satisfied with just lauding God the Creator for his power and majesty. Christian worship always points us to Christ and his payment. John turned to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and was confronted by the slain Lamb.
4. The Lion/Lamb Redeemer stirs greater songs of worship. (5:8-13) When God’s people encounter God’s goodness and grace, they sing. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, Angels, Jesus and the Disciples, Paul and Silas – they all sang. When we become aware of who he is and what he has done, then we will sing too. In chapter four, there were two songs to the Creator (4:8, 4:11). Now the singing swells as more voices join in and more richness is reflected in two songs to the Redeemer (5:9-10, 5:12). Finally, there is one song to both the Creator and the Redeemer combined (5:13).
5. Worship finishes with a great Amen! – the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan is definitively affirmed! (5:14) If you think about it, we humans have a history of saying no to God. We are all quite adept at saying no. But Revelation 4-5 underlines that in the end God’s great yes will overcome every one of our noes. In worship, we are confronted by the reality of God the Creator King on his throne, and of God the Redeeming Lion/Lamb, and we cry out, “Yes!” When we worship together, we get a pre-taste of what is to come. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Gathered worship is like an anchor to both the future, when all our questions will be answered, and to the ultimate reality in the present – that God is on the throne and he has redeemed us.
So what does gathered worship do? It declares that this world is a lie. More than that, it centres us around the throne of God – for God is on the throne whatever we may be facing down here. It gathers God’s people around his throne – for God is worthy of every note of praise that can be uttered by any part of his creation. It points us to Christ and his payment – for we worship not only in response to the majesty on the throne but also to the scars on that Lamb. It stirs us to sing greater songs of worship – for God the Creator and our Lion/Lamb Redeemer. It definitively affirms the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan – for in the end we will cry out our great “Yes!” and “Amen!” to God.
Whether we are gathering in a great crowd at a Christian event, or with a handful of dear saints on a Sunday, let us appreciate the privilege of gathered worship and declare with joy that this world is a lie.
Sipko quote from Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher, p185-6.