The elders and deacons at East White Oak Bible Church had a great time of fellowship and planning at our retreat last month. We discussed how best to organize our ministry, how to evaluate our church health, how to best utilize and enhance our facilities for greater effectiveness. But there was a key theme that emerged in the midst of the conversation. That theme was more important than any of those items, important as they are.
Here is that key theme: We long to be men who are so filled with God’s Spirit that we greet each opportunity to meet together as a church with joyous expectation that God will meet us. We believe that our spiritual preparedness will lead our congregation to the precious joy that is ours in meeting the Lord together in weekly worship. We want to lead our church in a heart of corporate worship that says, “You can’t not be there!”
This has nothing to do with trying to generate a phony enthusiasm. It has nothing to do with gimmicks to get people emotional. It has nothing to do with guilt trips. It has everything to do with our heart’s preparation for the unique privilege of worship together.
Here is a question that might test the temperature of our souls. When church is cancelled due to weather, how does your heart respond? There are, of course, reasons for a feeling of relief, perhaps from responsibilities or from the hazards of travel. However, if your heart experiences something like joy over not having to go to church, may I suggest that you keep reading? I believe that I need to cultivate in myself a sense of wonder and joy about the unique privilege of worship together. I want to pass that sense of wonder to you too.
This week, I spent time reading through the Psalms. One key principle for interpreting the Psalms is to ask, “How was this Psalm used in the corporate worship of the people of Israel at the temple?” This principle is important because the Psalms were the worship book of Israel in temple worship. So, it is not surprising that lots of words are used in Psalms which convey the power and privilege of corporate worship of the true God. Words like “sanctuary,” “temple,” “courts,” “congregation,” and “throng” are employed to describe the utter marvel of the privilege of worship with God’s people.
In much of the Psalms, the attitude about going to the temple to worship is, “You can’t not be there.” Or, perhaps more clearly, “you can’t help yourself—you just have to be at the temple.” This attitude infected every Israelite at least at some points in Israel’s history. There were times when worship at the temple was an all-consuming passion. Those were times of revival.
So, here we are, centuries removed from temple worship, yet longing for that same delight in the worship of the Lord. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us had such a joy, a longing, a passion to be together to worship the Lord that we couldn’t not want to be there? We would be so delighted that we couldn’t help tell others to join us. We would change family plans and activities to avoid missing. We would express our shock to one another that we just can’t believe that God lets us do this.
To capture a bit of this reveling in worship together in the Psalms, consider the Psalms which describe the privilege of joyous praise together:
Psalm 22:25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
Psalm 34:3 Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!
Psalm 35:18 I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.
Psalm 42:4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
Psalm 68:24-26 Your procession is seen, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—25 the singers in front, the musicians last, between them virgins playing tambourines:26 “Bless God in the great congregation, the Lord, O you who are of Israel's fountain!”
Psalm 100:4-5 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! 5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Note in all of these passages above that there is both a personal AND a corporate dimension to worship. The “I’s” and “my’s” are directly related to praise in “the great congregation” in the “mighty throng” in the courts and gates of the Lord. For the Israelite worshiper, there was something very compelling about worship together that brought great thanksgiving and joy.
Now, let’s look at some Psalms which show the contemplation that happens in corporate worship. Not everything is high volume, high energy. Some of what brings the worshiper to worship is contemplation of God’s nature.
Psalm 40:10 I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Psalm 48:9 We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.
Psalm 111:1-2 Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
In these texts above, we see a dimension of “thought,” of something happening “within my heart” in corporate worship. That dimension focuses on God’s attributes, most particularly God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. The Israelite worshiper loved to ponder God’s faithfulness and steadfast love with other worshipers.
Next, there is one verse in Psalm 73 which shows the value of worship together as an apologetic for the truthfulness of our faith.
Psalm 73:17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.
In Psalm 73, the writer Asaph had been lamenting how it seemed that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. It was only after the experience of corporate worship that he could see clearly the reality, the truth of his faith. I have seen many people deny the faith that they had once believed. However, I have never seen a person do that who was devoted in body (they showed up), in mind (they engaged their thinking), and in heart (they loved worshiping the Lord with God’s people). The mindset of “you can’t not be there” is so powerful in fending off the attacks of doubt and demons.
In Israel, this idea of “you can’t not be there” was so strong that it even overcame selfishness. Selfishness is very hard to overcome, by the way, because we find it very hard to get away from ourselves. The only place where we truly get away from ourselves is in corporate worship. Even in individual worship, we cannot get away from ourselves because the relationship between ourselves and the Lord is so binary. But in corporate worship, we can indeed get lost in wonder, love, and praise because we join with others. Consider these words from Psalm 84:
Psalm 84:1-2 How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! 2 My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Psalm 84:10-11 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. 11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
The writer of Psalm 84 says that his passion for corporate worship is so strong that he’d rather be there as a nobody than be a big shot anywhere else. In his worship, he concludes that God is so very good that there is nothing good that God would withhold from him. In a jaundiced, skeptical world like ours, even believers can become jaundiced and skeptical. A heart that says, “you can’t not be there” cannot be skeptical because the goodness of God washes over that heart like a flood.
Have you ever wished that you could do something to extend your life? Or that you could extend your joy in life into old age? Psalm 92 offers the principle that a “you can’t not be there” heart of corporate worship causes a person to flourish into old age. In fact, such a heart of worship keeps one young and vibrant.
Psalm 92:12-15 The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.13 They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.14 They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,15 to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
I love that phrase, “they are ever full of sap and green.” Corporate worship keeps our lives active at what is most important in life. If you are concerned about fending off the ravages of aging, a heart for corporate worship is far more important than diet, exercise, or cosmetic surgery. I believe that God especially blesses a heart of corporate worship.
Finally, we ought to consider how Israel felt when the privilege of corporate worship was stripped from them. There came a time (586 B.C.) when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and corporate worship of the true God was forever changed. Sadly, it was only after that opportunity was gone that the people of God recognized what they had had. At that moment, the realized how they had squandered years, even generations, of privilege. It was all gone. Psalm 137 described their sadness.
Psalm 137 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Dear brothers and sisters, let us not repeat the sins of Israel. Instead, let’s treat each Lord’s Day as a special opportunity to meet the Lord together, to sing His praise, to offer prayers and petitions to Him, to study His Word and His works, to engage fully in the thing that God has created for us to do forever—declare His glory.
You can’t not be there.
Psalm 122:1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”