The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 23, 2020
Worship is essential because God deserves the honoring and thanking. It is also essential because we need God, and worship is a crucial means by which we encounter His reality.
To worship God is to engage and interact with God. Thus, Psalm 99 speaks of Moses, Aaron and Samuel crying out to God and His answering them. In that dialogue, a life-enhancing relationship is developed.
Yet, it is not a relationship between equals. While we can have a friendship with God, He is too exalted to be our “pal”. Three times Psalm 99 reminds us that God is holy – far above us in both greatness and goodness.
So how can we come into God’s presence without reducing Him down to our size and replacing this infinitely big God with a smaller and more manageable deity of our own making?
From Psalm 99, I find three insights about how to engage with God while duly honoring His holiness and supreme glory: 1) We can permit ourselves to feel His immensity and our smallness, 2) we can praise Him with awe and wonder, and 3) we can proclaim His magnificence to all who have ears.
First, we can permit ourselves to feel, in the depths of our souls, God’s frightening superiority and our own vulnerable inferiority. Thus, Psalm 99 starts with the command: “Let the peoples tremble!” As we take in God’s fierce glory and dangerous majesty, we are humbled in the awareness of our being fragile and overmatched in the encounter.
John Piper, in his book The Pleasures of God, helps us understand what this is like. Imagine, Piper says, you are exploring a glacier in the dead of winter. You approach a sheer cliff with a spectacular view of jagged ice and mountainous snow just as a storm of shocking power breaks upon you. Its raging winds are so strong you are scared they may carry you over the cliff. Its dangers, while terrifying in force, are also terrific in splendor; and, while awful, are also awe-inspiring.
You spot a cleft in the ice in which you can hide and find protection from the ravages of the tempest. While resting there, safe and secure, you watch with trembling pleasure as the storm rages all around you. Not everything called fear vanishes from your heart; only the fear of death does. Your heart remains gripped with wonder, awe and, yes, fear before a magnificent force for which you are no match.
And so it is when we encounter God in His full reality.
Consider another analogy. You visit the Grand Canyon and, captivated by its splendor and immensity, you feel an urge to walk up to its edge, that you might peer down and catch sight of the stunning vista below – even as you recall how careless people die every year at the edge of that glory.
It is all so beautiful and stirring that you are drawn to that scary place that elicits your awe, and yet it is also so dangerous and frightening that you back off from it. You feel compelled to stay near to it and compelled to keep a distance lest you fail to respect the unchangeable threat of it and do something foolish and fatal.
And so it is coming into the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus. That God is so magnificent and mighty that He simultaneously ignites in us both the attractive power of awe and wonder and the repelling power of horror and fear. This God makes us feel both small and vulnerable, and loved and in love and brave in love. No less than we can make the Grand Canyon safe, can we make God safe. He is untamed and perilous, not because He is capable of doing anything (which He is), but because He did everything to save us, out of sheer love and grace. He is untamed and perilous, not because He is in any way bad, but because He is perfectly good and wants us to become as good as He.
When we permit ourselves to take in the full reality of God and get in touch with the ambivalence we feel about Him, we will come into His presence without reducing Him to an imitation god who is less than who He really is and thus who can never win our hearts and souls.
We come into the presence of God by permitting ourselves to feel both holy dread and holy desire. We also do so by praising Him for His majestic glory. That praising focuses us on His splendor, reacquaints us with our profound appreciation of Him, and builds up in us, all the more, the grateful joy we have already found in Him.
C.S. Lewis once said, “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment…It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are, the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with…Fully to enjoy is to glorify.”
We come into God’s presence by praising Him. It reminds us how wonderful He is and motivates us to deepen our delight in Him. It also opens our eyes to His reality and fires up our hearts to pursue still stronger joy in Him.
So, as we seek to come into God’s presence, we permit ourselves to feel reverence, awe and fear; and we praise Him for His holiness, splendor and glory. Finally, we proclaim His greatness and goodness to all who’ll listen. As we share our knowledge of God, we expand our own knowledge of God; and as we serve others’ spiritual needs, we serve our own. When we magnify the Lord before others, the size of the Lord, not in reality, but in our consciousness, enlarges.
John Piper notes that there are two kinds of magnifying: the magnifying of a microscope and the magnifying of a telescope. A microscope makes a small thing look bigger than it is. A telescope makes a big thing start to look as big as it really is. Our task is to honor God by being telescopes, not microscopes.
Proclaiming the glory of God is not acting like a sleazy salesman who magnifies his product out of proportion to reality and tries to keep people from looking at products superior to his own. Since nothing and no one is superior to God, our contribution is just to help God start to look, to others, as great as He really is. By our conduct and character we can give them some idea of how big our God is.
So let us permit ourselves to feel awe, reverence and fear before our big God, praise Him for the enormity of His greatness and goodness, and proclaim that His heart is always larger than one might think. Thereby, we will come into His presence, and bring others along with us!