The True Face of Worship

Years ago, one of my seminary classmates asked our professor what he thought he’d be doing in heaven. “Standing there with my mouth wide open!” he mused. More recently, John Ortberg unpacked what this notion means for us in his foreword to Mark Labberton’s arresting book, The Dangerous Act of Worship (IVP):

The prophet Micah said a long time ago that the divine requirements for human life are not rocket science: Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God. Worship is that humble walk. It’s the knee-buckling, jaw-dropping acknowledgement of the gap between the creature and the Creator, the finite and the infinite, the sinful and the Holy.

Every time we sing the great hymn Holy, Holy, Holy! or any other song that affirms the same convictions, we’re echoing Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. These two reverberating, thunder- rumbling scenes of worship in heaven give us narrow but glorious glimpses of the One whose presence we purport to enter and whose blessing we seek. At the sound of unceasing seraphic antiphony, the prophet tells us the very doorposts and threshold of God’s envisioned temple shook to their core as the heavenly throne room filled with smoke:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

When Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, he said, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” Recapitulating this reaction at the end of the biblical canon John says his apocalyptic vision of the Lord dropped him to the ground like a dead man.

We may or may not react the same way when we gather before the Lord on Sundays, but perhaps we should. The Creator of heaven and earth has not changed since the prophet and the apostle recorded their visions. It’s still appropriate to lead God’s people into prayer with the words, “Lord Most High…” The fact that Jesus makes available to us a new and intimate way of access to God has not diminished God. It simply and strikingly means that we can now call him “Papa,” “Daddy,” “Abba Father.”

Worship isn’t a performance, but it is a drama. It’s when we tell, re-tell, and re-tell God’s great story, the wonderful story of the Gospel, the unfolding drama of redemption.

Do you remember those times way back in elementary school, maybe on Friday afternoons, when we put away our textbooks and our lessons and we gathered around in a circle on the floor to hear our teacher read us a story? We all loved those times most of all. Everyone loves a good story. And when we tell and re-tell God’s story, what we do may not be a performance, but it is a drama with all the heightened expressive qualities we can muster and engage.

We may be in on the story, we may be part of the story, but ultimately we’re not the audience. Worship finally and truly has an audience of One. God is the audience in worship. This was Kierkegaard’s observation. It’s God who watches the drama.

I sang in a men’s chorus in college. My last year we went on a six-week tour of Europe. Great concert halls! Magnificent cathedrals! Historic churches! Forty concerts in forty-two days. No wonder we were tired!

Toward the end of our trip, as a result of winning first prize in an international choir competition there, we were privileged to sing for Queen Juliana of The Netherlands. We performed a full concert for her. But she wasn’t perched remotely away in the royal box in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw . She was sitting in her summer palace on a single chair that looked pretty much like a throne—right in front of us. She was the only person there. It was an audience of one, except for her aides—one at each shoulder—and four soldiers with machine guns at every corner of the room. It was a big room.

As you might imagine our conductor had our full attention. After all we were singing for the Queen! Just the Queen! Her face was on the money in our wallets!

Through it all she treated us so graciously, like anyone’s kind and doting grandmother. And she created quite a memory for us. We’ll never forget being in her presence.

In worship we come into the presence of the Lord God of heaven and earth. He is holy. All creation is full of his glory. “Holy” translates a Hebrew word that simply means “set apart, distinct, unique.” It can refer to something as mundane as cookware. We probably use every day dishes for macaroni and cheese. But for Christmas dinner we use the Royal Wedgewood—“holy” dishes set apart for a special purpose.

The whole idea of “consecration” emerges from this. When something or someone is “consecrated,” it’s being “set apart.” This may help us understand the force of 1 Peter 1:15, “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” We’re not commanded to be everything that God is. We’re called to be set apart to him, even as he is set apart and distinct.

Old Testament scholar Allen Ross asserts that when we say God is holy, “we ascribe a uniqueness to him that is almost incomprehensible,”[1] a singularity that characterizes every divine attribute. We use words like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, righteous, and just to describe God, not ourselves. Certainly none of us shares or even fully understands these qualities. There is no one like God. God is distinct and unique—holy.

When we worship—together on Sunday morning, or in the seclusion of a quiet devotional moment—we’re given the privilege of singing for, praying to, learning from, being changed by, and finding true worth in the Lord God of heaven and earth.

His face isn’t on the money, but we do see him in the face of our gracious Savior. Jesus brings us into the presence of the Father. He makes his Father our Father. And in this tremendous and tender encounter we discover what true worship is all about.

Dr. Michael Denham has served over twenty-two years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.


[1] Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Kregel, 2006), 43.

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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