I try to be as open as I can be that we are trying to accomplish something in particular during our Sunday morning worship service. From the meditation and prelude at the very beginning all the way to the benediction, we are attempting to portray a proper view of God. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both wholly other and very near. He is so very high above us, and yet in him we all live, and move and have our being. Worship that is worthwhile takes this into account, and in our own way, we are serious in our weekly attempts to do so.
Our Psalm for prayer this week accomplishes this in a unique way. As you read through Psalm 47, notice the blended emphasis on both transcendence (in bold type) and immanence (in italics).
Psalm 47 (ESV)
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.
1Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
2For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.
3He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.
4He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
5God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
7For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm!
8God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.
9The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted!
As you can tell, it’s difficult at times to distinguish between reactions to his transcendence and immanence when he is always both. And yet, we have to do something in particular to acknowledge him for who he is and what he has and does for us in Christ. He is both to be feared and to be praised. He reigns on his holy throne and loves us at the same time. What a blessing! What an encouragement! What a mystery! What grace!
It would be silly at best if we simply wrote down all the different reactions that occur in the Scriptures when God’s people worship him and then made a check list out of them. We would miss the point all together if we looked at this psalm and then made an Order of Service by listing all the reactions we are supposed to accomplish because “they’re in the Bible.” “OK! Everybody, clap your hands for 30 seconds! OK, good. Very good. Now, everybody sing a loud song of joy! Let’s do it for about 4 minutes. In fact, don’t sing loud songs. Shout them. See! Look in verse 1 of Psalm 47. It says to shout to God with loud songs of joy. So we must be obedient. OK. Good. Now, the next thing we are supposed to do is get a trumpet and blast it. Who can do that? Ok, Andy. Go for it. There. Good. Ok. Everybody sing praises again for a little while, etc.” Such a service would neither honor God nor encourage us his children, and yet it would come straight from Psalm 47 in a sense. That’s not the point of the psalm, and neither is it the point of Christian worship.
Another tact some churches use is worse because it’s manipulative. Rather than the truth of God’s sovereign transcendence being the cause of shouting and singing, a skillful communicator might use dim lights, smoke, pictures of puppies, bells and whistles, or even ride into church on a bull in an attempt to tweak the spirits of God’s people into a particular emotional state. At the height of frenzy, when the congregation is eating from the palm of his (or her!) hands, then the invitation is given, the offering is taken, and God’s people are fleeced again! People have come to assume that if there hasn’t been a lot of shouting or hand clapping, well, “the spirit just wasn’t among us this morning.” Honestly, we desire to avoid this like the plague because we believe it is just that, a plague among God’s people today.
We simply want God to move in people’s hearts and change their lives so that they are just a little more like Jesus after they leave than they were before they came. This may call for shouting and clapping; it may call for quiet, introspective and thoughtful consideration. There are times in our services when you should feel free to do either in an unobtrusive way. There are times when singing loud praises to God will be appropriate for everybody. The same is true for quiet prayers of confession. Believers who are both sensitive to God and to other believers will be careful to be appropriate. We neither want to induce nor squelch the work of God in the lives of his people. There is a time to shout and clap because God is sovereign. There is a time to be quiet and reverent because he is near us. And vice versa. I like to call this planned spontaneity. There’s a weekly plan drawn up and presented for all of us; now each of us should act appropriate within this plan.
God has a plan for us. He has a plan for our worship. He must. He planned in amazing detail how his own Son would both create all things and then indwell a created body. That took a lot of planning. Transcendence and immanence perfectly wrapped up together in one person for all eternity. Worship brings us back to him. God both longs for and calls for his people to worship him because he is a great king who is also ours! Clap, shout, and sit quietly. There is an appropriate time for any legitimate corporate response to our Lord Most High.