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Sermon illustrations

Worship

Ascribing Worth

The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, which combines two words meaning “ascribe worth.” The Trinity can be said to be always at worship because the three persons of the Godhead perfectly behold the worth and wonder of one another.

To our imaginations, it’s probably strange (at the least) or gross (at the worst) to envision anyone perpetually exalting himself. We live in a world full of bluster and bragging, where Nicki Minaj boasts “I’m the best,” LeBron James tattoos “Chosen 1” across his shoulders, and everyone from pastors to porn stars are self-celebrating on Twitter and Facebook. The idea that God would be associated with anything like that behavior is disconcerting.

But God’s own self-adoration is nothing like ours. Unlike our own self-congratulatory spirit, God’s view of himself is unmistaken and unexaggerated. As hymn writer Fredrick Lehman said:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above,

Would drain the ocean dry.

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.

God’s glory and perfection are inexhaustible. We can’t say enough about how glorious he truly is. The greatest gift he can give us is a revelation of himself. Exalting anything else would be cruel.

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, p.27. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Birthday Party

Imagine celebrating a birthday party for your child. You buy a cake, invite guests, and give her presents. Now imagine discussing the party with your spouse later that night. Your spouse asks you what you thought of the party. You say, “I don’t know. I didn’t really get anything out of it. It didn’t impact me. It didn’t feed me very well. People didn’t bring me presents. We sang happy birthday with a guitar but I’d rather hear it on an organ.” We say these things about worship all the time because we make it primarily about us rather than primarily about God.

Submitted by Jason Baxter, Illustration from a lecture given by Dr. Jonathan Powers, Assistant Professor of Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary

Choosing a Hymn

From the Hayes Parish Church on 18 March 1749:

The Clerk gave out the 100th Psalm, and the Singers immediately opposed him, and sang the 15th and bred a disturbance.

Hayes Parish Register.

Companies and Worship

Martin Lindstrom observes: When people viewed images associated with the strong brands-the iPods, the Harley-Davidson, the Ferrari, and others-their ers-their brains registered the exact same patterns of activity as they did when they viewed the religious images. Bottom line, there was no discernible difference between the way the subjects’ brains reacted to powerful brands and the way they reacted acted to religious icons and figures.

James Bryan Smith. The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Apprentice (IVP Books)

A Concert Hall or a Banquet Hall

My friend Isaac Wardell, a pastor of worship and founder of Bifrost Arts, asks whether we think of gathered worship as being more like a concert hall or a banquet hall. If it’s a concert hall, we show up as passive observers and critics, eager to have the itches of our preferences and felt needs scratched. A banquet hall, by contrast, is a communal gathering. We come hungry and in community, ready to participate and share the experience with one another.

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, pp.98-99. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Five Thousand Churches

Fred Allen (1984-1956) was a famous American comedian, writer, and radio star. When fellow comic Jack Parr first met Allen, he burst out, “You are my God!” Allen replied with the characteristic wit of an improvisor, ““There are five thousand churches in New York and you have to be an atheist.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.

A Framework for Life

When a person is confused and things refuse to fit together, she sometimes announces a need to get out of noise and turbulence, to get away from all the hassle and “get my head together.” When she succeeds in doing this, we call that person “put together.” All the parts are there, nothing is left out, nothing is out of proportion, everything fits into a workable frame.

As I entered a home to make a pastoral visit, the person I came to see was sitting at a window embroidering a piece of cloth held taut on an oval hoop. She said, “Pastor, while waiting for you to come I realized what’s wrong with me—I don’t have a frame. My feelings, my thoughts, my activities—everything is loose and sloppy.

There is no border to my life. I never know where I am. I need a frame for my life like this one I have for my embroidery.”How do we get that framework, that sense of solid structure so that we know where we stand and are therefore able to do our work easily and without anxiety? Christians go to worship. Week by week we enter the place compactly built, “to which the tribes ascend,” and get a working definition for life: the way God created us, the ways he leads us. We know where we stand.

Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by  Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Hocus Pocus & the Importance of Worshipping in the Vernacular

In one stream of church history, this can help explain worshiping in a dead language like Latin—holy language that honors God but leaves the church bewildered. It’s believed that the incantation “hocus pocus,” spoken to convey magical transformational powers, is derived from “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” the Latin phrase meaning “This is my body,” uttered by Roman Catholic priests during the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) in the Mass. The confused congregation heard these “magical” words and believed that they transformed the bread and wine into Jesus’s body and blood.

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, p.87. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Importance of Holiness in the Bible

There’s no question holiness is one of the central themes in the Bible. The word “holy” occurs more than 600 times in the Bible, more than 700 when you include derivative words like holiness, sanctify, and sanctification. You can’t make sense of the Bible without understanding that God is holy and that this holy God is intent on making a holy people to live with him forever in a holy heaven.

The whole system of Israel’s worship revolves around holiness. That’s why you have holy people (the priests), with holy clothes, in a holy land (Canaan), at a holy place (tabernacle/ temple), using holy utensils and holy objects, celebrating holy days, living by a holy law, so that they might be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Taken from The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung, © 2012, p.31. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Losing His Neighbor in Worship

At a worship service I attended a couple of years ago, my attention was drawn to the enthusiastic worship leader. He opened our time with prayer, asking God to meet us and draw us together in the Lord’s presence. Then he turned around to face forward, standing just in front of the first row of worshipers with his eyes closed and the band playing.

He lifted his hands and offered his joyful praise to God. That’s when I really took notice, for as he sang so rapturously, he kept stepping all over the feet of the people behind him. Not just once or twice but repeatedly throughout the singing in the two-hour service, he kept “tromping in the spirit.” No apology. No sign of acknowledgment. He was just praising God while oblivious to his neighbor.

This illustration metaphorically and practically depicts a significant part of our problem. I have no doubt the worship leader would say that what he was doing was unintentional. He was just so caught up in his own experience of worship that he lost track of others. In worship, he lost his neighbor. That’s exactly the problem. For all our apparent passion about God, in the end much of our worship seems to be mostly about us.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

On the Side?

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson shares a funny, yet poingnant encounter with a man who wanted to keep religion private:

I had the crazy idea that going on a five-hour field trip to NASA with fifty fifth-graders would be a good idea. As a chaperone to three kids, I was tasked with not letting them out of my sight. On the way to NASA, one of them told me about a summer camp he went to.

He said, “I didn’t really like it because they made us sing to God every night and listen to someone talk about him. I mean, I believe in God, but I just think you should keep him on the side.”

I thought about what he said and replied, “If God is the most important person in the world, don’t you think he should be more than ‘on the side’?” He stared at me blankly for a moment, then looked away and said, “I guess.” When we sideline God, something has to take his place. Up sprouts the Big Me.

Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Prayer for Children in Worship

Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene made a similar point in a brief note published online in 2018. Writing to parents who are worried about having children in church because of the sounds they make, Fiene said, For many years, there were no little children at River of Life Lutheran Church (LCMS).

And throughout all those years, the saints of River of Life prayed that God would bless us to see families with little ones walk in our doors. So when we hear little ones squawking and fussing and crying on Sunday mornings, we’re not irritated or frustrated. We’re overjoyed. Because that’s the sound of our prayers being answered. And I know my congregation is not alone in thinking this way.

Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Real Worship Wars

Whoever dubbed the debate over musical style a “worship war” failed to realize that worship is always a war. The declaration that there is one God, that his name is Jesus, and that he has died, has risen, and will come again is an all-out assault on the saviors extended at every level of culture around us.

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, pp.98-99. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Smoke Machines in Worship?

My teenage son, Justin, had been invited to an area church by a friend. Since he had grown up as a PK (pastor’s kid) and had never been to a megachurch like this before, I wondered what impression it might give him. Sure enough, soon after his experience, Justin asked me a question: “Why do they need smoke machines in church?

There was much I could have said in that moment. I could have contrasted different philosophies of ministry, especially in relation to the seeker movement in our postmodern culture, and explained how some view the Sunday service as having components of both worship and evangelism.

I could have articulated the differences between entertainment and engagement and how the two, while they may look similar, are very different in intent and outcome. And I could have passionately shared my deeply held convictions on worship theology, what it means to come before the throne of God as the people of God, the bride and the Bridegroom, the community of believers with the community of the Godhead. But I didn’t.

Instead I simply replied, “Well, technically, you need the smoke machines to be able to see the lasers.” 

Manuel Luz, Honest Worship: From False Self to True Praise, InterVarsity Press.

The Star of Worship

The story of worship as told in the Bible defines worship in a radically different and surprising way. It’s a story that surprises us because we discover that it doesn’t primarily feature us. The star of the story is God, who is at the center of all worship but is also at its origins in history and its origins in our hearts. The story of worship (like the story of the gospel) is all about God.

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, ©2013, pp.25-26. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Trinitiarian View of Worship

The [Trinitarian] view of worship is that it is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. That means participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his self-offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross. It also means participating in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world. There is only one true Priest through whom and with whom we draw near to God our Father. There is only one Mediator between God and humanity.

There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours. It is the offering by which he has sanctified for all time those who come to God by him (Heb. 2:11; 10:10, 14)…It takes seriously the New Testament teaching about the sole priesthood and headship of Christ, his self-offering for us to the Father and our life in union with Christ through the Spirit, with a vision of the Church which is his body… So we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into the community, the one body of Christ, which confesses faith in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which worships the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, InterVarsity Press.

Two Contexts for Worship

Participating in God’s glory-sharing life, then, happens in two contexts: scattered and gathered. Worship scattered is the Spirit-filled life of the Christian in the world, and worship gathered is the meeting of God’s people to remember, encourage, and bless one another.

First, worship scattered. This broad, life-filling reality is the way things were meant to be when the world was made, a way of intimacy and community that was restored by Jesus, who tells us to boldly enter God’s presence (Heb. 4:16) and cry out to him with the intimacy of his child (Rom. 8:15).

… Scattered worship reveals the scandal of God’s grace. The whole mess of our lives is transformed in Christ, from corrupted to glorious, from ashes to beauty. The addict who can only cry out in miserable faith, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is just as accepted by the Father as a faithful missionary or a clean-cut-Christian celebrity pastor. There are no mountains to climb to seek God’s presence, no gates to unlock, no feats to accomplish. There is only Jesus, who throws wide heaven’s gates and cries, “All who are thirsty, come and drink” (see John 7:37).

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, pp.76-77. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

What’s at Stake in Worship?

What’s at Stake in Worship? Everything. that’s what’s at stake in worship. The urgent, indeed troubling, message of Scripture is that everything that matters is at stake in worship. Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek blistering warning righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

When God Shows up…People Get Blown Away

Nobody ever went up to Jesus after his blistering warning about religious hypocrisy and shook his hand and said, “Thanks, rabbi. That was a nice talk. Nobody went up to Moses after the thunder, lightning and loud trumpet blast at the foot of Mount Sinai and said, “How come we’re using trumpets now? What happened to Miriam and that tambourine song we used to sing crossing the Red Sea? I liked that song—it was peppy. This thunder and trumpet stuff is too heavy.

Nobody came up to Solomon after the ark had been brought to the temple when it was surrounded by the cloud of glory and said, “You know, this cloud of glory is keeping the priests from getting their job done. Nobody told us that if we contributed to the capital campaign for the new temple that there would be fog involved.”

…At least, no one made the comments as far as we know. On the other hand, human nature being what it is, it would be nice to know more details of harebrained responses to worship in the ancient world. There must have been some. Somebody proposed the golden calf. David’s wife felt he went a little Pentecostal in his liturgical dancing.

But the general sense that occurs in the writings of Scripture is that when God shows up people get blown away.  They hide their face, they get radiant like light bulbs, they beg for mercy: “Away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” They “stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die.”’

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Workable Structure for Life

Worship gives us a workable structure for life. The psalm says, “Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship! The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship.” Jerusalem, for a Hebrew, was the place of worship (only incidentally was it the geographical center of the country and the political seat of authority).

The great worship festivals to which everyone came at least three times a year were held in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem everything that God said was remembered and celebrated. When you went to Jerusalem, you encountered the great foundational realities: God created you, God redeemed you, God provided for you.

In Jerusalem you saw in ritual and heard proclaimed in preaching the powerful history-shaping truth that God forgives our sins and makes it possible to live without guilt and with purpose. In Jerusalem all the scattered fragments of experience, all the bits and pieces of truth and feeling and perception were put together in a single whole.

Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

You Become What You Worship

Two golden rules at the heart of spirituality. You become like what you worship.  When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.  Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines.  Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess.  Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.

So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb who was slain?  The answer comes in the second golden rule: because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human.  When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow.  You discover more of what it means to be fully alive.

Conversely, when you give that same total worship to anything or anyone else, you shrink as a human being.  It doesn’t, of course, feel like that at the time.  When you worship part of the creation as though it were the Creator himself—in other words, when you worship an idol—you may well feel a brief “high.”  But, like a hallucinatory drug, that worship achieves its effect at a cost: when the effect is over, you are less of a human being than you were to begin with.  That is the price of idolatry.

N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

We all Worship Something

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech: This is Water.

Worship & Action

There is something profoundly hypocritical about praising God for God’s mighty deeds of salvation and cooperating at the same time with the demons of destruction, whether by neglecting to do good or by actively doing evil. Only those who help the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said, in the context of Nazi Germany… Without action in the world, the adoration of God is empty and hypocritical, and degenerates into irresponsible and godless quietism.”

Miroslav Volf, “Reflections on a Christian Way of Being-in-the-World,” quoted in Worship: Adoration and Action, Edited by D.A. Carson, Wipf & Stock Pub.

Worship in Space

A little more than a year ago, three men were orbiting the moon in a space capsule. It was Christmas Eve, and they took turns reading Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ a most magnificent choice of texts for Christmas Eve. The Apollo 8 spacecraft was transformed momentarily into a Jewish/Christian pulpit.

Man’s most impressive technological achievement to date was absorbed in the declaration of God’s creative act. Apollo, the most dashing of the pagan Greek gods, bowed down in worship to “God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The astronauts did what a lot of people spontaneously do when they integrate an alert mind with a reverent heart-they worshipped.

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, WaterBrook.

See also Illustrations on Glory, Music

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Worship. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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