What does worship look like? What does it sound like? Where does it get done? Who gets included? And what is the purpose of it all anyway?
As the Psalms conclude, they do so with an intense exclamation of worship. The last five psalms are a set, each of them beginning and ending with that incredible Hebrew word that has found its way into every language in the world and from every musical genre from blues to pop to heavy metal: Hallelujah!
And then there’s that wild frenzy that finishes it off, Psalm 150, which must have inspired Handel’s own magnificent Hallelujah chorus. Cymbals are crashing left and right, clashing, resounding cymbals. Trumpets are blasting. People are dancing. The music of stringed instruments mixes with that of pipes. Guitars wail. Keyboards are hammered on.
Salvos of sound lift higher and higher in an ever-growing wave of worship before one last reverberating Hallelujah.
Talk about going out with a bang! I know I shouldn’t bring up AC/DC at this point, but it reminds me of their epic For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) with its bombast and bomb blasts.
After its initial Hallelujah, the psalm begins as we might expect any call to worship, “Praise God in his sanctuary.” How simple. How staid. How yawn-worthy. This is worship as we’ve always known it. This is going to church in our Sunday best and making our way through the same old hymns and yet another forgettable sermon.
But the psalmist is only just getting going. This stuffy sanctuary worship spills out from behind the stained glass as the psalmist calls out, “Praise him in his mighty heavens!”
Has the congregation burst the seams of its building and moved outside and under a canopy of clouds, turning all of creation into a sanctuary? Is the psalmist calling on dark, heaped-up cumulonimbus thunderheads to join in with sky-cracking deep bass rumbles? Are the angel armies, residents of the heavenly realm, called on to enhance our tepid human attempts at worship?
I like all three images, so I’m going to stick with all of them.
For our Lord to be truly worshiped, all of creation needs to be our sanctuary and all of creation included in the praise that’s lifted up, from the natural of clouds to the supernatural of angels.
Now that the where and the who of our worship context has been settled (everywhere and everything!), we move on to the what and why of worship.
We praise him for his mighty deeds, his acts of power. This is where both the biblical narrative and our own personal narratives enter in. Our God has acted with great power, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, to deliver his people from adversity of all kinds — from Egyptian slavery to personal sins, from economic poverty to moral poverty. We are the saved and we raise our salvation songs to our great Savior.
And we praise him for his surpassing greatness. For not only has he done great things on our behalf, but he is himself greatness defined. Whatever and whomever we think of when the word “great” passes through our minds is surpassed by him, for he is greater still. Magnificent. Sublime. Glorious. Holy. In the face of the mysterium tremendum, we quaver and quake in awe, bowing in reverence like trees before a gale.
It’s here that the riot of joy bursts out, as referred to above.
When we come face-to-face with the Magnificent One, we discover that he is no disappointing wizard behind the curtain but far beyond what we ever imagined or hoped for. Every cell in every creature buzzes and hums, reverberating with the music of creation before its Creator. We simply can’t help but join in with crescendo upon crescendo of praise.
We are in the zone. We are like jazz musicians who have found their rhythm and are improvising off one another with increasing creativity and complexity — and joy! Everything is in its right place. Everything is how it should be. God and his world are in harmony.
We have done our job. The voiceless creation around us has been given a voice in the words of our songs. We have turned the praise of forests and oceans into surging choruses.
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
Our praise has become all-inclusive. Not only has the sanctuary spilled out to include the whole cosmos, but so too has the congregation itself. Each breath of each breathing thing exhales with the word, “Glory!”
This is what we do when we gather in closed-in buildings with our motley assemblies to jangling guitars, gusty organs, and overly earnest preachers: We voice creation’s praise. We tell the Story and thank the Hero. We approximate a unity in our creaky harmonies that will one day be full-bodied and complete.
Sure, we limp as we do so now. But we won’t always limp; we will run. And even as we struggle along now, we experience a hint of what is to come.