John Webster on Worship

John Webster – the great late 20th/ early 21st century Anglican theologian that not enough people have heard of. Here are excerpts from his sermon from Psalm 95 on “Praising God.” Note the gift God has given him of simplicity and finding just the precise word.

“Psalm 95 is an invitation to worship. But the worship to which it invites us is not private but public. The psalm is addressed to the people of God in their common life, and the worship to which it summons us is worship in assembly: Let us sing; let us rejoice; “let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (95:6). The worship of God is principally a public activity; it is an action in community. Why? Because I do not worship my God, but our God; God is my God only insofar as he is the God of God’s people. It is this principle, of course, which informs something close to the heart of the Anglican tradition, namely the importance of “common prayer.” The core of that tradition is what Thomas Cranmer in his invitation to morning prayer called “assembling and meeting together.” What builds up our common life as the people of God is public obedience to the summons of the psalm: Come, let us sing to the Lord. 

“To say this is not to deny that worship is also a private and individual matter. Every person has business to do with God, and no one else can do that business for us. Without roots in private prayer and seeking God’s face, without pondering Holy Scripture and examining ourselves, the life of faith is simply a shell. Indeed, however much we may value public worship, we can use it to hide from God. Nevertheless, the accumulated wisdom of the Christian tradition is this: Assembling and meeting together is basic to the rhythm of the life of faith. It is not an option, something which we can drop in and out of as the fancy takes us. It is what God requires, and it is what builds us up. Our culture very easily relegates religion to solitude; it tempts us to replace worship by spirituality, and to think that the life of faith is just self-cultivation, growing a more interesting me. And to that we Christian folk must politely and firmly say, quite simply, no. God is honored by obedience to his command; and his command is that—however unappealing it may be—we must give ourselves to the public praises of his people.”

“[W]orship involves a measure of intensity. “Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!… let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (95:1–2). If the psalm does reflect the kind of worship which took place in the temple, then it’s obviously got something pretty exuberant in mind: a cheerfully noisy and undignified procession of voices and instruments heading for the courts of the Lord in Jerusalem. Lots of Christian congregations have rediscovered this kind of exhilaration, of course, and worship with an exuberance which makes some of us look pretty staid. But exuberance is only one kind of intensity. There is also an intensity which is quiet and restrained and undemonstrative but which is no less caught up in the movement of worship. What’s crucial is that worship should arise from and give voice to deep joy in God. The roots of worship are love for and delight in God and the ways of God. Exhilaration there may be; but what matters above all is focus, a fixing of heart and mind on the face of God. “What is it to rejoice aright?” asks St. Augustine; and his answer is: “To rejoice in the Lord.” If we sing, we are to sing to the Lord; we are to come into his presence; we are to make a joyful noise to him.”

“God is worshiped because he is “a great God.” Worship is acknowledgement. It is recognition of the absolute superabundance and the limitless majesty of God. Worship is without measure, because God is without measure; there can be no end to our praises, for there is no end to the divine glory. Worship recognizes the supreme worth of God. It is the astounded cry which is drawn from us when we know ourselves to be in the presence of the one who sums up in himself all goodness, all truth and all beauty. Worship is the repetition and celebration of the utter fullness and aliveness and holiness of God. In the end, worship says only one thing: God is God. God is this one, supremely great. Worship doesn’t ascribe anything to God; it is not a statement of the value that we think God has. Nor is it flattery, hoping somehow to win favors. Worship acclaims that from all eternity, in all his ways and works, God is the perfect one.”

Webster, John. Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian . Lexham Press. .

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