What happens in worship? You might say: “We work our way through a familiar liturgy.” “We respond to the pastor’s invitation.” “We wait for a fresh experience with the Holy Spirit.” “We see how sinful we are.” “We struggle to follow another long sermon.”
Each of these answers unveils something of the true nature of what mysteriously takes place when the church gathers for worship: God communicates to us through Gospel word and sacrament, calling forth responses from us; we thirst in worship for fresh drinks from the fountain of living water; like returning prodigals, we confess our sins as we come home to our Father’s house, rejoicing in His forgiving embrace of love as He runs to meet us through words of pardon; we hear Christ speak His living word powerfully into our lives through the foolishness of preaching. At the same time, our responses reveal levels of ignorance and frustration about worship, as well as the distortions of the Divine Service to which we are exposed week by week in congregational life.
The writer to the Hebrews gives us an answer to the question regarding what happens in worship that is both comprehensive and corrective. It is comprehensive in that it knits together the loose threads dangling in our minds concerning the nature of worship, and it is corrective in that it confronts our false ideas and frustrations about worship. What happens when we come to worship? He tells us that we go to heaven!
“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22–24).
The “coming” spoken of here is our coming to worship. And when we come to worship, we enter heaven — “the city of the living God,” “the festival of the angels,” “the assembly of the firstborn,” “the spirits of those made perfect,” to “God, the Judge of all,” and to “Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant.” Just as God came down in heavenly glory to the assembly of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai (Heb. 12:18–19), so He brings heaven down to us, as we gather for worship in congregations around the world.
Elisha’s servant discovered that the army of heaven was surrounding the city of God’s people even though he couldn’t see the chariots (2 Kings 6:15–17). We, in turn, must learn that the inhabitants of heaven surround us in our worship even though they are invisible to us. We cannot touch heaven’s mountain now (Heb. 12:18), but when we process into worship, we are scaling Zion’s heights. As we worship, we cannot yet see the angels or the face of Jesus; we cannot yet hug our ancestors in the faith or bow our resurrection knees before the throne of God. Yet, the Lord, the cloud of witnesses, and the angelic host are all present with us.
Even though we cannot see it or touch it, heaven is as real and vital to us in our worship as oxygen is to our respiration. In fact, worship is a kind of spiritual respiration. We breathe air into our lungs that we cannot see — and we live. In the same way, as we worship we breathe heaven into our souls — and we live, filling our hearts with the unseen, life-giving atmosphere of heaven. Thus, worship requires faith, for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith convinces us that we are in the realm of heaven as we worship, and it encourages us to breathe deeply, that we might become more fully alive.
How does going to heaven in worship make us come alive? How does it wake us up? Going to heaven in worship awakens us to the past, to the generations who have gone before us in the faith, who are now the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven (Heb. 12:23). As we become aware that this great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) — including Abel, Enoch and Noah, and also Cora Hahn, Ruby Darr (my grandmothers), and Jack Harrell (my best friend’s father) — are actually fellow worshippers with us, we gain a new sense of the continuity of Christ’s kingdom across the ages. We rejoice in the knowledge that Christ truly is the mercy of God to a thousand generations of those who love Him (cf. Ex. 20:6). Our joy is enhanced as we read the same Scriptures and partake of the same Supper as they did, as we sing some of the same hymns and spiritual songs they did, and as we follow the same patterns in worship they did.
Worship is history, not so much a history lesson as it is finding our place in redemptive history. As a young man, Teddy Roosevelt would ride through the countryside at a fast pace, completely immersed in dreams of riding against the redcoats in the Revolutionary War. Yet these very rides helped to shape the hero of the Spanish American War — Roosevelt sensed that he had an important role to play in the continuing American story.
Heavenly worship does this for us far more effectually than any daydream; it not only makes us aware of our ties to the saints who have gone before us, it challenges us to build upon that past. Apart from us, the story of the saints in heaven lies incomplete (Heb. 11:40). Worship challenges us to find our places in the story of Christ’s kingdom and to look for Him to write new chapters in the story through our lives.
As we remember the past, we must also remember the warning given to the Hebrews, not to go back to the ways of the old covenant, when the mountain of worship could be seen, but only from a distance, through darkness and gloom, and it could be touched, but only if one wished to die under judgment. We, too, must not attempt to go back, to strive to recreate some favorite past era of church history: whether it be medieval Christendom, sixteenth–century Geneva, seventeenth–century Scotland, eighteenth–century Puritan New England, or nineteenth–century Presbyterianism. The river of redemptive history has already flowed underneath these bridges; now the river is rushing further downstream.
Thus, going to heaven in worship also awakens us to the future. Our tastes of heaven in worship awaken our appetites to the great feast that awaits us at the marriage supper of the Lamb at the consummation of all things. And we look forward longingly to the day when we will join the glorified ranks of the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb. 12:23).
But these very hopes also create concerns for us about the future. It will not be long until we will be part of that great cloud of witnesses. Then it will be our story that is incomplete without the future generations of God’s faithful people. Therefore, we must worship now in light of this future, in ways that are intelligible and helpful to our little ones. Jesus loves our little children and welcomes them from heaven just as much as ever He did while walking the earth. When we use simplicity and repetition in our worship, our little ones are able to clearly hear the voice of Him whose blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Our worship should also have such beauty and weight that it captures the hearts of the emerging generations. By His blood, Christ has brought us all the way behind the curtain (Heb. 10:19–20) and into a new and living way of life and worship before the face of God. Because new covenant worship takes place in heaven, it is spiritual and regenerative in its very nature. Our worship should thus be marked by its vibrancy and freshness. With confidence we should draw near the throne of grace, asking Jesus’ help in this great time of need — help to create hymnody that captures young hearts; help to preach Christ in ways that search out their minds and speak to their circumstances; help to offer a liturgical experience that gives their souls opportunity to exercise a full range of emotion, from wailing lament to uninhibited praise. And Jesus will answer such prayers, giving us worship that has continuity and freshness, such that it communicates to all people and every generation of Christians.
Finally, going to heaven in worship awakens us to the present, to the heavenly privileges of rest and security that we possess even now. Rest is foreign to our world, for rest is the stuff of heaven. But remember that worship takes us into heaven. With language of pilgrimage drawn from the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134) — of coming to Mount Zion, to Jerusalem, to the city of God — we discover that when we come to worship, we are, in a real sense, coming to the end of our life’s journey on a weekly basis. Though we await our final rest, we do enjoy a Sabbath rest as we worship (Heb. 4:9). And the sweetness of this rest is that it is rest from all our works (Heb. 4:10), that we might listen attentively and exclusively to the voice of God’s Word on account of Christ’s atoning blood. His is blood that doesn’t have to cry out to God for justice as Abel’s did, but it is blood that has satisfied God’s just wrath due our sins, and thus offers mercy to us again and again. And as we rest this way, we begin to feel secure, secure as citizens of Christ’s unshakeable kingdom even now. For as we worship we are already inside the walls of the only city whose foundations cannot be shaken, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10).