We worship a God who invites us into his story. He steps into ours long enough to meet us where we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. He invites us to enter into something bigger and grander than our stories could ever be. Because as thrilling and adventurous as your story might be, it can’t compare to the story of the God who created the earth, sacrificed his own Son to save it, and is now re-creating it through work of his church in the power of his Spirit. This story is certainly the reason for our worship but can even be its very means. We worship God by proclaiming and enacting his story.
A Dialogical Pattern
When we meet together on Sunday mornings, we don’t come just to talk about God as if he’s some absent third party. We’re not having a conversation about Jesus, we’re having an encounter with him. And when we encounter the God of the universe, we meet on his terms, not ours. If we look at instances in the Bible of this kind of encounter, we’ll start to see a pattern. Take a quick look at Exodus 3:1-6, Isaiah 6:1-8, and Acts 9:3-9. God appears to Moses and calls to him, “Moses, Moses!” and Moses responds, “Here I am,” and when he realizes who he’s talking to, he hides his face. God appears to Isaiah, reveals himself in all his glory, and Isaiah responds, “Woe to me!” Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus, and calls to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul responds acknowledging him as Lord.
These are only a few examples, but we can see the pattern. God reveals himself and speaks, and his people respond. The same is true for us every Sunday. God initiates our gathering, he calls us to worship by revealing himself to us, and we respond. When we gather together to worship God, we’re not just meeting to talk about him. We’re meeting to engage in dialogue with him, a dialogue that follows this pattern of revelation and response. God calls us together in the name of Jesus, stoops down to drawn near to us, and graciously reveals himself to us in his Word, allowing us to draw near to him and to know him more. Motivated by his grace and the glory of his revelation, we respond in praise. This is worship.
A Fourfold Structure
Within this broader pattern of revelation and response, we have room to get a little narrower. Before you read on, take a minute to look at Luke 24:13-35.
Here we find two of Jesus’ disciples on the very day that tomb was found empty. They aren’t quite sure what to believe about the rumors they’ve heard, and they’re travelling on the road when who do they run into but Jesus himself. But Jesus doesn’t let them know who he is, and for some reason they can’t recognize him. Notice here again, Jesus speaks first. He asks them what their so sad about, and they get to talking about what has happened in the last few days. This man they had been following and had hoped was the promised Messiah who was going to save their country had been killed right in front of them. And now there was all this mystery around his body missing. So Jesus comes alongside them and starts from the very beginning explaining all of the Scriptures and what they mean according to what has happened.
They go on like this through the whole day, walking along the road and talking about this Jesus person, until they make it to where they were going right about dinner time. Since it’s getting late and their good Christian guys, they offer this random traveler their couch to sleep. When they sit down to have dinner, Jesus prays and starts passing out bread, and everything changes for these two disciples. Their eyes are opened, and they realize they’ve seen him do this before. Once on a mountain where 5,000 people ate from a few dinner rolls. Once just a few days ago in an upper room before everything started happening. And now here, when he was supposed to be dead. Just three days ago they had watched with their own eyes as Roman soldiers nailed him to a cross. They themselves had taken his body down from the cross and with their own hands laid him in a tomb. But here he stands before them and takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them, and their eyes are opened. Then all of a sudden Jesus is gone, and they get up and run back to Jerusalem to tell everyone what just happened.
Jesus meets them on the road. He teaches them the truth of the Scriptures. He reveals himself to them in the breaking of bread. They go out to tell everyone he’s alive. In these four actions we find a structure for the way in which we meet with Jesus.
Jesus Meets Us on the Road – Gathering
On the road to Emmaus, it says that Jesus drew near and went with them (Luke 24:15). Jesus steps into our journey to draw us into his own. He meets us where we are and gathers his people to himself. In the gathering we are drawn out of the busyness and chaos of our daily lives into one body, united in one place, under one Name. Our Savior calls us, and we respond in worship. And as we sing and read and pray the Scriptures, our Lord prepares us to receive his Word.
Jesus Teaches Us the Scriptures – Word
When the Word is preached, it is the voice of Jesus himself that speaks to us. The things in Scripture that perplex and confound us on our own are explained and interpreted to us through the work of the Holy Spirit moving in and among his people (1 Cor. 2:12-13). The mysteries of God are revealed to us in his Word, and the body is edified and encouraged. God speaks and graciously reveals himself to his people.
We See Jesus in the Breaking of Bread – Table
When God reveals himself, his people are called to respond, and we respond through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Having heard the Word proclaimed, we respond by participating in the body and blood of Jesus through the bread and the cup (1 Cor. 10:16). We taste and see the goodness of the Lord in the gift of his Son, and as we participate in him we are reminded and realize that he has been with us all along.
Jesus Sends Us Into the World – Sending
Having been changed the Word of God in power of the Holy Spirit and having been nourished in the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Jesus, we are sent out into the world to tell everyone the good news. Just as Jesus calls us in to gather in his name, it is he who sends us out as ambassadors and messengers to carry the gospel to every corner of the earth, even if that corner is as close as your office, your school, or your neighborhood (Matthew 28:18-20).
When we arrange worship services along this fourfold structure, it accomplishes two things. First, it places this pattern of revelation and response as the central part of the service. While individual parts of the service carry on this dialogue, at the center of the fourfold order stands the Word and the Table. The preaching of the Word is the primary means of revelation in the service. God never speaks so clearly as through the exposition of his written Scripture. In the same way, the Table is our primary means of response. At other times we sing, we pray, we listen, but in the Table, we are engaged with more than just our minds and our voices. It is a physical act when we reach out with our hands to receive the bread and the cup. It is a sensory experience when we taste and see that the Lord is good according to the gift of his Son given to his people. The Table engages the whole person as it is a participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus.
When we place the Table after the Word we avoid the danger of its reduction to a preliminary matter. Rather than the Table being mixed in with the Gathering as mere preparation for the Word, it stands in partnership as its culmination. God speaks, and his people respond. The Table allows more opportunity for response than an altar call alone ever can. It offers us the chance to reflect, contemplate, and ruminate on the Word we have received and then physically respond. You can’t come forward for every altar call every week, but you can reach out and physically receive the grace of Jesus Christ in the bread and the cup with your own hands again and again every Sunday. When the Table follows the Word, it is completed with the opportunity to respond and participate even before we are sent out into the world.
Perhaps the best reason to worship along this pattern of Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending, is that the structure itself proclaims God’s story. Just as God spoke and called Creation into existence, in the Gathering, he speaks and calls his people to himself. He gathers us in from our various places to meet together in one place in the name of Jesus. Just as he initiated our relationship with him by creating us, he initiates our encounter with him every Sunday morning. Just as God revealed himself to Israel through the Law, so he reveals himself to us in the service of the Word. He speaks to us through the Scriptures and teaches us, allowing us to know him through his Word. Just as Christ entered the world in human form, his body was broken, and his blood shed on the cross, so we experience and participate in his forgiveness at the Table. And just as Christ ascended into heaven and sent his church into the world to proclaim the gospel among all nations, so he sends us out from the gathering of worship to do the same.
God’s story of Creation, Law, Redemption, and Commission is proclaimed every time the church gathers, not only in the words of our songs, our prayers, and the message that is preached, but in the very ordering and structure of the service itself. We worship God by proclaiming and enacting his story. This fourfold order is an excellent way to do just that. It’s not the only way. It’s not wrong or a sin to do things differently, and we may even change things up at Woodland Hills from time to time when there’s a good reason. But for the time being, we’re going to gather every Sunday and use this framework to proclaim and enact God’s story together. Come and join us.