Worship is Formed by the Past, but Gives Shape to the Present

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Sing a new song to the Lord;
let the whole earth sing to the Lord.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
proclaim his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his wondrous works among all peoples (Ps. 96:1-3).

We are commanded to worship. We meet together as Christians and do what seems like a complete waste of time to the rest of the world. We sing together. As we do so, and as we read this psalm which is an exhortation to worship, we are reminded that there is both a past and present aspect to what we do during those meetings.

We find first of all that our worship is formed by the past. In Psalm 96, after we are given the command to sing a new song, we find in verse 2 to proclaim his salvation day after day. In verse 3 we are told to declare his wondrous works among all the peoples. Later in the psalm we are reminded that God made the earth, the heavens, and everything in them. All of these things happened in the past, and the past is what forms our worship.

If you read through the Old Testament, one of the other commands you find repeated over and over again is the command to remember. Remember when the Lord brought you out of Egypt. Remember what He did at the Red Sea. Remember why we eat this Passover meal. Remember the faithfulness of the Lord. In fact, all the festivals in the life of the nation of Israel were really instituted so that the people would always remember what God had done in the past.

It’s important for us to remember, because remembering is what gives us confidence in the present. I think about George Muller, the Christian evangelist who cared for over 10,000 orphans in his orphanage in his life, all without ever soliciting a single dime. There are incredible stories of Muller’s faith in God’s willingness and ability to provide, like the time in which there was no bread or milk for the orphans for breakfast. And so Muller sat down and prayed with the children when a bread truck and then a milk truck showed up outside the door. My favorite quote from Muller is this: “If God fails me this time, it will be the first time.”

We need to remember. It’s vitally important that our worship is rooted in the great acts of God in the past, because we are actually precariously close – closer than we might realize – to forgetting. Listen to this text from Judges 2 about the end of the life of one of God’s great leaders, Joshua son of Nun:

The people worshiped the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime and during the lifetimes of the elders who outlived Joshua. They had seen all the Lord’s great works he had done for Israel.

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the territory of his inheritance, in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. That whole generation was also gathered to their ancestors. After them another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works he had done for Israel (Judges 2:8-10).

It’s staggering, isn’t it? During Joshua’s lifetime, the people worshiped faithfully, having their worship formed by their past. But they were only one generation away from forgetting all God had done, and therefore the Lord Himself. This is what happens when our worship is not rooted and formed by the past.

That does not mean we only sing old songs. But it does mean that when we sing, we sing with the aim of remembering old truths. We should care deeply about the substance of what we’re singing, for when we sing, we should always be recounting the old, old story of a Savior who came from glory. Who gave His life on Calvary to save a wretch like me. This is the greatest act of God. This is ultimately what all our worship should be rooted and formed by – recalling, remembering, and retelling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our worship is formed by the past. But our worship shapes the present. Here’s what I DON’T mean by that – I don’t mean that we can somehow praise something into existence. That we can sing songs about victory and all our circumstantial problems will go away. This is not some name it and claim it worship methodology. What I mean is that when we sing, our understanding and perspective on the present is shaped.

Notice that verse 1 tells us that we should sing a new song to the Lord. This Psalm is part of a group of psalms that were sung to give praise to God as King. They’re sometimes called coronation psalms. And when these songs were sung at specific times in the calendar, there would be new songs composed.

That doesn’t mean that we need to write a new song every Sunday for worship; but it does bring a sense of freshness and present tense to worship. And we need our present to be formed by worship because we are emotional beings. God made us that way. The problem is that our emotions are corrupted by sin, just as every part of us is. That means that you cannot trust your heart, just like I cannot trust mine.

Most of us do, though. If you think of your life like a locomotive, for most of us, the engine at the front of our lives is our feelings. That’s what pulls us along. So we eat what we want, we date who we want, we do what we want, and then when we stop wanting that thing or person, we just trade that thing or person for someone else.

We have to come to the point where the engine of our lives is not our feelings; it’s our faith. That means regardless of what we feel, we act and make decisions based on what we know by faith. And worship can actually help us do that in the present.

Worship, particularly worship through song, helps to bridge our emotions with our knowledge; our hearts with our heads. When we sing what is true about God, about Jesus, about the future – we are telling our souls who is the boss. We are not just giving praise to God, we are instructing our souls how to feel. We are aligning ourselves with what is true, regardless of what we feel.

So you might go to church this weekend not feeling like singing at all. You might go there all different kinds of circumstances that are weighing you down. Causing you sorrow. Bringing you anxiety and grief. The moment when you don’t feel like singing is precisely the moment you should be. It’s because singing in worship is one of the ways our perspective on our present is shaped by the truth.

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