A Worshipping Life

Sermon One in the series 'A Worshipping Life'

Epiphanytide 2018


We began our service with a hymn whose words highlight the theme of our sermon series:

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,
bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
with gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name.[1]

Worship - it's an Epiphanytide theme, as today's Newsletter explains. It's a Christian theme before that. Yet even before that, worship is a human theme. Over the next five weeks we'll explore aspects of this vast theme with an eye particularly on our Christian experience of worship.

Today I want us to try to grasp something of the ground from which worship arises, thinking first about worship in general, and then edging toward what distinguishes Christian worship.

It's surprising to recall that 'worship' isn't in its origins a religious word. Old English 'worthship'[2] was the acknowledgement or crediting of worth or value to something or someone. 'Worthship' was the opposite of worthless.

Something of that general sense of the word continued for a long time in our language. Some of you may remember the phrase at the giving of the ring by the husband to his wife in the marriage rite of the Book of Common Prayer: 'With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship....'

You can see how 'worthship', or worship, might then readily apply to God. What was more full of worth and value than the deity? For English speakers, therefore, God was above all else and above all others worthy of worship.

But even to slip the word 'God' in here is a bit premature. For if we cast our eyes widely over the millennia of human experience we can say of humankind in general, and religious people especially (be they Christian, Muslim, Jew or any other devotee of a developed religion) that '...worship is an acknowledgement of Transcendence'.[3] The impulse toward worship, I mean, is the realization that there is a Reality independent of us; that Reality is not under our control; it comes before us and endures after us; and that Reality 'is always more or less coloured by mystery'.[4]

Because we sense it's there we have somehow or other to take account of it, to deal with it. We are, in other words, accountable to it. And once we acknowledge a reality outside, over and above us, we have to give it some value, some worth. Once we begin to do that we step into the arena of worth-giving or worship. As if to say to ourselves and one another: "There's something 'out there'[5] that's worth our attention."

What worth or value we give to what's 'out there', how we express and communicate that worth, that's our worship.

The expression and communication of our worship will, of course, be both interior and exterior. Our attention to what's 'out there' involves mind and imagination, conscience and will; it also involves our bodies and the material world which we use to construct our lives and express ourselves as individuals and as groups.

All of this we can affirm without ever mentioning the God, or, more specifically, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Jesus crucified and risen, or the Holy Spirit the Giver of life.

For Christians, though, everything about our worship is coloured by and contained in the revelation and experience of God, Father, Son and Spirit. Whatever else our worship may be, its chief aim is to acknowledge and proclaim the worth of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Little wonder that the so-called doxology is one of the earliest and most persistent elements of Christian worship: 'Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit'.[6] In other words, Christian worship arises amid the affirmation summed -up in our creed: that the Reality 'out there' before, around, in, with, and after us, is the Father 'creator of heaven and earth', Jesus Christ 'his only Son our Lord', and the Holy Spirit 'the Lord and giver of life'. Christian worship is worthy and true when we thus name the Reality 'out there' and celebrate their relationship to us and to our world.

The first and last characteristic of Christian worship is adoration, as our Christmas worship always reminds us: '...O come let us adore him...'.[7] Christian worship is not chiefly about getting a spiritual product, nor is it an occasion to negotiate with the Almighty, nor an occasion for an emotional high; it's not a group self-help programme, nor a place to be affirmed or included.[8] Above all, Christian worship is an acknowledgement, without any strings attached, that the Reality 'out there' is Father, Son and Spirit as we understand them and their relation to us through what Scripture and tradition tell us, and what the Church's shared light of reason can discern. They're a fellowship of Love acting lovingly toward us.

To worship this triune God includes but far over-steps the boundaries of 'church' in all its aspects. Of course the worship of the church community is, or ought to be, a kind of lode-star for worshippers. We can, after all, do things together which we can't do alone (more about that next week). However, the spirit and acts of worship can't be, mustn't be, bounded by the foot-print of the church or by the print of a liturgical book or service leaflets or by the congregation's official behaviour.[9]

Here are two illustrations of what I mean.

Esther de Waal relates the first one, words of a woman who grew up somewhere in the Outer Hebrides in the first half of the nineteenth century. 'My mother', the woman related,

            would be asking us to sing our morning song
            to God in the back-house, as Mary's lark was
            singing it up in the clouds and as Christ's mavis
            was singing it in yonder tree, giving glory to the
            God of the creatures for repose of the night, for
            the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She
            would tell us that every creature on the earth
            here below and in the ocean beneath and in the
            air above was giving glory to the great God of
            the creatures and the worlds...and would we be

Second, about the journey of Christians into what one theologian calls 'the dimension of the Kingdom', that is, into the presence of Christ, when we celebrate the Eucharist. 'The journey,' he says, 'begins when Christians leave their homes and beds'--a kind of worship long before any formal worship begins. Worship on the way, we could say. 'What a beautiful thing walking can be!' another theologian adds. 'It is a genuine act of divine worship'--as the Bible puts it, 'to walk before the Lord'.[11]

So the temple of our worship begins not with the church building, but with our bodies and our homes; the place of worship extends to the paths and roads we traverse; it extends beyond a single locale to every environment into which we step or with which we have to do, the whole of his existence.[12] Why? Because

            All this worlde, is, as it were, the temple of his DEITIE,
            consecrated to His worship, sanctified by His presence,
            and filled with His glorie, [Isai. vi.3]. Everie-where...wee
            may see Him present; and ever, as in His presence,
            should walke in it as in an holie temple, worshipping,
            praying, and blessing Him....[13]

Who should know that better than a Christian? All the world, and all of our lives lived in God's presence, and so, all of it, warp and woof alike, consecrated to God's worship.

O come, let us adore him, the Father beyond us, the Son before us, the Spirit within us.



The Revd Dr Charles Miller
Sermon preached at St Helen's, Abingdon-on-Thames
Sunday 14 January 2018


[1] J. S. B. Monsell's hymn (Common Praise, no. 89) verse 1.

[2] See s.v.'weorthscipe' defined as 'acknowledgement of worth' in the Oxford Dictionary of English.

[3] Evelyn Underhill, Worship, pp.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] By 'out there' I simply mean that the reality is objectively other.

[6] The precise form of this doxology developed and changed amid doctrinal debates of the early centuries.

[7] Refrain of the hymn Adeste, fideles. The 'fundamental religious mood', say Underhill, is adoration (Worship, p. 8)

[8] Of course in various ways those and other aspects pertain to worship in actual experience over time.

[9] 'Arising from its incarnational character...', says Evelyn Underhill, 'is the fact that Christian worship is always directed to the sanctification of life' (Worship, p. 77).

[10] Quoted by De Waal, The Celtic Vision, p. 5.

[11] Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, p. 26; see pp. 25-7 on 'walking'.

[12] Underhill, ibid., p. 77.

[13] So the seventeenth-century Scottish episcopal divine James Sibbald; quoted by C. Miller, Toward a Fuller Vision (1984), p. 47.