Worship services are fellowship, communion with the living God. In that sense the sanctuary is God’s House, a House of prayer.
What we often lose from sight is that we obtain a blessing only when we consciously, actively participate in this communion with God.
We do not come together to enjoy an hour of relaxation, to sit back and do nothing. But we worship, and worshiping, we prepare ourselves to hear what God will say to us from His Word.
This preparation should begin on Saturday, lest our day of rest is ruined already before it dawns.
We do well to remind ourselves that the minister has spent a big part of the week in preparation for this day.
Although no two ministers will agree as to how long it takes to make a sermon, I have figured that it takes a minister with experience about ten hours.
Making a sermon can well be compared to a mother making homemade bread. She gathers, measures and carefully mixes the ingredients. Then she adds the most important ingredient of all, the yeast, without which the bread will never be good. The minister translates his text from the Hebrew or the Greek. Checks the various concepts in the text; words like ‘righteousness’, ‘godliness’, ‘truth’ must be considered in their context. At this point he is ready to add the yeast, that is, he is ready to ask prayerfully for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead him into the truth of this Word of God.
Now the bread must rise. Very few ministers have ten consecutive hours that they can devote to a sermon. Their busy schedule may require that they take their text with them as they walk to the hospital or make their rounds at the shut-ins. They turn it over in their minds along the way. Even when they visit the sick or shut-ins they are thinking of the text. Little do these sick or shut-ins realize that they are being given a preview of some part of the sermon, or that they are being used to bring out some practical application of the text.
By this time the bread has risen to the top of the pan. It needs to be kneaded down. The text needs a theme and division, and the material of the text must be put in proper order.
Once more the yeast must do its work. Rev. Herman Hoeksema, when he taught in the seminary, liked to stress to the students, “The text must speak to you. You must listen. You can never preach unless the text has spoken to you. It must speak to you first, before it can speak to the congregation.”
When the dough has reached the top of the pan for the second time it may be ready for the oven. The minister may be ready to write out his sermon. The more extensively he does that, the better.
After that, there is the final preparation. Maybe he has to commit the sermon to memory. Maybe he can rely on his notes. In any case, an hour or so before the service is a necessary, final, prayerful preparation to meet the congregation.
We do well to consider that in our prayer before the service we seek a blessing, not only for ourselves, but also for the minister and the congregation.
For ourselves we ask that our heavenly Father will take away every hindrance, that He will fill us with His grace and Spirit, so that we may actively participate in the worship.
Our services generally begin with the doxology, in which the congregation unitedly gives expression to our praise to God.
This is followed by the votum and the benediction. The votum is an expression of our trust, our confidence, that in this worship service our God will sustain and bless us. Our help is in His Name.
The benediction is the bestowal of the blessing of God, pronounced on us by His servant, applied to our hearts by His Spirit.
In some churches the votum and the benediction precede the doxology, that is, God first speaks His blessing, and then the congregation responds in praise to our God.
Now follows a Psalter number. Usually there are four in a service. In any case, at least one number should be a song of praise and adoration. Another, usually following the reading of the law, should be an expression of penitence and a plea for pardon. No worship service is complete without this confession and appeal to the mercies of God revealed in the cross, either in song, or in the congregational prayer, or in both.
Allow me to add that it is our privilege, but also our duty to sing. We must sing with the mind, considering what we sing. (For that reason, the specific Psalter numbers were chosen for this service). We must also sing from the heart, giving expression to the confessions, the joys, the hope, the praises, that have filled the hearts of the saints throughout the ages. And we must also sing out with the lips. I have been in congregations where people were slumped in their seats while they sang. I felt that the angels listening, who sing so fervently, must have wept. We must sing with the mind, and also from the heart, and also with our lips!
After the first Psalter is sung, our churches differ in practice: either the chapter that is connected with the sermon is read, followed by the reading of the law; or else only the law is read.
There are advantages to reading the chapter early in the service to prepare us for the sermon that will follow. There are also advantages in reading the chapter just before the sermon to bring the passage clearly before our minds during the sermon.
Personally, I like the idea of reading a comparable portion of Scripture at the beginning of the service. If the text is taken from the Old Testament, then a comparable passage could be read from the New. If the text is taken from the New Testament a comparable portion could be read from the Old. For example, if the text deals with Jesus’ birth. A comparable passage would be a few verses from Isaiah 9. Or if the text deals with the trial in which Jesus is condemned to die, a comparable passage would be Isaiah 53. If the text is taken from Joel 2, the passage to read could be a portion of Acts 2.
During the reading of the infallible Scriptures God speaks to us, as well as in the reading of the law. Now it is our turn to respond to God in song.
In the evening service the twelve articles of our faith are either read or recited in unison. It is understood, that the law should be read, but that it is proper for the Confession of our faith to be recited in unison. This is followed by another number from the Psalter.
Here upon follows the congregational prayer. This is our prayer, spoken through the minister. Our needs are presented before the throne of grace. Therefore, we must actively participate in this prayer.
Now follows our further participation in a two-fold way. The offering, which is an essential part of the service, gives us an opportunity to pay our obligation to the church and its ministry, but also to give our gifts of thanksgiving to God. In the meantime, we are active in singing another Psalter.
Now comes the moment for which we were waiting and preparing ourselves. Now follows the main part of the service, which must always remain the main part. Now God speaks to us through His ambassador, the ordained minister of the Word, and by His Spirit in our hearts.
Now it is our turn to lift up the prayer: “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.”
God speaks through His infallible Word. God also speaks through His servant when the Scriptures are unfolded. The sermon is not a mere discourse. It is not a lecture on some popular subject. It is the unfolding of the Word of the living God.
And the wonder of it all is, that God uses His servants, the ministers of the Word, to speak to us. We are not merely listening to a man, whom we may criticize at will. We are listening to Christ, speaking through His servant. That makes the preaching and the worship service unique. There is nothing like it in the whole world, for the preaching of the Word is God’s power unto our salvation.
A fitting close is a prayer, and our response in song.
And then the benediction, God’s final word to us. This is one of the most solemn moments of the entire service, when God lays His blessing upon us, both at the beginning and at the end of the service.
The service is not ended until the benediction has been spoken.
We must be able to say as we leave the sanctuary, “It was good for me to be there, for the Lord was in our midst.”