Revelation xi.16, 17. "And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God, saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned."
My dear friends, -- I wish to speak a few plain words to you this morning, on a matter which has been on my mind ever since I returned from Chester, namely, -- The duty of the congregation to make the responses in Church.
Now I am not going to scold -- even to blame. To do so would be not only unjust, but ungrateful in me, to a congregation which is as attentive and as reverent as you are. Indeed, I am the only person to blame, for I ought to have spoken on the subject long ago.
As it is, coming fresh from Chester, and accustomed to hear congregations, in that city and in the country round, reading the responses aloud throughout the service with earnestness, and reverence, I was painfully struck by the silence in this church. I had before grown so accustomed to it that I did not perceive it, just as one grows accustomed to a great many things which ought not to be, till one forgets that, however usual they may be, wrong they are, and ought to be amended.
Now, it is always best to begin at the root of a matter. So to begin at the root of this. Why do we come to church at all?
Some will say, to hear the sermon. That is often too true. Some folks do come to church to hear a man get up and preach, just as they go to a concert to hear a man get up and sing, to amuse and interest them for half-an-hour. Some go to hear sermons, doubtless, in order that they may learn from them. But are there not, especially in these days of cheap printing, books of devotion, tracts, sermons, printed, which contain better preaching than any which they are likely to hear in church? If TEACHING is all that they come to church for, they can get that in plenty at home. Moreover, nine people out of ten who come to church need no teaching at all. They know already, just as well as the preacher, what is right and what is wrong; they know their duty; they know how to do it. And if they do not intend to do it, all the talking in the world (as far as I have seen) will not make them do it. Moreover, if the teaching in the sermon be what we come to church for, why have we prayer-books full of prayers, thanksgivings, psalms, and so forth, which are not sermons at all? What is the use of the service, as we call it, if the sermon is the only or even the principal object for which we come? I trust there are many of you here who agree with me so fully, that you would come regularly to church, as I should, even if there were no sermon, knowing that God preaches to every man, in the depths of his own heart and conscience, far more solemn and startling sermons than any mortal man can utter.
Others will answer that they come to church to say their prayers. Well: that is a wiser answer than the last. But if that be all, why can they not say their prayers at home? God is everywhere. God is all-seeing, all-hearing, about our path and about our bed, and spying out all our ways. Is He not as ready to hear in the field, and in the workshop and in the bed-chamber, as in the church? "When thou prayest," says our Lord, "enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Those are not my words, they are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself; and none can gainsay them. None dare take from them or add to them; and our coming to church, therefore, must be for more reasons than for the mere saying of our prayers.
Others will answer -- very many, indeed, will answer -- we come to church because -- because, we hardly know why, but because we ought to come to church.
Some may call that a silly answer, only fit for children: but I do not think so. It seems to me a very rational answer: perhaps a very reverent and godly answer. A man comes to church for reasons which he cannot explain to himself: just so -- and many of the deepest and best feelings of our hearts, are just those that we cannot explain to ourselves, though we believe in them, would fight for them, die for them. The man who frankly confesses that he does not quite know why he comes to church is most likely to know at last why he does come; most likely to understand the answer which Scripture gives to the question why we come to church. And what answer is that? Strange to say, one which people now-a-days, with their Bibles in their hands, have almost forgotten. We come to church, according to the Bible, to worship God.
To worship. Think awhile what that ancient and deep and noble word signifies. So ancient is it, that man learnt to worship even before he learnt to till the ground. So deep, that even to this day no man altogether understands what worshipping means. So noble, that the noblest souls on earth delight most in worshipping; that the angels, and archangels, and the spirits of just men made perfect, find no nobler occupation, no higher enjoyment, in the heavenly world than worshipping for ever Him whose glory fills all earth and heaven. To worship. That power of worship, that longing to worship, that instinct that it is his duty to worship something, is -- if you will receive it -- the true distinction between men and brutes. Philosophers have tried to define man as this sort of animal and that sort of animal. The only sound definition is this: man is THE one animal who worships; and he worships, just because he is NOT merely an animal, but a man, with an immortal soul within him. Just in as far as man sinks down again to the level of the brute -- whether in some savage island of the South Seas, or in some equally savage alley of our own great cities -- God forgive us that such human brutes should exist here in Christian England -- just so far he feels no need to worship. He thinks of no unseen God or powers above him. He cares for nothing but what his five senses tell him of; he feels no need to go to church and worship. Just in as far as a man rises to the true standard of a man; just in as far as his heart and his mind are truly cultivated, truly developed, just so far does he become more and more aware of an unseen world about him; more and more aware that in God he lives and moves and has his being -- and so much the more he feels the longing and the duty to worship that unseen God on whom he and the whole universe depend.
I know what seeming exceptions there are to this rule, especially in these days. But I say that they are only seeming exceptions. I never knew yet (and I have known many of them) a virtuous and high-minded unbeliever: but what there was in him the instinct of worshipping -- the longing to worship -- he knew not what, the spirit of reverence, which confesses its own ignorance and weakness, and is ready to set up, like the Athenians of old, an altar -- in the heart at least -- to the unknown God.
But how to worship Him? The word itself, if we consider what it means, will tell us that. Worship, without doubt, is the same word as worth- ship. It signifies the worth of Him whom we worship, that He is worthy,- -a worthy God, not merely because of what He has done, but because of what He is worth in Himself. Good, excellent, and perfect in Himself, and therefore to be admired, praised, reverenced, adored, worshipped -- even if He had never done a kindness to you or to any human being. Remember this last truth. For true it is; and we remember it too little. Of course we know that God is good; first and mainly by His goodness to us. Because He is good enough to give us life and breath and all things, we conclude that He is a good being. Because He is good enough to have not spared His only begotten Son, but freely given Him for us, when we were still sinners and rebels, we conclude Him to be the best of all beings, a being of boundless goodness. But it is because God is so perfectly and gloriously good in Himself, and not merely because He has done US kindnesses, yea, heaped us with undeserved benefits, that we are to worship Him. For His kindnesses we owe Him gratitude, and gratitude without end. But for His excellent and glorious goodness, we owe Him worship, and worship without end.
There are some hearts, surely, among you here who know what I mean: some here who have felt reverence and admiration for some great and good human being, and who have felt, too, that that reverence and admiration is one of the most elevating and unselfish of all feelings, and quite distinct from any gratitude, however just, for favours done; who can say, in their hearts, of some noble human being: "If he never did me a kindness, never spoke to me, never knew of my existence, I should honour him and love him just the same, for the noble and good personage that he is, irrespective of little me, and my paltry wants." Then, even such ought to be our feeling toward God, our worship of God. Even so should we adore Him who alone is worthy of glory, and honour, and praise, and thanksgiving, because He is good, and beautiful, and wise Himself, and the cause and source of all goodness, and beauty, and wisdom, in all created beings, and in the whole universe, past, present, and to come. Consider, I beseech you, those glimpses of the Eternal Worship in heaven which St John gives us in the Book of Revelation -- How he saw the elders fall down before Him who sat upon the throne, and worship Him that liveth for ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honour, and power; for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created."
Consider that -- Those blessed spirits of just men made perfect, confessing that they are nothing, but that Christ is all; that they have nothing, but that they owe all to Christ; and declaring Him worthy -- not merely for any special mercies and kindnesses to themselves, not even for that crowning mercy of His incarnation, His death, His redemption; even that seems to have vanished from their minds at the sight of Him as He is. They glorify Him and worship Him simply for what He is in Himself, for what He would have been even if -- which God forbid -- He had never stooped from heaven to live and die on earth -- for what He is and was and will be through eternity, the Creator and the Ruler, who has made all things, and for whose pleasure they are and were created. Consider that one text. The more I consider it, the more awful and yet most blessed depths of teaching do I find therein: and consider this text also, another glimpse of the worship which is in heaven.
"I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, singing Alleluia; salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God; for true and righteous are His judgments." What the special judgment was, for which these blessed souls worshipped God, I shall not argue here. It is enough for us that they worshipped God, as we should worship Him, because His judgments were righteous and true, were like Himself, proved Him to be what He was, worthy in Himself, because He is righteous and true. And consider then, again -- the text. Before Him, the righteous and true Being who has created all things for His pleasure, and therefore has made them wisely and well; before Him who reigns, and will reign till He has put all His enemies under His foot; before Him, I say, bow down yourselves, and find true nobleness in confessing your own paltriness, true strength in confessing your own weakness, true wisdom in confessing your own ignorance, true holiness in confessing your own sins.
And not alone merely, each in your own chamber, or in your own heart. That is the place for private confessions of sin, for private prayers for help; for all the secrets which we dare not, and need not tell to any human being. They indeed are not out of place here in church. Those who composed our Prayer Book felt that, and have filled our services, the Litany especially, with prayers in which each of us can offer up his own troubles to God, if he but remember that he is offering up to God his neighbour's troubles also, and the troubles of all mankind. For this is the reason why we pray together in church; why all men, in all ages, heathen as well as Christian, have had the instinct of assembling together for public worship. They may have fancied often that their deity dwelt in one special spot, and that they must go thither to find him. They may have fancied that he or she dwelt in some particular image, and that they must visit, and pray to that particular image, if they wished their prayers to be heard. All this, however, have men done in their foolishness; but beneath that foolishness there have been always more rational ideas, sounder notions. They felt that it was God who had made them into families, and therefore whole families met together to worship in common Him of whom every family in heaven and earth is named. That God had formed them into societies whether into tribes, as of old, or into parishes, as here now; and therefore whole parishes came together to worship God, whose laws they were bound to obey in their parochial society. They felt that it was God who had made them into Nations (as the psalm says which we repeat every Sunday morning), and not they themselves; and therefore they conceived the grand idea of National churches, in which the whole nation should, if possible, worship Sunday after Sunday, at the same time, and in the same words, that God to whom they owed their order, their freedom, their strength, their safety, their National unity and life. And not in silence merely. These blessed souls in heaven are not silent. They in heaven follow out the human instinct which they had on earth, which all men (when they recollect themselves, will have), when they feel a thing deeply, when they believe a thing strongly, to speak it -- to speak it aloud. They do not fancy in heaven, as the priests of Baal did on earth, that they must cry aloud, or God could not hear them. They do not fancy, as the heathen do, that they must make vain repetitions, and say the same words over and over again by rote, because they will be heard for their much speaking; neither need you and I. But yet they spoke aloud, because out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh; and so should you and I.
And this brings me to the special object of my sermon. I have told you what (as it seems to me) Worship means; why we worship; why we worship together; and why we ought to worship aloud. Believe me, this last is your duty just as much as mine. The services of the Church of England are so constructed that the whole congregation may take part in them, that they may answer aloud in the responses, that they may say Amen at the end of each prayer, just as they read or chant aloud the alternate verses of the Psalms. The minister does not say prayers for them, but with them. He is only their leader, their guide. And if they are not to join in with their voices, there is really no reason why he should use his voice, why he should not say the prayers in silence and to himself, if the congregation are to say Amen in silence and to themselves. Each person in the congregation ought to join aloud, first for the sake of his neighbours, and then for his own sake.
For the sake of his neighbours: for to hear each other's voices stirs up earnestness, stirs up attention, keeps off laziness, inattention, and by a wholesome infection, makes all the congregation of one mind, as they are of one speech, in glorifying God. And for his own sake, too. For, believe me, when a man utters the responses aloud, he awakens his own thoughts and his own feelings, too. He speaks to himself, and he hears himself remind himself of God, and of his duty to God, and acknowledge himself openly (as in confirmation) bound to believe and do what he, by his own confession, has assented unto.
Believe me, my dear friends, this is no mere theory. It is to me a matter of fact and experience. I cannot, I have long found, keep my attention steady during a service, if I do not make the responses aloud;- -if I do not join in with my voice, I find my thoughts wandering; and I am bound to suppose that the case is the same with you. Do not, therefore, think me impertinent or interfering, if I ask you all to take your due share in worshipping God in this church with your voices, as well as with your hearts. Let these services be more lively, more earnest, more useful to us all than they have been, by making them more a worship of the whole congregation, and not of the minister alone. I have read of a great church in the East, in days long, long ago, in which the responses of the vast congregation were so unanimous, so loud, that they sounded (says the old writer) like a clap of thunder. That is too much to expect in our little country church: but at least, I beg you, take such an open part in the responses, that you shall all feel that you are really worshipping together the same God and Christ, with the same heart and mind; and that if a stranger shall come in, he may say in his heart: Here are people who are in earnest, who know what they are about, and are not ashamed of trying to do it; people who evidently mean what they say, and therefore say what they mean.