Lutheran Worship: God Serves Us
If you were to ask most people what “worship” is, they might say, “Worship is praising the Lord” or “Worship is what human beings do to express their thanks to God” or “Worship is going to church.” While there’s truth in each of these answers, they don’t adequately describe the main purpose of Lutheran worship.
Lutherans have a unique perspective on worship, or maybe it would be more correct to say, a Biblically informed historical perspective on worship. We know that God’s Word and His holy Sacraments are His precious gifts to us. They are the means of grace the Holy Spirit uses to give us forgiveness, life and salvation. The main purpose of Lutheran worship is to receive these gifts from God. God is the good Giver and we are the receivers of His Grace. In fact, that’s why we call what goes on Sunday morning, Divine Service. God is coming to serve us, much more than we coming to serve Him. On Sunday morning God calls His people together to deliver His gifts. As His Gospel is proclaimed, as His Word is read, as His forgiveness is pronounced and sinners are forgiven, and as we receive our Lord’s body and blood in Holy Communion, His gifts are received. In these wonderful ways, God dwells with us, draws us to Himself, and gives us what we need – His mercy, forgiveness, love, peace and comfort!
The purpose of Sunday morning, therefore, is to be gathered by God around His gifts. The greatest thing we can offer Him, our greatest worship, happens outside the walls of our church during the week, in our being His hands and feet and voice in the communities in which we find ourselves, in our families, the workplace, as parents and children, all living and acting as the people of God, doing the best job we can with the talents He has given us, and witnessing to the forgiveness of sin Jesus’ spilled blood won for us on the cross.
Lutheran pastor and professor, Norman Nagel, once described Lutheran worship this way:
“Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God.
Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is His Name, which He put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are His. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where His Name is, there is He. Before Him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim Him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words He has used to make Himself known to us.
The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink. Finally His blessing moves us out into our calling, where His gifts have their fruition. How best to do this we may learn from His Word and from the way His Word has prompted His worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day the living heritage and something new.”
(from the Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel’s introduction to Lutheran Worship)
Because Lutheran Worship is focused on God serving us, the order of service may look and sound different than other Christian churches.
Here’s a brief explanation of a typical Sunday worship service, or Divine Service, at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church.
Divine Service begins in God’s Triune name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – because He promised that where His name is, there He will be. Calling upon the Holy Trinity also helps us remember our own baptisms where God put His name on us through water and the Word. The INVOCATION is a reminder of God’s promise given to us at baptism. (Matthew 18:19-20)
CONFESSION AND ABSOLUTION
Our Lord instituted a glorious way by which He has chosen to forgive our sins. We come before God in CONFESSION of our sin. There is no sin which holds us outside of our Lord’s forgiveness. With the ABSOLUTION, through the words of the Pastor, Christ delivers to us, in a most personal way, the forgiveness of sins which He earned for us on Calvary. (John 20:21-23)
ENTRANCE SONG – INTROIT
With our sins forgiven, our worship moves to the presence of the altar. The Pastor moves to the altar as the congregation sings the ENTRANCE PSALM, or INTROIT. The INTROIT, is a Psalm or liturgical text that proclaims the Scriptural theme of the day. It also gives us a visual picture that because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the unconditional forgiveness we have just received, we have access to the Holy of holies – a place kept separate under the Old Covenant by a heavy curtain which was torn from top to bottom when Jesus died. (1 Peter 2:5)
KYRIE, means, “Lord, have mercy.” We greet our Lord as people of old greeted a king when he came to their city. It is the oldest and most frequent prayer prayed in Holy Scripture. It was prayed by King David after he confessed his sin, by the Canaanite woman, the leper, and others. We pray here for peace and salvation for ourselves and for others; that the Lord would indeed continue to show His mercy to all of us.
HYMN OF PRAISE
God’s response to our cries for mercy was to send His Son. The GLORIA IN EXCELSIS (meaning, glory in the highest) reminds us of this by inviting us to join in singing the first Christmas carol, sung by the angels when Jesus was born. (Luke 2:14). The GLORIA continues by praising the Holy Trinity, centering on the theme of why Jesus came; to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
Having our sins forgiven and the assurance that God indeed is merciful is reason to sing the HYMN OF PRAISE. This hymn is the very song sung by the angels at the birth of the Christ-child. Our singing GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST is a way of celebrating Christmas the whole year long and also a way in which we are invited by the angels to “go and see” Jesus who no longer lies in a manger but in the Scripture readings which will follow. (Luke 2:13-15)
THIS IS THE FEAST
An alternate HYMN OF PRAISE is the hymn, THIS IS THE FEAST. It is the song sung by all those in heaven who are gathered around the throne of Christ in the Revelation God gave to St. John. We, too, join with the whole company of heaven thanking and praising Jesus, the Lamb of God who reigns on the throne. (Revelation 5:12-13)
PRAYER OR “COLLECT” OF THE DAY
The greeting, “The Lord be with you” and its response, “And with your spirit” signal a transition in the Lord’s Service from praise and prayer to the hearing of God’s Word in the lessons for the day. The words, “The Lord be with you” remind us of one of the names of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In His Word, Jesus is with us. The prayer “collects” the varied thoughts of the lessons for the day and combines them into a single prayer. (Ruth 2:4)
The public reading of Scripture lessons dates back to the time of Jesus and into the Old Testament. Luke tells of Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue, in which readings from the Law and the Prophets also took place (Luke 4). The lessons are God’s Word to us and are the testimony of the Old Testament Prophets, the Apostles, and the writers of the Gospels. Together with the Creed, they form the profession of the Christian Church.
During a typical Divine Service, there are three readings. The first reading is from Old Testament, followed by the New Testament Epistle, and leading up to the reading of one of the four Gospels. In between the Old Testament and the Epistle reading, the congregation sings the GRADUAL, a brief collection of Psalms or other Scripture passages that forms a bridge, connecting the Scripture readings of the day with the theme of the day.
The word “sermon” comes from a word which means to talk or converse. The sermon’s purpose is to deliver God’s Law and God’s Gospel, and in a personal way give the assurance of the forgiveness of sins which Christ earned for us on the cross. Jesus gives us the topic for all sermons when He says: “Then He (Jesus) opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:45-47) After all, that’s what St. Paul meant when he said: “We preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25)
The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe”. The CREED embodies the Church’s ancient and universal confession of faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we say the Creed we are saying to one another and back to God what He first said to us in Holy Scripture. Millions and millions of other Christians throughout the world and across the ages have confessed these very words as their statement of faith. The Nicene Creed is used primarily in Divine Service. We also regularly confess the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.
PRAYERS OR PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
One who has been “born anew of water and the Spirit” cannot help but pray. Prayer is the voice of faith in Jesus. Even when our poor, human flesh is incapable of praying, the Holy Spirit itself “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” The Lord urges “that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone.” Following the command of our Lord, we take time to PRAY, bringing those requests before the Lord. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
OFFERING AND OFFERTORY
The OFFERING of gifts to the Lord is our response to all that God has previously given us in this life and for what the Lord gives to us this morning. It is like saying to God, “Thanks, your gifts to me were received.” The musical offertory was originally a psalm or hymn sung during the bringing forward of these gifts. We sing from Psalm 51 .
PREFACE AND SANCTUS
So much is contained in the next few words of worship. “The Lord be with you” – the risen Lord speaks peace to us. So also we respond, asking the Lord’s Spirit be with the minister. Then we “Lift up our hearts…”, hearts raised from the sin-drowning waters of baptism and will be raised on the last day. For that it is only right to give God thanks and praise. Finally, we sing Holy, Holy, Holy, echoing Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord recorded in Isaiah 6 . (2 Thessalonians 3:16; Lamentations 3:41)
THE WORDS OF INSTITUTION
THE WORDS OF INSTITUTION were spoken by Christ at the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the Sacrament of the Altar, where Christ Jesus mysteriously unites His body and blood with bread and wine, we have assurance from Christ Himself, that the forgiveness of sins is given to us. Forgiveness of sin is the chief benefit of this most holy Supper. (Matthew 26:26-28)
All is now ready for this Holy Communion with Christ. The PEACE OF THE LORD is again an assurance and proclamation of God’s blessing to us. Following this blessing, we sing a short song in praise of our Savior, the AGNUS DEI, or LAMB OF GOD who takes away the sin of the world. Isaiah wrote that the Christ would be “like a lamb led to the slaughter” and that He would “pour out his soul to death.” These words are also the words of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus. All who partake of the Sacrament receive the benefits and blessings of Christ’s work and are sustained and nourished in their spiritual life in Christ.
The following song, sometimes called the NUNC DIMITTIS, is the song sung by Simeon in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus “to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22), after having been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Not only have our eyes seen the Lord’s Christ by faith, but now even our mouths have tasted the goodness of the Lord. Therefore, we “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” as the Psalmist declares”.
The word “benediction” comes from the Latin meaning “the good word.” THE BENEDICTION are the good words we hear at the end of the Divine Service. As we leave to go out into our life and calling, the Lord’s name is with us to strengthen and empower our lives to serve the Lord in all we say and do. The words of the benediction are the same words Aaron was instructed to say, blessing the children of Israel during the wilderness journey. (Numbers 6:24-26)
For more information on the doctrine and practice of Lutheran Worship, check out the following resources.