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Trade Paperback
112 pages
Aug 2005
Crossway Books

Worship: Beholding the Beauty of the Lord

by Joseph "Skip" Ryan

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Chapter One

Seeking One Thing of Beauty

    The LORD is my light and my salvation;
      whom shall I fear?
    The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
      of whom shall I be afraid?

    When evildoers assail me
      to eat up my flesh,
    my adversaries and foes,
      it is they who stumble and fall.

    Though an army encamp against me,
      my heart shall not fear;
    though war arise against me;
      yet I will be confident.

    One thing have I asked of the LORD,
      that will I seek after:
    that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
      all the days of my life,

    to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
      and to inquire in his temple.
    For he will hide me in his shelter
      in the day of trouble;
    he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
      he will lift me high upon a rock.

    And now my head shall be lifted up
      above my enemies all around me,
    and I will offer in his tent
      sacrifices with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

    Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud;
      be gracious to me and answer me!
    You have said, “Seek my face.”
      My heart says to you,
    “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
      Hide not your face from me.

    Turn not your servant away in anger,
      O you who have been my help.
    Cast me not off; forsake me not,
      O God of my salvation!

    For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
      but the LORD will take me in.
    Teach me your way, O LORD,
      and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.

    Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
      for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.
      I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
      in the land of the living!

    Wait for the LORD;
      be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27).

IN THE YEAR 2000, Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Woman in Blue sold for $28.6 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York. Such extravagance reminds us at the very least that people desire beauty. Some people are apparently willing to pay for it.

I used to fly out of the Charlottesville, Virginia, airport quite often in the fall. As Albemarle County fell away below me, on more than one occasion my breath was literally taken out of me as an Oriental carpet of color and beauty filled my vision.

One time when my wife, Barb, and I went scuba diving a hundred feet below the water’s surface, we were awed by a staggering variety and brightness of color. Since the creation of the world, that beauty was there for only sea creatures to see, until man invented a gangly concoction of regulators, respirators, and oxygen tanks that enabled human eyes to see it as well.

Why does beauty take our breath away? Why does it pull at our eyes and heart? The answer at first seems obvious: we like beautiful things. But there is a deeper reality. A quest for beauty lies within the heart of every person. We search it out, whether we actively realize it or not, and recognizing the cause of our search is actually a key to understanding our deepest longings and our true humanity.

Beauty Is Not an End in Itself

Beauty tells us that there is a longing in each of us, and that there is, in fact, such a thing as ultimate beauty. God has placed in the heart of every man and woman a desire for the beautiful in order to point to the truth that ultimate beauty exists. Men and women like the apostle Paul, Augustine, St. Theresa, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and C. S. Lewis followed the Lord Himself in saying that the beauty that is all around us is not an end in itself, but it points beyond itself to the fair beauty of the Lord. It is a signpost.

When Barb and I return to Charlottesville, where we lived for many years before moving to Texas, we usually fly to Richmond  and drive west on I-64. About twenty miles east of town a sign says, “Charlottesville—20 miles.” I restrain my excitement about returning to the place where Barb and I met, married, and had our children until I see that sign. When I see it, I know we are almost there. But wouldn’t it be silly if, when we came to that sign, we pulled our rented car over, got out, and started to unpack the bags? Of course it would be. We haven’t arrived at our destination, only at the sign that tells us we are on the way.

Peter Berger, a sociologist at Boston University, calls beautiful landscapes, beautiful poetry, and even beautiful people, “signals of transcendence” that point us to a greater, deeper reality than the sign itself. They point us to the Lord.

Augustine called nature “confessions of God,” and he goes on to say, “For who made these lovely, mutable [changeable] things but God who is Himself unchangeable beauty.”1

Everything that is beautiful in the world is meant to prick our hearts and tell us that there is yet greater beauty than we dare imagine. David shows in Psalm 27 that worship is what happens when we see that anything and everything that is beautiful in the world points beyond itself to the fair beauty of the Lord. Worship is what happens when we are gripped with a desire for the vision of the Lord’s beauty. David proclaims, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4).

It is in the Lord’s house where David wants to dwell, where others come to worship too. Yes, we gain glimpses of God’s beauty in our private worship, but it is interesting that David implies in Psalm 27 that corporate worship fuels the flames of private worship. That concept is the reverse of what we expect. We think we need to have a good devotional time on Sunday morning so that we can really worship.

I don’t know anybody who has good devotions on Sunday morning! Preachers don’t have a good quiet time on Sunday morning, certainly not if they have one or more children in the house as I have had! In fact, Sunday morning seems to be the time when many families choose to fight, often on the way to church. It is tough getting everybody dressed and there at the same time. No, our corporate worship stokes the fire of our hearts so that we get up and have a good quiet time on Monday morning.

Constrained by Circumstances

David pursues the beauty of the Lord in worship as the one thing he wants, and he does so for two reasons, according to Psalm 27: he is constrained by his circumstances, and he is controlled by his sin. The needs and struggles in David’s life compel him to seek something eyond himself. Even the quickest reading of Psalm 27 tells you that David is in the midst of a lot of stress. He talks about evildoers who are devouring his flesh. He talks about a host of bad folks who want to do him serious harm. David longs for the beauty of the Lord, even as his enemies long for his life.

The best worship takes place when the heart seeks the Lord because it must: there are financial pressures that seem to have no end; the marriage just isn’t working, and the energy to keep it going is diminishing; there are broken relationships with children or parents or friends, and despair that they might never be repaired; a loved one has received a diagnosis that clouds the future. We are constrained by our circumstances in this century just as David was in his. Pain causes us to know that we need the Lord more and more.

David says that he seeks the beauty of the Lord out of desperate need. He asks the Lord to hide him in His tabernacle. He has been abandoned by men to fend for himself. Even his parents have deserted him, he says. Like a man who knows he has only one true friend, he says, “The LORD will take me in” (Ps. 27:10). The pressures and adversities push David to ask for this one thing. They reduce his life to simplicity. Have you ever been there? I know you have. Simplicity is where you want just one thing.

What is confusion? It is wanting many things. Confusion is the conflict of desires. Simplicity is wanting one thing so much that you will do whatever it takes to get it. The pressures and adversities that David is experiencing push him to weigh the value of competing interests. Asking for one thing doesn’t mean David can’t enjoy many other things, but they must be in their order, or they must not be there at all if they rob him of the best. Charles Spurgeon says, “David has set his heart on the pearl and is ready to leave the rest.”2

Controlled by Sin

There is a second reason why David pursues the one thing of the Lord’s beauty. He also knows that he is controlled by his sin. David knows that if he is left to himself, his heart will pursue many other things. We know that about ourselves as well, that if the beauty of the Lord does not capture our hearts, it is because scuba diving or golf or the Dow Jones or our daughter’s upcoming wedding captures our hearts. These things appear beautiful to us. The world is exciting, but God grows a bit dull and abstract.

John Hall, the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, said, “It is as if the world is in Technicolor, but Jesus is in black and white.” People keep up good appearances. We say the right Christian things if we are Christians. We pat one another on the back and give our Sunday school smiles, but all the while, as John Piper puts it, “the heart beats fast for the world.”3 The allure of many things keeps pulling us away to seek beauty that ultimately cannot be beautiful for us.

Augustine said, “My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth, not in Him, but in myself and in other creatures. And that search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”4

When we first moved to Dallas, we were stunned by the meticulous appearance of the yards in most neighborhoods. We couldn’t believe that people put so much time, energy, and money into the landscaping around their homes. To be honest, one of the reasons is that the area around Dallas is not the most naturally beautiful part of the country. So people compensate by making their little plots as beautiful as they can.

Some of us spend a lot of our free time researching the best vacation we can ever have. I am sure that one day I am going to find the perfect place in the world, where the beach is absolutely, magnificently white, where the waves are just the right size, where the water is just the right color and temperature, where the food tastes . . .

Why do some of us do that? Why do we need green grass and pruned bushes and colorful flowers around our homes? There is within the heart of man a desire for beauty that he will pursue in any way possible, and it is because he is looking for an ultimate beauty that he cannot grasp.

What keeps us from grasping that ultimate beauty, even in worship? We must admit that we come to worship with a hundred little one-pound weights attached to our fingers and our toes, weights of preoccupation and sins that are attached to our limbs. We don’t find worship rising from our hearts. We feel sodden and heavy before the Lord. We can’t even stir our own hearts out of their lethargy and dullness. We must therefore search out those objects of longing in our hearts and admit that we are looking for the wrong things.

The Beauty of Jesus Christ Revealed

We are so confused that we must beg for the Lord to give us the one thing we need. It is when we see that we are constrained by our circumstances and controlled by our sin that worship can actually begin to happen. It is when we see that circumstances are beyond us. It is when we start to see that sin is not a little fly to flick off our shoulder, but that the idols of our hearts have gripped us so tightly that they have become intertwined into the structure of our personalities. Sin is not something we do in this or that instance; sin is who we are. When we begin to see that we do not know how to separate ourselves from our idols, we begin to see that it takes the mighty work of God to do it. Sin is a compelling passion. Who else can separate us from that which we love in vain and replace it with what we want to love and need to love even more? Separated from vain loves, we are prepared to see that the beauty of the Lord was most revealed when that beauty was marred, when our sin marred and maimed the beauty of the Lord.

Isaiah says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:2-3).

We don’t look at Him and say, “Beautiful Savior.” We look at Him and say, “Ugly.” He was marred. He was maimed. You and I marred and maimed Him with all of our idolatry and sin. That is why Jesus died. Jesus died because you want to close that real estate deal more than you want anything else. Jesus died because you want to marry that person even though he is an unbeliever, and you will do anything it takes to marry him. Jesus died because you insist on holding on to that private sin, to the way you use the Internet, to what you allow your eyes to see. Either we don’t want to or don’t know how to give up the ugliness of the things that we put into our hearts, and it is all that ugliness that has marred and bloodied the face of Jesus Christ.

Imagine Jesus memorizing the words of Psalm 27. They are not primarily about you and me. They are about Him. Imagine Jesus saying, “evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh . . . an army encamps against me . . . false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.” Sinless though Jesus was, it is nevertheless correct to say that Jesus came under the burden of our sin. He became sin for our sake (see 2 Cor. 5:21).

When we see Jesus constrained by the circumstances of His world and controlled by our sin to go to the Cross for us, that is when worship gets awakened in us. No gospel, no worship. People do not worship God abstractly. We worship God only in the gospel, because of the gospel, in light of the gospel. It evokes and compels worship. It is the beauty of what Christ did when He set aside His beauty and gave it up so that we might have our eyes and hearts quickened by what is truly beautiful. When we see Jesus in this way, worship is being born in our heart.

Let me apply this, first addressing pastors and worship leaders. Our task in leading worship is to present the Word and the sacraments in such a way that we really enable the congregation to see something. What is it that worshipers first see? It is not the Lord. For good or ill, they see a person standing before them. The question is, do they see that person worshiping? They have a right to expect their worship leaders to truly worship.

A worship leader must be willing to show that he is constrained by the circumstances in his life, even struggling not to permit himself to be controlled by this or that sin, and needing the gospel so much that he is going to worship the Savior who died for him. He doesn’t care what people think. His goal in worship is, first, to be a worshiper himself.

When our kids were young and we tried to teach them to like broccoli, we took a little taste of it ourselves. “Mmm, good. Want some?” we would say. That is what worship leaders need to do before the congregation’s eyes: “Mmm, good. Want some?” Those who lead worship must taste and see that the Lord is good and then say, “Come to the meal and join me here.” This is not to suggest that worship leaders are parents and all others are children. It is simply to say that worship is an acquired taste. My goal is to make the Lord more vividly beautiful to my own heart than all my idolatries, so that my congregation begins to doubt the value of their idolatries.

Isn’t that what happens? When we see someone truly worshiping the Lord, we want to find out what they are looking at. We want to know, “What is compelling her so much? Why is this thing so valuable to her that she is willing to let other things go because of it?”

Most of us who try to help ourselves and others understand the idolatry of our hearts have noticed that sin is never abstract or vague. Think about it. Sin is always concrete. We are not tempted by sin. We are tempted by this particular goal, that particular act. Sin is always concrete and vivid. In all of its attraction and beauty, it can be driven out, as the Puritan Thomas Chalmers tells us, only by the power of a new influence. It is expelled by something more beautiful, and there is only one thing more beautiful, that which we must seek in worship—the person of Jesus. And we must seek Him publicly as we learn to worship together. For those of us who preach the gospel and lead God’s people, the challenge is to make worship so real that we taste and see the Lord in our midst.

Worship is not a matter of talking about the Lord. It is experiencing the Lord. Jonathan Edwards explains it in a wonderful way: “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. . . . Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness.”5 In worship, we say, “Taste the honey, do not simply discuss and analyze it.” You can’t analyze and worship at the same time.

I learned a lot about football when my son played in high school. I was never much of an athlete myself, so in the Lord’s humor and delight, He gave me a son who is. I learned about wide receivers and the patterns that they are to run. Chris’s playbook was tattered and dog-eared. He practiced. He drilled. He counted his steps before he cut left and darted to the sideline. He ran every play a dozen times Monday to Thursday. But on Friday night, when the lights were on and the stadium was electric, at his best Chris was amazingly unselfconscious as he ran fifty yards, darted to the left, looked over his shoulder, leaped horizontally through the air, grabbed the ball, and landed in the end zone—much to the cheers of his dad.

Sometimes when we worship we keep running the plays, rather than playing the game with a degree of self-forgetfulness that means we are seeking only one thing.

In the words of C. S. Lewis, “As long as you notice and have to remember the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes or light or print or spelling. The perfect church service would be one where we are almost unaware of it. Our attention would be on God.”6

If we are still aware of what we are doing in worship, of what others think, of whether we like this hymn or not, of whether or not the preacher slipped by using the subjective case after a preposition, wondering why in the world Joe wore that tie with that suit, or Mary those shoes with that dress, we are not yet worshiping, longing, seeking, desiring. Worship occurs with self-forgetfulness.

Barb and I were married on a Sunday evening in 1979 in a friend’s beautiful garden that overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains. The setting, the bride—everything was beautiful except the singing of the minister. Renny could not carry a tune in a bucket. He could not put two notes together if his life depended on it. He sings in church in a loud, boisterous, noisy, and annoying way. When asked why he sings so loudly when he knows his own limitation, Renny says, “I just want to make a joyful noise before the Lord.” He doesn’t care what people think about his singing. He is focused beyond himself.

Worship is the seeking of one thing, what Edwards called “the soul-ravishing views of the beauty and love of Christ,” our beautiful Savior. 7