Every week we gather together for what we call worship. We meet in a Sanctuary and prepare to meet with God. We talk with God in prayer and listen to Him by the reading and exposition of His Word. We worship Him in song and in the giving of our tithes and offerings. Or do we?
As you read through the Bible you quickly realize that not everything that is called worship IS worship. Time and time again Israel was condemned because they worshipped God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. God is pretty specific about His displeasure. Listen to this passage from Isaiah.
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. [Isaiah 1:11-17]
God spoke to Israel and said, “I hate your worship. When you begin your worship I turn away. It is just a bunch of meaningless words and actions!” Let’s face it; those are tough words. The people of Israel believed they were doing the things that God commanded. They believed that they were honoring God in their actions. However, from God’s perspective, what they were doing was offensive. It was a meaningless event. I don’t want God to feel this way about us.
During the next few weeks we are going to try to sharpen our focus and understanding of what God wants from His people in worship. Our focus will not be on what style of music should be sung or what kind of events should be a part of our worship. These things are minor. We aren’t going to focus on the organization of worship. We want to concentrate on the heart of worship. This morning we begin by looking for positive principles from some negative examples.
Appropriate Worship is God Directed
In the book of Zechariah the people came to the prophet while the temple was being rebuilt 70 years after the Babylonians had destroyed it. Apparently, after the destruction of the temple there had been an institution of various fast days to mourn the destruction of the temple. Now, the people wanted to know: “Since the temple is being rebuilt, should we continue to observe the fasts?” God’s answer is as follows,
5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6)
In essence God says, “What difference does it make? The fasts were not about me, they were about You! They weren’t designed to mourn for the loss of my presence in your midst. It wasn’t about the sin that led to the destruction of the temple. No, it was about your personal loss and inconvenience!”
God asks this same question of our times of worship: “Who is the focus of your worship?” It is the central question. We think the answer is obvious but don’t be so quick to answer. Think about how we often evaluate our time of worship. We say things like, “I felt God’s presence” or “I was moved deeply” or “I needed that”. These are words that testify about the power of the service to ME. It says nothing about God. We can be moved greatly by any number of stimuli but that doesn’t mean we have truly worshipped.
Warren Wiersbe writes,
Worship is God-centered and we do it because we love Him and want to please Him, whether we “get anything out of it” or not. Entertainment is self-centered and people-pleasing and if the people don’t “get something out of it,” they complain. You can usually tell when a church service is geared more toward entertainment than toward worship. All this contributes to the minimizing of the transcendent greatness of a holy God. As A.W. Tozer reminded us years ago, it’s difficult to get people to attend a meeting where God is the only attraction. (Real Worship p. 173)
True worship has God as the attraction. I had a chance to attend a Presidential rally leading up to the last election. People stood around and there was a quiet buzz in the assembly hall. Various political candidates came to the microphone and spoke but it was obvious that the crowd was looking past these speakers. Suddenly, a man came onto the stage and put the Presidential Seal on the podium and the crowd erupted. Anticipation grew and when Rudolf Gulliani came on the stage the crowd cheered. They knew what was going to happen next. When he said the words, “The President of the United States” every eye was focused in the same place. No one was thinking about himself at that moment. All our attention was given to the President of the United States who stood before us.
Worship is to be like that. When the prelude begins it should be like the man putting out the Presidential Seal. It should create anticipation that we are about to meet with God. We should welcome Him with joyful sounds and with attentive and reverent hearts. Anything less than this may be enjoyable to us but is nothing but noise in Heaven.
So here is the question: “Why are you here today?” Are you here to soothe a troubled conscience? Are you here to gain information? Are you here to fulfill an obligation? Are you here to meet with friends? Or have you come to meet with God?
Appropriate Worship Flows Into Life and is Not Detached from It
In the book of Amos God speaks again,
21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5: 21-24)
Again, these are strong words. Words like “hate”, “despise” and “cannot stand” are pretty direct. The Hebrew for “cannot stand” is actually “I hate the smell”. Worship is supposed to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord (coming from the burnt offerings and incense). God told Israel that their worship stunk! He said their offerings were rejected and their songs were just noise.
Notice, God wasn’t upset because they weren’t singing the right kind of music or because their worship wasn’t energetic enough or too energetic. He rejected their worship because it was superficial; it wasn’t impacting the way they lived. Their worship was just an act that had nothing to do with the reality of their lives. There was no communion with God; there was just commotion!
Let me try to illustrate. Suppose a man was married but was regularly unfaithful to his wife. When you talk to him about his marriage vows he argues that he is actually honoring his marriage vows because “he always comes back to his wife in the end!” Would you accept that argument? Would you believe that this guy had an idea about what the marriage commitment was about? Would you encourage that woman to keep putting up with this man? Probably not.
We can’t say that we love God and honor God and then ignore Him in the way we live our lives and relate to each other. If we truly seek and honor God, we will be changed by our encounter. True worship results in our hearts, our desires, and our priorities being changed. If we truly honor Him, we will follow Him. If we leave our time of worship unchanged, we haven’t really worshipped at all. We haven’t met with God. When we meet with Him . . . He changes us.
Appropriate Worship Involves Giving God Our Best
In the book of Malachi God says,
6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the Lord Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name. “But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ 7 “You place defiled food on my altar. “But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’ “By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. 8 When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty. 9 “Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”—says the Lord Almighty. 10 “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. [Malachi 1:6-11]
Here’s what was apparently happening. The Old Testament Law demanded that sacrifices be made from animals that were without blemish. The idea was twofold: 1) God deserves the best we have. We should honor Him as we would any esteemed person; we are to give Him the best we have. 2) They were to offer unblemished animals because God wanted them to realize that sin is costly and must be atoned for with a costly sacrifice. In order to be forgiven they must give up the best of their herd or flock.
Apparently, in the days of Malachi, the priests had lowered the standards. People were bringing their defective animals as an offering. If you will, they viewed the time of sacrifice as a good time to “write off” their losses. They could fulfill their obligation to the temple and get rid of animals that were of no use to them! In essence, their sacrifices cost them nothing.
Malachi used an illustration. He asked, “How would the Governor respond to gifts of defective animals? Would the Governor be honored by a gift of our cast offs? I don’t know about the Governor, but I know the Mayor of LaHarpe wouldn’t be too pleased!
Let’s change the question to see if we can understand even better,
- How would the love of your life respond if you brought them flowers you stole from someone’s grave because, “It was cheaper than buying flowers”.
- How would the coach respond if you gave the same priority to your sport as you give to Him?
- How would your boss respond if you were lackluster in your job and never paid attention to what he was saying?
- How would your customer respond if you tried to get by with using inferior materials?
This is how God feels when we give Him less than our best. This is about showing God respect. He is the Creator of the Universe, the Judge over all of life. We should treat Him with respect. We do this by the way we dress, by the honor we show His house, and by the preparation we make for worship.
If you go to some grand performance you recognize that there are the performers and there is the audience. The performers work to delight the crowd. Their desire is to give everything they have to express their story in a compelling manner. They are well aware that if the audience is not pleased, they have failed. They will be out of a job. The performers find joy in pleasing the audience.
We get confused in our worship because we tend to think of the people on the platform as the performers and the people in the pews as the audience. Do you see who is missing in this equation? God! We are not the audience . . . . God is. As a congregation we are the performers. Every song we sing, every prayer we pray, every word we speak, is directed to an audience of ONE. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have had a good time if the Lord is not pleased.
The movie Sister Act is a story about an awful choir of nuns who are turned over to the direction of a lounge singer. The nuns become the talk of the town. The highest honor is given to them when the Pope requests a personal concert. On the day of the concert the church is packed. The Pope is sitting in the balcony (why?). When the choir is finished, the crowd erupts in applause. But in the midst of the applause, the choir and the leaders of the church look only in one direction. They look for the approval of the Pope. If the Pope is not pleased, they have failed.
In real life, we should be looking to the Lord in our worship. Our goal is to please Him. It seems to me that all too often worship is an event that is designed to draw a crowd. People have a good time, but is God honored? Worship that God finds pleasing is worship that focuses on Him, that involves giving the best that we have to Him, and that results in a change in our living,
I know that by the time Sunday rolls around we often need a boost. We need the encouragement of our friends; we need the challenge of His word. It is easy to get wrapped up in what we need. The strange fact is this: when we focus on our needs and our desires we find that God turns away because it is all about us. But when we focus on honoring God and giving Him our attention and praise, we find strangely, that our needs are met and our desires are fulfilled as a bonus. The reason for this is that what we need most is not for God to do things for us. What we need most is God Himself.
So, let’s try to end on a practical note. Here are some ideas for making worship a pleasing aroma to the Lord rather than something that is a stench.
- View your time of worship as a meeting with the most important person you could ever meet. Prepare yourself mentally for the meeting.
- Stop at the top of the stairs of the sanctuary and remind yourself that you are entering God’s presence. Pause when you get to your seat and present yourself to the Lord in prayer.
- Listen to the words of Scripture with the same attention you would give if God were standing in front of you talking to you. Hear it as God’s Word.
- Sing the message of a song and not just the words. Make the songs an expression of your heart whether you are singing or listening to someone singing. Take some of the quiet time before worship to read the words of the songs so you can sing with meaning.
- Consciously present your offerings not to the church in order to pay bills. . but to the Lord to honor His goodness, mercy, and grace and to express your gratitude for His blessing in your life.
Our task is to focus not on “doing our duty” but on honoring the Lord of Life. You can do that in any kind of worship “event”. You can do it singing hymns, choruses, Gregorian chants, or without music entirely. True worship is not about what we do, it’s about why we do it.