I. In the novel “The American” by Henry James, Count Valentin remarks to Newman about some of the terrible things Newman has endured. “You’ve spent some awful, some deadly days, and you’ve done some extremely disagreeable things: you’ve shoveled sand, as a boy, for supper, and you’ve eaten cat in a gold-digger’s camp… you’ve sat through Methodist sermons….”
A. Much of world would agree that sitting through a worship service is an “extremely disagreeable thing,” right up there with shoveling sand or living on the edge of starvation.
B. Early Christians had a very different attitude than that toward their worship. In Acts 2:42-47, Luke describes the early Christians as continuing “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” [NKJV]. He describes how “fear came upon every soul,” that is, great reverence and awe of God. And he tells us that they were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, … praising God and having favor with all the people.”
How do we feel about worship? Is it something we do gladly, even eagerly? Or is it something to be endured?
C. Consistent attendance is important. Heb 10:23-27 reminds us of the importance of assembling for worship and cautions us against “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some.” The writer explains that we need that opportunity to exhort one another lest we fall into willful sin, in which case we are left with only “a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation.” But if we back up to verses 21 and 22, we find that when we come before God it is also necessary that we have the proper attitude (“with a true heart”).
D. We need to not simply “go to worship service,” but to truly “go and worship.” Like anything we do often, there is a danger that it becomes habitual to the point of doing it without thought. Mark Twain recognized this tendency of man in “Tom Sawyer.” As Tom listened to the preacher leading public prayer, “he kept tally of the details of the prayer unconsciously—for he was not listening, but he knew the ground of old, and the clergyman’s regular route over it….” It is so easy to just put our minds into neutral through the entire service, not really listening to the sermon or prayers, and even singing the hymns without thinking about the familiar words.
In contrast, John 4:23 tells us that “the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth….” Worshipping in truth means that our worship must be conducted in the manner in which God has instructed us to worship Him. Worshipping in spirit means that we must not simply go through the motions of the acts of worship, but must put our hearts and minds into our worship.
How important is this? Consider God’s actions when Aaron’s sons became too casual in their worship to God, as recorded in Lev 10:1-3. “10:1 Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 10:2 So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 10:3 And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD spoke, saying: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.” ’” Imagine the carefulness with which future priests must have served in the temple. It is absolutely essential that when we worship God today we do so with the utmost respect for and awareness of His holiness.
Consider Paul’s chastisement of the church at Corinth in 1 Cor 11:17-22. He begins by telling them that they “come together not for the better but for the worse.” In essence, he is telling us that if we worship without the proper attitude, we are better off not to worship at all.
E. Worship is a focused recognition of God’s nature and of His position relative to ourselves. Thus the nature of our God should largely determine the nature of our worship. Let’s look at the nature of God and consider just how that should affect our worship.
II. First, God is unimaginably powerful.
A. God spoke the earth and everything in it into existence. In contrast, what can we create from nothing? Rev 4:11 states that God, by virtue of His position as creator, is deserving of glory and honor. “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.” The verse before that describes the twenty-four elders about God’s throne as worshipping God by casting their crowns before His throne. So our own worship should be in a spirit of complete humility, recognizing God as our creator.
Psalm 96:4-10 also makes this connection between God’s great power as creator and our worship of Him. “96:4 For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. 96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the LORD made the heavens. 96:6 Honor and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. 96:7 Give to the LORD, O families of the peoples, Give to the LORD glory and strength. 96:8 Give to the LORD the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come into His courts. 96:9 Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth. 96:10 Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns; The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved; He shall judge the peoples righteously.’” The psalm says that God is to be feared, or reverenced, as the one who through His power made the heavens, and that we should worship Him while trembling in awe before Him.
B. In worship, we ask God, whose power can create universes at a word, to turn his attention toward us—not a casual thing at all. What is our attitude when we do so? Awe of God and His power should overwhelm us. As part of His creation, we should be completely humble before God. Without that humility, we might easily find ourselves in the same position as Job in Job 38:4, when God demanded of him, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” As we worship, we should be thinking of God, not of self. And we should be praising God as the only one “worthy … to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev 4:11).
The last verse in the Psalms, Psalm 150:6, reads, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” In our worship we should praise Him not just in word, but in thought and in attitude. We need to take care that we thing of God while we sing and pray; don’t just sing of Him, but sing to Him as well.
III. God is pure just as He is powerful, and we must be pure if we are to please Him with our worship.
A. 1 John 3:2-3 says, “3:2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3:3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” John says that as we contemplate eternal life, we don’t know just what form we will have except that it will be like God’s form. And one thing we know of a certainty about God is that He is pure, therefore we must be pure if we hope to be with God.
B. In Rom 12:1, Paul reminds us that the duty we reasonably owe to God in light of what He has done for us is not just to attend services, but to keep ourselves holy, acceptable to God. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” We are to be holy, sanctified, set apart for God’s service. The very living of our lives is to be a sacrifice to God; not living for our comfort and enjoyment, but in service to God. As Jesus warned in Matt 23:23, going through the motions of worship to God is not enough; we must also shape our lives to godly principles. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
C. We cannot please God in our worship if we are not serving Him in our daily lives. As John Milton reflects in “Paradise Lost,” “o Spirit, that dost prefer before all temples th’ upright heart and pure.” He expresses there the essence of Isaiah 1:10-17. “1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the law of our God, You people of Gomorrah: 1:11 ‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. 1:12 When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts? 1:13 Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. 1:14 Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. 1:15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. 1:16 Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.’”
God says through Isaiah that worship without righteousness is an abomination to God. Because of the people’s sin, God viewed their keeping of His commands for worship as an unwelcome trampling of the temple courts. Does God view our worship as an annoyance? He says, “I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting” [Isaiah 1:13]. We must assemble not only prepared to worship, but with lives that have been prepared to be suitable offerings to God in worship.
D. Our God is pure; we must be striving for purity if our worship is to mean anything.
IV. God is also omniscient—he knows what is in our hearts and minds.
A. As recorded in 1 Chron 28:9, David reminded his son Solomon that his service to God needed to be more than thoughtlessly going through the motions, but needed to be from the heart and from the mind, as God sees what is in our hearts and minds. “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever.”
B. We can fool man regarding our thoughts. Most of us are very practiced at pretending interest when we are not interested. Years of school have given us lots of experience at this. We might often be embarrassed if the one we were supposedly listening to could read our thoughts. But, of course, God can and does know our thoughts! So, we need to put our minds in order before we begin to worship. We need to think of God and His will for us. We need to prepare our minds to praise and honor Him honestly.
C. God gave us an explicit example of exactly this with respect to prayer in Matt 6:5. “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” The lesson is clear; don’t pray to be seen of men. But we don’t do that, do we? Praying on street corners to be seen? In today’s world, not many would honor us for doing so. But do we in fact make a hypocritical show of prayer in our worship assembly in order to be honored by our brethren? If we bow during public prayer, but don’t follow the prayer, why are we bowed? Isn’t it merely so that those who are inclined to join in the public prayer won’t think less of us?
D. God knows our minds! Let God find true worship in our minds when we assemble.
V. Another characteristic of our God is that He is loving and merciful, so we should worship with joy and thanksgiving.
A. Paul reminds us in Rom 5:7-11 that God’s tremendous love for us is undeserved and should cause us to rejoice. “5:7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 5:9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 5:10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 5:11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” Paul says that when we consider the great sacrifice Christ made for us, and how undeserving of that sacrifice we were, we cannot help but recognize the great love of God, and the end result of that is that “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
B. Our lives, much less our worship, should be filled with joy. Psalm 100:1-5 describes the attitude that should fill our lives, much less our worship. “100:1 ¶ Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands! 100:2 Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before His presence with singing. 100:3 Know that the LORD, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. 100:4 Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, And into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. 100:5 For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, And His truth endures to all generations.”
We occasionally joke about the quality of our singing, that at least it is a “joyful noise unto the Lord” (as verse 1 reads in the KJV). But we need to ensure that it is really just that: not just noise, but a joyful noise. We need to think carefully upon the words of our hymns, upon the meaning of Lord’s Supper, and upon praise and thanksgiving in our prayers and in so doing worship joyfully.
VI. Finally, our God is faithful and can be trusted to deliver the promised reward.
A. We can have complete confidence in God’s promise of heaven. Psalm 36:5 reminds us of God’s infinite faithfulness. “Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.” Psalm 89:30-34 reminds us that God is faithful even when we are not. Speaking of David’s descendants, God says, “89:30 ‘If his sons forsake My law And do not walk in My judgments, 89:31 If they break My statutes And do not keep My commandments, 89:32 Then I will punish their transgression with the rod, And their iniquity with stripes. 89:33 Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, Nor allow My faithfulness to fail. 89:34 My covenant I will not break, Nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips.’” Even when we are unfaithful, God is yet faithful to His promises to us.
Paul summarizes this in I Tim 2:11-13 when he says, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful.” We can rely upon God to act faithfully to do forgive as He has promised even when we have been unforgivably faithless in our actions. This unrelenting faithfulness is part of what makes God worthy of our worship, and should be reflected in our worship. We should worship with confidence in God’s word and His nature, looking forward an eternal heavenly home that He has prepared for us.
B. In the passage that we just considered, Paul also reminds us that God will also be faithful with respect to His promised judgment. “If we deny Him, He also will deny us” [2 Tim 2:12]. This is one of the great lesson themes of Old Testament history: when man forsakes God, he will be judged accordingly. Thus, as we saw earlier, we need to be pure when we worship Him. And thus our worship needs to be careful, correct, and accurate to God’s instructions. As God said concerning Nadab and Abihu, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy” [Lev 10:3].
VII. Considering the nature of God, we then need to worship God accordingly.
A. Recognizing His fearsome power, we worship with humility, awe, and praise, thinking upon what it means that Jehovah is God.
B. Recognizing God’s purity, we prepare for worship with purity in our own lives, because our worship cannot please Him if our lives do not please Him.
C. Recognizing God’s omniscience, we worship with honesty and focus, knowing that God hears our every thought as clearly as if we were shouting it aloud during our service.
D. Recognizing God’s love and mercifulness, we worship joyfully and thankfully, understanding that God has given us gifts unimaginably valuable.
E. Recognizing God’s faithfulness, both to reward and to judge, we worship carefully and faithfully, knowing that a faithful God expects the same from us, even as we worship with an eye to the eternal reward that God has promised.