Summary: The remedy for casual worship calls for humility, contrition, and trembling at God's Word.

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Presbyterian Manor

Wichita Falls, Texas

July 28, 2011


Isaac Butterworth

Isaiah 66:1-4 (NIV)

1 This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? 2 Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD.

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.

3 But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominations; 4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.”

Among those passages of Scripture that trouble me, there are three that come to mind just now. The first is this one from the last chapter of Isaiah chapter 66. The second is also from Isaiah, the first chapter, in fact. And the third is from the New Testament, from 1 Corinthians, chapter 11. These three are not the only Bible passages that disturb my complacency, but they do have a special significance. They all have to do with worship.

There was a time when I would have told you that going to church was always a good thing. ‘Better to go than not to,’ I would have said. ‘Even if your motives are not pure – even if you’re going to be seen by others, say, or it’s just a habit with you – go ahead and go; God might meet you there and address you in some way.’ That’s what I thought.

I think it’s still a good rule, generally speaking. But there is a danger in going to church. Or, perhaps, I should say: There’s a danger in going to worship – especially if your intent is not to worship!

This passage from Isaiah 66 says so. The Lord himself says so. In verse 3, he says, ‘Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol.’

Now, you and I may say, of course, that this lets us off the hook. We are hardly likely to burn incense or make an animal sacrifice in our worship! But let’s not miss the point here. It’s not the specific actions that God is condemning with these words; it’s the numbness of heart that lies behind the actions. Remember: At this particular time in Israel’s history, sacrificing animals and making grain offerings and burning incense were the prescribed ways of worship. It’s what you were supposed to do when you went to church!

Now, you and I sing hymns and offer prayers and attend to Scripture. On occasion we break bread and share the cup, which call to mind the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf. But we can do those things just as half-heartedly and be just as misguided in doing them as the people of ancient times were when they presented insincere sacrifices. Whether you live in the eighth century B.C. or in the twentieth century A.D., you can be guilty of just ‘going through the motions’ in worship.

The same was true in the first century. At the beginning of my remarks, I mentioned 1 Corinthians 11. I said it was one of three passages that trouble me. In that passage, Paul is writing to some first century Christians about how they conduct themselves when they gather for the Lord’s Supper. ‘When you come together,’ he says, ‘it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat’ – though they, no doubt, thought it was! – ‘for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry and another gets drunk.’

These Corinthians, you see, were in church. I mean, don’t they deserve some consideration for that? Aren’t they doing what they should be doing?

Actually, no! Paul says to them: ‘Your meetings do more harm than good’ (v. 17). Think about that. Sometimes it would be better not to go to church. It would be better not to worship. And what times are those? It’s those times when our hearts are not right, isn’t it?

There was one other passage that I said bothered me, and it, too, is about worship. It is found in the first chapter of Isaiah. Isn’t that interesting. Isaiah both begins and ends with warnings from God about careless, heartless worship. In chapter 1 he says, ‘“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings…. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?”’ (vv. 11ff.). This trampling of my courts, he says! That’s all it is, and if that’s all it is, then don’t bother! Or, as God puts it in verse 13, ‘Stop bringing me meaningless offerings!’ If you and I are bored with our worship, don’t you suppose God is, too?

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