Worshipping the New Born King - December 2017


Several years ago, I was spending time with a friend and he was telling me of an experience that he and his wife had while visiting a church in their community.  It seems that the church they were visiting was growing in numbers, had lots of programs and activities and even was putting on an addition to accommodate the large number of children that were coming for Sunday School.  Yet in spite of all the activity and other outward signs of success, there was something amiss for my friend.   From the beginning of the worship service there was something very troubling but he could not put his finger on what it was that was disturbing him.  Finally, after praying to the Lord for discernment he was surprised to find himself leaning over to his wife and saying, “God is not here.”   It was not a reasoned, well thought out decision but more of a discovery that he was not sensing the presence of God in the context of that local congregation’s worship service.

Now technically we know that his assertion is theologically incorrect because there is nowhere that God is not present.  The psalmist writes in Psalm 139:7-10, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to the heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me and Your right hand will lay hold of me.”  Further, we know that the Spirit of God indwells every believer (1 Corinthians 3:16) and so God is present with us always.  However, I believe his comment does speak to a very important issue in the life of our church today, our experience of God in worship.  I am not talking about feelings and emotions necessarily, though worship often stirs our emotions.  Rather, I am talking about a life-changing encounter with the living God that comes to us as we confess our sins, offer our praise, receive His Word with gladness and pray for the needs of His people.  I am talking about the purity of heart that comes as we acknowledge our dependence upon God, confess our faith, receive His forgiveness and live a life of love with Jesus as Lord of the church.

As I listened to my friend I was reminded of 2 passages of Scripture that possibly address his experience.  First, there is the confrontation that Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-20 because they had put their own traditions before the commandments of God.  Their own interpretations and applications of God’s commands had become so important to them, twisted and self-serving though they were, that Jesus rebukes them in verses 7-9 by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”  The Lord had pronounced His judgment upon Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, for having an outward form of worship that had been reduced to the recitation of words by rote memory and was totally disconnected from the heart.  Jesus applies this same proclamation to the scribes and Pharisees for having allowed the external rituals of washing their hands and keeping the Sabbath to take priority over matters of the heart.  “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.  These are the things which defile the man” (Matthew 15:19-20a).

The second passage comes from Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4 where Jesus reminds her that that genuine worship is not about the place but rather is a matter of the heart.  “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.  God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).  Once again, the emphasis is on worship or devotion that issues from the heart and is in agreement with the commandments of God or the truth of God (Word of God).  Our tendency always is to drift into a lifeless formalism that relies upon external rituals and traditions and ignores the greater issues of a heart that is right before God.  We prefer activities that make us look and feel good rather than dealing with our sin and acknowledging our dependence upon God.  Therefore, it is not only possible, but easy to go to the same place of worship, to sit in the same pew, to sing familiar hymns and choruses, to recite confessions of sin and of faith, to pray the Lord’s prayer and to receive the Lord’s Supper and never truly worship God.

We can say prayers or we can pray prayers.  We can sing songs or can we can worship God from the heart.  Without intentionality and focus it is possible, maybe even likely, that we will end up going through the motions of praying and worshipping without ever engaging with God.  In this season where we celebrate Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, let us take to heart the invitation of the Lord from Joel 2:12-13, “‘Yet even now’, declares the Lord.  ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’  Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness.”  

Advent and the Christmas season are a time of great celebration and pageantry, with many wonderful rituals and traditions, but let us guard our hearts so that we do not fall into the sins of the scribes and the Pharisees and have our hearts grow cold toward the things of God.  Let us encourage one another in these things as we gather for corporate worship that we might have the same experience as Jacob who declared in Genesis 28:16, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”  May the Lord grant you a blessed Advent and Christmas season.