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Friday, December 31, 2010

Isaiah 6: Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Just because the Bible mentions something, doesn’t mean that it is teaching it.” Scripture mentions that Judas hung himself, but none would say that Scripture is teaching us to do the same. This might explain in part the difference between a passage being descriptive, that is, describing an event or one being prescriptive, that is, prescribing a specific action. Good biblical interpretation must look at the context in which a passage was written to see what it meant to the ones to whom it was written.  Many heresies and poor biblical understanding stem from just such a lack of diligence in Bible study.  At the same time, if our understanding of the God’s Word only reaches to the level of understanding content and never reaches to the level of application, we will most likely end up as the guardians of wonderful biblical stories that have little connection with our everyday life.

We dare not forget Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope." (Rom. 15:4) When the apostle wrote this, he  was concluding his amazing treatise to the believers in Rome explaining how they were to relate to one another. While it is true that much of what we read in Scripture is historical documentary of what has happened to God’s people in the past, Paul encourages those in Rome to look for the larger lessons or principles that might be applied to daily life. As we look as these passages to learn the lessons they might be teaching, we must remember that since Scripture does not contradict itself, what is taught in a particular passage must be consistent with what is taught in other passages of related material. With this in mind, let’s look again at Isaiah 6:       

    [1] In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. [2] Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. [3] And they were calling to one another:
       “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
       the whole earth is full of his glory.”
     [4] At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
     [5] “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
     [6] Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. [7] With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
     [8] Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
       And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
     [9] He said, “Go and tell this people:
       “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
       be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
    [10] Make the heart of this people calloused;
       make their ears dull
       and close their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
       hear with their ears,
       understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
     [11] Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
       And he answered:
       “Until the cities lie ruined
       and without inhabitant,
    until the houses are left deserted
       and the fields ruined and ravaged,
    [12] until the LORD has sent everyone far away
       and the land is utterly forsaken.
    [13] And though a tenth remains in the land,
       it will again be laid waste.
    But as the terebinth and oak
       leave stumps when they are cut down,
       so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Surely it is clear that this is God’s call on the prophet’s life, one in which he would never be the same.  In this light, Isaiah’s experience is understood as a descriptive in nature. However, many have used this as a model for worship as well, and in this sense it has been interpreted as being prescriptive, that is, more of a command than a simple description.  Recently, I have been challenged to think through this and though I can’t say that this is the final answer, I will say that this is how I understand the passage at this stage of understanding.

First and foremost, we must see how God used this experience in the life of the prophet to face the enormous task that lay before him, one that literally would shape his life from then on. We can describe it in terms that others have used: First, God takes the initiative to reveal Himself and then He reveals His nature and character, His majesty and holiness. After having seen a vision of the holiness of the Almighty, the prophet sees himself as sinful and living among a sinful people. This confession brings about God’s forgiveness, as symbolized by the burning coal from the altar. God then issues an open ended call: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, to which Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” God then gives the directives to his mission.

There is nothing in the passage that declares that every follower of God must have such a vision; it is descriptive. However, the question must also be asked, “What lessons might be learned from Isaiah’s experience?  What lessons might be learned that are consistent with the teachings of the rest of Scripture?” First, God does take the initiative. God took the initiative in the garden of Eden to seek out Adam and Eve. He took the initiative to call out Abraham. The bush was burning before Moses ever turned around to see it. God’s plan for salvation was formed before the creation of the world, – surely it is understood that God does take the initiative.

Another lesson is that God does reveal Himself: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps. 19:1) The myriad of miracles throughout Scripture reveal that God continually showed His nature and character. At the same time, we know that “our ways are not His ways,”(Is. 55:8) and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) The acknowledgment of sin is part of confession, which is coming in agreement with God in how He views our sin.  We also know from God’s Word that “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Refusal to confess sin breaks our fellowship with God. (Is. 59:1-2) God reveals Himself as we respond in obedience to Him: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21)

Although the Isaiah passage is not prescriptive in that we all must have heavenly visions before for we can worship God and that every occasion of our worship must mirror step by step what happened in Isaiah’s life, there are some similarities that do occur in worship. Scripture is clear that we must approach the Father with “clean hands and a pure heart.” (Ps. 24:3-4) In Jesus’ parable, it is the repentant tax collector, not the Pharisee whom God hears. (Luke 18:13) In this sense, one can see the similarities to Isaiah’s experience and identify personal experiences with his.

At the same time there are many other experiences of worship described in Scripture that do not follow the prophet Isaiah’. Many of David’s songs of praise and worship are expressions of gratitude and exaltation. For example, in Psalm 100 we are commanded to “enter His courts with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” that is, praising Him for who he is and thanking Him for what He has done. Mary’s declaration in Luke 2 became a song of praise for the Early Church. Paul and Silas were worshiping by singing praises to God before the earthquake. (Acts 16:25) All of these are wonderful expressions of worship that must also be taken into account.

So what, then? What difference does all this make in my life and worship and that of the church where I worship? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few things then, to keep in mind that I believe will aid in our worship and are lessons learned from Isaiah. First, we must remember that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ and we must realize that it is “in Him” and “through Him” that we come “to Him.” Secondly, we must come with “clean hands and pure hearts.” When David was moving the ark of God to Jerusalem, he failed to follow the instructions of using only Levites carrying it on poles. God struck Uzzah dead as he tried to steady the ark on the cart when the oxen stumbled. All the praise and celebration that David had organized could not make up for his lack of obedience. (1 Sam. 6) In the same way, we must come in obedience to God if we are to worship biblically. In addition, from outside of the Isaiah passage, we must come to worship in gratitude and praise as Psalm 100 commands. We must remember that just because a passage of Scripture is descriptive doesn’t necessarily mean that it has nothing to say to my life and practice.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What We Can Learn from Abraham and His Life of Worship

We can learn some very important lessons from Abraham and his practice of worship. Many times these worship times were in direct response to God speaking to him. Scripture records only eight occurrences when God speaks Abraham:

(1) Gen. 12:1 – the initial call to leave and go to a country God would show. Notice that God did not give him any other information, and he simply obeys.

(2) Gen. 12:7 – the first promise that God would give his descendants the land around Shechem.
Abraham’s response was to build an altar [worship] and then later he moves to Bethel and builds another altar and worships [Gen. 12:8].  After going to Egypt during a famine and asking Sarah lie about being his wife, Scripture says that “He returned to the place where he had pitched his tent at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai. This was the place where he had first built the altar, and there Abram worshiped the Lord.”[Gen. 13:3-4]. Having compromised his integrity with deception, he returns, not only to where he had been geographically, but spiritually as well, and does so by worshiping God.

(3) Gen. 13:14 – God speaks to Abraham when Abraham settles disputes between his servants and the servants of Lot, his nephew, allowing Lot to choose the best and most fertile land in the valley for his flocks, leaving Abraham the area toward Canaan. [Perhaps Abraham had learned that God would supply his needs, since he had returned from Egypt during the famine. Regardless, he had gotten to know God deeper, and expressed his trust that God would provide. ] God repeats and amplifies the meaning of the promise he had previously made, saying that he would make his descendants like the dust of the earth and to “walk throughout the land, for I will give it to you.” [Gen. 13:14-17] Abraham’s response again was to move to Hebron and there he builds another altar. [Gen. 13:18]

When Abraham rescues Lot, he is living in Sodom and is captured by some raiding parties, Melchizedek blesses Abraham saying, “Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth. Worthy of praise is the Most High God, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abraham’s response was offering a tenth of all he had recovered to the king of Salem.  Although this was not a specific instance of God speaking to Abraham, it was an act of worship. [Gen. 14:19-20]

(4) Gen. 15:1-18 – In this extended time with God, God tells him not to be afraid, for He would be his protector.  This is the first time that Abraham speaks back to God. His knowledge of God had grown to the point of wanting answers to his questions: “How can I have descendants, if I haven’t any children?”  God responds not in anger when Abraham asks, but in grace, showing Abraham the stars and declaring that his descendants would outnumber the heavenly bodies. Abraham’s response is faith. “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith as proof of righteousness.” [Gen. 15:6]  

Once the issue of his descendants is settled, Abraham then asks God about the promise of possessing the land. God instructs him to offer a sacrifice and then God reveals what the future would hold for those descendants: they would be strangers in a foreign country, enslaved for 400 years, then God would bring them out to possess the land, but the sins of those dwelling in the land had not reached its breaking point. Then God declares the specifics of the territory that he would give him: “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” [Gen. 15:18-21] The promise is revealed during an act of worship.

(5) Gen. 17:1-27 – Abraham’s faith seems to weaken when he listens to Sarah and has a child by her servant Hagar, after all, he is 86 and Sarah was 76 and they have been in the land for 10 years. But 13 years later, when Abraham was 99, God reveals more of who He is [“I am the sovereign God”] and specific conditional instructions: “Walk before me and be blameless. Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.” [Gen. 17:1-2] Abraham’s response is to simply bow in worship. God repeats his promise of descendants and the possession of the land. God then reveals more of the conditions of His promise: all males must be circumcised. This would set them apart from all those around. The word for “holy,” in one sense, simply means “set apart,” and God was setting them apart for His purposes. Not only does God renew the promise, explaining the conditions, but he changes Abraham and Sarah’s names from Abram and Sarai. The name change expressed a change of  character and call of who they had been to who God wanted them to be. Abraham’s response was immediate obedience to God’s command. [Gen. 17:23]

(6) Gen. 18:1-33 – God’s revealing to Abraham of the destruction of cities of the plain is one of the most well known occurrences of his life. God appeared to Abraham and he bows in worship. [Gen. 18:1-2] In the first part of the chapter God confirms the birth of Isaac, even though he is 99 and Sarah is 90, saying, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” [Gen. 18:14] God continues to reveal more of His nature and character by sharing what He was about to do to Sodom. One of the longest dialogues between God and man is recorded in the following verses as Abraham’s faith in God’s righteous judgement and grace is developed. From 50, to 40, to 30, to 20, and finally to 10, Abraham is pleading to spare the city on behalf of at least 10 righteous people. The next morning, Abraham goes to the place where he had stood before the Lord and watches the smoke from the destruction of the cities and in doing so expresses his trust that God would do what He had promised.

(7) Gen. 21:12 – In Genesis 20 Abraham falls back into the same pattern of deceit in his response to Abimelech that he had done in Egypt. In chapter 21, Sarah fears for Isaac’s inheritance and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. God tells Abraham not to worry, that He would bless Ishmael as well. Later when a dispute between the shepherds of Abimelech over a water well, Abraham settles the issue and then worships. [Gen. 21:33]

(8) Gen. 22:1-19 – The best known part of Abraham’s life was when God asks him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham had grown much, but still needed to have his faith solidified.  This was significant in his willingness to offer his only son, since he had just sent Ishmael away.  Notice the progression: [1] God tells him to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to place He would show him [similar to God first call to Abraham]. [2] Abraham leaves, early in the morning— immediate obedience. [3] After 3 days, Abraham leaves his servants and sees the place in the distance and declares in faith: “We will worship and then return.” [Gen.22:5] [The implication was that both would return. Abraham did not know how God was going to do it, but seemingly just leaves it in God’s hands.] [4] Isaac knows something is wrong and asks his father where the sacrificial animal was. Again Abraham responds in faith: “God will provide for himself the lamb.” [Gen. 22:8] [5] It is not until Isaac is tied and the knife is raise that God intervenes through an angel stopping the sacrifice and providing a ram. Abraham may have failed on occasions before, but in the hardest test, he succeeds and the angel declares, “now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” [Gen. 22:12] In an ultimate act of worship, that of offering his only son, Abraham reveals his faith and trust is God.  Abraham names the place, “the Lord provides.” [6] Afterward, the angel repeats the promise of the blessing of Abraham’s descendants, their possession of the land and adds, “Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessing on one another using the name of your descendants.” [Gen. 22:18]

Worship is that obedient response to the revelation of God. Worship became a natural response to God’s dealing with Abraham and the ultimate expression of his faith in God.  Our worship should help us to get to know God better, to learn to respond in immediate obedience and trust God, even when the circumstances seem utterly hopeless. As we respond correctly, we will have a heritage to pass along to our descendants that will glorify God as well. So what are some things that we can learn from Abraham and his worship of God? The list is long and I’m sure you might think of more, but I’ll just focus on a few:

1. It may be possible to obey God and not worship, but it is impossible to worship and not be obedient.
2. Worship should motivate us to immediate obedience to what God commands.
3. Worship should help us deepen our relationship and knowledge of God and His character.
4. As we grow in our worship of God, we will be stretched to trust Him in deeper ways.
5. Our obedient response in worship will affect those around us and those we love, sometimes in ways that stretch faith.
6. God is in control and we can trust Him to work for what is for His glory and our ultimate good.
7. Our obedient response in worship leads to a life with no regrets and a heritage to leave to our children.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Centrality of Worship in the Scripture

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end.  Worship is central to understanding the Old Testament. Man and woman were created by God for fellowship with each other and with Him. Since we live in a post-Eden world, we cannot know what it must have been like to walk and God with God without any hindrances. But for those who have a saving faith and knowledge of the Lord Christ, that unhindered walk will be part of what heaven is like. Whatever that walk was, it must have been unhindered worship as well. There are a number of wonderful texts that trace worship in detail, but our purposes here allow me to just highlight a few.

Consider the first sacrifices offered to God: those of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. One was accepted and one was not. Since this predates any of the Jewish sacrificial system, one must look deeper than the fact that one of the offerings was with blood and the other wasn’t.  Timothy Pierce {Enthroned on Our Praise: An Old Testament Theology of Worship} observes that Abel gave the first born, while Cain just gave of the land’s produce, implying a lack of intentionality. Worship had not been commanded, but grew out of the relationship with God in the garden. Wrong worship led to tragic outcomes.  Worship continues to be central to the message.

Noah offered God a sacrifice upon leaving the ark. This act of worship was pleasing and came with a promise: “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Genesis 8:21

When Abraham arrives near Bethel in Canaan, God promises him the land to his offspring, upon which Abraham responses with building an altar [Genesis 12:7-9] and calling on the name of the Lord. He did this again when he moved to Mamre at Hebron [Genesis 13:18]. When God promises him that he would be the father of a great nation, he falls face down in worship [Genesis 17:3]. Perhaps the most defining moment in Abraham’s life was when he built the altar in obedience to the commandment of God on Mt. Moriah, and laid his son, Isaac down as the sacrifice. [Genesis 22:9-11]. This portion of Scripture has rightly been the source of much study and sermons, and could easily be a book in its own right. However, let’s focus on just a few of the details that relate to the passage and worship.   

Notice that worship demands sacrifice; the choice of Isaac as the sacrifice tested Abraham’s obedience, yes, but does not negate the fact that when God calls him to sacrifice, it is just that and nothing less. Even in the midst of scene, it is the grace of God that provides the solution; a ram is provided by God. Worship still demanded a sacrifice. Worship still demands sacrifice; it always has.

Abraham left an example of worship so powerful that even his servant responded in worship when God directed him to get a wife for Isaac. [Genesis 24:26] Isaac worships when God reveals Himself and renews the covenant [Genesis 26:24-25]. Jacob sets up a sacred stone and poured oil on top of it as an act of worship when God promises to bring him back to the land of his father Isaac [Genesis 28:16-18], and then again once he resettles in the land of Canaan [Genesis 33:20]. When Jacob returns to Bethel, the place where God had previously spoken to him before leaving Canaan, he builds another altar to God [Genesis 35:4-7]. Two other times Jacob is mentioned as worshiping: as he reaches Beer Sheba on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt [Genesis 46:1] and just before he blesses Joseph’s sons [Genesis 47:31].

The life of Moses is punctuated with times of worship, of the most notable are his first meeting with God through the burning bush [Genesis 3] and the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20.  It is interesting to note that the people’s first response to Moses’ signs and announcement of deliverance is worship [Exodus 4:31].  The repeated request from God to Pharaoh through Moses was to “let my people go, that they may worship me,” [here the word used for worship is sometimes translated, “serve” implying that serving God is a part of worship] [Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:5]. The Passover was instituted as a time of worship [Exodus 12]. Along their journey to Canaan, God provided manna, yet on the seventh day there was none, so that the time might be spent in rest and worship [Exodus 16:23]. 

When Jethro, Moses’ father in law heard all that God had done, his response was worship (Ex. 18:11-12).
When God renews covenant with the children of Israel at Sinai, He tells them in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The very description of their calling was related to worship, that is, being a “kingdom of priests.”

Let’s focus briefly on the commandments. The first four cover our relationship to God as humans and the last six, that relationship to human beings. Examine the first section in Exodus 20:2-8:
    [2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 
    [3] “You shall have no other gods before me.
    [4] “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the
    earth beneath or in the waters below. [5] You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    [7] “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone
    guiltless who misuses his name.
    [8] “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
God reveals Himself as God, all powerful and deliverer, and then sets down how we are to relate to Him:
    [1] The worship of God is primary.
    [2] There can be nothing you do that would undermine the relationship you have with God.
    [3] You must not mis-communicate Who God is or disrespect Who God is and
    [4] You must set aside time to maintain the relationship with God.

When God give His “ten words,” what does He consider as first and foremost? Worship.  Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 of Exodus deal with the details of how the establishment of worship in the tabernacle.  Idolatry in the form of the golden calf and restoration of God’s intent and purposes fill chapters 32-34. The book of Leviticus is the book of regulations about the sacrifices used in worship. Chapter 3-4 of Numbers deals with the division of the Levites in the organization of carrying out Tabernacle worship.

When Balak fails to get Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24), he succeeds in getting some of them to fall into sexual sin and worshiping the Moabite idols (Numbers 25:1-3).  Later, as they approached the border of Canaan, the promised land, God commands them to destroy the idols of the nations they conquer (Numbers 33:50-56).

In the repeating of the Covenant at Horeb, God reminds them again and again how important to watch their worship (Deuteronomy 4:15-24, 32-39, 5:6-14, 11:16, 17:1, 26:10-11).

The first act of the Israelites after crossing the Jordan was to celebrate the Passover, an act of worship (Joshua 5:10). At the end of Joshua’s life after the land had been divided, the leader calls them again to worship (Joshua 24:14-24).   The book of Judges is the account of failure of the people to keep their commitment to worship Jehovah alone, their being defeated by their enemies and the restoration by a leader. Samuel’s parents worshiped as they dedicated their young son to the service of the Lord.  God showed the Israelites that the ark was not a good luck charm and that He doesn’t honor confusing the trappings of worship with the worship of Himself when He allowed the ark to be captured (I Samuel 4-6).
Samuel clarifies that worship was more than just following the rituals of sacrifice after Saul disobeys God’s direct command to kill all the Amalekites (15:22-35).  

The life of David is a life highlighted in worship. Whether fleeing from Saul, fighting his enemies, or rejoicing in his victories, David’s life is one marked by the adoration of Jehovah. He is the author of many of the songs in the hymnbook of the entire Bible. David is the warrior king who is the “sweet singer of Israel” and the heart of his songs is worship. It is no wonder that one of the first things he does after reuniting the 12 tribes is to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. Entire books are written just on his life and deeds, so no attempt here will be made to add more detail. There are other sections that highlight some specific times that will be studied in more detail later.

The apex of the reign of Solomon is the completion of the temple of God and his downfall was his failure to keep worship primary in his life. In Proverbs he declares that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (1:7) which is that reverential awe of God. The sin of Jeroboam was the creation of a convenient alternative option for worship, calves of gold, strategically located in the country and operated by those who had no preparation or calling. Later during the reign of Ahab, Elijah, God’s prophet, calls the nation to repent and return to worship and fire falls to consume an evening sacrifice, but the repentance did not last. Leader after leader of the northern kingdom followed the ways of Jeroboam in idolatry and eventually the nation is defeated by the Assyrians and carried off into exile. Prophet after prophet had warned the leaders and the people, but to no avail. The summary of the story is found in 2 Kings 17:7-13:
    All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. 9 The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns.  They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree.  At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the LORD had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that aroused the LORD’s anger. They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.”

Judah, the smaller of the divided kingdom, experienced occasional times of spiritual refreshment, centering around a return to the worship of Jehovah God and many time expressing that fervor with the celebration of the Passover. However, in the end, they suffered the same fate by the hands of the Babylonians.

Many of the major themes in the books of the Old Testament center around the return to worship: Ezra, and Haggai and the rebuilding of the Temple; the celebration and worship at the completion of the rebuilding of the wall in Nehemiah; Isaiah’s experience of worship (6:1-8) will be covered later, but not only did it set the course for his life, but serves as an example for us as well. Jeremiah weeps for the coming destruction of Jerusalem for the failure to repent and worship as God commands. Ezekiel’s vision displays the straying from God and the Spirit of God leaving the Temple. Daniel is cast in the lion’s den for his commitment to worship.  God uses Hosea to show that Judah’s idolatry is like adultery. Micah reminds the people that worship is more than ritual, but to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (6:8).  Habakkuk teaches us to worship God despite our circumstances. Malachi condemns the people for their careless attitude toward worship.

When eternity breaks into time with the birth of the Incarnate Son of God the heaven’s are full of angels in worship. Jesus explains that worship is not geographical, but relational (John 4:21-24):
    “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The life of early church was marked by worship, fellowship and prayer (Acts 2:42-46). The singing of worship songs by Paul and Silas had such a profound effect that the prisoners did not escape after an earthquake had made it possible and the jailer in Philippi and his entire family come to Christ (Acts 16:25). Paul declares what “reasonable worship” is in Romans 12:1-2. In I Corinthians 10: 31 we are to do everything for the glory of God. In Ephesians and Colossians we are to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. One of the greatest hymns of the Incarnation is found in Philippians 2:6-11. In Hebrews 12:1-3, the author says:
    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In 13:15, we are continually offer a “sacrifice of praise.” Peter refers back to God’s original covenant to make the people of God a kingdom of priests in 2:9. And finally in Revelation, the culmination of time and eternity centers around the worship of the Lamb on the throne, surrounded by countless men and women from every age, every tongue and every nation, praising God and saying “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When God Seems Silent and Our Worship is Dry

Why does God seem so present at times and then all of a sudden so distant? According to Dr. John Coe, Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot Seminary and Rosemead School of Psychology, early church fathers traced these times in the lives of believers. They found that it was not uncommon that young believers would have times in which they could sense the presence of God in very deep ways, yet later on in their experience that feeling would plateau and then they would pass through times in which they felt the complete absence of God’s presence entirely. Contrary to what we might think would happen, our spiritual feelings do not necessarily correlate with our spiritual maturity. The more we grow in Christ, we do not always sense God’s presence in the same way we did earlier.  But, according to Coe is not necessarily because of sin [although it certainly could be]. This early sense of closeness may be a way that God is giving a taste of what fellowship will be and can  like. They are less the results of our own actions and more the gifts of God. Because of this, we may seek to repeat the sense of God’s presence by doing some of the same things we had done previously, but do not experience the same sense as we once did. Why, then, do we go through such time of desolation? Perhaps God is trying to wean us from depending so much on our feelings and wants us to learn to trust Him for who He is. These “dark nights of the soul,” as Coe calls them serve as times of purging from our dependence on feelings and at the same time are mirrors to show us what is really in our heart. During these times we might have difficult times focusing during our private devotional time with the Father. Rather than frustration over the lack of focus, we can thank God that He is showing us areas that do not conform to the image of His Son. God is revealing who we are so He can take us to a new place of neediness and dependence. This is not rejection on God’s part, but part of the process of bringing us to maturity. Rather than give up and claim that God has abandoned us, we need to reach out and accept what God is showing us of ourselves. We need to seek out someone to help us walk through the dark night, a spiritual mentor.

You might ask, “What does all this have to do with worship?”  That’s a great question. Let me attempt to make the connection. I really believe that the truths that Dr. Coe shares can be life changing in relation with how we worship God. There are so many parallels to our beginning walk with God and our early worship experiences that it should be fairly easy to see. Worship is fresh, God is so big, so real, so awesome, we can’t really take it in. We continue to walk with God and worship, but after a while worship doesn’t seem to do for us what it once did. At this point, some begin to seek for other churches, or worship services that will give us the feelings that we once had. If we do not get there, there is a possibility that we will give up on the whole thing and choose to walk out on God, since it seems that even though we were trying to seek Him, He walked out on us.  But if we will look at these times less as God’s abandonment, but more as times of God’s mirrors into our hearts to reveal the things from which He wants to purge us, we will enter into a new level of worship. Worship not dependent on feelings, but worship dependent on God alone.  We need to resist the temptation to try to “fix” the feelings, trying to regain them through the music or spiritual disciplines. God is reforming us to become less dependent on our feelings and more our trust in Him alone.

Think how this understanding might change how we look at worship, itself. The temptation is to measure a worship service by how deeply we “felt” the presence of God. While this is not bad, in and of itself, if it is the only measure by which we worship, then we are missing on learning what God is trying to teach us during the “dark nights.” If we are not careful, our desires will turn more toward the gift than the Giver; we will desire the feelings more than God, Himself. There are times when sin separates us from God and worship. I am not talking about these times, but times when we are doing what we should and God just seems silent.  Dark nights will come and go, and God is more concerned about remaking us into the image of His Son, than He is giving us warm feelings. Just as the relationship between a husband and wife matures past just the early romantic feelings to deep love and commitment, so our relationship with the Father deepen past just the emotions of those early days of knowing Him.

Many times believers will come into a worship service like judges for the Olympics, ready to give their evaluations of the service: “Well, it has been better, but I only felt like I made it to a 5.5 today. I guess the worship leader was having an ‘off’ day.” The biblical model of worship is not about how we feel as much as that recognition of who God is and our obedient response to Who He is. We must worship Him by faith, trusting that because He said He inhabits the praises of His people, He is there. That He has promised never to abandon us, that His Spirit lives in us, we can be assured that He has not left us, though we cannot “feel” His presence. We must live by faith in the truth that God has declared and not on our emotions. As we mature in Christ, the simple fact that God has promised His presence with us need be enough. Caution must be called for if the goal of our worship is to “feel” God’s presence, rather than acknowledge by faith what the reality of His Word has promised. Let’s commitment ourselves to trust Him in the dark night and reach out and help those who might be walking alone through it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Worshiping by Faith

There is an old saying that you should “never treasure what you can hold in your hand more than that which you can hold in your heart.” Perhaps it might be better to clarify the statement to say you should “never treasure what you can hold in your hand more than the relationship you have with God your heart.”  Regardless, the thought does bring up some interesting ideas. We, as humans  have a tendency to hold on to that which we can see, hear, and touch, more than that which we must believe by faith.  Perhaps that is part of the attraction of the worship of idols: they are a physical object that one can see and perhaps even touch and so confirms their own existence and then certain actions or powers are assigned to them.

Contrast that with the life of faith that God requires. Our relationship with God is based on what Christ has done for us, a redemption and payment for sin that we could never accomplish on our own. Somehow in the grace of a loving God we are allowed to have a personal relationship with a God whom we cannot see, but through belief and faith in what has been done we respond in an action that shows our belief. Much like a chair we have never seen before, we proceed to sit, never even thinking if it might not support the weight of our body.  We could have said beforehand, “I believe this chair will support my weight,” but if we never sat down, one could call in question whether or not we really believed. However, the moment we rest our bodies in the chair, we show that belief was there. In the same way, we are not saved by “sitting in the chair,” we are saved by trusting in Christ’s finished work. We “sit” by responding in obedience to what He commands. We can read about the cross and Christ’s sufferings, we can see the change that a relationship has made in the lives of many, but it is not anything that we can hold in our hands. I must come to God in faith, not of my own merit, but solely on the merit of the Son of God. It is a work of God, of grace, a divine miracle or restoration. It is a belief that we must act upon to demonstrate our faith.

Now the question: Is worship by faith as well? We are saved by faith, walk daily with Christ in obedience by faith, and by faith we will spend eternity with Him in heaven, but do we worship by faith, now? What does it mean to worship by faith?  Is it some nebulous feeling we trust in or must obtain to really know that we are worshiping God? Must we reach some emotional level to certify that we have indeed been worshiping the Creator of the universe? Perhaps the simplest way to describe what must happen in worship is to remember the illustration of the Fact-Faith-Feeling. Scripture teaches that worship is that obedient response to God’s nature and character. God is holy, perfect, faultless, all powerful, all knowing, all present; these are facts. We accept these facts by faith. How I feel about them does not change their veracity. I can be happy, sad, mad, or even indifferent to a light bulb and it really makes no difference at all, the light will still shine un affected, because that is the nature of the light. God is love and His nature and character does not change with the emotional roller coaster of His creations. God is love. I choose to believe that fact by faith and it may or may not elicit an emotional response. The proof of my believe is not dependent on whether or not I “felt” anything, but on the fact that God is love. 

In a similar fashion, worshiping by faith is not dependent on my emotions, but rather on the fact that God and only God is worthy to receive it. I offer my adoration by faith, not dependent on some emotional signal of confirmation, but based in the fact of who God is and what He has done and continues to do. Feelings may come; many times they do, but I cannot abandon the facts for the hope of some feelings. I must worship by faith. I must trust in the unchanging nature of the God that loved the world enough to provide a way of redemption so that everyone might have the opportunity of recognizing God as He is and responding to Him appropriately. As I worship by faith I declare my trust in God’s character and nature and His worthiness. I must not look to feelings for what only God alone can give. I must worship by faith. I cannot depend on the externals of the music, friends, or feelings to confirm or deny what is worship, but solely in the obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God. I must worship by faith. It is not some mystic jump in the dark, but confidence in the one who created the light. I must worship by faith.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Worship HeartCries Blog Archive: January - October 2010

October :
     October 31:  Some Thoughts on Spiritual Anniversaries....
     October 23:  Reflections on Moments You Wish You Could Forget.....
     October 17:  Disappointments, Expectations and Worship
     October 9:   The Elephant in the Room in Worship: Sinning While We Worship
     October 8:   Prayer and Worship

     September 30:  Did God Make You Smile You Today?
     September 24:  “Not a problem to be fixed, but a paradox to be managed”
     September 18:   The Power of Knowing God...
     September 9:    Does the Church Have Laryngitis?
     September 3:    Developing a Vocabulary of Praise
    August 29:  What Not to Do in Worship
    August 25:  A Trip to Heaven
    August 19:  “Dear God: Life is not fair.”
    August 13:  Four Bases Authority
    August 10:  Preparing for Worship: Psalm 24:3-6
    August 7:    Psalm 100: A Mini-Bible Study
    August 6, 2010:  “When the Latest and Greatest Isn’t”  [Chronological Snobbery]   

    July 31, 2010: “Lead Worshiper” or “Worship Leader”
    July 26, 2010: “Ten Challenges Facing Worship Leader Training”
    July 22, 2010: “How Did We Get Where We Are and Where Are We Going?”
    July 14, 2010: “An Amplified Lord’s Prayer”
    July 12, 2010: “Worship and Culture...”   
    July 3, 2010: “Avoiding the Extremes” [Psalm 50]

    June 26, 2010: “The Unseen Enemy”
    June 5, 2010: “Hymn Stories to the Biblical Songs”

    May 13, 2010: “Knowing God”
    May 8, 2010: “Six Questions those that Lead Worship Must Ask”

    April 27,  2010: “What is Congregational Worship?”
    April 13, 2010: “Worship and Reconciliation”
    April 10, 2010: “Prayer and Frustration”

    March 28, 2010: “What Makes a Song “Congregational?”
    March 1, 2010: “Worship and Entertainment”

    February 19, 2010: “Things That Impede Worship” [Missing the Focus of Worship]

    January 31, 2010: “Worship in Difficult Times” [Psalm 57]
    January 23, 2010: “The Centrality of Christ in Worship”
    January 16, 2010: “The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in Light of Worship in Isaiah 6"
    January 7, 2010: “God takes the initiative”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Spiritual Anniversaries....

Life goal: "To reproduce in myself and others the character of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father." That's was I penned in a discipleship group Kathy & I were leading in 1975. It's mounted in our home, and I still see it everyday. But seeing it again today brought back several memories and I dawned on me that it had been 35 years ago...

Kathy embroidered that life goal, had it framed and gave it to me as a birthday present. It reminds me of her consistent walk with the Lord and our relationship together.  It reminds me that Christ's character is a discipline grown out of our daily walk, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and must be developed in myself and multiplied in the lives of others. God has commanded us to make disciples. 

As Christians, our relationship with the Father is one of worship, awe, obedience; our relationship with others is one of discipleship. Yes, that certainly includes evangelism, it must not just stop there. The motivation for discipleship is obedience born out of love and gratefulness of worship.  Even though I had made commitments for keeping a regular devotional time of prayer some years before, it took on a deeper significance in my life that year. I had read the Scriptures through a few times, but that was the year that I had made a commitment to read through the Bible every year.

That was a big year for what I was learning about  worship as well. God began to burn in my heart what worship was in a class with Dr. T. W. Hunt and I’ve never been quite the same. I had plenty of zeal, just as many other young worship leaders of that day, but lacked some of the biblical depth and knowledge. How I praise God for godly men like T. W. who invested in so many lives! [We were in the preparation process for missionary service and T. W. was a contact person for almost all the music missionaries all over the world.] I began to read and study about what God’s Word taught about  worship, buying books on worship... The more I studied, the more I realized that I didn’t really know much and I had so much more to learn. [By the way, I'm still working on it, 35 years later.]

When I look back over these years, I confess shame in not really growing as much as I should have. [I’m not sure what I thought things would be like 35 years later, but one can be assured that I never dreamed I be teaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. This has certainly a gracious privilege from the Lord.] I am grateful for the mercy and grace of the Father during these years. I confess that I’m a slow learner when it comes to what God has been trying so patiently to teach me. For over 40 years now God has allowed me to serve Him in  ministry, and the questions that haunt me now more than ever are, “Am I being obedient? Am I growing in Him? Am I making an eternal difference in the lives of those around me?” As I ponder these questions on this "anniversary," I commit again "to keep on, keeping on."

Sometimes a funny glance at something you see brings back a flood of memories, and in this case, a time of self-evaluation. As David said in Psalm 139:23-24:

 “Search me, O God, and know my heart;
       test me and know my anxious thoughts.
  See if there is any offensive way in me,
       and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflections on Moments You Wish You Could Forget...

We had finally arrived in Nicaragua after language study in Costa Rica and I received an invitation to speak to a meeting of the pastors from the northern part of the country who had come for the annual convention. I was to speak on worship, but this was to be my first time in Spanish and I was so new to the country, I really didn’t know anyone who might be able to review what I had written to check the Spanish and was definitely still learning the differences in vocabulary, expressions, etc. I stood up to speak to some very kind and attentive brethren, many whose daily rural ministry meant walking miles just to visit members. When I finished, one dear brother raised his hand and asked my boss, Donatilo, “Hermano [brother], would you translate for this guy, we didn’t understand anything he said.”

Well, I had understood what he said and clearly. Inside I was totally crushed; I had tried and done my best, but it was woefully inadequate. It was a moment I wished that I could forget. What happened in the next two minutes probably did more to change the direction of my missionary journey than any other single moment in the 12 months prior to that point. Inside, I was ready to thank them for the opportunity that they had so graciously given me, go home, and give up on ever being effective as a communicator in the language, or even go back to the states where I at least could speak like an intelligent adult [at least most of the time]. At that moment Donatilo looked at the dear brother who had made the comment and told him, “No, I won’t translate, he can do it.” Then he turned to me and said, “Do it.” I was on the spot. There was no time to hide or give other options, so I started all over again, this time without so many notes and trying to explain in a different way and trying to make clearer what I had said. I thought I would die before I could finish, but I didn’t die and I did finish. I’m really not sure how much more the men there understood, but the greater issue was settled; don’t give up when it gets rough.  Donatilo continued to encourage a very young and green missionary the nearly 2 ½ years we served before leaving for our first furlough. It was a defining moment in my life: God has called us to persevere.

I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to that moment in the years that followed. I doubt if Donatilo realized how great a part he has played in my life, though I had shared my appreciation to him. He had the insight from having worked with new missionaries over the years to know how to correct and how to encourage. From that memory two truths have been burned into my heart: [1] the importance of encouraging in the right direction, even though it may be hard and even embarrassing, and [2] the importance of making right choices.

Young worship leaders get discouraged often. [By the way, they don’t have a corner on the market for discouragement, more experienced ones have their moments as well.] Sometimes through their own inexperience they make mistakes. In one of the first churches I in which I had the privilege to serve as music and youth director, I said something to some of the youth and one got mad and decided to walk home from camp. That would have been a good 5 miles and his parents were active members. He started hitch hiking and was picked up by one of the pastors who was serving as camp security. The pastor took him home and then returned to tell my pastor everything that had happened. I was devastated and asked the pastor is I needed to resign, since I was obviously failing. The pastor was a wise man in the Word with years of experience working with inexperienced young men like myself and said, “No, the world’s not over. Let’s just move on.” Things did get better, and I continued to learn more, probably in part because I realized that I needed to learn more than I thought I did before all this had happened.

Right encouragements help lead to right choices. No, I’m not saying that I have always made perfect choices during my life. I think you could ask my wife or children and they could fill you in on more than I would want to admit. But, by God’s grace, there were those crucial moments, those times, though not recognized as such then, that were defining moments in my life that the right choices were made. I will be the first to tell you they were never easy, if not painful. When we’re corrected, it is only natural to “jump to our own defense.” There very well may exist the need for clarification, but digging in and taking a defensive stand on everything rarely accomplishes anything. Those with more experience are able to see the “blind spots” in what we do and hearing them can help us avoid even greater problems later.  All of these things are part of learning how to make the right choices.

One of the realities with which we need to live is that we need to seek to continue to choose what is right over what is just convenient or trendy, even though it may not be popular. There are no short cuts to the making of a diamond. Without the heat and the pressure all you have is a lump of coal. Only as we allow God to mold us through the difficult situations in which we find ourselves can He complete the process of transformation He desires to see in our lives. We need to hear the calls to “do it again,” and not give up. We need to remember Who it was that called us in the first place and claim in prayer Phil. 1:6, “He who began the good work in you, He will carry it on unto completion...”  You might be saying, that’s well and good, but what about my situation? What should I be doing? Who can you encourage today? It may not be a defining moment in your life, but it might be in theirs. What hard choices are you facing? Remember Paul’s admonition in Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” It's worth it and it's part of living of life that you will not regret later.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Disappointments, Expectations and Worship

Sometimes plans change, or are changed and you get caught in the middle. Even when you think that you were following God’s direction, all of a sudden you find yourself in completely different circumstances than what you had expected or planned. Did you miss God’s will? Did God speak and you just miss hearing His voice? Did you do something that caused God to stop talking? I would not pretend to understand how the Father chooses to reveal Himself, but I do know that many times in Scripture there were men and women who were trusting and following God and the answers did not come as they expected.

Abraham believed God would send a son through Sarah, but years passed and nothing happened. It was not until he was 100 and she was 90, when everything looked hopeless, did God step in and work in a way that would bring Him the most glory. Moses led the people to the Red sea and realized that although he was following  God’s plan as best he knew, it looked hopeless until God worked. In fact, the 40 years in the desert was a time of learning that Jehovah  was God over deserts, food, water, enemies and every situation they would encounter.  God chose not to fulfill the human expectation, but bring glory to His holy name.

Naaman, the pagan general, before Elisha is another wonderful example of misguided expectation. When the prophet told him to go and wash, he said, “I thought he would come out and wave his hand over the spot and say some words and make me clean, and all he says is go wash in a muddy river?”  Thankfully one of the general’s servants convinced him to obey and his response is one of worship to God alone.

To the disciples the greatest disappointment was the cross. Three and a half years of seeing the unbelievable, seeing even the dead raised to life must have made the disciples believe that Jesus was invincible. They must have felt that their position and power because of Him was secure.  ... And then there was the cross. I’m sure they passed those two nights without sleep in grief and vain attempts to figure out what had happened. Had they been deceived? When Jesus appeared to the after three days the depth of their despair turn into the heights of rejoicing. Indeed the risen Christ was Lord of all, their preconceived expectations melted as they watched him eat the fish and explain the Scripture, passages they knew, but did not understand.  Disappointments, failed expectations, all can cause us great anguish.

What about worship? I am not saying that sin will not block our understanding of God’s will or hearing His voice. But sometimes the way God teaches us to trust Him is in the silence of obedience in unfulfilled expectation. We walk into a worship service, having confessed our sins, claimed the love and forgiveness of the Father, thanked Him for such grace and mercy and expected an incredible experience of worship, only to hear ...nothing......just silence. Our expectation might have led us to believe that we would feel something “extra” today or there would something quite special and unique about the service and nothing happened.  Yes, we need to check to see if there is something wrong, but this just might also be a time of silence that we must stand in obedience and worship with only the assurance that God is Who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. 

The measure of our worship is not based on our expectations, but the assurance of God’s nature and character. My thoughts, feelings, emotions change like the tides of the sea, but God never changes. Our worship is not dependent on the feelings that can be generated in response to a sermon or song, but on the obedient response to the revelation of God’s nature and character.  Let’s give Him our expectations, our disappointments, and bow in worship, even if it’s in silence.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Elephant in the Room in Worship: Sinning While We Worship?

Recently, I was listening to some worship music while driving on the highway and was truly in an spirit of worship. Unfortunately, it was enough to distract my eye on the speedometer. When I did look down, I noticed that I was above the speed limit. Well I foot went off the accelerator and returned to the legal speed, but the incident really initiated thinking through what had happened and if what I had done was "sin." If breaking the speed limit is wrong, that is, "sin," then regardless of the fact that I thought I was worshiping, I was really breaking the law.  The question to raise is was I really worshiping God, while I was speeding? Ignorance of the law does not take away from the fact that I was speeding. Obviously, the solution is not to drive and do things that are distracting and I now do take steps to watch things. But, in the eyes of my heavenly Father, do all the warm feelings of worship that I had translate into worship, even though I was violating the very laws He has commanded that I obey?  Think about Paul's admonition in I Cor. 14:15: "I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind."  There is a conscious act of the will in worship that must be acknowledged. I realize that there may be those that might not agree with the conclusion, but I really believe that my experience cannot be called "worship."   This leads me to the next issue.                       

I hesitate to mention the following, but I really believe that it is an issue that worship leaders need to deal with on an honest level.  It is an "elephant in the room," and because it is a very emotional one, with would rather not mention it because it involves personal opinion as well as scientific fact. To what am I referring? — The volume of some worship services. "Loud" is a totally subjective term, because what may be loud to one  person, might not be to another. For this reason, I will talk in terms of decibels and decibel levels, or "dbs," which is the measure of sound pressure. {I would encourage those interested to Google "causes of hearing loss" or go to to get more information.} Basically, exposure to 85 dbs for an hour can cause hearing impairment; just if the sound level peaks at 120 dbs, damage is caused to a child's hearing and above that can cause impairment to hearing in an adult. Hearing loss is insidious, acting almost secretly, generally doing its damage without any major "red flags" to call attention to itself. None the less, the damage is done and the process of hearing loss has begun.   

Because of the nature of the sound equipment and amplification systems used in many worship services, the level of sound pressure exceeds the “safe” limit for hearers. I was recently in one service that the level in the hallway outside the service was above the limit, not to mention what was going on inside. There were people from all ages there and my question was, “Are those leading worship aware of the damage they are causing to those who have gathered to worship?” “Are the parents of those children aware that their children’s hearing is being seriously affected by continual exposure to these levels of sound?” Unfortunately the cochlea [The cochlea is a hollow tube inside the inner ear that is coiled to resemble a snail's shell. It is to the cochlea that sound vibrations picked up by the middle ear are carried. ] really doesn’t know the difference between a praise song and a jet taking off, all it knows is that it is now damaged.

As worship leaders, we need to step up to the plate and face the issue honestly. Many people love the “loud” music, and some even say it gives them a “rush” to listen to it. The “rush” they feel is the endorphins the body is releasing to deal with the pain it is experiencing. It is normal chemical reaction. Until we can face this honestly and take some pro-active steps to curtail the negative effects, we are leading others in worship and causing them physical harm at the same time. Lawsuits could follow. [I know of a major university that already has to have students sign a waiver saying that to enroll in a particular instrumental ensemble so that the university is exempt from any liability of their hearing loss for fear of legal action against them.]

I know that many will say, "Look, it's been that way since the first portable cassette players and headphones. Some will be listening to stuff in their cars louder than what they hear in church." And I certainly agree, basically. Let's look at it from another angle. For decades smoking was considered a social norm and the worst problem was the smoke that stained walls or clothes. Then the links came to light that it was really harmful; not only harmful, but addictive and deadly. The difference was that although the activity itself had not changed, research had shown some things that were not know previously. Or take for example a coach who does things that are actually  injuring the players during workouts. Would parents still want to send their children to that kind of coach?  Doubtful. As far as the volume and hearing injury goes, we now know some things that we didn't know before and we don't want to be like the coach that would sacrifice the health of his players just to win a game.

What can be done? Get a decibel meter and check things out. [I have one on my Iphone and it works great.] Learn to use it to check levels, and if its too high, turn things down. [By the way, this can happen just as well with a pipe organ as it can with an electric guitar and bass.] We are accountable to God for the stewardship of what we do. The pressure of the culture is great and many will want to play like it’s always been like this. [Part of the problem is that the real damage doesn’t always show up until about 10 years later, and the exposure has been long term.]

I pray that this will be received in the spirit in which it was given. I long for all generation to be able to hear the praises of God for years to come, to be able to hear their children and grandchildren praising God. But, to do this, we need to face the “elephant in the room.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Prayer and Worship

Prayer is the breath of discipleship; God’s Word is our food. Congregational worship that is weak these areas will be anemic in others as well. How can our times of prayer in worship become more effective? One way is to pray Scripture. An simple way to start is to start with the prayers of Paul in the New Testament. Take for example, Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae [1:9-12]:
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” [NIV]

Paraphrase into your own words as a prayer to the Father:

We have not stopped praying for ____ and asking You, God to:
fill ___ with the knowledge of Your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
in order that ___ may live a life worthy of You, Lord
and may please You in every way:
bearing fruit in every good work
growing in the knowledge of You
being strengthened with all power according to Your glorious might
so that ___ may have great endurance and patience
and joyfully giving thanks to You, Father, who has qualified ___ to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Another prayer of Paul’s is found in Philippians 1:9-11:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Praying this passage would look something like this:

    And this is my prayer: that ________ love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that _______ may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Praying Scripture not only deepens our prayer life, but puts the Word of God in our hearts and minds.

Look at the prayer of Jesus in John 17: 15-26:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

This is a great chapter to memorize, but let’s pull out what Jesus was praying:
    1. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
    2. Sanctify them by the truth
    3. that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
    4. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory

Pray this as well. We know that this is God’s will, since it came from the lips of our Lord, himself. Protection from Satan’s deceptions, oneness in Him, and unity among each other are powerful requests. Paul’s prayers center around the development of God’s nature and character in our lives to accomplish what God has called and commanded us to do. Strengthening our prayer life will also strengthen our worship.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Did God Make You Smile You Today?

The other day I was waiting for Kathy at school when one of our students came by with his baby son. The proud daddy was showing off his son, and it was obvious that he had spent watching everything that the little one does and especially the things that make him smile. “Watch this, it always makes him smile,” and with a quick move of his hand the baby responded with radiant grin sure to please any parent or grand parent.

As he went on his way, my thoughts turned to our heavenly Father and how He watches and knows us. We are never out of His sight, never out of His care, and never out of the reach of His arms. He even knows what makes us smile. So many sunrises that take my breath away and sunsets that send a peaceful wave of beauty over me, and just maybe God is saying, “made you smile...” Hearing birds sing in the morning, hearing twigs crackle under feet, watching leaves turn colors and fall, feeling a gentle cool breeze in my face, smelling fresh air, and God made me smile again.

Unfortunately, too many times, maybe even most times, I just miss it. The Almighty waves His powerful hand in my direction [not just for me, I know, He does it for everyone], and the wonders are all around. I might even comment, “wow,” or “beautiful,” but stop short of telling the Creator of it all thanks for the beauty of it all. I have a loving Father that knows “my going out and my coming in,” and loves me regardless. I long to be more sensitive to the Father as He moves, to be able to see Him in the faces of those around me and hearing Him in the laughter of a child. There must be thousands of ways I just miss His goodness, though I may not miss its benefits, I just fail to thank Him and tell Him so. 

I think the best thing I can do right now, is just say, “Thank You, Father, for loving a sinful human race enough to die and bring us into a relationship with You, Thank You, Father, for giving us the opportunity to share that love with others, Thank You, Father, for family, for an opportunity to serve You. And Father, thank You for making me smile today!”

Friday, September 24, 2010

“Not a problem to be fixed, but a paradox to be managed...”

I heard this phrase this past week as I was listening to a speaker on marriage, and although the context was completely different, the application to worship is amazing. Much of what is discussed in worship is treated more as a “problem to be fixed,” but the reality of the situation is that some things will not be “fixed.”

Those who are over 60 will not suddenly become 19 year-olds and neither will those who are 20 wake up and be 75. Yet, these being different are still part of the Body of Christ. The image of the body is a powerful image: many members, different than each other, functioning differently, yet all surrendered under the authority on the Head, which is Christ. The parts of the body are not subject just to the likes and dislikes of any one of its members, that is, the body will not do only what the hand or foot likes to do. Yet, it does share those activities as directed and needed as the Head sees fit. The wisdom lies in learning how to “manage” rather than “fix.”

As long as we maintain a “fix it,” mentality we will keep looking for the magic bullet that solves all our problems. If there were a magic bullet, I believe it would have been discovered long before now. But if we can function as the Body of Christ, that is, different members working in unity under the Head, who is Christ, then I believe we will begin to learn to “manage” rather than “fix.” I believe we need to stop looking for the “magic bullet” and begin to load our tool belts with the skills and wisdom from God to approach the challenges with new light and new hope.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Power of Knowing God...

Isaiah 11:1-9 is a Messianic passage and is one of those passages in which Jesus is referenced as the “Branch” from Jesse’s line. The first five verses describe Messiah and his attributes and the last four the results of his rule, an image of perfect peace and harmony. Let’s review it here:

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -

3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;

4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,e
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.

9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

While this is clearly the prophet’s vision from God of a world controlled by God’s Anointed Messiah, there is one phrase that seems to jump out among the rest: “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” The reason this seems to call so much attention is the preposition “for,” which is give the reason or cause of the previous verses. What things, specifically? The lion living with the lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion, all hunters and their natural prey, and being led by a child. Lions and bears eating straw, no longer carnivores, but grass eaters and infants playing with once deadly vipers. Surely this is a world completely upside down, at least to those ears who would have first heard it, and even to us today. Such behavior is not characteristic of the nature of those predators. What made the difference? The difference lies in the earth being full of the knowledge of God.

I am not trying to take away from the beautiful messianic picture the prophet has given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When the Messiah comes it would be a time of righteousness, justice, and peace.

This is just a simple observation. When God is in control and those under His control know Him their very nature is transformed. Coming to know God in salvation completely transforms life. When we yield the control of our lives to God as Lord & Master and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we are changed. This is not only a word of hope for a future time, and a description of the incarnate Christ as He came and what things might be when He reigns after the culmination of all things. This is also a basic truth to understand. When God is in control and those under His control know Him, their very nature is transformed.

The question must be raised how is this knowledge of God given? Obviously, through His Word, yes. But God also reveals Himself everyday as we trust Him for each day’s provision [give us this day our daily bread], as we see Him in control of heaven and earth [Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven]. Remember what the psalmist said in Psalm 50:8-15:
8 I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices
or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.

9 I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,

10 for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.

11 I know every bird in the mountains,
and the creatures of the field are mine.

12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

14 Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,

15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me."

As we recognize what God has done and give Him thanks and praise, He receives glory, as He delivers us from our troubles and we respond in praise and gratitude, we honor Him. We grow in our knowledge of the Holy One as we live through the difficulties of life.

How else can we grow in our knowledge of God? Our praise and gratitude, our exalting God for who He is and what He has done is the essence of worship. Within this prophecy of about Messiah, Isaiah might be saying as we worship, as we get to know God, understand His authority, control, power and majesty, as we are filled with the knowledge of God, our own nature and character will be changed.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Does the Church Have Laryngitis?

This isn’t as strange a question as it may seem at first. Let me give a brief background and ask the question again. I will readily admit that this was not copied from a book, and that personal speculation is involved, so I would ask that you stay with this just for a little while and feel free to respond or comment at the end.

In the years leading up to the Renaissance, which some scholars place the beginning around 1450, the Church was ripe with corruption. Indulgences, full or partial pardon for sin, were sold, many times to fund great building projects, ecclesiastical positions were sold, and immorality was rampant within the ranks of the priesthood, even after attempts to correct these problems. In short, except for the difference in clothing and the language used during the worship service, the average person in the pew saw very little difference between those outside the church and many of those in leadership within its walls. The Church had lost its moral authority; she had lost her voice. Textbooks will focus on the rise of mechanical technologies and free thinking as a source for the Renaissance, but few will focus on perhaps what might have been a deeper reason.

When those outside the church see no solution to their own dilemmas from those inside the church, then they must conclude that God couldn’t help His own “insiders,” so He probably can’t help them either. Since they failed to see a faith lived out that offered answers to life’s deepest issues of purpose and meaning, the focus turned inward. “Perhaps, God doesn’t exist, or perhaps this universe is a giant clock that God has wound and left to run.” Regardless, the end result was that man began to look to himself as his own solution, and humanism was born.

I wonder at times if we are not seeing something similar repeated in our day and age:
– The church in North America seems obsessed with becoming a super church, tearing down barns to build bigger ones, so much so that the interest on the debt on the loans is more than we give to missions. We seem more concerned with our comfort and convenience than the needs of a lost world.
– The church has adopted more of a corporate model of administration than a biblical one. I heard the pastor of one of these large churches being interviewed on “Larry King Live” some time back who said, “Larry, I’m the CEO of one of the largest churches in the US.” I will with hold the name, but the idea was obvious, he was CEO more than pastor.
– Some have given up shepherding the flock for herding them like cattle.
– Just as bad are those that promise that God wants to have them rich and prosperous and if they just have enough faith, God will make it happen. I heard of a believer in China, part of the underground church, who after hearing this kind of message from the United States went to his pastor to ask what sin he might have committed, since God wasn’t blessing him with riches.
– We have exchanged the biblical mandate to “go and make disciples of every nation” to “come and let us entertain you into the kingdom.”
– The divorce rate in the church is virtually the same for those outside of the church, about 50%.
– Over and over again we hear of church leadership caught up in financial coverups, and moral failures.

Is it any wonder that those without a relationship with Christ don’t look to the Church for answers when it seems like we have nothing to offer. These are by no means the issues of only large churches. Praise God for those who are stemming the tide; there are a few lights in this darkness, but on the whole it seems as if the Church has lost its voice; the Church has laryngitis. She lost her moral authority because she gave it up on an altar of self indulgence and convenience.

Even with that, the Church has not lost its responsibility to God’s call and command. Would there have been such growth in post-modern ideas of relativity, etc., if the Church had been what God had called us to be? No one can answer that question, and not much is gained by spending too much time on it. Is it too late to do anything about it? As long as there is breath, there is hope, because God is still God and still in charge. He is just as willing to fill and control us now as He has always been, but we must surrender to His Lordship. I am not down on the Church, she is the body of Christ. I love the Church and long to see her rise up as God desires. I am concerned that there are those who desire to take the place of the Head, who is Christ, alone. The Church was God’s idea, not man’s, but we must do it His way, not ours.

You might have asked, “I thought that this was a blog on worship? What happened?” You’re completely right, and here’s your answer. I think the first step toward turning things around is a time of repentance and worship.
– A time for seeing God as He Is and what He desires and ourselves as we are.
– A time for confessing, agreeing with God about how He sees us and what we have done, claiming His forgiveness and thanking Him for what He has done through Christ to make it possible that we might have a relationship with Himself.
– A time to stop and listen to the voice of God, not to tell Him our plans, but see what He is doing and to join Him in it.
A wise pastor once said that we are so busy that “we can’t see the difference between the dust of our own efforts and the cloud of the presence of God.” There may be some things we need to stop doing, there certainly are some things that He will want us to do. Let’s seek Him in worship and take the first step toward the repetition of a failure.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Developing a Vocabulary of Praise

What can we learn from David about praise and thanksgiving...

Let’s look at an interesting passage about worship in the life of David, a man after God’s on heart. Our focus here is simply the various commands and verbs the king uses as he celebrates the moving of the Ark of the Covenant. As you read, notice the various and specific commands he uses which have been put in bold italic print.

1 Chronicles 16 [ASV]
1And they brought in the ark of God, and set it in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it: and they offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before God. 2And when David had made an end of offering the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings, he blessed the people in the name of Jehovah. 3And he dealt to every one of Israel, both man and woman, to every one a loaf of bread, and a portion of flesh, and a cake of raisins.
4And he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of Jehovah, and to celebrate and to thank and praise Jehovah, the God of Israel: 5Asaph the chief, and second to him Zechariah, Jeiel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehiel, and Mattithiah, and Eliab, and Benaiah, and Obed-edom, and Jeiel, with psalteries and with harps; and Asaph with cymbals, sounding aloud; 6and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually, before the ark of the covenant of God. 7Then on that day did David first ordain to give thanks unto Jehovah, by the hand of Asaph and his brethren.
8 O give thanks unto Jehovah, call upon his name;
Make known his doings among the peoples.
9 Sing unto him, sing praises unto him;
Talk ye of all his marvellous works.
10 Glory ye in his holy name;
Let the heart of them rejoice that seek Jehovah.
11 Seek ye Jehovah and his strength;
Seek his face evermore.
12 Remember his marvelous works that he hath done,
His wonders, and the judgments of his mouth,
13 O ye seed of Israel his servant,
Ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
14 He is Jehovah our God;
His judgments are in all the earth.
15 Remember his covenant for ever,
The word which he commanded to a thousand generations,
16 The covenant which he made with Abraham,
And his oath unto Isaac,
17 And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a statute,
To Israel for an everlasting covenant,
18 Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan,
The lot of your inheritance;
19 When ye were but a few men in number,
Yea, very few, and sojourners in it;
20 And they went about from nation to nation,
And from one kingdom to another people.
21 He suffered no man to do them wrong;
Yea, he reproved kings for their sakes,
22 Saying, Touch not mine anointed ones,
And do my prophets no harm.
23 Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth;
Show forth his salvation from day to day.
24 Declare his glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples.
25 For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised:
He also is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the peoples are idols:
But Jehovah made the heavens.
27 Honor and majesty are before him:
Strength and gladness are in his place.
28 Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples,
Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength;
29 Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name:
Bring an offering, and come before him:
Worship Jehovah in holy array.
30 Tremble before him, all the earth:
The world also is established that it cannot be moved.
31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
And let them say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth.
32 Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof;
Let the field exult, and all that is therein;
33 Then shall the trees of the wood sing for joy before Jehovah;
For he cometh to judge the earth.
34 O give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good;
For his loving kindness endureth for ever.
35 And say ye, Save us, O God of our salvation,
And gather us together and deliver us from the nations,
To give thanks unto thy holy name,
And to triumph in thy praise.
36 Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel,
From everlasting even to everlasting.
And all the people said, Amen, and praised Jehovah. 37So he left there, before the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, Asaph and his brethren, to minister before the ark continually, as every day’s work required; 38and Obed-edom with their brethren, threescore and eight; Obed-edom also the son of Jeduthun and Hosah to be doorkeepers; 39and Zadok the priest, and his brethren the priests, before the tabernacle of Jehovah in the high place that was at Gibeon, 40to offer burnt-offerings unto Jehovah upon the altar of burnt-offering continually morning and evening, even according to all that is written in the law of Jehovah, which he commanded unto Israel; 41and with them Heman and Jeduthun, and the rest that were chosen, who were mentioned by name, to give thanks to Jehovah, because his loving kindness endureth for ever; 42 and with them Heman and Jeduthun with trumpets and cymbals for those that should sound aloud, and with instruments for the songs of God; and the sons of Jeduthun to be at the gate. 43And all the people departed every man to his house: and David returned to bless his house.

Even a casual study reveals that in the sections above David is quoting from Psalm 105:1-15 and Psalm 96:1-13 and a few other Psalms. They were songs of praise, but at the same time songs that reminded of God’s promise to Abraham, His protection and provision and His special purpose for them as a people. Rather than study the Psalms themselves in their context, what is important here is how David, himself used them in the context of a worship service.

Since he was not in the priestly tribe or family of levites, he was not allowed to function in the daily rites of sacrificial worship. But as King, relocating the Ark of God, there arose a rare occasion to participate in worship leading. In that function, the special combination of psalms serve to instruct by recalling the great events of Israel’s past and reminding them of the greatness of the God that brought it all about. But not only did it serve to remind them, they also served a prophetic role to command them to respond to what God had done in their lives. This response was worship.

Look at the myriad of commands that David links with praising God for who He is and thanking God for what He has done: give thanks, call, make known, sing, talk, glory, rejoice, seek, remember, sing, show forth, declare, ascribe, bring, come, worship, and tremble. These commands cover public and private expressions of praise and gratitude, testimony and worship. It is our responsibility to make these a reality as we gather as the Body of Christ to worship Him. Although they were give to a group, the only way they can be carried out is if the individuals in that group take up their part in carrying them out. Congregational response is the unifying of individual response in obedience to what God commands.

Our congregations must learn to accept the personal responsibility that each individual has before God as each one enters to worship. That comes from study and from teaching, year after year, generation after generation. We cannot assume that because we have learned to worship that our loves ones will automatically follow in full understanding. Over and over again, the command from God to the children of Israel in the desert was “teach your children...” Teach them to give thanks, to sing, to glory in the Lord, to seek His face, to rejoice in the Lord, to remember all that He has done, to declare His greatness, ascribe Him glory, to come before Him, to worship and tremble in awe at His great majesty.

As we look at all of these, we must ask ourselves, “How many of these are true in my life? Do I give thanks? Am I making known His deeds? Do I sing to Him in worship for His glory? Do I talk of His greatness and salvation? Do I rejoice in who He is? Do I ascribe the glory due His Name?” We need to learn the vocabulary of worship, not to show off our knowledge of Scripture or to impress others, but to begin to learn how great and how awesome is the God we serve!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Not to Do in Worship

David was a man after God’s own heart, a shepherd, a warrior, and a great king, but he was also a composer, a musician and a worship leader. His attempt to bring the symbol of God presence among His people in II Samuel 6:1-15 displays two basic lessons of what “not” to do if we are to worship God as He desires:

1 David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. 2 He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. 3 They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4 with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5 David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.
6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.
8 Then David was angry because the LORD's wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.
9 David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?" 10 He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.
12 Now King David was told, "The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God." So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

The moving of the ark of God to Jerusalem was to be one of the high points of King David’s early accomplishments. For years the ark had been at the house of Abinadab, and perhaps the most natural question is, “How in the world did it get there and who is Abinadab?” Great questions, so let’s briefly review some history found in I Samuel 4-7. As a young boy, Samuel grew up under the High Priest, Eli, after his mother and father had dedicated him to the Lord. Eli’s sons were corrupt and did not follow God’s commands, nor had little respect for the ark of God. When the Philistines attacked the Israelites, Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons brought the ark of God into battle, not because they trusted in God, but more likely like a good luck charm. They placed their trust in the ark and not the God of the ark. The battle ended with the ark being captured and Eli’s sons being killed. Eli, himself, died when he heard that the Philistines had taken the ark.

The rejoicing of the Philistines soon turned into panic as the ark was passed among their five major cities and tumors began to break out on the people. Fearing that this might be from the hand of the Israelite God, the leaders of the cities got together and decided to a test. They would place the ark on a new cart with oxen that had never been yoked, place an offering of gold with it and let them go. If they wandered about with no real direction, the tumors and trouble would just be coincidence. But, if they took to the road that led to Israel, then they would know that it had been from the hand of God. They did what they planned and the oxen went straight down the road to Israel, to Beth Shemesh and eventually to Kiriath Jearim to the house of Abinadab on the hill. It remained there at least twenty years until Israel requested a king, [I Samuel 7:2] as well as the forty years that Saul was king, and until the first 7 years of David’s reign in Hebron, most likely 67 years in all.

When David had unified the kingdom under his rule, he wanted to bring the ark of God to his own city, the City of David. As we have previously seen, David gathered thousands of his best soldiers, composed special psalms, and filled the air with praise and adoration to bring the ark to where he lived. David’s heart was longing to be in the presence of the symbol of the presence of Jehovah, the ark. David did exactly as the Philistines and placed the ark on a new cart, led by the sons of Abinadad, Uzzah and Ahio with great celebration and worship. Unfortunately, when the ark reached the threshing floor of Nacon, a rocky place that would have been used to beat the stalks of grain to separate it from the chaff, the oxen stumbled. Immediately Uzzah stretched out his hand to steady the ark so it would not fall off the cart and God struck him dead on the spot. Needless to say that put a damper on the celebration and they stopped the procession leaving the ark at the nearby home of Obed Edom. Three months later, David attempts the move again, but this time following the biblical mandates of using only Levites carrying the ark with poles. Again there was celebration, but this time with obedience and sacrifice.

We have already mentioned that David’s failure to follow God’s instructions put those around the ark in peril. All the adoration, praise, singing, rejoicing we can possibly make cannot replace being obedient. Remember Samuel’s warning to King Saul, when he failed to be obedient to what God had called him to do: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” [I Samuel 15:22] Though David was a man “after God’s own heart,” even though he was the “sweet singer of Israel,” even though he was doing everything with worship and praise, and even though it was done with the best intentions, it was not blessed at first because he failed to be obedient. He failed to search the commandments of God and seek His direction and instruction. How many times do we ask God to bless our plans, rather than seek God’s heart and direction about a specific direction?

Not only is it important to seek to be obedient and follow the instructions God gives, but there is another aspect of the story that is worth pondering: Uzzah and Ahio’s own attitudes. The ark had been in the possession of their household since its recovery from the Philistines [1 Samuel 6] and remained their for at least 20 years of the life of Samuel the prophet, the 40 years of Saul’s reign and the first 7 years of David’s kingship. There was probably never a time in their life that the are had not been in their home. They had grown up with the ark around them all the time and most likely, it had become commonplace to them. They began to take it for granted. It lost its specialness. So much so that Uzzah felt no hesitation in reaching out to steady it. How important for those of us who virtually live in the things of God, not to begin to take them for granted, lest we be guilty of the same sin.

What does this mean for us today? All the good intentions we might have and all emotional furor we might muster cannot replace the simple act of being obedient to what God has called us to do. Worship is not a substitute for obedience. The truth is that worship completes and expresses itself in obedience. We must never confuse the fruit of worship with worship itself. Regardless how deep our feelings of awe and wonder, or even rejoicing may be, if they do not result in obedience, we have not understood what worship is and what God is doing as we worship. The goal of worship is not that “I feel better,” but that we recognize more of who God is, what He has done and that the nature and character of Christ be formed in us so that God is glorified and the world is drawn into a relationship with Him.

Secondly, the more we invest our lives in the things of God, the greater the danger of beginning to take those things most dear to us for granted. When we were first appointed as missionaries, we were given the advice to take as many pictures of what we see early in our months of service, because the longer that we were there, we would begin to overlook the things around us. I realized how true that was each time someone from the States would come to visit and begin to make remarks about this thing and that and I scarcely was aware of it, since I passed by it every day.

As we become busy with the details of planning and rehearsing the music, sermon preparation, microphones, projections, and pulling countless of other things that command our attention on as we ready for worship, it is easy to “get the details right” but “miss the boat” because we lose that sense of “specialness” as we deal with the holy things of God. None are exempt from the temptation of taking the things of God for granted, but for those who are called to a specific public ministry, the danger is especially great. Even if you are “just an ordinary member” of a church, it is possible become so accustomed to what is happening in worship that one can forget the privilege of being in corporate worship, or even indifferent to the moving of God’s Spirit.