The correct focus in worship
Haggai 1: The little you have brought…I’ve blown away.
The people being addressed in Haggai’s short story aren’t pagans who have turned their backs on God to worship another. They aren’t godless people at all. Despite their having ruins instead of a Temple they have worship services. As faithful Jews they bring sacrifices and observe the feasts and regulations of their religion. Yet, somehow, their worship experience is dissatisfying to them. As they leave these events they feel they’ve been faithful in keeping all that which is required of them but they remain empty inside. Haggai puts his finger on the problem. In reframing their religion to suit themselves they’ve blundered into a religion that the God they worship rejects. Failure to rebuild the Temple is the symptom of this larger problem. This situation speaks to me today and its tone isn’t soothing! How much of my religious life is founded on obligation and tradition and how much of it is about a living, vital relationship with God? While I’m busy being sure all the details of worship are taken care of have I forgotten that it isn’t me who’s in charge? What makes me think God will accept a self-centered worship effort from me in the first place? The thing is that as I picture the people of Haggai’s day walking out of a worship service feeling that somehow something is missing, I can identify with them. That, my friends, makes me very uncomfortable.
Take Away: Our religious lives are to be founded on a living, vital relationship with God.
The secret to satisfaction
Haggai 1: Take a good, hard look at your life.
The work of the Temple was put on hold years earlier because people felt they needed to concentrate on the necessities of life. They built homes and cleared land for planting crops. They built walls to protect them in what had become a dangerous land. Meanwhile, the Temple was left in ruins. Now, as they face a devastating drought, God’s man tells them it’s time to take a hard look at their lives. All their building and planting is meaningless without God. Even with plates full of food and warm clothing to wear they’ve faced an inner dissatisfaction with life. Their neglect of the Temple is a symptom of something even more important. Beyond the building, they’ve left the God of the building out on the periphery of their lives. Without him life is empty and meaningless. Their mistake is both colossal and common. The worship of God is not a luxury to be put on hold till “important” things are cared for. In fact, worship is a core necessity and without God, nothing ever satisfies. We can’t be too hard on the people of Haggai’s day because we too tend to view worship as something that can be pushed aside as we pursue things we deem to be more important. The issue isn’t that God’s unhappy with us and will find a way to get back at us for ignoring him. Instead, it’s that when we leave God out, we’re ignoring the central need of our lives. In the case before us, that’s evidenced by their failure to rebuild the Temple. In our case, it might be that we don’t show a proper interest in the worship of God. When we fail here, we find that all other successes in life taste like failures. When we succeed here, we find that everything else in life finds its proper place.
Take Away: Without the Lord life is empty and meaningless.
Habakkuk 2: God is in his holy Temple! Quiet everyone – a holy silence. Listen!
Chapter two is mostly a listing of the sins of Babylon. The Lord may intend to use this godless nation in his dealings with Judah but that doesn’t mean its despicable evil will be overlooked. As a series of “Who do you think you are?” judgments is being listed, the prophet suddenly has a vision of God. Immediately, the prophet calls for “holy silence.” This isn’t the time to preach sermons of condemnation. The only thing a human being can do at this point is to bow in silence before the Lord. This, I think is God’s second answer to Habakkuk. The prophet has asked how a holy God can use a sinful nation to punish Judah. One answer is that God is well aware of the sin of Babylon and that he will decisively deal with it. The other answer is heard as the Almighty reveals himself to Habakkuk. This is similar to what happens in the Book of Job. Job has asked for an audience with God that he might plead his case. However, when God appears, Job is speechless and all he can do is bow in worship and adoration. When I see God my questions are answered. My need is not for the Lord to explain to me everything I think I want to know. The need in my life is a fresh vision of God.
Take Away: All our questions are answered when we genuinely experience the Lord.
Worshiping to please the right Person
Amos 5: When was the last time you sang to me?
Toward the end of Amos 5 the Lord challenges almost everything about their church services. He says he can’t stand their meetings, conferences, and conventions. He washes his hands of their projects and goals and he says he can’t stand their singing which is more focused on what they like than on him. This message may be buried deep in the Minor Prophets but it should be right at the top of our concerns as Christians who go to church each Sunday. It isn’t that their services and conferences should be discontinued and it isn’t that their projects aren’t worthwhile. Also, this is no call to change the music style of the church (whatever it may be). It is, though, a powerful reminder of what (better stated, “Who”) it’s all about. The Lord says that what they’re doing is worthless, not because it’s worthless activity, but because they’re ignoring him and his purposes for their lives. God states, “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s all I want.” If I refuse God’s priority of caring for the poor, of helping the one who’s down and out then God will refuse my acts of worship. Maybe this passage needs to be read before we have our church planning meetings!
Take Away: If we’re missing the Lord’s priorities for the church the other things we do aren’t worth much.
Amos 4: But you never got hungry for me. You continued to ignore me.
The people Amos preaches to are religious people. They’re faithful to attend worship services, to make the correct sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. The casual observer might conclude that they’re just the sort of people God wants. However, that isn’t the case. Amos complains that all they’re doing is putting on a religious show. At the core of all their religious activities is, not God, but themselves. Even as Amos delivers his sermons the Lord is acting to bring a stop to it all. The fact is that God won’t be ignored! He, who created me, demands that I focus my life on him. That’s true in all of my life, and it’s especially true in my religious life. The issue of what I “like” or “don’t like” is, ultimately, unimportant. God isn’t looking at the show I put on. Instead, he’s looking at my heart. The issue in play in my worship activities is whether or not I hunger for him. I want to do church “right.” I want the worship services I attend to be well thought out and intentional. However, beyond all of that, I want the Lord to see that more than anything else, my worship activities are a reflection of my hunger for him and of my rejoicing in his presence. God won’t be ignored and a God-ignoring worship experience is a waste of time.
Take Away: The Lord isn’t looking so much at how we do church as he is looking at our hearts.
Shopping for religion
Hosea 7: They turn…here, then there, like a weather vane.
“Welcome to WorshipMart, your one stop shop for religion. Please keep an eye out for our blue light specials, you may find a very nice accessory to your faith for a low price.” You head over to the New Age aisle. Maybe a new crystal will help you pray better. The Politically Correct section has some interesting items, some of that “what works for you may not work for me” might come in handy when dealing with some of the more narrow people you know. The Hedonism section makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable but you can’t resist some of the “it can’t be all that bad if it feels right.” And then you head over to the staples section. After all, when all else fails you might just want some help from God Almighty. At the checkout counter the salesperson asks if you found everything you wanted. You answer “yes” but you think, “I’ll probably be back in here before long, somehow this stuff doesn’t seem to last like it should.” As you check out, you can’t find the last item. That’s happened before. Everything else is there though; you’ll just have to make it without God. Anyway, your religion is no one’s business but your own. Right?
Take Away: He’ll either be Lord of all or he won’t be Lord at all.
The Lord is much more than a Friend
Ezekiel 22: They can’t tell the difference between sacred and secular.
It’s a horrible time for the people of Jerusalem. There’s threatening war, a devastating drought, and a collapse of civil authority. Down at the Temple the priests continue in a God-ignoring pattern, treating sacred things as common. The Almighty complains that they profane him by trying to “pull me down to their level.” I like to sing “What a Friend we have in Jesus” and feel humbled and honored at the thought that the Lord is willing to be my Friend. However, I can’t help but think that the “friendship” model only works at one level. This Friend is the King of Kings. He’s holy and eternal. My relationship with him starts with my bowing before him. It’s he who takes my hand and gives me permission to stand in his presence. If I call him “Friend” it’s only because he allows me to. The priests of Ezekiel’s day treat the holy as common. Today, in my blessings and comfort, I don’t want to make the same mistake.
Take Away: I call the Lord my friend only because he has graciously allowed me to.
Which church would you attend?
Jeremiah 23: They preach…their “Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen to You” sermon.
Jeremiah isn’t the only preacher of his generation. In fact, he has plenty of competition from preachers who enjoy large followings and enthusiastic support. Folks love their positive, uplifting, and encouraging sermons. No doubt, these preachers find some really good texts that proclaim God’s love for and protection of his people. The problem is that their sermons are, in Jeremiah’s words, just so much “hot air.” The people in their congregations need to repent and return to God. The truth is that everything’s not going to turn out fine and bad things are coming, whether or not these preachers will admit it. Can’t you imagine a family getting ready to go to worship services? “Where are we going to church today, dear?” the wife asks. “I don’t know. Jeremiah’s preaching nearby, but you know he specializes in telling it like it is. I hear that the ‘Things are Great and Getting Better’ church has big things planned for today and they have a terrific praise band. Shall we go there?” So, where would I go to church? How entertainment oriented am I when it comes to worship? I’m not suggesting that “gloom and doom” is always God’s message while “happiness and security” is always just hot air. Still, I see here a reminder that there’s more to worship than a main course of an entertaining sermon with large helping of great music on the side.
Take Away: Sometimes God-directed preaching isn’t all that fun to hear.
The harsh reality
Jeremiah 14: Preachers and priest going about their business as if nothing’s happened!
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because he speaks of his tears for his people so often. In this passage he says he cries “day and night” over their sin and the resulting destruction it will bring to them. He’s shocked and dismayed by all he sees: so much pain and suffering, so much sin and evil. Now, another thing shocks him. It’s the reaction of the church people to all this. He expects at least for them to share in his tears over it all. However, it isn’t that way. Church services go on as usual. “Wasn’t that an interesting illustration the pastor used in the sermon?” “Yes, but he preached a bit long for my taste, however, that special in song was lovely, wasn’t it?” Off we all go to our favorite restaurant for lunch, hopefully, we’ll get there before the Baptists. Oh, I’m not really against good church services or Christians enjoying fellowship after the service. However, Jeremiah’s heartbreak over lost people does speak to my heart today. We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ. Our church growth model is often more about getting people to switch to our church than it is about seeing people saved. We simply can’t think we’re doing what the Lord commanded us to do by just having good worship services while so many are headed out to eternity without Jesus.
Take Away: We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ.
Our incense from Sheba
Jeremiah 6: Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.
They have church services and follow the time honored traditions handed down from generation to generation. It’s pretty impressive: robed priests, burning incense, sacrifices and prayers and songs. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with any of it. The problem isn’t in how they worship, it’s in how they live the rest of the time. God says they’ve just been “playing games” and “ignoring everything” he says. They respond by trying to jazz up their worship by bringing in some exotic incense from Sheba. Can’t you hear it: “the worship service seems a bit down lately, let’s get some of that really good incense from Sheba, that’ll give us just the spark we need.” However, it doesn’t work. God isn’t impressed and their worship services remain as empty as before. Listen, I’m all for fixing things up and I’m a firm believer in presenting a well ordered, prepared worship service. Adding our version of “incense from Sheba” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, that stuff only makes a difference if the worshipers are backing up their wonderfully choreographed and innovative church services with faithful day to day living. Otherwise, the new “incense” won’t please us or the God we worship.
Take Away: Being a worshipper of the Lord includes a lot more than just going to church.