12:1-5, 14:22-25, 16:1-3.
Called to Worship God.
the year was 1975. It was a cool and clear Spring morning when I was being carried up the side of one of the larger mountains in the German/Austrian Alps on a sparsely populated ski lift. This first encounter with such a lift came with quite a surprise when I arrived at the top, for as we crested the hill the trees opened, and suddenly from the top of that slope I found myself looking over a vast panorama of snow-covered mountains that stretched on for countless miles with their roots in several European countries including Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Amongst the beauty and majesty of this immense sight, I felt infinitesimally small. Yet, I knew that this view was but a tiny piece of this planet we live on, and this earth is but a tiny part of this universe that God created for His own pleasure. Yet, this God who has the power to create (and destroy) this entire universe by simply speaking a word, chooses to be concerned about my personal welfare on this earth, and my eternal security with Him. The next thing I knew, I found myself talking, though I was utterly alone. I was talking to God as if He were standing with me, for I certainly felt He was. I was thanking Him for the blessing of the life he breathed into me, praising Him for His awesome and unfathomable grace and considering His purpose for this tiny little person in light of His great purpose. I remember forcing back tears, recognizing that tears and freezing-cold mountaintops do not make a good combination. I left that mountaintop changed. I suddenly looked at my career from an entirely different perspective. Before leaving the slopes that day I spoke with my wife, and we made the decision to leave a military career that had already planned our future, and trade it to go back to college and head in any direction that we felt that God would lead us.
What happened on that mountain? The event certainly changed the direction of our lives. Some would call it an epiphany, others a theophany. Looking back now, after many years, I would call it something simpler: worship. When we truly see God for who He is and truly recognize ourselves for who we are, we cannot leave that experience unchanged. Worship is not about us; worship is entirely about God.
Since that experience on the mountain I have had the wonderful opportunity to serve the LORD and the Church for several years as a minister of music in churches in Oklahoma, New York, and North Carolina. In those churches, the minister of music also serves as the worship leader, and in that capacity I often found myself longing to see that same attitude of worship on the faces and in the hearts of those who were taking part in the services. What is it that keeps us from opening our hearts in worship? What is it that stands between us and our God who is worthy of all we have? The scriptures are filled with instructions, descriptions, and examples of worship. When Moses was about to send the children of Israel into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, he reminded them of the first four commandments that give instructions on the way we are to relate to the God who created us. In Chapters 12 and those following in the book of Deuteronomy we find Moses' commentary on those commandments as well as specific instructions for worship.
1. WORSHIP GOD TOGETHER
These are the statutes and judgments, which ye shall observe to do in the land, which the LORD God of thy fathers giveth thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. 2Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree: 3And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.
The statutes and judgments to which Moses refer were exposed in the previous chapter as he reviewed the commandments that God had given him on the mountain and carved into the tablets of stone. Knowing that the people would be distracted from their worship of Him, God's first command to the people upon entering the land was clear and firm: they were to utterly destroy all the instruments and places of Canaanite worship. To destroy the "names" of their gods means to utterly eliminate their influence among the people. We know that when Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan they did, indeed, execute a campaign of destruction in accordance with God's command. However, they stopped short of the command to destroy ALL of the Canaanites' places of worship, and as a result they soon tolerated pagan worship, and ultimately embraced it. God's plan was that His children would worship Him, and Him alone. However, given the choice, people will pay little heed to the God to whom they owe their very lives. We need help in order to come to God in worship. We can see in this command of God to the Jews that God would have us go to extremely great lengths to assure that our worship of Him is not distracted by the pagan things of this world. God told the Jews to destroy those distractions.
When I would be leading worship, the most common barrier to worship that I witnessed was distraction. What is it that distracts us from really focusing on God in worship. If worship is all about God, anything that we focus on other than Him is standing between us. It may be possible that the first thing that we bring into worship is ignorance: we do not even realize that we are distracted at all. When worshipping as a group we might be more concerned with the worship environment than the One we worship. The soprano in the choir might be off-key, or the person sitting next to us might not be dressed just right. We might be thinking more of events in our homes or jobs than we are in the presence of God. God knows that, as sincere as we might be, we will always be limited in our true worship of Him by distractions. Consequently, in His Word He has given us some guidance.
Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God.
To what does this verse refer? It seems almost out of place. God has just given instructions to the Jews to eliminate pagan worship throughout the land. Why would God need to remind them not to do so to Him? How could we ever be found guilty of destroying God's place of worship? One might think this would only refer to burning down churches, but when we pause and think of it, we might see more to this. We "burn down the church" when we destroy worship, and there are many ways that we can do this. We are instructed in 1 Thessalonians 5:19 to "Quench not the Holy Spirit." Though we do not have the power to invoke the Holy Spirit, we do have the power to quench Him. We can use our words and actions like a pail of water and put out the spark of faith that is experienced by others. Likewise, the moving of the Spirit in our own hearts, often represented as the "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12), can be overpowered by our own wants and desires, by our focus on authorities in our lives other than God. The words, shall not, indicate this as a command and not a suggestion. God has commanded us to be vigilant as we reject the pagan and faithless religions of this world, assuring that we do not reject our own call to worship.
But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come:
One way that we can get some help in focusing on God in our attempts to worship sincerely is to do so together. Consequently, it is not just a desire of God that we worship together; it is a command. God's command to the Israelites was, you shall seek, and you shall come. Certainly, my experience on that Alpine mountain was a valid and profitable worship experience even though it involved no other person than myself. However, by sharing that experience with other Christians, the church profits from it, and my own expression of worship then includes an accountability to others. We are all strengthened in the event. There are many obvious reasons why we should come together to worship. All of us are at different places in our "Christian walk" and we each experience events every day that impact it. By sharing our knowledge, our wisdom, and the events of our lives with one another, we take upon ourselves the knowledge, wisdom, and the experience of the whole. As each individual in the church expresses their unique gifts, each member of the body is blessed and encouraged. Some have gifts of teaching, and thereby teach others. Some have gifts of service, and by expressing that gift, others are served. The list goes on as far as the product of the gifts and the gift bearers can be multiplied. God knows the need that we have for corporate worship, so He commands it, leaving us little reason to avoid it.
This verse also taught the Jews that they were not to meet together in some arbitrary location, but at a central place that was to be chosen by God, and God alone. In those places they would be under the leadership of the priests and Levites who were appointed to maintain the temple and the truth of the scriptures. We must understand that the early Jews did not have the same relationship to the Holy Spirit or to God's Word that a Christian does today. Apart from the leadership of the temple, there was little normative truth to which the Jews could hold. When the leadership in the temple moved away from obedience to God's command, the entire community moved away with them, entering into the cycle of obedience and disobedience we see in the book of Joshua and Judges.
Some may argue that the Old-Testament use of God's command "shall" or "shall not" is not a relevant command for today since Christians are no longer under the Law, but under grace. The Church no longer is under the authority of the temple leadership. We may be reminded that Jesus did not come to destroy the Law, He came to fulfill it. When Jesus returned to the Father, He left the Holy Spirit to guide the heart of every believer, emancipating us from the Law and providing us with normative truth. The basic principles of the Law are entirely valid as God took that Law and through the power of the Holy Spirit, placed it into the heart of every believer. Consequently, we do not need to look up a verse in Deuteronomy to know that we should be active in our church fellowship. That still-small voice speaks to your heart and causes us to know that God has called us to worship Him together. That is why Jesus said that when two or more are gathered in His Name, He will be there. (Matt. 18:20) The writer of the book of Hebrews taught the same thing when he wrote,
Heb. 10:25. Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
Worshiping together is not an option, and yet, as we do so we must not be ignorant of the barriers that we bring into the worship experience that stand between us and true worship of God. God deserves everything that we are and everything that we have. When we are in the context of worship, we should not hold back...
2. WORSHIP GOD IN TITHES
Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year.
There are many scriptures that speak of God's command to make true, and joyful, sacrifice a part of our worship. Often teachers and preachers avoid addressing the issue of giving to the Kingdom work of the LORD because they often observe the total gifts to the church decrease after such an emphasis. Why does this happen? One would think that people would be reminded of God's purpose and command, yet in truth, such teaching often makes people upset, and they withhold giving, using arguments like, "The pastor just wants my money." What is wrong with this picture? The root of the problem is the critic's improper attitude towards worship. They perceive the command to tithe as coming from the Pastor and not from the LORD. Their worship is encumbered within the walls of the worship center, and their heart fails to reach to the heart of God. Consequently, the pastor finds himself in a dilemma. The people are not experiencing the joy of giving to God in the manner that He requires because of their own lack of understanding of what God requires, why He requires it, and what the blessing is that we receive when we give. However, he cannot address that misunderstanding without teaching, and when he teaches the people often reject the message and fail to give. Some pastors avoid this dilemma by trying to teach around the issue of tithes and offerings by teaching discipleship, for if Christians learn to be obedient disciples of the LORD, they will learn the truths of God's commands and, in sincerely seeking to follow them, they will spontaneously give what God requires. This is a strategy that can certainly bring people closer and closer to enjoying the blessings that come from being closer to God.
What is God's command concerning giving? In this verse, God is teaching the Jews that they are to bring to the temple, among other gifts, a tithe of the what they gain in the harvest. To the legalistic Jews this meant a literal tenth of their gain. Whether or not this requires of Christians a literal tenth is a subject of great debate. Many Christians will seta level of tithing at ten percent of their income as a personal goal. For others this may be too much to handle at their place in their Christian "walk." My wife and I committed to the tithe many years ago by setting aside a minimum of about 3%, and as we grew in our faith, that amount grew as we saw the blessings that came from our involvement in God's work. This is a giving strategy that many can use to reach a goal that is appropriate to the giver. The appropriate level of giving is probably that level that the mature Christian feels a peace with when that gift is measured against God's Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always.
The Ancient Jews place far more significance in the act of eating than most of modern society. Their manner of eating was tightly interwoven with the traditions of their faith. When the people would come to the temple to worship, they would often travel long distances and stay for extended periods. They would take their meals in the homes of families and friends, and in the temple facilities. We can see from these verses that the substance of those meals shared in the temple facilities came from their tithes. We see in other scriptures that, since the people did not consume a tenth of their year's harvest during their visit, the tithe was also used to support the tribe of Levi who had no land and were commissioned to serve in the temple. Their tithes of food were also shared with the poor and needy. Providing for the Levites, the costs of Temple operations, and benevolence for the poor was a part of the work that was done in the temple, just as there are often many ministries that we do through our local churches. For those ministries to succeed, the people of the church must give, and can do so not out of obligation (though the obligation exists), but out of the joy of seeing God work through it.
I am reminded of a tradition that was held when my family were members of Berclair Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Wednesday night's church activities were preceded by a church-wide supper, enabling people to come and take part without having to spend the time to prepare, consume, and clean up dinner prior to coming to church. It became a wonderful time of fellowship, and one of the best vehicles through which the wide range of individual groups in our church community came to know each other. Little did we realize that we were participating in an event that was commanded of God, and were doing so in a manner consistent with that command. Whether the dinners were provided through donations of money or pot-luck donations of food, we were participating in an event that is described in Deut. 14:23 as we were in the sanctuary of God sharing a part of that tithe with one another, praising God, and preparing for worship and other church-wide activities.
And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the LORD thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the LORD thy God hath blessed thee: 25Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose.
Again, people often traveled a long way to participate in temple activities. In addition to the temple in Jerusalem, (actually Shiloh after the Jews crossed the Jordan River), there were temples and synagogues centrally located within the domains of each of the tribes of Israel. To bring the harvest such a distance would be difficult and impractical. When this was the case, God commanded His children to sell the tithe for cash, and bring that. Once brought, that money could be used to purchase the products of a similar local harvest that could be sacrificed, or given to God, at the temple. This became the primary way that gifts were brought to the temple. Because of the relationship between the purchase of the sacrifices and their use in the temple, the sellers of the sacrifice were located close to the temple walls. Soon the sellers moved into the temple into the court of the Gentiles, and ultimately filled the court to the point that Gentiles could not worship there. When the Romans conquered the land, the Jews held that Roman money could not be used to purchase the sacrifices, requiring its exchange for temple currency at highly inflated exchange rates. This set the stage for Jesus' cleansing of the temple when He chased the moneychangers out.
Today's society no longer consists primarily of farmers. For most church members, the product of their harvest is the money made through gainful employment. Consequently, when we bring our tithes of income into the sanctuary of the LORD, we are being obedient to God's command. Through those tithes, when added to the time and other properties that are given by church members, the work of the church can be accomplished. Just as the early Jews brought their tithe to support the Levites, the poor, and the needy, the gifts we bring support the work of the church. It is quite evident that the ministries that can be accomplished by the church are limited only by the gifts of time, property, and money that people bring. When these are provided, people can exercise their gifts in the ministry, and the work can be done.
If this is true, we can better understand how God can use our gifts to the church to empower His ministry in it. When we understand this, the context of the gift changes from an obligation to a joy in seeing the work of God accomplished through it. Certainly we often realize that joy in very concrete ways. When my wife and I have discussed our desire to take part in foreign mission trips, the church stepped in quickly and supported our desire to go by covering almost all of the costs. That way our ministry was shared by everyone, and all were blessed.
3. WORSHIP GOD IN TESTIMONY
Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God: for in the month of Abib the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night. 2Thou shalt therefore sacrifice the passover unto the LORD thy God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the LORD shall choose to place his name there. 3Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.
It is God's plan that we worship together, and it is God's plan that we give to the work of the church so that such ministry can be accomplished. God also commands that we make a regular and conscious effort to remember what God has done for us. The ancient Jews looked back to what God had done for them. Their experience as a nation started in Egypt when Joseph and his eleven brothers, sons of Israel, were granted land by the Pharaoh of Egypt. God used this period as an incubator within which the nation of Israel grew. As the nation grew, it was isolated from the rival tribe of Ishmael and their pagan worship practices. The nation also grew to the point that the Pharaoh saw them as a threat, and enslaved them. As the nation was now suffering under the weight of the bondage, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to bring his nation to the Promised Land, and did so in a mighty way. For this the Jews were thankful, and were commanded to never forget what God had done. They were commanded to remember the Passover as representative of that saving act of God.
Christians look back to a similar and just as significant act of God. Just as God saved the Jews from the bondage of slavery to the Pharaoh He has saved Christians from their bondage to sin, and its eternal consequences. For that we should be continually thankful. Just as the Jews were faithful in celebrating the Passover as a reminder of their salvation, we also remember what God did for us when Jesus died on the cross. We celebrate Easter as a reminder of what God has done for us, and for many Christians, this is the most spiritually meaningful time of the year. Just as the Jews were commanded to remember the events through the eating of unleavened bread, we have the written scriptures to serve as reminders of what God did for us when He delivered us from bondage to sin.
What does the reminder of our salvation from sin have to do with worship? When we have a full understanding of the the grace and love of God on our own behalf, a grace that has saved us from an eternal separation from God that we truly deserve, we find ourselves in a position to do nothing other than worship God in a manner for which He is worthy.
In these verses we find God's instruction concerning worship. Most of us probably could enter the sanctuary of the LORD and do a far better job of honoring God in our worship than we currently do. For some, the church experience is a low priority, resulting in sporadic attendance or no attendance at all. For many the church experience has been reduced from the context for the worship of God to that of a social club. Many churches today are simply secular social clubs with a Christian theme. There is much to be learned and understood by these who do not take part in the corporate worship experience.
As we look back we probably have chosen to disobey God by staying away from the sanctuary when others in our Christian fellowship were meeting together. We may have fallen short on our giving to the work of the church, and by so doing have hampered its ministry. Furthermore we may have not given God the continual adoration that He deserves because of what He has done for us.
One of my favorite contemporary Christian singing groups is the male trio of Phillips, Craig, and Dean. Their album, Let My Words Be Few, is an expression of their commitment to honor God in worship through their music, turning from any pop- or self-centered purpose to a God-centered ministry. On that album is a song entitled, "The Heart of Worship," and upon hearing it the first time, I was particularly blessed as I considered its message. The song speaks of a sincere repentance of using worship as a self-centered act and returning to God-centered worship, because as they state, worship is all about Jesus, not about ourselves. A few words are quoted here:
"I'm coming back to the heart of worship. And it's all about you, it's all about you, Jesus. I'm sorry, LORD, for the thing that I made it, when it's all about you. It's all about you, Jesus." (Phillips, Craig, & Dean. The Heart of Worship.)
It's time we came back to the heart of worship: Jesus.