When Worship Has Lost Its Worth
May 23, 1993
Perhaps it only happens in a pastor’s family, but when our boys were younger, they used to play church. When we lived in Texas we had a cast-iron stand by the fireplace that held the fireplace tools—the pitchfork, the broom and the shovel. Joshua would take the stand down and use it as a pulpit.
He would preach up a storm … and then burst out laughing. It was frightening because even though he was only four years old, he sounded just like me. It was even more amazing because at that age he had hardly ever heard me preach.
Long before they started school, my boys knew how to pray, how to preach, how to sing, and even how to take up the offering. It’s amazing how easy it is to learn the religious rituals. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget. In fact it’s hard for us to remember how scary it was the first time we came to church.
“Would You Stand Please?”
But things are different now. Most of us know how to pray long prayers that begin “Dear Heavenly Father” and end “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” We know the books of the Bible. We know how to clap, smile, say Amen, cry tears of joy, hug another person, and most of us know how to give a holy kiss. We know how to give a testimony, how to pray out loud, how to stand or kneel or sit quietly. We know how to hold the bread and the cup until everyone has been served, to hold our breath while being baptized, how to dedicate our children, how to write a check twice a month to the church. We know where to find WMBI on the radio dial. Names like Dobson, Swindoll, MacArthur, Jeremiah, Stanley and Pastor Cole are familiar to us. We know the words to “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Give Me Oil In My Lamp,” “Every Day With Jesus Is Sweeter Than the Day Before,” “He is Lord,” “Glorify Thy Name,” “Majesty,” and that all-time favorite “Kum Ba Yah.” Most of us sit in the same seat week after week, month after month, year after year. We know that we normally stand for the first hymn and sit for the second one. We know that when Bill Miller says, “Would you stand please?” the service is almost over. We know that the pastor normally walks down the east aisle before the service and walks out the west aisle with his wife at the end of the service.
It’s amazing how easy it is to learn all those things. All you have to do is come to church for two or three Sundays and you’ve got the routine down cold. That’s what makes playing church so much fun. Anyone can do it.
Ann Ortlund writes these perceptive words:
When I was little we used to play church. We’d get the chairs into rows, fight over who’d be preacher, vigorously lead the hymn singing, and generally have a great carnal time.
The aggressive kids naturally wanted to be up front, directing or preaching. The quieter ones were content to sit and be entertained by the up-fronters.
Occasionally we’d be mesmerized by a true sensationalistic crowd-swayer—like the girl who said, “Boo! I’m the Holy Ghost!” But in general, if the up-fronters were pretty good they could hold their audience quite a while. If they weren’t so good, eventually the kids would drift off to play something else—like jump rope or jumping jacks.
Now that generation has grown up, but most of them haven’t changed too much. Every Sunday they still play church. They line up in rows for the entertainment. If it’s pretty good, their church may grow. If it’s too hot, they eventually drift off to play something else—like yachting or wife swapping. (Up With Worship, p. 10)
That’s the problem, isn’t it? Playing church can get boring. You learn the routine, you do the same thing every Sunday. After awhile, it’s not very exciting anymore, so you drift off to find more stimulating pursuits.
The Only Lasting Cure
There is one cure and one cure only: Discover the reality of worship! If the power of worship ever becomes a reality in your life, you will never play church again.
That’s what this whole sermon series is all about. We want to rediscover what biblical worship is—not just the dictionary definition, but the awesome reality of meeting the living God when we come together on Sunday morning.
Along the way, we’ve discovered that in order for you to meet God on Sunday morning, worship must become a way of life for you. As long as you partition worship into a carefully planned 75-minute slot between 9:00 and 10:15 a.m. or between 10:45 and 12:00 noon, you’ll end up simply playing church most of the time.
Since this is the last message in this series, let me remind you one more time that to worship means “to give honor to someone or something.” When we worship God in the biblical sense we give him the honor and praise which is rightly his!
The heart of biblical worship, then, is a shift in focus from you and your concerns to God and his concerns. That’s where the ritual comes in. It points you toward God and away from yourself. It directs the mind and emotion upward toward heaven. The ritual itself makes no difference. It doesn’t matter whether you clap or not, whether you stand or sit or kneel, whether you say a prepared prayer or whether you pray spontaneously. The ritual is only important as it leads you to focus on God.
Audience or Performers?
That leads me to an important observation: Ritual by itself is neutral—neither good nor bad. The very thing that may be part of playing church is also a crucial help in worshiping God. We’ve already discussed Kierkegaard’s distinction between the traditional view in which the pastor is the leader and the congregation is the audience. That view leads us to ask a very me-oriented question: “What did I get out of the service?” By contrast, the biblical view stresses the fact that worship is actually “ministering to God.” In that scenario, the pastor and the other leaders are prompters, the congregation is the performer and God is the audience. That view leads us to a radically different question: “How well did I do today?” and “Was God pleased with my worship this morning?”
When you play church, you just go through the motions for your own benefit. But when you worship God, you offer him the best that you have.
A Man Called Malachi
With all that as background, we turn to the book of Malachi. When we do, we find that “playing church” is not a new problem.” Malachi was an Old Testament prophet who wrote at the very end of the Old Testament period—about 430 years before the birth of Christ. As God’s final spokesman, his words ring with a “peculiar solemnity.”
By this time the Jews have been back in the land for over a hundred years. The Temple has been rebuilt and the worship of God re-established. Outwardly the nation flourishes; inwardly a cancer eats away at the soul of the Jewish people. It is the cancer of complacency. God speaks through Malachi to his disobedient, cold, uncaring people calling them back to serious worship. In fact, the book takes the form of a dialogue in which God speaks and the people answer him back. It has the tone of an impatient teacher or an aggressive lawyer arguing his case.
I. Malachi’s Charge 1:6
We pick up the story in 1:6 where God says, “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the Lord Almighty.” Then he adds these sobering words, “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.”
A father … but no honor. A master … but no respect. And the guilty party? The priests! Of all people, they should know better! The priests were set aside to honor God. They were “professional worshipers.” How could they not honor God?
So the Lord gives two pointed examples:
1. They were offering defiled food (1:7).
2. They were offering inferior sacrifices (1:8).
“When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong?” This point deserves a little explanation. In Leviticus 22 God specifically instructs his people that they are not to bring God animals for sacrifice that were blemished in any way. You couldn’t bring the blind or the maimed or the injured or the deformed. They couldn’t have warts or running sores.
Why? Because God deserves the best!
Giving the Junk to God!
It’s easy to understand what was happening. Say a man has 50 lambs in his flock, of which ten were excellent, 35 were good, and five were blemished somehow. Now he knows that those five blemished animals won’t bring him much money on the open market. So what does he do? He uses those five blemished animals as his offering to God. What does it matter if they are lame or sick or covered with sores? It’s still an offering. It’s like killing two birds with one stone—he gets rid of his blemished animals and he still meets his obligations to bring a sacrifice to God.
There’s only one problem. God knows exactly what this man is doing. He’s keeping the best for himself and he’s giving his junk to God. Notice what God says about this: “Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” (1:9). God is saying, “You’re treating me worse than you treat your own government. Why don’t you try giving these blemished animals to the governor and see what he does?”
What’s behind all this? They thought God didn’t care! “Well, he’ll be glad to get anything at all.” These were middle-class people who had rebuilt the land with their own hands. They faced high taxes, they had bills to pay, they didn’t have a lot of money, so they tried to cut corners anywhere they could.
Behind it all was a flippant attitude toward God. Write it down, please. A flippant attitude toward worship comes from a flippant attitude toward God. Some people may have a problem with that concept. You may tend to think that external things don’t matter where worship is concerned. You may say, “It doesn’t matter as long as my heart is sincere.” But whatever is in your heart will show up in the way you live. The whole problem in Malachi was that the people were flippant on the inside so they brought God blemished sacrifices on the outside!
Externals Do Matter!
We tend to say, “It makes no difference.” But we are wrong! God is saying the way you worship makes a difference. The externals matter. You cannot say, “I worship God with all my heart,” and yet be sloppy and indifferent. Why? Because the outward reveals the inward!
Please understand. There is no merit involved in the outward way we worship. But our outward actions reveal our respect and love for God … or the lack of the same.
These outward things we do in church matter to God. They are symbols of how we feel about God. To treat the symbol lightly is to treat God lightly!
Our text makes a further point. The people were guilty of deliberate sin. Bringing blemished animals was not an oversight or a slip-up. They did it on purpose! The priests despised their work and the people brought cheap offerings because they wanted a cut-rate religion.
But God is clear on this point: He will not accept cut-rate religion!
1. Such worship is useless (1:10).
2. Such worship is spiritual profanity (1:12).
They light fires before the Lord, but the fires are “useless.” They treat the Lord’s table with contempt. They say, “Serving God is such a burden.” And God says, “I will accept no offering from your hands!”
II. The Root Issue 1:13-14
Finally, we come to the root issue. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord.” No wonder the Lord is angry. You promised to give him your best, but then you gave him your worst. You promised to serve him forever, but now you’re going back on your word. You sang, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to Thee, take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” But now you’ve changed your mind. You promised to serve Jesus Christ in his church, but when the call comes for Sunday School workers, you sit on your hands. You said, “I’ll be an usher,” but when Sunday rolls around, you’re nowhere to be found. You said, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe,” but you pay every other bill first and if you have anything left over, you give something to God. You said, “I’ll help out anywhere I’m needed,” but you didn’t really mean it. You promised to be a living sacrifice, but now you’re trying to crawl off the altar.
No wonder the Lord is angry! No wonder your worship is boring! No wonder you just go through the motions every Sunday. Your heart isn’t in it.
Worship that Costs Nothing Is Worth Nothing!
Please write this down: Worship that costs nothing is worth nothing! Too many of us have an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward our religion. In Malachi’s day the people were bored with worship. So they brought cheap sacrifices, blemished animals, lambs covered with running sores, blind lambs, lambs that no respectable shopkeeper would accept. They brought animals to God that they would never dare give in payment of their taxes. God calls them cheats and swindlers!
What would he say about some of us? What would he say about me? What would he say about you?
Ravi Zacharias said it this way, “When man is bored with God even heaven does not have a better alternative.” If God bores you, then nothing else will satisfy. Nothing heaven can offer will meet your need if you are bored with God!
These ancient words speak to a very modern temptation. They touch three areas of our lackadaisical approach to worship:
A. Inadequate Preparation
This touches what happens before the service begins. Did you ever wonder why the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown? Because the preparation for worship begins the night before! In the same way, your preparation for worship begins on Saturday night. Or that’s the way it should be. How many of you took time last night preparing yourself for Sunday worship? You can’t do that if every Saturday night you stay out late. Maybe that’s why you come late on Sunday morning in a bad mood with the jagged edges of your soul exposed to the world.
Suppose you knew that next Friday you were going to meet the president of the United States. You’d start preparing right now, buying new shoes, taking your suit to the cleaners, getting your hair done, practicing your greeting. You’d spend Thursday night getting ready and you’d get up early on Friday so you wouldn’t be late. After all, it’s not every day that you meet the president. The dignity of the office would cause you to act with utmost respect.
How, then, do we take Sunday so lightly? We are not coming here to meet some earthly ruler. We are coming here to meet the Lord of the universe! That’s what Malachi 1:14 says, “‘For I am a great king,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and my name is to be feared among the nations.’”
B. Half-Hearted Participation
This speaks to what we do when we finally get to church. We sing, pray, we sing again, we sit in silence, we read the Bible, we listen to the sermon, we listen to the choir, we pass the plate, we stand for the benediction, and then we leave. Because we know what’s going to happen, we tend to go through the motions, play our role, look religious, all the while we’re watching the clock, fidgeting, worrying about our problems at work, wondering how we’ll handle the coming week.
Would you like a suggestion that could revolutionize your worship time? Before you begin, take a moment to say five simple words: “Lord, speak to me today.” That’s a prayer God delights to answer. As the saying goes, “God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear.”
C. Improper Motivation
This touches the reason for coming to church. Do you come to get something for yourself or do you come because you have an appointment with God? Your answer makes a world of difference. It’s the difference between “Did this service help me?” versus “Did I meet God today?”
Strange though it may seem, the surest way to get help for your problems is to lift your eyes off your problems and lift them onto Jesus Christ. When your eyes are on him, your problems can be transformed by the grace of God. When true worship takes place, your problems suddenly assume a new proportion. Worship may not make your problems disappear, but it will cause you to look at your problems in a brand-new light. Once you meet with the King of Kings, your trials won’t seem so overwhelming.
III. An Eternal Solution 1:14
If worship is boring it is because we are bored with God! This is our root problem. The eternal solution is to get a new view of God.
Someone has truly said that we
Worship at our work,
Work at our play, and
Play at our worship.
No wonder we are unhappy! No wonder we are unfulfilled! No wonder life seems empty!
Go back and read Malachi 1 again. Look how God describes himself:
“I am a great king” (1:14). If that thought ever grips you, you won’t play at worship anymore.
Eight times he calls himself “the Lord Almighty.”
Six times he refers to the “name” of the Lord.
Our hymns refer again and again to this truth:
“O worship the King, all glorious above.”
“Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.”
“Come Thou Almighty King, help us Thy name to sing.”
That’s why worship is important. That’s why how we worship is important. This is truth that turns ritual into reality!
We have come to meet the king of the universe. He demands the very best we can offer! He will accept nothing less.
Flatlanders and Highlanders
Someone has said that there are two kinds of worshipers: Flatlanders and Highlanders.
Â§ Flatlanders live in only two dimensions. They are well-versed in the faith, they know the lay of the land. They know the routine … and they love it. The only problem is, they are living in the horizontal realm. They don’t know there is an “UP” to life.
Â§ Highlanders are simply Flatlanders who have discovered worship! They are constantly pushing up, up, up to experience God!
God is calling Calvary Memorial Church to become a church of Highlander Christians. He’s calling us to push up and out of the routine to know him!
That’s the only lasting solution—to know God and what he has done for us!
One Night in Paris
The Archbishop of Paris told the following true story. He said that one night many years ago three young men set out to sample all the sinful delights of Paris. For hours they consumed themselves in every possible pleasure, holding back nothing, sampling everything, indulging their wildest fantasies.
At length they came to the early morning hours and found themselves lounging on the steps of a great cathedral recounting their exploits. Suddenly a strange idea hit one of them. Why not go inside, find a confessional, and “confess” to the priest all they had done? They meant it as a blasphemous joke, the ultimate insult after a night spent in sin. It would be their crowning glory.
So, fortified with the laughter of his friends, one young man volunteered to go see the priest. He entered the confessional and began to confess his sins—loudly, one by one, in long, lurid detail. As he did, his friends outside began to laugh.
“I Know All that You Did for Me and I Don’t Give a Damn.”
The priest realized what was happening, interrupted the young man, and said, “Young man, I have heard enough. You needn’t confess anything else. If you would like to be forgiven for all your sins, you only need to do one thing. Outside the confessional is the chancel, and in the chancel is a statue of Christ on the Cross. Simply go to the chancel, kneel down, look at Christ on the Cross and say these words, ‘Lord Jesus, I know all you have done for me, and I don’t give a damn.’”
Even in his intoxication the young man was shocked. So the priest repeated his instructions. “You can be forgiven if you will look at the Cross and say, ‘Lord Jesus, I know all that you have done for me, and I don’t give a damn.’”
Sobered now, the young man stepped unsteadily out of the confessional. His friends had not heard the priest’s words, so they wondered what was wrong with him.
Saying nothing, he walked to the chancel, knelt before the Cross, looked up at the dying Christ and said these words, “Lord Jesus, I know all that you have done for me … and I ask you to forgive my sins.”
When the Archbishop of Paris told that story, he ended it with these words: “I know that story is true, because I was that young man.”
It all comes down to this. If you ever get a glimpse of what Jesus has done for you, you’ll never play church again.
The hymn writer said it well:
What language can I borrow,
To thank Thee, dearest Friend?
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end.
O make me Thine forever,
And should I fainting be
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.
IV. A Pertinent Application 3:6-12
As you read on in Malachi, it’s amazing how practical he becomes. He speaks first of blemished sacrifices (1:6-14). Then he discusses unfaithful priests (2:1-9). Then he addresses easy divorce (2:10-17). Then he excoriates businessmen who defraud their workers, cheat their customers and take advantage of widows, orphans and aliens (3:1-5). All these things happen when worship has lost its worth. They happen when we become bored with God!
We might not expect his final example: Robbing God. But there it is in 3:6-12. They were robbing God in their giving. Specifically, they were robbing God in their tithes and offerings!
But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Giving money is the ultimate act of worship because when you give money, you are giving your very life away!
God’s people were robbing him. How? By withholding their tithes, by giving the worst instead of the best, by giving the least and not the most. Their attitude was, “How little can I give and still keep God happy?”
God’s advice strikes home to my heart. When I am tempted to be miserly, he says, “Put me to the test and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven.” When I think, “The house payment must come first,” God says, “I am a great king. Put me first and I will bless you so much that you will not be able to contain it all.” When I think, “What’s the least I can give?” God says, “I gave my Son for you. That’s the best I had to give. What will you give to me?”
“This I did for Thee. What hast thou done for me?”
We’ve got God all wrong. He’s not half as mean as we think he is. So many Christians live as if God were some kind of angry deity in the sky just looking for a chance to zap us with lightning. So we hold back, we hoard, we try to get by with the least possible gift. We try to “buy God off” with our giving.
And God says, “My child, I love you more than you will ever know. I love you more than you love yourself. All my thoughts toward you are good. I gave my only Son to die for you. What else can I do to prove my love?”
We rob God because we fear him.
He invites us to give because he wants to bless us.
Tithing is Based on Grace!
Someone said it this way: “I shovel it out and God shovels it right back in. And God’s got a bigger shovel.” Exactly! That’s what God is saying in Malachi 3.
Not a threat, but a promise.
Not intimidation but an appeal based on love.
You can’t outgive God. That’s what tithing is all about. It’s based on the grace of God who longs to bless your socks off!
The application is simple. Have you experienced the joy of tithing? Or are you still trying to “rob God” by giving as little as you can?
Some people say, “Tithing is law and we’re under grace.” But tithing is based on the grace of God because no matter how much you give, you can’t outgive God. But the people who try to give as little as they can, they’re the ones living under law because they’ve never discovered what grace is all about!
The 100-Day Tithing Challenge
I am asking you in Jesus’ name to take a step of faith and experience God’s grace this summer in a way you’ve never done before. I’m asking you to take the “100-Day Tithing Challenge.” The idea is very simple: You agree to give 1/10 of your income this summer to the Lord. That’s it. That’s the whole challenge.
Some of you travel. Fine. We’re not asking you to give all your money through Calvary Memorial Church. Give wherever you are this summer. That means if you are a college student and are going home for the summer, you can still take the challenge. That means if you spend a few weeks in Michigan or Minnesota or Wisconsin, you can still take the challenge.
Today we’re asking our teenagers and our children to take the challenge as well. What a difference it will make if our children discover the joy of giving early in life. Some of them will learn a habit that will still be blessing them 50 years from now.
Put God to the Test This Summer!
That’s it. You agree to tithe this summer. The 100 days refers to the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Give wherever you go. Put God to the test in 1993 and see if he will not pour out his blessings upon you.
Don’t worry, no one will put any pressure on you. We won’t check your giving records. Your word is good enough for us. And if you want to stop tithing after Labor Day … that’s between you and the Lord. We won’t know because we won’t ask!
But we’re not worried because we’re betting that once you start tithing, you won’t want to stop. We’re believing God for an outpouring of blessing in your life in ways you’ve never experienced before.
God says, “Put me to the test.”
If you are tired of playing church, if you want more out of your worship, then go ahead, put God to the test and see if he will not open the floodgates of heaven.
The question is simple … and very personal:
Are you ready to take the challenge?
Lord, for too long we have lived as if you did not exist. For too long we have simply been going through the motions. Forgive us, Lord. The fault is ours, not yours, because you told us long ago that we could put you to the test. Thank you for being a God of grace. Thank you for always being there when we need a new beginning. As we open our hearts to you, may your love overcome our fear and your grace our hesitation. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.