Hebrews 12:28-29

January 9, 2011 | Brian Bill

How many of you participated in “White Elephant” gift exchanges over Christmas?  The background to this crazy tradition comes from ancient Asia, where white elephants were the ultimate pampered pets.  Because they were humungous and many thought they were holy, no expense was spared in caring for them.  Unfortunately, to receive one of these pretty pets would wipe out most people because they couldn’t afford to keep it alive.  Over time, these albino elephants came to symbolize a prized possession whose maintenance exceeded its worth.  

There are often three words associated with a white elephant gift today – it’s usually useless, unusual and amusing.  In light of that, what white elephant gift did you receive that you’re going to re-gift next year?

My favorite gift came from one of my Cheesehead relatives.  It’s a paperback book with a very provocative title: “What Men Understand about Women: A Radical Peek inside the Minds of Men.”  I was eager to learn about this topic so I quickly opened it up and discovered quickly why it qualified as a White Elephant gift.  As I thumbed through the pages, I noticed that every page was blank!  This book is not only blank, but I see a lot of blank stares in the congregation, especially from men right about now.  Incidentally, during a conversation Friday night, one of the women in our home made this statement to me: “With four sisters you should know what a woman wants to hear.”  I agreed and said that sometimes I need a push.  To which my daughter replied, “Sometimes even a push isn’t enough!”

Something happened this week in our nation’s capital that I don’t think has ever taken place before.  Do you know what it was?  The U.S. House of Representatives opened their 2011 session by reading the entire United States Constitution out loud.  It took them over two hours to do so.  Why did they do this?  Because when it comes to governing our great nation, it’s crucial to go back and read the original document.

I want to propose today that if you and I are going to learn how to develop the discipline of worship in our “Getting Fit” series we must go back to the Book.  And thankfully, this book is not blank.  Speaking of that, how are you doing in your Bible reading so far?  If you’ve already missed a few days, that’s ok.  Just get back in the saddle and jump in the Scriptures this week. 

Reverent Worship

The way we use words is interesting to me.  Each generation seems to have its own lingo.  When I was in high school we used words like, hip, cool, far-out, out-of-sight, rad, and groovy  — I’ve tried to bring groovy back but whenever I use it, people just stare at me and think I’m out to lunch – maybe I need to wear my Leisure Suit and start listening to 8-Tracks again!  

Words express a common understanding, and phrases serve as code words, or shortcuts.  LOL, TTYL, and BRB have become part of everyday conversation.  I read yesterday that the #1 word for 2010 was “App.”  I try to keep up with what young people are saying today but I recognize that I’m losing the “cool” factor the older I get.  Beth says I lost it a long time ago.

The word “awesome” got a lot of air time when I was young and it still does today.  It can refer to the weather, a meal, a car, a song, a concert, or most often a football team from God’s Country.  If we think about this word, it should be used to describe only God because He is the only one I should stand in awe of.  

One way “awe” can be translated is fear.  To be filled with awe means to be overwhelmed with a reverential fear before the presence of the Almighty.  The word conveys a sense of holy terror.  It’s what should happen when we come into the very presence of the Thrice-Holy God.  

Listen to how Chuck Colson describes the contrast between first century believers and believers today.  This is from his book, The Body “…We need to know what our predecessors in less sophisticated times knew.  We need to know the fear of the Lord — the overwhelming, compelling awe and reverence of a holy God.  We can feel that awe pulsating through the book of Acts…so filled were they with this awe that they could face a hostile world with holy abandon.  Nothing else mattered, not even their lives.”

  • Acts 2:43: “Everyone was filled with awe…”  This can also be translated: “Everyone kept on feeling a sense of awe.”
  • Acts 5:11 says, Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
  • Acts 9:31: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace.  It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”  
  • Acts 19:17.  After some unbelievers tried to use the name of Jesus when casting out demons, and were beaten up in the process, the church had another dose of the fear of the Lord injected into their bloodstream: “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the NAME OF THE LORD JESUS WAS HELD IN HIGH HONOR.”

Let me ask you a question.  Do you hold the name of Jesus in high honor?  When you contemplate God, what comes to your mind?  When you think about God, are you in awe of Him or do you start yawning?  It was A.W. Tozer who said that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Friends, if we viewed God with awe and with holy fear, we would respond as the Apostle John did when he came face to face with the Almighty in Revelation 1:17: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet, as though dead.”

Results of Not Revering

I can think of at least two results that take place when we don’t revere God.  

1. We will backslide.

When we stop thinking correctly about God we will stop honoring Him with our lives.  Jeremiah 2:19: “Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you.  Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me, declares the Lord the Lord Almighty.”

2. We will sin more often.

When you no longer fear God, there is nothing to keep you from sinning

Sin will start to look good to us when we no longer stand in awe of God.  When you no longer fear God, there is nothing to keep you from sinning.  Psalm 36:1: “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  Exodus 20:20 turns this around by showing that when we fear God we will sin less: “God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” 

Twin Peaks of Praise

Because this book is full of ways to worship, it’s difficult to summarize our topic in one sermon but there is one Scripture passage in Hebrews 12 that pulls some praise principles together.  The book of Hebrews contains five different warnings to new believers to not bail on God or go back to the way they used to live.  This chapter contains the final warning and in the process we’re helped in our understanding of the way to worship today.  

In verses 18-21, we’re brought back to Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where the Old Covenant was ratified: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’”  To fill in some of the details, go back and read Exodus 19.  Let me just point out that when Moses said he was trembling, it means that he was “intensely afraid and full of fear.”  The message of this mountain is, “Keep Away!”

When I was growing up I always thought that God was big and holy…and mad at me because I was bad.  As a result I didn’t really want to get close to Him.

Did you hear about all the birds and fish that died recently in Arkansas?  Apparently a bunch of birds also died in Louisiana and late last week I read that thousands of fish have died in Florida.  Experts were initially dumbfounded by this mass extermination.  They now think that there was a loud sound like firecrackers or something else that startled them.  The Cable News Channels reported on this breathlessly, with CNN even wondering if the Apocalypse was approaching.  Whatever it was, it caused fear and panic.  That’s what Mount Sinai was like.

In verses 22-24, we’re told to instead focus on Mount Zion, the setting for the New Covenant, “…the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” where God’s grace was poured out when Jesus’ blood was spilled out: “To Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  Zion is another name for Jerusalem, where Jesus gave his life.  The message of this mountain is “Come close!”

Let’s see if we can demonstrate these “mountain metaphors” by imagining Mount Sinai on one side of the stage and Mount Zion on the other.  

Mount Sinai Mount Zion

Exodus 19 John 4

Old Covenant New Covenant

Glory Grace

Inaccessible Accessible

Fear Friendship

Reverence Rejoicing

We need to avoid anchoring our lives to that which is ultimately transitory.  God has a way of refining us so that we don’t waste our lives chasing what will not last anyway.  There’s a shakedown coming. Listen to verses 26-27: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’   The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” 

By the way, if you want to know what lasts, you don’t have to look much further than God’s Word and people.  That’s why we’re talking so much about living our faith out at home.  Parents, let’s make sure we’re taking God’s Word and instilling it in our children.

Hebrews 12:28-29 says “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and AWE, for our God is a consuming fire.”  Do you see the twin peaks of praise once again?  Thankful rejoicing and awe-inspiring reverence.  The word “awe” is used of an apprehension of danger, as when alone in a deep, dark forest.  I want to point out that God is a consuming fire.  He is today and He will be tomorrow.  He is also our God.  He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  

If you haven’t visited Sinai, take the journey, but make it quick…then start your trip to Zion today!  Here’s the ultimate message.  Worship God in a way that is pleasing to Him by believing in the work and person of his Son or be consumed by the fire of His fearsome holiness.

Where are you living today?  Are you camped out on Mount Sinai, trying to earn acceptance with a holy God by keeping His laws?  Good luck with that.  If you are, you’ll live in terror because it is impossible to meet the demands of his holiness.  If you’ve trusted Christ, then you’re anchored to Mount Zion.  The challenge now is to stay focused on what Christ has done for you and worship Him acceptably with reverence and awe.

F.F. Bruce made this statement to summarize Hebrews 12: “Reverence and awe before His holiness are not incompatible with grateful trust and love in response to His mercy.”  Hebrews 4:16 tells us to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence and Hebrews 12:29 reminds us that He is a consuming fire.

Rejoicing Worship

Our corporate worship must first of all be reverent. Second, worship is to be rejoicing.  Let’s look back at Acts 2:43, “Everyone was filled with awe” [that’s reverent worship].  Now drop down to verses 46-47: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” [that’s rejoicing worship].  The Greek word translated joy indicates an exuberant, overflowing rejoicing, a joy that simply has to be expressed.

These believers couldn’t wait to get together to worship corporately – a sense of expectancy filled their services.  I wonder if we have that same sense of excitement and joy as we approach the Almighty.

In a major study that was published in Leadership Journal, the authors discovered that of the 75 million Americans who attend church on a weekly basis, less than 1/3 say that they sense God’s presence there.  That makes me sad – and it no doubt grieves God.  It was Vance Havner who said that too many services start at 11:00 sharp and end at 12:00 dull.  This is so far removed from Psalm 16:11 which says, “In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  Here are a few more statements of joy in the Psalms:

  • Psalm 33:1-3: “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music on the ten-stringed lyre.  Sing to him a new song; play skillfully and shout for joy.”
  • Psalm 47:1: “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.”
  • Psalm 71:23: “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you –I, whom you have redeemed.”
  • Psalm 98:4: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…”

God wants us to be jubilant in our worship!  Believe it or not, it’s possible to have both reverent and rejoicing hearts.  I love Psalm 66:1-2 because it shows that our gladness is to spring out of God’s gloriousness: “Shout with joy to God, all the earth!  Sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious!  Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!’”  Did you catch it?  We are to shout with joy because He is awesome; our rejoicing is to flow out of our reverence.  Psalm 2:11: “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.” 

In my Bible reading this week, I came across Psalm 5.  Check out verse 7: “In reverence will I bow down…” and verse 11: “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy…that those who love your name may rejoice in you.”

We are to be involved in revering worship by seeing God as awesome.  We are to be involved in rejoicing worship by praising Him with hearts filled with joy and gladness.  Now, let’s talk about the third aspect of worship – let’s call it rethinking worship.

Rethinking Worship

When we hear the word worship it’s easy for us to think only of what happens here on Sunday morning.  And, when we think of Sunday morning, many of us think worship is what takes place when we sing songs.  First of all, everything that takes place when we meet together is worship.  The prayers, the praises, and the preaching are all elements of worship.  

Second, worship is not something done to us, or even for us, but by us.  Corporate worship, properly understood is active, not passive.  We shouldn’t evaluate a service based upon the quality of the music, or even the message.  Rather, we should ask, “Did I fully engage in corporate worship this morning?”  God is the audience, not us.

Third, worship is to be part of our lifestyle.  Try not to think of worship only in terms of what happens here on a Sunday morning.  Remember that the early church’s worship was both formal and informal – they met in the Temple Courts and in their homes.”  

We worship God as part of our lifestyle by offering ourselves to Him, in every area of our lives.  True worship is the living of our life in a way that is pleasing to God.  Our praising and our prayers are only the outward manifestations of a life lived for the glory of God.  Romans 12:1 defines worship as surrender: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.”  How do we offer ourselves to God?  How do we engage in a lifestyle of spiritual worship?

  • By living a surrendered life that honors God.
  • By treating others with dignity and grace.
  • By forgiving as we’ve been forgiven.
  • By being faithful and loving to your spouse.
  • By being the kind of parent God wants you to be.
  • By being the kind of child or teenager that God desires you to be.
  • By using your spiritual gifts to serve Christ.
  • By giving faithfully and generously to God’s kingdom work.
  • By seeing your job as a mission, or calling, from God.

Tragically, we often get things turned around.  We tend to worship our work, we work at our play, and we play at our worship.  That’s not how God intends for it to be.

Discipline of Worship

It’s going to take some discipline to worship the way God wants us to worship.  If we’re not consulting the Book we’ll just look for what we want, not what God wants.  We’ll then evaluate everything based on our emotions, not on whether we’re exalting Christ.

1. Commit to be here each Sunday. 

Check out Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  If you’re out of town, determine beforehand where you’ll go to worship with other believers.  If you unplug you will unravel.

2. Make preparations on Saturday night. 

Ever wonder why the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown?  Because preparation for worship begins the night before.  Some of us simply need to go to bed earlier than we have been.  It would also be a good idea to get up earlier.  One of Beth’s sisters has a phrase that I come back to a lot: “People do what they want to do.”  Don’t allow yourself to say, “Sunday’s my only day to sleep in” or “We just need some family time together.”  You can come to church and sleep through the sermon.

3. Root out all idols. 

Remember that even after being exposed to the awesomeness of God, the people constructed a golden calf to worship.  They wanted something they could touch and they wanted something tame.  What do you need to confess right now?  Let’s face it, some people pull out of Sunday attendance because they’ve fallen into sin.  Remember that sin will take you further than you were planning to go and keep you longer than you were planning to stay.  I get rocked when I contemplate Malachi 1:10: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar!  I am not pleased with you…and I will accept no offering from your hands.”

4. Fully engage and express your praise, whether you like a song or not. 

It’s a crazy thing but have you noticed that it’s real easy to start sinning when we start singing?  Imagine the Israelites, freshly delivered from slavery, before a mountain that trembles violently with the presence of God when all of a sudden someone says, “Hey, I miss that tambourine song we used to sing.”  Someone else chimes in, “I don’t like it when Moses leads worship…I like Aaron better.” A person in the back has his arms folded and says, “This is too formal…all that smoke and mystery.  I like my worship casual.”  Someone else remarks, Hey, I’m tired of all this tambourine music.”  Discipline your mind and your heart so you stop trying to get what you like and instead give God what He loves.  George Barna has discovered that most Americans expect worship to satisfy or please them, not to honor and please God.  Let’s remember Revelation 4:11: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…”

5. Remember that even if you don’t like a song or a style or a service, God can use it for His glory. 

About a year ago our family was in Iowa and visited a large church.  I started judging things as soon as we pulled into the parking lot.  I liked some things and didn’t like a bunch of other things.  When we walked in the auditorium and found our seats, which were very comfortable (which I liked), the band was playing a song I had never heard before (which I didn’t like).  The service started and the band played another song I didn’t know.  I started getting angry and even more judgmental.  I was in a bad place, not camping out at Mount Reverence or Mount Rejoicing.  

As I stumbled around in the valley of pride and frustration I noticed that our ten-year-old niece who had been in a long battle with cancer, was dancing directly in front of me.  She had a scarf that she was flinging around, her eyes were closed and she was expressing her jubilation to Jesus.  I was convicted by my smug arrogance and started weeping.  I then looked and noticed that our daughter, who was standing right next to my niece,  had a very serious and contemplative look on her face.  I was rebuked a second time because I found out later that it was during this time of praise that God confirmed to her what it is that she should do with her life!  And here I was, missing out on both rejoicing and reverence, content to look at my watch and wonder when the service was going to end.

6. Adoration should lead to action. 

One author puts it like this: “Our pews are occupied by people who want to be moved, but who don’t want to move.”  Instead of saying, “That service didn’t move me” let’s get out and serve.  It’s not so much a “worship service” but our “service of worship” that God wants.  It’s all about glorifying God, not about what I can get.

One morning a community of ducks waddled off to church to hear their duck preacher.  After they waddled into the duck sanctuary, the service began and the duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly.  He pounded the pulpit with his beak and said, “With these wings, there is nowhere we ducks cannot go!  There is no God-given task we ducks cannot accomplish!  With these wings we no longer need walk through life.  We can soar high in the sky!”  Shouts of “Amen” were quacked throughout the duck congregation.  The duck preacher concluded his message by exclaiming, “With our wings we can fly through life! WE…CAN…FLY!!!!”  

More ducks quacked out loud AMENS!  Every duck loved the service. In fact all the ducks that were present commented on what a wonderfully convicting message they had heard from their duck preacher…and then they left the church and waddled all the way home.  I don’t know about you but I think their worship was kind of fowl because they didn’t act on what they had heard.  They didn’t act any differently as a result of adoring the Almighty.

If worship does not translate into a changed life, it is a sham

People who really understand worship see every task of every day as an opportunity to worship God.  Ruth Bell Graham used to keep a sign above her kitchen sink that said, “Worship services held here three times a day.”  If worship does not translate into a changed life, it is a sham.  Those who waddle in should not waddle out.

We can’t tell what a white elephant gift really is because of the pretty packaging.  I wonder how many of us are wrapped up to look pretty good but on the inside things are blank.  God doesn’t want us to give Him a worship white elephant.  Let’s give God our best, in a spirit of reverence and rejoicing.   

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?