I will occasionally hear the complaint, “I just don’t get anything out of worship.” The truth is, you can’t “get out” of worship something that you haven’t “put in.”
That’s not to say the person who is troubled won’t find peace, the person who is sinful can’t find forgiveness, the person who is lost can’t find salvation. But that person who comes expecting to be entertained – to have worship “done” for him, will go away frustrated and empty.
Paul wrote in Romans 12:1, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
In fact, it is very often the things that fill our lives during the week that set the stage for worship on the Lord’s day – things that flow out of our normal, daily way of living – how we meet the variety of situations head on, and either transform or be transformed by them. What we do, before we ever enter this building on Sunday morning, and then what we do after we exit its doors says more, and expresses more, and in many ways has a greater impact on our worship to God than anything we do inside these walls for one hour on a Sunday morning.
All of those things that we have walked through with God during the week mold our worship, and when we come together on Sunday with lives spent in daily devotion, lived out walking daily with God become special times of worship filled with more than obligation and duty.
Let’s spend some time this morning looking at the lives of three people that typified this call to worshipful lives.
The first person we want to look at is Mary. There are several Marys in the Gospels – Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of John-Mark. This is Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus who lives in Bethany. Listen to her story:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)
This was a spontaneous act on Mary’s part (don’t confuse that with thoughtless). Not only that, it was personally very costly (a year’s wages) – it was extravagant. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus makes the comment: “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mk 14:9)
It tells me we need to do some cost counting if we’re going to be Jesus’ disciples – because following Jesus is costly. But the moment we start budgeting the cost of worshiping God, begrudging the time, we cease to give him sincere worship.
Let me give you an example from the prophet Amos. He’s sitting in worship watching the congregation sitting there listening to the priest and they’re tapping their feet and looking at their watches and saying: “When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Worship was getting in the way of work and they couldn’t wait to get out of church and back to work. It betrayed where their hearts really were – their lives were about work, not worship and they weren’t “getting anything out” of worship.
But Mary’s worship of Jesus is extravagant – she doesn’t care how much it costs or what anyone else thinks. Mary could have used a cheap perfume, but she chose to give the very best like David’s sacrifice in 1 Chronicles 21:24, “But King David replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.”
The fragrance of that costly nard ointment brought out the best in Mary, but the worst in Judas – he could only think about money, her only desire was to honor and worship her Lord.
Fragrance is a fitting image for worship. The Temple was filled with the fragrance of incense in OT worship. Paul says “we are to God the aroma of Christ.” Her gift to Jesus was an extravagant act of worship.
Never underestimate the effects of your personal worship – this wasn’t done in a temple or a synagogue, there was nothing formal or liturgical, but it was transforming worship.
Let’s jump back two thousand years before Jesus. Abraham was camped near the oaks of Mamre. And you may remember the story of Abraham’s encounter with the Lord in Genesis 18:1-8 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
Some suggest that Abraham was just giving normal courtesy and hospitality to a stranger – that he didn’t know for certain who these guest were, yet his later conversation with the one who is identified as the Lord tells us he had a pretty good idea of the significance of his guests.
Genesis 18 is divided into two sections: first, Abraham serves God, and then Abraham is the friend of God.
First, Abraham serves God. Abraham had a hundred servants he could have called to do these tasks, but he himself does the serving. Notice the verbs used: he hurried, he hurried, he ran. Like Mary, he chose the very best he had to offer – fine flour, a choice tender calf. As his guests eat, Abraham stands attentively nearby.
The most natural thing in the world for this great man of God is to serve his Lord. He does it without hesitation, without changing gears and putting on his “let’s impress the preacher” appearance.
Jump ahead a few years to the morning that Abraham arrives at Mt. Moriah with his son Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice at the command of the Lord himself. What did he tells his servants as he left them at the foot of the mountain, while he and Isaac gather the equipment to go? “We will worship the Lord…”
One of two things was going to happen on the mountain: either God would not require him to sacrifice Isaac, or he would raise his dead son and give him his life back (read Hebrews 11:17). Abraham believed the promise and he worshiped a God big enough to handle the contradictions inherent in this situation.
As believers, we often shut down everything else while we deal with our own personal struggles. We quit worshiping God, we quit reading the Word, we quit meeting with his people, we shut others out. We think, “I’ll get this taken care of and then I’ll get back into worshiping with God.” Abraham saw worship as the avenue to deal with his personal struggles.
The purpose of worship is not to escape our trials and struggles, but to discover and experience a path of faith through them. If Abraham had not been a man of worship – worshiping God at the altar and at the door of his tent – he could never have brought himself to be obedient to God at Mt. Moriah.
A crisis does not make a man or woman, it displays what he or she is made of. Our character is built day in and day out, week in and week out, in worshiping and serving experiences in life. Worship not only transforms our lives, but is transformed by our way of life.
Let’s look at one more person who gives us insight into what it means to experience worship.
In Isaiah 6, we find Isaiah in the Temple. The way he words it, that is where we would expect to find him. This isn’t Easter Sunday and surprise, surprise Isaiah made it for his annual appearance. This is where he is every Sabbath. But we might also add, Isaiah was not a professional religious man either. He is in the Temple in the natural flow of his life. But this day transformed his life forever.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “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.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 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!” (Isaiah 6:1-6)
Notice, Isaiah saw the Lord, he heard the call of the seraphim, he felt his own sinfulness and unworthiness, he experienced the cleansing of forgiveness.
And then comes the moment of decision. The Lord asks a question of the assembly: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” I don’t know how long the pause was, but Isaiah is so touched by this experience of worship that he responds almost immediately, “Here am I, send me!” What we do know about Isaiah is less than what we don’t know. But if I were betting, I would bet Isaiah was a man whose heart was already pointed in the right direction, ready to hear and respond to anything the Lord asked of him.
Worship has a way of doing that. And I’m not talking just about a motivational sermon – nothing is said here about the priest saying a few well-chosen words. Isaiah is so focused on the Lord that his willingness to go and to do whatever the Lord asks flows from his heart and his life that already belong to God.
While this might seem like a spontaneous act, it is really a natural outflowing of a life that already belongs to God. It isn’t out of character – nobody turns and says, “Isaiah? You’ve got to be kidding!”
And so the Lord sends him out with a message. Worship and proclamation are frequently together in both the Old and New Testament. When our lives are a “spiritual act of worship” (as Paul calls it), then the most natural thing is to tell what God has been doing in our lives. Isaiah’s worship transformed everything Isaiah did.
Now these three stories highlight mountain top experiences, but they reflect lives of worship.
Those mountain top experiences – the conferences and rallies and lectureships – are wonderful and uplifting – we need them to give a boost to our step and a break from the routine, but our walk with God is not defined by those mountain top experiences. Our walk with God is molded in the consistent, faithful outpouring of worship in the normal routines of life.
Don’t minimize those mountain top moments – they transport us to a new level of spirituality, they are exciting and motivating, but they are not the substance of our faith. Worship, in which we sit side by side with folks we know and love, we sing songs that we know by heart, we listen to scriptures we’ve heard all our lives – they are just as transforming – if we bring hearts that are ready to listen to God and respond to his call.
We look through the history of God’s people and marvel over God’s men and women who seized the moment of opportunity, but their faith was defined by faithfully putting one foot in front of the other as they walked with God.
And we must focus, not on the experiences, but on God.
We must give our best, freely and spontaneously, not that God might be impressed, but that God might be glorified. We must be willing to pay the price that comes with faithfulness. How many people have missed out on those mountain top experiences, not because they had a bad heart, but because they allow anything and everything to take a higher priority than worship? If you want to see God at work, if you want to experience his presence, you need to make worship a high priority in your life. If you want to “get something out” of worship, you need to put your whole self in to worship.