I’m sure many of you have heard that the football stadium in Stillwater has been renamed. The new “T. Boone Pickens Stadium” is going to be absolutely beautiful once it is completed. I’m not sure if you have heard that there have been some other changes made as well. As a matter of fact, the changes that are coming to Stillwater this football season are also coming to Norman as well. The Board of Regents have made some policy changes for all state colleges that will be implemented in the upcoming football season. The changes have been leaked and I want to share some of them with you this morning.
When you enter the stadium in either Norman or Stillwater you will receive a piece of paper called “Code of Conduct.” The “Code of Conduct” will give you instructions on how you are to behave during the game. Let me read just a few of the requirements from the “Code of Conduct” to you.
· Fans at all home games will be required to stand throughout the game to show support for the home team.
· When the opposing team is facing a third and less than 5 yards to go the crowd must stand to its feet and chant in unison, “Defense, Defense, Defense!”
· Anytime a referee calls a penalty on the home team fans are required to boo and make snide remarks about the referee’s integrity, appearance, or ancestry. Fans are not allowed to throw anything on the field, but anything short of this is allowed.
· All home fans are required to wear the team colors and participate in all chants, the singing of the fight song whenever the home team scores, and to create an atmosphere of mayhem and hysteria throughout the game. Failure to comply to the following regulations may result in removal from the stadium.
Anyone in their right mind knows that this is simply a figment of my imagination. No such thing has ever taken place in any sports arena in America, but something dangerously close is taking place in churches all over America. The “Worship Police” don’t wear red hats or sport “walkie talkies,” they don’t walk up and down the aisles preventing or forcing people to do anything, but boy do they talk. The quickest way to alienate someone and make them feel uncomfortable and unwanted is to talk behind their back and whisper in the ears of those around them so that the word will get back to the “guilty” culprit.
I’ve seen the worship police at work in all kinds of churches. When I was in college I attended a charismatic church in Lawton, OK. I went to the church because the music was incredible and the worship I experienced there was meaningful to me. Because of my involvement in the church I made friends who were also members of the church. One of my friends was a young guy about my age named Arthur. Arthur was fun to be around, but he was also like a bull in a china closet.
Connie and I were married my Senior year in college and Arthur stopped by our house one day to see me. While we were outside talking the conversation turned to worship. Arthur made it very clear that I didn’t know how to worship. He said that he knew that I loved the Lord, but he just believed that I was an immature believer because I didn’t worship like he did. Arthur didn’t mean to alienate me by what he said, but it did hurt my feelings. Needless to say, Arthur didn’t know my heart. He didn’t know what was going on in my heart and head when I worshipped God.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have been in so-called “mainline” churches when someone felt the presence of God and responded by saying, “Amen,” “Praise God,” “Hallelujah,” or by lifting their hands to the Lord — you would have thought the person was a terrorist by the way some of the members looked at them.
When I was in Plano, TX., we had an El Salvadorian church meeting in part of our complex. There was talk of merging the church with the fellowship of First Christian. Board meetings were held in which discussions took place. Some people, including me, were very excited about what God wanted to do, but there was a small, but very vocal group of people who felt that the move would be disastrous for the church because of how different “those” people were. They sang with guitars and a drum set rather than a $250,000 organ like we did, they lifted their hands to the Lord when they felt moved, something which rarely took place on Sunday morning at First Christian, and they responded to the preacher with “Amen,” or “Gloria a Dios” (Glory to God).
God’s heart breaks over what is taking place in the American Church today. God has given worship to His people, to unite His people, to draw them together at the foot of the cross to adore and worship His Holiness, but the church has used worship to divide and separate the people of God. God will not continue to tolerate the self-centeredness of His people forever. He will judge, and judge harshly, those who continue to divide His people over style when substance is what He is looking for from His people.
When we study the worship of the people of God throughout the Bible we find a wide range of responses of God’s presence. I want us to take a look at some of those responses this morning and I want us to look at some of the directives given in Scripture concerning what we are to do with our voices, our hands, our hearts, and instruments when we come into His presence.
Let’s first begin by looking at the great worship service which took place in the book of Nehemiah. Before we read the Scripture found in Nehemiah 8, we need to know that the literal Hebrew for “worship,” actually means, “to prostrate oneself on the ground.” I would dare say that if we were gathered for worship some Sunday morning and a person felt led by God to prostrate themselves before the Lord, I would hear about it on Monday morning. Folk would be made uncomfortable. I tell you this is only a symptom of how far we have strayed from the heart of God! If God’s Word calls us to respond to His presence in particular ways, but our culture or the church says, “We don’t do it that way” — you had better go with God!
In Nehemiah 8, the people, who were working on rebuilding the wall around the city, had gathered together for the Feast of Trumpets, one of Israel’s holy worship observances. We read,
All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. (2)So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. (3)He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (4)Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. (5)Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. (6)Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. (7)The Levites–Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah–instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. (8)They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (9)Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” (Neh 8:1-9 NIV)
In this section of Scripture which highlights one of the great worship services in the book of Nehemiah, we find some things taking place. The one I like the best is that Ezra had from daybreak till noon to preach — Isn’t that every preacher’s dream! All kidding aside, it must be difficult for God to move upon the hearts of His people to the extent that He would like to move when we pencil Him in for 60 minutes on Sunday.
The overriding theme of this portion of Scripture is solemnity. The people were there to listen to the Word of God. They were attentive as they listened and it pierced their soul. Nehemiah 8:3 says, “He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:3 NIV)
God’s Word brings life to His people. When we come into His presence and God’s Word is read, we need to be cognizant of the fact that, the book of Hebrews says,
… the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (13)Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13 NIV)
The Word of God was being read in the midst of the people and they broke out with thanksgiving as Ezra opened the book and we read in Nehemiah 8:5-6,
Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. (6)Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:5-6 NIV)
One of God’s central elements for bringing us into His presence is His Word. It is through His Word that we are reminded of His holiness, it is through His Word that we are reminded of our sinfulness, it is through His Word that we are reminded that God does not take sin lightly, and it is through His Word that we are reminded that God deals with sin in a reconciling way. The gateway to worship is through the Word of God.
The people were solemn because the Word of God was being read in their midst and their hearts were being pierced by what was being shared with them. In Nehemiah 8:9, we see that the Word had pierced their hearts because we are told that they were weeping and grieving. When we are being confronted with our dire need of God’s grace because of the waywardness of our hearts, we are ripped to the core of our being. It’s not the time to wear party hats and blow party horns. It is time to fall before God’s merciful throne and worship His holiness and righteousness.
There is another worship service which is found in the same chapter of Nehemiah which I want us to take a look at this morning. The Feast of Tabernacles lasted an entire week and was a glorious celebration of the great harvest given by God. During the week, the Israelites were constantly reminded of God’s provision for the people while they moved from Egypt to Canaan, and for the productivity of the land in Canaan. Take a look at Nehemiah 8:10-17,
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (11)The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.” (12)Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (13)On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. (14)They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month (15)and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths”–as it is written. (16)So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. (17)The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.” (Nehemiah 8:10-17 NIV)
I love the line that says, “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this.” The Israelites had a party before the Lord. Joy reigned in their midst as they were reminded of God’s provision, of God’s faithfulness, and of His great love for His people.
The overriding theme of the worship service held by the Israelites was celebration. There is a time to be solemn before the Lord, to be still before His presence, but there is also a time to celebrate. When we are reminded of God’s provision for us through His son Jesus — it’s time to celebrate! God’s goodness has been manifest to us over and over again and His benevolence calls for a response of joy and thanksgiving.
There have been times following our worship service when I have talked to people in our church who have said, “When we sang “Friend of God” or “You Are Good” I just wanted to jump out of my pew and say, “Amen!” You know what? That is exactly what God wanted to happen.
The word “celebrate” occurs 53 times in God’s Word. If God says to celebrate, then what should we do? I say let’s celebrate! We may celebrate in different ways; some may clap their hands while others nod their head, but we are called by God to celebrate His goodness.
What amazes me is that while the Church worries and frets over folks celebrating before the Lord, we have no problem celebrating in other arenas in life. We go to a ball game and the crowd is as diverse as the flowers of the field, but nobody will force anyone to refrain or behave in a particular way. I only wish the Church had such freedom. We go to a concert and some people scream at the top of their lungs, others clap their hands, and still others simply listen to the music, drinking in the beautiful sounds and moving lyrics. Nobody gets bent out of shape. Nobody turns to the person next to them and makes snide remarks. I only wish the Church could emulate the tolerance I see at concerts.
I really believe that part of the problem which plagues the Church today is because we have come to view worship in the same vein as the spectator events we attend. Whether it be a play, a concert, or a sporting event — we are spectators, being entertained by those who are the participants. Worship was not designed by God to be a spectator sport, worship is for participants only. There is no power in spectator sports. We go into the arena, watch the contest, and leave, but when we enter into worship we are forever changed. John MacArthur has written,
In holy intimacy, the true worshipper comes face to face with God and he is transformed by the glory. If the corporate worship in the church leaves people unchanged, the church is not really worshipping. If what goes on in a church service does not spur the saints to greater obedience, call it what you will, it isn’t worship. Worship always results in a transformation and the church is edified by it. (MacArthur, The Ultimate Priority, p.155).
By coming into God’s presence we are changed by His power. Simply because we assemble in a building called a church doesn’t mean that we will enter into God’s presence. We must prepare the sanctuary, this building, as well as prepare the sanctuary of our hearts for God to move in our lives or we will miss God altogether. When we are made aware of God’s presence, and our minds and spirits are quickened to God’s mercy and grace at work in our life, and in the life of His church — how should we respond? I’m so glad you asked.
I want to share with you just a few responses to God’s presence which we find in the Bible. The first area I want us to look at is our voice. Listen to the following verses.
Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left. I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. (Psalm 34:1 NIV) — extol, commend, glorify, praise
Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalm 32:11 NIV) — rejoice, sing
Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. (Isaiah 12:5 NIV) — sing
They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might… (Psalm 145:11 NIV) — testify, speak
The verses I’ve shared with you tell us that we are to use our voices to praise God, or to commend Him for His marvelous ways. We are to use our voices to sing to God, not to perform for an audience, but to sing to God, and we are to use our voices to tell of His marvelous ways, to speak of God’s dealing with humanity.
There is a real question which must be answered when we talk about what kind of singing we are to do. Are we to sing hymns from the hymnbook and only hymns from the hymnbook? If so, which hymnbook is God’s choice? Are we to only sing songs of praise, the little choruses which we sing during our preparation for prayer? Once again, we don’t need to form a committee to address the situation, we have the authority before us, God’s Word. Let’s take a look.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25 NIV)
So that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” (Romans 15:9 NIV)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord… (Ephesians 5:19 NIV)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 NIV)
We are to use our voices in a myriad of ways to bless God for who He is. We are to sing the hymns of our faith, we are to lift our voices in singing the great psalms and spiritual songs of praise to our God, and we are to speak of God’s richness and glory to the world.
There is another thing we are to do with our voice — remain silent. There are times when we should shut our mouth and remain silent before God in reverent awe of His majesty. Habakkuk says, “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20 NIV) The important thing for all of us is to know when it is time to remain silent before the Lord and when it is time to voice to bless His holiness.
We are also given directives by God on what we should do with our bodies when we come into His presence. Take a look at these examples.
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. (Psalm 95:6 NIV)
Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. (Psalm 149:3 NIV)
He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. (Acts 3:8 NIV)
“Bow down, kneel, dance, walking, jumping, and praising God.” God’s Word directs us to use our bodies to worship Him. I didn’t find “let your head roll back in a deep sleep while sitting in a pew” anywhere. I didn’t see “slouch before the Lord in apathy” anywhere. Did you? God animates His creation. When you and I come into His presence our entire body will be invigorated and energized!
God also gives us insight into how we are to use our hands when we come into His presence. In Psalm 63:4 we read, “I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” We are also told to clap our hands in Psalm 47:1 as the writer of the Psalms writes, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” Now you may not like that, but that is what God’s Word says. Nobody is going to force you to lift your hands or to clap your hands either, but for those who feel led to do so, who are you or me to say, “We don’t do that here.” This is not our church, we did not assemble these people here in this place, this is God’s business — let Him take care of it!
Our worship is directed to God in a way that is pleasing to Him and how He leads us to worship Him. Whenever we become so concerned with how folks are worshipping around us we will miss the presence of God.
I have two friends that I have known for awhile who come from very diverse religious backgrounds, as a matter of fact, you probably couldn’t come from more different backgrounds. The way they respond to the presence of God is different: He likes to lift his hands and face and sing to the Lord, she likes to bow her head and be still before God. Praise God that they allow one another the freedom to worship God in the way they feel led. Wouldn’t it be a shame with these two people if one tried to force the other to worship in his or her way? God gives us the freedom to come into His presence and worship Him with heads bowed or with our eyes lifted to the heavens, with our voices silent or singing songs of worship to Him, with our hands held up to Him in submission or clasped in front of our face. God desires our worship, genuine, uninhibited worship! If you and I will focus our eyes upon Him we will not be distracted with those around us. Come into His presence.