June 29, 2003
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Ecclesiastes 5:1
When I was a boy, I sometimes entertained myself at church by watching other churchgoers. I remember watching a well-dressed woman with perfect hair reach into her purse, pull out a file, and go to work on her fingernails. Many a Sunday she spent half the sermon filing her nails. I don’t know if she heard what the preacher was saying, but she always had lovely nails.
I remember watching a rugged man who did a lot of nodding in church–but not necessarily to show agreement with the sermon. His eyes were often closed–but not necessarily in prayer. The man spent a lot of time sleeping in church. He just couldn’t seem to stay awake, no matter how hard he tried. It was funny to watch his body slouching, his eyelids falling, his head drooping. Then suddenly he would jerk awake, banging his head on the back of the bench. He would sit straight and try his best to pay attention, but before long he would be nodding off again.
I remember beeping watches, bawling babies, bickering kids, babbling teenagers, and other sights and sounds of Sunday church. Of course, there were people who focused on God and whose hearts were moved by reverence and love, but there was also a lot of other stuff going on. Some of it was the sort of thing that’s bound to happen whenever ordinary people gather together. But there were also times when people’s behavior made me wonder how serious they were about worshiping God. The fact that I often focused on their quirks rather than on God shows that I myself had a lot to learn about becoming a reverent, serious worshiper.
Crash Helmets in Church?
What would happen if the God we supposedly worship actually showed up in visible form at a worship service? Would I do anything differently than I do now? Or, to put it another way, do I now worship as carefully and reverently as I would if I could actually see the Lord right there? How serious am I, really, about the God I am supposedly there to worship?
All too often we worshippers seem to forget that we are in the presence of a holy and awesome God. Even when we pay attention in church, what are we really paying attention to? Many churches go out of their way to make worship more inviting and exciting. We preachers try to weave something colorful or humorous into our sermons to get people’s interest. But interest in whom? The living God, or a clever preacher? Music leaders want lively, fast-paced songs to create a sense of enthusiasm. But enthusiasm about what? The mighty acts of God, or the fun of singing a bouncy tune? Sometimes it seems as though worship isn’t really worship at all but just a professionally planned event. People go to church out of habit, expect to be finished on time, and consider it a success if a good time was had by all.
Many people have kicked the church habit. They simply don’t show up anymore. They don’t take God seriously enough to go to church and worship him, and that’s a problem. But what if our biggest problem isn’t those people who stay in bed or cut the grass or go to the lake or play golf rather than go to church? What if the biggest problem is all those people who do go to church but aren’t really serious about God and don’t seem to know what they’re getting into? Author Annie Dillard writes:
Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up batches of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Do you realize that when you go to church you are entering a danger zone? It’s like being close to a high voltage electrical wire: it’s a power that can do many wonderful things, but if you get careless, it can destroy you in a moment. The God who created electricity is far more powerful–and dangerous–than any high voltage current. Get careless around him, and it could cost you. Trifle with him, and it could destroy you. The place of worship is a danger zone. So get serious. Watch your step!
The Bible book of Ecclesiastes is written by a careful observer, a man quick to note things that are empty and meaningless. He can’t help noticing the casual attitudes and careless words that many people brought into the place of worship. Such worship is hollow, and it can even be fatal. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 says to watch out when you worship.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know what they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
With those words the Bible puts up two major warning signs around the danger zone of worship. The first sign says, “Take God seriously.” Get serious about this Lord who is so much higher and greater than anything you can possibly imagine. The second warning sign says, “Take yourself seriously.” In particular, take your promises seriously. Say what you mean and mean what you say, because God will hold you to it. Let’s think some more about each of these two worship warnings.
Take God Seriously
First, take God seriously. “God is in heaven and you are on earth,” says Ecclesiastes. Never forget it. You are a small creature on a tiny planet in one corner of a universe so vast it boggles the mind; God is the all-powerful One who created and controls this enormous universe using barely a fraction of his infinite power. You are a sinful person on an earth corrupted by evil; God is the holy Lord of heaven, radiant with purity so fierce and fiery that no mortal can see him and live.
What kind of worship is fitting for such a God? The Bible says, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth” (Psalm 96:9). “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). “…worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’” (Hebrews 12:29).
Scripture tells terrifying stories of what happens when worshippers get careless around God. Early in Israel’s history, the Lord appointed Aaron and his sons to be priests. God gave detailed instructions on how the priests should handle their duties at the place of worship. But Aaron’s two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, decided to do things their own way. They offered incense in a way God had not commanded. “So fire came out from the presence of the Lord,” says the Bible, “and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).
No wonder Ecclesiastes 5 says not “to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know what they do wrong.” God commands us to worship him according to his Word. If we decide to do things our own way and come to God with whatever kind of worship we dream up, we “offer the sacrifice of fools.” And that can be fatal.
Another lesson in taking God seriously came from the ark of the covenant. The ark was an ornately decorated, sacred box which was made at the time of Moses and Aaron. It contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the ark was a sign of God’s presence among his people. The Lord gave strict commands for how the ark was to be treated, and it was fatal not to take those commands seriously. Once a group of people got curious and decided to open the ark and look into it. It was the last thing they ever saw on earth. God struck them dead. The cost of curiosity and carelessness was seventy corpses. Those who saw what happened were terrified and asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Samuel 6:19-20)
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper became the special, physical token of the Lord’s presence. Thanks to the saving power of Jesus, the Lord’s Supper is far more accessible to us than the ark of the covenant ever was. The ark could not be touched or looked into, while the Lord’s Supper may be seen and touched and even tasted and swallowed. What a privilege! But it’s a privilege that can’t be taken for granted or handled carelessly. “Therefore,” says the Bible, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilt of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” He “eats and drinks judgement on himself.” The Bible says that there were many people in the church of Corinth who got sick, and some even died, because of their obnoxious handling of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Maybe churches should post a worship warning near the bread and wine of holy communion: “Harmful or fatal if swallowed in an unworthy manner.”
Is this getting through to you? Or are you thinking that these examples of God’s judgment are just stories from long ago? Maybe you prefer a kinder, gentler, more relaxed religion. You’ve never seen anybody struck dead for being careless in church, and you figure that church services should be designed around what people happen to like. Who’s to say that God minds? Maybe God likes it!
But it’s disastrous to start with our own preferences and then assume that if God doesn’t punish us immediately, he must be thinking pretty much the way we do. In Psalm 50 God says, “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face. Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you in pieces, with none to rescue” (Psalm 50:21-22).
God refuses to be taken lightly. So take him seriously. Watch your step when you worship. In general it’s best to keep your ears open and your mouth shut as much as possible when you’re in God’s presence. As Ecclesiastes 5 puts it, “Go near to listen … Do not be quick with your mouth… God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” It’s wiser to be a humble, obedient listener than a blabbermouth.
Guard your steps when you enter the danger zone. Before you come to worship, clear your mind and close your mouth. Clear your mind of distractions and daydreams so that you can focus your attention on the God of Scripture, the God who reveals himself in Jesus. Close your mouth so that you can hear God’s Word from Scripture and from a preacher who proclaims biblical truth.
Our words of praise and prayer and promise have a place in worship, but only as a response to God, not something we come up with on our own. The beginning of worship and the heart of worship is to be reverent before God and receptive to his Word. God says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word (Isaiah 66:2). Take God and his Word with utmost seriousness. Only then do your words begin to be worth anything at all. Only then are your prayers and praises and promises truly a response to God and his truth, rather than foolish daydreams and empty babble.
Take Yourself Seriously
The first warning sign in Ecclesiastes 5 says, “Take God seriously.” The second warning sign says, “Take yourself seriously.” Taking yourself seriously doesn’t mean you’re a conceited, self-important person with no sense of humor. But it does mean that you’re not careless or flippant, that you choose your actions and words carefully.
There’s a connection between how seriously we take God and how seriously we take ourselves, between how seriously we take God’s Word and how seriously we take our words. We’re living in a time when promises are taken lightly, sometimes even by church people. Why is that? The answer is simple: we take promises lightly because we take God lightly. Show me a church where more and more people are breaking their marriage promises and getting divorced, and I’ll show you a church where worship has either become a dreary formality or else a circus sideshow. Show me a society where people won’t keep their word without legions of lawyers armed with legal contracts, and I’ll show you a society which does not tremble before the living God and his commands. When worship is weightless, words become worthless. And life becomes hollow and hellish.
Ecclesiastes 5 warns us to take God seriously and then to take ourselves seriously–because God takes us seriously. God hears what we say, and he holds us to it. Too often our worship and our words focus on our own changing feelings rather than on the changeless majesty of God and his changeless Word and the changelessness of promises made in his presence. When we’re feeling-oriented rather than God-oriented, we may say one thing when we’re feeling a certain way but then do something entirely different the moment our feelings change. We say, “Oh, I didn’t really mean what I said before. That’s how I felt back then, but I don’t feel that way now. It was a mistake.”
Not so fast, says the Bible. If you make a promise, you’d better keep it. God has no use for fools who break their word. You’re better off saying nothing than saying something and then not doing it. Don’t let your mouth lead you into sin. Don’t try to weasel out of a promise or say you’ve changed your mind. “Why should God be angry at what you say,” asks Ecclesiastes, “and destroy the work of your hands?” (5:6). Jesus says “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
The Lord is watching whenever you worship, and he is listening whenever you speak. So say what you mean, and mean what you say. This certainly applies to the words you speak in church. When you make promises at baptism, God holds you to those promises. When you say that you will follow Jesus and live by the Bible, the Lord holds you accountable. When you sing a hymn that says, “Take my silver and my gold,” God expects you to put your money where your mouth is. When you make wedding vows to stick with someone for better or worse until death, God expects you to keep those vows. It’s not always easy to keep promises. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s even painful. But the Bible says in Psalm 15 that a godly person “keeps his oath even when it hurts.”
Let’s not limit this only to what we do and say on Sunday in church. There’s no doubt that on a day set apart as the Lord’s day and in a place set apart as the Lord’s house, worship and words are surely important. But is God any less present at any other place or time? Every place, every moment is his. All of life is lived before the face of God and bears something of the weight of his glory. So, then, everything we do should be an act of worship to God. Every word we say should be trustworthy and true.
If you say you’ll help someone, or you say you’ll do something, then do it. Don’t say, “Well, it wasn’t really a vow or a promise. I wasn’t in church and I didn’t swear by anything or make a formal oath.” Jesus says that if you’re a child of God, you shouldn’t need oaths at all. Your word is your bond. Your yes means yes, and your no means no (Matthew 6:33-37). Treat every word you speak and every promise you make as a sacred obligation; you’ll be far less talkative and far more truthful.
Rejoice With Trembling
Take God seriously, and take yourself seriously. Take these worship warnings to heart. Live life as though you’re in a danger zone–because you are. Does that mean you always have to be grim? No, seriousness isn’t the same thing as grimness. A danger zone is a place to be careful, but that doesn’t mean it’s ugly or unpleasant.
Some of the most beautiful and exciting and enjoyable places in the world are also dangerous—mountains and waterfalls, for example. If you’re hiking on the brink of a canyon overlooking a waterfall, it is far too dangerous to get careless, but it may also be one of the most thrilling and joyful experiences of your life. If you’re a mountain climber inching up the rock face of a steep mountain, you’d be a fool not to recognize the danger, but you still might love doing it. You can respect the danger of something and still delight in it. In fact, the danger is often part of the awe you feel, and the awe is part of the delight. But even in your delight, you still need to watch your step.
So too with the worship of God: when you take God seriously, you don’t have to be gloomy and sour, but you do have to be careful. Rejoice in God’s awesome reality, but watch your step. Be joyful and enthusiastic in worship, but never lose your sense of awe. “Rejoice with trembling,” says the Bible (Psalm 2:11). Life in the danger zone can be wonderful, but stay alert to the infinite majesty of God and the importance of your own words. Otherwise your worship becomes dreamy and deathly, and your words become babbling, blathering, yammering, jabbering claptrap. “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless,” says Ecclesiastes 5:7. “Therefore stand in awe of God.”
Wouldn’t life be empty and boring if there were nothing at stake? If the god you worship is a soft, sweet marshmallow, and if the promises you speak are forgotten like a dream, then life is all vanity, meaningless. The thrill of living before an awesome God and the challenge of keeping your word even when it hurts–these things give excitement and purpose to life. The people who are most serious about God and the most serious about keeping their word–these are the people for whom life is a wonder and a joy.
These are also the people who really know and love Jesus. Only when you tremble with fear that God is in heaven and you are on earth will you tremble with joy at the knowledge that God came down from heaven to earth and become one of us in the person of Jesus. Only when you know the value of promises can you put your faith in the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus. Only when you know how horrible it is to dishonor God and break your word can you appreciate the price Jesus paid on the cross to take those sins away. Only when you revere the God of heaven will you rejoice that an earthling like you can enter into his heavenly splendor, thanks to the risen Lord Jesus.
If you don’t stand in awe of God, if you take the Lord lightly and casually, you won’t be amazed by what God has done for you in Jesus. The gospel might produce little more than a yawn. But if you stand in awe of God, if you take God seriously and take your relationship to him seriously, the gospel will come as thrilling good news, and you will be forever astonished at the love and mercy of the Lord.
O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty (Psalm 104:2). You are in heaven; we are on earth. You are holy; we are sinful. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to bridge the gap between you and us. Forgive our sinful failure to honor your majesty and to obey your Word. Wash us clean by Jesus’ blood, and fill us with your Holy Spirit. Help us to worship you in spirit and in truth, that we may be the kind of worshipers you desire. Help us to live in the awestruck joy, the glad reverence, of a relationship with you. “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.