This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:22-29
Years ago there was a song by Jim Croce on the Billboard hit parade, called, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” In that song he listed a number of things that you’re not supposed to do. To quote our friend Jim (who died in 1973 in a plane crash): “You don’t tug on superman’s cape; you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull the mask off the old lone ranger; and you don’t mess around with Jim.”
It’s a song that fits this morning’s text well, namely, that you “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” That is, you don’t mess around with God, either, by bringing him unacceptable worship. Do you ever think of worship in those terms, as a dangerous thing? What would you think if – as writer Annie Dillard once suggested - when you came to church on a Sunday morning, the elders would hand out crash helmets, and the deacons would give each of you a life preserver and signal flare, and the ushers would belt us securely into our seats? Would you think we had all finally lost it?
Perhaps that does sound a little far-fetched, but this is pretty strong language, isn’t it? “…for our God is a consuming fire.” Worship, that is, is like playing with fire – you can get badly burned in the process. In fact, offering God unacceptable worship can kill you.
You think this can’t be serious? Try telling that to Nadab and Abihu, whose story is told in Leviticus 10. Listen to this, verse 1: “Aaron’s sons…” Remember Aaron? He was Moses’ brother, the chief priest, the senior pastor of the nation of Israel. He was responsible for leading the people in worship according to all the guidelines God himself had laid out in careful detail in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. And he had several sons, among whom were Nadab and Abihu. Now in Israel the priesthood was passed down through family lines. So from the time Aaron had been appointed priest in Israel he’d carefully trained his sons in the ways of the priesthood. From day one all the responsibilities and details of worshiping a holy God the right way had been explained to them.
And one day, the big moment for which they’d been trained arrived; it was their turn to lead worship and come into the presence of God. So “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers (a fancy frying pan), put fire (hot coals) in them, and added incense.” Incense, that’s an Old Testament picture of an offering to God, and Exodus 30 explains in detail just how the incense used for offering was to be prepared. You see, it was holy stuff, to be made only for God, so you didn’t mess with the mixture or use it for any other purpose but offering it to God.
But, “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them, and added incense; and they offered unauthorized (that is, unacceptable) fire before the Lord, contrary to his command.” For some reason left unexplained, they didn’t follow God’s rules. They decided to worship the holy God as they saw fit. They didn’t take God seriously, and what happened? Verse 2 says: “So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” They died. Worship is playing with fire. Offering unacceptable worship to a holy God can kill you!
But that was an exception, right? Well, just ask Uzzah. His story is in 2 Samuel 6. Uzzah was a Kohathite, and Kohathites had been assigned by God, from birth, to serve as priests in Israel, but with this very specific job description: “…the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying [of the holy things that are in the tabernacle]. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die” (Numbers 4:15). And the holiest thing of them all was the ark of the covenant, that wooden box - made famous by Indiana Jones in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” - that symbolized God’s dwelling among his people.
Well, as 2 Samuel 6 opens, David is about to bring the ark to Jerusalem. For some 70 years it sat, forgotten, in Uzzah’s family home. But now that David had re-established Israel’s power, the ark must be brought out of mothballs, for God should be visibly present in the midst of his people! So with 30,000 of his best troops, David arrives at Uzzah’s home, and what happens? You read, first, that they placed the ark of God on a new cart. Wrong! For God had given very specific instructions about transporting the ark, and there was no mention of a moving van. No, there were rings in both sides of the ark, and long poles through these rings, and the Kohathites were to move the ark by lifting the poles onto their shoulders.
But they put the ark on a new cart, and what happens? Verse 6 – “When they came to the threshing floor of Nachon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.” Well, imagine if it had crashed to the ground! Horror of horrors!! No way could Uzzah let that happen, so he grabbed hold of the ark. Wrong again – and this time it cost him big time. He touched what God had forbidden and, says verse 7, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.”
He died, instantly. Worship is like playing with fire. The Bible is full of stories like this. And such things didn’t just happen to Israel’s leaders, like kings and priests, but also to ordinary believers like you and me. Remember the golden calf incident at Mt. Sinai, recorded in Exodus 32? Only because Moses pleaded with God to remember his covenant mercy did God decide not to destroy the entire nation of Israel after they offered unacceptable worship by making an image of him in the form of a cud-chewing stud. But they didn’t get off scot free. For that day, you read, “…about 3000 of the people died.” And the Lord struck the rest with a plague.
And in case you’re wondering, nothing changes in the New Testament. Some people have this idea that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament – as though God went through some kind of midlife change between the two, some kind of intertestamental menopause. But it doesn’t take long to prove that theory wrong. Remember Ananias and Sapphira – Acts 5 – who offered unacceptable worship to God by bringing an offering to the assembly and lying about what it represented? Both of them died instantly, first Ananias, then his wife, at the feet of the apostles.
Then there’s 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s familiar words about the institution and meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Except that it’s easy to forget why he brought it up. Listen: “In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” And because they were offering unholy worship to God at the communion table, says verse 30, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” Asleep – which doesn’t mean some were bored with the pastor’s message or couldn’t keep their eyes open since they’d been milking at 4:30 in the morning. No, it means they died. Some believers died premature deaths because the way they worshiped God at the Lord’s table – by looking down on others, by humiliating and disparaging and treating others in the body as second-class citizens - was unacceptable, was displeasing to God.
Worship, says the Bible, is serious business. But, you say, I don’t know anybody who ever died from offering unacceptable worship. That depends, though, on what you understand by death, doesn’t it? The stories we’ve just heard are about people who suffered sudden, physical death. But death in the Bible can be slow as well. For death in the Bible means separation. It starts with a separation from the source of life, from God, because of sin, and progresses to the point where our souls are separated from our bodies – that’s physical death as we know it – and apart from God’s grace it can climax in eternal death when people are eternally separated from Christ.
You bet people still die from offering unacceptable worship, but it’s like saying that the abuse of alcohol can kill you. It can do it suddenly – you get drunk and you drive and you crash into a tree. Or it can happen slowly, as it does many alcoholics who eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver, caused by abusing alcohol for years. Their death is a slow and progressive one. And long before a person dies of cirrhosis of the liver, there have been many little deaths: of a marriage, a parent-child relationship, an occupation, of one’s spirituality. Suddenly or slowly, if you abuse alcohol or drugs long enough, it will probably kill you.
That’s how it is with offering God unacceptable worship. Saying that it can kill you may not mean sudden, physical death. But it always starts you on the slippery slope to separation from God. Unless you deal with whatever is unacceptable in your worship of a holy God, then long before we die physically we experience a lot of other deaths. We experience a host of little deaths, as one act of unacceptable worship after another without repentance leads us further and further away from the abundant life God created us for, further and further away from our source of life in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Worship is still a dangerous thing. But it’s not ever, now or then, because God is fickle. God didn’t tell Nadab and Abihu, “let’s see if you can figure out how to offer incense the right way; this ought to be interesting because guess what happens if you get it wrong?” He didn’t say to Uzzah, “there are 101 ways to move the ark but only one way is right – guess wrong and you’re toast.” God had laid out the rules in detail. It was no different with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, or Ananias and Sapphira, or the sleeping Christians of 1 Corinthians 11. All these people chose to disobey God.
So the big question is: what is acceptable worship? Then let’s begin by reading Hebrews 12 once more: “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.”
According to this, and to the Bible as a whole, here are the 3 things which make worship acceptable or unacceptable. One, you must worship the right God – it has to do with whom you worship. Two, you must worship the right God for the right reason – it has to do with why you worship. And three, you must worship the right God for the right reason the right way – it has to do with how you worship. Who, why, and how.
First, there’s the who. The Bible says in no uncertain terms, “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14). The Creator God, the Redeemer God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not interested in sharing his glory or his worship with anybody else. His name, that is, his very nature, is Jealous.
Now we most often think of jealousy as a negative character trait, but remember that there are two kinds of jealousy. Bad jealousy, the kind the Bible condemns, is wanting to keep or have that which we don’t rightfully own. If you go to a party with your wife and butt in every time she talks to someone else because you think you have a right to all her attention, that’s bad jealousy. That hurts a relationship.
But then there’s good jealousy, which is wanting to keep what is rightfully ours. And what is rightfully God’s is all that we are and have. What he rightfully deserves is all our worship. So anytime we make anyone or anything else the center of our lives – whether that be your work or your kids or your spouse or your image or your health or your pleasure or your money or whatever – we’re worshiping a false god.
That’s unacceptable to God, and it’s downright dangerous for us. If the who isn’t right, we’re dying. Then there’s a growing distance from the true God and source of abundant life. Then you may not suffer physical death, either suddenly or, in time, still prematurely. Nor does it mean you’ll surely end up in an eternity without him – for eternal separation from God is a matter of whether or not Jesus, who forgives all our sins, is your Saviour. But it does mean that in that moment you are suffering a little death. You’re disconnecting and disconnected from God. And if that first drink goes down easy, the second usually goes down even easier. Ask any alcoholic. So it’s something you constantly have to deal with.
The who of acceptable worship is God. And, more specifically, it is God through Jesus Christ. Jesus, says Hebrews 12:24, is the only mediator between God and us. “Through Jesus,” says Hebrews 13:15, “let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Sure, we must respect the right of others to believe whatever they will about God, and we must love all people as images of God, but while interfaith dialogue and respect is important, interfaith worship is impossible and unacceptable to God. God says in the Bible that there is only one mediator between him and ourselves, one Saviour, one Lord, one way to him, one truth, one life, and that is Jesus.
So what’s acceptable worship? It is first of all to put God in Jesus Christ at the center of all our living and thinking and speaking. It’s worshiping the right God.
It is, second, to worship God for the right reason. The why, the motivation, is important. The Bible gives many examples of people who do the right thing for the right God but for the wrong reason. Think only of the prophet Amos, through whom God once told his people, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:21,24) See, they were doing the right thing for the right God, but with God two out of three isn’t enough. These people had an attitude problem.
The motivation, the why which makes worship acceptable to God is this: gratitude. Gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Here’s Hebrews 12 again: “Therefore…let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…” (v. 28) So what’s your attitude when we come to worship God in the assembly each Sunday, or when we come to the table of the Lord, or to the font of baptismal water? Do you come to say: “Thank you, Lord, that you gave your Son, Jesus Christ, to die for me and give me life”? Or do we come, or serve, or obey, do we worship out of duty and nothing else?
What 2 Corinthians 9 says about the worship of giving financial gifts is what holds true for all of our worship: don’t do it, writes Paul, “reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver…Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (vv. 7, 24) Worshiping only as a matter of custom or duty is bad worship. Such worship will not bring you closer to God, but only further away from the abundant life you were meant to live.
Then, third, there’s the how of worship: the right God, for the right reason, the right way. Spelled out in a thousand ways in the Bible, has it ever been more simply stated than in the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt? God says to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’”But when they were finally free to do so, nobody knew how. Nobody had worshiped this God for a very long time. Were there directions somewhere? Did anybody have a copy of the hymnbook? Was there a church order manual somewhere?
So God took Moses up on a mountain, while the people waited below for further instructions. And he told Moses, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” so that you might worship me. But even Moses didn’t know how. Do you like gospel music, Lord, or do you prefer Genevan psalms? Do you like the King James Version of the Bible, or prefer the New International Version? And God said, “You know what I like? I like the kind of worship where you shall have no other gods alongside of me; you honour me and keep the Sabbath; you honour your mom and dad and respect the proper authorities; you don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or lie or covet.”
That’s God’s idea of acceptable and pleasing worship, on Sunday or any other day. When what you do on Sunday affects what you do on Monday to Saturday, when worship is more than generous gifts, sound sermons, moving music, or pious prayers – yes, all that too – but this worship is translated into holy living. When who you are inwardly, and what you do outwardly, and what you bring upwardly is marked and shaped and driven by love. “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” said Jesus, “and love your neighbour – whoever he or she might be, far or near – “as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets [are summed up] in these two commandments.” The how of worship is to personally commit yourself to being and becoming God’s kind of person, empowered by his Spirit, as spelled out in his commands, and as modeled by the Lord Jesus.
You don’t mess around with God; you don’t take worship lightly. Acceptable worship is to worship God alone, through Jesus Christ, out of gratitude for his saving grace, by living every day of our lives in loving obedience to God and loving service to each other.
Now you know that no one here has to look very long or hard to find some part of our life and worship that isn’t pleasing to God. And none of us here want to die, to be separated from the God of all goodness and grace. So what do we need to do? What would bring God pleasure and joy? This: that we bring that part or those parts of our lives to him, today, and everyday, and offer it to him. Not only does his grace in Jesus cover all our failures and sins, but his power can help us change things inwardly, even now. His power can help us make things more right outwardly, especially in all our relationships, even now. And he is always ready and eager to fill us more and more, as we open your hearts to him, with his abundant life and love and joy.
So let us worship God, gratefully, with all that we are and have and do. For all that he is, for all he has done and is doing and will yet do, he deserves nothing less.
Prayer of Response
Holy God, you are full of glory and full of grace. We want to worship you rightly today, everyday and every part of our lives. Draw us closer and closer to yourself, Lord Jesus, that we may gratefully give our best, loving God above all and our neighbours as ourselves. Show us those places where we are not living fully for you and help us grow in your ways so that we do not die a slow death but live a more abundant life in the power of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Order of Worship
Welcome and announcements
*Call to Worship: Psalm 105:1-4
*Hymn: “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH#625
Our Confession: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth, and who redeemed us through the blood of his Son.”
Prayer for God’s greeting, “May the grace and peace of God our Father and of Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord, be upon us all. Amen.”
*We greet each other
*Hymn of praise: “Holy, Holy, Holy” PsH#249
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Call to confession: I John 1:5-8
Prayer of confession
Assurance of forgiveness: I John 1:9
God's will for our lives: I John 4:7-12
Hymn of rededication: “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” PsH#264
WE HEAR THE LORD
Prayer for understanding
Scripture reading: Hebrews 12:22-29
Hymn: “Spirit of the Living God” PsH#424
Message: “You Don’t Mess Around With God”
Hymn of Response: “My God, How Wonderful You Are” PsH#499
Hymn: “What Shall I Render To the LORD” PsH#178:1,4
We pray for God's parting blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “Abide With Us, Our Savior” PsH#565