Acceptable Worship

Hebrews 12:18-29 

It is literally a tale of two mountains. 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.” 

 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 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. 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.” (Hebrews 12:18-29)

He reminds us first of Mt. Sinai. The Israelites, fresh from their flight from Egypt are gathered at the foot of the mountain – the mountain was shrouded in clouds – lightning and thunder filled the air – a trumpet blast sounded – a voice rang out and God descended on the mountain in smoke and fire. Moses is called to ascend the mountain, but no one else, no human or animal was to touch the mountain upon a sentence of death. They were terrified – Moses was terrified. He said, “I tremble with fear.”

This picture represents in many ways the old covenant. It was mysterious and terrifying. Its motivation was fear, its violation received death. It had a place in Israel’s history, but it wasn’t their destination. He writes, “You have not come to this mountain.”

“But you have come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” This mountain is different. It is not shrouded in darkness and fear – it is filled with the sounds of praise and joy. The people are not forbidden from coming upon the mtn., they are invited to the very summit. And so he invites us to accompany him on the journey to this mtn.

We come to the mountain and the first sight we see is the thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly. We’ve never seen an angel – we’ve read about them, and we know that being in the presence of just one angel is an awe-inspiring experience. But here are thousands upon thousands, as far as the eye can see, more than one could ever count – and they are gathered around this mountain celebrating. If our journey ended here it would be enough.

But we are led through the angels, a path opening before us, miles of angels making way for us through their midst, listening to their singing. And then we come to another group – on the inner circle – the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. These are the saints – the ones who have made Jesus their Lord, who have lived faithfully in spite of hardships and persecutions, who have continued to proclaim his name even in the face of death.

These are the ones, some names are familiar – there’s Paul and Peter and James, there’s Philemon and Timothy and Priscilla; some whose names have long been forgotten – there’s Alexander and Joseph and Julia. There are some who are still fresh in our memories – Ed and Nom Niemann, Jim Hauptli, Olyn and Virginia Parker, Emmie Landrum . They have a special place on this mountain.

They belong to the Son; their names have been written in his book; they have been washed in his blood. They are there in the stadium – they are the great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on in our living for Christ. And here they are now – generations of men and women who have lived and died for Christ – assembled on the mountain to glorify the one who saved them. We make our way through this massive throng until we come to the summit.

And then we come to the object of their attention: “You have come to God, the judge of all men.” There he is on his throne, in all his majesty and glory and when we come before him, there is no fear that enveloped the first mountain. Here is the judge, but he has already pronounced our judgment – innocent, justified, righteous, perfect – and we look beyond the throne and see the reason.

We see the altar, and there is Jesus, the Lamb who has been slain on our behalf and on the altar is the blood. This is not the blood of a bull or a goat; this is the blood of Jesus, God’s only Son. It is not old and dried – it is so fresh it still drips from the edges. And we approach the altar and we listen to it drip, drip, drip. And it seems to be calling out – we hear a word ringing in our ears. It is not the same word that Abel’s blood cried from the field where Cain had murdered him – “Revenge!” It is the word we heard ringing from the cross – “Forgiven.”

If you found yourself on that mountain this morning, what would you do?

You wouldn’t be looking at your watch thinking, I’ve got somewhere more important I’d rather be.

You wouldn’t be thinking about which restaurant you want to eat at after church, or yard work, or playing 9-holes, or a Sunday afternoon nap.

You wouldn’t be thinking, “I still find it hard to believe in God, and I’m sure all this religion stuff is just a waste of time.”

You wouldn’t be worrying about buying a new car, or a bigger house, or whether you have enough in your IRA for retirement.

Only one thing would be on your mind – worship.  Not just the show up for an hour and check that off your list of duties to perform kind of worship. You wouldn’t be thinking about how many songs you’ve sung or how long you had stood. You would be lost in wonder, love and praise. You would be singing with the angels, you would be shouting with the saints, you would be on your face before the throne of God.

The writer 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.”

There is only one way to worship God acceptably, and that is with reverence and awe. When was the last time you felt reverence and awe in worship? It’s been a while? Let me let you in on a secret – it’s not because we aren’t singing the right songs, or leading the right prayers, or preaching inspiring sermons. It’s because you haven’t been consumed by God’s fire.

I’m not talking about something mysterious or miraculous. It’s just that the only way God works in a person’s life is all or nothing. You can’t really experience the wonder and awesomeness of God a little bit – either you do or you don’t. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.” When God calls us into his presence, it is into the presence of a consuming fire. He doesn’t want us to just get a little sunburn, or singe our eyebrows, but to be consumed by his holy fire – not that we should be burned up, but that we should get fired up.

It was a remarkable day when David brought the ark of God to Jerusalem. For twenty years it had remained in obscurity in Kiriath Jearim. Before that it had been carried around in battle by the Israelites, until it was captured by the Philistines and wreaked devastation and disease on three cities before they sent it back to the Israelites. And then it was packed away and forgotten for two decades while Saul went into self-destruct mode. Now the day has come – they had had a disastrous false-start where Uzzah lost his life – but now they were ready to make the journey. Sacrifices are made, trumpets sound, and the people shout and cheer for the eight miles to Jerusalem.

The writer of 2 Samuel focuses our attention on David: David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:14-16) David, oblivious to anyone else, unconcerned with what people will think, is consumed in worship. He dances with all his might as he praises God and pours himself out in worship to God.

That may be one clue to our dilemma. When you are more concerned with your appearance or your performance or what others are thinking, than about God, it will be hard to be consumed in worship. And you can be sure, that when you are consumed in worship, somebody will think poorly of you. David’s wife Michal watched David leaping and dancing before the Lord and she despised him. When David arrived home later, she told him, “You made a fool out of yourself today.” And David’s response? David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD'S people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. (2 Samuel 6:21-22a) David knew who his real audience was.

Reverence and awe has little to do with quiet and dignified.

When God’s people returned from seventy years of Babylonian exile they set about rebuilding the Temple of God. On the day they laid the foundation, With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11-13)

Later, when Ezra reads the Law in Jerusalem for the first time after their return, 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. 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. (Neh. 8:5-6)

Three weeks later, they have continued reading the Law – by now they are fasting and wearing sackcloth and throwing dust on their heads as they confess their sins. And then the Levites call them out of their mourning to sing to praise God, “Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. ‘Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.’” (Nehemiah 9:5-6)

When we are consumed by God, our joy cannot be contained, our praise cannot be restrained, our worship can never be calm and uninvolved.

Worship is not a spectator sport – it is participatory, it is involved, it is full body contact. And when we reduce worship to a dignified hour of sitting in comfortable pew watching others, you can be sure we are not worshiping God acceptably with reverence and awe.

Worship is not about us. It’s not about what we like or prefer; it’s not about whether we are comfortable or our needs are being met. It’s not about getting my way, or singing my favorite songs. It’s not about whether we have 500 people or 5 show up. It’s about God. We don’t invite him into our worship service, he invites us up to his mountain. And on this mountain, it’s not about us, it’s about God. If all worship is for is you is putting in your hour in this room in your pew then all the issues and arguments and dislikes and complaints may seem important. But when we go up on God’s mountain to join the myriads of angels and the timeless church of the firstborn and stand at the foot of God’s throne and see the blood of the Lamb, they don’t mean a thing. It’s all about God. It’s all about a consuming fire that calls us to worship him with reverence and awe.