Truly preparing to worship

Worship serviceWe prepare to go to church. That’s not quite the same as preparing for worship. It is quite possible to come to church and go home without having worshiped.

Some churches make it nearly impossible for anyone to worship.

I’m thinking in particular of a service where the sermon was little more than a book review and the congregation had little chance to participate. Or of other services where the sermon has consisted of the preacher explaining away what the Scripture lesson clearly taught.

But even in churches where the content of the service is good and the congregation has ample ways to participate, it is too easy just to go through the motions and leave unmoved.

Alas, I have been in services where I have been so weighed down with my own thoughts that I barely notice anything. I have been to church, but not to worship.

The Bible has stories that illustrate how and how not to prepare for worship. This post will examine David and the ark of the covenant.

David’s wrong way to retrieve the ark

Death of Uzzah

Death of Uzzah / Giulio Quaglio the Younger (1668–1751)

Generations before David, two evil priests decided to carry the ark into battle with the Philistines, as if a magic box would scare them and guarantee victory. I described that incident earlier in a post about their father Eli

The ark remained at Kiriath Jearim for generations—throughout the ministry of Samuel and the reign of Saul. Once David captured Jerusalem and made it his capital, it bothered him that there was no national worship center after the destruction of Shiloh, and that no one seemed to care much about the ark.

He determined to bring the ark to Jerusalem and build a tabernacle to enshrine it. The people would then have a proper place to worship with the ark, the very presence of the living God, properly at the center.

So he gathered an army of 30,000 men to go to Kiriath Jearim and retrieve the ark. It had all the trappings of a military expedition to bring back a prize to enhance the new capital’s prestige.

David loved God. No doubt about that. But his behavior betrays other motivations that overshadowed that love. Once he and his army arrived, they treated the ark like an article of fine furniture and set it on an ox cart.

A man named Uzzah had the honor of walking next to the cart. When the oxen stumbled, the ark started to slip off the cart. Uzzah put his hand out to steady it and promptly dropped dead.

The celebratory mood vanished. David was angry with God and afraid, so he left the ark at the home of a foreigner named Obed-Edom. God greatly blessed Obed-Edom.

David’s correct way to retrieve the ark

David dancing before the ark

David Dancing before the Ark / James Tissot (1836-1902). The Jewish Museum, New York.

Some time later, David decided to try again. This time, he successfully brought the ark back and danced with all his might ahead of it as it came into Jerusalem to its new home. Something more than the outcome was different this time: 

Then David summoned the priests Zadok and Abiathar, and the Levites Uriel, Asaiah, Joel, Shemaiah, Eliel, and Amminadab,  and said to them, “You are the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites. Consecrate yourselves, you and your brothers, so that you may bring up the ark of the Lord, the God of Israel, to the place that I have prepared for it. Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule.” So the priests and the Levites consecrated themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord. 1 Chronicles 15:11-15 (ESV)

What was different?

  • He had studied the Scriptures to find out God’s will
  • He took Levites instead of an army
  • He had the Levites consecrate themselves before they went to get the ark

What it means today

We see from David’s initial failure that there are consequences of approaching God thoughtlessly, selfishly, or thinking primarily of what advantages and benefits we want for ourselves.

We might not have a corpse on our hands, but the experience will certainly be a disappointment. At first, David was angry with God and afraid to continue with his project.

How many of us have been disappointed with God and essentially abandoned him at the side of the road? Probably all of us at one time or another.

If David’s failure is a picture of how we get it wrong, what he did next models how to prepare to get it right. He went back and studied the Scriptures.

  • He learned about how the ark was made and all of the other objects and practices that went along with it.
  • He learned that there was a special tent that the ark was kept in.
  • He learned that the various divisions of the Levites all had special tasks in caring for the ark that no one else was allowed to do.
  • He learned that the priests and Levites were expected to consecrate themselves in a purifying ceremony before offering their service.
  • He recognized that the proper way to prepare for worship is to put God first and obey his instructions.

At the same time David was so careful to observe ancient practices, he was not hesitant to do new things. The duties of the Levites had been assigned at a time when Israel was constantly on the move.  Each division had specific duties for what part of the tabernacle to pack up and carry.

They had not been assigned new duties after Israel settled in the land and the tabernacle stayed in one place. David reassigned them to specific duties in leading worship.

He also oversaw the writing of new worship songs and poetry. He was a great poet, of course, and wrote much of it himself. It is the foundation of the book of Psalms.

What matters in worship?

Worshiping the golden calf

Worshiping the golden calf, as in Exodus 32:1-35, illustration from a Bible card published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company

Is it the style and form? Or is it the theological content? Or is it the attitude and spiritual state of the worshipper? There is only possible answer: Yes.

As to spiritual state, I have found that if I am not receptive, it doesn’t matter if the Holy Spirit shows up in the service. If he’s moving, I’ll be like a rock in the stream—completely unmoved by the stream going past.

If I am going to worship, as opposed to just being in church, I must prepare my heart to be sensitive to God.

Have you ever left church thinking, or even saying, that you didn’t get anything out of the service?

Whether you got something out of it or you didn’t isn’t any of your business! Worship is not about you. You are not the audience for the preacher and the choir. You ought to be a full participant—in spirit and in truth. The only proper audience at a worship service is God himself.

It is quite possible to worship God in spirit and in truth even if the sermon is empty, the choir sings badly, the organist plays the hymns too slowly (or the worship band has the amplifiers up so loud your ears hurt), and the room is terribly uncomfortable. In fact, not only is it possible, God requires it.

But the question about theological content is important, too. What eventually wrecked the kingdom of Israel was not paganism so much as syncretism. Pagan worship did not supplant worship of the living God, but crept in alongside it. They wound up with an unholy mixture.

The same thing is happening today. Church buildings are built and services are organized to make people feel comfortable more than to direct their thoughts toward God.

Many people are offended by the notion that no one comes to God except through Jesus, so many churches are quite content to stop teaching that. There is much about the moral standards of Biblical Christianity that makes people uncomfortable. So too many churches go along.

Too many churches are tempted to stay up to date, to keep up with the times, to be socially acceptable. That means they have to relax the moral standards and accept behavior that God forbids.

The congregation that turns its back on the revealed will of God to accommodate the world will die. It might continue to attract lots of people. It might have great prestige in the community. It might even have loud, exciting services. But it’s dead.

You can worship in a dead church if you happen to visit one. Just don’t keep going back. Don’t let Uzzah be your functional role model!

Photo credits:
Worship service. Some rights reserved by pikchergirl
Death of Uzzah. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
David dancing. Public domain
Worshiping the golden calf. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

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