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Worship is a verb

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Isaiah 1:10-20

One of the more famous Abraham Lincoln stories is told about the time when he was keeping store in Salem, Illinois, and had a beautiful gun prominently displayed so all his customers would see it. The little plaque under it said that it was made from the finest Swedish steel, its stock from the best black walnut wood, all crafted by a world-famous

gunsmith. It was beautiful, and its price was very reasonable.

On the next rack was an old long barrel Kentucky squirrel rifle made from ordinary gun steel. It stock was just an ordinary wooden stock. Its gunsmith was competent but by no means famous. But its price was much higher.

One day a farmer in the market for a new gun noticed the shiny new rifle on display. He asked Abe, “Why is that good gun so cheap and the other gun so high?” Honest Abe replied, “That gun won’t shoot. The other one will.” Then he picked up the squirrel rifle, sighted a squirrel-sized object a hundred yards away, and hit it dead center. The farmer bought the squirrel gun.

Some time later a rich farmer was decorating a room in his new country estate. He needed a gun for show over the fireplace mantle just under the heads of three big game trophies. The fancy gun was perfect for the purpose. It couldn’t shoot, but that was all right. It was just for show.

Worship is a lot like those two guns. Some is for real, the rest for show.

Sometimes our worship is a thing, an end in itself, a show, a religious event and observance and habit—worship as a noun. Sometimes worship is an action, a relationship—worship as a verb. The kind of worship which makes God your King, which empowers your life and your service.

Life is too challenging to face without this power. You don’t have to go it alone. Your Father in heaven wants to empower you when you’re weak, to comfort you when you’re lonely, to guide you when you’re confused, to forgive you when you fail.

The Christianity I learned to follow told me that life is supposed to be hard, faith a struggle, sin a constant battle.

But I was wrong. Paul sang hymns of praise at midnight in a Philippian jail, and encouraged the Philippian Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). John met the risen and exalted Christ even on the prison Alcatraz called Patmos. Nero inspected the remains of martyrs fed to lions and crucified as human torches, and found smiles on their faces. God intends the Christian life to be filled with triumphant joy.

And so it will be for us, if worship is a verb. Only when our worship is a verb, is it acceptable to God. Only then is it received in the throne room of heaven. Only then does it transform our lives and give us significance and joy. Only when worship is a verb. Let’s learn how to make it so.

Worship as a noun (vs. 10-16)

The Judeans of Isaiah’s day provide the best picture in Scripture of worship as a thing, an end in itself, a noun. They show us that this kind of worship can be only show, and still involve every element we will employ today.

They presented gifts, a “multitude” or “vast number” (v. 11a), corresponding to our offertory and tithes and offerings.

They presented to the Lord their “burnt offerings” (v. 11b), rams or fattened animals consumed by the fire at the altar.

But God calls their gifts “meaningless offerings” and commands that they stop bringing them (v. 13a).

They presented themselves in public worship, the “trampling of my courts” (v. 12). The people were crowding into the Temple. We would say that church attendance was at an all time high. But God tells them to stop.

They presented public acts of worship:

They employed incense (v. 13), frankincense, sweet incense burned in worship.

They marked the New Moons (v. 14), special sacrifices they made each month.

They observed the Sabbaths, their weekly worship festivals.

They kept “convocations,” solemn meetings and special times of fasting.

They remembered the “appointed feasts”—Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Every element of Jewish worship is included in these two verses, nothing excluded. Zealous public worship. But what does God say of it? He calls them “evil assemblies” (v. 13), “a burden to me” (v. 14).

They presented prayers (15-16a):

The people “spread out your hands in prayer,” and offered “many prayers” (v. 15).

But God would not look upon their hands, for they were “full of blood” (v. 15b) from sin; he would not listen to their “many prayers.”

Their worship was sacrificial, popular, and zealous, including every element of Jewish tradition and “many prayers” as well. But God rejected it at every point. When our worship is intended to impress each other rather than our King, for public show rather than personal submission, the expression of proud people rather than broken hearts, he always will. If our hearts are wrong with God, our worship cannot be right.

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

“Hear, O earth: I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law. What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (Jeremiah 6:19-20).

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

“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. Though you bring me choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).

Worship as a verb (16-20)

Until Isaiah’s people were right with God in their hearts, they could not be right in their worship. Neither can we.

So, what do we do?

Get honest with God (v. 18a).

“Come now,” urges the Lord. He is the shepherd calling his sheep to himself, inviting them, welcoming them, urging them home.

“Let us reason together”—the words in the Hebrew mean, “Let us argue it out.” Be honest before the Lord. If you’re angry with him, tell him so. If you’re frustrated by his will, or feel that he hasn’t answered your prayers, or believe that he has let you down, say so to him. He already reads your mind and knows your heart this moment. Tell him how you feel, honestly.

As you do so, you will see yourself as God sees you. When Isaiah came to God after Uzziah had died, there was undoubtedly tragic grief and bitter frustration in his heart. Uzziah was Isaiah’s cousin, as well as the best king the nation had known in generations. How could you allow his death? Why would you cause it or permit it? He came to God in honesty.

And when he was honest with God, he became honest with himself. He saw that the “unclean lips” were his own, that the heart and soul which needed to be cleansed and changed belonged not to God but to himself.

Early one morning, a commuting businessman was walking from his car to the subway when a passing taxi splashed water on his trousers. In the early dawn light, it didn’t look too bad. But as he came closer to the lights of the subway station, the stain appeared a little worse, so he tried to brush it off. When he stood at the station, in the full glare of its fluorescent lights, he realized that he needed to go home and change his clothes.

The evil one likes to turn down the lights of our morality slowly, so that our eyes adjust to the darkness. The first step in every Twelve Step program is the same: admit you are powerless over sin, that you cannot defeat it in your own strength. It’s the first step to worship God accepts, worship as a verb. Get honest with God.

Next, believe God can change you (v. 18b).

His promise is clear and remarkable: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be as wool” (v. 18b).

Here the stained fabric is not just covered but cleansed and changed. “They shall be,” not just “they shall look like.” Scarlet will become snow white; crimson will become wool.

You and I can change our behavior, but only God can change our heart, our personality, the essence of who we are. Only he can remove our desire to sin, and replace it with a desire to be godly. Only he can lift the yoke of addiction, the burden of repetitive moral failure, the shame and guilt of our closeted skeletons and sinful past. Only he can change us. But he can.

I know a man who murdered his wife, who is now a minister of the word. A Satanist high priest who is now a preacher. A convicted drug trafficker who is an evangelist. Believe God can change you, and he will. And your worship will please him.

Repent in obedience (v. 19).

We come to God in honesty, believing that he will forgive and change us. But now we must be “willing and obedient” (v. 19). Willing to repent; obedient to the word and will of God.

How? Twelve Step programs tell us to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of our lives. Take paper and pen today, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything wrong between you and God, or you and one of his children. Write it down. Admit it to God and to yourself. Ask his forgiveness. Go the people you have harmed, if it is in their best interest for you to do so, and ask their forgiveness as well.

Where your life is out of the will and word of God, correct your course. Change your direction. Ask God to help you, and he will. And your worship will honor him.

Do it now (v. 20).

But you must do this now. We have only this day, this moment, to take these steps, to get right with God. If we “resist and rebel,” we will be “devoured by the sword” (v. 20). For Judah, this warning came true literally, as their armies and nation fell to the armed might of Babylon. For you and me, we are devoured by the sword of sin, of moral failure, and of Satan. We are at war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is the only way to victory. The only way to worship as a verb.

Conclusion

Sin leads to death. Always and inevitably. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Physical death is its result. So is relational death when we sin against others; marital death when we sin against our spouse. There is emotional death, financial death, spiritual death, and eternal death. Sin leads to death. It is cancer of the soul.

And it keeps us from worship which God accepts. We can go through the pretense of public worship, as did the people of Isaiah’s time. But God will not receive our worship, and we’ll just go through the motions.

And so we will make a time for confession each week in worship. And I urge you to make such a time for your soul every day. Get honest with your Father; believe he can change you; repent in obedience; do it now. And your worship will put God first. It will please your Father, and transfuse your life with the joy of Jesus Christ.

We’ll begin today. Will you accept the invitation of your King?