Form and Freedom


Deuteronomy 12:1-32

In our series of morning sermons on the worship we offer to God on the Lord’s Day – surely it is right from time to time to stop and consider what it is we do when we gather in this house every Sabbath day – we have so far considered the importance of corporate worship, its power to shape our persons and its nature as a conversation with God, as prayer in other words. Last time we demonstrated the authority of the entire Bible to direct our worship, to determine its content and its mode and manner. Having justified the first thirty-nine books of the Bible as part of our liturgical authority, we now read from one of them, Deuteronomy.

Chapter 12 opens a new section of the book, the longest section as a matter of fact. Following chapters 5-11 which set out the general obligations of the covenant God made with his people Israel, come now fifteen chapters that contain the specific and more detailed commandments of God’s law for his people, commandments covering matters as diverse as the distinction between clean and unclean foods and the management of criminal cases in court. But, interestingly, this section begins with regulations governing the right worship of God.

You will have noticed as we read that these laws were designed for the life of Israel once she was resident in the Promised Land. Verse 5, for example, refers to the yet unidentified place where the sacrifices were to be offered to the Lord. At first that would be where the tabernacle was located; eventually, of course, it would be Jerusalem with its temple. This is the kind of passage that modern Christians are likely to think of little if any use, but, in fact, like all the liturgical regulations in the Bible it contains a very important message for us today. Indeed, it bristles with relevance for the Christian worshipper today.

I never cease to be amazed at how the situation of the church today is so similar to what it was in Moses’ day and how the same warnings Moses gave to his contemporaries are as timely in our day as they were in his. In this matter of worship we live today amid circumstances which could hardly be more like those which faced Israel as she entered the Promised Land. And the counsel the Lord here gives his people Israel couldn’t be more relevant or more necessary for us today. What is that counsel? What does the Lord here tell his people about his worship?

Well among other things, the Lord tells them (and us) that in true worship there is no conflict between form and freedom. That is, though the church must worship God in a certain way, according to laws the Lord himself has laid down, the worship does not, for that reason, need to be without vitality and sincerity and pleasure. In this standard way of speaking, form refers to the content and the order of worship and freedom refers to the spirit in which it is done and there is no conflict between the two. Let me show you what I mean in two points.

I. First, notice how worship itself in this chapter is identified with the sincere and joyful engagement of the heart.

Did you notice as we read how regularly the worship of Israelite people at the sanctuary is described as an act of joy? In v. 7, the people who brought their sacrifices – and note that these regulations presume that the typical Israelite would worship not as an individual but together with his family – they were to come and rejoice. Churches have, as you know, sometimes separated men and women in worship. But the Bible doesn’t tell us to do that. The family is usually the worshipping unit in the Bible. Here husband, wife, and children rejoice and enjoy the presence of God together. Then in v. 12, when they came to offer sacrifices and pay their tithes – note that tithes and offerings were part of their formal worship of God in those days too – they were in those acts of worship to rejoice before the Lord your God. Once again, in v. 18, when at the temple they ate their sacrifices and special offerings – a better meal than they ordinarily ate at home, a feast really – they were to rejoice before the Lord with their families, servants, and the Levites, who were there to assist their worship.

The worship which God desires that his people give to him was not to be, was forbidden to be a mere performance, a going through of motions, a series of acts done in a spirit of mere duty or obligation, without the heart and without the emotions, without love, gratitude, and joy. No, the God who looks upon the heart and weighs the heart, has from the earliest times demanded that the honor and worship which his people pay him be as much a matter of their heart as of their performance of certain rituals and duties. He has done great things for them, is their merciful Savior and kind and loving Father in heaven. What they celebrate when they come to worship him is nothing less than the forgiveness of their sins and God’s gift to them of everlasting joy in life. Surely any true worship, any true thanksgiving offered to God for gifts such as these should be offered with joy.

And, contrarily, worship which was joyless, sacrifices and offerings without gladness in the heart, must be insincere, must be given without a true appreciation of what God’s grace means and how much it means and how glorious is his salvation. That is as true today as ever it was in the days of Moses. I think we understand that. If we come into this house of worship on a Sabbath morning and sing our hymns and offer our prayers and listen to the Word of God and come to the Table of the Lord with no real pleasure, with no real sense of the glory and the wonder of what God has done for us and of what God has promised to give us in the future and of the marvel that it is to be his children and to belong to his family – if, I say, we do not rejoice before the Lord when we are at worship, then our worship is not right and not fitting and must not be pleasing to Him, who deserves not outward motions from us, but joy in our hearts for all he has given to us.

I don’t deny that sometimes many of us come into this house of prayer with every kind of distraction, bowed down with every kind of sorrow, or enthused about things that have little to do directly with the worship of God.  No doubt faithful worshippers in Israel did as well. Such is human nature and such is human life. But when we come into this room, and the Lord is set before us as he is when the church is truly at worship, and when in our hymns and in the Word of God and in our prayers we give our hearts and minds to the divine majesty and the love and compassion and unlimited grace of our God and Savior and the marvelous life which will soon be ours in heaven – when we compare what we deserve to what we have been given – I say, other sorrows notwithstanding, other pleasures notwithstanding, or distractions  notwithstanding, it is only right that here of all places we should rejoice before the Lord. Indeed, here above all other times and places, we ought especially to rejoice before the presence of our Father who has promised that he will carry us through all our sorrows, employ them to the greatest good in our lives, and then eventually convert them into unadulterated and unmitigated joy in his presence in the heavenly city and has promised to bless all our pleasures if only we enjoy them by faith, acknowledge that they are his gift to us, and receive them as further motivation to live in obedience to his commandments.

Knowing what we know about God and about his salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord, you cannot name the situation or the circumstance, however heavy, however dark, in which we in this church, together and each individually, ought also not to have joy in our hearts when we are before the Lord God worshipping him.

That is the first thing: worship is to be offered with a truly joyful heart.

II. But notice a second concern in this chapter about the right worship of God: that worship must be offered according to the directions and the specifications of God’s law.

In our day, there are a great many Christian people who feel that this second point must be the contradiction of the first. They believe as a matter of course that worship ought to be joyful, but they also believe that it cannot be joyful if you have to offer the worship in a strictly ordered and stipulated way. If, they ask, we have to worship according to a set of rules, and are required to do this and that and only in this way and not that, where will the spontaneity, the happiness, or the emotion be? You cannot love according to a rule book, they say. Law stifles love. Regulation kills the spirit. Love must be free to find its own way and to express itself in its own manner. You can have joyful worship or you can have ordered and regulated worship, but, so many are saying today, you cannot have both at the same time.

But consider this teaching of the Word of God. However widely this opinion may be expressed in our day, even among evangelical Christians, it was not shared by Moses or, for that matter, by any other author of Holy Scripture. Nor was it the opinion of the Holy Spirit by whom Moses and the other authors of the Bible wrote the Scripture. For, as we have said, he insists that worship be joyful, but, in this same passage, he is still more insistent that Israel’s worship of God be offered according to the laws and regulations which had been laid down in God’s Word.

He makes this general point as an opening thesis in v. 4: “you may not worship the Lord in the manner in which the Canaanites worship.” And in the rest of the chapter he reiterates this point with specific reference to a variety of matters. In vv. 2 and 3 he orders them to destroy and never to use the venues for worship and the instruments of worship then popular in Canaan. Israel violated that commandment to her ruin as we are reading in Kings on Sunday evenings. In v. 5 he says that they cannot worship in various places as the pagans do, but only in that place God will appoint. They violated that rule as well to their ruin. In vv. 6-7 they are told that they must worship the Lord in the specific ways they have been taught: with certain kinds of offerings and gifts to be given in a certain way. In vv. 9ff. the point is reiterated, especially again with regard to the demand that the offerings be brought to the appointed place only.

In vv. 15ff. more regulations are mentioned touching these sacrificial meals and the proper way they were to be taken, and so on to the rest of the chapter. And then it is all brought to a conclusion in v. 32 where the Lord says again that Israel is to worship him as and only as he has taught them. They are not to add to the regulations governing worship and they are not to subtract from them. Verse 8 summarizes all of this material in a nutshell:

“You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit…” (Literally, “each man doing what is right in his own eyes.”)

There is hardly a better way to describe even much evangelical American worship in our day than to say simply that everyone is doing as he sees fit, that each church is doing what is right in its own eyes. But, the Lord is here telling us that he will be worshipped as he sees fit, not as we do. After all, does that not make perfect sense? How would you know, how could anyone know how the Almighty wishes to be worshipped? Does anyone here presume to be able to tell us what God wants to be done when his people worship him and how he would have us do it? Do you so know the mind and character and glory of God yourself that you can say how he ought to be worshipped and what is fitting and appropriate for his worship? How could we ever answer such questions unless God should tell us himself how he ought to be worshipped? And he has told us; in his Word!

You would never let someone manage your investments who didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond. You would never ask to be taught how to play the piano by someone who couldn’t tell you what notes were where on the keyboard. But many will let almost anyone tell them how to worship the Almighty! They will not ask how carefully they have studied the law of God regarding worship, what they understand to be the biblical regulations of worship, how they form a liturgy according to the teaching of the Bible, and so on. They never think to ask such questions because in their view God’s law has little to do or nothing to do with their worship. But it is not so. God’s laws are the truest friends of true worship, of deep and sincere and joyful worship; they are not the enemy of joy but its helpers.

Why should worshipping according to God’s rules kill joy and pleasure if those rules help us please God? Rules protect the pleasure. A baseball game is not more fun when the rules are forgotten or ignored or broken. A marriage is not more loving and happy when God’s rules for the conduct of husband and wife are ignored or broken. governing marriage are broken. The word for “Law” in the Bible is torah which means “instruction” as much as it means “commandment.” God’s law tells us how to do worship in the best way, the way that God will most approve and reward. Surely we need that information, do we not? And surely we want it if we are Christians at all?

God wants our worship of him to be full of true joy in our hearts, but he wants it to be offered according to his Word and law. He clearly does not see the two things to be in contradiction at all: true worship is to be at one and the same time, joyful and lawful; heartfelt and true to God’s self-revelation at one and the same time. This is some of what the Lord Jesus meant when he said that our heavenly Father was seeking men and women to worship him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). And I suspect most Christians, even if they have not thought about it all, would accept that there must be some regulation of worship and that this regulation must be found in the Bible.

Some weeks ago Florence and I were at worship at a Sunday morning service in Kampala, Uganda. I had been asked to preach at a congregation of the Church of Uganda, that is, the Anglican church of Uganda, home to some 8 million of Uganda’s 33 million people. It was a large church that had just bought property in the center city, near the clock tower, one of Kampala’s best known landmarks. There were a thousand people at worship that morning and much of what they did in worship would have seemed entirely normal to us. They sang praise to God, they offered prayers to him, they heard the Word of God preached, and so on. But this worship service also included something not found anywhere in the Word of God, not in the regulations concerning worship and not in any example of the faithful at worship we are provided in the Bible.

After the sermon they had some of the better-heeled folk in the church come to the front and say how much they were pledging to the building fund. The church had just broken ground on their new building but obviously had a great deal of money still to raise. The first man to speak, a government official, told the congregation that he was giving so many million shillings to the effort. But there was more. It is a custom in Uganda, apparently, that on such occasions the man would invite some of his friends and ask them, as a favor to him, to donate to the church building fund. There were six or eight others who were asked how much they planned to give and gave an answer through the microphone. There was, as you might expect, a good bit of banter, of laughter, and of applause from the congregation. Then after all of that was done, everyone in the congregation who planned to give five million shillings or more (a dollar is worth about 2,300 shillings) was asked to come to the front of the church and receive the church’s applause.

Now churches raise money in many different ways, but I suspect most American evangelicals would be troubled by all of that. This was certainly not a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. This was not obviously taking care not to do one’s works before men, to be seen by them. But, I was told later, it fit very naturally into Ugandan culture which celebrates power and influence and seeks the notice of it. Should we do such things in our worship? If not, why not? I suspect most Christians would say that it is unbiblical, unchristian to turn a worship service, a conversation with God, into a sales convention or an awards ceremony. But if we say that we are duty bound then to ask, “Well, if the Bible forbids that, what else does it forbid and, even more important, what does it require.” If we are going to turn to Holy Scripture in the one instance, why not in respect to the entire matter of divine worship?

I have been to many different sorts of worship services as I’m sure you have. Some of them were utterly dull and lifeless. Orthodox to be sure, but utterly lacking vitality and I found myself struggling to stay awake the entire time. I was relieved when the service was over. I have also attended some services that were full of enthusiasm but virtually empty of any real content or substance. I wasn’t tempted to fall asleep, but I had little sense of actually worshipping God. I have attended other services that were reverent, substantial, and full of vitality. I left the church refreshed and renewed in my faith in God and in Christ Jesus his Son. Some other services I have attended were really entertaining. It was very like a show. That is no slur; the creators of such services were intending to make them seem familiar and accessible to people who have grown up in an entertainment-soaked culture. They made them shows on purpose so as to make them attractive to unbelievers. We heard singing groups perform, we saw a play – short but quite well done in one case –, there was a good bit of laughter during the sermon; the congregation did almost nothing but watch and listen, but nobody fell asleep. I have been to worship services in both England and the United States in which female dancers pirouetted down the aisle as the service began.

So which is it to be? And how are we to decide? Well, begin here. Israel didn’t invent its way of worshipping God. It didn’t appoint a worship committee with Moses and Aaron as ex-officio members to develop a manual of worship. It didn’t fashion a worship service that would serve the vision statement that the congregation had approved at its last meeting! Its pattern of worship was revealed directly by God. It was in fact quite different in many respects from the worship of everybody else. Very interestingly – and this is a point I have made before and will make again –  much was left to prudent development and Israel’s freedom. We have specific directions regarding parts and pieces of Israel’s worship, but we don’t know the precise order in which all those parts were arranged; we don’t know who did what apart from the sacrifices and the sermons, we don’t know the extent to which a choir was used. We know of the temple choirs but we don’t know much about how their singing was integrated into the worship of the people of God. Several of the psalms, for example, were used in connection with the burnt offerings because they mention burnt offerings in their texts, but where they were sung in the liturgy, whether they were sung by choir or people, and when they were sung we don’t know. There was a great deal of freedom given to God’s people to order their worship so long as it was ordered in keeping with the overarching laws of worship they had been given.

But much was decided for the people of God by God himself. He appointed the call to worship, the singing of hymns, the confession of sin – there was explicit confession of sin by the people in Israel’s worship – the offering of petitions, the giving of gifts, the hearing of the Word of God, a sacramental meal, a benediction. All of this was his Law that his people were expected to obey. And, like all of God’s law, it was meant for our blessing and help.

Ancient near Eastern worship was predictably different. It drew on the tastes and the preferences of that culture, on their philosophy of life, on their theology, pagan and polytheistic as it was. It reflected human tastes and preferences. It was easy to get to; the nearest high place was much closer than Shiloh or later Jerusalem. It was much more sensual and exciting. It was erotic in its very nature. It traded on sex as a means to power. The liturgy of the American mall, which we talked about some sermons back in this series, has nothing on the liturgy of ANE paganism. It was Victoria’s Secret and much, much more right in church! No wonder that Israel was tempted by this worship as soon as she entered the Promised Land. It recalls Mark Twain’s remark in Tom Sawyer that “church ain’t shucks to the circus.” The circus has also its own liturgy and its own vestments. The women are always scantily clad. Why? Because it draws an audience, especially of men, just as ANE worship drew an audience. But then Israel was commanded not to worship as the Canaanites did! Surely we ought to be very careful before we make our worship services more familiar to this culture. That is precisely what Israel did to her spiritual ruin!

I want to say to you younger people especially that we consider nothing so important to the future welfare, blessing, and fidelity of this congregation than that you become and remain true worshippers of God, committed to worshipping him in both a biblical form and the freedom of a burning heart. If you will heed the lesson of Deuteronomy 12 we have no doubt that this church and this congregation will continue to be faithful to the Lord, nourished as it will be week by week with the true worship of God.

Look, we are perfectly well aware that we could have more exciting and entertaining services here at Faith than we do. We could add video to our morning service as many churches have. We could hire someone to organize a drama troupe in the church and present small plays each week as part of our service, plays that present some lesson of faith or life. We could form some singing groups that would sing to you each Sunday morning. We could invite special guests and one of the ministers or elders could interview him or her for ten or twelve minutes as part of the service. This church has enough people with real ability and high standards of professionalism in art, music, and drama that I have no doubt that we could put on a very interesting, very entertaining Sunday service. We might even, I suspect we would, be able to attract more people. We could add a service on Saturday night so that those who wanted to play golf on Sunday morning could come to church. But aren’t these precisely the equivalents of the Canaanite high place services in our day? What are our great forms of entertainment: the television show, the movie, the celebrity, the video game, sports, and so on. No wonder more and more church worship services are full of plays, movies, and celebrities and no wonder they are scheduled so as not to interfere with sports. No wonder such services are popular.

Well, then, why don’t we conform our services to reflect the preferences of our culture? Because our culture is very like that of Canaan in the 14th century B.C. And God told us not to worship as the Canaanites did. Because God has told us how to worship him and we must do as he says. It is as simple as that. People like services that are set free from biblical regulation and include features taken from the surrounding culture – people always have; they liked it in Israel’s day and they like it in our day – not because they know that God is pleased with such a service but precisely because they like such services and find them a pleasure to attend. They might still call them worship services, but they are not really worship, not really prayer. They are services for those who attend and only for them.

But always remember this: the Lord knows best. Our heavenly Father knows what is good for us, he knows what will prove most conducive to our happiness, he knows how to make us the people we ought to be and his worship on his day is one of the principle instruments he uses to shape and mold us in his image. When we do our own thing in the worship of God we are as much as claiming to be wiser than He! No Christian wants to do that.

And then remember, what people seek in other forms of worship, the forms that cannot be found taught or recommended in the Bible, are invariably the things God promises to give us in a pure and life-giving way when we worship him according to his Word and with ready and grateful hearts. No one in the history of mankind has ever missed out on one iota of God’s blessing because he stuck to the Bible as his or her authority for the worship of God.

When I was a lad of nine or ten years of age, I gave my Dad a record for his birthday – this was an LP. Some of you don’t know what LP’s are, but this was the day before CDs and long before the day of the iTunes Store. The truth of the matter was that the record was one that I wanted to have, but was not one my Dad would ever have chosen for himself or be likely to listen to. I suppose when I bought it, I justified my choice with the thought that if I liked it, then he would like it too. But, and I remember this very distinctly, as if it were yesterday – the feeling has stayed with me all these years – I remember being very ashamed when he opened my gift, because, at that moment, it was so obvious that the gift I had supposedly given to him, I was really giving to myself. He got that record because I wanted to listen to it not because I thought he would enjoy listening to it. Do you see the point? What does the Lord want: that is the key! Are we in church to please him or ourselves?

God has told us to worship him on the Sabbath day, to order the parts of the worship service in a meaningful way, to sing to him songs of praise and love and faith which are like the Psalms, to give offerings, to offer prayers of confession and penitence, to raise our petitions to him, to read with reverence his holy Word and to listen to it preached to us, to enjoy a meal together in his presence, a meal that comes from his own sacrifice for us, and then to receive his blessing as we depart. He has commanded us to kneel when we pray and to raise our hands and to do all that we do with our hearts as well as our voices and bodies.

The proper form in the full freedom of the heart: that has from the very beginning been the prescription for the right worship of God. That is the safe way, that is the good way, that is the way God has promised to bless and reward. It may not be the circus, but the circus can’t fulfill your life the way God can!