Form and Freedom in Worship, Deuteronomy 12:1-32

‘Form and Freedom in Worship’ Deuteronomy 12:1-32 July 12, 1992

This chapter opens the next major section of the Book of Deuteronomy. So far we have considered the first four chapters which we said were an historical introduction or prologue, an account of the previous relationship between the parties to this covenant, the Lord and his people Israel. Those were followed by chapters 5-11 which set out the general commandments or stipulations of the covenant with repeated exhortations to Israel to keep the covenant which God was making with her. Now we begin the third and longest section of the Book, stretching from 12:1 to 26:15. These chapters contain the specific stipulations or legislation, covering matters as diverse as worship and the management of criminal cases in court.

Chapter 12 begins with regulations governing the right worship of God. You will have noticed as we read that these laws are designed for the life of lsrael once she is 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.

Now, this chapter has a very important message for us today. I never cease to be amazed at how the situation of the church today is so very 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 then. In this matter of worship we live in the church 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? He tells them 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 rules he has laid down, the worship does not, for that reason, need to be without vitality and sincerity and pleasure. Let me show you what I mean in two points.

First, notice how worship itself in this chapter is identified with the sincere and joyful engagement of the heart. Did you notice how regularly the worship of Israelite people at the sanctuary is described as an act ofjoy? In v. 7, the people who brought their sacrifices — and note that, characteristically, they worshipped not as individuals but as families — they were to come and rejoice. Then in v. 12, when they come 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, as they eat their sacrifices and special offerings at the tabernacle and temple they are to rejoice before the Lord with their families, servants, and the Levites who are there to assist their worship.

The worship which God desired 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 enthusiasm. 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 had done great things for them, was their most merciful Savior and most kind and loving Father in heaven. What they celebrated when they came to worship him was nothing less than the forgiveness of their sins and God’s gift to them of himself and of everlasting life. Surely any true worship, any true thanksgiving would be offered with joy.

And, contrarily, worship which was joyless, sacrifices and offerings without joy and gladness of heart, must be insincere, must be given without a true appreciation of what they mean and how much they mean and how glorious is the salvation which they were intended to depict and represent and illustrate. That is as true today as ever it was in the days of Moses. 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 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 good and not right and not fitting and cannot be pleasing to Him, who deserves not motions from us, but joy in our hearts for knowing him.

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 and pain. 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 thoughts of 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, I say, other sorrows notwithstanding, it is only right that here of all places we should rejoice before the Lord, indeed especially rejoice before the presence of our Father who has ensured and who has promised that he will carry us through all our sorrows, employ them to the greatest good in our lives, and then finally convert them into unadulterated and unmitigated joy in his presence in the heavenly city. 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 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.

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 many who feel that this second point is the contradiction of the first. They believe 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 say, 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 be the spontaneity, where will be the joy? You cannot love according to a rule book, they say. Law stifles love. 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.

However widely this opinion may be expressed in our day, even among evangelical Christians, it was not shared by Moses or by any other author of Holy Scripture, nor is it the opinion of the Holy Spirit by whom Moses and the other authors of the Bible wrote the Scripture. For, as we saw, 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 many laws and regulations which have been laid down.

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.

In v. 5 he says that they cannot worship in various places as the pagans do, but only where God says.

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. Don’t add to the regulations regarding worship and don’t 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 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, and not as we choose. After all, does that not make perfect sense. How would you know, how could we 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 them 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, comprehensively in his Word? And why should worshipping according to God’s rules kill joy and pleasure? 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 governing marriage are broken.

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.

Now, I want to speak to the young people especially this morning about what God is teaching us in Deuteronomy 12. This is a lesson especially hard for young people, I think — though it is hard enough for adults — but one that is most important to learn. And we not only want you to learn it, but to love it and embrace it for your whole lives. We want nothing more for you than that you should become true worshippers of God and should prize the assembly of the saints for the worship of our Holy God. And if you heed for all your lives the Lord’s commandments here in Deuteronomy 12, we will have no worry that this church will be a church which truly worships God for generations to come. And that will be our blessing, for the Lord has said that those who honor him, he will honor.

Now, this is what I want to say to you children and young people. We could have a much more exciting and entertaining service on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings than we have now. For example, we could do what some churches do and install a large screen here in the front and show a Christian movie or some other kind of video program as part of our service. Or, we could do what a number of other churches are now doing and hire some talented folk who would give little plays as part of our service, drama sketches which teach something about God or about the Christian life. And we could sing differently than we do, with lots of choruses and real peppy music. Many churches are doing this. We could have professional singers too, come and perform a number of songs as part of our morning service or have special guests from the Christian community and have me or pastor Skogen interview them, and have them speak about their accomplishments and answer questions about what the Lord means to them and so forth.

This church has enough people with high standards and abilities so that we could, I’m sure, put on a very interesting Sunday morning service that would be a lot of fun to attend. Frankly, I don’t doubt that we might be able to attract many more people to our church with such a service than now come to our Sunday worship. Many churches are putting on these services and are doing them so well that not only are many more people attending but there isn’t a bored person in the house from the beginning of the Sunday service to its end.

Perhaps some of you are thinking: I’d enjoy such a service, with a movie or a play and some special musical numbers and famous guests being interviewed on the front platform. I would really be happy to come to church for a service like that! Well, that’s natural enough. I’m sure I would find such a service very interesting and entertaining too. In fact, I’ve been to some services like that and they were very interesting and I wasn’t bored once!

There is only one problem with Sunday services like that. They are not the worship we are taught in Holy Scripture to offer to God. They are full of things you cannot find in the Bible and lack much of what the Bible tells us to offer to God in our worship of him. And whatever people may try to claim to the contrary, services like that are not really for God; they are for us. People like them 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, they are services for those who attend. Some churches are honest enough to admit this and have another service for worship on some other day of the week, but the Bible says that the Sabbath is the day of sacred assembly and Holy Scripture has not left us free to change God’s rules in that way.

Mark Twain has Tom Sawyer say ‘Church ain’t shucks to the circus.’ And it’s true. Church isn’t nearly as entertaining as the circus. That was exactly the problem and the temptation which Israel faced as she entered the promised land. Her church services weren’t nearly as exciting or as entertaining as the church services of the Canaanites. Those services were easy to get to — you didn’t have to travel to Shiloh or later to Jerusalem — they were full of sex and violence — nobody was ever bored at a Canaanite high place church service! And no sooner had Israel settled in the promised land than there were folk who were attracted by those Canaanite services and were trying to make their own services more like them. No doubt the arguments were the same. More people will come if the services are more interesting. Doesn’t God want more people in church? People are bored with our present worship. God can’t be pleased, after all, with a church full of bored people. And, so on.

It’s the same today. What are the services of present day paganism? What are the equivalents of the Canaanite high place services in our day? They are our great forms of entertainment: the play, the movie, the celebrity and so on. And so, more and more, church worship services are full of plays, movies, and celebrities.

But where is God in all of this? Where are the laws he laid down according by which he is to be worshipped. What must he think as he looks down upon a service which is supposed to be for him, but is really for the people themselves?

When I was a lad of nine or ten years of age, I gave my Dad a record for his birthday — this was in the days before CDs. 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 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.

And I think the same thing is happening more and more and more in churches today. Christians are ostensibly worshipping God, say they are worshipping God, but what they do is really for themselves. The question that is important to them is not whether this is what God has said is right and fitting for his worship but is rather whether this is interesting and helpful to me, to us, or to others.

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 and meet that standard, to give offerings, to offer prayers of confession and penitence, to raise our petitions to him, to renew before him our faith in Christ and his salvation, to read with reverence his holy Word and to listen to it preached to us. To kneel and to raise our hands and to do all that we do with our hearts as well as our voices and bodies. Much more could be said about what God has taught us in his Word about true worship,

Now, I am not at all saying that all worship which is offered to God according to the laws of Holy Scripture will look or sound exactly the same. There is much room for differences of style, of culture, of manner. But true worship will conform to his rule as well as be joyful in heart.

Don’t think that this is a small thing, or not an important issue. It was this problem, this wanting worship to be more entertaining and exciting and interesting, which finally ruined the faith of Israel in the Old Testament. In chasing after the worldly way, they finally stopped worshipping God altogether and began to worship only themselves and false gods — though still claiming to be true Israelites. And the same thing can ruin the church in our own day. It is a much easier thing and a much more popular thing to devise a service which everybody finds entertaining and interesting. It is a much harder thing truly to worship God. That must be done his way, not ours, but still must be done with all our hearts and with joy in our hearts.

That takes preparation before we come to church that our hearts may be warm and right before God and wanting to worship him and it takes determination of will from the beginning of the service to its end to force our concentration to remain upon God only and to do every act — whether a prayer or a hymn or hearing the Word — before the Lord and for the Lord and as an offering to the Lord. And all the while, one must practice true joy in the Lord so that nothing is done as a mere duty, but all is happily a work of love and thanksgiving to God. It is work, hard work. But, those who have learned to worship God this way, will all tell you that it is the most satisfying and the most happy work they ever do. It is work so rewarding as not to be thought work at all.

Perhaps not so many people will come to such true worship, as would come if we remade our service to be entertaining and interesting to them. Unbelievers will certainly find it less appealing, but, we will be worshipping God and that is all that matters. Otherwise, no matter what we say, we are only giving our Father in heaven a gift we really intend for ourselves.

But, some may say, I need a service that helps me! Yes, you do. But where does true help come from? He who loses his life…. He who honors me…. All these services for men have left men weaker and weaker; the old services for God made men and women strong in faith and love.

I’m reading these days a biography of Charles Simeon. Simeon had a very high view of worship. He taught that it is not worship if it is not given joyfully to the Lord from the heart. But, he also taught that worship, to be true and right, must conform to the standards and rules set in Holy Scripture. He lived in a day when most worship was simply going through motions. People paid no attention to what was being prayed, sung, or said. And Simeon would have none of that! If God is to be honored, the church must mean everything it says. But it must continue to say all that it should say to God according to the Scriptures. Simeon was a firm believer in a worship service or liturgy which had everything in it which Scripture commands and in a meaningful order and in which the congregation addressed everything directly to God. He used to say that ‘The finest sight short of heaven would be a whole congregation using the prayers of the Liturgy in the true spirit of them.’

Much of the rest of the church is going another way. Let it not be so here! Let no church surpass us in vitality and joy; but let our joy flow through those acts which God has ordered to be part of his worship and through the channel of a worship which is from him and to him and for him from beginning to end.

Church ain’t shucks to the circus. But, then, we come to church not to watch a circus, but to revere and thank and honor and praise and love and serve the Lord God.