The tendency in modern churches and modern worship is toward the casual. Churches emphasize their casual, laid-back atmosphere. Groups shape their services not to cause discomfort for those who are outside of the faith. Believers think and speak of God as one might speak of a neighbor or grandpa.
The modern shift toward the casual is understandable in a way, but our actions have grown far from the source. We have learned to reject the notion of requiring a shirt and tie to enter the building. WE have learned to welcome the downtrodden, and that forces a relaxing of dress codes and such. WE have walked away from a false rigidity in how we think of the service so that children are no longer receiving a thump on the ear if they accidentally swing their feet or wiggle in their seat.
But, dear Christian friends, there ought be nothing casual about worship. I’m not here saying that we are to be joyless, but we are not to be casual. God is bigger than all that. God is holier than to deserve our second-rate attentions or our leftover time. God’s holiness demands a reverence that modern folks may no longer know how to give.
Consider Hebrews 12. In that chapter, the author has called his readers to holy living. He called the church to battle sin, to keep marriages pure, to live holy lives in their present world. This is a common message. But watch the way that the author then aims the reader at the holiness of God and our proper response.
Hebrews 12:18-21 – 18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
First, the author sets the stage. WE have not come to Mount Sinai as did the Israelites in the Exodus. That scene was terrifying, so scary that the people could not handle it. The mountain shook. The cloud descended. The people begged Moses not to let God speak again, for his holy voice shook them to their core. And Moses and the land, and the mountain, and the people quaked at the thought of being near the holy presence of God.
But the author is saying that such a mountain is not what we have come to. If you know the book of Hebrews, you should already be able to anticipate what is next. It will not be a minimizing of the holiness of God. Instead, the comparison from Moses to Jesus is always one of the lesser to the greater.
Hebrews 12:22-24 – 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
And here it is. You have not approached the old covenant at Mount Sinai. We are approaching something greater. Instead of a mountain smoking to conceal the presence of the Lord, we are approaching the real heavenly city. The Father, the Son, the angels are all there.
How should our response to this change? If the modern Christian is right, our response would include less fear, less trembling, less formality, more casualness, more light-heartedness. Is this the way the Scripture speaks?
Hebrews 12:25-29 – 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
God will shake more than the mountains. He will shake the universe. If Moses trembled, how much more should we? The danger of refusing the will of this God is clear.
But I want us to specifically notice the way that this impacts worship. In verses 28-29, the author tells us, “and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Reverence and awe are to be what characterizes our worship. That is not a ra-ra rock concert feel under anyone’s definition who is paying attention. Reverence and awe are not the product of light shows, smoke machines, and cheap U2 guitar rip-offs. Nor are reverence and awe the characteristics of services that are shaped to appeal to those who do not know Christ, who do not love the Lord, and whose feelings we do not want to hurt by using too much Scripture. God is a consuming fire, and we would never approach a consuming fire flippantly, casually, or carelessly.
Friends, I believe there is a balance to be had here. I’m not trying to suggest that we not enjoy our time together in our services. We gather as family. Such gatherings should be full of joy, of love, of laughter, of comfort. But I wonder if we moderns are missing the reverence and awe. I wonder if choosing music that sounds just like the stuff on the radio—light-hearted, shallow, simple—music that is no different than our day-to-day, prevents us from the awe that should come from us as we sing the holiness of God. I wonder if the common practices of seeking sermons that give us basic life hacks on parenting, fear, depression, or whatever are just far too shallow when compared to opening the Scripture to present the depths of doctrine and the glories of God.
Ultimately, the word of God calls us to come before our Lord in the freedom and confidence of Christ. But the word also calls us to worship the Lord in holiness, with awe and reverence. The one we approach is not our next-door neighbor. The one we approach is not a politician we do not respect. The one we approach is not our grandpa. Yes, God is our heavenly Father. But we need to remember that our culture no longer understands father as a respected leader as did cultures of the past. God loves us. God welcomes us. But the God who loves us, welcomes us, comforts us, heals us, encourages us, forgives us, that God is holy, pure, a consuming fire. That God is the God who shook the mountain so that the people begged not to hear his terrifying voice. That God is the God in whose presence Isaiah feared he would disintegrate. That God is the God who is so blazing in his glory that angels cover their faces with their wings in respectful adoration. And so we approach that God in love and under grace even as we approach him in reverence and awe.