It’s nearly Christmas, and we have a troubling problem in my city: a lack of warm shelter for the homeless. Winter brought early snow, and our homeless population exceeds the available beds at the local mission. A growing tent city near the shelter was affecting local businesses, so the tent dwellers were banished to a different, more distant location. The media have been avidly following the story.
Suddenly the perennial problem of homelessness is a hot topic, something everyone’s talking about, and debate has been fierce. On social media, I’m saddened to read so many cruel and disparaging comments about those who, through some combination of unfortunate circumstances, find themselves living on the streets. No one would trade places. Yet the hostility toward this population has been shocking and intense.
As Christians, we know that “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). It’s heartless enough to be indifferent to the needy, but to openly mock or insult them is wicked. Yes, we know some of the homeless are addicts; some have severe mental health problems; some steal to get by or to score intoxicants. But unless we know the whole story, who are we to judge? And even if we DO know the whole story: who are we to judge?
Today’s hike brings us into Chapter 10, with a recap of our discussion: the law and its sacrifices were only a shadow of what Jesus has done for us by His own sacrifice. We begin with these words, attributed in the Psalms to Christ “when he came into this world”:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God. (Heb.10:5-7)
I love this passage: the arrival of our willing hero, ready to do God’s will and rescue us from sin! Ready to die in our place. But part of this passage seems puzzling. God Himself established the system of sacrifice and offerings, of burnt offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and all the other rituals of Judaic worship. Why, then, was He not pleased with them?
We find answers to this in many Old Testament passages, especially in the Prophets. A single word can summarize what God’s people did to the worship God had instructed: Contaminate. The spirit behind their worship, their heart and attitude towards God, was corrupted by sin.
Chief among these sins was their attitude and treatment towards the poor and less fortunate. Instead of showing mercy and kindness, they took advantage of them, failed to act justly, and put far more effort into getting rich than helping the disadvantaged. In Amos, God says this to His people: 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….Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. (Amos 3:21-22; 23)
Other contaminating sins were mixing true worship with idolatry, and offering defective animals to God, animals they wouldn’t dare offer to their worldly masters. Worship contaminated with pride, arrogance, an immoral lifestyle, and contempt towards having to worship round out the list. Their hearts were at fault. Turning up for religious festivals and going through the motions meant nothing to God. Or rather, it meant everything: their worship was contemptible to the One they professed to love.
It’s easy to find familiar analogies for this. Spouses, parents, children, and lovers are not fooled by showy acts of devotion when the giver’s ongoing treatment demonstrates the opposite. You can’t win someone over with a big bouquet if your daily behavior is contemptible. And God, who sees into the deepest corners of our hearts, is never fooled.
I was hiking my mountain today (heaped with snow, and getting treacherous in parts), thinking about this passage and how it applies today. Is God encouraged with OUR worship? Does the fact of our being Christians automatically make our worship pleasing to Him? Or does He sometimes wish we’d just stay home, read our Bibles, and do some serious repenting?
Obviously, if we are steeped in secret sin and still going through the motions of attending church, God is not fooled or pleased. But perhaps there are other sins we commit, with regard to worship, that render our worship displeasing. In a nutshell, I think the words ‘cavalier’ and ‘casual’ might apply in these situations. Here’s my list of offensive behavior:
1. Showing up late for church. If this is an ongoing problem, what does it reveal about you? If you manage to be on time for work, school, special events, and doctor’s appointments, what does being habitually late for church say about your reverence for God?
2. Showing up sloppy. We’re long past the days of dressing up fancy for church, which is a shame if dressing up shows respect for where we’re going. We’re not there to impress anyone with expensive clothes or jewelry. But paying attention to our appearance is another way we communicate the value we place on an event. If you wouldn’t go to work dressed in whatever old clothes you wear to church, why would you show less honor to God by giving no thought to your dress? Also, women, pay attention to your modesty—not only at church, but every day.
3. Never bringing your Bible. I know: we all have access to the Bible on our phones. And I trust this is what people are looking at when they have their phones out at church. But if you’re prone to distraction and checking social media, why bring your phone out at all? Why not carry that two-pound Bible into worship, and give the speaker and God the welcome sound of turning pages? Why is carrying a Bible too burdensome to bother?
4. Not singing or being worshipful. You don’t have to raise your arms to heaven. And maybe you’re not a great singer. But if singing aloud is a problem, I’d suggest there could be a problem with your heart.
5. Thinking about everything BUT God. Even without your cell phone, it’s easy to get distracted by worldly thoughts. If your body is present but your mind is continually frolicking elsewhere, I’d say there’s a problem. This is where having an actual Bible in your lap is helpful. Find a verse and get focused.
6. Thinking critical thoughts about, and during, the service. I’ve been there. The songs are lame, the speakers are shallow, that song leader seems half asleep, the sermon is boring…Oh, and there’s that person over there, the one I have a secret issue with, but haven’t said anything. You know the drill. Trouble is, God hears all those snarky, judgemental thoughts, and there’s contamination again. If you have suggestions to improve your church’s worship, speak up at appropriate times. Offer to help, with all humility. Just nip those judgy thoughts in the bud!
7. Being a stinker all week, and thinking it doesn’t matter. Attitude is everything when it comes to pleasing God. Sunday is a good time to reflect on your past week’s behavior in light of what God values: humility, justice, mercy, kindness, and love. Every interaction, however great or small, is seen by God. Is He pleased with how you’re trying to live? Or is your heart a mess, an embarrassment, or a war zone? Are you God’s friend, or His enemy? What would others think, if they were privy to your secret thoughts and actions?
There’s no virtue in attending church if our hearts are far from God. And there’s no way to separate the way we treat others from the way we love God. I hope these thoughts spur you to examine your own heart, and consider how our actions and attitudes either enhance or contaminate our worship.