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“I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever. The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men.” (1 Samuel 2:28–33, ESV)
Several years ago, as I was sitting in a Systematic Theology Class at Dallas Baptist University, my friend and professor, Dr. William Bell, made an interesting comment on how often, with regards to worship, we tend to put the cart before the horse, in a manner of speaking. He illustrated this point by telling a story of a man he knew who was so concerned about the impact of the rising cost of gasoline on his families budget that he quit his job in order to save the money that he would normally spend on gasoline for his daily commute to work. I still chuckle to remember Dr. Bell telling me this story. He ended the tale with his signature incredulous look and raised gray-white eyebrow, looked directly at me, and said, "I can appreciate the concern for the cost of fuel. But quitting your job to save money!? What kind of sense does THAT make?"
In this reading of 1 Samuel 2:28-33, we come across a text that deals with the issue of proper reverence and worship for God. God speaks to Eli and notes His righteous anger at the wickedness of Eli's two sons with regards to the worship that is His due. I shiver to think of ever hearing such words from my King, and yet I fear there are many who will hear such rebuke in time to come from God, maybe even from within our very own church. When it comes to worship, I can't help but wonder, are we putting the cart before the horse? Are we, possibly, guilty of getting things backwards? There are two main issues that jump out at me as I meditate upon this text. No doubt there are more, but I noticed two rather prominent themes which I will call "crimes against worship." There are two crimes observed here, and I label them crime number one, "Taking Honor from God," and crime number two, "Neglecting the Altar."
Eli has two wicked sons, Phineas and Hophni, who are abusing their position as priests before God. Rather than reverring God and offering the people's worship to God in the ritual of sacrifice, they take the sacrifice that the people of Israel bring to offer to God and claim it for themselves. They seem to think that their due is more important than that which is due to God. God makes a profound statement here that strikes me every time I read it:
"Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed."
God is stating in rather simplistic terms that, no matter what else has transpired, there is a very simple principle from which He operates. God loves all mankind, and He deals justly with all mankind, and He is perfectly righteous in all His dealings. But when it comes to honoring His people, He is rather straight about it. If you honor God, He will honor you. If you despise God, He will despise you. This statement is tied closely to the act of worship that was being abused by Phineas and Hophni. From this I conclude that worship is an act of paying honor, reverence, and appreciation to your God. To worship correctly with the right heart before God is to honor Him. Anything and everything else is dishonoring. This obviously applies to all of life from Monday through Sunday, and no day is to be esteemed as a better day for honoring God than others. However, I will pause here and say that some days are to be most highly esteemed as important for honoring God collectively together with your church, namely Sunday's worship. Sunday's gathering with your church family is commemorative of Christ's resurrection from the grave on the first day of the week.
To attend worship as some sort of "to-do" item on your check-list is wrong. Phineas and Hophni served at the place of worship, and they regarded it as a job or a duty not as a sacred act of worship. Too many of us Christians approach it this way, and it is dangerous. Don't get me wrong. To attend worship as a privilege given to you by God, to honor and exalt Him before all mankind is right. But if you attend to His worship as though it were a job with duties and obligations incumbent upon you, you will ultimately abuse the worship service. If you will not worship God at the place of His worship, you will eventually strive to find some ulterior wicked purpose in it. All people worship, and if they will not worship God then they will worship themselves. If you attend a worship service, but you will not worship the living God of the universe at that worship service, then it will be only a matter of time until either (1) you stop going to the worship service thus taking honor from God or (2) you twist that worship service into some useful self-serving purpose still taking honor from God. Phineas and Hophni can't very well abandon their post. What else would they do for work? And besides, it was easy pickings to enrich themselves by stealing the offering from God. By staying at the place of worship without a heart of worship, they sinned directly in the face of the almighty God.
You will worship something! You are attending God's worship service. So... what are you actually doing there at the place of God's worship? Hear this lesson of Phineas and Hophni, church. God will despise those who despise Him. Do not go to worship your King if you do not revere and honor Him.
With that statement, there are many who will say in their heart, "I don't really revere God or desire to praise Him, and when I stand to sing songs on Sunday I'm really going to be thinking about a million and one other things, not God! So I should not attend worship on Sunday. It could be bad..." And this brings me back to the tale of a man quitting his job in order to save money. This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. This position makes no sense. It is completely irrational. God makes this next statement to Eli:
"The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out..."
Eli understood something that ancient Israel didn't. Eli grasped a basic, fundamental concept of life that Canada refuses to listen to, much less abide by. God is saying to Eli and anyone else who will listen that all of human life depends upon God's altar. The altar was the place where people came to worship. It was the place where people came to enjoy communion with God. It is from God's altar that all the rest of the provisions necessary for life flow. All blessing, all prosperity, and all happiness comes from God's worship. Think about that for a second. God promises Eli that He will punish his sons by cutting them off from His altar.
In other words, God is saying to Eli, "You know that all of life's blessings, prosperity, happiness, and joy flow from My worship. I will cut your house off from My worship, and thereby cut them off from all possibility of happiness. The only one who will be allowed to stay connected to My altar will spend his days crying his eyes out!"
So, friend, pause for a second and consider. Do you worship God at the place of worship? No? Okay. Admittedly, there is incredible danger in this position, but the solution is not to walk away from worship altogether! That's exactly like saying, "I can't pay for gas to get to work in the morning, so I should quit my job!" It's the most ridiculous conclusion in the world!! Because you struggle to pay for gasoline, you conclude that you should not maintain gainful employment. But then how will you pay for food? How will you pay for your living expenses? How will you acquire the basic needs of life?
If we agree that God provides us with everything, that from Him flow all blessings, all happiness, all prosperity, and every good and perfect gift comes down to us from the Father above, and we know that we do not worship Him as we ought to, then the solution cannot be to stop worshiping Him altogether! This is total nonsense. The solution must be in humble repentance, and a return to God's worship.
Now, how often do we hear of people who say that before they can come to worship God they must first get their own house in order? How often do we hear people say that before they can come to worship God they need to rest and recover from the incredibly long vacation they just had? How long do we hear people say that they would love to worship God, but they just can't because they have too many projects on the go, and in order to make sure all these projects come off perfectly without a hitch, they must give their undivided attention to these projects while neglecting the worship of God? How often do we hear that people cannot come to worship because they cannot afford the drive? Or the time? Or any other reason? There is danger in crowding your calendar with too much of you and not enough of God. Manage your calendar; don't let your calendar manage you.
So often it is stated, "It's not personal." People are quick to suggest that when it comes to church attendance, they don't have anything personal against God. They are just preoccupied, and they insist, "It's not personal." But it is personal. Today's worship is not like the worship of old. It is more personal. The worship of the Old Testament foreshadows the way we ought to worship today. The altar is the place where worship is offered up to God, and by any basic observation of what takes place at the altar we learn that worship is centered on atonement. Worship is centered on Christ. The altar prefigures and foreshadows Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that God forgives sin and grants blessing. The church is the body of Christ, His enduring incarnation on this earth. When the church gathers to worship, the Scriptures declare that Jesus walks among them and is with them. So when you take honor from Him and allow the Sunday worship service to be about anything else besides Him or when you neglect the altar of Sunday worship by refusing to attend at all, please understand, it is even more personal today than it was in the Old Testament.
"For those who honor Me shall be honored, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed."