Have you ever caught yourself looking past Sunday morning? Has the promise of the week ahead ever begun to eclipse the wonder of gathering with God’s people?
You probably don’t despise church, but you might still quietly pine for the extra rest that afternoon and evening. You might long for another week to start. A temptation arises, at times, to take Sundays for granted and start looking forward, instead, to what comes on Monday: to routines, relationships, events or activities, maybe even to work. Church slowly, even imperceptibly becomes an interruption in the week, instead of the culmination.
How does the awe-inspiring weekly gathering of God’s chosen people devolve into a stoplight — an inconvenient intrusion in the flow of our lives? Often, it’s because we’ve started worshiping something else the rest of the week.
Wishing Worship Would End
The temptation to look past corporate worship (and just go through the motions) is not new. While God’s old-covenant people revolted against him, adoring their money and plundering the poor, the prophet Amos overheard their plotting. He writes,
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:4–5)
When will corporate worship be over, so that we can do what we really want? They were caught looking past worship to what they really loved. They grumbled while they waited and waited at the stoplight. The last words of every gathering had become the sweetest — because it meant they were finally dismissed.
Do you see how their hearts worked? They didn’t skip worship. God forbid! They rigorously observed the new moon and Sabbath rituals — likely as rigorously as anyone. But even before the call to worship, they wanted it to be over. They wanted to get on with their real lives. More specifically, they wanted to get back to making money (and at whatever cost).
Their words betray their piety, showing that, in reality, their worship happened on any day but the Sabbath. Money was their god, and corporate worship was simply another detour.
Commanded to Enjoy God
The new moon refers to monthly worship that took place in Israel (Numbers 28:11–15). God commanded Moses to mark the beginning of each month with a sacrifice. “You shall offer it as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 28:8). Essentially, Israel held a monthly meal for Almighty God, to atone for sin, and to announce again their delight in and devotion to him.
The Sabbath offering took place every week (Numbers 28:9–10), beginning while Israel wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23–29). God said to Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8–10). Those who ignored the command were put to death (Numbers 15:32–36). God himself set this day aside for God — and for the joy of his people. They were commanded by God to cease from their daily labors and pause to worship him.
Because God commands our worship, it can subtly begin to feel like just another obligation rather than an unprecedented and immeasurable privilege. Make no mistake, it is an obligation. The God of heaven and earth orders us to come, but in ordering us, he does not burden us. He bids us into true glory and lasting joy. Has any law fallen more sweetly?
When God commands us to worship, he commands what will make us happiest, like forcing us to spend an extra summer day along the shore of our favorite beach. This commandment is not burdensome; it is unbelievably beautiful.
Warning for Them
As irresistible as the promise is, the warning is every bit as severe. If we begin, subtly or overtly, to despise the corporate worship of our God for the greener, more profitable grasses of the week, God notices. Israel was as healthy, wealthy, and prosperous as ever, giving them a false sense of security and independence. Worship had become just the icing on the cake — and they were considering cutting the extra calories.
When Israel started overlooking the Sabbath, God warned them,
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land —
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11–12)
This famine will not be of food or water, but of God. God will take away their food and water, even their homes, but this will be far more serious. Devastatingly serious. He will withdraw himself. Because they took worship for granted, they would soon find themselves searching the whole earth for his voice. And they would search, however relentlessly, in vain.
Having struck gold as a people, without having done anything to deserve to have the true God as their God, they had deserted the mines. To make a few extra pennies. Now, their eyes and ears had been closed for good.
Warning for Us
The warning and promise are no less serious for us today: Any of us who despises worship, subtly or overtly, invites the horror of a world without God.
If that world doesn’t sound all that horrible to us, we are the most vulnerable of all. We may never say it out loud, but some of us wouldn’t mind a heaven without God, as long as it was a better, safer, more secure version of what we’ve got going right now. That’s why Sundays feel inconvenient, and a little intrusive. We have started to treat God like a nice addition to the good life, instead of seeing him as the one who makes life worth having.
Sadly, many won’t realize how awful it is to be forever apart from God until they hunt high and low for him to no avail. Some will go to the grave assuming he has a room for them (Matthew 7:21), and then be left desperately holding up their church attendance (Matthew 7:22).
When will this service be over? If the thought persists, imagine God starving you, your family, and your church of his word. Imagine him holding you out of the new heaven and new earth, where his Word will replace the sun (Isaiah 60:19). Then remember the wonder that God has given us himself and his word, adopted us into his family, and lovingly commanded us to cease from work long enough to see and enjoy him again in worship.
How do we avoid falling into such a temptation, folly, and judgment? By prizing the God of worship above all else — and seeing Sundays like we will from heaven one day. As John Piper writes of worship in the New Testament,
There was no gathering like this in the world: a people of God’s own possession, chosen before the foundation of the world, destined to be like the Son of God, bought with divine blood, acquitted and accepted before the court of heaven, a new creation on the earth, indwelt by the Creator of the universe, sanctified by the body of Jesus, called to eternal glory, heirs of the world, destined to rule with Christ and judge angels. Never had there been a gathering like this. It was incomparable on earth. (Expository Exultation, 69)
We are invited into that gathering every weekend. How can we overlook Sunday mornings unless we’ve grown dull to the constellation of incomparable beauties that come together in those ninety precious minutes? In some real sense, what we experience in worship together is the closest to heaven we come in this life. No matter how familiar or mundane it may feel in any given week, what happens on Sunday morning is a wonder to anticipate, behold, and enjoy.