'Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!' says the Lord God. 'I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,' says the Lord. 'And I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send no rain upon another city; one field on which it did not rain withered; so two or three cities wandered to one city to drink water, and were not satisfied; yet you did not return to me,' says the Lord. 'I smote you with blight and mildew; I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards; your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me,' says the Lord. 'I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men with the sword; I carried away your horses; and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,' says the Lord. 'I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,' says the Lord. 'Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!' For lo, he who forms the mountains, and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought; who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!
The aim of my message this morning is to persuade you and inspire you to prepare for worship—both in this age week by week as we meet together, and in the age to come when we will stand before God either prepared or unprepared to meet him. Last week I wanted us to feel the biblical call to worship God, and see some reasons to join heaven in worshiping God in advance of that last great celebration of his triumph over Babylon. Today I want you to feel the biblical call to prepare for worship.
Amos' Ministry to the Northern Kingdom
Let's begin with a biblical foundation from the prophet Amos. Amos was not a well-to-do man of the upper class. He was a simple shepherd. He lived in Tekoa 12 miles southeast of Jerusalem about 800 years before Christ. He describes God's call on his life in Amos 7:15, "The Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"
So Amos' main ministry was directed not to the southern kingdom of Judah where he grew up, but to the northern kingdom of Israel.
These were days of outward prosperity in Israel, but from a spiritual standpoint these were terrible times. Amos was sent right to the center of corruption, namely, the cult city of Bethel.
The Heart of Idolatry in Bethel
Back when Jeroboam led the break away of the ten northern tribes from the two southern ones, he made Bethel his alternative worship center to Jerusalem. 1 Kings 12:32–33 describe why this became a great evil in Israel.
Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices upon the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar which he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and he ordained a feast for the people of Israel, and went up to the altar to burn incense.
So Jeroboam had built high places of worship in Bethel and put up idols in the form of calves and set up his own priesthood and new holy days. So what had begun centuries earlier as a holy place, where Abraham and Jacob had met God, was now the center of idolatry in Israel. And God called Amos to go cry against the corruption of Israel and against Bethel and the kind of worship that was going on there.
The Israelites' False Religion
Chapter 4 tells us one of his messages. Verse 4 is pure irony. He echoes the call that goes out to Israel to come and worship at Bethel, and says,
Come to Bethel and transgress, to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
So it is obvious that the Israelites were very religious. They love to do these things, Amos says. They sacrifice daily, tithe every three days, give thank-offerings, advertise special free-will offerings. And in all this they multiply transgressions. It is all sin. They have some of the old form that the Word of God laid down in Moses' writings, but it is now a sham. They may still use the name of God, but their idols betray them.
And not only their idols. Their lifestyle does too. In verse 1 Amos says, "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, 'Bring, that we may drink!'" So we get a little glimpse of the wealth that people love and the indifference and hardness to the poor. "You oppress the poor and crush the needy."
What Israel Needs to Do
So Israel comes to meet God at Bethel with lives that are dirty and with outward forms of religion that have lost all real connection with truth. One way to describe what Israel needs to do is to stop on their way to Bethel and prepare to meet God. They need to prepare themselves by renouncing all their love for wealth and their lack of love for the poor. They need to prepare themselves by setting their hearts only on what is true. Who is the true God? What is the truth about idols of gold? Are the priests of Bethel true priests of the living God? (Priests like Amaziah who accused Amos of treason because of his prophecy of judgment, cf. 7:10–15.) Prepare to meet God at Bethel by forsaking sin, and seeking truth.
God Blocks Israel Five Times
In verses 6–11 Amos is done with irony. He reminds the people that God has shouted the truth of his reality to them in five striking ways that they might return. But they would not. In verse 6 he says there had been famine—"lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." In verses 7–8 he says there had been drought—God withheld the rain . . . "yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." In verse 9 he says God smote them with blight and mildew and locust . . . "yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." In verse 10 he says God sent pestilence and sword . . . "yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." In verse 11 he says that God overthrew some of them like Sodom and plucked them like a brand from the fire . . . "yet you did not return to me, says the Lord."
What was God doing here? He was blocking Israel again and again in search for happiness without the true God. Hosea (whose ministry may have overlapped with Amos') described it like this. God says to his wayward wife Israel,
I will hedge up her way with thorns; and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then she shall say, "I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now." (Hosea 2:6–7)
That's what God was doing with Israel. Five times he blocked her. Again and again he cut her off on her downward path to destruction. He shouted in her ear that there is no hope while running from God.
The Final Word: One Last Hope
And now Amos was giving the last word. Verse 12: "Therefore [that is, since you have refused to return to God through all that has happened to you]—therefore, thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!"
The judgment of God is coming in a decisive way and there is no averting it. But there seems to be one last hope. Prepare! Get ready! Prepare to meet your God. If you would not prepare to meet him in holiness and truth at Bethel, then at least prepare now for this final meeting in judgment. For after this there will be no more chance to prepare.
So draw from Amos' prophecy this morning this truth: When we come to meet God (whether in worship at Bethlehem, or in judgment at the last day), we should prepare.
Four Ways to Prepare to Meet God
So let me summarize four ways I see in this text that we are to prepare to meet God, and then close with some very practical suggestions for preparing for worship at here at Bethlehem.
1. Go to a Church Where Truth Is Honored
First, you should prepare to meet God in worship by going to a church where truth is honored as a very high premium.
The Israelites were a religious people. They came to Bethel and came gladly. But they had lost touch with the God of truth and they were not worshiping in truth. There were some left over forms like tithing and thank-offerings and sacrifices. But the very center and heart of worship was missing—the true God.
If I were looking for a place to worship God today in America, my top priority would be, where is a people and leadership that loves God's truth, and that means loves the Bible—manifestly loves the Bible, evident in the way it is woven through the life of the church. I would look for a church that loves clear, straightforward, biblically based doctrines about God and his work, and about his will for all of life.
The first preparation for worship is to find a body of believers where truth about God is top priority.
2. Renounce All Known Sin in Our Lives
The second preparation for worship is that we renounce all known sin in our lives before coming to worship God.
The wealthy people of Israel tried to make love with their true husband while keeping a mistress on the side. They tried to worship God while concealing sin in their lives. They oppressed the poor, and crushed the needy, while living in wealth and luxury.
Worship will inevitably become a weak, empty form and ritual if we try to keep on with it while our hearts are running after other gods. God will gladly take the dirtiest sinner into his arms on Sunday morning who comes with a broken and contrite heart intent on forsaking all known sin and trusting in Jesus for cleansing. But God will not be mocked by those who make like they love him and willfully break his law during the week. So the second act of preparation is to confess and renounce all known sin and come to worship cleansed by the blood of Jesus and resting in his forgiveness and hope.
3. Take Note of What God Is Doing in Our Lives
The third preparation for worship is that we take note of how God has been trying to get our attention.
Five times in Amos 4 God says that he had done specific things in the lives of his people to turn them back to himself. And five times it says, "Yet you did not return to me." Each of these things God had done to get their attention could be explained as natural events with no divine cause. But God holds Israel accountable to listen and respond. That's the meaning of "Yet you did not return to me."
In not hearing the voice of God, or seeing the hand of God, Israel failed to prepare to meet him. That is what we must not do. We must wake up and stop looking at our lives like secular, scientific, western naturalists. God is doing things in your life which are gracious providential messages to return to him and trust him. That is the third way we prepare to meet him in worship. Take note of what he has been saying to us in our lives to draw us to himself.
4. Draw Near to God in Our Hearts
Finally, we prepare for worship by drawing near to God in our hearts.
When God said five times, "You did not return to me," he did not mean that they should have come more often to the place of worship. The returning was not a physical movement. Returning to God was a movement of the heart, not a movement of the body. There is a heart preparation to be done in order to meet God.
Jesus said, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Matthew 15:8). When this is the case, the preparation needed is a movement of the heart from far to near, and yet it is a movement that is not measured in inches or miles.
- It is measured with the tape of attention—you may not even be thinking of God Saturday night or Sunday morning. So your heart is far from him measured by attention.
- Or it may be measured by the tape of focus—you may have some attention on God but it is broken up by other things and there is no focused attention that gets God clearly in view and makes him the primary object of attention.
- It is measured by the tape of desire—you may feel little desire for God but be very much caught up in a greater desire for sports or finances or a trip to the lake, while the desire and the longing for God is weak by comparison.
- Or it can be measured by the tape of trust and hope—your trust in God may be weak and your hope faint and wavering.
- Or it may be measured by the tape of delight or joy in God—you may feel much more pleasure Saturday night in a late movie than in meeting God in the morning.
Every one of us is far from where we want to be on one of these measuring tapes every week. So I want to close with some practical suggestions that I think will help us prepare to meet God in worship together Sunday morning.
Learning to Go Hard After God in Worship
My assumption is that our primary goal is to meet God in this service on Sunday morning, and to commune with him and to hear him and to speak to him and to savor him. My further assumption is that this is very hard to do and that it takes teaching and preparation of heart. My third assumption is that most of us grew up in churches where this was not a conscious priority—a sustained, God-centered focus on dealing with God without human distraction.
Let me illustrate. I was at a gathering recently where we were worshiping. The pianist was very accomplished. It was obvious. But he had led us into the presence of the Lord and most of us really were singing to the Lord and dealing with God. Another act of worship was to follow this song that would have kept us in conscious communion with God. But as the hymn came to an end, the person who was to lead us into the next act of worship looked at the pianist and said, "There is living proof that all men are not created equal." A few people chuckled. And then he tried to reintroduce communion with God.
That sort of thing is what I grew up on. And many of you did. And it's why we never learned what it is to go hard after God in worship. It's why a sustained communion with God in corporate worship is a foreign experience for most people. And yet when most Christians taste it, they sense that they have come into something that they have missed and that is needed in the core of their lives.
We have eleven years of experience in the old sanctuary and hundreds of testimonies from people whose lives have been changed by meeting God in the sustained, earnest, undistracted worship of this service. We are not perfect in our leadership. But we know that we have something of extraordinary preciousness to preserve in this new sanctuary.
So I close with these suggestions for how we might prepare to meet our God in this service:
1. Begin Orienting Your Heart on Saturday Night
Set aside some time Saturday night to begin the orientation onto worship. Turn off the television and set your mind on things that above with the word of God and a time of prayer.
2. Go to Bed Early
Go to bed early enough so that you are fresh and emotionally alive Sunday morning. The price of late night movies or parties on Saturday will be powerless worship Sunday morning.
3. Get Up Early Enough on Sunday
Get up in time Sunday so that you do not have to rush to get to church, but have a little time to be alone with God and ask his blessing on you and your family and on the church. I can almost promise you that your depth of communion with God in the service will be directly proportionate to the way you have sought the Lord for his blessing Saturday night and Sunday morning. This will take some discipline and some planning. But you will probably never turn back once you taste the fruit.
4. Begin Seeking God as Soon as You Enter
When you come into the sanctuary, begin to seek the Lord. That means that by and large there will be a holy hush across the sanctuary. But it will be a very different kind of stillness than the awkward silence before a Sunday School class where you want everyone to mill around and talk and nobody is. There is a world of difference. And the difference will be made and felt by whether hundreds of you are really going hard after God, or just politely waiting for the show to begin. You will make the difference in those minutes as to whether a visitor senses cool distance or the reality of God. The very point of those moments of going hard after God is that this room will be filled with the power of God. The goal of those moments is not that people will be impressed with us—either our piety or our friendliness—but that they will fall on their face and say, "God is in this place." And that will only happen if people are taken up with God.
If you want your friendship to go deep with someone, I invite you to make an experiment. As you enter the sanctuary talking, and the prelude begins, try saying this: "Let's finish this discussion after the service. I think John needs our prayers. Let's do battle for him." My wager is; that camaraderie in the warfare of prayer will take your friendship deeper than another five minutes of conversation.
5. If You're Late . . .
If you have to come late—and we all do from time to time—minister to those who have to sit in the commons and minister to those worshiping in the sanctuary with a spirit of worship and prayer. I visited Crystal Free last summer and lost my way so that I was late. I waited probably seven or eight minutes with a group of people. But I was with them in a very special way, because of the window and because of the stillness outside the door. Waiting in this spirit is a powerful yes to the undistracted dealing with God going on inside.
6. Become the Actor in Worship
Finally, before every act of worship, whether a hymn or a reading or a prayer or an anthem or a moment of silence or a sermon, say to Lord, "Lord, I come. I come to sing to you. I come to pray to you. I come to listen to your Word. I come to enjoy your presence." Don't drift through the service as though the action is on the platform. Become the actor. The greatest action in worship is when a heart that is far from the Lord draws near to the Lord, and focuses on him and desires him and trusts him and enjoys him.
I believe God has great things for us this year in worship. Things we have yet to experience from his power. The forms and patterns are not cast in stone. No one but God can predict what worship at Bethlehem will look like in the years to come. But my prayer and my goal is that it will always involve sustained, earnest dealing with God himself.