Would you turn in your Bibles this morning to Ecclesiastes chapter 5.
At the end of every crusade, Dr. Billy Graham looks into the camera and says after he has prayed with people to receive Christ, "And be sure that you to church next Sunday." And I remember hearing that when I received Christ after listening to one of his messages. And that's what put me in search of a local fellowship. It's because of that admonition, I became a churchgoer. Now people can go to church for different reasons, you can have good reasons or not-so-good reasons. A good reason would be because you love God and you want to worship him corporately and you want to honor him with all of your substance, that's a good reason. But not everybody attends church for that reason. Some people attend church out of fear and not the fear of the Lord, I mean they're afraid. That's a superstition that people grow up with, sort of like, "Well I mean why would God ever let me into heaven if I can't at least go to church while I'm on earth." And that's a superstition that drives people to attend. Other people do it out of duty, they have an obligation they feel. "I'm an American, I'm a citizen, I'm a parent, it's my obligation to go to church." Others can go to church out of romance. Yeah, it's like, "You know there's a lot of cute single people, especially in a large church. It's a bigger pond to fish from." And yet some people may go to church out of insomnia, they can't sleep but they know at least if they come to church that tall blonde preacher always puts me to sleep, never fail." Then we all know people who always seem to have an excuse to never come to church, under any circumstances. "I'm too busy," or "I'm too this, I've got this going on." So there was one church who placed an announcement in the bulletin as if to anticipate that. The announcement read, "To make it possible for everyone to attend church next Sunday, we're going to have a special No Excuse Sunday. Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, 'Sunday's my only day to sleep in.' Murine will be available for those with tired eyes from watching too late on Saturday night. We will have steel helmets for those who say, 'The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.' Blankets will be provided for those who think the church is too cold, fans for those who think the church is too hot. We'll have hearing aids for those who say the pastor speaks too softly; and earplugs for those who say he preaches too loudly. Scorecards will be available for those who wish to list the hypocrites present. There will be a hundred TV dinners for those who cannot go to church and cook dinner on the same day. One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature. And finally, the sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettas and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them."
In Ecclesiastes chapter 5 Solomon speaks to us. And you might think it's strange to turn to an Old Testament book for a New Testament subject, especially the church. But the book does begin by saying, "The words of the preacher." Solomon was the preacher and the word for preacher in the Greek ecclesiastes sounds very similar to the very word for church. Right? Ekklesia, in fact it is the same word in its root. But here the idea in the Old Testament ecclesiastes, in Hebrew cohelet, is one who gathers or one who congregates. The idea is that he is gathering, congregating different ideas and philosophies and looking at them through his life experiences. And here in chapter 5 he has been looking at people who are coming to the temple that he built in Jerusalem. They're coming for public worship. In chapter 5, verses 1 through 7 are a list of dos and don'ts for those who would attend public worship. I've given this message the title, "The Art of Going to Church," and I'll tell you why I'm calling it that. I remember reading something that I memorized years ago, it goes like this: Getting married is easy, staying married is more difficult, staying happily married for a lifetime would be considered among the fine arts." And I think that's true with church: Going to church is easy, staying at church is more difficult, staying faithfully committed to church over a lifetime would be considered among the fine arts. So the art of going to church, and in Solomon's own words he gives us three concerns or three things we should watch when it comes to attending public worship. First of all we should watch our approach to God, we should our affirmations of God and we should watch our attitude toward God. The first one, our approach to God is mentioned in the first few verses we looked at and he seems to allude that there are three possible approachs in public worship. A ceremonial approach is the first one, verse 1, "Walk prudently when you go to the house of God and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools for they do not know that they do evil." If you know anything about the Old Testament system of worship you know that involved a sacrifice, you come to the temple, you bring an animal for a sacrifice. It's what God intended, it's what God prescribed, a sacrifice. Here, Solomon calls the sacrifice that some were bringing "a sacrifice of fools." Now why would he call it that? Here's why: Because he noticed that there were people who were keeping the ceremonial law while breaking the moral law. They were going through the ritual, going through the motions, going through the ceremony; but living a double standard worshipping idols, not treating their fellow neighbors with respect; a whole litany of things. That, says Solomon, is foolish. It's foolish to think you can just bring a lamb to God and that's it. "Here God, here's my sacrifice." It's foolish to think, "Well I came to church and said a few prayers." It's foolish to think, "I've just got to write a check." It's foolish to try to cover up with a ceremony or a ritual, a reality that speaks of something different. Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the first king of Israel, Saul. Saul tried to cover up a life of disobedience with the ritual of sacrifice, it was the sacrifice of fools. He came back from a battle and he disobeyed God. God said, "Get rid of everything, even the animals." And he brings back the best of the animals for himself but this is what he says, "I've brought the best animals back to sacrifice to the Lord." And the prophet said to him, "Listen, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." It's amazing to me that the very God who said, "Bring lambs, bring turtledoves, make sacrifices," and wrote about them in detail through his emissaries in the Levitical law, that very God in Isaiah chapter 1 says this, "I am sick of your sacrifices," says the Lord, "Don't bring me any more burnt offerings. I don't want the fat of your rams or other animals." Why would God say that? He came up wit h the idea. Because once again they were keeping ceremonial law but breaking the moral law in their own personal lives, and God doesn't separate the two. There is a belief system and it's given the theological name sacerdotalism, I don't care if you ever remember the word, if you want to remember it you'll impress your friends at least. Sacerdotalism is the giving of sacraments by ordained clergy that dispense grace. It's the belief system that an ordained clergy will go through a ritual of giving sacraments, thus their words dispensing grace. So, many will hide behind that and they'll say, "Well I've been baptized," while living immorally. "Well I've been confirmed," while living immorally. "Well I've gone through communion," while living immorally. It's a cover-up and God never separates wht is brought (i.e., the sacrifice) with the person bringing it. We see this in the very first sacrifice with Cain and Abel. Remember those two brothers who brought their sacrifice to the Lord and God received one and didn't receive the other? And Cain got very very angry. And God said to Cain, "Cain, why are you so angry? If you did well (or if you lived right), would you not be accepted?" You see I'm not accepting you because you're not living right. And so that is the ceremonial approach.
There's a second way to approach God and that is the superficial approach. Verse 2, "Do not be rash with your mouth, do not let your heart utter anything hastily before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes through much activity and fool's voice is known by his many words." Now this is the approach of words using the mouth, speech. And notice in verse 2 he speaks about rash speech. That's hurrying, that's rushing through the prayer list just to get it done, get through with it, get it over with. Hurry up with church, get it over with. Rash. Verse 3 is much speech, filling your prayers with flowery words that never impress God but they might impress other people around.
You'll recall that Jesus said in Matthew chapter 6, "And when you pray do not be like the heathen who think that they will be heard by their many words." That's exactly what the false prophets of Baal in the Old Testament were trying to do. Remember the contest with Elijah on Mount Carmel? And the Bible says, "They cried out to Baal from morning until noon." That's a long prayer meeting. And they were repeating and repeating and repeating their words. And Elijah comes in and says just a few words but they're so heartfelt and they were to the right God and his prayers were answered.
I heard about one famous rabbi around the New Testament era whose prayer was recorded an it had nineteen adjectives before God was even mentioned. Something like, "Holy, righteous, magnificent, splenderous, omnipotent, omnipresent… God." Ninenteen adjectives before God is even mentioned. Thinking that, "If I just add more flowery words," that that's what God requires.
There was a little boy in church and everybody was praying and he had his head bowed and he was praying loud enough for the pastor to hear him, here's his prayer, "Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo." The pastor afterwards said, "Excuse me, I'm glad you're praying first of all but why Tokyo? He said, "Look preacher, I just came from school and took my geography test and I'm asking God that he will make Tokyo the capitol of France." He got the answer wrong on the test. "But if I just say it long enough," maybe God will get it done. And some folks, I think when you get them around church, it's like a switch goes off, the God talk turns on. Hallelujah, thank you Jesus, praise the Lord, that can also just be shallow enough to cover up something else. John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim's Progress said, "In prayer it's better to have heart without words than to have words without a heart."
Now the third approach is the sincere approach. This is the right one. Go back to verse 1 and notice the opening command, "Walk prudently when you go to the house of God." Walk prudently, if you have an old King Jimmy version it says, "Keep thy foot." Keep thy foot, we would say, "Watch your step." Or, "Walk carefully when you go to the house of God." The idea is to come prepared. So I have a question: (Don't answer it out loud, just in y our heart) How do you prepare for coming to church? Besides doing your hair up, picking out an outfit, cologne, perfume, whatever. How else do you prepare? How do you prepare inwardly? And may I just success that just a basic, when you open your eyes in the morning, you're on your bed, your eyes open, Sunday morning, before your feet even hit the ground, you say, "Lord I commit this day to you. I commit this week to you. I pray that you would speak to me through your word. I pray that you would deal with me through your word. I want to hear from you." Now why is it so important to be careful, or to walk prudently, or to be prepared? Verse 1, it says, "Draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools for they do not know that they do evil." We should be prepared because God wants to speak to us, that's why. God has something to say to us. That's why. If you were to go to the White House, or to Congress, or to the United Nations and bring a request; I guarantee you you wouldn't just come, you'd come prepared. You'd think about what you're going to say, you'd think about the attitude that you're going to bring, you'd think about your proper behavior in that setting. So why not be prepared before God when we gather? The New Living translation renders verse 1 of chapter 5, "As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut." You don't get any clearer than that. I remember somebody once told me, "Skip, God gave you two ears and one mouth. Follow that ratio." In other words, we should be listening twice as much as we are talking. And do you know that you can worship with your ears? I don't mean that you have to make your ears kind of ----_______ go like this, like you're praising the Lord, like little hands lifted up. When I say worship with your ears, I'm talking about, "Lord I'm going 'o listen to what you have to say to me. That is my worship to you." You can worship with your ears.
Walt Whitman, a great American poet said, "To have great poets we must great audiences." I would say to have great preachers, we must have great audiences, listening. Like Samuel who said, "Speak Lord, your servant hears." That is the sincere approach. "I'm going to do it carefully. I'm going to prepare carefully because God is going to speak." Now here's something else you can do, besides just uttering that prayer before you get up in the morning, if you have a computer, you can go to a website, our website, and we always post what we're going to cover before Sunday morning and we give an outline. You could read through the passage, just meditate on it once before the Lord, have your heart ready to listen, and reinforce it.
Second, we should watch our affirmation of God. Verse 4, "When you make a vow (not if but whe you make a vow) to God, do not delay to pay it. For he has no pleasure in fools, pay what you have vowed, better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin nor say before the messenger of God (that would be the priest in the Old Testament) that it was in error. Why should God be angry at your excuse nad destroy the work of your hands?" Now this is referring to an ancient practice that happened in the temple, it ws the making of vows. And a couple of places in the Old Testament law, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus cover making a vow before God. Now here's the thing: they were never forced. God didn't say, "you have to come and make a vow." He never said that. But he gives the regulations for giving vows. And them ost important regulation is this: Once you make a vow, once you make a promise, you do it, you keep it. You don't have to say it, you should do it, I'm not going to force you to do it, it should be out of your own heart. But once you make that vow, that affirmation, that commitment; now you keep it, you do it. And Solomon here is warning about two sins: One is making a vow with no intention at all of keeping that vow which would be lying to God. The other is making a vow but delaying to keep it so that eventually you can get out of it. But here's a point: The place of worship, when we gather together like this, week by week, it ought to be, I believe it ought to be a time of commitment. It ought to be a time of making our vow to the Lord, our affirmation. So whenever we sing songs and read scripture and hear a sermon, we should always ask every week, "What now?" We should ask that, "What now?" And the answer should always follow, "Now I do what God spoke to me about doing. That's what I do with it." I think it always should come to a decision. When Joshua gave a great sermon to the children of Israel in Joshua 24, he said, "Now choose for yourselves whom you will serve." When the prophet Elisha confronted the prophets of Baal, in I Kings 18, he said to the people of Israel, "How long will you falter between two opinions? If Baal is God worship him, if God is the Lord worship him." Even Jesus did this, in Matthew 16, we have already covered that, he asks his followers, "Who do men say that I am?" And they gave various opinions. And then he said, "Who do you say that I am?" Do you see what he did? You make it personal now, you make a decision now, not what they say but what about you? What do you say?
Well, consider some of the vows that we've already made. One vow that we've already made is the vow to him, to God. We've all said or most of us have said, "I make you my savior, I make you my Lord. I want you in control of my life. I give you my life." Consider that vow. You made it before the Lord. Consider another vow that you made before the Lord if you're married, to your spouse. I don't exactly know what you said but I bet it was something like this, "For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death (yeah, not debt, there's an h in that word). Death, you said it, it was a vow that you made before God to your spouse. Maybe you made another vow to the body of Christ, maybe you said to a small group leader, "Ill be here every week, I'll help you set up." Or, "I'll be involved. You can count on me." It's not that you have to do it but once you do it, you do it once you say it.
There was a man who was in love with a girl, his name was Tom, her name was Diane. She had a picture that he wanted, she gave it to him but she wanted a copy of the picture. So he took it to a studio to get it copied. Ad he took it to the studio they had to take it out of the frame and they noticed on the back of the picture was the sweetest love note from Diane to Tom. It said this: "My dearest Tom, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever." It's commitment, "I'm yours for eternity." There it is, the promise, eternity. Isn't that beautiful? Signed, Diane. But then it said, "P.S. If we ever break up I want this picture back." So much for forever, so much for eternal love. Here's my question: Does your relationship to God have a P.S. attached to it? "You're my Lord, until…" Or, "Lord I'm committed to you unless…" (Unless I don't get what I thought I should get from you in this relationship, but then I'm going to take my spiritual ball and go home." Does your relationship with God have a P.S.? Or, are you like those who try to bribe God? "God, if you get me out of this mess, I'll give five hundred dollars to missions, I promise." Or, "Lord if you heal me I'll serve you the rest of my life." I have seen so many people in distress make commitments to God only when they get better only to forget that they made any kind of commitment to God. Now, right about now you might be thinking, "You know I think I agree with Solomon, it's better not to make any commitment at all. I won't make any promise at all, then I don't have to keep any of them." Well then that would place you in the category of ceremonial or superficial approach to God. I think the whole point is: Think through carefully what you say before the Lord. Let it be real but be committed to when you hear to do by God's grace. And do you know what will happen if you do that? If week by week you make those kind of applications? I can guarantee you you'll be happy, you'll be joyful. Jesus said to his disciples after he washed their feet and served them and he said "You guys need to this," this is what he said, "If you know these things, happy are you if you do them." Did you get that? Not, if you know these things, happy are you if you know these things, and then by the way, you guys should know more things. And then go to a place and take notes and know more things. And go to school and get a degree and know more things. He said, "If you know thse things you'll be happy if you do them." If you do them. It's a commitment to take knowledge and move it into action.
Third an finally, we are to watch our attitude toward God. Verse 7, "For in the multitude of dreams and many words, there is also vanity but fear God," or have reverential awe before the Lord. Now I think that attitude is the crowning virtue. I believe that attitude will make or break a church. Attitude in general impacts everything. Somebody once said, "Life is ten percent of what happens to you and ninety percent of how you respond to what happens to you." I think church is too. It hink the most significant decision we can make every Sunday morning is to make a choice regarding our attitude before the Lord. Now, some people, and thankfully there's just some people, but some folks just have a bad attitude in general about life, about everything. They hear something, "Nah, it's not going to work." What do you think about that? I don't like it." They get food, "Could be better." We call them No-first people rather than Yes-first people. It's always nos, it's always negative, bad attitude. So if they have a bad attitude about life, guarantee they'll have a bad attitude about church. And let me say something else: God wants to fix that. Oh let me say it even better, "God is committed to fixing that attitude." With God, it's all about our attitude. It's all about our attitude. In fact, Jesus, notice, he said, "Two men went ot the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, one was a tax collector. The Pharisee lifted up his eyes and prayed with himself (he didn't pray to God, he prayed with himself, he said words out loud and he thought, "Boy I sound pretty good." But the other guy, the tax collector bowed his head, beat his breasts and said, "God, have mercy on me a sinner." A different attitude, different attitude. Jesus was all about hat attitude. He said, "That man went home justified."
Jesus also noticed that people were coming to temple, coming to church would be the equivalent, and they were giving their funds, and some were doing it very ostentatiously to be known and seen by men. But there was one little widow who gave just a few cents and she, according to Jesus, gave more than the rest of all those guys. It's because of the attitude, the attitude. It was the sacrifice she gave. Well notice the wording, speaking of attitude here, don't miss the wording. In verse 1 for example, the temple is called the house of what? God. It's not just a stone building, said Solomon, "This is the house of God." Verse 4, "When you make (not just a promise but it says) your vow to God." And verse 7, "Fear God." Here's the key to coming to church: This time, this place, is for God. It's all about him. It's not about me, it's not about us. It's not about what did I get out of it (though you will get out what God speaks to you). But we must never allow church to simply become another consumer-driven commodity. It has become that. It has become it, it has become that in our country, it's become that in our culture.
I first heard a song a few years ago, I know that when I say it you'll remember it. When I first heard it I stopped. Something resonated with me. It was just so right on, it said, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, because it's all about you. It's all about you, Jesus." And I heard that and I thought, "yes!" It resonated with that, I need to get back to that. It's about him, it's about my relationship with him. Now if some folks were honest, really honest, they would sing, "Because it's all about me. It's all about me, Jesus." That would be honest, people have made worship about them and how they feel about it and what it does for them rather than about honoring him. But when we gather, when a passage is read, we listen. We listen because it's the word of God. And when a covenant is made or a promise is made we keep it because it's a vow before God. And when we sing a praise song or we utter a prayer, we realize we're praying to God not to anybody else, God. R.A. Tory, Reuben Tory, who influenced my early Christian walk said, "We should never utter one syllable of prayer in public or in private until we are definitely conscious that we are coming into the presence of God and actually praying to him."
So, this morning what we walk away with I pray is a healthy self-examination, examining our approach to God. And we have to ask ourselves, "Is it just duty, is it formal? Am I just doing and going through the motions? Is it superficial? We want to examine our hearts, that's very healthy Not just examine our approach but what about our affirmation? Covenants that we make? Do we commit ourselves consistently with the verbal integrity of following through on the promise?
And third is the attitude. The attitude. What attitude do we have when we gather with God's people? This is the house of god. These are prayers to God. I do this out of the fear of God, the respect of God. All of that Solomon would warn his listeners and his readers. The art of gathering for public worship, the art of coming to church. And, make sure you go to church next Sunday, to echo Dr. Graham.
Let's pray. Lord, we live our lives before you. You know the heart and the motive of every individual. Lord, one thing you know far better and way before any of us do is that we are imperfect, that we fail, that we are sinful at our core and require forgiveness, and require restoration. And so we all come broken. That's a good place to be, that's a good way to come. Not proud but broken, humble. And in coming Lord we want to come sincerely not ceremonially, not superficially. We want it to really touch the core of our being and how we fell and how we think and how we live. Lord, I pray that when we say anything and when we sing anything our minds would carefull be weighing the words that we are using before you. And Lord I pray that we'd have the right attitude of respect, of honor, because it's all about you, Lord. Be pleased with these things as we examine our lives before you. In Jesus' name. Amen.