Many Christians have expressed disappointment and frustration in the last few weeks about not being able to gather for worship because of the COVID-19 crisis. I am one of them. I very much miss the preaching, the singing, the prayers, and the fellowship. I, too, wonder when we will be able to return to worship. But last Sunday, a new question came into my mind: Does God miss our worship?

God is sovereign over all things. “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6). So He is the One who has stopped our worship as the gathered body of Christ on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps we should ask if He is teaching us something that we are not yet learning. Whenever calamity strikes, I think about Jesus’ teaching that is recorded for us in Luke 13. Calamity should direct us to consider the judgment of God and lead us to repentance. Should the calamity of closed churches lead us to ask if we need to evaluate our worship and perhaps repent?

Various prophets at different times criticized the worship of God’s Old Testament people. Paul criticized worship in the Corinthian church. Do we ever pause to ask if the worship that our churches offer to God is pleasing to Him? Do we hold worship up to be evaluated by the standard of God’s Word? Perhaps God is tired of those churches that have priests offering sacrifices that God has not approved. Perhaps God is tired of hearing preachers who present teaching that contradicts His Word. Perhaps God is tired of the noise of our false, invented praise. Perhaps the outward forms of our worship are proper, but our hearts and lives as worshipers are not right. Perhaps I am being too critical. But surely we can agree that we need to listen again to the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Amos, as we think about worship.

Isaiah, in the first chapter of his book, complained about Judah’s worship as one of the key elements of God’s controversy with His people (Isa. 1:10–20). He begins by calling them to listen to the Word and teaching of God (Isa. 1:10). Then he rehearses the sins of their worship. He rejects their many sacrifices (Isa. 1:11) and their crowded gatherings for holy days (Isa. 1:12–14). He refuses to listen to their prayers (Isa. 1:15). “I am weary of bearing them” (Isa. 1:14). As they abandoned godly worship, so they abandoned God: “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made” (Isa. 2:8).

Amos makes many of these same points, sometimes even more strongly, in his complaint against Israel. His warnings of judgment and appeals for repentance cover many areas of sins in the life of the people, but the refrain is “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6–11). Because they would not meet with God in righteous worship, God declares that He will meet with them in judgment: “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12). In the name of the Lord, Amos, like Isaiah, rejects their sacrifices and their assemblies. In famous and powerful words the Lord declares:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” (Amos 5:21–23)

The Lord rejects their false gods and idolatry (Amos 5:26), and He promises to destroy their false places of worship: “The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:9). They have despised His Sabbath (Amos 8:5). The music they have invented for themselves God will turn to lamentation (Amos 8:3, 10). “Woe to those . . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music” (Amos 6:4–5).

The reference to David here is fascinating. David had indeed added various instruments to the worship of God in the temple (see 2 Chron. 29:25–29). Apparently, in the days of Amos, Israel had claimed the freedom to invent music for worship because of what David had done. Yet their self-indulgent music pleased only themselves. And their appeal to David was entirely fallacious. David did not act to exercise some imagined freedom. David acted only according to the revelation of God given through the prophets Nathan and Gad (2 Chron. 29:25). The sinners in Israel attacked by Amos had deserted David’s house (Amos addressed northern Israel, which had rejected the reign of David’s sons) and David’s temple. Yet, they had the temerity to claim David’s example to justify their disobedience.

Now is a time we should examine our hearts. Have we become cold or indifferent in our worship?

As we see God’s care for the forms of His worship, are we willing to pause and reflect on the content of the worship we have offered Him? Have we been asking only what pleases us instead of asking what pleases Him? Have we ever made the effort to look carefully at the teaching of the Bible on worship and compare that with the order of worship in our churches? Do we have acts of worship for which we ought to repent?

As the prophets clearly rejected the corruptions of the outward forms of worship, so they also spoke of the hearts of God’s worshiping people. Amos reminds the people that God expects them to return to Him (Amos 4:6) and God calls to them: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), a call very much in the context of worship. God expects worship to be correct and sincere.

Even in the midst of the most serious warnings of judgment on Israel’s worship, the prophets offered hope for forgiveness and renewal. The promises of Isaiah about cleansing are powerful: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes. . . . Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:16, 18). Here is great encouragement for us all: where we have sinned, including in our worship, God will forgive us for the sake of Jesus.

When Isaiah tells God’s people to cleanse themselves, He is not teaching that we make ourselves clean or save ourselves. The prophet clearly teaches that it is the Lord who cleanses and forgives His people. We see that in the calling of Isaiah and his cleansing (Isa. 6:7) and also in this promise: “He who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst” (Isaiah 4:3–4). But in Isaiah 1:16–18, the prophet is stressing the responsibility of the sinners to turn to the Lord and promising that when they do, they will find mercy. Amos said the same: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you” (Amos 5:14).

Now is a time we should examine our hearts. Have we become cold or indifferent in our worship? Have we at times only gone through the motions? We do need always the mercy and grace of God to help us to be faithful worshipers.

Forms and hearts rightly engaged in worship fulfill the first commandment, that we love God. But those who worship acceptably must also live lives acceptable to God, remembering the second commandment as well. Jesus taught clearly that you cannot truly love God and hate your neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40). The prophets, too, clearly show that you cannot approach God if you despise the image of God in your neighbor. Immediately after his searing words on worship, Amos appealed: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). He specifies what this justice means: “You trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him. . . . You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12). God’s people must not be hard-hearted to the needy and oppressive and unjust to them. As Isaiah said, “Seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17).

We, too, must listen to the prophets and examine our lives. Have we loved our neighbors as we should? Do we seek to be a loving people? Where must we repent?

Today we are surrounded by great dangers. How many of us see the loss of worship as one of our greatest dangers? What if God does not open the way back to worship for us? Amos had spoken of the greatest danger a rebellious people faced: “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” (Amos 8:11). In such a famine, people will hate faithful preachers: “They abhor him who speaks the truth” (Amos 5:10). To avoid such a calamity, we need to cling to the Word of God with its directions, warnings, and promises. We need to pray for the Lord’s mercy so that we may rightly worship Him again. We need to pray for a great renewal in the churches and a great turning to Jesus in true faith throughout our world. We need to remember the call of Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord. . . . Give ear to the teaching of our God” (Isa. 1:10).

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