This morning you’ve come from home. You may have fought with your family on the way. You may have come on time; you may have come late. You may be thinking about what you’re doing for lunch. But what many of you may not have realized is that you’ve come to a dangerous place this morning. Please don’t tell our insurance broker, but this is a dangerous place. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson put it this way:
Sometimes I think that all religious sites should be posted with signs reading, “Beware the God.” The places and occasions that people gather to attend to God are dangerous. They’re glorious places and occasions, true, but they’re also dangerous. Danger signs should be conspicuously placed, as they are at nuclear power stations. Religion is the death of some people.
Did you hear that? Beware the God. You are coming to a dangerous place this morning. In the book of Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. Think about the privilege that it would have been to meet with holy God. In the preparations for this meeting, the people were warned not to come near the mountain because of the danger. We read in Exodus 19 that the mountain was wrapped in smoke, and that God descended in fire, and that the entire mountain trembled. The sound was overwhelming. God warned the people to stay back from the mountain so that God didn’t break out against them. Even an animal approaching the mountain would have to be stoned to death. Beware the God!
Let me say it again: you are coming to a dangerous place this morning. It’s dangerous to worship God, so be careful. We’re especially in danger because many of us have had mornings like the one we just saw on the film. You may have stayed up too late last night. You may have fought on the way here. Who knows what’s happened? It’s easy to come in here without adequately preparing for what’s going to take place.
This morning’s passage helps us understand the danger we face when we come to worship God together, and how we should act as a result.
Guard Your Steps
We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that’s intended to help us understand how to live wisely in the world. It’s probing the meaning of life and helping us understand where and how to find true meaning. He’s visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he visits the temple and considers what happens there.
Listen to what the Teacher says about worshiping God. Verse 1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” There you have the core of what he’s going to tell us in this passage. He’s putting up a danger sign for us. He’s essentially saying:
Be careful…Think of what you are about to do. You are not just dropping in on a neighbor for a friendly chat. You are not just passing time with a friend. You are going to “the house of God.” You are going to the place where the almighty Creator stoops down to meet with you. “Guard your steps!” Think of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. God said to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). “Guard your steps!” (Sidney Greidanus)
What he’s doing is issuing a warning, and it’s one we probably need to hear. His warning isn’t for people who never go to church. It’s for those of us who are well-meaning and who show up for church, who like to sing a good song and hear a good sermon, but sometimes find it hard to pay attention. It’s for those of us whose thoughts wander, and who are full of good intentions, but who never quite follow through. The Teacher is warning us against sleepwalking through church. You don’t come to worship God half-awake and stumble your way through worship and then stumble out.
Did you see the video of the lady who was texting while walking though a mall? She walked out of a department store texting on her phone. She kept walking and she walked right into the fountain out of the store. A security video caught this, and they posted it on YouTube. I checked the other day, and 3.5 million people have watched this video. She’s an example of how many of us spend our lives: half-present, not even aware of what’s going on around us.
Business guru Seth Godin writes:
Yes, you shouldn’t text while driving, or talk on the cell phone, or argue with your dog or drive blindfolded. It’s an idiot move, one that often leads to death (yours or someone else’s).
I don’t think you should text while working, either. Or use social networking software of any kind for that matter. And you probably shouldn’t eat crunchy chips, either.
He’s saying: Don’t go through life half-present. I think the Teacher would add: Even if you do go through life half-there, don’t do this at church. Don’t text and worship. Don’t show up half-awake and stumble through what’s taking place here, because we come to meet with the God of the universe. This is not safe. It shouldn’t be approached casually.
What does this mean? The Teacher gives us two specific instructions on how we can guard our steps as we come to worship God.
First: Come prepared to hear from God and his Word.
Read verses 1 to 3 with me:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
There’s something strange going on as we gather together. There’s an old book on writing called If You Want to Write that’s become a classic. The first chapter of the book is: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” We’re steeped now in this way of thinking. Self-expression is huge. We tweet. We blog. We share our thoughts on Facebook. We’re used to speaking and telling others what we have to think.
The danger is that we’ll come to worship with this attitude as well. The Teacher essentially says in these verses that we should come to worship with the expectation that we listen more than talk. The picture is that of a worshiper walking into the house of God, the holy sanctuary. It would have been the temple in Jerusalem when this was written, but it applies to any place that is set aside for worship. The Teacher is telling us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to enter as we come to worship God.
The right way is to come with our ears wide-open. We come to sit and to receive what God has written in his Holy Word. As we worship, it’s time to read and preach the Word of God. Philip Ryken says, “Understand that whenever we go to worship, we enter the presence of a holy God who has gathered his holy people to hear his Holy Word.”
The wrong way is to come a little too quick to speak. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter.
The Teacher would agree. He cautions us not to be rash with our mouths, not to be quick to utter words before God. We should come prepared to hear what God has to say.
The reason he gives us is at the end of verse 2: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” In other words, remember the tremendous distance between God and us. God is in heaven; we are on earth. God is far superior to us. He is infinite; we are limited. He is Creator; we are created. His thoughts aren’t our thoughts; his ways are higher than our ways. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Knowing how widely the divine nature differs from our own, let us quietly remain within our proper limits.”
So we have to come to listen, to hear. I can’t tell you how important this is. Take what we’re doing right now. I’m speaking; you’re listening. It seems wrong for one person to do all the speaking – unless the person doing the speaking isn’t speaking for themselves. The only way it makes sense for one person to be speaking is if the person is speaking on behalf of someone else who does deserve to be heard. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way:
The Christian worship service is inherently dialogical. The dialogue, however, involves a more important party than any living human. The Lord of the Universe speaks during the service. We have the wondrous privilege of being able to speak to Him as a community of saints. When God speaks through the exposition of His word there certainly will be many reactions, but as our Sovereign speaks there should not be an interruption in favor of our pooling our comments and sharing our insights. Our best wisdom is foolishness before God. Better to first listen to the One who speaks, then talk with one another about it afterward.
So I’d better come prepared to speak not my words but God’s. And all of us should come, guarding our steps, prepared to hear from God and his Word. Come expecting God to speak, and don’t interrupt. Respond, but don’t interrupt.
But that’s not all.
Second, the Teacher says, do what you say.
Read verses 4-6 with me:
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
In Bible times, people made vows to God, often in the context of public worship. The problem is that it’s much easier to make a vow than to keep it. The Bible is very clear that when we make a vow to God, we’re required to keep it. It’s much better to not make a vow than to make a vow and then not keep it. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 says:
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.
That’s exactly what the Teacher is saying. God takes it very seriously when we make promises to him and then fail to keep them. It’s a dangerous thing to come into worship and make promises to God and then not keep them.
It’s dangerous thing to stand before God and to promise to live together as husband and wife “till death do us part.”
It’s dangerous thing to present our children before the Lord and vow to instruct them in the Christian faith and to lead them into Christian discipleship.
It’s dangerous to read a covenant in church as we did last week and make vows before the Lord of how we will relate to each other.
It’s dangerous to pray and make commitments to God.
It’s dangerous to sing many of the songs we sing: “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end.” “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” “Jesus, all for Jesus, all I am and have and ever hope to be.” “I will follow you all of my days.”
It’s dangerous to vow to give a certain amount to God and then renege. Verse 6 is about that. The Teacher seems to be referring to the vow that people made to pay a certain sum to the temple treasury. When they failed to come through, the priest or some other messenger would come and visit them to remind them of their vow. People might respond that their vow was unintentional, a mistake. The Teacher says that God isn’t fooled by our games. “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”
It’s a dangerous thing to make promises to God. So think carefully before you do. Guard your steps when you go into the house of God. Listen to his Word, and make sure you keep the promises you make before him. Don’t be a deadbeat worshiper.
All of this is capped off with verse 7: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.” It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. Fear God. Instead of multiplying words, fear God. Fear is not cowering in terror. It’s recognizing that God is God, and that we’re to enter his presence with reverence and awe. Guard your steps as you come to worship him. God struck down seventy people because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19). He struck down another for touching the Ark of the Covenant when it was about to fall (2 Samuel 6). In Acts 5 a husband and wife died for lying to the LORD. Our God is a consuming fire. We come to a God who is good, but he is not safe.
What we really need is what one person experienced with a tornado. You can talk about tornados and read about tornados. You can watch Twister dozens of times but not be changed. But what happens when you’re actually in a tornado? Don Ratzlaff writes:
[Since] last spring … I look for tornadoes. … One personal encounter with a power that before was only theoretical can make all the difference. You live differently after that. You respect the power. You live in awe of its presence and tremble to think of its potential. Above all, you live in profound humility because you recognize your inability to control it.
If all this for tornadoes, then what of the Almighty God? I am reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Beaver describes the might and majesty of Aslan, the lion-God. When he finishes, Lucy asks, “Is–is he safe?” Replies Mr. Beaver: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” This is our God: hardly safe but thoroughly good. We cling to the King in fear, but much too afraid to let go.
What happens when we experience God, when we get a glimpse of his other-ness, when we’re gripped with holy fear? It will change you.
Somebody paraphrased this passage:
How brazen and dishonest people are
with their religion. They will go so far
with it as suits their needs; so they attend
the services and sing the hymns, and when
they have to, give a little money to
the Lord. But do they live as one should do
who’s made a vow to God? Don’t kid yourself.
Among their friends their faith is on the shelf….
Remember, God knows everything.
He knows our hearts when we before him bring
our worship, and you can’t fool him. So take
a good look at yourself before you make
your next appearance before the Lord. And go
to listen, not to speak, for he will know
just what you need. Why, any fool can spout
a lovely prayer or sing a hymn about
his faith. His words are mindless, like a dream,
although to people looking on they seem
impressive. Not to God….
For words are cheap,
just like the dreams you have while you’re asleep.
God wants your heart, my son, not just a show.
Get right with him before you to him go.
Annie Dillard writes:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
Let me tell you a couple of ways that we need to respond.
First: we need a new reverence of God, a new sense of awe for what takes place here. We really need to raise the stakes and raise our expectations. We can’t afford to worship casually. We come to a God who is a consuming fire.
Second: we need to ground our confidence. Listen: the people could not approach God’s holy mountain. God told them to stay away. Moses himself trembled in fear before God. They had to kill even animals that approached the mountain. God is a consuming fire. But the writer to the Hebrews says we can approach God with confidence.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. And most of all, put your hope in the great high priest in reverent fear and worship.