Heart of Worship | God Is Present
Just a few minutes ago, we sang one of the most popular and familiar songs in contemporary Christian worship. It’s a song written by Matt Redman called “Heart of Worship.” And, although I have no problem telling you that I love this song and that I find myself singing it in my car just about every week when I’m driving to our church on Sunday mornings, I actually love the story behind this song even more.
This song actually dates back to the late 1990s. And it was born from a period of apathy within the church that Matt was serving as a worship leader in at the time. That church, called Soul Survivor located in Watford, England, played a big part in the revitalization of worship not only in England but all around the world. But the senior pastor of the church, Mike Pilavachi, believed that his congregation had lost its way.
Yes, Soul Survivor, had innovative services every weekend and elaborate production for everything that happened on stage...but it just felt like something was missing. So the senior pastor did something incredibly bold. He decided to eliminate the sound system, to nix the multimedia, and to get rid of all the musical instruments and accompaniment they had each weekend. Instead, the church would enter into a season of simplicity where the only thing they would use in worship was their own voices.
Now, can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it would be like to be a part of a worship service that didn’t have any microphones or any music?
Well, Matt Redman has admitted in various interviews over the years that it was pretty awkward at the beginning and there were lots of long silences. That led to a steady decline in attendance at the church, but the staff didn’t flinch. They were committed to helping their church rediscover what worship is all about.
And as Matt reflected on what worship is really about, he wrote the words that we just sang:
When the music fades, all is stripped away and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that's of worth that will bless Your heart / I'll bring You more than a song for a song in itself is not what You have required / You search much deeper within through the way things appear, you're looking into my heart / I'm coming back to the heart of worship and it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus.
Now, I’m not standing here today telling you the same thing that Matt’s pastor told his church more than twenty years ago. I’m not saying that we have lost our way in worship. However, I do realize that we have been worshiping together online for almost eleven months. So for almost eleven months, you have visited our church website, our Facebook page, or our YouTube channel to worship with us. And my fear is that there are times when our worship services feel like just another video that you’d see on those platforms. But worship needs to be more than just watching a video.
Worship needs to be more than just watching a video.
So, over the course of the next three weeks, I want us to get back to the heart of worship. And I want to start right now by reminding you of who is at the heart of our worship. So who is at the heart of our worship? Well, the easy answer to that question is God. God is at the heart of worship.
God is at the heart of worship.
But let’s not stop with the easy answer. Let’s go deeper and let’s talk about who God is. And, to help us do that, I want us to take a look at a passage of scripture from the book of Isaiah. Now, Isaiah is a prophet. And a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God. And, I gotta say, that sounds like a pretty cool job...but it’s not the kind of job that you’d ever find listed on Indeed. And even if you did, you wouldn’t want to apply for it.
And that’s because the prophets were like the warning alarms for ancient Israel. So if the people of Israel starting relying on themselves too much and turning their backs on God, the prophets would warn them to change course before it was too late. And let’s just say that message didn’t usually go over too well. For some reason, we, as people, just don’t like to be told when we’re doing something wrong.
But regardless, Isaiah is a prophet who has been tasked with speaking on behalf of God. And Isaiah warns the people of Israel that they’re turning their backs on God. But that’s not all Isaiah does. In the passage that we’re going to be looking at today, Isaiah also reminds the people of Israel about who God is. So let’s take a look at Isaiah 40 and let’s see who God is. We’ll start reading in verse 12. It says:
12 Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance?
13 Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor? 14 Whom did he consult for enlightenment? Who taught him the path of justice and knowledge and explained to him the way of understanding?
15 Look, the nations are like a drop in a bucket, and valued as dust on a scale. Look, God weighs the islands like fine dust. 16 Lebanon doesn’t have enough fuel; its animals aren’t enough for an entirely burned offering. 17 All the nations are like nothing before God. They are viewed as less than nothing and emptiness.
18 So to whom will you equate God; to what likeness will you compare him?
19 An idol? A craftsman pours it, a metalworker covers it with gold, and fashions silver chains. 20 The one who sets up an image chooses wood that won’t rot and then seeks a skilled artisan to set up an idol that won’t move.
21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon—its inhabitants are like locusts—stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw.
25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one. 26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing.
Isaiah 40:12-26 (Common English Bible)
Now how do you feel when you hear that passage? How do you feel when you hear that God measured the water in the palm of his hand? How do you feel when God calls even the mightiest empire less than nothing? How do you feel when God makes it clear that nothing is his equal?
Because the way that God describes himself in this passage makes it crystal clear that God is a big God. I love the way that Mark Batterson—whose the pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C. explains this in his book Whisper. Mark says:
If creation reveals anything, it’s that God is bigger than big. The theological word for this is transcendence, and it’s evidenced by the size of the universe.
Earth is larger than Mars, Mercury, and the moon. But it’s significantly smaller than Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, and Jupiter. Jupiter is 1,321 times larger than Earth in terms of volume, but it’s 10 times smaller than the sun. And the sun is a relatively small yellow dwarf star. Arcturus, an orange giant, is 26 times bigger than the sun and produces 200 times more energy. Antares, a red supergiant, is 10,000 times brighter than the sun. And we’re not even out of the Milky Way galaxy!
And to us, Earth seems huge. Not so much.
And God made all of this. God made the Earth, and Mars, and Mercury. God made Jupiter and the sun. So creation is…
not just a reminder of how incredibly small we are; it’s a reminder of how incredibly big God is…
God is bigger than big, but that’s a little intimidating if left by its lonesome…
So there’s a little more that we need to hear in this passage from Isaiah. If we pick back up in verse 27, we read:
27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.
Isaiah 40:27-31 (Common English Bible)
So yes, the vastness of God that we read about in the first few verses of this passage can be a little intimidating. But these 5 verses give us good news.
The good news? There is a theological counterbalance to that bigness. It’s called the immanence of God: God is also closer than close…God is great not just because nothing is too big; God is great because nothing is too small.
So this is who God is. This is who’s at the heart of our worship. God is. The God who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. The God who is beyond infinite. The God that is above comparison. But God is also the God who reaches down and gives power to the tired and revives the exhausted.
The God that we worship is a God that is greater than anything you could possibly imagine. But our God is also a God that loves you more than you could possibly imagine.
God is greater than anything you could possibly imagine. But God also loves you more than you could possibly imagine.
And this is the God that we get to come together to worship. We get to come together to worship this God that is transcendent and immanent. We get to come together to worship this God that is big and close. We get to come together to worship this God that is greater than we can imagine and that loves us more than we can imagine.
But how exactly do we do that? How do we worship God? Because, let’s just be honest here, even though we know deep down that all of these things are true...it doesn’t always carry over into our worship. Even though we know that our God is a great God that loves us deeply...we don’t always act like that’s the God that we get to worship during our services.
We don’t always act like we are coming into the presence of the God that created the heavens and the earth and everything in them including us when we come together to worship. I mean, seriously, just take a minute to think how you would act if you were in the presence of Jesus right now.
Imagine that Jesus was sitting on the couch beside you in your living room right now. Imagine that Jesus was on the other side of your kitchen island right now. Imagine that Jesus was physically with your right now. How would you act?
Now, I remember attending a Christian camp one summer when I was a teenager where the camp pastor asked us that question every time we came together to worship. He took an empty chair, he sat it on the stage, and he asked us to imagine that Jesus was sitting right there in that chair. And then he asked us to do what we would do if Jesus was sitting right there with us.
So some of us got down on our knees and bowed before our king. Some of us stood up and raised our hands to the heavens to worship our Lord. Some of us just sat in our seats with tears in our eyes, overwhelmed by the image that God was with us.
But that’s not usually how we act when we come together to worship. So instead of falling to our knees, or raising our hands, or simply being in awe of our God; we treat our time together in worship like it’s just another hour in our lives.
So, as we worship together online, you might have this sermon playing in the background while you’re making a late breakfast. Or you might have this service loaded in one tab of your internet browser while you’re scrolling through your social media feeds in another tab. Or you might just treat this whole service like it’s any other TV show, you might sit back, kick up your feet, and watch what happens without engaging or participating at all.
But is that how you would act if Jesus was sitting in the room with you right now? Would you ignore him while you finish fixing breakfast? Would you scroll through social media when you could be spending time with your savior? Would you just sit back and kick up your feet and not engage with Jesus at all?
You know, the way that we usually act in worship actually reminds me of the story of Elijah. Now, you can read the whole story of Elijah in the book of 1 Kings, but I want to focus on a smaller part of his story. And Elijah was a prophet--or someone who speaks on behalf of God--while Ahab was king of Israel. And Ahab wasn’t a very good king, the book of 1 Kings actually describes Ahab as someone who “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of [the kings] before him.” And the worst thing that he did as king was to marry a princess from Sidon named Jezebel.
And Jezebel—well, she was a jezebel. She was wicked. She was shameless. And she brought her gods with her when she became Queen of Israel and she expected all of Israel to worship her gods instead of the one true God.
But just because the king and queen of Israel have turned their backs on God, that doesn’t mean that God has turned his back on Israel. So God sends Elijah to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel. And Elijah has a monumental encounter with Jezebel and the priests that she brought with her to Israel. They actually have a showdown on Mt. Carmel--which sounds like a better place to build Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory than to have a divine showdown.
But anyway, Elijah has a showdown with the priests of Jezebel’s faith on Mt. Carmel. And it essentially goes like this: Elijah tells the priests to build an altar, to kill a bull, and to offer it as a sacrifice to their gods. But here’s the catch: their gods had to provide the fire, like a lightning bolt from heaven.
So the priests built the altar, killed the bull, and started praying for fire. But it doesn’t come. So Elijah takes his turn. He builds his altar. He kills his bull. And then he gets a little crazy. He digs a trench around his altar. And he asks people to start pouring so much water on his altar that the trench around it will overflow. Or, to put it another way, Elijah does everything he can to make it impossible for this altar to catch fire.
So once the altar is completely drenched, Elijah steps forward and prays, “Let it be known today that you are Israel’s God.” And before Elijah can even say, “Amen,” the bull, the wood, the stones, and the ground surrounding it are consumed with fire.
So Elijah sees God the transcendence of God with his own two eyes...but just a few short verses later, Elijah feels like God is a million miles away. And he feels like God is a million miles away because right after his epic showdown on Mt. Carmel, Elijah learns that Jezebel is out to kill him.
So even though Elijah has seen just how big and powerful God is with his own two eyes, and even though Elijah knows that God is also so close that he can hear one man’s lowly prayers and respond, Elijah cannot worship God. And Elijah cannot worship God because he fails to realize he is in God’s presence.
And the same thing happens to us. When we come together online on Sundays, we struggle to worship God because we fail to realize that God isn’t just big and God isn’t just close...but God is also present in our lives every moment of every day.
We struggle to worship God because we fail to realize that God is present in our lives every moment of every day.
Now, in Elijah’s story, God will do something amazing to remind Elijah that God is always present. God will actually send Elijah to stay in a cave and while Elijah is staying in this cave, 1 Kings 19 tells us:
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. A whisper.
1 Kings 19:5b-12 (Common English Bible)
And that whisper was the voice of God. So when Elijah felt like God was a million miles away, God did something to show Elijah he was present. God whispered to him.
Do you ever wonder why God whispered to Elijah? God whispered to Elijah because you can only hear a whisper when you’re close to the speaker. And that’s how close God is to you right now. God is close enough to whisper in your ears.
But you know what, there are a lot of things that can distract us from God’s whisper. In Elijah’s story, he could’ve been distracted by a powerful wind, and earthquake, or fire. In your life, you might get distracted by chores that need to be done, by notifications that pop up on your smartphone, or by your desire to just veg out on your couch. But if you fail to realize that God is present in your life then you will never be able to worship God.
If you fail to realize that God is present in your life then you will never be able to worship God.
So here’s what I want you to do this week, I want you to spend some time thinking about when you have felt God’s presence in your life. I want you to think about moments that felt like a showdown on Mt. Carmel, and moments that felt like a gentle whisper. I want you to remember that God has been present in your life and that God is still present now.
And when you remember that God is always present, then your heart is ready to worship.