First Things First
Dr. Jim Denison
Football season begins today. The best definition of football I’ve heard came from an English visitor’s first impression: 22 men in desperate need of rest, being watched by 70,000 people in desperate need of exercise.
And the math only gets worse. The NFL estimates that 100 million people watch by television some part of a football game on any given Sunday. Watching the 1,643 people who made NFL rosters this year. By my calculation, that’s a ratio of 60,864 fans per player. Watching every mistake, every penalty. Every fan sure he could do it better.
No wonder the coaches look that way on the sidelines. You’ve heard the old adage, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” They believe it.
We can afford to be spectators in some areas of our lives. But not with our souls. You and I will each stand personally before the God of the universe one day, to give account for the years he gave us to live. There are only two questions on that final exam. Two commitments which give our lives purpose, significance, and joy; two commitments which give our eternity reward and delight. We’ll remember them and pledge ourselves to them anew in these weeks together.
Let’s begin where Jesus began, putting first things first: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (v. 37). We need to remember what worship is, what it isn’t, and why it matters so much to our God and to our souls.
What is worship?
Let’s understand first what worship is, as God sees it. It’s not what our culture thinks it is, or even what many church attenders think it is. We’ll see what it’s not in a moment—see what it is to God.
Worship is “love.” This is how the first commandment begins: “Love the Lord your God.” Love is a verb, not a noun or an adjective here. It requires doing, not just attending, watching, or believing in. You haven’t worshipped by attending church, listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or giving money. You’ve only worshipped when you’ve loved, adored, honored. Worship is love.
Worship is loving God: “Love the Lord your God.” Worship is about God, not us. It’s not about what we “get” from the hour, but what we give to God. You are not the audience, and we are not the performers. God is the audience of One, and you are the worship performers. Our job is to help you do your job, to be worship “coaches,” to lead you to love God today.
I am grateful for every scripture which stands over your heads as you worship God today. If I could add any words to our architecture, I would put over the doors as we enter to worship, this statement: “It’s not about us.” Worship is loving God.
And worship is loving God in every way a human can love.
With all our “hearts.” The word refers to our emotions, our senses. You need to feel love for God today.
With all our “souls.” The word means the life force itself, that which gives our bodies life, our very essence. Not as a peripheral matter but as your highest purpose and value today. You need to love God passionately today.
With all our “minds.” We are to have no ungodly thoughts, or songs, or movies, or television shows, or books in our minds. We are to think about our faith, to study God’s word, to engage intellectually in the worship of God.
This is every way a human can love: emotionally, passionately, intellectually. Is this your worship experience? Make it so today.
And make it so this week. Mark’s version adds that we are to love God with all our “strength” (Mark 12:30). This means to love God with our actions, when the worship hour is done. Nowhere does our text limit itself to church or Sunday worship. God measures our love for him not just by Sunday, but by Monday. By whether or not we love him tomorrow as we say we love him today. He’s looking for Monday Christians, Monday worshippers.
Did you know that you can love God in the same way you love anyone else who matters to you? You can spend the day with him—talking with him, thinking about him. Tell him how you feel, what you’re thinking. Thank him for the good things you experience, for “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Ask him for what you need, and praise him for what he gives. Spend the day with Jesus. Love him. Worship him. This is his first commandment, his first expectation for your life and mine. For every day.
So we can identify what worship is not:
Performance—by me or by us. God has called us to help you worship God, but you are the performers. Don’t evaluate worship today by my performance, but by yours. That’s how God measures our worship today.
Entertainment. Worship is to be exciting and encouraging, but we are not in the entertainment business. We’re not here to impress you—you’re here to impress God.
Therapy. God helps us as we worship him, but our first purpose is to worship him. Interestingly, we get far more out of worship when we come not for us but for him. When we worship for his sake more than our own.
Evangelism. Evangelism results from worship, as people see Christ in our joy. But we don’t evaluate worship by how many public decisions get made at the front of the church. God evaluates it by how many hearts adore him all across the church.
About us. Remember INAM—it’s not about me. Write it over your heart every time you enter this place. Worship is about loving God. Every day.
Why does worship matter?
So why make such a deep and costly commitment as this? Why does God put this commandment first, for his sake but for ours as well? Why make this your first priority in life? For these reasons.
First, God made us for worship. This is why we were created. It’s why he gave us free will—so we could choose to worship him. Love must be a choice. God made us to make this choice.
The old Westminster Catechism was right: “man’s chief end is to worship the Lord and enjoy him forever.”
I read Henri Nouwen’s book, Making All Things New, this week. See if these words make sense to you as they do to me: “Beneath our worrying lives…something else is going on. While our minds and hearts are filled with many things, we wonder how we can live up to the expectations imposed upon us by ourselves and others. We have a deep sense of unfulfillment. While busy with and worried about many things, we seldom feel truly satisfied, at peace, or at home. A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled underlies our filled lives…To be bored, therefore, does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing.”
The only antidote to our bored, unfulfilled, restless souls is daily, personal worship and love for God. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in him.” He was right. God made us this way.
Second, God empowers us when we worship. When did God empower Isaiah to go for him, Daniel to face the lions, the first Christians to witness at Pentecost? When did God shake the doorposts in Jerusalem and the prison bars in Philippi? When did Jesus reveal his heavenly splendor to John and to us? In worship. The power to serve God is found in worshipping God.
If you want God’s power for your life and purpose, you must worship God every day. That’s how he empowers us.
Third, God uses us after we worship. After we love God we can love our neighbor. Calvin said, “It is impossible for the love of God to reign without producing brotherly kindness among men.” When we have met God, we can meet people in his name.
Last, God deserves our worship. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:10). He created and redeemed us, and made us a place in his perfect heaven forever. He watched his Son die on our cross, to save our souls and purchase our salvation. He gave everything for us. He deserves our worship.
Dr. W. L. Steiger was on a World War II ship in a submarine zone. Their ship was carrying 10,000 soldiers. One morning he and the captain were looking at the sunrise through their binoculars. Here is what he says happened next: “Suddenly each of us saw the white wake of a torpedo headed straight for our ship…We could not dodge it; we had no room or time to move our ship out of its path. The Captain turned to me, thinking of those boys still asleep in the ship, and said, ‘This is it!’
“There was no way out—this was the end. Then suddenly something happened which none on our ship had considered. There was a destroyer riding to our port, battling the waves. Suddenly the skipper of that small ship saw the same thing that we saw from our bridge—that torpedo headed straight for our midships. That young skipper shouted down the tube to his engine room, ‘All engines ahead flank!’ and headed his destroyer straight into the path of that torpedo. She took its full impact and sank in ten minutes with most of her officers and crew. He was my best friend, that young skipper. He knew when he gave that order that he and his crew would be lost, but he didn’t hesitate a single second.”
And Dr. Steiger has never forgotten that sacrifice. He told the story everywhere he could, to everyone he could. The story of the man who died for him.
That’s your story and mine today. Our Friend deserves our best worship.
So we’re going to give such worship to him, together. The finest single example of biblical worship is found in Isaiah 6. Here we find each of the elements of genuine, passionate love for God. We’ll do together what Isaiah did, and meet God as he met God.
First, “Isaiah saw the Lord.” How? The Scriptures say that we enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise (Psalm 100:4). See God on his throne in heavenly glory. Feel the warmth of his love for you. Hear the angels and the saints of the ages as they surround him with their praise. Lift your voice and your heart to him. Worship him with us today. You will meet God. And he will meet you.
The remainder of the service follows Isaiah 6: from adoration to confession, to cleansing, to surrender, to service. And finally we sing together, “All to Thee”. Make this your heart’s commitment to your loving Father, today. And tomorrow.