Beatin’ Those Ol’ Church-Goin’ Blues

Second in the Psalms of Ascent Series,
Delivered September 20, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Psalm 122 A song of ascents. Of David.
1 I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.
4 That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel.
5 There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity.

As we continue today our sermon series on the Psalms of Ascent, we encounter the first one of those psalms that is ascribed to King David, Psalm 122. I want us to remember that as we go through these psalms of ascent, these were psalms that were sung by Hebrew pilgrims on their way up to the holy city of Jerusalem to worship. And so in a sense they were songs that were sung on the way to church. What songs did you and I sing on the way to church this morning? Songs of joy and praise and expectation? Or maybe songs of “well, let’s get it over with”, or boredom, or indifference, or fighting, or whatever. It makes all of the difference in the world what songs you and I sing on the way to worship. Maybe for some of you, you are on a journey this morning that has brought you here and your song is in the form of a question. “I wonder if Central Presbyterian is where God wants me to be?” Well, I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you how to tell if you are in the wrong church.

In fact, let me share with you the top ten ways you can tell if you are in the wrong church. Number 10: the church bus has gun racks. Number 9: the church lobby consists of a pro shop and practice green. Number 8: The Bible they use is the Dr. Seuss version. Number 7: there is an ATM machine in the lobby. Number 6: The choir wears leather robes. Number 5: worship services are BYOS – bring your own snake. Number 4: there is no cover charge, but communion does have a two drink minimum. Number 3: the pastor regularly attends conferences in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Number 2: the ushers ask “smoking or non smoking?” And number one: the women’s quartet are all married to the pastor.

Now finding the right church is really a matter of right worship: “orthodoxy”, which literally means “right praise.” And right praise or right worship really depends upon the attitude which you and I bring to worship, which is really what Psalm 122 is all about. Psalm 122 is really a good song to learn on the way to church. And so let’s take a look. Turn with me and keep your Bibles open during the sermon to the 122nd Psalm. This is the word of God.

I rejoiced with those who said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. Our feet are standing in your gates, Oh Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together, that is where the tribes go up. The tribes of the Lord. To praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel. There the thrones for judgement stand. The thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels for the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.

Join me as we pray. And now Father, as my words are true to your Word may they be taken to heart. But as my word should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Just about every version of the Bible, except the NIV, the translation we use here in worship, translates verse one of our text, “I was glad when they said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.'” Glad! That’s a great word! Were you all glad on your way here to Central this morning? Is there a spirit of gladness that grabbed you this morning as you made your way to this place? Now let’s be real. Not everybody comes here every Sunday with a spirit of gladness. In fact, let’s look in on a typical scenario in an average American household on a typical Sunday morning.

“I’m not going to church! You can’t make me go to church! I don’t want to go there! It is too early to get up! I want to sleep in! The service is too long! I don’t like the people there, they are not very friendly, they are all a bunch of hypocrites. Every time I go there they are always asking me for something. I don’t like the music, the sermon is always boring! I am NOT going to go to church!”

“Yes you are too going to go.”

“No I’m not! Give me one reason why I should go!”

“Well, honey, you are the pastor.”

Well, that is not Jerry and me on Sunday mornings, but I can tell you there were a whole lot of times in my life where I was anything but glad when they said to me “let us go to the house of the Lord.” I remember when I was a little boy, I was SAD when they said to me “let us go to the house of the Lord.” Because that meant a Saturday night bath, and good clothes, and hard shoes, and being away from my dog and the TV set, and elderly women fussing over me, and boring Sunday school lessons (that impacted and shaped my life more than I ever realized). And long sermons with the growling late lunch stomach. I was sad when they said to me “let us go to the house of the Lord.”

And then came Junior High School when I was MAD when they said “let us go to the house of the Lord.” “I’m not going to go to church. I don’t like anybody there. None of my friends go there. I’m not going.” And one time I humiliated my parents by actually getting thrown out of seventh grade Sunday school for decking a kid during opening exercises. I was MAD!

And then came high school and college, when I was BAD when they said to me “let us go to the house of the Lord.” Now I believed in Jesus, it’s just that my lifestyle was totally unhooked from any way that was pleasing to God. And I usually would go to worship, but for all the wrong reasons. Usually it was out of guilt, or to superstitiously appease God and keep my batting average up. Bad lifestyle, bad theology, I was b-b-b-b-bad to the bone.

What then, what then was it that made King David and those hundreds of thousands of Hebrew Pilgrims, glad? Glad! Not just to go conveniently to worship but to make the long and arduous and treacherous journey over the mountains where robbers dwelled and wild beasts could rip them apart. What was it that would make them glad to risk health, and life and limb to go to the house of the Lord, to go to Jerusalem? And what is it this very day that makes countless numbers of Christians in places like China and many Muslim countries, what makes them glad to be together to worship when they know that if they are caught, they could possibly be killed? And what is it that makes many of you actually rejoice every time Sunday rolls around. What is it that makes many of you glad to come and be in this place? Well it’s because you have discovered that God is real, and that He really loves you to death. And that’s what makes worship meaningful. And that’s what makes us glad when worship is meaningful. And so let me suggest that there are 6 ways in which this psalm might encourage you and me to find more meaning in worship. Six ways that arise out of this psalm that hopefully can be a catalyst in your heart and mind, that worship might become more joyous and meaningful and we might be more glad to be here.

Number one, worship will become more meaningful and joyous to you and me when we come to the realization that worship is the rock bottom reason why we were created in the first place. That’s why God made us! To worship Him. And when you and I are worshiping God, we have arrived at the apex of what it means to be a human being. That’s what being alive is really all about. Look at verse 2 of your text. The Hebrew Pilgrims sang “our feet are standing in your gates, Oh Jerusalem!” That’s another way of saying, “hey, we made it!” We have achieved the purpose for our very being. And when you and I come here on Sunday morning, we should feel like we’re coming home. That feeling that this is where I belong, this is what life is really all about. The world out there is the unreal world. This is the real world in here with God, full of grace and unconditional love. You and I were created primarily to worship. And when we are here and we understand, that is when that sense of gladness comes on us.

And secondly, worship becomes a whole lot more meaningful for you and me when we realize that worship is not about going to church, but it is about meeting with God. In this Psalm, David spends a whole lot of time talking about Jerusalem. About the city of Jerusalem. But don’t get confused, what he is talking about is not about just bricks and mortar. You see, Jerusalem is important because that is where the temple is. And where the temple is, that’s where the presence of God is. And is throughout Scripture, Jerusalem becomes a symbol for the real presence of God. The Hebrews didn’t like to use the holy name of God, so the word Jerusalem actually became sort of a synonym to refer to God’s presence. And so, worship is not just coming here to Central or going to Jerusalem, but worship is really all about a personal first hand relationship with God. All about connecting with the one true living God who gives us His promise that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in the name of Jesus He is going to be there to be with us and to connect with us. When we realize that, worship takes on a whole new dimension. Don’t ever confuse worship with buildings. In fact, the only reason you and I should be excited about that new building going up next door is that every square inch of that building has been claimed for God, and he is going to be present in every room of that building to impact the lives of people for generations to come.

Bob Greene is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He wrote a book that chronicles the first year of his infant daughter Amanda’s life. It’s called Good Morning Mary Sunshine. And he writes these words. “Apparently I’ve become one of the objects that fascinates her. It is so strange. After months of having to go to her, now she is choosing to come to me. I don’t quite know how to react. All I can figure is that she likes the idea of coming and looking at me and she doesn’t expect anything in return.”

Well folks, when you and I come into a first hand personal relationship with God, we find ourselves wanting to be with him, just looking at him being in his presence, basking in that presence.

Thirdly, if you look at verse four of our text, you see there that the tribes of Israel would all come to Jerusalem. From all over Palestine they would head to Jerusalem. And as tribes, they were blood kin. They were linked, they were family. And you see, worship becomes more meaningful to you and to me when we realize that this is a family event, and you are an integral part of the family. It’s here that you and I connect with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s here that we celebrate the communion of saints. You and I are blood kin – it’s the blood of Jesus Christ that connects us all together. And the more friends and family you have, the more you are going to want to be somewhere. And that’s why friendships and authentic relationships are of such critical importance in the life of the church. The more we are connected to one another, the more we are going to want to be here, the more authentic and joyous our worship is going to be. That’s why it is so important to us to be in a Sunday School class or to be in a small group, or a house church, where we are doing more than just showing up on Sunday morning like billiard balls colliding with one another, but we are connecting with one another and building relationships. Worship will become more meaningful, because worship is all about family. And in verse 4 we also see what the focus of worship was for those Hebrew pilgrims. Praise. They came to Jerusalem primarily to praise God for who he is and for what he has done for them. And you know, when you and I realize that worship is primarily praise, that it will become more meaningful for us. That it’s not just coming here to get all pumped up for the week ahead or to get our problems fixed, or to hear great music or whatever, but to praise God for what he has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s then that worship begins to take on a whole new face. Because praise is what God has originally and eternally created you and me for. Confession is an important part of worship. But it’s not a must. Because one day in eternity we are not going to need to confess any more. Petition, asking God to fix our problems is important, but one day in eternity you and I are not going to have any unmet needs. The one thing that you and I are going to do through eternity, the Scriptures tell us, to praise God. We better learn how to do that now. If we make that the focus of our worship, it’s amazing how all of the other stuff begins to drop into its rightful place. St. Augustine said “a Christian ought be an Allelujah from head to foot.” And we see in verse four as well that the Hebrews are actually mandated to praise God. The text says that there is a statute there, there is actually a law that they had to praise God. In our culture today, we would say “wait a minute, you can’t legislate emotion!” Well, yes you are right. But what the Hebrews understood (that we have a hard time understanding) and what the Bible communicates to us over and over again (but usually goes by us because we live in a therapeutic, touchy feel good culture), is that a relationship with God and authentic worship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with emotion. It is an act of the will. The Hebrews were mandated to praise God whether they felt like it or not. And there is a great Biblical principle here that I hope you will grasp. And the principle is this: that you and I can act our way into a new way of feeling much more quickly than we can feel our way into a new way of acting. When you and I come here, no matter how we are feeling, and we focus on praising God, you might be amazed at how you leave here at the end of the service.

Fifthly, if you look at verse eight, David says that we need to pray for our brothers and our friends. To have a concern for others, particularly those who are not here. This evangelism candle reminds you and me that there are a lot of people who are in no house of worship this morning. That there are a lot of people who have yet to ever meet Jesus Christ in a first hand way. And every week you and I are presented with opportunities by God in our families, schools or offices where we run across folks who have no connection with Christ. And studies show that a majority of those folks would be glad to take the invitation “let us go to the house of the Lord.” Worship would become much more meaningful to us if we carried with us a burden for those who are not here. If we don’t do this, we run the risk of turning this place into a religious club or a “holy huddle.” Archbishop William Temple put it well when he said, “the Church is the one institution that exists primarily for the sake of it’s non-members.” I think he’s right on target.

Lastly, worship will become much more meaningful and joyous to you and me the more we are invested in the church of Jesus Christ. And one of the key ways of investment is through prayer. David says in verse six “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” And Biblically, the church of Jesus Christ is the new Jerusalem. And so you and I are to be praying regularly for the peace and purity and unity of Central, for the larger Presbyterian church, and for the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. When you and I pray we become invested. We begin to have a stake in every missionary that is sent out. Every sermon that is preached. When you and I pray regularly for the peace of the church of Jesus Christ, that parochial vision gets exploded and we begin to have a world vision and we begin to connect with Christians all around the world. Central on this very day enjoys a unity, a Biblical theological anchoring, and an absence of conflict. Not because we are real nice people or exceptionally good organizers or because we are lucky. No, it’s because there are some real prayer warriors here in this congregation who daily are on their knees praying for the peace, and purity and unity of this congregation. And I hope we will all join them and will not take the prosperity at Central presumptuously. We need to pray. And when the more we pray, the more we are invested. And the more we are invested the more meaningful and more gladsome worship becomes.

But let’s be real. Not everybody is glad to be here today. And if that’s your case, it doesn’t have to always be that way. You can learn to sing a new song other than those “Old Church Going Blues.” You can learn to sing Psalm 122, you really can. God hasn’t given up on you. Don’t you give up on God or on this church. Don’t be like the guy who said to the Pastor, “I don’t go to church. I’ve been to church two times in my life and every time I go there they have flung something at me and that’s why I don’t go. When I was a little baby my parents took me and they threw water on me, and when I got married they threw rice at me! That’s why I don’t go to church!” The pastor said, “well I hope you start going soon, because if you don’t, the next time you go, they are going to throw dirt on you!”

I’m glad to be here this morning. I hope you are too. We can sing Psalm 122. That’s a great alternative to Those Old Church Going Blues.

Join me as we pray.
Lord God, plant a spirit of a glad heart in our lives. Lord make us so awesomely aware of who you are and what you have done for us in your grace and mercy displayed for us in Jesus Christ that we can’t wait to get here on Sundays and be with brothers and sisters in Christ and grow in your likeness so that we might leave here and minister to a very lost and broken world. Lord, fill us with a passion for evangelism and missions, and works of compassion that we might be balanced and Biblical in living out our Christian faith. And that our very lives might be pilgrimages of worship where we lift high the banner of Jesus. And we ask this in his precious name, Amen.