How should we go to church?
You might answer, “Isn’t it pretty obvious? You get in a car and you drive to the building, and you walk inside the building, and you sit down on a pew.”
Maybe if you live nearby, you walk. You might take a bus.
Maybe your church is in a home.
Or in recent months, you might answer, “You get out your computer, and you click on the Zoom link, and you sit on your sofa and watch from home.”
But is that all there is to it? Show up?
Today we’re going to church. As we continue our study of Ecclesiastes, The Teacher takes us to church. What he does is basically ask the question “How should we go to church?” In so doing, he is not thinking about the transportation we use to show up to a worship service, or even the use of technology to log in to a broadcast of the church. He is not talking about watching a YouTube version of the sermon.
The teacher is talking about our hearts, our minds, and how we think and feel about this thing that goes by many different names: Church, Worship, Mass, Liturgy, Temple. So far in Ecclesiastes, the Teacher’s theme has been how life is fleeting, and thus we should enjoy the time has given us. Last week David Hundert began a three-part mini-series on the central section of the book. Today we are looking at the center of the center. That means the Teacher intended us to see this section as very important. In other words, as he has been guiding us to think about the meaning of life, he is saying that we should think about gathered worship as incredibly important. How we think about worship is vital.
Look at verse 1.
The NIV translates the Teacher’s very first words as, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
Wait. Is he saying that our church buildings are God’s houses? I know some of you want to answer Yes, and I don’t mean to disappoint you, but the answer is No. The Teacher here is not talking about church buildings. So what is he talking about?
Dorsey’s translation of this phrase answers for us, “Be careful when you come to God’s temple.”
The Teacher worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. God’s presence was actually there, so at that time the temple was properly called the house of God.
Before we hear what the Teacher says about worship, we need to see that you and I are in a very different situation. We don’t go to the temple in Jerusalem. And God’s presence doesn’t live here in our church buildings. I get it that church buildings are often referred to as God’s house, but that is not biblically correct. Why? Because the Apostle Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 6:19, that our bodies are the temple of God, as the Holy Spirit lives in us. We are God’s house. Not a building!
Even though the cultural situation of the Teacher is different, though he did worship in the temple which was God’s house and we don’t, we can still learn from him about worship. What he will do in verses 1-7 is talk about three elements of worship: sacrifice, prayer and vows. So let’s first see what he has to say about Sacrifice. Look at the second half of verse 1:
“Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” Or as Dorsey translates it, “obedience is better than the sacrifices offered by fools. Fools are experts in wrongdoing.”
What does the Teacher mean by Sacrifice? In the Israelite religion there was a ton of sacrifice. They literally killed animals, giving their body and blood as a worship offering to God. Since Jesus gave his body and blood as the permanent sacrifice, Christians do not practice ritual sacrifice in worship. So we could be tempted to think that this phrase in verse 1 has nothing to do with Christian worship. Let me try to explain how the Teacher’s words can apply to us. When he mentions sacrifices, he is talking about ritual practices in worship. We can compare his words to our practice of rituals.
You might think, “What rituals? You just said we don’t do sacrifice.” Well, we Christians actually have a bunch of rituals. Rituals are any spiritual practices that we observe over and over. Some churches are more ritualistic. Some less so. At my church, we have a fairly consistent order of worship, we sit in pews, sing songs, and we have a sermon. There are even a couple Christian rituals instituted by Jesus himself: communion and baptism. We also have child dedications, membership vows, marriages, and funerals. All have an element of ritual to them.
The danger of ritual is that regularly repeated actions can take on an automated quality to them. My wife was raised in a church that said the Gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed every week, and after we were married we were members there for a few years. I found that quoting those three over and over and over, I was able to say the words without thinking about them, without feeling anything. When that happens, one commentator says worshipers “are so foolish that they are not even aware that their sacrifices are evil, an offense to God.” (Tremper Longman)
As a result, some Christians believe all rituals in worship are wrong. That’s not what the Teacher is saying, though. Rituals can be very healthy and formative. I would go so far as to say that we need rituals, if done with the right motivation. Frankly, it would be very difficult to have any expression of gathered worship that doesn’t have at least a few rituals.
But the Teacher is saying that there is something else that God desires more than ritual. The NIV translates it as “listening,” and Dorsey translates it as “obedience.” While they sound like different concepts, we often use those two words equally. When a parent says to a child who has disobeyed, “You didn’t listen to me,” they don’t mean that the child didn’t hear the rule; they mean the child broke the rule. God wants us to listen to him, to obey his word. In fact he would much rather us obey him than go through empty ritual. It is a regular refrain in Scripture: “to obey is better than sacrifice.” In other words, if the rest of your life is lived in a way that doesn’t honor him just showing up for church worship services and going through the ritual isn’t going to get you any brownie points with God.
So how do we come to worship? The teacher is actually saying that our lives outside worship matter to God most. He wants us to lead lives of faithful obedience to his way of life.