In Judah God is known; his name is great in Israel.
His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.
I am hesitant to speak today because of what is now occurring. I don’t take it lightly any given time I step up here to deliver a sermon. Yet, I want to confess to you my tentativeness. This is not something that I do flippantly. There are a variety of reasons for this. The main reason for my caution though, is the extreme weight of this moment that we are now encountering.
The significance of this time is much greater than what we might find, say on a Tuesday evening at Starbucks or on a Saturday afternoon in your back yard. We have entered a sacred hour; a time of profound power and intimacy with God. We might even say that this moment radically differs from the moments that we had just a half hour ago.
As soon as we recited the call to worship and formally entered into this service of worship something happened. Something changed. You might not have felt anything. It might not have seemed like anything occurred. Whether or not you were cognizant of it doesn’t really matter. The truth stands. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly altered. Again, we might not have felt anything. But if we had a barometer that could measure the spiritual weight of the air in this room, we could have seen a substantial discrepancy from the time before we began to the time after.
What I’m trying to communicate is that we are now having a unique encounter with God. And even now as I begin to deliver this message—God’s very word, the intimacy that we are experiencing with the very presence of God has leapt almost exponentially.
Hopefully you’ll better understand what I’m talking about—Why I feel this way—when you understand what is being said in the two verses that we just read.
What I want you to see is this:
The degree to which we experience God’s presence becomes more pronounced at certain points in our lives. The intimacy we have with him is markedly different on different occasions. Most particularly on this occasion, as we gather together for the corporate worship of God.
Let me explain what I mean.
As we look at this passage we can best understand it by means of three concentric circles. Think of the outermost circle as Israel. Then think of the middle circle as representing Judah. The innermost circle we’ll mark as Salem or Zion.
Let’s start with that outermost circle. You’ll notice that our passage says that God’s “name is great in Israel.” That is to say that God’s power, his authority, and his excellence of his divine being was evidenced in to all people in every territory in that nation. Every shop keeper, every blacksmith, every olive farmer recognized something of the greatness of God. If you were a Jew, you could not escape the fact that God was sovereign over you and powerfully working amidst his chosen people.
But you’ll notice that the passage also says that “God is known in Judah. So we are moving from the outer most rung to the one in the middle. And we see something a bit more personal.
Judah was one particular tribe in Israel. It was a special clan, holding a place above the other 11 tribes. You may remember that it was David’s clan; the tribe from which Christ would eventually come.
So you see a distinction is being made. This tribe is designated as having a particular status with God. Yes, there is a general knowledge of God’s character in Israel. You know his power and greatness. But in Judah He is known. We should not miss what is being communicated here. Remember what it means that Adam knew Eve. Biblically speaking, to know someone is to have an intimate and close, personal relationship with them.
There is something unique about being in Judah. Once you cross that boarder your experience of God’s personal presence becomes enhanced. The way God interacts with you in an even more intense and special way. The intimacy you have with him is augmented by several degrees.
You might say, “Boy, that is wonderful! What a great thing it must have been to be in Judah!” And you are right to say that. There was a greater advantage to being in Judah than in the outskirts of Israel. But that is nothing compared to being in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem this relationship is amplified even more. Look at the passage again. You’ll see that it says that, yes God is great in Israel; yes, God is known in Judah. But it also says, “His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place is in Zion.”
Now Mt. Zion was where the city of Jerusalem was located. It was the place where the temple was built. And it was the place where God was said to live. “He took up residence” you might say in that particular spot. It was there that His presence was manifested in an even greater, more profound way.
Why was that? It was because it was there that God’s people were to assemble for worship. God’s home was where the people came together to pay tribute to him. It was there as they offered up their sacrifices that God moved among them in an even more unique way.
So hopefully you see by now the point that this passage is trying to make. The weight of certain places or times is heightened because God’s presence becomes more intense and more intimate. Even though God is omni-present—that is to say, even though God is presence everywhere, we don’t always experience his presence in the same way. There are times when his presence is qualitatively different. You might say that there are times when he draws even nearer to us.
This might be something that is new to you. So let me illustrate it from Scripture.
When we look into the Bible we find this truth being expressed in a number of places. Let me give you two examples. Perhaps the clearest example is found in the story where Israel was gathered at Mount Sinai. You remember that God had brought them up out of Egypt and they came to Mt. Sinai and camped there for several months before setting out to the land htat God had promised them.
When they were at that place you remember that Moses was called by God to go up the mountain to meet with him. Everyone else in Israel was to stay at the foot of the mountain. As a matter of fact, it was said that if they crossed a certain point they would be killed. But Moses was singled out and permitted to hike up the peak.
And what happened while he was there? He met with God. It was said that God spoke with him. We even have the story where Moses asked to see God and God, with great pomp and circumstance passed by him and showed him his back.
Now there is a perfect example of what Psalm 76 is talking about. God was with Israel. He was with them in a way that was radically different than he was with Egypt. But the way he met with Moses was even more distinct.
Let’s take a look at another passage. This one from the New Testament. It comes from Matthew 18. You don’t have to turn there because I suspect that most of you already know it. It is the passage where Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.”
Now this is perhaps the most misquoted passage in all of Scripture. People quote this all the time, but I rarely ever hear it quoted in the way it was intended to be. The context is that of an excommunication! In Matthew 18 Jesus is talking about church discipline. And in that passage specifically he is talking about the most extreme form of Church discipline. He saying that wherever two or three are gathered to pronounce someone as expelled from the church, there am I. In other words, I am there in a special way to confirm that decision. It is as if Christ is there himself pronouncing that this person is expelled from the church and in danger of the fires of hell.
I once had the solemn opportunity to experience this very thing. I was at a presbytery meeting and a minister had been brought up on charges. In his rebellion though he failed to appear for his trial, which had been re-scheduled a number of times. In my denomination if you continuously fail to appear for your day in court you are convicted of what is called “contumacy,” and you are automatically excommunicated.
Again, this man was so obstinate that he failed to show up for his trial (and of course, failed to show any sort of repentance for his sin). So we had to excommunicate him for contumacy. And when we entered into that particular part of the presbytery meeting, the assembly took on a new solemnity. I still look back and am stupefied by how awesome it was. Now I’m not using the word awesome in its contemporary sense where we say, “That hotdog was awesome.” I’m using the word in its older sense, of being weighty and filled with transcendent awe.
As the words of excommunication were read from our church order everyone fell silent. You could not only feel the gravity of the moment, but you could sense the atmosphere change as Christ drew near to give his divine affirmation to what we were doing. Then when all was said and done, no one in that room moved. It was as if we all heard the gavel come down as Christ pronounced his judgment.
A man then broke the silence with a cry of anguish. He was so distraught by the event that he cried out, “Can we pray for this man?” And as the moderator led us in prayer the room’s atmosphere changed. We read in the OT how the glory cloud would lift from the tabernacle when the people of Israel were to set out from camp. That’s something of what we felt. That nearness of God that we experienced lifted as he made his exit from that sacred event.
Christ does draw nearer. At certain times and in certain places, His presence may be more intense and more intimate among his people.
But I want to draw your attention back to the passage at hand. Here in Psalm 76 we find that this is not something that happens on odd occasions or every once in a while. It is something that happens weekly. This Psalm tells us that it is a weekly occurrence. For this Psalm reminds us that it is when the people of God assemble for worship that God manifests this unique nearness.
You must understand that in this very moment we are communing with God in a different way than we were an hour ago. It is different than what we will experience an hour from now. You might not feel anything different. You don’t always have a heightened, physical awareness of it. Nevertheless, the spiritual temperature of this time is heightened due to God’s ministry among us. This time of worship is special because the Holy Spirit has descended upon us in a distinctive way. We even may use the word “sacred” because His presence is magnified. And so the Holy Spirit consecrates this time with a definite hallowedness.
This is one of several applications you need to take from this passage. I mention this because today our tendency is to flatten everything. We are quite fond of saying that God is with us all the time. Of course, this is true. But it is only a half truth.
God is with us all the time. But, as I’ve been trying to point out, God is not always with us in the same way. And we need to recognize that there is an ebb and flow to how God interacts with us. In worship, God draws near and is with us in a very intimate way. Our communion with him is much more personal.
To say that God is with us all the time, I think, lessens corporate worship. It subtracts something from our Sunday assemblies so that church becomes quite insignificant. If we say that God’s presence is the same everywhere all the time, it doesn’t matter if you go to church on Sunday or if you sit out on a park bench and feed the birds. It’s all the same.
I know some of you have had some interaction with what is called the “Emergent church movement.” For those of you who don’t know of it the emergent church movement says that we don’t really need the institutional church. They say you don’t need the church because you are the church. And they say that you can have church at Starbucks or out on the 9th hole at a golf course.
But I submit that this movement is wrongheaded because it misses this very thing about which we have been talking. They don’t understand God’s deep yearning for and love of corporate worship. They have flattened the notion of God’s dealing with his people, and so they end up robbing God of the unique communion he desires.
And that leads to the second application you ought to take home with you. God does desire this sacred communion. When CRF would gather for worship I would often remind them at the beginning of a service that this is God’s favorite day of the week. You most certainly have a favorite day of the week. Perhaps those Saturday mornings when you get to stay home and do special things with your family. You get to enjoy time with them that you do not usually get to have. The same is true for God. God has a favorite day of the week. It is today. This is not only his favorite day, but it is his favorite hour of the week. That’s because he communes with you in a way that he does not typically do in any other day of the week.
During worship God has the opportunity to stand among you in a way that he doesn’t on a Tuesday afternoon. He has opportunity to speak to you through the reading and preaching of his word. He has opportunity to sit and sup with you as you come to the Lord’s Table during Communion. These are all times when his presence is qualitatively different.
He loves Sunday’s because it is his special day with you.
And having said that, let me express just how important it is for you to take heed how you act during this time. If all that I have said is true, then we need to realize that our sin on Sunday (during or just after worship) will be even more scandalous in the sight of God.
The Westminster divines recognized this. And in their Catechism they talk about sins how some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others. Some sins can be more aggravating to God by virtue of the circumstances in which they occur.
For instance, if you punch your friend, that’s not a good thing. But if you would walk up to Jim Deweese here and pop him in the nose, then that’s even worse because he is a judge and an elder in the church. The same sin all of a sudden became much more severe by virtue of its circumstance.
And the same is true for sins occurring before, during or just after worship. Due to God’s presense being so radically different during this time, your sin becomes much worse than if it were committed on any other day of the week.
Most of you are probably familiar with the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God.” Well, in that sermon he talks about the unbelievers sitting in that service. And he says that their being there inflames God to no end. They come into the presence of God and have no care that they mishandle his worship and flippantly go about the service.
So, as you listen to what Edwards says, you wonder if it is better for the unbeliever not to be there!
But the point is made quite clearly. Sins on Sunday, or sins committed in proximity to worship become more egregious to God because of God’s heightened presence. Think about it. If Moses were to come down from Mt. Sinai, after having met with God face to face—with his face shining brilliantly because of having been impacted with the brilliant splender of the Most High, would it be proper if he had joined in the blasphemies of the Israelites?
That’s why the Israelites’ idolatry with the golden calf seems so repugnant when you read it. Here these people have just been shown mighty displays of God’s power as He brought them up out of Egypt, but then they quickly forget him and start worshiping this image they fashioned out of gold. The foulness of that sin was multiplied exponentially due to their proximity to God!
Perhaps now you understand why I feel hesitant to stand in this pulpit and speak to you. To minister the word of God under these circumstances is a weighty thing, and I will be held more accountable for what I say because of it.
But you better grasp your position as a listener and participant in this service. God will not tolerate flippant attitudes. When those sacraments are administered, you ought to take heed that you are not disgracing them by blasphemous actions or thoughts. As you sing these songs, you ought to be doing your very best to give all glory and attention to God. When you come to this place you must see to it that any relationship that has been broken be repaired. We must seek to expunge any and every sin because its offense will only be enlarged as we participate in this time.
God’s glory and Presence ought to impact our conduct. Make us more circumspect about the way we act.
Perhaps that makes your soul quiver. To think that your sins are amplified because of what happens here. I would suspect that each of you feels the guilt because you know that you’ve fallen short in this regard.
Being that that is so, let me give you some words of comfort. This passage of Scripture should remind you of Christ’s redemptive love. It reminds us that God does draw near, and he does so willingly. He desires you. He takes pleasure in you. He testifies in this passage that he earnestly longs for this communion with you.
That is why this passage ultimately points us to Jesus. For he is the one who makes this holy communion possible. If it were not for his going to the cross and offering himself as our atoning sacrifice, we would have no part in this time. We would be cast far from God on account of our sins. But as it stands now, “you who were once far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” So now we can say that God has sacrificed his Son not just that we can go to heaven, but so that He could fulfill His own desire, and have communion with us forever.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.