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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
Title:Guard your steps when you go to the House of God
Text:Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 122: 1, 2, 3
Psalm 15: 1, 2, 3
Psalm 46: 1, 2, 5
Psalm 51: 6, 7
Hymn 39: 1, 2, 3
Psalm 50: 7, 11

Read: Ecclesiastes 5

Text: Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters,

Isn't it wonderful to be here in God's house today? We certainly expressed that when we began this worship service by singing, "How glad I was when unto me they said, 'Let us with one accord go to the temple of the Lord.'" The Lord God gives us one day out of each week to take our bearings, to take a breather. We may start off our week with rest and worship.

Why do we need it? We need it because we live in a sinful world, in a competitive world where everybody is out for him or herself. People often do not care about others; they care more about maintaining their own position. It is also a world full of injustice and unfaithfulness. Generally people are unreliable and noncommittal. They will break their promises as soon as it is no longer convenient for them to keep them. For that reason the divorce rate is as high as it is, and the politicians are as fickle as they are. They say one thing and do another. So does everybody else.

That's the kind of world we live in. But, make no mistake about it, we are all part of that same world. Although we as Christians try to do better, and to some limited extent succeed, nevertheless we are part of the problem as well.

So it is good that we as Christians have a place where we can go, a place where promises are made and kept. We can go to the house of God. Every Sunday we may come together and hear about God's covenant faithfulness and loving care. We may hear about how committed he is to us through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We may hear that the Lord God will never abandon us, even though we sin against him all the time.

But now, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, known as the Preacher, or the Teacher, or Qoheleth, comes with a warning. The Teacher was a keen observer of life. In essence, life during his time was not any different from ours. He also observed the vanity, the meaninglessness of life, under the sun here on earth. During his day too, you would find injustice and vanity and greed and distrust and unfaithfulness. He dealt with some of that in the first part of his book.

For that reason we need to go to God's house. That's also what they did during the Teacher's time. The people found refuge in the house of God. They found solace there, peace and tranquility. They felt connected there with God.

However, the Teacher comes with a warning. He warns the reader that if you go to the house of God for the wrong reasons, with the wrong attitude and with the wrong intentions, then such worship will not do you much or any good. He says you have to guard your steps. Today’s text is summarized as follows:

Guard your steps when you go to the House of God.
1. Be attentive
2. Be reverent
3. Be committed.

Most of the time in the Old Testament when mention is made of the house of God, then the reference is to the temple in Jerusalem. That is certainly what the Teacher has in mind here. It is in the temple where God dwells. The Israelites understood that from the very beginning of their nationhood. The temple replaced the tabernacle that went with them during their journey through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. They knew then that the Lord God travelled with them. They were reminded of God's presence during the day through the cloud that came over the tent, and through the fire above the tent by night. The Israelites needed a constant reminder that the holy God, the Creator of heaven and earth, dwelt among them.

But they also had to realize that God was a holy God. You cannot just sit down with him like you can with your friends or relatives. The Lord God is too holy for that. Because of sin there is a barrier.

For that reason the priests were given elaborate instructions as to how to approach God in the inner sanctuary, the most holy Place. They had elaborate instructions for their own conduct and cleanliness and also for the conduct and cleanliness of the people. They had to purify themselves through the various ceremonies and make sacrifices. The blood of the sacrifices pointed to the necessity of the atonement for their sins. The Lord God is a holy God and you could not just approach him like you could anyone or anything else. You had to guard your steps.

Nowadays we do not have any temple in our midst. Now we are the temples of God, temples of the Holy Spirit. God dwells within us. Nevertheless, we also call this church building the house of God. There are also those who refer to the church and especially to the auditorium as the sanctuary of God. The Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, for example. Sanctuary means holy place. To the Roman Catholics the auditorium is a sanctuary because of the physical presence of Christ through the bread and the wine. They continue to make sacrifices in the church. They treat the church building as a temple.

For that reason we do not usually call the church building a sanctuary. And yet, because of God's spiritual presence, it would not be wrong to do so. This church is indeed a holy place. Holiness refers to purity. Something that is holy is without sin or uncontaminated by sin. Holiness also refers to something that is set aside for the service of God. This auditorium is certainly dedicated to the service of God. It is also purified by the Holy Spirit. For the church is the workplace of the Holy Spirit. The church is holy because of God and not because of the people.

For you see, brothers and sisters, the church is where we meet God. This is where we meet him through the reading of the Scriptures, through the psalms and the hymns that we sing, and through the opening of God's Word by the preaching. God is speaking to you, through the minister who is his mouthpiece, who has been ordained by God the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Scriptures to you. The Lord God is spiritually present among us.

His presence is strong, especially in this building. For that reason we must guard our steps as we go to this house of God. The Teacher does not mean here, of course, that you have to watch out that you don't trip and fall as you enter. He doesn't mean this in the physical sense. No, he means this in the spiritual sense. When you enter into this auditorium –this sanctuary—, you are coming in the presence of God. So be careful. It's not as if you are entering a concert hall or a hockey arena or some other place of entertainment. You're not coming here for a social gathering either. No, you're coming here to meet God as he reveals himself through his Word. God is in your midst.

When you go into the house of God you go there first of all to listen. Even though the surroundings and the words of the liturgy and the order of the service may be very familiar to you, nevertheless you must be alert. You may have heard it all before, but you still have come here to listen. No matter who is on the pulpit, and no matter how familiar the passage, God is speaking to you. You had better take it all seriously.

We all have a responsibility to be as attentive as possible and to work hard. The minister too has to do his utmost and work hard not to come with meaningless words and phrases and clichés that sit like tombstones over dead ideas.

But the minister is not the only one who has to work hard. You are put to work as well. You have to work hard at listening. A church pew is not made for sleeping. There are those who settle in to their pews ready to take a nap. Therefore you should make sure that you prepare well for the church service in the first place, that you go to bed on a decent hour on a Saturday night. And if you're still tired it is better to take a nap between church services and not here in church.

Listening is not easy. There are so many things that go on in our lives. In verse three the Teacher speaks about the dream that comes when there are many cares. What he is talking about here is daydreaming. We think about all the cares that we have in our lives and the things that go on – what happens at work, at home and in our own private lives; the dreams and aspirations that we have; the hurts and the resentments that we harbor in our hearts. We go from one thing to the next in our own minds. You can also call that “mental doodling”. We may be wide-awake but we don't hear a word. Guard your steps when you come into the house of God. Don't engage in daydreaming. Don't be a mental doodler. Concentrate on the message. You have to listen.

Some people may object and say that in the Temple of Jerusalem there were no sermons and so, there was really nothing to listen to. But when the Teacher says that you must listen, he means that especially in the sense of obeying. When a father or mother says to their child, "Now you listen to me!" they mean, "Obey me. Do what I told you to do." God also wants you to listen and to obey.

2. God also wants you to be reverent when you are in church. When we come to church we must do so with a reverent attitude. We don't come in our street clothes. No, we dress up. You may say, “But God looks at the heart, doesn't he? It doesn't really matter so much what we look like, does it?” Well, whatever your mental attitude is, that will also show in the way that you dress and in the way that you conduct yourself. If you have a cavalier attitude about churchgoing, then it will also show in your outward appearance.

Of course, not everybody can afford to buy the same clothes as others. There may even be some that cannot afford to buy new clothes at all. That's not the point. Your clothes need not be new but you do have to make sure that the clothes you wear to church are the best clothes you have. They should be clean and pressed. That's also how the Lord God instructed the Israelites when they had to meet him in a holy convocation. They had to come in the proper attire. Their clothes had to be clean.

When you are in the worship service then you also actively participate. You begin that preparation already at home, by thinking about what you need to bring – your Bible and your Book of Praise and money for the collection. And when the minister reads from the Bible, then you open your Bible and you read along. You also sing along. During the sermon you sit up straight in the pew, ready to listen. You don't slouch back as if you're sitting on your couch at home.

From my perspective I can see a lot of things. It is not always a pretty sight. Some do not even bother to cover their mouth as they open their mouth widely and yawn sleepily or indifferently. Others are busy with all kinds of other things. Oh sure, the one person listens differently than the other. And the pews are not as comfortable as they could be. But make an effort. It has to be obvious that you are here to participate and to listen with a reverent attitude, with the full realization that God is in our midst and that he is trying to reach into our hearts. He wants to change you for we need to be changed over and over. We need the renewal of our minds and of our hearts. That is why we start the week off together in a worship service, so that God's Word may resonate in our hearts and minds through the week. For Satan is trying to draw you away all the time. The Lord God wants to prevent that.

The temple is a place for sacrifice. Today we no longer offer animal sacrifices but we do offer ourselves up as living sacrifices. We are called Christians because we belong to Christ. He offered everything that he had for our sakes. He sacrificed all the glory and the majesty that he had with his Father in heaven. He let all his heavenly riches completely go and he became nothing. He became a human being who had no possessions. He did not own a home or anything else, only the clothes on his back. In the end, even those clothes were taken away from him as he hung on the cross and as they took his very life.

As Christians we too must offer ourselves up to the Lord. In church especially. There we offer ourselves up as living sacrifices to God. As we will confess when we later sing from Psalm 51:6, "A broken spirit Thou wilt not despise when as a sacrifice to Thee presented." We offer up praise. We offer up good works. We offer up our possessions. We acknowledge that everything belongs to the Lord. We are but stewards.

The Teacher speaks about the sacrificial offering of fools. According to the Bible, a fool is someone who does not listen to God and does whatever he wants. He lives as if there is no God. He despises God's grace. He is irreverent in his attitude, in his heart, and in his mind.

A fool is someone who lies to him or herself, thinking that you can please God by the rituals. A fool goes through all the right motions. He goes to the house of God. He brings his sacrifices. He keeps most of the rules. After having done all that he thinks that he has done his duty.

Brothers and sisters, it's not through the rituals that we serve God. Some people are stuck on doing everything in church according to the tried and old way. There may be no deviation. Don't ever change anything. Don't change the liturgy. Don't change the way we do Lord's supper. Don't change a Bible translation. Don't change the hymns. Don't come without a tie to church. Of course, we have to be careful about a lot of these things. But in that sense Christianity is not a religion. A religion follows all kinds of rituals and rules. We are not religious people in that sense. We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ. Listen to what James says about this kind of thing. He says in his letter, chapter 1:26-27, "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

The Bible warns against formalism and ritualism. Therefore so do we as church. We warn all the parents, for example, that they must not use the sacrament of baptism for their children out of custom. Before the Lord's supper the warning is given that we should not cling to the outward symbols of the bread and wine. We're warned beforehand that it is not through the rituals that you serve the Lord your God, but through your heart. If your heart is right, then you also have the right mind for worship. Then you are reverent automatically in the way that you conduct yourself within the house of God. Then you do it all for the right reasons. Not for the sake of the ritual but for the sake of serving the Lord your God and truth.

3. If your heart is right, then you are also committed. We come to the third point. A fool, according to the Teacher, is someone who is quick with his mouth and hasty in his heart to utter anything before God. Vows were often made in the Temple along with sacrifices. Such vows were promises made to God. That is, for example, what Hannah did when she asked God for a child. She said in 1 Samuel 1:11: “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

It was not a vow she made hastily. She had thought about it carefully. She also kept her vow. After her son Samuel was born and was old enough to leave the home, she gave him up and had him serve under Eli.

The Lord God takes our vows very seriously. For our vows are based first of all on the vows that God made to you and to me. The Lord God makes the wonderful promise for example, to the believers and their seed that he will be their God forever and ever and that he will never abandon them. He promises to give them the great blessing of salvation through the forgiveness of sins through the blood of his Son. He promises to give eternal life. He swears an oath.

In church we respond to that. We do that on various occasions. When we bring our children to the baptismal font, then we respond to God's promises. In response to God's promise, parents promise to bring up their child in accordance with God's will. They make a sacred vow. When the child is of age, then he or she responds to the promise that God made to that child at the time of his or her baptism when he or she publicly professes his or her faith. It may not be a vow made in haste. You have to know what you're doing. For that reason our children, and those who become a member in this church as adults, receive extensive instruction before they can make such a vow.

They do not have to come with an abundance of words and with their personal testimonial as some people would expect. The Lord Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount "let your yes be yes, and your no, no." It is not that the more words we speak, the greater our commitment. Listen to what the Teacher says about the speech of a fool. He says that the fool comes with his many words.

When you publicly profess your faith, you simply state "I do" to the questions asked. You say "I do" to the question that asks if you believe the Word of God, as summarized in the confessions and taught in this Christian Church. You also acknowledge God's covenant promise that was sealed to you in your baptism. You declare that you love the Lord your God and that it is your heartfelt desire to serve him according to his Word. Furthermore, you promise to submit willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church when you become delinquent in either conduct or doctrine.

We also make other vows in this church. The elders and the deacons and the minister do that when they are ordained. They promise to faithfully discharge their respective offices. That too is a serious vow. It's not something to be taken lightly. God considers us fools when we go back on our word.

We also make vows in this church when we get married. We live in a world full of broken promises where the people think that their word means nothing. Our politicians want us to separate their private lives from their public ones and not be critical when they play around on their wives or their husbands. In that regard they reflect the values of the world of today. But then they still want us to take their public promises seriously.

As Christians however, we take all of our vows very seriously. We do that in our public life and also in our private life, and especially when it comes to our commitment to the church. Those who promise to submit themselves to the discipline of the Church but who then walk away from the church, commit a very serious sin.

We live in a world where the consumer is king. Everybody caters to your taste so that you will patronize their product or their shop or their club. People take that consumerism mentality to church. They believe that they should be able to go and shop around for a church. Joining a church is like joining an exercise club: you can pick and choose the one that serves your purposes best.

It is true that you should look for the right church. But not in order to see how you can be served, but in order to see how God must be served.

Some people think that you can go to the church that you like, where you are going to be made to feel good. They think that it doesn't matter if you go shopping around in churches where God's Word is not taken seriously. “This church has a little bit more of that, and that one has a little bit more of this. It's all the same in the end.”

Well, brothers and sisters, if that is your attitude towards church, then you are wrong. It is wrong for anyone to give his or her approval to a liberal pulpit, or to a pulpit that does not proclaim all of God's words, his covenant promises, and his demands. For don't think that God doesn't care. He does.

The Teacher says, guard your steps when you go to the house of God.

Now please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not judging those people from other churches who don't know any better. I'm not saying that others are condemned to hell. But if you go to a church where God's Word and where his covenant is not taken seriously, then you are disobedient. Then you are endangering your own salvation, and especially the salvation of your children and your grandchildren. It is true that God is a gracious God and he will gather his church from all kinds of people and from all kinds of churches. There may even be occasions that you cannot come to this church. But don't you forget that God wants to be served in truth. He wants you to guard your steps. He does not want you to be lax.

Don't forget that you promised at the time of your public profession of faith to put yourself under the supervision of the elders. That is a very serious promise. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says in Chapter 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."

You may say, all the other churches have elders too and they can watch over me as well. But you don't belong to those other churches. The New Testament does not know of a church here, and a church there, and a church somewhere else, all very close to each other, which want nothing to do with each other, with the one saying, "well, you have your doctrine and we have ours. It doesn't really matter all that much." You will never find that kind of thinking in the New Testament. At that time there was good communication between the various churches. Paul went around collecting money from the churches for the church in Jerusalem. There was constant interaction between them, in spite of the fact that means of communication was difficult in those days. The churches came together, as we see in the Jerusalem conference, to speak about doctrine; to make sure that they had it right.

Each local church is not a separate entity. That is why we also have a federation of churches. As Canadian Reformed churches we believe in unity. As a federation of churches we also want unity, not only amongst ourselves, but we want unity with anyone who wants to serve the Lord in truth. We aim to be one.

You may ask, what if wrong things are done in the church? What then? Should we allow ourselves to be abused? Well, you should not easily walk away from each other. Sometimes a church is called a household. That is what Paul says, for example, in 1 Timothy 3:15. He says to Timothy, "If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." Within the church, we are brothers and sisters. We are family. They are lots of wrong things that happen in families. But you do not just walk away from each other. No, you try to get along and you forgive. You only walk away from a family that absolutely does not want to listen to God's instructions as to how we should conduct ourselves. And you only walk away from a marriage when your partner is no longer true to his or her vows. For the rest you are committed to each other.

The same thing is true within the church. There are lots of things wrong. But we keep on working these things out together in love, and in patience. It is only when you are absolutely sure before God that the church is no longer faithful, that then you can sever the ties. But as long as the church wants to be faithful and true, you are not allowed to leave. You have made a promise before God and his witnesses.

Brothers and sisters, as we heard at the beginning of the sermon, we live in a world full of turmoil and broken promises. It is a world that does not want to pay the cost of commitment. That is why this world is on the way to hell. This world, as we know it, is going to be burned up and purified. But God will save you from all that. He will rescue you out of the fire. That is why now you go to the house of God, to be reminded of God's faithfulness with us and to learn to be faithful yourself.

So guard your steps as you go into the house of God. But also remember that if you want to be faithful, God will also guard you and keep you safe. For in God's house you can feel safe now and into eternity. Amen

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. W.B. Slomp

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