The Old Testament prophetic tradition minced nothing and cut to the heart of a matter. For example, the prophet Amos sarcastically lamented over people who went through the motions of worship without a pure heart: “Bring your tithes every three years. Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings – boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do” (Amos 4:4-5). The prophet Hosea responded to impure and disingenuous worship: “When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.” Hosea lays out what God really wants: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 5:6, 6:6).
The New Testament book of Hebrews continues this practice of going after the heart of an issue. The author plainly tells us that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Quoting Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:4-7). Jesus is the superior presence above all else.
Our trouble in the church is the age old predicament of caring more about the presence of other things rather than the presence of God. When Jesus entered the temple courts and went after the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice, he was not speaking to pagan kings or Gentile sinners; he was speaking to people who professed the name of God and worshiped him (John 2:13-22). But they did not seek the presence of God with all their hearts as their primary allegiance, and it ticked off Jesus.
We must all desire the presence of God more than anything else in the whole world. We must love Jesus more than we love anything or anyone else. We must desire the presence of God in the church building more than the building itself. We must desire the presence of God in the ministries of the church more than just having the programs themselves. We must desire pastors who have the presence of God with them at all times more than we desire pastors who are present everywhere. We must desire the presence of God in our families more than we desire the presence of kids, or order in the house, or that everything lives up to our standards.
Jesus wants our hearts where they belong: desiring the presence of God more than anything; and, loving him more than anyone. Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time lost their true sense of purpose as God’s people. They neither perceived nor focused on God’s presence, but cared more about the presence of animals and sacrifices, making money, and keeping their social positions secure.
If we are not pursuing nor looking for God’s presence, we are likely not to find it when it stares us in the face. Last year the Washington Post orchestrated an interesting experiment. They had arguably the best violinist in the world, Joshua Bell, play in the train station as a regular looking street musician complete with open violin case to catch monetary offerings. Not only did Bell play some of the most difficult pieces of music for the violin, he played them on a Stradivarius worth $3.5 million dollars. His earnings for a few hours of work: exactly $32.17, less than the $100 for one ticket at a Boston concert hall he played just three weeks before. No one noticed the extreme talent right in front of their faces, much like those who only saw Jesus as a regular guy instead of the incarnate Son of God.
James 4:8 says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” God is present, whether we recognize him or not. He longs for you to pursue him more than you pursue money, other relationships, or other things. The path to church renewal and revitalization is not through clever ideas or more tech savvy services; it is through Jesus. You know, the guy always present, hanging around on the street corner.