In the opening verses of Isaiah 6, what the prophet encounters first in the house of God is the glory of God: "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple" (v.1). It doesn't first say he encountered well-dressed people or hot coffee or influential power brokers or a booming sound system or a great organ. What he caught sight of first was God's glory.
There's a growing trend in some churches to offer door prizes to any returning visitor. One church visited recently by a friend of mine promised him a ten-dollar Starbucks gift card if he came back the following week.
Isaiah shows us the door prize that awaited him when he walked into the house of God-the uncomfortable, wrecking presence of God's glory: "Woe is me!" (v.5).
In the Bible, the glory of God refers to God's "heaviness," his powerful presence. It's God's prevailing excellence on display. The glory of God is the "augustness" of God-an old term conveying his awe-inspiring majesty. In fact, one reason why Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted is that they refused to use the word august for the emperor-such a description belonged to God alone, they said. They understood that there is a transcendent majesty unique to God. This high and lifted up greatness of God is what Isaiah encountered-a God who is majestically and brilliantly in command.
All this means we ought to come to worship expecting first and foremost to see God. We come to encounter his glory, to be awe struck by his majesty. A worship service isn't the place to showcase human talent but the place for God to showcase his divine treasure. We gather not to be impressed by one another-how we sound, what we wear, who we are-but to be impressed by God and his mighty acts of salvation. We come to sing of who he is and what he's done. We come to hear his voice resounding in and through his Word. We come to feel the grief of our sin so that we can taste the glory of his salvation. We gather to be magnificently defeated, flattened, and shrunk by the power and might of the living God.
This is in stark contrast to the world's insistence that the bigger we get and the better we feel about ourselves, the freer we become. That's why many worship services have been reduced to little more than motivational, self-help seminars filled with "you can do it" songs and sermons. But what we find in the gospel is just the opposite. The gospel is good news for losers, not winners. It's for those who long to be freed from the slavery of believing that all of their significance, meaning, purpose, and security depend on their ability to "become a better you." The gospel tells us that weakness precedes usefulness-that, in fact, the smaller you get, the freer you will be. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it." Nothing makes you more aware of your smallness and life's potential bigness than encountering the glory of God in worship. Corporate worship services in the church today desperately need to recover a sense of God's size!
Not long ago I was in desperate need for God to liberate me from the slavish pressure to perform by reminding me of my smallness and his bigness. And since God has used the preaching of the late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones throughout my Christian life to bring great perspective and reorientation to my troubled soul, I went back to one of his 1959 sermons on revival. With great unction, Lloyd-Jones delivered the reminder I craved:
Our supreme need, our only need, is to know God, the living God, and the power of his might. We need nothing else. It is just that, the power of the living God, to know that the living God is among us and that nothing else matters…I say, forget everything else. Forget everything else. We need to realize the presence of the living God amongst us. Let everything else be silent. This is no time for minor differences. We all need to know the touch of the power of the living God.
"The touch of the power of the living God"-that's what Isaiah experienced. He was freed by realizing that God is big and he was small-that God was God and he was not. And this is what God intends for us to experience when he gathers us in worship. Isaiah didn't leave the temple thinking, "What a great angelic choir" or "What a great temple." He left thinking, "What a great God."
As pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, I'll be the first to admit that we are blessed with great music and a world-class facility. But, as I often remind our church, if people don't leave our church thinking first, "What a great God" than our music and facilities mean nothing. Whatever else we may see in worship, we must see God first and best.