When it comes to public worship, a battle is won or lost before we even leave the house.
The National Football League was formed in 1920 in Canton, Ohio. It makes sense, then, that if you’re from Cleveland, you’ve got football in your genes. I was a Clevelander for a number of years and saw people demonstrate their loyalty to the Browns way beyond what was reasonable, even to the extent that some of them went to the games without any expectation of a win. Then along came 2018—the year the luckless team lost every game. In response, fans assembled a parade to commemorate their “perfect season.” CBS Sports reported, “The factory of sadness just held the most depressing parade in football history and thousands showed up.”
I’m afraid that such hopelessness often affects Christians concerning the church. Rather than expecting the wins of true spiritual interactions with Jesus on Sunday morning, we get in the habit of settling for other things—life skills, relational tools, self-help inspiration, entertainment. In God’s eyes these are not victories on the scoreboard. They’re the equivalent of stadium hotdogs.
When we gather for public worship, we should expect the Lord’s presence in ways we can’t experience on our own.
Take the example of Simeon, in Luke 2. He was obviously not a church member in the full new covenant way we are used to thinking about it. Yet his attitudes and preparation toward public worship merit our attention.
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel…” (Luke 2:24). Righteousness and devotion were paired with an expectant attitude. Simeon had long since entered a holding pattern of hope for his downtrodden nation, believing against all appearances that God would send the Messiah. The arrival of this glorious deliverer would somehow console the people in the deep disappointments of their failures, and lift them out of the shame of their subjugation to the Romans. This was the expectation of his heart as he journeyed to the temple day after day.
“…and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” This phrase speaks of the man’s ongoing fellowship with God. In fact, during his regular communication with God through the Spirit, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26). And so there was a promise: You will meet him.
Simeon could have adopted an attitude that the sovereign God who had made the promise would arrange for this meeting to occur at his home, or on a scenic mountaintop, or perhaps while on a leisurely prayer walk. Instead, the Spirit led him to do what he had already been doing for years in his past devotional life: “And he came in the Spirit into the temple…” (v. 27).
Simeon’s feet took him to the gathering of God’s people, and as promised, he ran into Jesus.
That day, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus into the temple, “…and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he [Simeon] took him up in his arms and blessed God, and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Did it matter that Simeon got dressed and went to the temple that day? Hindsight of course says, Yes. But that day all the man had was a promise, a hope, an expectation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Typically these positive elements encounter a mountain of resistance from the prevailing religious culture. At Simeon’s time, a number of Jewish people had attachments to the temple that had become empty cultic ritual. Some were blatant hypocrites. Even many of the leaders had become a “business as usual” bunch. The scene overall didn’t look like a very promising place to meet “the consolation of Israel.”
Yet Simeon saw the temple as something more than a brick-and-mortar crutch. It was to him a place of potential encounter and connection. He came looking, and ended up with his arms full of Christ. His praise weaves through the temple scene, ignoring those who were numbly traditional, by-passing the indifferent, but stirring those seekers who were present (c.f. vv. 33, 36, 38).
Simeon’s Christ, though infantile, had rewarded him with sweet vindication. The old man held in his hands the seedling promise that “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple” (Mal. 3:1). The blessing of it became a shared joy, transforming the rigid, lifeless temple structure into a house flowing with milk and honey. For the first time, God’s people had touched the live wire of Messianic presence. For some that day, the lights came on in the temple, and it was greater by far than all the previous rooftop prayers, the private fasts, and the closet devotions.
“Something happened at temple that day,” they would later exclaim, “And I’m so glad I was there.”
And rarely can something substitute for personal presence.
The first Christmas I was forced to spend away from home was gloomy. I was in the service overseas, sitting in an abandoned dayroom, watching sitcom reruns. I had a folded check in my pocket from my parents for two-hundred-and fifty dollars, the saddest gift of my life, because it was stripped of family presence. I planned to use the money for exactly what I wanted—a camera, and record albums—but I would have given anything to get the wrong gift instead, like cheap cologne, and no-name sneakers, if it meant I could be there with them.
My parents had sent videos from home, hoping to include me in festivities, but the Myer house was full of things that didn’t translate through video—the smells of holiday snacks, the offstage jokes, the little chores that made the occasion. If anything, the video felt like an empty storefront. Some things can’t be reduced to electronic recordings.
I told myself, I’ll make it up next time. I’ll have another chance. I’ll get caught up over the phone. I’ll watch the video. None of that helped. The simple fact is I hadn’t expected to miss so much, and thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. Because I had been with them so habitually over the years, I forgot to expect anything at all from being there.
Today, we have a promise overheard as Jesus Christ says to God, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb. 2:12). But what if the congregation is too large or too small? What if the preacher is not that engaging? Suppose the people forgot to say hello to you? If the band uses the wrong instruments? If the music is old and therefore not relevant? If it is new and too trendy?
Jesus says, Meet me there.
*This post was adapted from a message originally given by Michael Taylor