Rethinking Religion: The Worth of Worship

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Watch the livestream beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. After the livestream is finished, the video will be available to watch at any time.

First Lesson: Exodus 20:1-17 (NIV)
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NIV)

Gospel: Matthew 12:1-8  (NIV)


  • Hymn: CW 912 “Open, Lovely Doors”
  • Hymn: CW 558 “Salvation unto Us Has Come”
  • Hymn: CW 407 “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
  • Hymn: CW 808 “Drawn to the Cross”

Salem Lutheran Church

Pastor Jon Enter                 SalemLutheran.org


Theme: Faithful Love

Text: Matthew 12:1-8


In West Papua, New Guinea, there’s an indigenous people called the Ndani tribe. They have a custom rather unique to their people. To display their grief and deep sorrow at the funeral of a loved one, they cut off one of their fingers to bury it with that loved one showing part of them died when that loved one died. Could you imagine attending a funeral here at church and receiving a ceremonial finger guillotine when you walked in?

There are some strange customs out there in the world. According to Chinese tradition, it is thought that if a husband carries his pregnant wife over burning coals with bare feet, the wife will have an easy and successful labor. (trendsnhealth.com) I guess that’s the way to even things out a bit? During labor as she cries out, “You did this to me!” the husband can point to his bandaged feet and say, “Well, you did this to me!”

There truly are some strange traditions in the world! So, what makes something a tradition? A tradition is a repetitive action a person feels compelled to make. The reason why the person is compelled to do that repeated act either makes the tradition helpful or hurtful.

Our Old Testament lesson today was Exodus 20, the listing of the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments for the Jewish people was “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” (20:8) The religious leaders during Jesus’ life added in their tradition, their demands on how they thought it was righteous to keep this commandment. Jesus confronted these religious leaders false focus in a grain field. “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’” (Matthew 12:1-2)

Unlawful? Was it? It didn’t sound like they were breaking the third commandment on proper worship; it sounded like they were breaking the seventh commandment against stealing. The disciples didn’t plant the grain. They didn’t own the field. They didn’t get permission from the owner to eat some of his crops. If you’re driving around Stillwater and get hungry, have you ever stopped and picked fruits or veggies from someone’s personal garden on their property? Why didn’t Jesus stop them?

It wasn’t stealing. God specifically granted permission to do exactly what the disciples were doing in Deuteronomy 23:25, “If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.” Okay, so if it wasn’t breaking the law, why were the Pharisees upset?

“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:2) They didn’t say the disciples broke the law by stealing; they charged them with breaking the law of not doing any work on the Sabbath. In Old Testament times, God allowed the Israelite people to work for six days but on the seventh day, on Saturday which was the Sabbath, they were commanded not to do any work. In fact, the Lord was so serious about this command—about the Sabbath day being a no work, only worship and spend quality time day with family and friends—He commanded,Whoever does any work on [the Sabbath] is to be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)

Was plucking a handful of grain as they walked along removing its tiny shell really working? Was it enough work to break the Sabbath law so the Pharisees could’ve stoned the disciples to death? The Pharisees certainly thought so! They called the disciples’ actions “unlawful”. Jesus disagreed. Here’s Jesus’ reply in the second half of our text. “Haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:5-8)

Jesus refuted their false claim of unlawful Sabbath actions by bringing up that priests do work on the Sabbath when they sacrifice animals. Jesus said they were innocent even though they did work. The Pharisees forgot God also commanded, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) The Hebrew word translated as “mercy” really means “faithful love”. God desires faithfulness, faithful love, not mindless sacrifice. That’s often what happened. The Old Testament worshippers could get rather mindless in their worship with the daily, regular sacrifices made to the Lord. God doesn’t want us to mindlessly do things because we’ve always done them. He wants our actions to have meaning and lead us to faithfulness and faithful love of him.

When has tradition, what you prefer in worship, become more important than WHO is worshipped? This can happen so easily in churches. The devil is so wise, so good at getting Christians to get fired up over protecting their tradition in worship. Years ago, churches and families split over whether to continue Lutheran worship in the German language or switch to English. Fights have happened in churches over using the Old English version of the Lord’s Prayer or the modern translation. Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians have squared off against each other on whether it’s proper or not for the pastor to wear a gown or not, to use piano in worship or not, to have a band in worship or not. These are traditions, really preferences; these are the ways we like things done but they aren’t THE thing. Worship is about Jesus not about us and the devil is winning when we lose our tempers or our mouths over protecting our version of worship compared to another’s.

If the devil can’t draw your focus away using tradition, he tries this.

How often does your mind wander during worship? To the shopping list. To the to do list. To the game. To the last conversation you had that went horribly, horribly wrong. Maybe your mind wandered because the sermon was boring or was too long. The hymn was played too slowly. The hymn was too hard to sing. The technology failed. The pastor didn’t turn on the mic. There was a crying baby. A sniffling worshipper. And your brain kept saying, “Get a tissue.” It’s so easy to be physically present in worship and be mentally so far away. It happens so easily when you’ve said the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer or parts of the liturgy so, so, soooooooo many times, your mind can wander. It loses focus. Our mouth moves, words come out, but our mind is elsewhere.

In worship, we tell God what he is worth to us. He is worth us getting up on Sunday when we’d rather sleep in. He is worth working to keep our minds focused on his Word. He is worth the sacrificial offerings we give. He is worth the time spent with him in his house. God is worth it.

Now, I don’t want to be called out by Jesus as someone who “condemned the innocent”. Jesus called out the Pharisees who said the disciples sinned when they broke tradition, not God’s Sabbath Law. Jesus called the disciples innocent. If you are in worship and your mind drifts here and there, do you think Jesus says that’s worthy of hell? Any sin could eternally separate us from God. There’s a big difference between getting a little distracted while in worship and being defiant against God while in worship. One is sin, distraction is not.

What about nodding off, falling asleep, while in church? If you’re exhausted from work, from life, from parenting your newborn, your sick child and in that exhaustion—even though you’re fighting it—you do the whole head drop and fall asleep in church, do you think Jesus says that’s worthy of hell? No. Jesus loves that you’re here when so easily you could skip. (Did the pastor just give me permission to sleep during his sermon?) Technically, yes? 😊 But there’s a big difference fighting to stay alert and coming to church with your pillow, blankie and snoring in the front pew!

God simply wants our hearts. He wants our best and if your best is mostly being able to stay awake because of what’s going on in your life, if your best is mostly being able to stay focused while in worship, God counts that as faithful and he covers the rest. He wants your heart. How do I know that? While talking about the Pharisees, the same religious group who condemned his disciples for eating some grain on the Sabbath, Jesus said this about them. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Mark 7:6) Jesus was upset with the religious leaders because their hearts weren’t with God or living for God.

No matter how much we try to have our hearts centered on Christ in worship and in life, we can’t. We fail. I think that’s a big reason why John 3:16 has been such an incredible comfort to countless Christians for nearly 2,000 years. This passage proclaims that Christ’s perfect life and most innocent death forgives us of all our sins. He is faithful where we cannot. He is perfect when we were not. Even though we have not treasured the Bible as we should by daily digging into it and mining out its most precious treasures, Christ has forgiven our neglect. He forgives us of the times when we really don’t work that hard to stay focused in worship or prioritize something in its place. In Him, in Jesus and in his Word, our lives are forever changed!

Ramad, a man from India, was a member of a gang. On one occasion, while burglarizing a house, Ramad noticed a small black book with very thin pages just right for making cigarettes. So, he took it. Each evening, he tore out a page, rolled it around some tobacco, and had a smoke. Noticing that the small words on the pages were in his language, he began to read them before rolling his cigarettes. And one evening after reading a page, he knelt on the ground and asked the Lord Jesus to forgive his sins and to save him. He then turned himself in to the police, much to their amazement. Ramad, the bandit, became a follower of Jesus Christ. And in the prison where he served his sentence for his crimes, he led many others to the Savior. The Word of God became to Ramad “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). It changed his life. It made him different so he could make a difference!

As you look into your life, where can you work to increase your faithful love of God? How can you become intentional to connect with Christ?

Two years before a WWII veteran died, he and his wife opened the box containing all the love letters which they had written each other while he was overseas fighting in the war. They decided that each evening they would open the box and read each other a letter they had written. Night after night, they reminded each other of their love by reading those wonderful words that lived like magic in their hearts, and kept their love alive during the war.

While the war raged and life was uncertain, they treasured each letter that arrived. Being separated by an ocean, they read them alone – not once, but over and over again. As they read, they could see the other’s face and hear the other’s voice through the words. Romance swelled in their hearts as they longed for each other. Those letters were their most important possessions!

Friends, the Bible is God’s love book written for you. It is produced by Jesus, stars Jesus and is for those who want to be like Jesus—but it was given for you, to you. Use it! Live it! Read it! Daily! As you do, your faith will grow immensely and the Lord will bless your life in countless ways. That’s just what God’s Word of grace and mercy does. Amen.

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