On the Plains of Moab Blog
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October 24, 2016, 3:40 PM

"All Those Words" or "Bla, Bla, Bla"?


Once upon a time, in a church far, far away, a church member came to me and asked why our church service was littered with “all those words,” to the tune of “What’s All This Mess?” I asked for clarification, and she said, “You know, all those words we say, over and over.”

It took a few thuds to my left brain to realize that “all those words” (said, by the way, with a distinct note of disdain in voice, flailing arms and contorted facial expression) was referring to the liturgy. Things like the Call to Worship; the Call to Confession and the Promise of Forgiveness, etc. etc. Apparently, she thought these words were not meaningful or even necessary to a church service. (Never mind that these “words” are the words of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Scripture.)

I know a similar thought must often occur to many a pew dwelling saint. One of my college room-mates from Liberty University told me emphatically that a formal liturgy was a bad thing because it “regulated the Holy Spirit.” [!] …As if God never said all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40 ESV).

Let me wax emphatic for a moment. What we do with the liturgy on Sunday morning is not merely words for the sake of words, and we sure as lima beans ain’t trying to “regulate the Holy Spirit” – as IF we could! A formal liturgy reflects heavenly worship. A formal liturgy is patterned on the kind of worship dialogue found particularly in Revelation 4:1-11 and 7:9-12.

A church service was never intended to be a disjointed, passive spectator event, which points to the problematic nature in the way some larger churches structure their services with ever more professionalism and less intentional participation from the “audience.”

But, that is a topic for another day.

Another aspect of a formal liturgy is that it gives form to the pattern of being called by God into worship; hearing the need of redemption; confessing sins and hearing the sweet words of forgiveness as we gather to sit at the foot of the Throne to hear and taste God in Word and Sacrament. At the close of the service, we don’t say, “Y’all come back.” Or “You’re dismissed.” We speak a word of charge and pronounce benediction as we return to the world.

This salvific shape of our worship service is something we find in the fabric of Scripture. Recently, I have been going through Old and New Testaments looking for those redemptive patterns in blocks of Scripture. Take, for instance, this upcoming Lord’s Day liturgy. Here it is:

Call to Worship           Exodus 3:2-6

The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Call to Confession      Exodus 3:7-8

The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we thank you for your mercy which is higher than the heavens, wider than our wanderings, deeper than all our sin. Forgive our careless attitudes toward your purposes, our refusal to show mercy to others, our envy of those who have more than we have, our obsession with material possessions, our indifference to the treasures of heaven, our neglect of Word and worship. Help us to desire what is good, love what you love, and do what you command, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Assurance        Exodus 3:16-17

The LORD said to Moses, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites [and the Mosquito Bites ;-)], a land flowing with milk and honey.’” My friends, in Jesus Christ, this has been fulfilled. Believe the Good News!

Now, this is Old Testament stuff from Exodus. It’s about Israel. But, what does it have to do with us? Well, one of the first things you do when you read Old Testament narratives with Israel mentioned is see the end of the matter where Israel is a forerunner of spiritual Israel – which is the Church of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10; Romans 9:25-26). The OT narratives do involve us.

The Old Testament looks for its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Israel was delivered from bondage in Egypt. “The Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) (us) was delivered from sin and death. The former being a foretaste of something even greater to come in Jesus.

With this picture in mind, the Old Testament liturgy becomes something beautiful and meaningful. Our Call to Worship is the Burning Bush experience. Drawing closer to God on sacred ground for worship. The Call to Confession is the recognition that God sees our need, and promises deliverance. The Promise of Forgiveness secures our portion in the “Land flowing with milk and honey.” Heaven. The New Heavens and the New Earth. The New Jerusalem. Eden: Paradise Restored.

Make sure you take a look at the liturgy each week to see if you can discern these patterns in the works. As you do this, it is good training ground for reading God’s Word for all its worth.

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October 17, 2016, 8:51 AM

The Next Table


I appreciate Carolyn Poteet stepping into the pulpit yesterday and preaching in my stead. I’m looking forward to the word that Phil Thrash has in store for us this upcoming Lord’s Day. All in all, this has been a good Sabbath of reading and hanging out at home.

 

In the coming week, I’ll be turning my attention to the remaining six commandments in the Ten Commandments. We have just finished the so-called “First Table” of the commandments. Question 98 of the Larger Catechism reminds us of the historic arrangements of the commandments: “Where is the moral law summarized? A. The moral law is summarized in the ten commandments… The first four commandments establish our obligations to God and the remaining six our obligations to human beings.” The first four fleshing out what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength. The final six, in the words of Question 122, “to love your neighbor as yourself and to do to others what you would have them do to you.”

 

The Fifth having to do with our relationship with our parents and all authority.

 

The Sixth with the value of life.

 

The Seventh with sexuality. (I anticipate this will be the hardest sermon to preach, largely because the way of the world has so thoroughly entangled our hearts on this matter, making darkness seem bright. Indeed, as Screwtape might say, “All things sex. ‘Tis one of the finest weapons our Father Below ever turned against the Enemy.”)

 

The Eighth, stealing.

 

The Ninth, lying.

 

And the Tenth, covering envy.

 

Is “Second Table” of the Law looks at our relationships with our neighbor; but of course, it all comes back to love of God. If you take any of these commandments lightly, if you are a habitual offender here, without remorse, without repentance, without a desire for holiness, you do not love God.

 

Seeing the commandments as two tables is a good way to parse the commandments, even though I believe “Two Tables” refer to the ancient treaty practice of cutting two copies of the same document: One for the people and one for the King – both copies being placed in the Ark of the Covenant as a testimony of God’s faithfulness and decrees; and the will of the people to cherish this Law.

 

On October 30th, we will resume this series on the commandments.

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October 14, 2016, 6:45 AM

On Vacation


Seeing that I am on vacation today, I did not want to miss a Friday of posting. So, for something quick, and meaningful, I present an instance where an old expression of defiance came true, quite literally wink"Over My Dead Body"




October 10, 2016, 8:45 AM

"The Market-Day of the Soul"


Philip Graham Ryken, in his insightful exposition of the Ten Commandments, in particular, the Fourth, noted that the Puritans saw a focus in Scripture on worship which led them “to refer to the Sabbath as ‘the market-day of the soul.’ Whereas the other six days of the week are for ordinary commerce, this is the day [devoted] to transacting our spiritual business, trading in the currency of heaven.” (Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, P&R, 2003. p.105)

Another Puritan, Richard Baxter, described appropriate behavior for the day with this understanding: “Rise early on Sunday morning; pray in private; have family devotions; go to church (and do not sleep in church); after returning home, while the noon meal is being prepared, pray in private and review everything said in church; enjoy a festive meal with conversation about the love of our Redeemer or something fitting for Sunday; after the meal, gather as a family for a psalm or for singing and instruction; go to church once more; come home and gather as a family to call upon God in prayer and song and to [discuss] the sermon; thereafter eat, but not too much, just as at noon; after the evening meal, question the children and servants about what they learned during the day; sing a psalm and conclude with prayer; and end the day with holy thoughts!” (From The Reformed Pastor).

Yet another Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, put it this way, “To do servile work on the Sabbath shows an irreligious heart, and greatly offends God. To do secular work on this day is to follow the devil’s plough; it is to debase the soul. God made this day on purpose to raise the heart to heaven, to converse with him, to do angels’ work; and to be employed in earthly work is to degrade the soul of its honour.” (The Ten Commandments. 1692; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965. p.99).

Our Westminster Confession reflects this Puritan understanding of complete rest in the Fourth Commandment: The Sabbath is kept holy unto the Lord when men prepare their hearts for it; arrange for their daily affairs to be taken care of beforehand; rest the whole day from their own works and words, and from thoughts about their worldly activities and recreations; and take up the whole time in public and private worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 21.8).

Yesterday, I latched onto the Heidelberg Catechism answer to Question 103 to steer the understanding of the commandment from a ceasing-from-all-activity application to a more theological awakening call. What does God require in the fourth commandment? The second part of the Heidelberg answer goes like this: That I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

The key to yesterday’s sermon is that the Sabbath command was given as a foreshadow of what God would do in His Son. Jesus brings Sabbath. Jesus fulfills the Sabbath. Therefore, I see the Day as a joy for what it teaches us about our God and the salvation He brings; I do not see it as a do-and-don’t-do burden. It makes me want to devote myself to worship on the Lord's Day! (And, by the way, I am indeed on vacation this week, and on Sunday, though I will not be at New Life, I will be in another house of worship, worshiping with other brothers and sisters in the Lord. I do not take a vacation from the Lord's Day. Ever.)

I used several passages yesterday from the NT to demonstrate that Christians are no longer under the heavy burden of Sabbath observance and certainly not the extra legal minutiae cooked up by the Pharisees and scribes. There are no ecclesiastical penalties for breaking Sabbath observance. (i.e. We don't carry out the death penalty on church members who play hooky from church.) The Sabbath has become the Lord’s Day. It is a day of liberty and freedom in Christ. (cf. Matt. 11-12; Heb. 4; Col. 2:16-17).

I even threw out some examples of what you can do on the Lord’s Day, like going out to eat. Or going to work – if required by your employer. Even watching a football game, and so on… Those activities can fit into the Lord’s Day without sinning. However, the operative word is CAN. You can. However, the Lord’s Day, I maintain, should be different. I think the day should be heavily flavored by worship. God’s people ought to desire to meet together on the first day of the week. The day is best given over to rest, if you can. Christians will think and live out the day differently from their neighbor who does not claim Jesus.

All that said to say this: We need to wrestle with that tension as we figure out how to honor the Lord on His Day. Liberty and gratitude. Happy wrestling, and see you on the Lord’s Day.

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October 7, 2016, 10:58 AM

Sunday and the Fourth Commandment


In thinking about the Fourth Commandment this Sunday, I thought it might be instructive to prime the pump with a letter to an anonymous pastor regarding The Lord’s Day from the perspective of the pew:

Dear Pastor, you often stress that observing the Christian Sabbath is vital for a healthy faith; but I think that the average Christian has to miss worship every now and then.

Please consider the following reasons:

Christmas: The Sunday before or after. (1 day)

New Year’s Day: Well, the party lasted too long. (1 day)

The Sunday following Easter: To get away for the holidays. (1 day)

July 4: Of course, a national holiday. (1 day)

Family Time: We just need a break from church – sanity time. (3 days)

Memorial Day: Supposed to be off from church. (1 day)

School Closing: The kids really need a break. (1 day)

School Opens: Just one last fling. (1 day)

Sleep Late: Saturday night activities. (5 days)

Anniversary: Need that second honeymoon. (1 day)

Sickness: One for each family member. (5 days)

Business Trips. (5 days)

Vacation. (4 days)

Bad Weather. (5 days)

Ball games. (7 days)

Company: Well, we can’t come to church with guests in the house. (5 days)

Time Changes: Spring ahead; fall back. (2 days)

The Super Bowl. (1 day)

 

Pastor, that leaves two Sundays per year.

So, you can count on us in church on the fourth Sunday in February and the third Sunday in August; unless providentially hindered.

 

Sincerely, Faithful Member.

 

All silliness aside, we do need to seriously consider the Fourth Commandment and what it means for our life together as believers in Jesus Christ. I am currently in the edit process of the message. It does look a little on the longer side, so, please set your watches back about ten minutes, and you’ll be out of church right on time!

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October 3, 2016, 7:23 AM

First Take on the First



Writing is not an activity I enjoy. I love the edit, but I do not like the writing part. Writing is especially un-fun starting with an empty Word document page. There’s something jarring about a bright white, blank, digital page staring back at you. Sermons are challenging in many ways. Of course, exegeting a passage. Getting it right. Making it interesting. And keeping it concise. That dreaded word count always looms large, almost as foreboding as the noon hour on Sunday morning. When I first started as a pastor, I always worried I wouldn’t have anything to say. Now, years later, I worry I have too much to say.

With that in mind, I wanted to share how this sermon series on the Ten Commandments began a few weeks ago. I was writing the sermon on the First Commandment. It was Saturday morning. Things were humming along pretty good. A week of reading. Taking notes. Churning the structure over in my head. Praying. Then, that note of dissonance. This dog ain’t gonna hunt. Won’t work. Junk! Then, that cold sweat on the forehead. Got to start over.

Indeed. I had to start over. But, as I look back over the sermon I started on the First Commandment, I hate to mothball it completely. So, here are a few sections of that ill-fated sermon. I feel like at least some of it ought to see the light of blog-day.

So, here it is:

Last week we began our study of the Ten Commandments with the preamble: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The preamble sets up the commandments. The preamble says this is why you are to plant my commandments in your heart; this is why you are to live out my commandments.

And so we come to the first commandment (5:7): You shall have no other gods before me.

This is the commandment Jesus had in mind when he said, “This is the great and first commandment.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt. 22:37-38 ESV). J.I. Packer, in his thoughtful book on the Commandments notes that the first commandment is “the fundamental commandment, first in importance as well as in order, and basic to every other…. True religion [he says,] starts with accepting this as one’s rule of life.” (Keeping the 10 Commandments, Crossway 2007, p.47).

John Calvin says “the purpose of the [first] commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people, and to exercise complete authority over them…. for it is unlawful to take away even a particle from his glory.” (Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Baillie, McNeill & Van Dusen eds. 1960, pp.382-83).

I think this is illustrated well from an exchange between the Father of our Country, George Washington, and his official portrait painter, Gilbert Stuart. Stuart painted the famous full length portrait of Washington that hangs prominently in the East Room of the White House, the portrait that Dolly Madison famously saved before the British burned the White House down to the ground during the War of 1812.

“As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects’ defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anecdotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart had met his match…When Washington swept into his first session with [Gilbert] Stuart, the artist was awestruck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart’s opening gambit backfired. ‘Now, sir,’ Stuart instructed his sitter, ‘you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the painter.’ To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget ‘who he is or who General Washington is.’” (Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, Penguin, 2010, p.xx)

We tend to think of God the way Gilbert Stuart thought about his encounter with the president. The president set him right. God does the same with us.

The first commandment teaches us first and foremost that our God is an exclusive God. Isaiah 45:21 says, There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. (ESV).

When the second generation camping on the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan River looked over into the Promised Land, they had to understand that they were going into a land full of multiple nations worshiping multiple gods. Baal and Asherah with the Canaanites; Chemosh with the Moabites, and Molech with the Ammonites, to name but a few.

But, as Paul says, echoing Moses, …We know that… “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:4-6 ESV).

So, the question that remains for us here is, what does it mean to have no other gods before the one, true God?

The 3rd century Church Father, Origen, taught that “the first commandment has to do with what we love. He wrote, ‘What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.’” (Philip Graham Ryken, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, P&R, 2003. p.66).

Reformer Martin Luther defined it thus: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need…That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” (Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz, ed. I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, Eerdmans, 2005. p.43).

Puritan commentary writer, Matthew Henry put it this way: “Pride makes a god of self, covetousness makes a god of money, sensuality makes a god of the belly; whatever is esteemed or loved, feared or served, delighted in or depended on, more than God, that (whatever it is) we do in effect make a god of.” (Ryken, p.67).

Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College sums all of this up rather painfully when he says, “Whether it’s money, power, or even your own belly, the world is full of God-substitutes and God-additives – things that take the place of God in daily life. The reason we have trouble recognizing our own private idolatries is not because we don’t have false gods anymore, but because we have so many!” (Ryken, p.67).

Whether we want to admit it or not, we have many “unholy trinities” in our lives:

Sex, Shekels, Stomach. Or, Pleasure, Possessions, Position. Or, Football, the Firm, the Family

“…anything that anyone allows to run his life becomes his god…” (Packer, p.48).

<end>

And, that’s as far as I got.

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September 30, 2016, 8:42 AM

"Americans Love God and the Bible, Are Fuzzy on the Details"



That's the provocative title of the article detailing the mystifying mindset of the typical American. (Click here to read the article)

In the introduction to this survey, it reads, "most Americans still identify as Christians. But they seem to be confused about some of the details of their faith."

As you might imagine, I do have a few thoughts about the revelation.

First, it might tell me that we ministers are doing a lousy job of communicating the basics of the Faith, whether from the pulpit or the lectern, or in the living room of the local bible study group. Perhaps we're not good communicators, or perhaps we're afraid to tell the truth that might offend. Perhaps we're just in this to please people and tickle ears. Perhaps we're just trying to earn a living and keep that living. Perhaps we're just truly "progressive" and believe wholeheartedly the unorthodox stuff that honestly misleads so many. Did I miss anything there?

Second, it might tell me that our congregations are hearing very well what is being said from the pulpit, the lectern and the bible study living room; but due to stubborness, persist in believing what they will believe anyway. As the saying goes, "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up." Fortunately, and unfortunately, we live in a day where information is microwavable: fast and ready. The only filters to the fire-hydrant flow of information is the solitary individual heart and mind drinking it in. What informs that heart and mind? What does that heart and mind cherish? How biblically "nourished" is that heart and mind? Those are critical, diagnostic questions.

Thirdly, and mostly, it might does tell me there will always be a need for good preachers and teachers in the church to faithfully, and patiently, and fearlessly, and persistently teach God's Word from Genesis through Revelation.

Paul told his protege, Timothy, the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:3-5 ESV). The time for Paul was not the distant future. Paul knew that was already a reality in his own day.

It is true in our day, as well. The advice given by the preacher in the book of Hebrews is painfully relevant to every generation: We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it [the Gospel]. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, (Heb. 2:1-3 ESV).

Tall order.

 

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September 27, 2016, 11:13 AM

Welcome to Moab!



“On the Plains of Moab.” Seems like a strange name for a blog. What in the world?

 

Well, let me explain with a little background here. You see, when the nation of Israel was coming to the completion of their forty year wilderness wanderings, we find God’s people camping on the plains of Moab, next to the Jordan River, across from Jericho, overlooking the land of Canaan. The Promised Land. The Land flowing with milk and honey. The good Land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was here that Moses instructed the second generation before they went in to take possession of the Land. This instruction is found in the first five books of our Old Testament, from Genesis through Deuteronomy.

 

As I think about our life together as God’s people, in Jesus Christ, I can’t help but place the Church on the banks of the Jordan; there on the Plans of Moab. Even as Christ has come. Even as the Kingdom is here in Jesus, I can’t help but relate the Church, here and now, to the wilderness journeys of God’s people. We are a “Now” people, awaiting the “Not Yet” of the New Heavens and New Earth. Our Promised Land. We live, we work, we worship and we anticipate all that God still has in store for us on this side of the Jordan. There is much to learn here on "the plains of Moab," which is the Church outpost, waiting on the renewal of all things, and for God to be all-in-all. But, as we wait, new creations in Christ, we still experience growing pains. We still wrestle with a sin nature. And, we still see evil and temptations lurking all around. So. Here on "the plains of Moab," just like that old second generation of Israel, we, the Church, need to be instructed. We need to be exhorted to live like the people we've been called to be in Jesus. And we need encouragement through it all.

 

Having said that, here’s what this blog will be about going forward: I want to share some extra thoughts from the Sunday sermons that didn't get said, but which need to be said. Perhaps clarifications. Perhaps corrections. I also want to share some articles that might be of encouragement and nourishment to you as you camp here in Moab. And maybe, just maybe, share some lighter stuff to make you smile. Oh, well, I can try! This is my plan. By grace and perseverance, it’ll happen.




April 1, 2016, 7:22 PM

From the April 2016 Newsletter



Let me tell you an interesting, true story told by Edith Bajema in her book on worship, “A Family Affair.” She begins, “years ago while visiting in Solvang, California, our family went to a small Presbyterian church in the community. We were just entering the front doors when we heard the whirring, choppy sounds of a helicopter approaching. Looking up, we saw several helicopters circle above the church and land in a nearby field.

As we watched, ten or fifteen men got out – followed by the President and First Lady of the United States. They walked past us into the church, smiling and shaking hands. We followed in a daze.

Every eye was riveted to the pew in which the President sat. Every ear listened to the sermon with speculation as to what the President thought of it. We were keenly aware of his presence during the singing, during the responsive reading, during the time when everybody turned around to shake hands with neighbors.

I remember little of that worship service, but I will always carry with me this:  the [clear] awareness of the presence of the President of the United States.”

Surely, having the President and First Lady in your presence is a thrilling experience, but the point of Mrs. Bajema’s story is that Christians are in the presence of greatness every Sunday when they gather for worship. When Jesus spoke about the Church, he said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20). When we gather together week after week, we do have a very distinguished guest among us and He is greater than the President of the United States. In fact, he is greater than all 43 of ’em put together! (N.B. Grover Cleveland, served as our 22nd and 24th President).

The King and Creator of the universe is among us in our worship service today. Do we ever wonder during the service, “What’s He thinking about the sermon?” “What does He think of our prayers?” “Do you think He’s moved by our singing?” How about this one: “Do you think He believed my half-hearted response in the liturgy?”

The Third Commandment says, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). We get rightly upset by the extensive use of profanity in movies and even in public discourse. We rightly believe God is dishonored by using His name as a cuss word (no example necessary!) or an expression of surprise (Oh, my God!). But then, we come into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, sit down and tune out, not realizing that we too are just as guilty of breaking the Third Commandment!

The Puritan writer, Thomas Watson expressed it well, he said that we violate this commandment “[w]hen we worship [God] with our lips, but not with our hearts. God calls for the heart, [cf. Prov.23:26] … When we seem to worship God, but withdraw our heart from him, we take his name in vain.”

We misuse the Lord’s name when we sit in a worship service and just go through the motions, mouthing words mindlessly. His name has become an empty shell. Think for a moment of what you do during church. What are you usually thinking about on Sunday mornings as you sit there? Are you just bravely bearing it with patience? Are you carrying on a conversation with a “neighbor” during the service? Passing notes, doodling? What’s your body language saying? Are you looking wistfully out the window?

In my days as a state employee, I attended a lot of meaningless conferences. I developed this pensive stare, so that it looked as if I was totally absorbed in what the speaker was saying. My co-workers thought I was the most devoted person on the payroll! My gaze was so penetrating at conferences, I was known as the 5th man on Mount Rushmore. In reality, I was miles away.

Is this what we do when we come to church? Are we just faking it? Are we sneaking glances at our watch (i.e. the Baptist salute), eager for 12:15? If that’s the case, we are guilty of taking the Lord’s Name in vain!

Maybe the problem is that we’re a little unclear as to what worship means. Maybe we practice “fuzzy” worship? Perhaps the real problem with our worship is that it’s far too passive. We treat worship as if it were a noun, when in reality, it’s a verb!

In the Bible, there are generally two ideas at work in the concept of worship. The first idea is that of bowing down in honor to one who is superior. It’s recognition of greatness in the one we’re honoring while at the same time, acknowledging our own smallness. But there’s another important idea involved in worship. It’s that of laboring or serving. Worship is a job! It’s hard work! Now if worship involves our bowing down and our hard work, then if a particular worship service is “dead,” we have no one to blame but ourselves! Not the preacher, alone.  Not the choir, alone. Not the choir director, alone. Not the praise band, alone. It’s you and me!

Too often, I think, worship becomes a spectator event. We go to church in much the same mindset that we would go to the theater, or even a sports event. We think that we’re supposed to be entertained. Those who are running the “show” have the responsibility to “feed” us and ensure that we’ve gotten our money’s worth. Have you ever heard someone say, “I didn’t get anything out of the service this morning,” or “That sermon didn’t speak to me,” or “Boy, the music was sure flat today.” The question you should be asking after a worship service is NOT, “What did I get out of it?” But, “How did I do in my worship today?” “How was my serve?”

C.S. Lewis, that great part-time theologian from Cambridge and Oxford, wrote one of his many books on the Psalms. In his Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis wrote a line that has helped me immensely in my thinking on worship. I hope that it will be as much help to you. He said, in essence, that our weekly worship services are merely practice sessions for the big dance in heaven. We are getting prepared on this side of glory for the heavenly throne room. So, if you’re having a bad Sunday, not to worry, there’s always practice next week. Your worship doesn’t have to be perfect Sunday after Sunday, but still give it your best. The old cliché, “practice makes perfect,” sure applies here.

Remember. Always remember, somebody greater than the President of the United States is here among us when we gather for worship.

Coram Deo,
Cameron




December 7, 2015, 7:37 AM

Let It Be to Me According to Your Word



Advent Week #2
Love Came Down
By Cameron Smith

Luke 1:26-38

We have been rocked yet again with another mass shooting in California this past week. The depravity of the human heart we cannot even begin to fathom. In a cynically laced headline from the New York Daily News responding to expressions of prayers for the victims and their families, it read: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.”

This headline makes me mindful of the skepticism that must have been in ready supply at the turn of the century when Mary received her birth announcement from the angel Gabriel.

In that day there was no prophetic voice, not since the closing of the OT. In the back of the national consciousness, there was a distant memory of prophets promising a coming of a Messiah to save them from foreign oppressors. In recent memory, first came the Greeks and now they languished under Rome. The hope was growing dimmer that a son of David would return to the throne. The note that resonates with us today is that the promise was God would fix the world and it would be glorious.

Isaiah promised that God would come back to judge between the nations, and…decide disputes for many peoples; and [that the nations of the world would] beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; [and they would] not lift up sword against [each other], neither [would] they learn war anymore. (Isa. 2:4 ESV). “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” (Isa. 65:17 ESV).

Jeremiah promised, “The days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant… (Jer. 31:31 ESV) …Put my law within them…write it on their hearts… No longer [will] each one teach [one another], saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:33-34 ESV).

Ezekiel promised that God would make a covenant of peace with them. [To] be an everlasting covenant. [To] set them in their land and multiply them, [that His] dwelling place [would] be with them, and [He would] be their God, and they [would] be [His] people. (Ezek. 37:26-27 ESV).

And yet, it had been over four hundred years since Malachi’s last prophetic utterance closed the Old Testament. The promises seemed empty. There was no peace. There was no trace nor the remotest hint that the prophecies were going to be fulfilled. There was no son of David anywhere on the horizon. God wasn’t fixing it!

Now with the background of the times in place, this brings us to the re-appearance of the angel Gabriel, fresh off his appearance to Zechariah. “Greetings, [Mary] O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Mary’s initial response was one of fear, “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” (1:28-29 ESV).  When you come face to face with God – in this case, a mighty angel from the heavenly court – you die!  She was rightly afraid.

Gabriel’s next words stretch the brain: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (1:30-33 ESV).

This is Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest of the OT witness rolled into one glorious sugar high! The name “Jesus” itself means “God Saves.” This promised baby will David’s successor and the Son of God. He will be the Messianic King, Savior of the world and God, all rolled into one. His kingdom will be everlasting. This is Good News dropped into the middle of long-suffering, increasing despair and cynicism.

Mary did ponder the moment. Although Joseph was of the line of David, both he and Mary were of lowly birth. She wasn’t married to him yet and she certainly wasn’t pregnant. She wonders “How [can] this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34 ESV) The Greek puts it more explicitly: How can this be since I’m not knowing a man – “knowing” being a Hebrew circumlocution for marital activity.

Yet the angel proclaims: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy-- the Son of God….And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (1:35-37 ESV).

This Jesus, who will save his people, is going to be born in a special way. We get the virgin birth. But, what I want you to see something else going on in Gabriel’s words. He says the Holy Spirit is going to descend upon her – overshadow her – so that the child will be holy.

Back in the OT, this language of overshadowing is used to describe what happened to the Tabernacle when God was there. The glory cloud overshadows it. God’s presence is there. The Gospel John opens up declaring, in Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1:14 ESV). In Jesus, the glory and presence of God is there!

But there’s something even more amazing here. When you go back to the creation account in Genesis 1, it says the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering [overshadowing] over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2 ESV). The Holy Spirit was overshadowing and inaugurating creation; just as he will do when he comes upon Mary. In Genesis, the beginning of creation. In Jesus, the beginning of the new creation.

The early Church was astonished by this language. They recognized that just as the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist signaled the calling out and re-forming of a people prepared for God; so the birth announcement of Jesus pointed to a cosmic transformation to come.

In Jesus, the Spirit would overshadow Mary and re-launch humanity, so to speak. Jesus would be the holy second Adam who would discharge the responsibilities the first Adam was supposed to steward and failed: Because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Rom. 5:17-18 ESV).

The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit….The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven….Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15:45-49 ESV).

In Jesus, God would save the world reduced to fallen-ness through Adam and Eve. God wouldn’t let his creation crash and burn in human sin. He would make a way for a new people to be called and brought into being. Through faith in the perfect obedience of the second Adam and his crushing of sin and death through his resurrection, he has, through his own blood, bought us; redeemed us and reconciled us to one another and God.

Mary gets it. She says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (1:38 ESV). Once again, the early church recognized that just as Jesus was the second Adam, Mary could be likened to a second Eve.

Irenaeus, a second century Father put it this way, “If [Eve] disobeyed God, yet Mary was persuaded to be obedient to God….And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin, virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.” (J. Edwards, Luke, p.50, fn. 92).

Mary may not have entirely understood completely the ramifications of Gabriel’s words, but she trusted what God was about to do, and she gave herself entirely to God, something that the first Eve had failed to do. In doing so, Mary would, like Eve, become the mother of the new creation.

I think this encounter with the Word of God helps us to understand that God’s timing is not always our timing. We get discouraged with the state of our world. Evil people do evil things. Bad things happen and we cry out “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you bring judgment on this fallen world?” (cf. Rev. 6:10 ESV). How long before you make things right? How long before you fix this?

However, before I close this sermon. Let me say this to the ears of faith, and put this vision before eyes of faith:

“God CAN fix this. In fact, God already ‘fixed it’ when He sent His Son to die for our sins and bring salvation to the world. He provided the ultimate solution, which is available to all who seek it. And when He comes again, He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4 ESV), and everything will be fixed… for good.” (Matt Walsh FB, 12/04/2015).

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

You have heard the Word of God.  Please consider it well.   Amen.


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