Church Calendar

Advent Well

Advent Well

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand. -Isaiah
 
Advent is a time to affirm what Isaiah affirms. If we wish to reorient our desires, then remember: the Lord is our Father and we are the clay. Thus, we are to pray: “Come, Lord, because we have tried to make ourselves into something without you and every time we tried we failed. But if you come to us, you will make something beautiful; you will take those parts of us that are unclean and make clean; you will take your righteousness and make us whole; you will take our bodies and build your palace.”
This Advent, Long well. Expect well. Sing your way through your expectation. Don’t waste this season.
 
God comes in the Person of Jesus Christ to make his blessings known far as the curse is found. He is coming to make a palace in you because a palace is the only fitting home for the King of Glory. Believe this and rejoice.

What is Maundy Thursday?

“Maundy” comes from the Latin Mandatum. The word comes from Jesus’ command on the Last Supper to love one another just as He loved them (Jn. 13). The message of love is central to the Gospel message. Some Evangelicals are all too quick to set the topic of love aside because it draws our attention away from the more important doctrinal disputes and discussions. Yet Paul and our blessed Lord keep bringing us back to this theme of love. God is love. No, love is not God, but it is very much a foundational aspect of all His actions toward us in Christ Jesus.

Maundy Thursday then becomes a special historical reminder that we are called to be a people of love. In I Corinthians 13, Paul said that if love is absent, our actions become like clanging cymbals. The very core of Paul’s exhortation to love occurred in the midst of a dying Church, namely the Corinthian Church. Paul’s application then is an ecclesiastical command. In the same manner, our blessed Lord on the night in which he was betrayed– by that unclean man called Judas– called us to a greater love ethic as a people. It was not an ethic foreign to our Lord. What Jesus commands is first and foremost something he has experienced and displayed already. To a greater extent, our Lord proves that love in a cross of hate. By sacrificing Himself on that cruel tree He turned the symbol of hate into one of the most beloved symbols in the Christian life.

It is then very appropriate that our Lord would command us to love as a response to the Last Supper. This is the case because in the Supper we are being re-oriented in our affections for one another. The Supper is a meal of love and Jesus would transform that meal in His resurrection. He would glorify love for His new disciples. He would become Himself the manna from heaven that would bring joy to this newly created community.

Love is most clearly displayed and obeyed in this new fellowship of disciples we call the Church. This is why Maundy Thursday was a significant historical event. It was not just a didactic lesson for the disciples, it was also a meal that sealed the theme of love for this new community that would emerge from the darkness of the tomb.

Merry Epiphany!

As the season of Epiphany unfolds before us, we need to be reminded that Epiphany has every potential to be as merry as Christmas! Though the parties are not as many, the gifts still appear. Jesus receives gifts from the nations, represented by the magi, and in turn he gives himself to the nations. For this reason, Epiphany is merry! We give in tithes and offerings so Christ may give in spiritual gifts to his church.

Epiphany means a manifestation. We awaited Jesus, we celebrated Jesus and now we join Jesus in his work. Indeed we never cease to be like the magi. We continue to pay him tribute and worship him, and even more so now that the nations have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

In our baptisms, we have given our lives to our Lord as a gift and now Christ uses that baptized body to enlighten the nations. We are walking lights; we are walking gifts to the nations. Epiphany can be just as merry if we give ourselves as baptized bodies to those around us. Let us begin this sacred task by giving ourselves to one another in worship as we sing cheerfully and confess humbly before God and man.

 

Eight Reasons Why Worship Must Be Hard Work

singingFrom Couch to Warfare

There is a great app called Couch to 5K. It’s designed for people who have become comfortable with the couch and have an allergy to the treadmill. It’s an incremental approach to working out. As the weeks go by we become more accustomed to the patterns established and we long to achieve the final level when we run an entire 5K. It’s hard work. My proposition is very simple: Worship is hard. We cannot remain comfortable in our pews. We need to start running the race. We may not be ready to run a 5K, but we need to be headed in that direction. And like running, worship requires habits and consistency. I am calling you to burn your calories in worship not because I am a controversialist or a tyrannical trainer but because I want you to be a healthy sacrifice to God. In fact, the formal synonym for worship is liturgy. Liturgy comes from two words: “Work” and “people.” Therefore, worship or liturgy can be accurately defined as the work of the people. 

Our Lord was so righteously angry by the easy business transactions (easy worship) of the Temple that he turned upside down the world when he overturned the tables of the money-changers (John 2:13-16). Such audacity should be imitated by God’s people, but cautiously exercised in light of our sinfulness. So here is my attempt to cautiously turn a few tables upside down with the hope that some will decide to keep it that way rather than try to put it back up or mend the broken pieces.

Worship has become perfunctory in our day. a The seeker-sensitive movement of the 90’s has morphed into a thousand strategic models for church growth. Some of these recommendations can be helpful, but the vast majority succumb to a moralistic therapeutic deismb that would be best spread in a meal for Baal than the God who made the heavens and earth.c Easy worship produces light Christians. Light Christians produce weak men and weak men produce feeble societies.

The Hard Work of Worship

These eight reasons are introductory in nature. Most certainly they can be edited or better stated, but in light of ecclesiastical trends and the high significance God puts in the worship of his name, these examples should be taken with great care.

First, worship must be hard work because God demands those who worship him to do so in “spirit and truth (John 4:24).” I take “Spirit” to mean in “Spirit-led” form. Worship must take a Spirit-shaped liturgy. It must be guided by the inspired words of the Spirit and a bathed dependence on the Trinity. Jesus demands that we take up the cross and follow him which is hard work lived out by the power of the Spirit.

Worshiping in truth also demands much from the worshiper. John the Baptist had borne witness to the truth (John 5:33) and that witness cost him his life. Thus, worshiping in truth is no easy task. Our gathered assembly must be prepared to fight hard to/in worship. If worship demands little or nothing from us, it fails the John 4:24 test.

Second, worship must be hard because God’s commandments require perseverance (Ephesians 6:18). Grace is not a synonym for a lackadaisical posture. Grace, rather, calls us to serve the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. The people of God are called to worship God by loving him and neighbor and both demand a high alertness to God’s principles for worship. Worship is a picture of our own spiritual walk. Passivity in worship may lead to passivity in our Christian walk.

Third, worship demands most work on the Lord’s appointed day. Many say that they can worship anywhere as a way to avoid worshiping in the consecrated time of worship on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). It is true that worship can take place anywhere, but the particular worship God commands is the worship of his gathered assembly (Heb. 10:25). Worship is hard because there are competing temptations that draw us away from the gathered assembly. Everything done in the name of God can be worship, but if it is used to substitute a clear call to worship him, it becomes less than worship and a violation of the principle of worship. God places a higher priority on gathered worship than on earthly tasks which are why we ought to apply ourselves with a greater fervency to Sunday worship than to other worshipful activities.

Fourth, worship demands postures. The Bible offers many postures for the Christian in worshipd) Worship has bodily demands for those who are able. It is hard work and requires a proactive response from the Christian. Passivity is not in the vocabulary of worship.

Fifth, worship teaches us patterns. The beauty of patterns is that it requires repetition. The angels in heaven maintain a glory pattern of worship day and night (Rev. 7:15). They are not discontent with the patterns or repetitions. They worship again and again. Similarly, earthly saints must repeat without fear, but with hunger to see such repetition become fervent and acceptable in God’s sight. Every stage of human life demand patterns whether kisses, hugs, sex, greetings, discipline in the home, waking, sleeping, eating, etc. Repetition is part of life. The thirst for the new and change in worship reflects a concern for human desires rather than God’s demands.

Sixth, hard work in worship stresses the mighty nature of God. It’s been many years since Christian Smith coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The phrase expressed a Freudian ecclesiology where the parishioner only sits and allows the clergy to do their thing. I once attended a church where one of the deacons faithfully recorded the member’s tithes and offerings during the service. He used the passivity of that worship service to “catch up” with work rather than working hard to participate and engage in the work of worship.

Seventh, hard work in worship teaches consistency in life. Someone who attended a congregation where hard work was expected from the people asked sarcastically: “Why do you all have to make things so complicated?” The question was addressed to a congregation that took worship seriously and demanded participation from its people. Ironically this individual cherished a hard work ethic and decried the lack of real men in our culture. “Work hard in school. Work hard to save money. Work hard to change a liberal culture,” he’d say. But be prepared to do little work when you come into worship was the implication. This inconsistency is consistent with the easy worship practices of many churches in our day. Let the experts do their thing, and our role is to simply sit and watch while we let others do the work for us. In economic terms, this is ecclesiastical socialism.

Finally, I offer four ways pastors and parishioners can train themselves to work hard on Sunday morning at the great assembly:

a) Disciple your children in worship. Fathers and mothers must be committed to keeping their children in worship with them. We don’t train children outside of worship so they can one day come into worship. Children are not distractions to be put aside during worship, they are disciples to be trained during worship. They have a fundamental role when we gather together (Psalm 8).e Children will generally become like their parents in worship. They will either work hard and sit passively while others do the hard work of worship.

b) Use hymnals instead of other means if possible. Hymnals demand musical knowledge.f You may not read music. You may not be musical. But using hymnals will require you to get out of your comfort zone and learn intricate and theologically rich melodies. I recently told my congregation that an Advent hymn we had just sung covered about ten essential theological doctrines in its seven verses. Hymns–and the Psalms–are sung religious education.

c) We are made to respond. Therefore, responsorial elements in worship are necessary (I Chronicles 16). Even in the easiest and relaxed worship environments, there are responses. If a pastor or a leader says, “Good morning,” the people will naturally respond similarly; the same with “Merry Christmas.” Theological greetings and responses should be an engaging part of the service (Ruth 2:4) that calls people to be attentive and prepared to answer with loud shouts of praise (Ps. 98:4). Worship is hard work and responses from the people serve to keep the people always aware and attentive.

d) Lastlyg, every service should have a bulletin; an order of worship. Worship becomes easy and flippant when the leader and the people go from one thing to the other without purpose or meaning or flow. I recall attending an evangelical church many years ago where the music leader chose our next song the moment he was called by the pastor. Quickly he flipped the pages and found a familiar tune to sing. Worship demands preparation. It’s hard work. And hard work leads to fruitful, engaging, and life-changing worship.

Offering Him Our Reasonable Sacrifice

These actions can be quickly taken by pastors and can be implemented without causing much consternation or division. Worship is discipleship training. We do the work again and again so we may become competent and equipped for it. Contrary to popular opinion, hard work in worship is not the invention of cranky Presbyterians who wish to take away our joy. In fact, the joy of the Lord is our strength. And the Lord takes joy when we are strengthened by worshiping Him. Working hard in worship has nothing to do with earning God’s favor; working hard in worship means God is deserving of our praise. We don’t come and offer Him the least we can give, we offer Him our spiritual sacrifice. Indeed we offer Him our entire self.

Worship is warfare. Warfare is hard. Worship prepares us for the race ahead. By the end of the hour, we should feel the exhaustion of having worshiped a great God who demands and is worthy of praise, confession, singing, adoration, kneeling, standing, and lifting holy hands. No one should come from such worship feeling lethargic. The liturgy–the work of the people–trains us for the hard work of perseverance through life. Let’s work hard with God’s people until our final rest when our work will be perfected by the God who calls us into His presence.

  1. This example serves only as an illustration of the kinds of things that are permissible in our day and highly encouraged.  (back)
  2. Language coined by Christian Smith  (back)
  3. See Terry Johnson’s Worshiping with Calvin for multiple examples of this: https://www.amazon.com/Worshipping-Calvin-Terry-Johnson/dp/085234936X/ref=pd_sbs_14_img_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=HRHPCNKJTWAT4RVM91VX  (back)
  4. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! (Psalm 95:6); Lift up your hands to the holy place And bless the LORD! (Psalm 134:2); Give praise, O servants of the LORD, Who stand in the house of the LORD. (Psalm 135:2  (back)
  5. I understand there is need for cry rooms and perhaps age-appropriate Sunday School, but these do not hinder the centrality for young and old to be together for worship (Joel 2:16).  (back)
  6. Here is a great piece advocating the use of hymnals: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2014/07/22/reasons-why-we-should-still-be-using-hymnals/  (back)
  7. and this is only introductory; more could be added  (back)

Where is the celebration?

Note: This was written in 2007. Minor revisions were made. I still agree with myself after almost a decade. While shocking it remains true.

Unlike many, many churches this Sunday, our congregation did not celebrate 4th of July. There are at least two obvious reasons for this decision:

a) The 4th of July is not a universal ecclesiastical practice.

b) Jesus is Lord of the world.

In the last five years, I have pursued the study of American history, which has led me to the conclusion that there is something unique about the American Constitution, about its founding, and about its early practices in the colonies. The very fact that there is a dispute about the godly heritage of American history proves that some series of incidents occurred in order to provide such disputations. If the evidence was insignificant I seriously doubt the debate would even take place. Nevertheless, in whatever camp one falls, it is incumbent to realize that Sabbath worship is not the place for exalting the glories of a nation, its godly heritage, or its “victories” in foreign lands.

There is a fundamental displacement of ecclesiastic priorities when a congregation replaces the adoration of the Holy Trinity for the adoration of the “holy” state. Laurence Vance is correct when he summarizes the nature of these patriotic services:

Unfortunately, what this means in many cases is state worship instead of God worship. Songs will be sung in praise of the state instead of in praise to God. The flag will be saluted instead of the Bible being exalted.

This observation illustrates well my two points mentioned above. The first one is that the “4th of July patriotic service” is not a universal service; it does not involve the holy and apostolic church. In fact, it diminishes the glory of the church catholic by exalting the glory of the church in America. This is not the nature of Biblical history, which sees the church as a universal manifestation of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus.

The place for celebration and feasting on the benefits of our history is noble and should take place in its proper time and context. We should eat, drink and be merry and keep living. We should be grateful to a nation that has provided us freedoms to oppose its principles and leaders at certain times. However, the celebration of the Lord’s Day looks to something far greater than the Constitution or George Washington. The Lord’s Day is reserved for the liturgy of the church, the proclamation of the counsel of God, and a consummative ritual called the Eucharist, where the people feast on Christ, not on hot dogs and burgers. Keeping this distinction clear will aid the church in proclaiming what the world truly needs to hear.

The only events that are clear from Scriptures and the holy church are those that have been confirmed and applied in time and history and that are grounded in the sacred testimony of Scriptures.1 Hence, the point is that any celebration not rooted in the history of the Church or the Bible is not worthy to be brought to the pulpit or the table of the Sabbath feast.

The Christian, who believes the Lord’s Day ought to be an exposition of the glories of country rather than the glories of Christ, robs himself of true joy. The Bible exalts the Sabbath worship to a heavenly throne, where the angels adore and cry Holy, Holy, Holy. Every Sunday, the church triumphant lauds the eternal city on earth, the city of God and His Christ. No earthly celebration should match or replace the wonder of this heavenly feast.

The second point is rather clear as well: The Lordship of Christ extends to the entire world. Affirming thus does not exclude America, but it serves to show that Christ’s reign is universal. His intention is to bring the world under His dominion and not simply one country. This pervasive idea may be due to the overly localized ecclesiology. Denominations that boast in their independent status as opposed to the inter-connectedness of the church usually fail to see this point. These churches act like the prodigal son who believes if he maintains a level of independence with his father’s funds, then he can make it. At least the prodigal son, in the end, realizes that his funds are limited, his accountability is limited, and his individuality can only go so far. It is this thinking that has kept the church from celebrating the kingdom of God.

American churches need to realize that boasting in anyone, but Christ is foolish indeed. It is the Christian message we raise as our banner; it is the Christian Christ we raise as the God and any other challenge to this model is deemed to failure.

Footnotes

  1. Examples would be Resurrection Sunday, Advent, etc. [ back]

The Glory of Being Undefeated

There is a certain delight in being undefeated. The status of being undefeated builds your ego, and sometimes it causes you to feel undefeated. “Nothing can stop me now,” you may say.

What did death possess? Death possessed the glory of being undefeated for centuries. Up to the first century, death had the final laugh. The house of death was intact; unmoved and uncompromised, until the glory of the empty tomb. The tomb was empty because it could not contain the glory of Christ and His Kingdom.

When the tomb was empty, then the household of Satan was threatened; then the glory of death’s undefeated record was threatened. Matthew 12 describes this scene when it speaks of Jesus coming to the strong man’s house and plundering his goods and binding the strong man. This is the imagery we must keep in mind of the resurrection: Jesus comes and plunders the glory of death. He takes away death’s undefeated record.  He takes away the possessions of death, and on the Third Day he says: There is a new victor in the world. Death does not have the final word. “O Death, where is your sting?” The answer is: It lost its appetite.

The Resurrection is the true glory; the resurrection is the final word, and death has been robbed. All authority and power belong to the Risen Lord!

What is Maundy Thursday?

What is Maundy Thursday?

Holy Week is inaugurated on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday is the unfolding drama of Jesus’ last week before his death. As the King enters into Jerusalem to inspect his holy city, received by a multitude of rejoicers, he discovers that the city is corrupt (Zec. 9). As the week continues, Jesus enters into a host of confrontations with the religious leaders of the day, which caused them to detest the Paschal Lamb, and ultimately crucify Him.

The events of Maundy Thursday are powerful events in the life of the Christian Church. The name “Maundy Thursday” is derived from the Latin word mandatum meaning “commandment.” In John 13 :31-35, Jesus tells his disciples that he has a new commandment, that you love one another. Obeying this commandment serves as the way the world will recognize the children of God.

Another element of Maundy Thursday is the administration of the Eucharist. Maundy Thursday describes the disciples’ Last Supper with their Lord. It was during that meal that Judas was identified as the one who betrayed our Lord. Judas’ kissing the Son of Man was the confirmation that he himself had become the son of perdition. His betrayal by a kiss is indicative of his all-consuming hatred for the message of Jesus. Judas, who partook of Christ at the Last Supper, now partook of Christ’s body by the kiss of death.

Maundy Thursday is a service of love and gratitude. On this day, the people of God join others to renew their love for one another, and to renew their commitment to our Lord as we eat his flesh and drink his blood. By this they will know that we are His disciples.

Palm Sunday Meditation

Palm Sunday Meditation

We celebrate today the coming of the King into Jerusalem. I think if Hollywood were to put Palm Sunday into a movie they probably would have Jesus coming in a military tank surrounded by an army ready to declare war. But Hollywood has never read Zechariah. Jesus is King, but Jesus is a king in a far different way than all other kings are kings. As king, He comes endowed with salvation, humble, mounted on a donkey, even a colt, the foal of a donkey. As king, He conquers by offering Himself for His people. And if we want to share His conquest, we must go and do likewise.

The way of kingship is cross before crown; suffering before glory. Jesus turns everything upside down: his coming was filled with nuanced symbolic meaning. His arrival was true to the Hebrew Scriptures, but it was true in a way that they did not expect. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that one way Christ executes his office of king is by ruling and defending us. The Jews wanted to be ruled and defended, but they did not want to be ruled and defended in the way Christ wanted to rule and defend.  Sometimes we want a king, but we want him to function the way we think best. Palm Sunday is the announcement that Christ’s kingship is expressed in a unique way; in a way that puzzles the crowd, but still in a way that gives them hope. May this hope be ours today.

Prayer: Almighty God, on this day, your son Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem and was proclaimed King by those who spread garments and palm branches along his way.  Let those branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our Lord, and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.  In his name we pray. Amen.

It’s the End of the Church Year as We Know It and I Feel Fine

It’s the End of the Church Year as We Know It and I Feel Fine

The end of the Church Year as we know it is coming and we should feel fine about that reality.

All good things must come to an end. For those of you who are new to the Church calendar, we are coming to the end of the Church liturgical year. The Church year goes from Advent to Advent. You are going to see a change in liturgical colors if you attend or are visiting a liturgical church like mine. We go from greena to purpleb. Pentecost is the final season of the Church, because it re-enacts for us the going-forth of the Gospel to all the world. The green represents this fertile land prepared to be harvested by God. Green speaks of the life the gospel gives. But beginning this Sunday, November 30th, we re-start the entire Church year and begin anew this cycle of expectation, coming, glory, and power.

Why do we go through this cycle again and again? We go through it because we love the Gospel. We love to see it embodied in a baby and we love to see it embodied in an exalted, resurrected King.

The Church Calendar for us is a glorious repetition of what the world was before Christ, what the world became after Christ, and what the world shall be in Christ. The end is coming, but a new beginning is near.

  1. On Pentecost Sunday, we wear red to signify the fire of the Spirit of God descending  (back)
  2. Purple signifies the expectation of God’s people  (back)
For All the Saints

For All the Saints

We will confess this morning in worship the unity of the body, and by doing so we are confessing our union with those gone before us. In Christ, we are connected to a new creation.

We have read many times the list of biblical martyrs in Hebrews 11. At the end, they are commended for their faith. We do not worship past saints, we do not kneel before past saints, but we do honor past saints. And we do so enthusiastically. Why? Because from their hands was the faith once delivered to us. We are heirs of the promises of the Gospel given to us by the hands of the saints gone before us.

No institution can succeed—whether the Church or the family—without models and heroes. In fact, the liturgical year is about “the cloud of witnesses who have lived the life before us.”[1] These witnesses shape our ecclesiology.

So how is history forcing you to re-consider the saints gone before us? Who are your models, your children’s models? What is shaping our church’s definition of a saint? This is a question we must all ask. When you consider a hero, what characteristics are you using to make such a determination? Is it faith, hope, love, loyalty? What is it?

For the biblical writers, we cannot know God properly without knowing the saints He has used to shape the world.

All Saints’ Day is a day to remember those who from their labors rest by faith before the world confessed the name of Jesus, who is forever blessed. Alleluiah! Alleluiah!

Prayer: O Most Holy God, you have formed a Blessed Communion, a fellowship divine! We are grateful for uniting us under the Lordship of your Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Strengthen us in that unity and cause us to love one another with the love you have given to us so freely and abundantly. Do this for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

[1] Models and Heroes, Joan Chittister.