Worship II

I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!)  Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us.  Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.

First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace.  The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments.  There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace.  For example, confession is not a means of grace.  The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law.  Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication.  Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.

We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us.  His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture.  And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship.  While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding.  The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith.  And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)

The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect.  “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)   “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)  The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly.  Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit.  It does not save those who are not elect.  In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith.  That is why Communion is  only for the baptized.

So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened.  There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.

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The Ways We Worship

I’m preparing a few lessons for the adult Sunday School class on Lutheran worship–why we do it the way we do.  Now I’m perfectly aware that not all Lutherans organize their worship lives in the same way, and that’s generally okay with me.  But there are some things that I think must not be left out if our worship is to accomplish its principle goals.

Before we discuss the “ingredients” of proper worship we should probably say why we gather for worship at all.  Couldn’t we just be independent Christians happily reading our Bibles and meeting occasionally with friends to pray?  Well, the writer of Hebrews seemed not to believe that to be a good idea because he tells us we are not to cease to meet together as some have done. (10:25)  So Biblically  speaking, we are to gather with other Christians for worship.

There’s a funny web site called the BabylonBee which spoofs things in the Christian world that need spoofing.  One of the recent posts there referred to the many Bibles in America with heretical handwritten notes in the margins.  That is indeed a reason not to stay away from organized worship–we can err in our understanding if we lack proper teaching.  Satan would love nothing better than to have us all stay home on Sunday and develop heresies in our living rooms.  When I was ordained one of my clergy friends gave me this advice–if you believe you’ve discovered some new Christian truth that has been unknown heretofore–it’s most likely a heresy.  And his advise was quite wise.

In addition to avoiding heresy we also gather for worship because we need to worship.  We don’t worship to please God, we worship in order to be fed with His Word and strengthened in our faith.  The principle service done on Sunday mornings is not our service to God, but His service to His gathered people.  That’s what the Gospel is all about.

The traditional pattern of Lutheran worship makes this quite clear.  We gather before the Lord and confess our sins, after which the pastor assures those who have confessed that, if they are in Christ, their sins are forgiven–not at that moment and not just for what they’ve done in the last week–but forgiven because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary 2000 years ago.  And we say Thanks.

Then God’s Word is read that we might know and understand His saving grace even more.  And we say Thanks.

Then the pastor expounds on that written Word, bring its meaning and purpose to the lives of the gathered people of God.  And again we say Thanks.

Then God provides us with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, truly yet mysteriously present under the elements of bread and wine.  Our faith is strengthened and our hopes fulfilled.  And we say Thanks.

Then finally, at the end of every service we receive a benediction which sends us on our way rejoicing and saying Thanks.

I’ll write more about our worship lives in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to start by saying Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Looking Back

The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you.  Now there is some wisdom in that statement.  An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future.  And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future.  God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.

Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced.  As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.

That’s been true in my life also.  I was raised in the church and taught its importance.  But then  I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell.  But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway.  Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.

The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday.  There have been times of success and times of failure.  Times of growth and times of decline.  There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving.  The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely.  A lot of things can happen in 191 years.

I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons.  My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith.  We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century.  We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery.  Looking back will teach us something.  It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.

Filing

I hate filing.  It’s boring and I can always find an excuse for doing something more “important.”  So for quite some time, rather than filing my sermons neatly in appropriate folders I’ve just been dropping them in a drawer, rendering them fairly useless if I want to look up something that I may have already said–or just about anything else for that matter.  So I’ve hired my granddaughter to put my files in order.

This got me thinking about what else I may be failing to keep in order.  Is my spiritual life organized and in the process of deepening?  Are my prayers as full as they ought to be?  Is the rest of my labor at church focused or is it just a hodgepodge like my files were?  Am I being the type of pastor God wants me to be to the people here at St. Paul’s or am I failing to be that which I should be just because I’m too lazy to do what needs doing?

My wife and I are going on vacation next week and I want to spend some time pondering how I can be a better servant, a better pastor, a better subject of the King of kings.

Now I suspect many who read this are just as likely as I am to avoid unpleasant tasks.  No one wants to do boring things and no one, especially, wants to do hard things.  But putting them off just makes more trouble down the road, and there won’t always be someone like my granddaughter to pick up the slack.  So here are a few questions for you to ask yourself this week:

+How go things with your soul?  Is your life a good reflection            of the life of a follower of Jesus?                                                            +What work for God and His people have you been putting              off?                                                                                                                  +Are you simply drifting in your spiritual life, showing up on            Sunday for church but not doing to much else?                              +Are you praying for anything other than your self and your          immediate loved ones?

There are a lot of other questions you could ask, but you get the idea.

Laughing in the Heavens

My readings this morning included Psalm 2.  The psalmist touches on something that is important for Christians to remember–God will always have His way, no matter the vigor with which people oppose Him.  I thought I’d share some thoughts about this psalm.

The Western world is a mess.  If you don’t believe that, then you haven’t been looking.  Of course the great problem with the world is sin–believing that we can do a better job than God in the ordering of creation.  Mocking the Lord will always get a laugh on television and holding His people up to ridicule will always find its way into the editorial pages of our major newspapers (and not a few minor ones too).

But look how God responds to those who despise Him and His people.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (v.4)  The mighty of this world, the powerful men and women, the cultural leaders, the haters of all things holy–God does not try to make excuses to them or explain His will.  He does not call on His people to alter what has been taught amongst them from time immemorial, He does not bend to the fashions of the world and seek to seem relevant in the eyes of secularists.  No friends, God laughs at them for He knows who is in control of the universe.

The next time someone attacks your faith or attempts to tell you God is simply a myth we have created to make ourselves feel safer–well, you can just smile at them because you know exactly what God thinks of them and what that will mean in the long run.

Oh, and in case you’re unsure about God’s victory, you can believe it because I looked in the back of the Book, and He wins.

Motivation

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? (please don’t say the alarm clock, you know what I mean).  Seriously, why bother to get up and face this world we live in?  Well, I think there are some pretty good reasons.

First, we get up because God exists.  Simple as that sounds, it’s profoundly true.  If God didn’t exist, neither would we.  But for any agnostics out there, if God didn’t exist there would be no reason to get up and go out into a world which would so very often give us pain.  If God didn’t exist, why would we want to go through all the terrible things that happen in our lives, knowing that we were just animated carbon on our way to being inanimate carbon and that ultimately there was no meaning to life?  If I didn’t believe in God I would have killed myself long ago.

Second, we get up because God has given us a new day.  It’s unfortunate that we so seldom recognize that important fact.  God, who holds all existence in the palm of His hand, who wills everything’s existence, has chosen to give us another day here on the 3rd planet from a minor star in a corner of the universe (okay, so the universe doesn’t have corners–you still know what I mean)  We are here today because God wants us to be here.  And with the new day come new opportunities to do the work He prepared for us before the beginning of time.

Third, we get up in the morning because we have sure and certain hope in our future and we have that hope because Jesus Christ died upon the Cross, enduring the punishment we deserve for the sin that clings so stubbornly to us, and He rose from the dead on the 3rd day that death might be forever defeated for His chosen people.

Finally, we get up in the morning because we just might meet someone today who needs to hear the Gospel and that there might be joy in heaven.

Go in peace and serve the Lord.

What’s A Preacher To Do?

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too.  Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning.  Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t.  So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation.  We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.

The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher.  Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker.  I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour.  Must a good preacher have such a skill?  Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow.  Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you?  I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  That is what matters in the pulpit.  It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry.  I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.