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.

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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.

 

As One Approved

I am working now to refocus my ministry.  I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry.  Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be.  It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.

There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian.  It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter.  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”

Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16).  And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message.  Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world.  The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go.  Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives.  Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.

Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment.   On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation.  We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will.  We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God.  I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins.  But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.

I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview.  The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things.  Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.

If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world.  Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.