680) Worship (part three of four)

     (…continued…)  Worship is communication.  It is our ongoing conversation with God.  Yes, we pray our own prayers at home, and yes we can read the Bible on our own, and should.  But for thousands of years, this weekly hour of worship has been the primary place for this ongoing conversation.  And when you think about it, our conversation with God that goes on during this hour is not all that different from our conversations with each other.

     Let me give you a few examples.  In our conversations with each other, we are always eager to share good news.  The word ‘Gospel,’ which is at the center of worship, comes from an old English word which means Good News.  Isn’t that what the angel said he came to tell the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth?  “I have come to bring you good news of a great joy for all people– a Savior has been born,” said the angel.  At the heart of the conversation with God that is our worship, is the sharing of this good news.  To give another example, our daily conversations begin with a greeting, perhaps a ‘hello’ or a ‘how ya doin’?’  Worship begins with a greeting from II Corinthians.  The pastor says, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all;” and the congregations then says, “And also with you.”  Worship ends with a benediction, and so do our conversations.  Our farewell word ‘good-bye’ is in fact a shortened form of a benediction, “God be with ye.” Over time, ‘God be with ye’ became simply ‘good-bye.’  Also, in any close relationship there will be times when we do each other wrong; and then, if the relationship is to survive, somebody has to say ‘I’m sorry’ and somebody else has to say ‘You are forgiven.’  In church we call that confession and absolution.  We need to have that conversation with God each and every week, and that is how we begin worship.  Sometimes in our conversations we need to ask each other for help.  In worship, we pray for God’s help; and then, in our offerings, we make a return of what God has already given us as we offer to help with God’s work in the congregation and around the world.  In our conversations, we will at times compliment one another, so in worship we will certainly want to praise God for all he has done for us.  We do that in the hymns, the Psalms, and sometimes in the prayers.  Are you getting the idea?

     Worship is a conversation with God that is, in some ways, very much like our conversations with each other.  And this conversation with God is, of course, not limited to worship, but is also a description of our personal prayer life.

 (…continued…)

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I Samuel 3:10  —  The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Psalm 142:1-2  —  I cry aloud to the LordI lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.  I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

II Samuel 22:7  —  In my distress I called to the Lord; I called out to my God.  From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came to his ears.

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What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations?  Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you?  Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

–Joseph Scriven  (1819-1886)

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679) Worship (part two of four)

     

     (…continued…)  The Lutheran liturgy makes sure that when you come to church you will hear God’s Word.  As a preacher, I take comfort in that.  There are many weeks that I can’t come up with anything I am satisfied with for the sermon, but still, it is my job to be in the pulpit every Sunday morning at the appointed time and begin speaking.  And I know very well that not even my very best sermons are meaningful or helpful to everyone.  But the value of the worship hour doesn’t depend just on me and my sermon. The service itself is filled with God’s Word to us.

     At the very beginning, after we confess our sins, the pastor announces to the congregation God’s word of forgiveness, as Jesus Christ himself authorized in John 20.  In the greeting we receive a Biblical blessing from II Corinthians.  In the benediction we receive the words of blessing from the Old Testament book of Numbers.   In the Scripture readings we hear read four selections from the Bible.  And in the sermon I do my best to bring a message based on God’s Word and applied to our lives today.  We hear God speak to us in the worship service each week.  That is one side of the communication.

     Then, as in all good communication, we respond, speaking back to God.  We pray to God, we sing hymns to God, and we confess our sins to God.  Even as we speak to God in the different parts of the service, we do so in words from the Bible, responding in ways God’s people have spoken to God for thousands of years.  We use words from I John as we confess our sins.  In the Kyrie, we pray the prayer of the tax-collector that received the praise of Jesus when we pray simply, “Lord, have mercy.”  The Hymn of Praise begins with the words sung by the angels on the night Jesus was born, and in the Alleluia we ask in the words of Peter, ‘Where else shall go, Lord, you have the words of eternal life.’  I begin each sermon with a prayer, and end each sermon with a blessing, both also from the Bible.  After the offering we sing some words written by David in Psalm 51, and we then pray the prayer taught to us by Jesus himself in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  We also sing songs written by others, and pray prayers written by others– or from our own heart.  In all these ways, we carry on our end of this conversation with God. 

(…continued…)

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A FEW OF THE SCRIPTURE PASSAGES USED IN WORSHIP:

II  Corinthians 13:14  —   May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

John 20:20-23  —  Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Luke 2:14  —  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Psalm 19:14  —  Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Philippians 4:7  —  And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

John 6:68  —  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

Numbers 6:23b-27  —  …Bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:  The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:  The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”  And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.

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Luke 18:13b  —   …God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Psalm 51:10  —   Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

678) Worship (part one of four)

     My wife and I were visiting with some old friends a while ago.  We had a nice time talking, laughing, joking, and reminiscing.  On the way home, Nancy said, “Karen told me that her and Bill have not spoken to each other for six weeks; not since they had a big fight after their son’s graduation.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “How can that be?  We just had a great time with them.  Everything seemed fine.”  Nancy replied, “Karen said they are able to put on a show like that whenever they are around other people; but at home, there is not one word to each other.”

     I was shocked and saddened, and then, very worried for them.  How long can a marriage last when there is no communication?  Would we ever get together with them as couples again?

     Such refusal to communicate will kill any relationship.  Words spoken in anger can be very bad, and much regretted later, but that is not the worst one can do.  Sarcasm doesn’t help much in the communication process, but that also is not the worst.  Making fun of another person is not very nice, but one can do worse even than that.  The worst way one can treat another person, or we might say, the most powerful way to show contempt for them, is to ignore them, to treat them as if they are not even there, refusing to hear what they say or to respond.  This is, in effect, treating them as if they were dead, and one can’t do much worse than that.  In its milder forms, this has been called the ‘silent treatment,’ and we’ve all probably done that a time or two, hopefully for only a little while.  It is sometimes even a good idea to remain silent for a while, especially if everyone needs to cool down a bit.  But when that goes on for six weeks, it is a sign of real trouble.  The Bible doesn’t say ‘don’t ever get mad,’ but it does say, ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger.’  A relationship will die if there is no communication, whether that is due to anger, revenge, or even just plain lack of interest.

     This is also true of our relationship with God.  God has chosen to create us and communicate with us; and, he has given us the opportunity to communicate with him.  He has invited us to do so anytime.  We should not neglect so great a privilege.  We should not ignore God.  We should not by our silence, or by refusing to listen or respond, show contempt for God.

     But how does one talk to God?  I have never seen God, and you probably have not either.  We have all prayed, but most people do not hear God talk back in an audible voice.  I never have.  God does not very often speak to anyone that way.  He has spoken like that, says the Bible.  But even in the Bible God did not speak directly to very many people.  So what do we do?

     Worship is, at its most basic level, communication with God.  During the worship hour God speaks to us in a variety of ways, and we respond to God in a variety of ways.  This communication is not exactly the same as the conversations over a cup of coffee with others after the service, but worship is most definitely communication.  We might wish for something more personal, and in heaven we will have again have the open communication we were created for.  But because of our sin, God is hidden from our sight, and to worship in some form is the Biblical way to still keep in touch.  Again, because of sin, worship will always be inadequate and will always disappoint us.  But in worship we still do hear God’s Word and speak our word to God.  We communicate, and we need to do that to keep the relationship alive.

     God has spoken directly to a few people over the years.  He has even appeared to a few in various forms.  And, God was here on this earth in person in Jesus Christ for 33 years.  God has, in these ways, chosen to speak to this world in visible and audible ways.  We may not have seen or heard him ourselves; but we have, in the Bible, a full account of what God had to say to us.  The Bible is the primary way that God communicates with us now.  It is, as we say, God’s Word to us.  Some folks read the Bible every day, and some folks don’t read it at all.  But the worship service proclaims God’s Word, and we respond to that word with our hymns and our prayers.  Worship is one of the primary opportunities we have to communicate with God.  

(continued…)

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In the Bible, God speaks to us.  In prayer, we speak to God.

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Hebrews 1:1-2a  —  In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

Jeremiah 22:29  —  O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!

Hosea 4:1  —  Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land:  “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.”

Zechariah 7:12  —  They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.  So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

Psalm 68:26  —  Praise God in the great congregation; praise the Lord in the assembly of Israel.

Luke 4:8  —  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

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PRAYER BEFORE WORSHIP:

Almighty God, you pour out your grace upon all who desire it.  Deliver us, we pray, as we come into your presence, from cold hearts and wandering thoughts, that with steady minds and burning zeal we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship  (#205)

660) Just a Ritual? (part three of three)

     

     (…continued)  The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a ritual, one of the central rituals of the Christian faith.  It was started by Jesus Himself to pass on the truth of who he was and what he was about to do.  Jesus began this ritual the night before he was to die.  He was having one last meal with his disciples.  It was, in fact, the traditional Passover meal.  That very evening he would be arrested.  That very next day he would die a horrible death on the cross.  And the following Sunday he would be alive again, risen and victorious over death and the grave.  That weekend, beginning with this meal, was to be the most important in all history.  The sins of all the people who ever lived would be taken to the cross in just a few hours.  The salvation of every human being who ever lived would be at stake.  In the resurrection, death itself would be defeated, opening the way to eternal life for all who would believe in Jesus.

     Jesus had to make sure that his followers would remember what he was about to do, and remember what it all would mean.  He had to find some way to pass on these great truths, and use them to build faith, stability, loyalty, and identity into His family for all time.  So what did he do?  He started a ritual.  He took the great truth and meaning of what he was about to do, and wrapped it up in a ritual for his followers to do over and over and over again– in order to remember him and to remember what he was about to do.  “THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME,” he said.  Then he took bread and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you;” and then he took the cup and said, “Take and drink, this is my blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  Everything you need to know for salvation is all there in the few words of that simple ritual.  Jesus bled and died for you; for the forgiveness of your sins and for your salvation.  Believe that; remember that; and you shall be saved.  All you need to know and believe is right there, wrapped up in the words of that simple, but powerful ritual.

      In our sinful blindness, even such a great and wonderful gift as this can become an empty ritual.  We should not just be going through the motions.  If there is no meaning and no spirit in what you are doing, then the ritual is not what it was meant to be.  But what should we do then?   One thing we must not do is we must not disobey the words of Jesus and abandon or disregard this ritual that he so clearly commanded us to continue.  

     Rather, when we receive Holy Communion, we should listen closer to the words and think more carefully about what they mean–  ‘The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.’  When others are communing, you have time to think about Christ’s suffering and death because of you and for you.  Use that time well.  Think of how Christ’s disciples betrayed, denied, and disappointed him– and then think about how you have disappointed Jesus.  Even so, he died for you, and continues to offer you his love.  Watch as the others go forward, and keep in mind the most important thing about each of them– and that is that they need too Jesus, and that Jesus died for them also.  You may not know them, or you may know them all too well, and perhaps are not even on very good terms with some of them.  But see them now as one for whom Christ also died, and one whom Christ has forgiven, and one whom Christ has commanded you to forgive.  There might be those in the congregation you are tempted to look down on for some reason or another.  But Jesus does not look down on them.  He died for them, too.  Who are you to think you are better?  That would be a good time to ask for God’s forgiveness for that, too.  These are just examples of the kinds of thoughts that can make communion more than an empty ritual, and keep it meaningful for you each time.  Jesus died to forgive you, and there is much in us all that needs forgiving.

     And then remember, as important as ritual is, it is not the main thing.  God’s love and forgiveness and salvation in Christ Jesus are the main things.  But the ritual of the Lord’s Supper is one of the primary ways that God has chosen to communicate that love to you.

     The world is changing fast– too fast.  But a ritual is a place where things stay the same, and there’s a comfort in that.  The promise of God’s love and forgiveness is always the same for you, and offered again and again to you in that same old ritual of the Lord’s Supper. 

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I Corinthians 11:23-25  —  For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:  The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Hebrews 13:8  —  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

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Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul will be healed. 

–Prayer based on the centurion’s words to Jesus in Matthew 8:8; used in the Roman Catholic communion liturgy

659) Just a Ritual? (part two of three)

     (…continued)   The solution to the problem of ‘dead ritual’ is to find ways to put meaning back into the ‘traditional rites.’  We need not advocate the continuation of a dead habit, but the solution must not be to have no ritual at all.  Ritual is one of the important ways that we practice our faith and create our identity.

     Consider the importance of ritual and tradition in the Jewish faith.  The Jews are amazing.  They have existed as a people for almost 4,000 years, and for almost half of that time they have been without a country of their own.  In many times and places, they have had to exist without even a building to gather for worship.  They have been scattered throughout the world, they have been persecuted often, and Hitler was only the most recent of many leaders through history who tried to eliminate them completely.  Yet, no matter how scattered and persecuted they have been, they have been able to kept their identity, their Jewish faith and culture.  They did not ever disappear into other nations and cultures, as have countless other people groups who have been left without a homeland.  For example, do you know of any Ammonites, Moabites, Perrizites, or Hittites?  These are just a few other ancient people groups that were defeated in battle and pushed off their land, and then just disappeared as they married into and blended in with the conquering nation’s population.  But this never happened to the Jews.  They never blended in and have never lost their identity as a people.  They have a strong loyalty to their Jewish faith and heritage, and they have endured great suffering and upheaval.

      How have they been able to do this?  It has been by their traditions and their rituals.  Their feasts, rituals, observances, and Sabbath Day are kept meticulously by all serious Jews, and so wherever they are, they all share those common experiences and maintain their unique identity.  Even many Jews who do not even believe in God anymore, will often continue celebrating the Passover Feast because they know of the importance of that ritual in maintaining that connection to their fellow Jews.  Religiously, it is an empty ritual for one who does not believe in God.  But even then it still serves to build group identity and cohesion, and serves to pass on that identity.

      All of these Jewish traditions are very ritualized.  For example, the annual Passover meal has a specific menu and a specified table setting and even an order for conversation at the table.  The oldest son must say, “Father, why do we eat bitter herbs?”, and the father replies, “This is to remind us of the bitter sufferings of our ancestors in Egypt.”  Then to oldest son will say, “Father, why do we eat unleavened bread at this meal?,” and the father will say, “This is to remind us of the haste in which our ancestors had to flee Egypt,” because there was no time to wait for the bread to rise.  And so on through the meal.  Jews all do this just as they have been doing it for 35 centuries, and the ritual builds strength into their faith and into their community.  What is a Jew?  A Jew is someone who keeps the Passover.  Children grow up doing this every year and observing the Sabbath day every week.  Then when they are old enough, the habits are firmly established, and they cannot imagine being the one who will break the tradition after all those centuries.  And so the Jews have continued as a people, and the faith has been passed on, and the whole world knows about this small, but remarkable group of people.  Why?  Because their rituals have built in this powerful identity. 

     It is interesting to note that all the major Jewish feasts and rituals are celebrated not at church, but at home.  And while those rituals are building a solid Jewish faith and heritage, they are, at the same time building a strong family.  This wisdom applies to all families.  Sociologists find that one of the most important factors in building strong families is the presence of rituals and tradition.  These don’t have to be anything fancy, just simply those things that the family does together consistently.  For example, eating together is a most basic ritual that every family should try to together at least once a day.  For small children, tucking them into bed at night is an important ritual.  Best of all is if prayers are added to the bed-time and meal-time rituals.  By consistent worship and prayer parents are saying to their children, “This is important in my life and I hope it will be important for you too.  Continue in this habit.”

     Sociologists tell us that the more traditions and rituals there are in a family, the stronger that family will be– the more solid the relationships, the closer the members, the more loyalty to each other, and the better chance of values and beliefs being carried on.  There are no guarantees in any of this.  There are no guarantees in any part of life.  But ritual is a valuable and proven help to family life and the life of faith.  One sociologist, not even a Christian, after extensive research said, “I hate to admit it, but it is true:  The family that prays together, stays together.”  That’s the value of ritual.  It serves to keep us together, in families and in faith.   (continued…)

Family Praying Together

Jose Blanco  (1932-2008), Filipino Folk Artist

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Exodus 12:24-28  —  (After giving Moses and Aaron instructions for the first Passover meal, the Lord said):  Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.  When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony.  And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”  Then the people bowed down and worshiped.  The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.

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Even Jesus observed the traditional rituals:

Luke 4:16  —  (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. 

Luke 22:8  —  Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

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Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Master of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to this special time.

–A Passover Blessing

658) Just a Ritual? (part one of three)

     

     One of the big problems Jesus was always up against in his ministry was a religion that, in many ways, had lost its spirit.  Many of the Jews at that time were very meticulous about the proper rituals and going through all the right motions on the outside, but on the inside they were spiritually dead.  There was no life in their faith, no inner love for the Lord, and no spirit.  One time, Jesus even compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, all clean and pretty on the outside, but what was inside was dead.

     But before we look down on the Pharisees, we better remember that there is a danger here for us too.  Going to church and saying your prayers can become an empty habit, and nothing more.  You just ‘go through the motions,’ but your mind and heart and spirit are not in it.  You rattle off the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, but your mind is miles away.  You stand up and sit down at all the right times during the worship service, but your heart is elsewhere.  There is always the danger that our faith, that powerful, intense, life-changing truth, will get smothered in ritual and tradition, and finally become nothing more than a habit that has lost its meaning.

     But we must think clearly about this, because the usual way of dealing with this problem has only made things worse.  We know that ritual and tradition can become empty and dead, so we begin to react negatively to those words.  We say, “Oh, its just a ritual.”  Or we say, “Rituals and traditions are not all that important.  It is what’s in my heart that counts.”   Or, “We don’t need to be legalistic about going to church every Sunday.  A person should go to church because they feel like going, not just out of habit.”  And there is some truth in all of this.  Faith should indeed be more than habit and tradition and ritual.

     However, the solution is NOT to be found in getting rid of the rituals, habits, and traditions.  People might complain that the ritual is dead, and so they stop taking part in the ritual; and then, there is nothing left at all.  We Lutherans like to say that we are not legalistic about going to church every week; but for many, not being there every week has very rapidly led to not being there at all.  In many Lutheran churches, the only place where there is any growth is in the growing list of inactive members.  Many churches, even growing churches, face problems of declining attendance when neither the habit nor the faith is passed on to the next generation.  Ritual, tradition, and habit can become empty.  But it is deadly to end that all and replace it with nothing.  (continued…)

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Matthew 23:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Isaiah 29:13  —  The Lord says:  “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

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Almighty God, you have surrounded us by a great cloud of witnesses– those who have followed you in lives of faith in the past, and now rest from their labors.

As you strengthened them in their time, strengthen us now.

Inspire us to throw off all that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely.

As you sustained them, keep us running in the race that lies ahead,
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Amen.

613) Hear the Word of the Lord

     A sermon is supposed to explain and proclaim God’s whole Word, whether we like it or not.  If you like everything the preacher says all the time, the preacher is probably not doing his or her job– and pastors need to be careful about that.  They must resist the temptation to be only pleasant in their preaching and overlook God’s hard words.  I want to be a nice guy and well-liked by my church members, but that is a dangerous temptation for a preacher.  There are too many things in God’s word that are true and must be said, but may not appeal to anyone.  Someone once summarized the simplistic message of much modern preaching with these words: “God is nice; we should all try to be nice; isn’t that nice?”  Well, I do have to admit, that’s nice; but God’s word has more to say than pleasing thoughts.  A preacher has to be careful of being only cheerful and affirming and uplifting, and parishioners have to be careful of expecting that in a preacher.  Of course, a sermon should give comfort and hope and forgiveness, and proclaim grace and peace.  That is all in God’s Word.  But a sermon should also at times irritate and aggravate and challenge, it should at times produce guilt and discomfort, and even the fear of the Lord.  That is, unless you think that you are already, completely and fully, the kind of person God wants you to be.  I know I am not, and I am sure you aren’t either, so expect that sometimes God’s word will provoke you.  Why should anyone assume that God would never have an unpleasant word to say to sinners like us?  If you read the Bible, you will encounter God not only as a loving Father, but also as a fierce and demanding Law-giver and judge.

     C. S. Lewis’s children’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonderful story, and filled with Christian symbolism.  Four normal children from England enter into a magic land called Narnia where animals talk, and where witches and fairies and all sorts of other magical creatures come and go.  The Christ-figure in Narnia is the great lion Aslan, who is all-powerful, but must save the people from the evil one by dying for them (spoiler alert:  he rises from the dead).  Sound familiar?  When the children first hear the lion roar they are very afraid, because it made such a loud and frightening sound.  They ask one of the animals what that was.  Oh, they are told, that was The Great Aslan, a huge lion, the ruler of all of Narnia.  “A Lion?,” Lucy, the littlest child asks fearfully, “Is it a tame lion?”  Mr. Tumnus, a talking fawn, looked at her incredulously and said, “Aslan?  Tame?  Of course he’s not tame.  He is ferocious.  But he is good.”  There are seven books in the Narnia Chronicles, and as the story continues the children get to know Aslan very well, and they learn to love him deeply.  But they also learn Aslan was not one to be fooled with, and they are not eager to face him when they do wrong.  This is a wonderfully Biblical picture of God.  For me as a preacher, and for you as listeners, we have to be careful about creating a false image of a tame and manageable God.  God is a ferocious God, but he is good.  The catechism says we should fear and love God, and that is a good Biblical balance to maintain.

     I am reminded of Dr. Stensvaag, a professor I had in seminary.  He also was ferocious, but he was good.  He was nearing retirement when I was a student.  He was a crabby old Norwegian who had, by that time, put up with enough nonsense, pranks, laziness, and excuses by students; and he wasn’t in the mood to put up with anything, anymore.  I don’t think he liked dumb kids, and even though we were all graduate students in our middle 20’s, we were all dumb kids to him.  And we were afraid of him.  We did not go to class late (the door would be locked), we did not turn papers in late (there would be no mercy), and we did not talk, chew gum, or bring coffee into class.  Dr. Stensvaag was definitely from the old school, and we feared his wrath.  But he did know and love God’s Word, and he wanted us future pastors also to know and love that Word.  He could make the Old Testament come alive for us, and taught us much about how to use it in our ministry.  He was a great teacher, and I registered for every class I could get from him.  He was ferocious, indeed, but he was good.

     If we love and trust God, we can believe that even his harsh and ferocious words are intended only for our good.  Therefore, hear the Word of the Lord.

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Jeremiah 22:29  —  O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!

Jeremiah 6:10  —  To whom can I speak and give warning?  Who will listen to me?  Their ears are closed so they cannot hear.  The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.

Hebrews 12:12-13  —  For the word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

II Timothy 4:1-4  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

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PRAYER BASED ON THE THIRD COMMANDMENT AND MARTIN LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION:

O God, you command us to keep the Lord’s Day holy.  May we so fear and love you, that we do not neglect your Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

604) The Same Old Thing

         A while back an old friend told me he didn’t go to church anymore.  He said, “It’s the same old thing: ‘things are bad now,’ the preacher always says, ‘but someday Jesus will return and then everything will be better.’  I’ve heard it all before.”

     My friend knows I am a preacher, but he is a good guy and did not say this to irritate me.  I have been thinking about his words, though.  My first thought was, “Well, that is the basic theme of a lot of my sermons, too.”  That is, in fact, one of the essential teachings of the Bible.  There are other key messages, such as, we are sinners and Jesus died to forgive us for our sins; we are saved by God’s love and grace and not by our own good works; God has given us ten commandments and he expects us to obey him and live by his Word and command; we will die, but just as Jesus rose from the dead, we who believe in Jesus can rise from the dead and live with him in his heavenly home; and so on.  Like my friend’s preacher, I do repeat these same messages over and over again.  Not only that, but Sunday after Sunday we repeat a summary of all the beliefs of our entire faith in the three brief paragraphs of the Apostle’s Creed– again, the same old thing week after week.

     But ‘the same old thing’ week after week is fine with me.  Weekly worship was never intended to be the place to try out something new every time.  Rather, this constant repetition of the same old thing reinforces and strengthens our beliefs in those basics of the faith.  During the week we do not see people rising from the dead.  We believe in that promise by faith, and it takes hearing that again and again to reinforce that faith and keep it alive.  We know that we are supposed to be honest, tell the truth, be kind to others, keep our promises, and forgive others the wrong that they do us.  But things happen in our daily lives that make us want to do otherwise.  Our weekly presence in church reminds us that there is a God who is watching, and that reinforces the motivation for our obedience.

     Sermons are supposed to help with that, but the sermon is not the whole reason for going to church.  Everyone knows what a church is for, and just being there is a reminder of God and your relationship with him, of your sin and need for forgiveness, and of life and death and eternity.  My friend’s comment reminded me of the old Roman Catholic way of doing church– the same thing every time and all in Latin.  What did anyone get out of that?  Maybe not as much as if it had been in English, but they knew they were in a church, and they were there out of obedience to God, and that in the Sacrament they received Jesus Christ who died for their sins.  It was the ‘same old thing’ week after week, but it was enough to help them prepare for eternity.

     Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ, THE SAME yesterday, today, and forever.”  THE SAME.  Even the best preachers can’t improve on that.  In fact, the very next verse is a warning about always hankering after something new.  Verse 9 says, “Don’t be carried away by strange teachings.”

     We are again in Advent, waiting to hear the same message as we’ve heard every other year:  Christ comes to us as a baby in the manger in Bethlehem, and he is coming again at the end of the world.  Same old thing.  We’ve heard it all before.  But what a wonderful message it is, and what hope would we have without it?  My old friend complained about always hearing the same old message; ‘Things are bad, but Jesus is coming and then it will be better.’  That is good enough for me.  Even when we’re dead and long forgotten, there will still be for us that promise:  “Jesus Christ is coming again, for you and for me.”

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Hebrews 13:8-9a  —  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.  It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace…

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

Jeremiah 6:16  —  This is what the Lord says:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.  But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

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Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

–Katherine Hankey (1834-1911)

This poem was written in 1866 and was the inspiration for the popular hymn I Love to Tell the Story (1867)

497) Getting Serious about God

 By William Willimon, The Last Word, Abingdon Press, 2000, pages 78-80.
     Last year, on a bright summer Sunday, we worshiped with a little congregation in a fine old suburb of Berlin.  The beautiful old church was only a few blocks from the Wannsee House where, just sixty years earlier, leaders of the Third Reich met and, over coffee and strudel, planned their “final solution” for exterminating all the Jews of Europe.
     To our surprise, the small parking lot of the church was full– full of expensive cars.  When we entered the church we could see why.  There was to be a baptism.  The proud parents, grandparents, and friends had gathered toward the front of the congregation, with the baby wrapped in elegant white linen and lace.
     I doubted if the family and friends had been in church often before that bright morning; perhaps they had been there on some Christmas past, or the last time they had a child baptized.
     The pastor stepped into the chancel, welcomed the congregation warmly, and prayed an opening prayer.  At the conclusion of the prayer, as I had expected, there were three or four clicks and flashes of the assorted cameras, capturing everything for posterity.
     “Excuse me,” said the pastor, “this is not a press conference.  This is God’s church, this is a service of worship.  When we are finished, you may take all of the photos you wish, but not now.  This is what we call ‘worship.'”
      Everyone became very still.
    Then we began to worship.  After hymns, prayers, and Scripture, the pastor preached.  He began his sermon by noting that parents today face heavy responsibilities.  They must provide for the education, the safety, and the emotional well-being of their children.  Children require resources, patience, and time.
     “Unlike some previous generations,” noted the pastor, “we have the opportunity to provide generously for the material needs of our children.  We are able to buy them many things.”
     He continued, “Unfortunately, we are finding that it is much easier to give our children material gifts than to give them other gifts.  Gifts like a reason for living, a purpose for life—where can these gifts be purchased in the stores?”
     The congregation was quiet and attentive.
     “These gifts, these gifts that matter, can only come as gifts from God.  We have a word for it– grace.  Therefore we pray that God will give our children what we can never give them—grace.  We smother our children with gifts that corrupt, that deface and deform our children into superficial, materialistic adults because we are not good at giving, because we do not have the resources to give them gifts that matter.  Therefore we must pray to God to take our children, to give them gifts that matter.  We offer our children back to the God who gave them to us, and dare to ask God to form them into the image of God.”
     In a number of places the Bible claims that it is a fearful thing to be brought into the presence of the living God.  A fearful thing.  Yet on Sunday, in worship, even such fear can be life-giving.  There, on a bright summer Sunday—in a church whose sad history is a grim memory of a time, just sixty years ago, when the church had not the resources to say no when no was needed—a courageous pastor enabled us to worship a free, living, demanding God.  
     That Sunday, we truly worshiped God.
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Psalm 95:6-7  —  Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.  Today, if only you would hear his voice!…
Hebrews 10:31  —  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Deuteronomy 4:39-40  —   Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below.  There is no other.  Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.
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A PRAYER FOR SUNDAY MORNING WORSHIP:
Holy Spirit, you give life; bless this our gathering, the speaker and the hearer; fresh from the heart may the words come, by your aid; and, by your aid, let them also go to the heart.  Amen.
–Soren Kierkegaard   (1813-1855)

451) The House of the Lord

From The Clergy of America: Anecdotes, pages 28-30, 1869, J. B. Lippincott Publishers, Philadelphia

     About a half century ago a Christian church was organized in a small town in Virginia.  For some years it flourished, but after a while the pastor died, some of the members moved to different parts of the country, and others returned to their worldly ways.  The house of worship fell into decay, the doors were broken from the hinges, and birds built their nests upon the deserted walls.  The pulpit was ready to collapse, and utter desolation reigned where once the praises of Zion’s King had resounded.  Close by arose a grog-shop, and it soon became the Sunday gathering place for the young and old in the vicinity, instead of the old church.

     In that neighborhood lived a wealthy gentleman who had a son, a youth of great promise.  This youth was in the practice of spending his Sabbaths with other young men at the grog-shop above named, though he was not guilty of any outstanding immorality.  One Sabbath, as he was going to the general place of rendezvous, when passing the old meeting-house, he turned his head and saw and old gray-headed Negro sitting on one of the benches.  A degree of superstitious fear came over his mind, and an impression was produced which rendered the society at the grog-shop irksome, and he soon returned to his father’s.  On the next Sabbath, as he was again passing the old church, he saw the old Negro again, seated on a bench, leaning his head on the top of his staff.  Riding up to the window, he asked the old man what he was doing there.  “Get down, young man, and come and sit down, and I will tell you,” was the reply.  He accordingly went in and took his seat by the side of the old man, whom by this time he recognized as the aged servant of a neighboring planter.

     “Thirty years ago,” proceeded the old man with deep emotion, “I used to come to this house every Sunday to meet God and his people, and precious times we have had here.  This house used to be filled with professed Christians, engaged in the service of God, and anxious sinners, inquiring of the way to be saved.  In that old pulpit, now leaning and ready to fall, used to stand the servant of God, telling us the precious truths of the gospel of Jesus.  Now he is dead.  Some of the members have moved away, some have gone back to the world, and some are dead, while the old church is ready to fall.  Young man, I used to, in those days, come here to meet God.  I have come here today to meet him in this house, and he has met with me.  He is here now.”  The aged man then respectfully, yet earnestly, pressed upon the youth the importance of religion and the danger of neglect. “Young man, you see my head, it is white.  I was once young like you.  I am now old and shall soon die.  And you will die too.  Are you prepared?”

     The young man wept, and the old Christian proposed that they should kneel down and pray for the salvation of his soul.  They knelt down, and God was there.  During the ensuing week the young man was greatly distressed, and early the next Sabbath morning returned to the old church to meet the old Negro, and he preached to him Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  In a few days the young man obtained a hope; and by his exertions, and the blessing of God’s grace, an extensive revival of religion very soon commenced in that town.  A new church was soon organized, the old building was repaired, a minister was called, and many were converted to faith in Jesus.

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Psalm 84:12  —  Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Psalm 122:1  —  I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Psalm 86:11-12  —  Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.  I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever.

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

James 3:17  —  The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

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PRAYER on the THIRD COMMANDMENT; “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”

Dear Lord, I thank you for your great blessing which you have given us in your Word and the preaching of it.  This is a treasure that no human heart can fully appreciate.  You have especially commanded that we make use of these blessings on the Sabbath day, for your Word is the only light in the darkness of this world.  It is a Word of life and comfort that brings peace and every blessing.  Where this beloved and healing Word is not found, there are, as we daily see, dreadful and horrible darkness, error, strife, death, every misfortune, and the devil’s tyranny.  From this preserve us, dear Lord.  Amen.

–Martin Luther, adapted from Luther’s Prayers (#92), tr. by Charles Kistler (1917)