Category: Worship (page 1 of 22)

God at Work: With Us

“We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.'” ~2 Corinthians 6:16

In Exodus 24, God has come down to his people on a mountain. He comes to be  near them, to be with them. He’s keeping his covenant promise to live with us, to dwell among us. And you see all three of the Church sacraments in this passage. The people have assembled together in God’s presence. It’s the Day of Assembly. And the people are worshiping. They hear the Word of the Lord and they respond, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do!” They’re making burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and sacrifices to God. The people are being washed by blood. Paul says in 1 Corinthians these people were all baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. But they are certainly being cleansed.

“Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you…’ Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel… They saw God and they ate and drank.” ~Exodus 24:8-11

God comes to his people, he cleanses us, he makes us righteous and whole, and he eats and drinks with us. We see God at the table.

But that’s not enough for our God. It’s not close enough to us. So he makes his dwelling place in the tabernacle in the desert and, later, inside the temple in Jerusalem. But that’s not close enough to us for our Father. So he comes here himself in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He tabernacle with us as one of us.

When Jesus was baptized, Luke tells us “all the people were being baptized.” Matthew says the people came “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to be baptized. And Jesus joins us in the water. He meets us there in our cleansing. God’s presence is there. The dove, the Holy Spirit, the voice of God affirming and commissioning: “You are my child, I am proud of you.”

And Jesus meets us in worship. The Gospels say he went to the synagogue regularly, as was his custom. He went to the temple, faithfully, for the corporate assemblies and festivals. He never missed. And he ate and drank with everybody — rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, sinners and saints.  He ate with Mary and Martha and tax collectors in their own houses. He set up a picnic with 4,000 Gentiles out in the wilderness. He got in trouble because he refused to discriminate. He ate with all of us!

That last night with his closest disciples, around the table, he’s eating with us. “This is my blood of the covenant,” our Lord says.

“I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God… I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” ~Luke 22:15-18

And then on the day of his resurrection, Jesus can’t wait to eat with his disciples. He makes lunch plans with two of them on the road to Emmaus and when Jesus breaks the bread, they “see” him. That evening he shows up where the apostles are, right in the middle of dinner. They’re not sure it’s him — maybe this is a ghost. So Jesus asks for a piece of fish and eats it “in their presence.” Later, when people ask Peter how he knows Jesus is alive, he replies, “Because we ate and drank with him after he was raised from the dead!”

But that’s not enough for our God. He wants to be even closer. He doesn’t want his presence with us to be limited by physical space. So he pours out his Holy Spirit on everybody. By his Spirit, God Almighty takes up residence, he tabernacles, he makes his dwelling place, inside each of us and all of us.

We see all these sacraments on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call… Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:38-47

Look, baptism doesn’t work because we believe all the right things and we say all the right words. Baptism saves us because God is there. God meets us in the water. He forgives us, he cleanses us, he unites with us in baptism. He connects us to the salvation death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord so he can live with us.

And Jesus doesn’t meet us at the table to shame us. It’s not, “Look what I had to do for you — remember it!” It’s his gift to us, this sacred time with him and with one another where God accepts us and affirms us, where he nourishes us and sustains our lives. It’s not, “I had to die for you — be grateful!” It’s, “I love you; I want to eat with you.” It’s an invitation.

And worship doesn’t work because we’ve got it figured out and we’re good at it. Worship works because God is with us and he’s working. His presence is with us. God is speaking to us by his Word. Christ Jesus is eating with us and nurturing us at the table. And the Spirit is interceding for us with words we can’t begin to describe.

Our actions don’t move God to grace; God’s grace moves him to action. These sacraments, these ordinances, are gifts of God’s grace to us. He initiated these things we do together. In baptism and at the table, together with God’s people in holy assembly, God says to us, “We can meet each other here.” That’s his promise: I will meet you here.

He left heaven to give these gifts to us. He came to us and suffered and died for us in order to be close to you. He wants to be near you. He wants to change you and make you whole. He loves you. He wants to eat with you. It’s an invitation.

In baptism and at the table and during the assembly, God promises, “I’m here. You may not see me every time, you may not feel it every time, but I’m here. You may feel far from me, but I am present with you in these special times and places. I am near you. I am cleansing you and nourishing you and changing you.”

This is God’s work in transforming encounter, in the sacraments. Even if you don’t see it or feel it, you can trust it.

Peace,

Allan

God at Work: Sacrament

Sacrament: A physical symbol that acts as a means of God’s grace by which we participate in a spiritual reality.

This Sunday at Central we’re beginning a 13-weeks Bible class series on the sacraments of baptism, communion, and the Christian assembly. Our intent is to move more toward viewing these special moments together as places and times when our God is redemptively present and seriously at work. We want to learn how to focus more on what God is doing and less on what we are doing in these practices. And the word “sacrament” is significant for our understanding and growth.

The definition above is my own version of how the Church has understood the term for centuries. Let’s explain it using each of the divine ordinances.

Baptism – The physical symbol is the water. The water is real, it’s tangible. You can see it, you can feel it, you can experience it. It’ll ruin your phone, it’ll go up your nose — it’s real. But the water also represents a reality beyond itself. It points to something bigger. The water symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. What makes baptism a sacrament is that, by God’s Spirit, we actually participate in the reality it symbolizes. In baptism, we are buried and raised with Christ Jesus. Baptism connects us to Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” ~Romans 6:3-5

Lord’s Supper – The physical symbol is the bread and the cup, the cracker and the juice. Those are concrete, real things, physical things. You can smell the juice, you can crunch the cracker; it gets stuck in your teeth, it can stain your slacks — it’s real. But the meal represents Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples. What makes the communion meal a sacrament is that, by God’s Holy Spirit, we actually are participating in the thing it represents. We are literally eating with the Lord. Somehow, mysteriously, yes, he meets us at the table and eats with us.

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” ~1 Corinthians 10:16

Christian Assembly – The physical symbol is the people in the room. It’s us. Real men, women, and children, wearing clothes, laughing, singing, whispering, chewing gum, praying; babies crying and people sneezing — it’s real. And it symbolizes something bigger. It represents the heavenly assembly around the throne of God. By God’s Spirit, we join that heavenly chorus — we are actually participating in what we can’t see yet. We are singing and praying with all the saints of all time in heaven, in the eternal presence of God. That’s what makes the Sunday morning worship gathering a sacrament.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

God is present with us, saving us, nourishing us, changing us. When we view these three ordinances as merely commands to obey, we’ll focus on what we are doing. When we understand them as sacraments, we’re better able to focus on what God is doing.

Peace,

Allan

God at Work: Ordinance

I was eleven-years-old when I was baptized on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1977 at the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ. As soon as the sermon was over and the congregation began singing “Trust and Obey,” I stepped out into the aisle from the third row where my family always sat and made my way to the front. It was a short walk — like four steps. After the song was over, my dad told the church how proud he was of me and he took my confession.

“Allan, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”

“Yes, I do.”

We both walked behind the stage into a dressing room where I put on a weird little nightgown thing, my dad shoved me into the water, and I was baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When I came up out of the water, the church began singing “Happy, Happy, Happy.” We didn’t clap after baptisms back then, our congregation always sang this awful song. It’s a horrible song — I hope you don’t know it. As my dad and I were walking up the steps out of the water, he looked at me and asked, “How do you feel?”

I replied, “I feel perfect.”

And I did.

The following Sunday I took my first communion. And I felt like everybody was watching me. My mom and dad, my sisters and my grandmother on that third pew, my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us — it was a big deal. And when that tray came down the row, I pinched off the tiniest little bit of cracker that was humanly possible — I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know what I was doing — and I drank that little sip of grape juice. I kept my head down, didn’t make eye contact with anybody and thought about Jesus. Shhhhhhh. We’re thinking about Jesus.

And I felt like a Christian. I felt like I belonged. The Lord’s Supper is what you do when you’re a Christian. Every single Sunday. That’s why you go to church even when you’re out of town on vacation: so you can take communion. That’s why if you have to leave church early for work or a special event, you only leave after communion. In fact, communion is such a big deal, if you miss Sunday morning, we’ve left it prepared for you in a little side-room on Sunday night where you and four or five others can sit down and eat it while three deacons stand there and watch you.

But we never missed worship. Every time the doors were open — that was us. We were right there on that third pew worshiping. All five acts of worship: singing, praying, preaching, Lord’s Supper… and… announcements? I can’t remember. Do not forsake the assembly. It doesn’t matter if the Cowboys are in the Super Bowl or if CBS is showing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer back to back, we’re going to church.

Because that’s what Christians do. Those are the ordinances, the commands. Especially those big three: baptism, communion, and the worship assembly. We do those things. And we go to great lengths to make sure we do those things in the right way at the proper time using the correct words. And it didn’t take long for me to learn how to do exactly what we do.

But I’m not sure I ever seriously considered what God is doing when we are doing what he wants us to do. Where is God? How is he involved? What is God doing?

Oh, I suppose if you had asked me back then I would have come up with an answer.

What was God doing when you were baptized? Well, he was watching from above. And when I came up out of the water, he forgave all my sins and wrote my name into his book of life. He saved me. He checked the box next to my name. My obedience pleases God.

What’s God doing when you eat the Lord’s Supper? Well, he’s with us, he’s present in a vague and spiritual way. And he’s watching me. He’s happy that I’m thinking about his Son. My sincerity pleases God.

What about during worship? When Christians get together to sing and pray and read the Bible, where’s God then? Well, he’s listening to our praise, he’s soaking up the songs. He’s the audience of one. My performance pleases him.

We probably think individually about these three things: baptism, communion, and the assembly. I think that’s our tendency. This is about God and me. It’s personal. But they are all three actually communal in nature. They have more to do with the community. We also think and talk about these things primarily as commands we obey, ordinances we are obligated to fulfill. But they are all three more fundamentally about what God is doing. These are all communal moments, these all happen when we’re together. But, more than that, these are moments when God meets us, when he is especially present with us and works on us, changing us more into the image of Christ.

This Sunday our adult Bible classes at Central are launching into a thirteen-week series on these divine ordinances. What we’re trying to do as a church is move more toward viewing these three areas as encounters with God and less as things we’re just commanded to do. We want to participate in these things and experience these things more and more as means of grace, or avenues by which God meets us and blesses us with spiritual gifts. The theological term is sacrament or sacramental.

Now, the word “sacrament” can mess some of us up if we don’t slow down and talk about it. The word “sacrament” carries some baggage with some of us. We think it’s a Roman Catholic thing or it’s about magic words or secret powers. It doesn’t mean any of those things. But the term is vitally significant for our understanding of what’s happening during baptism, communion, and the assembly.

Because “ordinance” means we do something. “Sacrament” means God does something. “Sacrament” means God is at work.

We’ll define “sacrament” and flesh out the practical implications for us in this space tomorrow. Stay with me.

Peace,

Allan

What Have You Heard?

In wondering this week whether Hebrews 12:18-24 has anything to say to us today about what happens in corporate worship, I’ve recounted three of my most memorable and impactful worship experiences: in Jerusalem in 2007, at the Tulsa Workshop in 2004, and at the first “4 Amarillo” service in 2013. Of course, our attitudes and our expectations have a lot to do with our worship experiences. But there’s also a whole lot happening in us, to us, and through us every Sunday, regardless of our own individual engagement. That’s what the preacher in Hebrews is talking about.

I point to my worship experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because God was there. But we can say the same thing about the place where we worship God together every Sunday. We gather with the saints who’ve gone before. We gather in a building that exists because a group of Amarillo Christians started worshiping together in 1908. We stand on the shoulders of the older Christians in the room. All of that is evidence that God himself was here! He met with his people right here!

I point to my experience in Tulsa because I felt at that time God is here. He’s speaking to me here. But we can say the same thing about worship in our church. The forgiveness and the restoration that happens here, the baptisms and the prayers, the salvation and the meal, the reconciliation, the changed lives, the Christian service — all of that is proof that God himself is here and present and active with his people.

I point to that “4 Amarillo” assembly because it felt like we were truly worshiping in the experience of the perfect will of God. It felt like heaven. But the same is true in our church every Sunday. When we come to God together in his holy presence with no fear and no guilt, that is God’s will for all of eternity. “I will dwell with you” — that’s his covenant — “I will live with you and I will be your God and you will be my people.” What better place to experience that than in worship?

God’s everlasting will is to bring his people to perfection or completeness. To do that, our sin had to be dealt with totally and completely, our consciences needed to be purified all the way through, so our lives could be brought into joyful conformity with God’s design. Jesus has done that. His blood has purchased and established that sin-forgiving covenant that gives us God’s holiness and righteousness and peace.

That’s what’s so wonderful! That’s what makes the Gospel such good news!

If we’re in Christ, we’re perfect. If we’re in Jesus, we have no sin, no guilt. The Scriptures say in Christ we have fully met the righteous requirements of the Law. So when we come to God, it’s not to a physical, earthly mountain we can see. We come to Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the true spiritual dwelling place of the Lord. We come to angels and heavenly saints and we come to God himself — not just lights and noise and smoke and a thundering voice. Through our perfect mediator, we’ve got full and complete access to God in heaven, not on an earthly mountain, but on his heavenly throne.

And we’re not afraid. We come to him in boldness and confidence, right into his presence, together, because we come as perfect and sinless and holy. No fear. Instead, overflowing with thanksgiving and joy. Not darkness and gloom and dread and guilt, but with celebration and song and praise.

How do we know? Because that’s what we’ve heard.

How was church? Well, what have you heard?

Peace,

Allan

Looking for the Wrong Things on Sunday

Until the day our faith becomes sight, until that day of glory finally comes and we see with our eyes what God in Christ promises us is true, we’ve got to lean on the Word of the Lord. We’ve got to trust and depend on the Word of God. The preacher in Hebrews opens up his sermon by saying, “God has spoken to us. We must pay more careful attention to what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift away.”

What we have heard is that there’s a giant party going on right now in heaven. All the angels in their everlasting glory, all the saints in their eternal holiness, feasting with great joy in the heavenly realms around the throne of God. It’s a never-ending festival. The angels are fluttering around in joy, the saints are swinging from the chandeliers. And on Sunday mornings the floor opens up and the whole scene falls down to earth in the middle of our Christian worship.

I can’t see it. I can’t always feel it. But I’ve got to believe it because we have heard the Word!

But have you seen the people I’m sitting with at church? They don’t look or act like angels to me.

I know. I wish we could all be like Elisha’s servant — remember? The Lord opened his eyes so he could see the invisible realities. He saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire and the Lord’s army all around them, protecting them. I think, though, that if we could see and touch what’s actually happening around us in here — what’s happening in us and through us and all around us on Sunday mornings in church — it would absolutely blow our minds.

That day is coming. In the meantime…

How was church?

I was worshiping with all of heaven’s angels around the throne of God. It was awesome.

How was church?

It was packed! There were millions and millions of Christians there, all of God’s people — past, present, and future. It was awesome.

How was church?

I ate the communion meal with my grandmother. She finished her race 17-years ago and she’s with the Lord, but I eat and drink with her every Sunday. And it’s awesome.

I know this is not easy. I’m not telling you it’s easy. I’m telling you when we walk into the church worship center on Sunday mornings, we’re looking for the wrong things. Close your eyes. Don’t trust your eyes. Your eyes are deceiving you. Hear the Word.

You have not come to the worship leader and the songs we sing; you have come to God!

You have not come to the preacher and the sermon we preach; you have come to God!

You have not come to a church building because the elders have asked you to; you have come to God!

You have not come to an obligation or a responsibility, you have not come to a Church of Christ or any particular brand of Christianity, you have not come to videos or bulletins or parking lots or crackers and juice; you have come to God and to Christ and to angels and saints and to the salvation blood of Jesus that gives you direct and guilt-free access to all of the Father’s eternity in heaven right now!

Somehow we’ve got to slip through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia so we can learn to experience and feel what’s really happening. God is here! You have come to God!

Peace,

Allan

You Have Come to God

I think Christians were having worship service disappointment issues even back when Hebrews was preached/written. There have probably been worship issues for every generation of God’s people that go all the way back to expectations that we set after that very first worship assembly at Mount Sinai.

That first worship service was crazy awesome! There’s thunder and lightning and smoke. God himself appears in a great fire. There’s the sound of a heavenly trumpet. The whole mountain is shaking. The people are trembling. God’s people are in the holy presence of God with all the smells and bells you would expect. This is a worship experience you can see and hear and smell and touch — something for all the senses!

How was church? Did they bring the Word?

Yeah, the Ten Commandments! Everybody came forward! They didn’t even get through one verse of Just As I Am!

I think this little church in the middle of the first century in the Roman Empire longed for that kind of worship. They wanted a worship experience where something happens — something transcendent, something powerful, something that moves me. Something.

These Christians were gathering on Sundays to read or recite from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, to sing a song, to share a meal, and to pray. And I wonder if some of them think, “You know, they do worship better at the old temple in Jerusalem. The priests in the decorated robes, the smells of the incense, the sounds of the Levitical musicians and choirs, the dramatic spectacle of the sacrifices — now that’s a church service!”

Or, maybe, “My friends seem to have a really good worship experience at the pagan temple down the street. There’s rituals and chants and dancing and music and blood and sex and it’s loud and there’s lots of energy. Something happens there.”

The preacher in Hebrews knows these Christians are growing weary with worship. Some of them have stopped coming. They don’t go to church anymore. Or, not like they used to. So he reminds them what’s really happening at church. He tells them again about the unseen realities of what’s going on at worship. There’s more here than meets the eye. And he wants his church to hear it.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

How was church? How was church?!!?

You have come into the presence of God! And when you assemble with the people of God in the presence of God, things happen! Eternal things. Divine things. Salvation things. Whether you feel your pulse race or not, whether you feel moved or not, you have come into the presence of God! And there’s more going on than you can see or touch.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty — the conviction — of things we can’t see. So even if you see and feel nothing at worship, you have come into the presence of God.

The word is proselay in the Greek, to come or to approach. It’s the same word the preacher’s been using the whole sermon. “Let us come to the throne of grace with boldness (4:16). Christ Jesus is able to save all those who come to God through him (7:25). Let us come to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith (10:22). And now this, finally: You have come to God (12:23)!

How was church? Listen and I’ll tell you about church. You can’t see it, but God is at church and Jesus is at church and the angels and saints. And it’s eternal and powerful and it’s personal and relational and don’t you want to be a part of that?! Don’t you want to belong to that? Yes, be a part of the worshiping community of God’s covenant people! Why would you want to be anywhere else?

Peace,

Allan

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