In my last blog post in this series, we talked about the Sermon, which is God’s Word proclaimed to the people. Every good sermon preaches the gospel—the good news of how God has saved us from our sin and misery through the shed blood of Christ. Having heard the gospel, now we illustrate it and take it in, as it were, through the Lord’s Supper. Also called Holy Communion, this sacrament means many things. It nourishes us spiritually for the Christian life. It unifies us as a body of Christ, the church. It assures us that we share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross. Communion is more than just about remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a sign and seal of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. So that as we eat the bread and wine, we are assured that Jesus died for us too, and that our sins are truly forgiven. As the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism say, “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his blood was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.” So we receive an assurance of our salvation through this sacred meal. Perhaps that is more than enough. But I like how Professor Jamie Smith describes this meal as having “supper with the King” (Desiring the Kingdom [Baker Academic], 197). It is a reminder that one day we will eat another meal with the risen and reigning Lord: the wedding feast of the Lamb. As Jesus says to the disciples at his Last Supper with them: “For I tell you that I will not eat again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:16) How blessed we are that God uses the basic stuff of earth—bread and wine—to assures us of the gospel and nourish us unto salvation. How blessed we are to have a King that invites us to eat with him at his table, where we are formed spiritually for his kingdom service, and assured that we belong to him. So let us lift up our hearts to the Lord through the sacrament of Communion.
The last time we reflected on worship, we talked about the Prayer for Illumination. As you may recall, we pray this prayer as we prepare to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed. Then comes the Sermon/Message. So, what is going on in this part of the worship service? Having worshiped the Lord in song and prayer, we are ready to hear God speak to us through his word, which the sermon attempts to do. This is an amazing reality, when you stop to think about it. We worship a God who speaks to his people. The question is: are we listening? The sermon is a prime time to hear God speak through his ancient word. This points to one of the significant challenges of preaching: How can an ancient text speak to a modern people? As the late Pastor John Stott explains: to build a “bridge” between the ancient and modern world through the preaching of the Word is the goal of the preacher. (See Stott’s book, Between Two Worlds.) But it is a challenging one! As Rev. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. writes, “The weekly assignment to preach the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ is daunting. Maybe half a million preachers got up to preach this past Sunday, and would like us to appreciate the hill they climbed.” (Reading for Preaching, 65) Fair enough. Preaching is a challenging task. But what is the preacher trying to accomplish? As Rev. Plantinga also says, “The preacher’s job is not just to repeat a text, but also to outfit it for the hearing of a congregation. The preacher not only does in other words what the text does. He also says in other words what it says, dressing it up or down, shaping and coloring and amplifying it in such a way that when people hear the preached text they hear God’s word to them.” (p. 3) So, this is a summary of what happens during the preaching of the word. Now we are all invited to listen to the word proclaimed on Sunday morning, so we can get God’s story into our hearts, and live it out the rest of the week. Amen?
Today we continue our reflection on worship as we talk about the Prayers of the People (sometimes called the “Pastoral Prayer” or “Congregational Prayer”). This is the time of prayer that occurs after the Offering in our church, but for some churches it occurs after the Sermon. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV Paul says, “I urge then . . . that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Accordingly, the church has prayed prayers of intercession for centuries. And this tends to be the focus of the Prayers of the People, following the example of Jesus himself, who intercedes for us. (See Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17.) Sadly, the Prayers of the People have lost prominence in many churches. In fact, not long ago I attended a worship service where there were no Prayers of the People. That’s not to say this church didn’t pray at all during the worship service, as many songs are prayers. But there were no specific prayers of intercession made for people. Sometimes the Prayers of the People are the first thing to be shortened or omitted if a worship service gets too long. But often this is the only time a church family will gather for prayer, so it should be guarded and nurtured. How will a church grow spiritually and remain unified if it doesn’t pray together? So, let us continue to pray for each other and the world each Sunday morning and beyond.
Last week we finished a sermon series on Stewardship in our church called, “The Joy of Generosity,” by Robert Heerspink. In the last sermon we were invited to give generously to the poor with cheerful hearts out of gratitude for God’s salvation through Christ. This kind of joyful giving occurs in many areas of life, but in the context of the worship service, it often happens through the Offering. Now some churches take the offering after the sermon, which is a practical way of thanking God for his Word proclaimed. But we happen to do it after the Renewal, which is another appropriate place for it, as we’ve just confessed our sin and have been reminded of God’s grace. So, out of gratitude for salvation through Christ, we give generously to God. As we read in The Worship Sourcebook, “The offering is a vital part of our response to God and God’s Word. It helps us connect our adoration for God with our life of discipleship. The money given at the offering is a token and symbol of our desire to devote our whole selves to God’s service in response to God’s loving faithfulness to us.” (241) As followers of Christ we are called to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Seems to me that giving our money to God is a practical way to offer up our bodies to God. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. It can be hard to give away our hard earned money, especially when budgets are tight. But this is a worthy sacrifice to make when we consider the sacrifice that God made in giving up his Son for us. So, let us continue giving generously to the poor with cheerful hearts out of gratitude for God’s salvation through Christ.
Our exploration of the worship service continues today as we reflect on singing our praises to the Lord. We sing a lot in our church. In fact, most of the elements in our worship service are led or accompanied by song. After being Greeted by our God in the sanctuary, and perhaps also greeting each other (the Mutual Greeting), we usually go on to sing two or three songs of praise. Why? Why do we sing at all in the worship service? Having entered the presence of the Great King, and having heard his words of blessing (Greeting), we respond with songs of praise. Singing is a response fit for a king! And it is commanded in Scripture, especially in the Psalms. For example: “Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.” (Psalm 149:1 NIV) The Lord seems to love to hear his people sing! Singing songs of praise is also commanded in the New Testament. As Paul writes, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16 NIV) Apparently singing is also a way to teach the people and get God’s word in their hearts. So there’s a long history of singing praises to God in the sanctuary. And for good reason too. First of all, God commands it. But it’s also good for us, as it gets God’s word in our hearts. As James K. A. Smith explains, singing is “tethered to identity.” “What we sing says something about who we are—and whose we are.” (Desiring the Kingdom [Baker Academic], 173) Singing songs of praise to God is a formative experience that changes us. We come to believe what we sing. So, as you can see, there are many good reasons why we sing praises to God in the sanctuary. The main thing is that we do it. “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” (Psalm 147:1 NIV)
A few months ago I talked with some roofers during a “Timmy Tuesday.” (Every Tuesday afternoon I practice the ministry of presence at a local Tim Horton’s coffee house.) Eventually the conversation moved to faith, and I learned quickly: these men were not your ordinary “Christians.” They informed me in no uncertain terms that the God of the Bible is one, and that because I believe that God is triune, I’m not truly saved. As you can imagine, we had a lively conversation about the doctrine of God. I had never heard of their particular “Christian” church. It appears to be a rather small and obscure group. But actually, their understanding of God is ancient. Originally it was called Modalism, which refers to the idea that the One God reveals himself in different “modes” as recorded in Scripture. In a way I can see where these men are coming from, as the Bible doesn’t use the word “Trinity” or “triune,” but it does refer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in various places. In an effort to discern God’s will regarding such movements as Modalism, the early church fathers carefully studied Scripture, which led them to develop the doctrine of the Trinity. Over time this doctrine became established as orthodox, and was articulated in the ecumenical creeds (i.e., Apostles’ Creed) and in our Reformed Confessions. I don’t have time to explain the doctrine in full, nor could I do that if I wanted to, as it is rather complex. The best explanation that I’ve heard regarding the Trinity is that our triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is a divine community of perfect love. As Rev. Leonard Vander Zee explains, “Each person of the Trinity is irreducibly and uniquely itself, distinct in three persons, and yet is perfectly united in being, love and purpose. It is a true community of perfect love. . . But here’s the truly amazing thing. We are invited to join the dance! It’s not just that God is Trinitarian—our salvation is Trinitarian too. . . .The triune God. . . is the original and eternal community of love out of which we were created, and this One Holy Trinity is our true and eternal home.” (The Banner, “The Holy Trinity: The Community of Love at the Heart of Reality,” Feb. 26. 2016)
Today we continue to reflect on the worship of our Triune God. In my last blog post, I talked about the Call to Worship. We are a gathered people. God calls us to worship him in Spirit and in truth. So for all those who respond to his call, God blesses. These words of God spoken near the beginning of the worship service are often called the Greeting. We haven’t always included a Greeting in our worship services, but we’re doing so more often these days, as a reminder that God himself is present with us in the sanctuary. And he reveals his presence through his word. For example: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV) As James K. A. Smith writes, “So having been called, we are welcomed. The yearning for God that is implanted in us as creatures is not an instigation to strive after a deity who refuses to be caught; rather, the Creator in whom we find our ‘rest’ is only all too eager to welcome us into communion. Like the father of the prodigal son who daily ventured to the end of the lane, looking for the wayward one to return, embracing him upon arrival, so God calls us and welcomes us a the very beginning of worship.” (Desiring the Kingdom [Baker Academic], 168) Actually, this is one of the elements of worship that struck me the first time I attended a Reformed worship service. As I heard the Greeting it became abundantly clear that God was the focus of my praise. The worship service is a gathering of Christians for fellowship, but even more it is a gathering of Christians to worship the Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we find our help and salvation. “In short,” writes Smith, “God’s welcome is a gracious way of reminding us of our utter dependence, cutting against the myths of self-sufficiency that we’ve been immersed in all week long.” (169) Let us continue to worship our Triune God!