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?
The last time we talked about worshiping the Triune God we focused on the Prayers of the People. As I said then, for some churches this prayer occurs after the Sermon. However, we generally take time for these prayers of intercession before the Message. Then we’ll often sing a Song of Preparation before hearing God’s Word proclaimed. Part of this preparation for hearing God’s word usually involves a Prayer for Illumination, which is a prayer asking God to speak to us through his word and for help in listening to the word that is given. As we read in The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive, 2013): “The prayer for illumination explicitly acknowledges the Spirit’s work in this part of worship by requesting God’s Spirit to act through the reading and preaching of Scripture. This prayer may also acknowledge that we all come to Scripture with varying degrees of faith, trust, and knowledge.” (p. 139) We pray this prayer before the Sermon because we believe that God speaks though his word, which the pastor’s message is based on. This is God’s word for us today, and we don’t want to miss it. So, we pray a prayer something like this one based on Psalm 25: “Lord God, help us to know your ways; teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth, and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation; for you we wait all day long. Through Christ our Lord. Amen!” How blessed we are to have a God who speaks to us through his word. May God help us to become excellent listeners and doers of the word. Amen?
Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I generally don’t make any formal resolutions, but I tend to be more reflective in January. How was my last year with the Lord? What is God calling me to do in the New Year? Are there any changes I need to make to facilitate my spiritual growth? These are the kind of questions I ask myself in January (and often in August, before the fall ministry season begins). And as I reflect on them, some new ideas and directions often emerge. And the one that has surfaced for me this year is based on a book I read at the end of last year by Michael Horton called, Ordinary (Zondervan, 2014). Horton is concerned that we North American Christians are always looking for the next big thing, when God most often uses the ordinary things to grow us spiritually and change the world. What sort of ordinary things? Things like the weekly communal worship service; daily Bible reading; the regular administration of the Sacraments; loving our neighbors. He argues that God prefers to use the ordinary means of grace, like the spiritual practices mentioned above, to form our faith. But being “ordinary” is not popular today, so it takes a lot of courage to become an ordinary Christian. Our culture celebrates the extraordinary (i.e., the beautiful model; the successful business person; the talented athlete, etc.). But as Horton argues, God most often works through ordinary things to change us. Christmas provides a prime example: God becoming human through Christ. The irony is that as we seek to be “ordinary Christians” God uses us to do extraordinary things, like give hope to the hopeless. So, if I had to pick a New Year’s Resolution, I would say that it is to be an “ordinary Christian.” I wonder what would happen if we all decided to become ordinary Christians this year? . . . Care to join me?
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.
Like some of you, I enjoy watching certain Olympic events. For example, last week we enjoyed watching the swimming, rugby and volleyball. I’m delighted to see gifted athletes use their gifts and abilities. We also enjoyed watching the Opening Ceremonies (OC). But as I did so, I couldn’t help but think I was watching a religious ceremony unfold. The parallels between a Christian worship service and OC were striking. Some churches have some sort of processional (i.e., Anglican). There was a long processional of athletes in the OC. After that an official spoke and welcomed the people and talked about the Olympics movement. It struck me that he acted like a sort of worship leader. Then, after the people in the stadium were good and excited, another Olympic official got up and gave a talk that sounded quite a bit like a sermon. Then various athletes and coaches were invited to make an oath that they would abide by the rules of their sport. This sounded somewhat like a Prayer of Response after the Message. And then the music began, which was probably intended to be entertainment, but it sounded a bit like worship singing. I don’t want to take this too far, but I think you can see the connections. So, what do we make of these sort of religious rituals and words in the OC? Pastor Timothy Keller helpfully explains that as Christians we are called to affirm what we can in our culture, and then expose the idols that exist. Most of us can affirm many positive aspects of the Olympics: exercise, character development, discipline, community-building, etc. But the OCC reminds me that there is a risk of taking a healthy cultural activity like sport and letting it become a potential idol. The Olympic movement preaches their own sort of gospel, which says winning a gold medal in a certain athletic event is the ultimate human achievement. The glorification of the body. There is some good to this movement and message. But it is not the gospel of grace proclaimed in Scripture. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 4: “Physical training has some value, but godliness has value for all things.” The Olympics are enjoyable and inspiring, and I intend to keep watching certain events, but let’s remember to keep first things first: the gospel and the pursuit of godliness.