My post for the summer blog tour “Love in Action” features an interview with Terrell Smith. I met her while visiting First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land Texas. I was totally captivated by Terrell Smith who used American Sign Language to interpreted the service for those hearing impaired in attendance that day.
As she signed with a wonderful sense of timing and musical feeling conveyed in each song, I thought “God thru the Arts!” and what a wonderful way to feature the blessed heart of this dear woman who heard God’s call and answered. I hope this little interview will inspire you to start your own program or maybe step out and take a chance when you hear God’s voice calling you to Love in Action!
Dear Terrell, I was very impressed last Sunday when I watched you sign the praise songs. Can you tell us just a little about who you are and about your special ministry?
My name is Terrell Smith, and I’ve been attending First Colony Church of Christ, in Sugar Land Texas for about 18 years. I help interpret for the deaf in our first service on Sunday mornings, and it’s been a joy to become involved in serving in this manner.
I was particularly impressed with the musicality of your signing. I could feel the emotion behind every word. Can you tell us a little about your musical background? Was there someone who was a big influence on you?
Using facial expressions to convey the meaning of the message is part of American Sign Language, so we are “supposed to” convey emotions as we interpret. I do have a musical background, though; I took piano lessons for many of my elementary years, was a percussionist in middle school and high school, sang in the choir in high school, and I played with a local community orchestra for about a decade. My biggest influence I would have to say was my main ASL teacher at church. Yvonne Butler is deaf, and she “sings” beautifully through her signing. I have learned so much from her and others as I have tried to learn the language.
I’m interested in hearing about the process for learning to sign for the deaf in worship service. How long did it take you to feel comfortable enough to interpret a church service?
When I came to First Colony, I had very little background in sign language. I knew the ABC’s and a few “church words” like Jesus, Christ, Lord, and love. We had a couple of ASL classes through the first several years I worshiped there, and knowing some basics helped me to learn a great deal just by watching the interpreters on Sunday mornings.
After about 8-10 years of attending classes and watching and learning, Yvonne began a class for a few of us on Wednesday evenings to specifically learn to sign/interpret the songs in our worship. After another year, I think, I felt like I knew enough to be able to begin to interpret a song or two in our church services. From there, my skills continued to grow until I began to interpret all the songs, prayers and announcements in the worship service. Eventually, I also began to interpret the lesson being taught. The strange thing about this is I NEVER thought I would be doing this type of thing. When I said that out loud, I think God laughed… It’s been a long process, and it’s really nothing I did. God was always at the heart of it. I just held on and tried to not get in His way!
I understand what you mean. I never thought I would want to do public speaking. Growing up, I always thought speaking in front of others looked very scary and I was happy to let others be up front, but now I am leading retreats and speaking at workshops. God is always working in surprising ways if you let him. Do you have a bible passage that speaks to the heart of your ministry?
When I read the passage in Matthew 19 where Jesus tells his disciples to let the little children come to Him, I think of some of the people I’ve met through our deaf ministry. Many were not brought to church as physical children, and I sense in them a sort of “spiritual childhood” and with that comes a pure hunger for God’s word. They want to learn about God, and I think Jesus welcomes them as He did the little children in that passage. Thinking on this I realize weekly, “What a blessing to be able to help them get to know Jesus!”
Can you tell us a little more about the specific needs you have noticed while working with the hearing impaired? What do you mean by the “spiritual childhood” you are witnessing as you interpret for them in worship?
In the past, because they might have been considered distracting to others, some parents were not comfortable bringing hearing impaired children to church. And it can also be difficult to find a church that has sign language interpretation for these young ones. Thus, a great number of these precious souls don’t know the familiar Bible stories those of us in the hearing world learned in our Sunday school classes. It’s wonderful to get to share these beloved Bible stories with many of them for the first time.
Do you have a specific story of someone who has been blessed by what you all are doing at First Colony Church of Christ?
I think I’m the one who’s been blessed! I have learned so much about grace since getting involved in our deaf ministry. Our deaf brothers and sisters at First Colony know that I am trying my best and that I make mistakes. They gently correct and encourage me, and they “give me credit” for trying. It’s humbling and a wonderful example of God’s grace!
In closing, can you share with us what surprised you the most about working with the deaf community?
I am amazed at God’s power. That’s such a silly thing to say for someone who grew up going to church and has always believed in God. But I so surprised that I am involved in this at all and that I have been given the opportunity to serve in this way. As I said, I didn’t do this at all! God is at work, no question about it. And I am so very thankful!
God thru the Arts: www.godthruthearts.com
Jennifer teaches flute to children and adults of all ages and levels of experience and has been a part of Shepherd College & Mount Saint Mary’s University faculty and Millbrook Orchestra. Currently she is adjunct faculty at Frederick Community College .
Her work in the community also includes an active lecture series called: God thru the Arts where she works to link the spiritual connections throughout all arts. Author of My Dancing Day: Reflections of the Incarnation in Art and Music and The Joyful Sound: Reflections on the Life of Christ in Art and Music and has been a speaker at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures in Malibu CA, Tulsa Workshop in Tulsa OK, David Lipscomb University Summer Celebration in Nashville TN, Rochester College Streaming in Rochester Hills Michigan and Fort Detrick Prayer Breakfast in Frederick MD.
Churches of Christ have their origins in what is commonly referred to as the “Restoration Movement” of the 1800’s. The movement’s name comes from its goal of “restoring New Testament christianity” or “restoring the New Testament church”. The pioneers of the movement were reacting to the excesses they witnessed in existing denominations. Their solution was to begin anew by returning to Scripture and following the pattern they found there, rejecting subsequent human innovations.
This blog post from 2009 still reflects some of my reservations about this goal of restoration. Since I’ve written them there, I won’t write them here.
Part of my reluctance to embrace the goal of restoration stems from the image it paints for me of a museum. I picture the church as an antique on display, or as Colonial Williamsburg, or Port Arthur. It becomes a reminder of how things used to be. These sites teach valuable lessons. Mostly they teach us to be thankful we didn’t live back then. They’re interesting to visit, but no one wants to live there.
Perhaps you’ve experienced a church like that. It has restored everything from the first century beautifully. It worships precisely in the approved manner and is ruled by correctly authorised men. It’s an interesting place to visit, but not a place you’d want to live.
Then it occurred to me… or maybe I read it in a book or heard it somewhere…
There are several examples in the Bible where Jesus, the apostles, or a prophet restore life to someone. That last phrase caught my attention, “restore life to someone“. Without dismissing the need to worship God in ways meaningful to Him, or to have godly church leaders, the power of the early church was not in its forms and structures. The power of the first Christians became evident when the Holy Spirit infused them with new life that they shared with others.
Jesus restored life to people in numerous ways.
At times Jesus literally raised the dead. He also touched the quarantined. He healed the sick. He ate with the outcasts. He welcomed the isolated. He gave hope to the hopeless. He loved everyone.
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10
Jesus ultimately died to give us the gift of new life. He rose from the grave to defeat death and give us the hope of eternal life.
I’m proud to be part of a Jesus movement with the goal of restoring life to those who hurt and live without hope or purpose.
I don’t live to argue over pews vs chairs, instruments vs a cappella, one communion cup vs many, or hymns vs contemporary music styles. Those conversations have a place. I live to receive and then to give life.
The biblical story begins and ends with a Tree of Life. Jesus described himself as the Bread of Life while offering Living Water to those with a thirst.
May we each choose to be life givers and speakers.
Matt Dabbs wrote a valuable article with a similar theme HERE. Here’s a snippet, “We can have churches that haven’t converted a single non-Christian for years, decades, and yet their failing on Jesus’ very obvious command to go and make disciples somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being the true church.“
I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.
This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.
One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.
So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.
Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.
The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.
From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”, and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.
Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both… it’s easy to mistake one for the other.
Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.
And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.
I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.
God likes colour.
God likes details.
God likes surprises.
God likes creativity and imaginative design.
God likes grand statements, and intricate whispers.
God likes to reveal himself, and to work invisibly.
We know these things because God reveals himself in Creation. Through nature God shares the things he likes with the people he loves.
This past Sunday our church held our annual Worship in the Park. Each year we enjoy lots of good food and games for all ages. We also worship in the open air surrounded by a wall of trees… and harassed by numerous insects.
My text this year was Isaiah 66:1-2. In preparation for this special service I started reading a new book by Hicks, Valentine & Wilson titled Embracing Creation. I’ve really enjoyed it so far as the authors draw attention to God’s love not only for humanity, but creation as a whole.
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
Could you build me such a resting place?
My hands have made both heaven and earth;
they and everything in them are mine.
I, the Lord, have spoken! Isaiah 66:1-2a (NLT)
The opening lines of this text describe heaven and earth (Creation) as God’s self-built temple or dwelling place. He then contrasts this with any temple or dwelling humans could construct for him.
When we think of Creation as God’s temple, the next logical step is to recognise Eden as his Holy of Holies. Eden provided the focal point for God’s presence and there he communed with humanity.
If God created the universe as his temple, it gives meaning to psalms such as Psalm 148 that call upon all nature to praise God. The temple is a place of praise and honor.
Science does a wonderful job of telling us how bird songs reflect mating calls, or statements regarding territory, or warnings of danger. But Christians also view the world through a more poetic eye. We recognise that birds sing not for our enjoyment, but to praise their Maker.
As the temple of God, Creation’s well-being correlates with humanity’s relationship with God. In Genesis 3 Creation bears the curse resulting from Adam & Eve’s sin.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field. Genesis 3:17b-18
In Isaiah 55 God invites his people to renew their covenant with him. If they will return to him he describes the consequences. Notice how God’s Temple, Creation, rejoices as joy and peace once more characterise the relationship.
You will live in joy and peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.
It is then unsurprising that Revelation describes nature responding in torment to the affliction of God’s people. As those worshiping in God’s temple are persecuted…
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Revelation 6:12-14
I’m not suggesting that every natural tragedy can be paired with a sin. Rather, highlighting how God views the created world. I believe that if we walk through life and walk through nature regarding it as God’s temple, we’ll find ourselves seeing God around us. I believe we’ll interact differently with nature when we have the attitude that we’re engaging the temple of God. How we regard nature influences how we worship God.
Thus in the closing scene of Scripture we again find God coming to dwell upon the redeemed new heaven and new earth. The temple has been purified and humanity is once more invited into the Holy of Holies as God shares what he likes with the people he loves.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” Revelation 21:2-3
You’ve seen those guys on TV, on TED talks, at big churches, and conferences. You know who I mean. They exude confidence as they stand on the stage and speak on a topic in great depth and at great length… without using notes!
Well, that’s probably not you… and it’s certainly not me.
3 Bonus Benefits of Preaching With Notes
- I provide copies of my manuscript to members who are hard of hearing. I’ve received a lot of appreciation for this.
- The person running the powerpoint knows exactly when to hit that key.
- If you’re struck with a stomach bug on Sunday morning, your fill-in has a sermon to preach.
- You’re less likely to say stuff you regret!
- Get the wording precise on those statements you think should be tweeted!!
Here are some tips to encourage the note-bound and guide those preachers making the transition to the blessed assurance of preaching with notes:
- Read Other People’s Notes
That’s right, for all the teaching the prophets, apostles and Jesus himself carried out, all that remains are the notes from their sermons. Do you remember Apollos? Acts 18:24-26 tell us that Apollos was “educated, knew the Scriptures, and spoke boldly with fervor”. Guess what we don’t know about Apollos. There’s no record of his sermons, because he didn’t use notes! So start by studying the notes God’s given us. [Some people refer to these notes as the “The Bible”.] Ensure you pray as contemplate these notes.
- Outline Your Sermon
Sure, some speakers can make their talk work with just a text and a destination, but that’s not you… or me. By outlining your sermon you ensure you lay the necessary foundation for the application. In our excitement preachers face the temptation to skip from A to C. We need to lead our congregations carefully through the logical progressions. This is also a good time to pray over the sermon you’re constructing.
- Write Your Sermon
Truly the most vital element of preaching with notes is writing the notes. The notes must be written… or typed. They cannot be imagined or summarised with dot points. A crucial aspect of this step revolves around word choice. Writing notes allows the preacher to wade deeply into his lexicon to unearth the words and phrases which adroitly expound the topic in question. However, one should approach this phase cautiously as many an erudite speaker has lost his message through lexical decisions that leave the audience perplexed. The ultimate goal of this process is to select familiar words that communicate great truths efficiently. Prayer is recommended at throughout this step.
- Practice What You Preach
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that practice is only for those attempting to memorise their notes. Practice allows the preacher to speak his sermon rather than reading it. We don’t want reading. The congregation doesn’t want reading. No one wants reading! Don’t worry, you’ll still be preaching from notes, but this step allows you to raise your eyes to the audience and make eye contact with those listening. During this step it’s valuable to pray for those who’ll be hearing the message, as well as to request divine guidance in its delivery.
- Confidently Preach Your Sermon
With your manuscript in front of you now you can speak clearly to your congregation. The presence of your notes doesn’t eliminate the option of speaking from the heart as the Holy Spirit moves you throughout the sermon. The notes serve as a compass to keep you on track. They remind you of phrases and word choices you’ve made during your preparation. And they demonstrate to the church that you’ve worked this week getting ready for Sunday.
I consider myself blessed to work in a church fairly evenly distributed between white and black members. As an international preacher I feel at home in this small church with other members and students from Canada, Jamaica, Panama, China and India. The world seems a little smaller, and God’s kingdom seems considerably larger, when we sit in a room together.
Each year we celebrate our diversity with what we call HARMONY Sunday. I’ve previously described our weekend events HERE.
Lawson Rd Church of Christ became racially integrated in the early 1990’s, long before I arrived here. This integration occurred when of a group of African-American members left another local Church of Christ and joined the predominantly white Lawson Rd Church of Christ.
As part of our weekend events our guest speaker facilitated a roundtable discussion on Saturday evening. A group of about 15 people from a variety of backgrounds met to share and discuss our life experiences.
The speaker’s theme for the weekend was “Church as Family”. His first question was simply, “How big was your childhood family, and would you describe it as closeknit?”
Bear in mind that this church has been racially integrated for over 20 years. We’ve formally celebrated racial diversity five times over the last 8 years encouraging communication and bridging cultural divides. Yet as we took 30 minutes to go around the circle and answer this simple question it felt as though something sacred took place.
In this moment of disclosure no one confessed any sin. No one invoked the spirit of Dr King with emotional speeches. No one made any earth shattering revelations. But the simple question allowed us to deepen our relationships with each other. We gained a glimpse into the events and people that formed each of us into who we are today.
In some cases people who had worshiped together and attended Bible class together for a decade or more now know one another more deeply because we took the time to sit down together and talk.
If we’re to be God’s family together. If we’re to love one another. If we’re to demonstrate acceptance and grace to the world. We must first take the time and effort to know one another.
I find that in talking to friends and members of color, I often want to immediately address bigger issues of justice. Saturday night’s simple question reminded me that before addressing issues I need to simply know my brothers and sisters. I was reminded that before addressing my church on national issues I need to remind them to eat, play, and work with those whose story and culture differs from their own.
I needed to be reminded that even heart surgery begins with an incision that breaks the skin.
Sometimes I feel woefully unequipped to minister in a racially diverse congregation. There are so many issues for which I can’t provide any deep or radical solutions. I know we have an opportunity to make a difference but identifying the next step is difficult. So I often resort to the simple advice, “take time to talk to someone of a different race/culture than yours.” It’s not creative. It’s not profound. Saturday night reminded me that it’s still necessary.
Now, who can you share a coffee with as we break down dividing walls together? Go ahead, make that call, send that text, now!
Shortly after encountering members of the Church of Christ I was introduced to the sound of silence. Specifically, I met the silence of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. I was informed that because these verses don’t mention musical instruments Christians are not authorised to include instruments in their corporate worship. We know this because someone determined that silence in Scripture is prohibitive.
While I’ve spent most of the last 20 years worshiping without instrumental accompaniment, I’ve never found silence to be a very good teacher. Arguments over how we should interpret silence seem largely ironic.
I have come to appreciate the words found in these verses and their implications for the worship of the church. Today, I’ll focus on Ephesians 5:18-20.
As I spent time in these passages I first observed that both passages describe worship to God motivated by gratitude. “Sing… always giving thanks to God the Father for everything…“. How would our worship practices and experiences change if we committed to “start with gratitude“? I believe focusing on thanksgiving would help us avoid the consumeristic mindset of approaching worship with questions such as, “How does it make me feel?” “How does it benefit me?”
The next discovery I made was that my worship isn’t only directed toward God. I don’t know the percentage distribution, but verse 19 tells us that we “speak to one another” with our songs while singing to the Lord. I’ve previously expanded on this point in this blog post.
Most recently in reading A Gathered People I realized that these three verses in Ephesians make an audacious claim concerning the church’s worship. I’ve written previously about the special presence of God when the church assembles to worship. I now feel like I have a greater appreciation for what this means.
Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:18-20 NLT)
According to Ephesians 5:18-20, we come to worship filled with the Holy Spirit. We sing to Jesus our Lord. We give thanks to the Father through Jesus. The whole Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is present and involved in our worship each Sunday morning.
Worshiping God with my church family isn’t a Sunday routine or obligation I roll out of bed each week to fulfill. When the church assembles each Sunday morning God in three persons pervades the room, filling all the spaces within and around his people. We gather with God’s people not only to offer worship to God-up-there, but to experience the presence of God-among-us.
God’s presence doesn’t overwhelm us. His presence among us isn’t confirmed by fire, smoke, or a brilliant light. His presence doesn’t begin when the song leader steps to the mic.
No, we bring God’s presence with us as we live Spirit-filled lives that include times of corporate worship. We experience God’s presence in worship as His people encourage us, as our songs speak to us, as Christ serves us at His table, and as His Word challenges and soothes us.
For these reasons I find the words of Ephesians 5:18-20 far more compelling than the silence of those verses. What a tragedy we experience when we allow debates over silence to drown out the wonderful teachings of the words!
Why do you come to worship God with your church family each week? There are many possible answers, but I hope that one of your reasons is to experience the wholeness of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And having worshiped the Three, May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Sun and moon,
and all of you bright stars,
come and offer praise.
and the water
above the highest heavens,
come and offer praise.
In Psalm 148 Creation explodes with praise for God. In v13 we’re told, “The glory of God is greater than heaven and earth.” Creation cannot contain the praise due God and the psalmist calls upon the angelic hosts and the highest of heavens to join in the chorus of praise.
Yet it’s possible that you might be worshiping God too much.
(While I’ve previously written about expanding worship beyond the Sunday morning worship service, in this context I’m focusing upon the church’s corporate worship.)
Over the years I have noticed that so much time has been spent discussing the spaces between the words that we’ve forgotten what the words actually say!
Examine this phrase from Colossians 3:16, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit“.
Here are some questions I wish we’d spend more time discussing about this verse,
- “But I thought our worship was always directed to God?”
- “How is singing teaching?”
- “How is singing admonishing?”
- “How can we make our singing more instructional?”
- “What does it mean to have wisdom as we sing?”
- “Can hymns not written by apostles be ‘from the Spirit’?” “Does this mean they’re inspired like the rest of the Bible?”
In my experience, churches have focused so much on singing toward God that we overlook the way the words and music impact the emotions and faith of those hearing the singing. (Although, even as I write this I can think of many worship leaders who carefully consider how particular songs, lyrically and musically, fit specific places within the worship service.)
How can we better consider one another while singing?
When we direct our entire focus toward God during congregational worship, we fail to allow the songs to challenge the status quo in our lives. I believe this is one of the strong arguments supporting the inclusion of solos or other “performances” into our worship. Often people are quick to dismiss these as entertainment rather than worship, but I believe this step overlooks the need for us to listen, not only during prayer and preaching, but also to our singing.
The instruction to “speak to one another in song” requires that we also “listen to one another’s songs”. Sometimes this listening requires us to stop singing, to focus on the words and experience the music.
When we listen to our songs they often challenge the way we relate to those around us. A regular favorite at my church is the song “Love One Another”. Yet I wonder if singing that songs prompts us to look around the room and consider who needs to know they’re loved today. We sing songs of throwing out lifelines, but do we then make a point of talking to guests?
When we sing, “Bless the Lord O my soul… For all Your goodness I will keep on singing, ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.” and we know the man in front of us lost he wife last month and is struggling to think of one reason to keep on singing. Do we put a hand on his shoulder? Do we let him know afterwards that we know it must be tough for him to sit through that song?
What if we set a goal every Sunday of having each song prompt us to think of a specific person? Would our worship experience be different? Would the worship experience of others be different, richer?
I wonder if we don’t too often picture a profound experience of worship as eyes closed, hands raised, just me and God, feeling his love. No doubt there’s a place for that. But just as worship must encompass more than Sunday, Sunday worship must encompass more than “me and God”.
If you’re interested, you can listen to my Palm Sunday sermon HERE.
Although I like to make a big deal of Easter, I haven’t always preached a special sermon on Palm Sunday. To be honest, I don’t really understand the events of Palm Sunday. Beyond that I have a hard time finding a contemporary application of Palm Sunday. Sure, it’s an interesting event, but do I really need to preach on it every year just because it appears on the calendar?
Here are my questions, with a little commentary.
1. Why did Jesus want a parade?
Couldn’t have Jesus just walked through the gates in the midst of the other pilgrims without drawing attention to himself? He could still have gone to the temple the next day and taught and throne over tables. None of his subsequent actions seem contingent upon this grand entrance.
Remember that Jesus initiated this parade by instructing his disciples to go and get a donkey. He must have had a purpose in making a public entrance, but I don’t understand what it was.
I preached on Sunday that his choice of riding a donkey was a humble choice. Wouldn’t he demonstrate greater humility by cancelling the parade and just walking through the gates?
If I’m grasping at straws, perhaps his grand entrance was a PR stunt to let the people of Jerusalem know he was there and invite them to hear him speak at the temple the next day. According to Luke 19:39 Jesus at least caught the attention of some Pharisees. Perhaps they did the rest of the marketing for him!
2. Was Jesus Intentionally Fulfilling Prophecy?
Many of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled were beyond his control. For example, he had no say in where the Messiah would be born, or which tribe he was from.
“Your king has won a victory,
and he is coming to you.
He is humble
and rides on a donkey;
he comes on the colt
of a donkey.”
The Jews apparently recognised this as a Messianic passage. So in choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus intentionally fulfills this prophecy. After all, if he’s the Messiah, then at some point he needs to ride a donkey.
Although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9 as an explanation of Jesus’ actions, here’s my question. If Jesus chose to ride a donkey to demonstrate that he was the Messiah it doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.
- He could more easily have communicated this message by simply saying, “Hey everyone, look at me. I’m the Messiah!”
- While all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus riding the donkey, only 2 of them connect it to the Zechariah prophecy.
- Apparently, even at the time, no one really understood the significance of Jesus riding the donkey. After quoting Zechariah, John immediately reflects, “At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand. But after he had been given his glory, they remembered all this.” (John 12:16 (CEV)
If Jesus was just checking off a list of prophecies that he could control, do you think it’s legitimate? It seems a bit manipulative and insincere to me.
3. Was Jesus Surprised?
I am fascinated by the question of what Jesus was thinking as he rode that donkey through the cheering crowds. Matthews account of Jesus’ grand entrance is found in chapter 21. In chapter 20 Jesus predicts, We are now on our way to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses. They will sentence him to death…
He knew his fate.
Was Jesus able to join in the joy and celebration along with the crowd? Was Jesus an island of misery in surrounded by a sea of exuberance? Did Jesus resent the crowd’s shallowness? Was Jesus hoping that the people would accept him and crown him king?
Again, if he knew the praise lacked sincerity, why throw the parade?
I just don’t get it.
I also don’t get why this series of events is important enough to get its own day on the calendar.
4. What are We Celebrating?
When the church celebrates Palm Sunday, what exactly are we celebrating? Are we excited that people misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom? Do we want to highlight the rejection of Jesus as Messiah? If so, why the joyfulness and palm branches? Are we thrilled by the transition in Jesus’ ministry as he finally enters Jerusalem? (Although John’s Gospel tells us he’s been there twice previously.)
In Luke 20:40 Jesus tells the Pharisees that “If [the people] keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.” Clearly he believes that their well-intentioned, but misguided praise is deserved, appropriate and unstoppable. This seems to contrast other passages of Scripture where God cares about right motives when it comes to worship. So are we celebrating a loosening of worship forms and functions?
Perhaps we celebrate Palm Sunday because now that we understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we can give him the praise that he deserved in this event but we can give it to him with greater understanding. Hopefully, we also give him our worship from a heart of sincerity and faithfulness. In this way we kind of rectify and redeem the worship of the original Palm Sunday.
5. From a Pre-millenial perspective…
From a premillenial perspective this event seems to make a little more sense. By this interpretation it’s important that the Jews get an opportunity to reject an earthly kingdom. The thinking goes like this:
- God’s initial desire was for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and crown him king.
- Jesus legitimately wanted to establish an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as his throne.
- All the Messianic prophecies were intended to be fulfilled in this earthly kingdom.
- On palm Sunday the Jews reached the brink of crowning Jesus king, but ultimately backed away.
- Their rejection of Jesus led to Plan B, a spiritual kingdom made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
- Although Jesus knew they were going to kill him, it was important that he give them the opportunity to crown him.
- Thus the Palm Sunday Parade was not a charade, but a hope-filled opportunity for Israel to embrace her Messiah.
While I don’t agree with this understanding of Scripture. And while I have a problem with the cross being “Plan B”. At least this approach provides an understanding of Palm Sunday in which Jesus acts with genuine motives.
So help me out. What encouragement do you draw from Palm Sunday?
This blog post was previously published here.
Jesus knew the truth that what we celebrate matters. Shortly before his death Jesus instructed his disciples to remember his death through a simple meal. (Luke 22:14-20) I imagine that without this instruction the disciple may have decided to celebrate other aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Earlier the apostle Peter had wanted to construct shelters to memorialise the spectacular event of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking with Jesus. Other disciples could easily have chosen to celebrate Jesus healing ministry or concern for the poor.
How would the history of Christianity differ today if the first followers of Jesus decided to politicise His criticism of the religious establishment? Would they have sought revenge against the pagan Romans? Would they have sought to initiate an uprising and seize control of the temple, freeing it from apostate religious leaders?
Instead, Jesus preempts these possibilities by establishing a celebration of his death and his resurrection. This move required the first Christians to pursue understanding of his death. Why did it happen? Do you remember what he said? Do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a resurrected Messiah? How does this impact us? Does this change our relationship with God?
The simple meal. The memory. The celebration. The understanding. Jesus directed the focus of future generations for thousands of years to the thoughts that are most important.
Our churches still face the same opportunities. In addition to the Lord’s Supper, we get to decide what and who to celebrate.
I once visited a church and watched an elder call every one 18 and under who had a birthday that month to the front of the room. As they stood on the stage with him he prayed over those children. What an affirmation that these children matter to God and to the church!
I know of a church that hosts a VBS each year for special needs children. This event shines the spotlight of love and grace upon these children and their families, letting them know that they’re valued and important.
Last October, the church a friend of mine attends encouraged everyone to wear purple one particular Sunday in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This topic seldom receives attention from churches and this congregation sought to publicly stand with victims of abuse.
I recently saw a church workshop advertised with the theme, “Reprove, Rebuke, & Exhort”. This celebration clearly communicates what matters to them: Reproving and Rebuking. Getting things right. Doing things right.
I’m aware of many churches that have special “Mission Sundays” or “Ministry Fairs” as they highlight the need to send and support missionaries around the world, or the importance for members to involve themselves in church ministries.
Each of these churches chose to express issues, topics, causes, and people that they view as important through celebration.
It would be overly simplistic to infer that the reverse is true. Just because a church does not celebrate a particular cause or person does not mean that they don’t care. No one church can emphasise every issue. If they try to acknowledge everyone, eventually no person or cause is particularly special because everyone’s treated the same.
Which brings us back to where I began: What we celebrate matters!
With this in mind, I’m thrilled that my church celebrated our racial diversity last Sunday through a special day that we call Harmony Sunday. I’ve been part of multi-ethnic churches in the past who preferred not to acknowledge their diversity. Taking one day to celebrate the reality we see each Sunday communicates to the church and the community that each person matters. It reinforces God’s vision for his kingdom as a house for all nations. And most of all, it communicates that this topic is important, not an accident.
I am convinced that events like Harmony Sunday are vital for the good health of multi-ethnic congregations and those seeking to broaden their membership. Among many other benefits, this type of celebration gives permission for conversations about race to take place. It communicates a desire for the church to provide a safe place for dialogue.