Category: Worship

A Tale of Two Christmases

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.

christmas-fireplace-01One 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.

christmas-nativity-02

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.

Creation: God’s Temple

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 CreationI’ve really enjoyed it so far as the authors draw attention to God’s love not only for humanity, but creation as a whole.

northern lights - OClair

photo credit: Jeremy O’Clair – Northern Lights

“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.
Isaiah 55:12-13

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

5 Steps for Effectively Preaching with Notes

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.

Sure, you’d like to preach like Andy Stanley or Carey Nieuwhof, but if you use notes, you’ll find yourself preaching like NT Wright!!!

3 Bonus Benefits of Preaching With Notes

preaching 01

  1. I provide copies of my manuscript to members who are hard of hearing. I’ve received a lot of appreciation for this.
  2. The person running the powerpoint knows exactly when to hit that key.
  3. If you’re struck with a stomach bug on Sunday morning, your fill-in has a sermon to preach.
  4. You’re less likely to say stuff you regret!
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. preachers 02Confidently 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.

 

Deeper Than Skin, Barely

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.

interracial love

 

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!

Worship: When Words Trump Silence

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.

breaking the silence 01

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!

whydoweworship

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.

 

Why You Might Be Worshiping God Too Much

stars aurora borealisShout praises to the Lord!
    Shout the Lord’s praises
    in the highest heavens.
All of you angels,
and all who serve him above,
    come and offer praise.

Sun and moon,
and all of you bright stars,
    come and offer praise.
Highest heavens,
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.)

As a minister in a Church of Christ, I’ve heard all the arguments about instrumental vs a capella singing in worship services. Many of the arguments are drawn from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

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”.

  • For another resource on “Why we sing in church”, check out a book review by my friend Frank Bellizzi HERE.
  • Coincidentally, another friend, Jonathan Storment wrote a blog this week titled “3 Big Reasons to Sing In Church” that you can read HERE.

The Jesus Parade

If you’re interested, you can listen to my Palm Sunday sermon HERE.

palm sunday

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.

palm sunday 01But Zechariah 9:9 reads,

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:

  1. God’s initial desire was for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and crown him king.
  2. Jesus legitimately wanted to establish an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as his throne.
  3. All the Messianic prophecies were intended to be fulfilled in this earthly kingdom.
  4. On palm Sunday the Jews reached the brink of crowning Jesus king, but ultimately backed away.
  5. Their rejection of Jesus led to Plan B, a spiritual kingdom made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
  6. Although Jesus knew they were going to kill him, it was important that he give them the opportunity to crown him.
  7. 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?

What We Celebrate Matters

This blog post was previously published here.

Lawson Rd Flags

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.

Colossians 2 – Freedom in Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Colossian church he places Christ front and center throughout the letter. We can learn a lot from this.

I really loved preaching this chapter and I’m really appreciating the Christ focus throughout the book. I find it so easy to get caught up in “emergencies” and “situations” and “discussions” that my natural human problem solving gene kicks in. Paul’s writing to a church that has problems, but he doesn’t problem-solve. He consistently points them back to Jesus.

The verse that really caught my attention as I read through this chapter was v23. Speaking of “human commands and teachings” this is how The Message renders v23:

Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.

What a lovely description of human “spiritual” rules.

At this point I’m going to completely take the verse out of it’s historical context of Judaism, paganism and dietary rules. Hopefully I can still remain faithful to the theological point Paul makes.

Our churches generally overflow with man-made “spiritual” rules. Here’s a few I can think of:

  • Sunday dress code
  • Bible version
  • Church name
  • Celebrating (or not) Christmas and Easter
  • Song styles
  • When the collection should be taken during a worship service
  • Women are restricted from many roles within the church without a shred of Biblical support.
  • Clapping during worship
  • How church finances should be spent
  • Whether or not a minister can also be an elder
  • Who can perform a baptism

rules 01I know there are many more. Feel free to leave your contributions in the comments section.

Here’s the rub. I actually think man made rules are a good thing.

I’m glad that our children get told to slow down when they run through the church building. I have no desire to visit Sister Perkins in hospital because my daughter crashed into her while traveling at high speed.

I think it’s wise that a church requires new members to attend a special class for new members that discusses the values of the church before they can lead a ministry.

Forbidding adults to be alone in a classroom with children is a good rule to prevent child sex abuse.

BUT we get off track when we start requiring particular man-made rules be observed in order that a person maintain good standing with God.

This brings us to the GREAT DILEMMA. It’s easy to sit back and take cheap shots at churches and their various rules. What’s difficult is to honestly examine our own lives and churches and to distinguish between God-required and man-made obligations. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with asking those serving communion not to wear shorts, as long as I recognise that it’s a local preference not a Divine ordinance. Then having acknowledge that this is a preference, we should willing set the rule aside if circumstances require that someone wearing shorts serve communion. It’s not a big deal… really.

Here are a couple of random thoughts that might help us keep things in perspective:

  • Are we more concerned with how we do things or why we do them?
  • Do we have a rule against something because it’s unscriptural or because it makes us uncomfortable?

Maybe you get a chuckle out of this post. That’s okay. We’re funny people sometimes. And I believe that all these “rules” are genuine attempts to help people live holy lives and honor God in our worship. But that’s what often makes it so hard to determine if they’re human or Godly. There’s usually a Bible verse to back up every rule! As The Message says, “They sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.

So Paul doesn’t get caught up in all this silliness. In the very next verse he lays down this “rule”….

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above

 

Finding a Secret Song in Colossians

The commentaries I referenced all seem to agree that Colossians 1:15-20 is a song, a hymn, or a piece of poetry. Yet many of the major English Bible translations don’t acknowledge this presence.

There’s something different about Colossians 1:15-20. Is it the vocabulary? Is it the metre, or rhythm of the text? Is it prose, or is it poetry?

Most scholars I can find agree that this paragraph is something different from Paul’s typical writing. There’s quite a discussion in academic circles concerning whether Paul wrote the hymn personally, or if he quoted it because it fit his message. A third path seeks to determine if Paul edited and existing work to make it fit his letter.

Mostly, these verse are referred to as a hymn, but not a Fanny Crosby style hymn. It’s not possible to know if this “hymn” was ever sung. Maybe it was chanted. Perhaps it simply existed as a poem one particular church. Maybe they recited it in unison to start their worship, or a gifted individual may have simply shared it with the apostle.

Interestingly, many of the major English Bible translations simply include this hymn in the standard paragraph format. This layout decision conceals the presence of the hymnic material. Even some of the translations that acknowledge the presence of a poetic section do a terrible job of displaying it. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible gives the entire piece a single straight left margin. I’m no poet, but I can tell this layout doesn’t add any illumination to the poem.

That’s my criticism. Now for my solution.

I have very little talent or appreciation for poetry. I’ve never really graduated beyond rhymes. But with a little help from my reference books and NT Wright in particular, I hope I can shine a light for you on the beauty of this hymn.

I know it’s a bit clunky, but for the sake of layout I’ve used powerpoint and will insert and discuss the slides below.

To begin I’ll share a format for the whole hymn that I believe works well. It has two stanzas with a bridge in between.

colossians 1a

The first stanza celebrates Jesus’ role in creation and describes his total supremacy. “In him all things were created.” The second stanza explicitly declares Jesus’ supremacy. It also focuses upon Jesus humanity and ultimately his death. The bridge makes the transition from praising Jesus in the cosmic sphere to acknowledging his Lordship of the church. He holds the universe together and unifies and directs the church.

On a broad scale I like this symmetry. The verses maintain a common theme, albeit with a separate application and the bridge manages the transition well.

The hymn also uses lots of repetition to emphasise its points. The technical term for this is parallelism as different pairs of lines say the same thing using different words. Verse 16 provides a great example:

  1. For in him all things were created:
  2. things in heaven and on earth,
  3.           visible and invisible,
  4. whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
  5. all things have been created through him and for him.

Lines 1 and 5 bookend this verse by painting an image of all things being created in, through and for Jesus. Just in case you forgot who you were praising. Lines 2 and 3 display a parallelism or repetition that provides additional details to the sweeping claims of lines 1 and 5. Then line 5 provides an even deeper level of clarification with four different terms that seem to all describe the same thing.

There are no exceptions to Jesus’ supremacy!

The last feature of this hymn I want to highlight is the correspondence between the stanzas.

colossians 1b

Each stanza starts at the beginning and describes Jesus as firstborn. Jesus is both firstborn of the first creation, and firstborn of the new creation. Both origins testify to his supremacy.

colossians 1c

This slide is a bit jumbled, but I’ll attempt to clarify it.

1. While the connection between creation and supremacy is obvious, the supremacy of the man Jesus is not as clear. So v19 explains that the human Jesus had the fullness of God living within him. It clarifies how the man Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” (In hindsight, perhaps v19 should have been on the previous slide.)

2. In the first stanza the supreme Jesus creates. In the second stanza the supreme Jesus reconciles.

3. Just as Jesus created all things on heaven and earth, he has also reconciled all things on heaven and earth. The fullness of God dwells in him so that all things are reconciled through and for Jesus.

I really admire the cleverness of this hymn. There are additional links and threads that I haven’t mentioned here. However, the literary skill demonstrated in this passage should not distract from the reason Paul included it in his letter to the church in Colossae. The message is simple:

“JESUS!”

 

(For a different perspective on the same passage, I previously blogged on this text HERE.)

FOOTNOTE: After reading this blog a friend referred me to a prayer / hymn apparently written by St. Patrick. Here’s a sample of that work that like Colossians 1 gives uninhibited praise to Christ our Lord.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need: the wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward; the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me and restore me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me, Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.