Is Worship a Fancy or a Feeling?

August 30, 2015 in Bible - OT - Psalms, Meditations, Sanctification, Singing Psalms, Worship
Psalm 33:1–3 (NKJV)
Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous! For praise from the upright is beautiful. Praise the LORD with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
One of the great lessons of life is Solomon’s adage, “All hard work brings a profit but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Prov. 14:23). It is easy to talk about achieving something; but actually to achieve that thing requires determination and hard work. As the editors of the Geneva Bible wrote: “All things are difficult that are excellent and fair.”
Consider the skilled musician. I don’t play an instrument – although I love music. Often I close my eyes while listening to Archangelo Corelli’s Concerti Grossi and imagine myself playing the violin. I imagine how proficient I would be. But my imaginings are just that. I’m not a skilled musician because I have not invested the time and energy into learning that would be necessary to be one.
The same principle applies to the skilled athlete. While native talent is an important starting point, the one who truly succeeds in a sport is the one who practices, who pushes himself so that he may acquire increasing skill and proficiency. I might imagine myself hitting 100 free throws in a row; but each time I’m on the court I’m lucky to hit seven out of ten. Why? Because I don’t practice.
This principle applies in most every area of life, including relationships. Consider a solid marriage. Marriages start with the swearing of an oath; they continue as a couple learns to love and sacrifice and forgive. Successful marriages – marriages in which spouses learn to communicate well, forgive well, make love well, and parent well – require hard work, practice, and persistence. They don’t just happen. The love that makes marriages work is elbow-grease love.
This same principle applies in worship. Much has been written and said regarding the “worship wars” in the modern church. What should be the nature of our worship? Many, in an attempt to be seeker sensitive, have striven to make worship easier; to use music that makes visitors comfortable; to limit the amount of theological depth in lyrics to make songs more digestible. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we have not jumped on that bandwagon. We haven’t accommodated ourselves to this musical trend. We sing psalms and hymns; we try to sing in harmony; we use printed books. This proves very challenging for many who visit our congregation; and I can certainly symphathize with the challenge. Perhaps it has been challenging for you.
But here’s the question: should we expect the worship of God to come easily? Skill in music comes only with practice; skill in sports comes only with practice; skill in marriage comes only with practice; should we expect anything different of worship? The idea that worship should just come naturally when we’ve lived lives alienated from God is absurd. When God rescues us He does not immediately make us skilled worshipers; rather, He so touches our hearts so that we, for the first time, desire to become skilled worshipers.
Is worship difficult for you? Is it challenging for you to learn to sing the psalms and hymns? Challenging to learn to sing in harmony? Challenging to understand what those lyrics mean at times? Then keep working at it. Remember, all things are difficult which are excellent and fair.

So reminded that we are often lazy in our pursuit of the Almighty and that we treat His worship less seriously than the acquisition of musical, physical, or relational skill, let us confess our slothfulness to the Lord. And as you are able, let us kneel as we do so.

God Chose Mary

December 26, 2014 in Bible - NT - Luke, Christmas, Church History, Confession, Election, Reformation, Singing Psalms, Ten Commandments, Thankfulness
Luke 1:46–50 (NKJV)
46 And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. 49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
Christmas is a time to reflect on the particular blessings that God has bestowed on each of us and to lift up praise and thanks to God. We see this modeled in Mary’s Magnificat – her song of praise written while staying with Zacharias and Elizabeth.
Has it ever struck you that God gave a gift to Mary that He did not give to any other human being on earth? Consider this for a moment: don’t just let the Christmas story pass you by; consider what’s happening. God chose Mary to be the mother of our Lord. God chose Mary – a girl in the city of Nazareth who was betrothed to a man named Joseph; who had a sister named Salome; who had a mother and father whose names are not recorded. God chose Mary – a girl who had a certain color hair and eyes; who was of a quite definite height and weight; who had skin of a particular shade. God chose Mary.
Now doesn’t that seem a trifle unfair? Why Mary? Why should she get the honor? Shouldn’t Mary perhaps feel a little guilty for being chosen? Don’t you and I have the right to be a little jealous, perhaps?
After all, let’s consider this: here God bestows on Mary a privilege that He had bestowed and would bestow on no other woman ever in all of human history. God chose Mary. Shouldn’t Mary feel guilty? Shouldn’t she realize that this was a trifle unfair and bemoan the gift that God had bestowed on her? Shouldn’t she perhaps have flogged herself? Felt guilty every time that babe leapt in her womb or sucked at her breast? Been apologetic to the various other women she met in the course of her life? “Sorry, sorry, sorry – so much wish it could have been you… Sorry.”
And shouldn’t you be a little jealous? After all, because God chose Mary, He didn’t choose any other to have this honor. Have you considered that? God did not choose Mary’s sister Salome. He did not choose Herodias – for which we’re grateful! He didn’t choose Mary the wife of Clopas or Mary Magdalene or Elizabeth or Anna the prophetess or Susanna or Joanna the wife of Chuza. God chose Mary. And consider that what this means: it means that God didn’t choose you. If you’re a woman, God passed you over; He simply did not choose you to be the mother of Jesus. God chose Mary. And, if you’re a man, God eliminated you from the running before you were even out of the gate. God chose Mary. Shouldn’t you be a little jealous?
I ask these questions because they have great relevance for us on Christmas day. You who stand here today have been given many remarkable gifts from God. If you are in Christ, you have been given the gift of salvation, a gift some men will never receive. If you are an American citizen, you have been given gifts of liberty, constitutional government, and incredible prosperity, gifts that others, who remain subject to tyrants and who are starving even as we speak, can only long for. If you are a husband, then you have been given the gift of a wife, a gift men some will never have. If you are a mother, then you have been given the gift of children, a gift some women will never enjoy. If you have Christmas gifts at home, then you have been given a measure of prosperity that millions have never known. Should you feel guilty?
And some of you aren’t getting the same gifts as others. Perhaps your brother got the Lego set you wanted? Perhaps the neighbors drove up in their brand-new Cadillac Escalade? Perhaps you find yourself unmarried still? Perhaps that other lady just announced that she’s having a baby and you’ve never had one? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… Perhaps you should feel jealous?
But guilt and jealousy are both unbecoming and sinful responses to the Lord’s gifts. God is the Creator; God is the Giver of all good gifts; God is the Sovereign Lord; and God is not fair. He simply does not give gifts equally. But that inequality is not to move us to guilt and jealousy but to praise and thanksgiving. Listen to Mary’s Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
Notice, first, that guilt is not the way to respond to God’s gifts. After all, none of us deserve the gifts which God gives us. We all of us have forfeited God’s favor – including Mary. God chose Mary in His mercy, Mary tells us. And in this mercy, God gives sinful, undeserving men and women gifts; He lavishes kindnesses; He bestows graces – to one this and to another that. And the one who fears God learns to receive these graces not with guilt but with gratitude. Solomon reminds us, “The blessing of the Lord makes one rich, And He adds no sorrow with it” (Pr 10:22). So today receive the gifts that God has given with praise and thanksgiving. Lift up your heads! Don’t feel guilty – give praise to God! Don’t feel guilty – give thanks to God! And in that praise and thanks imitate Him by loving those with less.
Jealousy is just as unbecoming as guilt. Our Lord forbids covetousness – for covetousness, greediness, makes us small of heart and small of soul. The angels rejoice with Mary – they who long to know the things we know and cannot; Elizabeth rejoices with Mary – she who was chosen to give birth merely to the forerunner, not the Messiah; Anna rejoices with Mary – she who had never had a child and whose husband had been taken from her when a young woman. They were large of soul, rejoicing in the good gifts that God had given to Mary. God chose Mary – and they rejoiced!

So Christmas is here – rejoice, give thanks, and sing. Put away guilt; put away petty jealousy; rejoice in the good gifts of God, sing of His mercy, and share His kindnesses with others.

Salvation Accomplished and Anticipated

November 30, 2014 in Bible - OT - Psalms, Christmas, Church Calendar, King Jesus, Meditations, Prayer, Singing Psalms
Psalm 9:13–14 (NKJV)
13 Have mercy on me, O LORD! Consider my trouble from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death, 14 That I may tell of all Your praise In the gates of the daughter of Zion. I will rejoice in Your salvation.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of year when we look both backwards and forwards. We look backwards – recalling God’s fulfillment of the promise to our fathers that one day He would send a Child of Eve to rescue us from sin and death. Jesus has come to save us – hallelujah! But we also look forwards – anticpating the fulfillment of God’s promise that one day that same Son shall return in glory to vindicate all who trust Him. Jesus will come to save us – hallelujah!
This Advent our sermons focus once again on Jesus in the Psalms – and today we consider Psalm 9 a portion of which we have just read. In Psalm 9, David praises God for maintaining David’s right and cause in the world in the face of those who oppose Him. But he not only praises God for what He has done in the past, he prays that God would deliver him yet again – and it is this request that God vindicate him again which we just read. Have mercy on me, O LORD! Consider my trouble from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death – David recognizes that it is the Lord who has vindicated him and who must do so again. To the Lord our God belong escapes from death.
So why did David want God to rescue him from his troubles? Listen closely: Have mercy on me, O LORD! Consider my trouble from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death, That I may tell of all Your praise In the gates of the daughter of Zion. I will rejoice in Your salvation. David petitioned God to rescue him so that he could sing further praises to God in the future. He wanted God to deliver him so that he could go to the Temple and declare: listen what God has done for me! He wanted to sing God’s praises in the company of His people.
So as we remember God’s act of kindness in sending His Son Jesus to rescue us from sin and death; and as we pray that God would yet again send Jesus to vindicate those who trust in Him – why do we do it? So that we might praise His Name in the company of His people! God saved you that you might proclaim His praises, that you might offer up spiritual sacrifices, that you might offer up the fruit of your lips in the gates of the daughter of Zion, in the Heavenly Jerusalem, in the Church. Singing praise to God is the goal of our salvation – it is the reason God delivered you from your sin. So sing; don’t be self-conscious. Sing; don’t make excuses. Sing; don’t deprive the assembly of your voice.

And as we gather in His presence to sing, let us acknowledge that we often are so consumed with our own selves or troubles or desires that we neglect to bring praise and petition to God. Reminded of this, let us kneel and seek the Lord’s forgiveness through Christ.

Add to Perseverance Godliness

October 20, 2014 in Bible - NT - 2 Peter, Bible - NT - Matthew, Bible - NT - Titus, Bible - OT - Psalms, Ecclesiology, Meditations, Sanctification, Singing Psalms, Worship
2 Peter 1:5–9 (NKJV)
5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.
Thus far in Peter’s exhortation we have learned to employ all diligence as we add to our faith virtue, to our virtue knowledge, to our knowledge self-control, and to our self-control perseverance. Today we consider Peter’s admonition to add to our perseverance godliness.
Webster defines godliness as “the quality or state of being spiritually pure or virtuous; devoutness, piety, sanctity.” We might define it more simply as the quality or state of becoming more like God – reflecting the moral character of God in our lives.
Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We are to become like our Lord – an observation we will consider at length in the sermon this morning. To be godly, therefore, is to enjoy the sum of all virtues – it is the goal of our sanctification: becoming like God. We persevere not for perseverance sake but that we might reflect the character of God.
Godliness is often set in opposition to worldliness – becoming increasingly like the world. Paul reminds us in Titus 2:11–12:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age,
God’s grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age. This is one of God’s purposes in salvation. So how do we grow in godliness? As with all graces, we grow in godliness only by the grace and mercy of God. As Paul said, it is the grace of God that teaches us to be godly in this present age. Peter likewise reminds us God’s divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness. God is the One who teaches us to be more like Him; He holds us by the hand and shapes us into His image.
One of the primary means God uses to cultivate godliness in our lives is worship. We worship God and as we worship Him we become more like Him, we become godly. Worship fixes our eyes on the Lord and shapes the trajectory of our lives. Just like driving – where you fix your gaze determines where you go.
This is one reason God has given us an extensive collection of psalms in the biblical canon – psalms that we can sing so that we become more like God; psalms that we can imitate as we compose new songs to the praise and worship of the Lord. We are to grow in godliness and God has given us the psalms to help accomplish this.
So how intentional have you been to memorize the psalms, to sing them in times of temptation and struggle, and to use them as you labor against the Evil One? One of the reasons we have psalm sings as a congregation is to enable us to fight more effectively. We don’t sing the psalms just so we can sound pretty or edgy or manly – we sing the psalms so that we can become more godly.

So reminded of our calling to become more like God by worshiping Him, let us confess that we have often taken our eyes off the Lord and drifted toward worldliness. Let us kneel as we confess together.

Luther on Music

September 17, 2014 in Church History, Quotations, Singing Psalms, Thankfulness, Word of God, Worship

“Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. St. Augustine was troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music, which he took to be sinful. He was a choice spirit, and were he living today would agree with us. I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people happy; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.”

Martin Luther in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 341.

Why Sing Psalms?

January 27, 2014 in Bible - NT - James, Bible - OT - Psalms, Ecclesiology, Meditations, Singing Psalms, Worship
James 5:13 (NKJV)
13
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.
What are we to do when facing the ups and downs of life? When we are suffering and weighed down, heavy of spirit – what are we to do? On the other hand, when cheerful, full of joy and wonder at the world in which we live – what are we to do? Today James tells us. “Is anyone among you suffering – feeling poorly, enduring trouble? Let him (an imperative, a command – this isn’t simply good advice) Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him (again, an imperative, a command), Let him sing psalms.”
James tells us that when we are suffering we are to pray. We are to take our troubles straight to the Lord. Cry out to God; He wants to hear; He wants to be the one to whom you direct your cries.
Likewise, when we are cheerful, we are to sing psalms. Why? Because singing enables us to funnel the joy that we are experiencing in the right direction – in praise and thankfulness to our Creator and Redeemer. When joyful, James tells us, that which should first come out is the psalms.
But as you think about the psalms, you will perhaps remember that some of the psalms are expressions of grief and longing for God’s presence – how do they fit with James’ theme of thanksgiving? It is here that we are directed back to James’ command to pray when burdened. James’ exhortation to pray also directs us to the psalms – for the psalms embody for us what despairing cries to God look like.
Notice then the priority that James places upon the psalter for the life of the people of God. What are we to do when suffering? We are to pray. And where do we find examples, patterns of prayers offered up in the midst of suffering? In the psalter. What are we to do when joyful? We are to sing psalms. And where do we find these psalms to sing? In the psalter.

So here’s the question for you – do you know your psalter well enough to obey James’ exhortations? How well do you know your psalms? Do the psalms, when you are burdened and weighed down, come to your mind and fill your soul with cries to God? Do the psalms, when you are cheerful and lifted up, come to your mind and fill your home with praise and thanksgiving?
I dare say that if you are like me there is some lack in this regard. Not many of us grew up singing the psalms. This is a new experience for us. Many of the psalms may be strange and foreign to us. Some of the tunes that we have in our English psalters are hard to learn. Some of the words of the psalms are difficult to understand and believe. But is the problem with the psalter? Hardly. It is with us. We need to grow in our ability to sing and to understand the psalms. And so, one of the things we are committed to do as a congregation is to become more excellent in our ability to sing the psalms and more knowledgeable of their content. And one of the things that we do every month to enable us to fulfill this duty is hold a psalm sing. The psalm sing is specifically geared to help us fulfill the exhortations given to us by James – is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.

Reminded that in our suffering and in our joy God expects us to cry out to Him with the psalms and to praise Him with the psalms, let us kneel and confess that we have neglected to do so.

Sing the Psalms

December 29, 2013 in Bible - NT - Hebrews, Bible - OT - Psalms, Christmas, King Jesus, Meditations, Singing Psalms, Word of God, Worship
Hebrews 4:11-13 (NKJV)
11
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must giveaccount.
Much has transpired in the last week. We have moved out of the time of Advent and into the time of Christmas. And in the season of Christmas we celebrate! We celebrate the arrival of the long anticipated One; we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises in the life and death and resurrection of His Son. The Lord our God has come!
In our sermons this Advent and Christmastide, we have focused upon Jesus in the Psalms. One of the things that we have emphasized is that Jesus is the true Singer of the Psalms. In Him the psalms, all the psalms, reach their fulfillment and culmination. Throughout His life Jesus sang these psalms, meditated upon these psalms, absorbed these psalms into His life and made them part of His being.
Our text in Hebrews urges us to have this same type of faith. After exhorting us to enter into God’s rest, Paul directs us to the Word of God, which is able to slice and dice us, able to show us our faults and illumine our shortcomings. Why direct us here? Why direct us to the Word of God? Because this is the same place that our Lord Jesus went to direct His own walk with His Father. He was a student of the Word of God. He allowed the Word of God to make and fashion Him into the type of man His Father desired Him to be. And though He was free from sin, free from the necessity of going back and redoing things that he had messed up, He nevertheless grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man through the things that He learned in the Word.
And so the author of Hebrews directs us to be students of the Word of God. We are called to be disciples. To hear what He says to us that we might correct our faults and that we might be reminded of the great promises that He has made to us.

So reminded of our calling to be singers of the psalms, let us kneel and confess that we have often failed to permit His Word to shape us and have instead been shaped by other, contrary voices.

Awake and Sing!

December 22, 2013 in Bible - OT - Isaiah, Christmas, Church Calendar, Eschatology, King Jesus, Meditations, Singing Psalms, Worship
Isaiah 51:9-11 (NKJV)
9
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the ancient days, In the generations of old. AreYou not the arm that cut Rahab apart, And wounded the serpent? 10 Are You not the Onewho dried up the sea, The waters of the great deep; That made the depths of the sea a road For the redeemed to cross over? 11 So the ransomed of the Lordshall return, And come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
In our passage today Isaiah calls upon the Lord to fulfill His promise to rescue His people Israel from exile; indeed, not only to rescue His people Israel but to rescue all the peoples of the earth. The nations that sat in darkness needed the light of God. And so Isaiah cries out to God to fulfill His promises, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!”
Isaiah calls to the Lord’s mind His previous acts of deliverance and implores Him to act again. “Was it not You, Lord, who acted to destroy Egypt? Was it not You who dried up the Red Sea? Who made the depths of the sea a road for Israel to cross upon? Yes it was You, Lord, who did this.” So Isaiah calls upon this same Lord, the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, Yahweh, the Creator of all men and nations, to fulfill His promises, “Awake! Awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the ancient days, in the generations of old.”
And this, brothers and sisters, is what we pray in Advent. During Advent we recall the cries of our fathers like Isaiah and issue cries of our own. We rejoice because God answered Isaiah’s cry by sending our Lord and Savior Jesus to rescue the world from sin and darkness. But we not only rejoice that God has fulfilled Isaiah’s prayer, we also lift up prayers of our own. For the Lord has yet to fulfill all His promises. He has yet to fill the earth with the knowledge of His name, yet to spread justice to all the ends of the earth, yet to bring history to a close in the return of Christ and the resurrection of the just and unjust. And so we are instructed by our Lord Jesus to cry out, “Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” In other words, “Awake! Awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the ancient days, in the generations of old.”
One of the chief ways that we issue this cry is in our singing – we praise the Lord who has acted and beseech Him to act yet again. Note that Isaiah’s vision of God’s redemption in Jesus is filled with singing. “So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, And come to Zion with singing.” Because God has answered Isaiah’s cry to “Awake!”, we ought to sing and praise the Lord, to come to Zion with singing. And even as Isaiah, remembering the Exodus from Egypt, remembering God’s past deliverance, petitioned the Lord to rescue Israel again, so we cry out in song for the full revelation of Christ’s kingdom.
So how ought we to sing? Isaiah models and instructs us. Note that his cry to God is filled with passion, conviction, entreaty, hunger, longing, joy, and delight. “Awake! Awake!” he cries. Then he describes our singing, So the ransomed of the Lordshall return, And come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. May God make it so and fill us with joy and peace in believing and in singing.

Reminded that we are yet in need of the Lord’s mercy, that the Lord has exhorted us to sing and pray for the full arrival of His Kingdom, let us confess that we are often complacent and do not cry out to the Lord to fulfill his promises.