January 14, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:25 in the audio file.
Or, Liturgy and the Word of the Cross
A few years ago I read the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He wrote in AD 731 (which, by the way, is the year-counting system Bede himself developed and popularized) when the gospel was spreading to many nations, but also during a time when people did not have their own copies of God’s Word. An additional complicating factor was that many people did not live in or even near a city, yet parishes were assigned to pastors for them to shepherd all the folks living in a certain district. The goals that the pastors had for their people are both astonishing, and not that surprising after thinking about it. Since they might not see all their flock on a weekly basis, they would try to visit the families and took to catechizing them. But without books to share or CDs to leave, Bede recorded that the pastors simply wanted their people to know the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. That is not much equipment for Christian discipleship.
I grew up in a good church, but it wasn’t deep. We certainly had access to more than Christians in the Middle Ages. We cared about the Bible, we believed that Jesus was the only way to be saved and that salvation was by faith, not works. But we didn’t use the word “theology,” we used “devotional” materials. We didn’t study verse by verse through books of the Bible, though there was typically a verse the sermon was based on. After I thought God was calling me to be a pastor the summer before my senior year of high school, and a year after I had started college and studying for the pastorate, I got really excited about theology (systematic, and especially Calvinistic) as well as sequential exposition. I started buying fat books about the Bible, even reading through commentaries for fun. I started borrowing cassette tapes and tracking preachers and writers that were explaining truth. My life was being transformed by this information. I hit a multi-year growth spurt in my understanding of who God is and what discipleship is about. And, I totally stopped too early. It wasn’t that I stopped learning, but I stopped at learning.
I know I am not the only one with a similar experience because I know many of your testimonies. Some of you came out of Charismatic churches where listening to the Spirit’s personal messages was more important than the Bible, or at least as important. You came to love the objective, fixed, dependable truth able to be read and not stuck in someone’s head. Many of you have come from “weak” churches, even if you didn’t know it at the time, where there were genuine Christians and Christian teaching but also a fear among the leaders that people can’t handle too much teaching. Then you found that there were some churches where the sermon was an hour! Heaven on earth!
For hungry people this is like a full table. But what if you could have all the food on the table yet no one else around it? Starving is bad, so is isolation. And, at least in the experience for many of us, the kind of food became more important than the fellowship the food enabled. Professional chefs made the food and brought it to the table, but they didn’t really associate with the guests. Food is better than no food, but fellowship around food is better.
When it comes to our meeting together as a church on Sunday mornings, what do we expect here? What does God want with us here? These are liturgy questions. These are questions that concern what is said and how it is said and in what order it is said.
We are gathering around truth for more than gathering truth. We are assembling for more than continuing the tradition of assembling. We meet, according to the truth of God’s Word, for fellowship with the Father in the Son by the Spirit and with one another. There is communication from God to us (reading His Word, preaching His Word) and communication from us to God (praying, singing). But it is not asynchronous, meaning, it is not that God sends a message regardless of whether we care/receive it or not. God wants us to understand the truth so that we relate to Him in real-time.
I am teaching on liturgy to double down on our problems, our errors, and our immaturities. I’m trying to pick on someone with our own sins. We can be wrong explicitly and implicitly, and we, or at least I know I, have been wrong both ways. That’s what I’m confronting, not so that we think ourselves to be better than others but so that we are better than we were.
Last week we considered that the Old Testament sacrifices dealt with man’s disconnection from God. Each individual offering dealt with a different part and they worked together in sequence. The sin offering covered the guilt of the worshippers, the burnt offering represented the devotion of the worshippers, the peace offering became a shared meal between God and the worshippers. The sacrifices progressed to shared peace; peace was the point. We don’t offer animal sacrifices anymore. We believe that Jesus fulfilled all the sacrifices. But that provides us with an understanding of what is happening in Jesus not a reason to ignore the outline. He atoned for our sin. He set us apart for His Father. He is food and drink for us; there is “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36), “He Himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).
This progression of worship in the Old Testament is also the progression of worship in the gospel message. The liturgy we follow week by week says something. The pattern of worship preaches the word as the word is preached. There are five parts, five emphasis of relationship.
The first part of the news of the gospel is that we are not our own. This part of our worship is a direct confrontation to Darwinism, to materialism, to atheism in any form. This part of the gospel depends on Genesis 1: God IS and His creation owes everything to Him. “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!” (Psalm 150:6) It’s why it’s been said that Genesis 1:1 is the most offensive verse in the Bible. According to Romans 1:18-20 every man knows the truth of Genesis 1:1 even if he’s never heard of the Bible.
The call to worship hangs on this self-evident relationship between Creator and His creatures; the spoken call makes it explicit. The Creator does not let anyone off the hook for this responsibility. There are numerous parts of Scripture that announce such a call because this is a regular thing God does; different words make the same point. This is not only how we start our service of worship, this is the beginning of the gospel. The good news begins with God-given life that must be lived for God.
Not many days into human history the first creature failed to live for God (Genesis 3). Adam disobeyed His Maker and set all his descendants in the path of death (1 Corinthians 15:21). We are born sinners and we sin. In Adam we all enter the world guilty, and because of Adam we all disobey God’s law (Romans 5:12). God is righteous and He must deal with sin. We need forgiveness, but the only way that God can forgive sin is by blood (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22).
This is the crux of the gospel. On the cross Jesus paid for sin, the righteous for the unrighteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). By such substitutionary atonement God could be just and the justifier of those who believe (Romans 3:26). Every Lord’s Day we remember this truth, and we also repent from our sin. As believers we practice the discipline of confession, confessing our need for forgiveness and confessing our faith in Christ for it (1 John 1:9).
When we sin we know what to do: we acknowledge it and turn from it. And when we confess as Christians, what is restored? Not a clean account; justification has already been declared, and it is a once-for—all-time verdict. What is restored is fellowship. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Every service this good news of reconciliation is preached and preached in practice.
The gospel does more than make converts, the call of the gospel makes disciples. We are forgiven in Christ, restored to fellowship, so that we may live in a certain way.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5)
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1–2)
By the mercies of God, the good news of justification by faith alone, we are living sacrifices. We learn the will of God so that we can do the will of God.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
Because He thinks it’s a good idea, we do not covert to Christ and go immediately to heaven. We convert to a lifetime of putting off sin and putting on Christ (Colossians 3:5-17). We convert to a lifetime of learning obedience, of offering ourselves to Him. This is the Great Commission, baptizing and teaching to observe all that He commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). The longest part of our service is the consecration part, and it sets the pattern for, what is for most of us, the longest part of our Christian lives.
The Bible does not state how often the church should celebrate communion, but there is good reason to think that the early church did it regularly if not weekly. Of course it is possible to take communion lightly by doing it often. But that doesn’t stop churches from collecting an offering every week. That doesn’t stop preachers from preaching sermons every week.
Familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps, but discipline does not automatically make something heartless, especially if the discipline is for our hearts. Besides, the previous parts of the service are just as possible to take for granted. We should be taking all of it with gratitude. True thanksgiving is always fresh. Thanksgiving is alive; thanksgiving isn’t thanksgiving if it is dead.
Communion is the high point in our service, the point toward which the others aim and climb. God calls us to fellowship with Him in worship. God forgives our sin so that we can fellowship with Him. God speaks to us in His Word and hears our prayers in fellowship. And then God invites us to actually eat and drink with Him. By faith we receive food for our faith. God is glad with us in His Son.
I have said this before and I am not tired of reminding us of it. Our service does not end with a call to repentance, a.k.a., an altar call. The whole service is an altar call. This is a meeting of God’s sacrifices (Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:4-5). Unbelievers might attend, but they do not need a special “evangelistic” message. The whole service preaches the gospel. They need to see the believers worshipping God as we considered a couple weeks ago (in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
The service of worship is not intended to be a constant salvation check-up. The service of worship is not a gospel gauntlet for your faith. Paul did tell the Corinthians to examine themselves “to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5), and there is time for that, but being “all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) is not an exercise in doubt. We are not trying to make sure that you know that you are saved again, we are telling you that in Christ you are blessed. And because you are in Christ you have work to do. You are His representatives, He has chosen you for that task.
So many services that I’ve attended in the past lead to the call to salvation rather than the commissioning of salvation. It’s almost as if Sunday takes everyone back to zero-faith again. “Do you really believe? Are you sure? Are you really sure? I’m not sure.” Let’s all start over again, and then possibly build up growth and strength by next Sunday before conviction knocks it down again.
The commissioning also announces that we are not supposed to stay here. God calls us here, He blesses us here, and then He wants us to leave and go back to work. Worship and work are not in competition; it is right to see them in complement. Yes, worship is a kind of working service, and work is a kind of service of worship, but the assembly in worship on the Lord’s Day and the flock scattered to work the other six days is how God established our weeks. The blessing of worship makes us long for God’s presence in heaven, but it should not make us dualists who only value one part of what God values.
Our liturgy is not quite a wordless book, but there is a message in addition to words. There is a pattern of our worship that pictures the gospel just as the sky above proclaims God’s handiwork without words. We are:
These elements of our relationship with the Triune God are taught through the liturgical opportunity and not only with explicit sentences. By grace, thirty years from now our kids will know in their bones that Christians are more than students.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34–35)
Come and die and live. We learn this word of the cross by declaration and by pattern week by week.
After Paul charged Timothy to preach the word and to fulfill his ministry in 2 Timothy 4, Paul described himself as ready for departure. His three-fold curriculum vitae wasn’t an application for work, but a summary of it. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). These are great verbs, but for us they are still present tense: fight, run, hold on. You are responsible for these verbs, and God is faithful to enable your responsibilities.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, 28)