January 3, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 23:10 in the audio file.
Or, How Our Worship Has Created a New Normal
Series: Our Worship #1
Years ago I read an observation that by the time you get meaningful feedback, the real work is already done. It’s a general principle, even if modern men are more assuming about immediate replies and reports. The farmer works and works, and waits, to see how much will come up in his field, and he is not the only one whose fruit takes a while to taste.
We at TEC, by God’s grace, have tasted some blessed fruit. It’s not perfect. We haven’t arrived. But the feedback we’re getting (especially over the last year or so) shows what sort of work we’ve been doing. I do not mean feedback such as, “Oh, those people at TEC are nice,” nor am I referring to the work done by the elders or leaders. What I mean is the feedback of our corporate joy and maturing and our unified irritation over the governor’s restrictions on worship. That feedback comes from the work we’ve been doing, and the work that has been done on us, through our Lord’s Day liturgy.
TEC is a week shy of ten years old. Many of the relationships among us are twice that long, and our total number these days is a little more than half from one other church. When TEC started we started by considering our worship. The first Sunday I preached from Revelation 5, getting our focus onto the worthy Lamb. The motivation was to keep us from becoming the F.O.G., the Fellowship of Grievances. It is easy to gather a group around shared complaints, until the complainers “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15).
Contemplating Christ, praising His glory, hearing His call for us to obey as His disciples, was not new to any of us. What was different were some of the unspoken parts of our service. Most of us were familiar with singing songs to prepare our hearts to hear the Word preached in the sermon. Perhaps there was a Scripture reading, even a corporate prayer, then maybe another song or two after the sermon, either for an altar call, or a pew call, where you could think a little longer about the message.
That is an order of service, a liturgy. Every church has a liturgy, whether it is simple or sophisticated, whether it is meandering or direct, whether it is admitted or contradicted. I myself, as a mostly Baptist, had never belonged to a church which practiced much more than the Sing, Read, Pray, Preach, Sing pattern. Especially in the churches who cared about truth, theology, Bible, it made sense for the pulpit and the preaching to be in the center.
It may be facile to describe it this way, but that sort of worship service is more like a melodic classroom where you pay every week instead of once a semester. Some of you may remember me talking about truth-tubes. I imagine a science lab with rows of skinny beakers ready to be filled with whatever truth they can collect. It’s as if the goal of the Christian life, and the church’s worship, is to accumulate more accurate sentences and good thinks.
That is wrong on a number of levels, and it is one reason why even conservative, orthodox, Bible-preaching churches have struggled so much over the last nine months. Their liturgy has not prepared them, and they are getting the feedback.
Like the tubes, believers may not be empty, but they are disconnected from the other tubes, even if they are next to one another. Like the tubes, most Christians are an audience, waiting for someone to fill them up (which can, it turns out, mostly be accomplished through screens). They are collecting truth, and trying to avoid cracking, these seem to be the goals.
This is not much of a defense against the world’s efforts to conform us. Even if it isn’t new, the world made clear this last year what it wanted and wants with us. Here is my list of what our rulers and our experts want with us.
Sometimes the instructions are patronizing mantras for five year-olds, which should offend five year-olds (“Stay Home, Stay Healthy”). Other times we’re given scary models and predictions (millions dead!), even horror story advertisements (attending Thanksgiving will kill grandma). Still yet, there are threats of dubious legal authority and arbitrarily applied by the executive branch. At least in many places, if the signs don’t passively aggressively thank you for your adherence, fellow citizens will shame you for your ignorant selfishness. Please be manageable, or you will be managed.
The shelter-in-place, lockdown/shut-downs are for plebeians who can’t possibly know better and must do what they’re told by every petty official.
The death of George Floyd near the end of May and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement would not be connected to a respiratory virus other than happening in the same year. But the world, and our rulers, connected them.
You must stay home unless you were protesting racism. That you thought riots were bad proves how racist you are. You are not demonstrating enough pain and sorrow for your privilege, of being white, or for acting like it’s okay for someone to be white (or a man, or a married heterosexual), and not an anti-racist.
Add to this the guilt you should feel for your selfish question asking about the cost of lockdowns, and how to buy a gun.
Our rulers could not have gotten away with such measures 30 years ago because the Internet wasn’t good enough. It’s not just a couple generations of public school education making it so that people don’t know better, it’s the availability, the ubiquity, of Netflix and YouTube, while shopping in your browser with Amazon delivering the next day, plus the government cutting checks to people for more money whey they aren’t working, even though that math won’t work out. Be fed, for being fat, not for strength.
The world wants us to treat distance as a savior. Follow the dots on the ground at the store, keep your dining table free from guests, for 15 days, another 30, through the second wave, etc. We are being taught about virtuous contemplation: think good thoughts about your neighbor but don’t get close to them.
We are being told that we will never go back to normal, that we must adjust to the new normal, though part of that is always being told something new, or contradictory. Recently Dr. Fauci said out loud and on purpose that he didn’t tell everyone the truth about herd immunity at the beginning, and that he kept changing what he was saying, because the people couldn’t handle it. He needed to help us adjust by constantly adjusting us.
Masks are also unsettling. They have not been stopping new cases, they have been stopping normal thought whether you’re wearing one or trying to not to. They are at the top of our minds even if they are not in front of our mouths.
Too many churches are governed by men following these worldly ways. Those that aren’t so demanding about the sheep submitting, or reminding the sheep that they’ve never done enough, or pushing books and sermons for sentence collecting, or satisfied with virtuous contemplation, or even being unsettled, still may not be equipping their people as they could.
If those are things the world wants from us in these days, what does God want?
Abraham Kuyper observed that the only way we can be free from petty tyrants of all shapes and legislations is by recognizing God’s sovereignty, and that when we are under God, we are truly free. This is a freedom from sin, yes, but a freedom of conscience and from political (or religious) little lord-it-over-yous.
As God’s people, do you not feel free as we assemble for worship of the Lord who made heaven and earth?
He is sovereign and He is holy. He has revealed His righteous law, the Standard. This is burdensome because we’ve all sinned; “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). But it is not burdensome because it is arbitrary, or because it is inconsistent, or subject to the mob. Unlike Marx, SJWs, Karens, and Democrats and Republicans, we know the standard. This is not an effort to interpret a Biden press conference.
Also, Jesus came as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The gospel is justification by faith, full pardon for our sin. No penance, no purgatory no pacifying the woke.
He is not pacifying us. He feeds us that we might grow up into salvation, as we crave and consume His Word (1 Peter 2:1-3). He does intend for us to watch something, but He opens our eyes to see the light of the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). As we behold the glory of the Lord we are not diminished, we are being transformed into the same image (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is fitting us for good works, keeping us from being conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2).
He fills us. That includes with truth, but it strengthens us rather than softening us.
> For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14–19)
We are set apart from the world, we are less hollow-chested than the world, we are “filled with all the fullness of God.”
Freedom is for fellowship, forgiveness is for reconciliation, filling us with the one who loves us.
Sin separates. Lies and hate and suspicion cause war. Envy and fear ruin any attempts at closeness. Jesus came to establish peace. He came to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). He came so that we might be one with He and the Father through the Spirit and be one body, not tossed to and fro (John 17:20-21; Ephesians 4:3-6).
Fellowship with Him brings joy, unity, maturity. We are, actually, together in this.
He came because we were distant, not to make distance the new normal.
Worship is not quarantine. Worship is not to unsettle the faith of believers. When God reminds us of His worth, His mercy, His supply, His joy, is the point to get you to ask again and again if that is for you?
If you are conflicted by or resistant to His call to worship, if you refuse to confess your sins, if you prefer the glory that comes from men, and if you go through religious motions like communion, then:
> Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)
But if you grasp your freedom as His servant, if you embrace His forgiveness, if you long to be filled by Him and fellowship with Him, then why comply to a liturgy that runs you through a gauntlet every week? It’s like planting faith every Monday to Saturday, coming to church to have it ripped up and analyzed every Sunday to see if it is legit, and wondering why it never seems to grow very big.
Faith is not futile. Our liturgy drives to stimulate the faith of God’s people and to send you out to be faithful. Our liturgy leads to charging you to be fruitful by faith, not to always wonder if you have it.
Notice how the pattern of our liturgy deals with all of these: Call, Confession, Consecration, Communion, Commission. And our commitment to fellowship by faith is much of the liturgical feedback we’ve seen after 10 years. It is liturgy that is messing with the gates of hell.
Hell loves compliance, guilt, pacification, distance, and chronic anxiousness. Hell has built her gates with these kinds of pillars that cast shadows of darkness and fear. Our worship, our liturgy, the assembly, attacks those gates.
> “Every Lord’s Day God gives us the privilege of coming together, gathering outside the citadels and fortresses of unbelief, and God gives us a big battering ram. The battering ram is called ‘Worship of the True God.’ Every week we get to pick it up and take another swing. … After a little bit, the unbelievers are every week going to hear this little distant: Boom!” (Doug Wilson)
So, yes, we do know a new normal, but not as the world wants. What we care about is different, who we fight against is different, how we sing is different, why we meet as a church is different. The liturgy has been doing a work on us, and we can see the feedback.
We are an assembly of worshippers, each member with a handle on the battering ram. As we worship, there is a new normal created in us, as we are a people of freedom, forgiveness, filled with the fullness of God into fellowship and faith.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, obey all that He has commanded. Behold the glory of the Lord, in season and out of season. You have faith, He is the author and finisher of Your faith. According to the riches of His glory may He grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being. May you see the feedback of our worship in great fruitfulness. Present your bodies to God as a living sacrifice.
> Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21, ESV)