Friday, September 4, 2015

Praise But Not Worship

Recently, I came upon a blog post by Christopher Smith, a Roman Catholic priest, entitled Let’s Revisit “Praise and Worship Music Is Praise But Not Worship,” in which he revisits to his blog post written four years prior critiquing and comparing Praise & Worship (P&W) music in relation to the liturgy.  I was fascinated by the enumerated points, because they gave more light to the problem of a P&W steady diet.  Here are his observations:
  1. P&W music assumes that praise is worship.
  2. P&W music assumes that worship is principally something we do.
  3. P&W music assumes as its first principle relevance.
  4. P&W music assumes as its second principle the active participation of a certain age group.
  5. P&W music self-consciously divides the Church into age and taste groups.
  6. P&W music subverts Biblical and liturgical texts during the Mass.
  7. P&W music assumes that there can be a core of orthodox Catholic teaching independent of the Church’s liturgical law and tradition.
  8. P&W music consciously manipulates the emotions so as to produce a catharsis seen as necessary for spiritual conversion.
  9. P&W music confuses transcendence with feeling.
  10. P&W music denies the force of liturgical and musical law in the Church in favor of arbitrary and individualist interpretations of worship.
  11. P&W music prizes immediacy of comprehension and artistic ease over the many-layered meaning of the liturgy and artistic excellence.
In order to understand his points more fully, you need to read the original post which fleshes out each point.  (Those of my readers firmly ensconced in Evangelicalism will look at this list in befuddlement, wondering what it has to do with them since they do not have a liturgy.  Of course, they do not realize that they actually do have one, however informal it might be, and things are communicated by the type of liturgy used.  But I digress.)  Do you notice the pattern?  P&W music is shown to be either an incomplete expression of worship or something antithetical to the purpose of worship.

He ends with a list of corrective to be remembered:
  1. The Church’s musical and liturgical tradition is an integral part of worship, and not a fancy addition.
  2. While Praise is a high form of individual and small group prayer, it is not Worship as the Church understands the corporate public prayer of the Liturgy.
  3. Worship is not principally something that we do: it is the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, the fruits of which are received in Holy Communion. Worship is Sacrifice and Sacrament, not Praise.  
  4. Relevance is irrelevant to a liturgy which seeks to bring man outside of space and time to the Eternal.
  5. Participation in the liturgy is principally interior, by the union of the soul with the Christ who celebrates the liturgy.  Any externalizations of that interior participation are meaningless unless that interior participation is there.
  6. The Church’s treasury of sacred music is not the province of one social-economic, age, cultural, or even religious group.  It is the common patrimony of humanity and history.
  7. The Church must sing the Mass, i.e., the biblical and liturgical texts contained in the Missal and Gradual, and not sing at Mass man-made songs, if it is to be the corporate Worship of the Church and not just Praise designed by a select group of people.
  8. Orthodox Catholic teaching on faith and morals must always be accompanied by respect for the Church’s liturgical and musical teaching and laws.
  9. The deliberate intention to manipulate human emotions to produce a religious effect is abusive, insincere, and disrespectful of God’s power to bring about conversion in the hearts of man.
  10. While music does affect the emotions, sacred music must always be careful to prefer the transcendent holiness of God over the immanent emotional needs of man.
  11. The Church’s treasury of sacred music inspires and requires the highest attention to artistic excellence.  It is also an unfathomable gift to the Church, and must be presented to the faithful so that they may enjoy that rich gift.
My readers will balk at number three and rightfully so.  Jesus is not being presented once again as an offering: that work is done. However it is useful to point out that where Evangelicals will see worship as one way (us to God), the historic view is that of dialogue.  Worship begins with God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, and we respond, then more revelation, then more response, back and forth throughout the service.

Read both posts.  You may not understand the terminology or moving parts of liturgy, but consider the points mentioned in view of what your local assembly practices.  Maybe something will shake loose in a good way.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

What of Crucifixes and Other Images?

This past Sunday, Tim Challies posted a piece entitled Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix.  Because of my social network connections, I saw several responses both pro and con on the issue.  The lines were typically drawn along lines with Protestants opposing images in worship or worship area (Challies’ use of Knowing God by J. I. Packer is standard reasoning) and Lutherans supporting (see here for an example).

Being one who enjoys rooting out the Early Church position on such things, I took to the Ante-Nicene Fathers for some explicit instruction on or interaction with Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:8-10, since most of the discussion revolved around these texts.

Irenaeus – Explaining Paul distinction between the true God and false gods in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6:
For he has made a distinction, and separated those which are indeed called gods, but which are none, from the one God the Father, from whom are all things, and, he has confessed in the most decided manner in his own person, one Lord Jesus Christ.  But in this, “whether in heaven or in earth,” he does not speak of the formers of the world, as these [teachers] expound it; but his meaning is similar to that of Moses, when it is said, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image for God, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  And he does thus explain what are meant by the things in heaven: “Lest when,” he says, “looking towards heaven, and observing the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the ornament of heaven, falling into error, you should adore and serve them.”

Clement of Alexandria – In a section explaining the absurdity of using images of created things for pagan worship:
But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images.  For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand.  But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God.… For we are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art: “For you shall not make,” says the prophet, “the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or in the earth beneath.”

Tertullian – Combating the argument of those who try to separate the use of idols from their manufacture:
Yet idolatry used to be practiced, not under that name, but in that function; for even at this day it can be practiced outside a temple, and without an idol.  But when the devil introduced into the world artificers of statues and of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development.  Thenceforward every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry.… God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshiped.  In so far as the making what may be worshiped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition.  For this cause—the eradicating, namely, of the material of idolatry—the divine law proclaims, “You shall make no idol;” and by conjoining, “Nor a likeness of the things which are in the heaven, and which are in the earth, and which are in the sea,” has interdicted the servants of God from acts of that kind all the universe over.

Origen – In an effort to correct Celsus’ understanding Jewish responsibility to the righteous Law of God:
[I]f one will examine their polity from its first beginning, and the arrangement of their laws, he will find that they were men who represented upon earth the shadow of a heavenly life, and that among them God is recognized as nothing else, save He who is over all things, and that among them no maker of images was permitted to enjoy the rights of citizenship.  For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,—an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth.  There was, accordingly, among them a law to the following effect: “Do not transgress the law, and make to yourselves a graven image, any likeness of male or female; either a likeness of any one of the creatures that are upon the earth, or a likeness of any winged fowl that flies under the heaven, or a likeness of any creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, or a likeness of any of the fishes which are in the waters under the earth.”   The law, indeed, wished them to have regard to the truth of each individual thing, and not to form representations of things contrary to reality, feigning the appearance merely of what was really male or really female, or the nature of animals, or of birds, or of creeping things, or of fishes.  Venerable, too, and grand was this prohibition of theirs: “Do not lift up your eyes unto heaven, lest, when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the host of heaven, you should be led astray to worship them, and serve them.”

From the above and other references not used, we can see that images were not forbidden, but the main concern was the use of images for worship as a representation of God, who had no form, as well as the fear of men worshiping the object itself or assigning divinity to a created being or object through the use of the image.  In summary, they saw the same danger mentioned by Moses (Deut 4:15-19) before Israel crossed the Jordan to possess the land.  Mankind is sinful and will misuse every good thing (compare Nu 21:8-9 with 2Ki 18:4; see also Rom 1:22-25).

Man’s propensity to use something to his own end does not preclude its proper use.  After all, Israel had multiple images before them as they worshiped through their annual cycle.  God had given explicit instructions as to what images were to be in the construction, but left the final impressions to the artisans in charge.

The period after Jesus’ ascension is more problematic with no explicit instructions concerning the use of images, though the book of Revelation is replete with imagery.  Whether one takes the book literally or figuratively, there is no mistaking the visual and aural effect on John, those under the throne, and the host of heaven, especially concerning the New Jerusalem and River of Life.  Couple this with Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple (Ezek 40 infra.)—again, whether it has a literal or figurative fulfillment—and we have a powerful display of worship imagery in the Final Kingdom.

Here some will counter that the aforementioned images were given by God Himself and are therefore permitted.  I agree that they were, but if we take that to its logical conclusion, no church building can have any ornamentation in its worship space: crosses, nativity sets, anything that can represent the Trinity or an individual Person, must be stripped from the room.

Or is the real reason that we do not like seeing the suffering, dying Savior in the act.  The crucifixion was a terrible thing for Him to endure, and modern representations actually sanitize the scene.  He was beaten mercilessly and was nailed to the tree naked for public derision.  So, yes, crucifixes misrepresent by making the scene socially acceptable.  I will grant you that one.

Another opposing argument is that the cross is now empty: Jesus came down and rose from the grave.  That reasoning has some merit, but He is also not in the manger, on the road to Emmaus, praying in Gethsemane, speaking with Mary outside the tomb, or in multiple other scenes typically found in worship spaces.  The work of redemption is complete, once for all time and all people.  I get that.  In order to offset this objection, maybe a small Ascension or Christus Rex cross should be placed in front of a crucifix to get the full effect of the redemptive victory.  There is at least one church building that has this arrangement.  Some juxtaposition of the two scenes could work powerfully.

I am neither an iconodule nor an iconoclast.  If images are used, they need to be used with utmost care.  I have always enjoyed a good mosaic or stain-glassed window depicting a biblical scene or text, but the wholesale veneration of icons agreed upon at the Second Council of Nicaea bothers me.  Do they aid worship?  Yes, they can.  Do they detract from worship?  Again, yes, they can.  I take a similar stance as Martin Luther, who initially was not certain that images were useful but finally concluded that they are adiaphora, so handle with care.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

And When You Fail …

The final chapter of the book of Joshua is rather sad.  The godly leader gave a farewell address in which he recounts God’s hand in leading Israel from past history to that time.  At the end of this, Joshua admonished the people to be faithful in following the Lord to which the people agreed.  Joshua then lowers the boom:
But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lᴏʀᴅ, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.”  (Jos 24:19)
Notice that Joshua did not say that the people would not serve the Lord, he said they could not.  Every good intention to obey the Law was summarily decimated as Joshua makes clear that they did not have the ability to follow through.  I will be the first to admit that every time through the chapter, I assumed that Joshua was following the same speech that Moses had used before entering the Promised Land:
Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.  For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are.  Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lᴏʀᴅ.  How much more after my death!  (Deut 31:26-27)
Both Joshua and Moses had strong rebukes for the people of Israel who went into the land of Canaan.  One wonders if those who entered were any better than their parents who died in the wilderness.

The people did not suffer from a lack of desire.  Just before Joshua gave his pronouncement, they assured Joshua that they knew Who had led them and fought for them.
Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lᴏʀᴅ to serve other gods, for it is the Lᴏʀᴅ our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.  And the Lᴏʀᴅ drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.  Therefore we also will serve the Lᴏʀᴅ, for he is our God.  (Jos 24:16-18)
They were confident in their ability to be faithful and continue in the way of the Lord, but history tells us that Joshua was correct.  What was the problem?

First, the people were blind to their condition.  Thinking they were standing, they failed to take heed and fell.  We can attempt to write this off as nominal believers gone bad, and we would somehow do better; but most of contemporary Western Christianity also prefers bending to the prevailing culture rather than stand firm on the truth of Scripture.  In other words, we are just as susceptible to corruption as the Israelites of old.  We fail, individually and corporately, in grand scale.  Nobody is beyond the truth that “sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7).  Election does not insulate from transgression.

Second, the children of Israel were ignorant as to the extent of their condition. Joshua is not just identifying a weakness in their resolve, he wanted to move toward the root problem: the bad with which they needed to deal came from within.  Moses recognized this about the people as he continued his discourse (introduced above):
Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them.  For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you.  And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lᴏʀᴅ, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.  (Deut 31:28-29)
Much later, God tells the nation through Jeremiah:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?  (Jer 17:9)
And finally, the Lord Jesus lays out the issue clearly:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.  (Mark 7:20-23)
We are naturally rotten.  We are our own worst enemies.  What we have from conception onward is utterly corrupt (Psa 51:5), being passed from one generation to another because of Adam’s sin.  You were born to fail.

As dismal the inevitability of perpetual failure might be, throughout the warp and woof of history is a thread of redemption and hope.  From the very beginning of sin entering this world, God had promised both a plan and one who would carry it to fruition.  He would set all things right.  A great irony in this grand plan is that the Word of God that the people of Israel, even all mankind since Adam, have spurned became the very thing that won mankind’s redemption and paid the ransom, once for all.  What was revealed to Adam, Noah, Moses, Joshua, etc. was not just a communication from God to man (as wondrous as that might be) but was the living Word of God.  The second person of the godhead, the Son, Logos of God, took on human nature and died at the hand of His creation that He might put to nothing all that Satan accomplished at the Fall and win mankind for Himself.  Not only that, He who is living and active inscripturated became incarnate, walked among us, and explained the Father to us that we might have the revelation that both qualifies us and makes us complete in Him.

What we lacked in ability to perform or tried to over-compensate for has now been accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord, who willingly went to the cross for our sin and made peace between God and man.  What love and grace!  Now, because we still have the old man working in us, there are times when we fail—we sin, but we have access before God to confess our sin and be cleansed of its guilt.  We have an advocate before the Father who ever lives to make intercession for us as our great High Priest before the Father, and His blood on the Mercy Seat speaks better things than all the animal sacrifices could ever perform on our behalf.

We will fail, and when we do, there is a loving God and Savior who bids us come, be cleansed, and rest in the joy of deliverance and peace.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Our Busy August

I want to give an update since my output has dwindled significantly because of our busy August.  First is an extended weekend camping requiring preparation, then there de-cluttering at the end.  When you own a travel trailer there is less of this work than when pulling a folding camper, but one cannot get away from it.  The day following our camping weekend, I began a two-week scoring project down at Pearson.  This will carry me through Friday, and the next assignment does not begin until September 10.  (As an aside, I have had two interviews for a full-time position in town, but the soonest a decision can be made is September 8).

I was offered a chance to preach at our home assembly in August, to which I agreed and accepted the final Sunday (30th).  I took as my texts the Three-Year Lectionary readings for that date as used by Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.  The main reason I bring up that fact is because I was later asked if I could speak August 23 instead because of scheduling difficulties filling the Sunday slots.  I now needed to concentrate on preparation.  Tuesday, I received a request for the Bible text(s), title, and outline to prepare the bulletin the next day.  Panic now sets in.  I was able to partially deliver with texts and title Thursday during lunch

Friday I began coming down down with a sore throat, which was not a real concern, but it should have been.  Saturday morning I was miserable and when to an urgent care facility.  They told me it was a viral infection and just suffer through it for a day or two.  Except I had to preach the next morning and had little voice with which to work.  Swallowing was painful.  Ibuprofen, herbal tea, and vitamin  water became my constant friends.  (As an update, I went to my family doctor, who immediately prescribed Z-Pak, and I feel much better though still not 100%.)

Sunday morning I preached two services, and it was a challenge.  People could tell I was struggling, and those sitting to my right were able to see the pained faces I made when trying to drink what I had on hand.  If you are interested in hearing the raspy-voiced message, you can go to the Sermon page.  Mine is entitled It's Worse than You Imagined and Better than You Hoped.

Hopefully, I can get more on track now that we are beyond that zaniness.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Even Creation Was Confused

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.… And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.  (Matthew 27:45, 51)

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  (Luke 23:44-45)

Cease in your ignorance to receive such great deeds with abusive language, which will in no wise injure Him who did them, but which will bring danger to yourselves—danger, I say, by no means small, but one dealing with matters of great, yes, even the greatest importance, since beyond a doubt the soul is a precious thing, and nothing can be found dearer to a man than himself.  There was nothing magical, as you suppose, nothing human, deceitful, or crafty in Christ; no deception lurked in Him, although you smile in derision, as usual, and though you split with roars of laughter.  He was God on high, God in His inmost nature, God from unknown realms, and was sent by God the Ruler of all as a Savior, whom neither the sun itself, nor any stars, if they have powers of perception, nor the rulers and princes of the world, nor the great gods, or those who, feigning themselves so, terrify the whole human race, were able to know or to guess whence and who He was.  And rightly so.  But when, freed from the body, which He carried about as but a very small part of Himself, He allowed Himself to be seen, and let it be known how great He was, all the elements of the universe bewildered by the strange events were thrown into confusion.  An earthquake shook the world, the sea was heaved up from its depths, the heaven was shrouded in darkness, the sun’s fiery blaze was checked, and his heat became moderate.   For what else could occur when He who before now was reckoned to be one of us was recognized to be God?

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans I.53

Monday, August 10, 2015

Got Rest?

Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery.  And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land.  And I said to you, “I am the Lᴏʀᴅ your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.”  But you have not obeyed my voice.  (Judges 6:8-10)

Midianites and Amalekites were having their way raiding Israel.  For seven years bands of invaders swept through the country from east to west and back again, leaving a wasteland via plunder and pillage.  God allowed this because the people of Israel had returned to doing evil: a lesson needed to be given.  After enough time the people of Israel “were brought low” and in the midst of their affliction “cried out for help to the Lᴏʀᴅ.”

We know nothing of the man who came with the message of the Lord.  In fact, I would say we might likely be surprised there were any prophets in Israel considering their spiritual state.  Should we be?  Reading enough of the Bible, especially the sections we call the Major and Minor Prophets, we see that their historical settings are generally when governmental leaders are self-serving, encouraging rapid decline, while spiritual shepherds are leading people astray.  The prophet is sent with the message of condemnation to elicit confession and repentance. 

The prophet gave a blistering message.  Notice the opening sentence: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery.”  While the encouragement may be self-evident, the rebuke is scathing as it reminds the people of a time on Sinai when the Lord spoke those same words to Moses to introduce the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2).  The people would know immediately where the rest of the message was going.  The Lord then uses the prophet to heap more on their heads by reminding them of His work on their behalf in driving out the nations, giving the Promised Land, and assuring them that He was their God with nothing to fear of any other so-called god.  But Israel had not obeyed.  What a stinging rebuke.  The Almighty Creator of heaven and earth delivered a people and fought for them to secure what He had promised, and they neglected Him.

Yet within the biting and stinging rebuke was encouragement the people needed.  God had made promises.  He had delivered them.  He had fought for them.  He was (and is) a God that is close and not far off.  He is still their God, and they are still His people.  What comfort!  Though there is not an explicit word of good news, this has prepared the people for the deliverance to come, as about this time the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon with the most shocking of pronouncements, “The Lᴏʀᴅ is with you, O mighty man of valor.”  A people who had been beaten down and broken to the point of hiding out in caves and other holes in the ground were to be delivered by a man who could only see the circumstance and not the God of grace and promise.  That same God still delivers today.

We live in a world beaten down and broken by our own hand.  Since the day Satan tempted Eve and both ate of the forbidden tree, sin ran rampant throughout mankind, and we look upon the devastation millennia later.  Rather than the marauding hordes absconding with physical goods, Satan perpetrated a master stroke through deception and subtlety: the first couple would willingly hand over their very souls.  From that time onward, we have continued on that path, eschewing what satisfies the soul and replacing it with that which can not.  The pursuit to fill the emptiness drives our cravings for that which drains further.  Whether or not we believe the attempts are are a noble goal of reconnecting with the divine—whoever or whatever that might be—each person is trying to fill a void that cannot be filled by human means.

In the aftermath of the Fall, God made a promise to crush the head of the serpent.  There would come a time when this great wrong would be made right.  Choosing a people for His own possession, God entered into a covenant with them, showcasing how He was different from all other gods and bestowing on them the privilege of being His witness to the world.  This covenant contained not just promises and blessings, but also warnings and consequences.   The relationship between the Lord and His people was one based on God’s attributes and character and was therefore entirely holy in nature.  God and His people were set apart for each other, therefore what came between (i.e., sin) had to be put away.  While there were temporary remedies through the shedding of blood, nothing was sufficient for the ultimate task.  God had to give Himself to be the final sacrifice and did so as the Son, second person of the Godhead, came into this world, put on humanity.  In so doing, He crushed the serpent’s head: sin no more had dominion.  What does this mean for today?

We still live in brokenness caused by sin.  We still seek for what cannot satisfy.  One can expect this behavior from the world.  Satan has so deluded them that the pursuit of vain things is considered the purpose of life with wealth or notoriety the pinnacle achievement; or discovering those things to be out of reach, they simply grasp for any fleeting bits of meaning.  Sadly, many in the Church act the same way.  Either they try to continue justifying themselves thinking to add to the work already completed in Christ for their salvation or to work fervently to prove myself as worthy of having received salvation.  They fail to understand that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” He meant just that.  God’s favor is gained by believing on the Son, not engaging in a flurry of “spiritual” activity at home or the local assembly, nor engaging in so-called meditative and contemplative practices masking as Christianity.  Jesus calls us to rest in Him.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matt 11:28-30)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Keep It Real

Real is the cross: the cross of life in our fallen, broken, corrupted, and dying world, as well as the cross of Jesus Christ, the world’s only hope and the one thing in this life that is truly real in the sense of carrying us to salvation and everlasting life.

Sometimes I think our plastic and narcissistic culture has placed us into a kind of delusional “matrix” along the lines of the film of that name.  The job of the Church and her ministers is to rouse people from their slumber, from their contentment to medicate and play and entertain their way out of facing the reality that the wages of sin is death—so that we can then lead them to Christ, who is the real solution to the real problem.  We are dealing with people who no longer understand what is real and what is not real, a culture that presumes that posed people from stock photos are real, while considering that which is truly real, life under the cross of Jesus, to be somehow unreal.  Once people understand the eternal reality of our fallen world and the reality of the incarnation, atonement, and the eternal kingdom of our Lord, it is much harder to fall back into the lie, the satanic delusion that all is well.… To be real in this day and age is to be countercultural, to stand out against the dull hum of phony conformity and soul-numbing mediocrity.

The one real Person who is making a real difference is Christ.

Larry Beane, Gottesdienst, Vol. 22.4

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ordinary People Used by an Extraordinary God

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  (Ac 1:8)

To complete his teaching on the book of Acts, our pastor mentioned something he heard from J. D. Greear: the gospel was spread primarily through ordinary people.  In a blog post Greear writes:
Luke goes out his way to show that the biggest advances of the gospel happen through ordinary people.
I know enough about the New Testament to affirm that conclusion.  Consider how unnamed or seldom named men and women from different regions took home the Gospel with them:
  • •  Various regions in the Roman empire  (Ac 2:9-11)
  • •  Samaria  (Ac 8:4-8)
  • •  Ethiopia  (Ac 8:35-39)
  • •  Ephesus  (Ac 18:18-21, 19:1)
  • •  Central Italy and Rome  (Ac 28:14-15)
Most people look to the work of men like Paul, Silas, Barnabas, etc. as the catalyst for the spread of redemption in Christ; however, as can be seen by the short list, the message went out, not because of the untiring work of the apostles, but rather through common believers engaged in the mundanity of life.  This is remarkable for at least two reasons.

First, fine rhetoric and oratory are unnecessary.  One may or may not be gifted or trained in the finer points of effective communication, but that skill is not required.  The effective witness simply tells of Christ and Him crucified for sin (1 Co 2:1-2, 15:3-4).  Second, the power of the words do not lie within the individual, but within the Word of God (Ro 1:16; He 4:12).  By staying with what Scripture tells of our Lord’s redeeming work in the way it is revealed, the message does its own work, because it is divinely empowered.  It cannot be improved on through "lofty speech wisdom" (1 Co 2:1) in order to win an argument, so much as clearly give a reason for the hope within you (1 Pe 3:14-16).

The spread of the Gospel was effected by ordinary people going about their ordinary lives.  We each do not need to be a trained clergyman or teaching professional to share Christ; nor do we share expecting something wonderful to happen for God in sharing.  We should neither think of the work as out of reach to do, nor dependent on me alone: both attitudes are incorrect.  The work of the Gospel belongs to God alone.  We have the privilege, as His children, to be part of the work and tell forth the saving message of Jesus.  He sends us into our workaday world (i.e., our stations of life or vocations) to make Jesus known from God’s Word in the strength He supplies (1 Pe 4:11-12).

Friday, July 31, 2015

How Great Is Our God!

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.… This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.  Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.  For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

     The Lord said to my Lord,
     Sit at my right hand,
         until I make your enemies your footstool.

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.  (Ac 2:22-24, 32-36)

Was He one of us, who, after His body had been laid in the tomb, manifested Himself in open day to countless numbers of men; who spoke to them, and listened to them; who taught them, reproved and admonished them; who, lest they should imagine that they were deceived by unsubstantial fancies, showed Himself once, a second time, even frequently, in familiar conversation; who appears even now to righteous men of unpolluted mind who love Him, not in airy dreams, but in a form of pure simplicity; whose name, when heard, puts to flight evil spirits, imposes silence on soothsayers, prevents men from consulting the soothsayers, causes the efforts of arrogant magicians to be frustrated, not by the dread of His name, as you allege, but by the free exercise of a greater power?

These facts set forth in holy summation we have put forward, not on the supposition that the greatness of the Agent was to be seen in these miracles alone.  For however great these things be, how excessively petty and trifling will they be found to be, if it shall be revealed from what realms He has come, of what God He is the minister!  But with regard to the acts which were done by Him, they were performed, indeed, not that He might boast Himself into empty ostentation, but that hardened and unbelieving men might be assured that what was professed was not deceptive, and that they might now learn to imagine, from the beneficence of His works, what a true God was.

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans I.46-47

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Confuse Zeal with Piety

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.  (Lk 18:10-14)

But let our speech and petition when we pray be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty.  Let us consider that we are standing in God’s sight.  We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voice.  For as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so, on the other hand, it is fitting to the modest man to pray with moderated petitions.… And when we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we ought to be mindful of modesty and discipline—not to throw abroad our prayers indiscriminately, with unsubdued voices, nor to cast to God with tumultuous wordiness a petition that ought to be commended to God by modesty; for God is the hearer, not of the voice, but of the heart.… And let not the worshiper, beloved brethren, be ignorant in what manner the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple—not with eyes lifted up boldly to heaven, nor with hands proudly raised; but beating his breast, and testifying to the sins shut up within, he implored the help of the divine mercy.  And while the Pharisee was pleased with himself, this man who thus asked, the rather deserved to be sanctified, since he placed the hope of salvation not in the confidence of his innocence, because there is none who is innocent; but confessing his sinfulness he humbly prayed, and He who pardons the humble heard the petitioner.

Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer 4-6