Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Real Worship War

[This email follows a sermon called "Evaluating Religion".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

For several decades now, "worship wars" have been taking place.  What is a worship war?  Well, in terms of the American church, a worship war is a battle over what style of music will be used in any given congregation.  Let's just call them cultural worship wars, since that's what they really are.  Thinking in military imagery, picture a line of men and women on one side, armed with hymnals and organs...they fight for the "traditional" army.  On the other side, picture men and women armed with electric guitars and drums...they fight for the "contemporary" army.

I realize there shouldn't be a third side in a battle, but in this case, there is one.  It is the side of musical compromise...it's the "blended army," and they hold a hymnal in one hand and an electric guitar in the other.  Much like a blended family, there can sometimes be inner turmoil in the "blended" camp.

Anyway, one army calls out its battle cry, "Turn to hymn #..."  The second does the same: "Let's rock the house!"  The third adds its voice: "Let's rock the hymnal!"  Let me give you a down to earth example of what I mean from the congregation I serve.  We have communication cards in the back of our pews, and though they are not meant to be "comment cards," they are sometimes used that way.  It's not necessarily a big deal...it's just an observation. 

Anyway, one Sunday, we received two communication cards that were used as comment cards.  I'll paraphrase how they read.  One essentially said, "I really like the old hymns...is there any way we could sing more of them?"  The other read this way: "Can we please sing some more contemporary music?"  Each of these represents one of those armies.  The same kind of preferential division could be said of preaching and preachers...each army takes up arms for their particular desire and is prepared to live or die for it.

This kind of 'cultural worship war' is everywhere.  Everyone likes what they like, and everyone would prefer to have more of what they like (the author of this blog included).  With that being laid out, I need to break the news that the purpose of today's blog is not to settle the debate between the traditional, contemporary, and blended camps.  In fact, this issue of musical style is not the real worship war...however, it does mask the real worship war.

The real worship war is revealed in the words of Isaiah 29:13 - "...this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men."  This is where the battle lines are drawn...the battle is to keep the heart engaged where the mouth is.  Our mouths must say good and right things as we praise, preach, and pray, but we must fight to keep our hearts engaged with our mouths...to fight against the drifting heart.

In Isaiah 29, the battle is not about words...the rightness of the words is settled in Isaiah's mind.  It's right doctrine...it's right content.  God says their words "honor me."  The problem in Isaiah's audience is that their hearts don't believe what their mouths are saying!  This is where the real battle is...it is the battle for the heart.  "Above all else, guard your hearts..." (Prov. 4:23).

Think about this.  Cultural worship wars are primarily centered on preferences...in that way, they are mostly self-centered.  The real worship war is centered on spiritual sincerity...in that way, it is more God-glorifying.  Part of the difficulty, in the American culture, is that the line between what is merely preferential and what is biblical gets blurred.  Some styles are said to be truly sincere, while others are not.  This is simply untrue.

Do you realize what happens when cultural worship wars dominate our view of corporate worship?  We lose the real worship war, and we lose our hearts to consumerism.  We become convinced that we can't reflect on the goodness and mercy of God in Christ (in song and in preaching) unless is comes in the package we prefer.  Then, when we find the package we like, it's not the glory of the cross that generates awe and wonder; it's the packaging.  At that point, our defeat is concealed by our happiness in having our desires met.

As I said, the cultural worship war masks the real worship war, and it seems that the enemy loves to mask spiritual issues with superficial issues.  That way, if we can stay divided and argumentative and stubborn and selfish about the superficial, we'll never actually deal with the spiritual.  As Christians, we must take the warning of Isaiah 29 seriously, and we must fight the good fight of the worship war.  We must fight to stay doctrinally right in our praise, our prayers, and our preaching...and we can't stop there.  We must fight to believe, love, and live in light of all that we sing and pray and hear from the Word...then, we have victory in the worship war for our souls.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Compartmentalized Life?

[This entry follows a sermon called "A Sure Foundation".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

This last Sunday, we worked our way through Isaiah 28 and found several things that are uncertain foundations for life.  One of these was political stability, and the way the people of Judah were seeking to keep their stability was through a treaty with Egypt.  Assyria was breathing down their neck, and King Hezekiah set the nation’s hopes on Egyptian help for deliverance.

One of the odd things about this treaty was the fact that it was Hezekiah who was making it.  He was a king who led the nation through great religious reform.  In many modern translations, there aren’t just chapter and verse numbers…there are also little headlines to help one find his way.  Let me run through a few of the headlines regarding Hezekiah’s religious reform from 2 Chronicles 29-31:

1.      Hezekiah Reigns in Judah (29:1-2) – Hezekiah’s ascension to power came at the age of 25, and the Scripture, speaking generally about Hezekiah’s reign, said he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 2).

2.      Hezekiah Cleanses the Temple (29:3-19) – The former king of Judah, Ahaz, had promoted idolatry in the nation and closed the doors of the temple (28:24).  Hezekiah restored what Ahaz had taken away, so that the priests “brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the Lord…And the Levites took it and carried it out to the brook at Kidron” (v. 16).

3.      Hezekiah Restores Temple Worship (29:20-36) – With the temple cleansed, proper worship was once again practiced.  “Thus the service of the house of the Lord was restored” (v. 35b).

4.      Passover Celebrated (30:1-27) – Passover was one of the most important times of the year, and it had not been celebrated recently “because the priests had not consecrated themselves in sufficient number, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” (v. 3).  So distinct and celebratory was this Passover that this was written about it: “So there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (v. 26).  Not only was it unique; this pleased the Lord so that the prayers of the priests and Levites “came to his holy habitation in heaven” (v. 27).

5.      Hezekiah Organizes the Priests (31:1-21) – With the initial reform under way, it was time to delegate.  Hezekiah did just that and made sure that proper order was re-established in the service of the temple.  “And Hezekiah appointed the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, division by division, each according to his service…” (v. 2a).

These are great headlines.  If you were a faithful believer in God and these were the newspaper headlines of your day, you would rejoice in all of this.  In fact, the chronicler summarizes all this with the following words: “This Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God.  And every work he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (31:20-21).

It’s as if things couldn’t get any better.  Yet, Hezekiah didn’t just come to power in a nation of religious idolatry…he also came to power and had to deal with international instability.  As I said, Assyria was breathing down Judah’s neck.  How would Hezekiah respond?  Would he seek the Lord, as he did in the religious reform (30:21)?  Unfortunately, this would not be his first response.

When one of the Assyrian commanders, Rabshekah, shows up with a message, he points out where the king has looked for help.  In 2 Kings 18:21, he says this: “Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.  Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.”  The king whose allegiance to God was clear in matters of religious reform is now turning to Egypt for military protection.  In other words, religion had its place, and leadership had another…he compartmentalized his life.

This is the temptation today, isn’t it?  It is easy to have a “Christianity” compartment, a “career” compartment, a “family” compartment, a “recreation/entertainment” compartment, etc.  It can show up in things as simple as a list of priorities…God is first, family is second, church activity/commitment is third, friends are fourth, work/school is fifth, and the list continues.  But what is implied in lists such as these?  Look back at the list, write out your own list of priorities, and then answer that question…what is implied in a list like this one?

Here’s the answer, as I understand it.  In making a list like this, we are implying that all of the items on the list are separate things that have different levels of importance in our lives.  Does that sound about right?  The next question is this…is this the way that God would have us live?  Would God have us separate everything on the hypothetical list I gave and then rank their importance in relation to one another?  Stop again, and think about it.

  It separates.  It separates work from family…ok.  It separated entertainment from work…still ok.  It separates God from…wait a second, it separates God?  That’s the implication.  There’s my life with God, which is most important…then my life with my family is second in importance.  And we talk in this way, as if the two should never intersect? 

The truth is…we may have priorities, but if we are Christians, God doesn’t belong as a single item on the list.  Rather, every item on our list of human priorities must be influenced by our relationship to God.  So, maybe we should have a list…maybe we shouldn’t.  But if we choose to make written priorities, it seems that every item ought to contain some kind of adjective (e.g.- “God-honoring,” “God-centered,” “God-glorifying,” etc.).

Hezekiah’s priority list may have started with (1) God and (2) career, but it seems that Isaiah’s prophecy would have been different if it had been (1) God-centered worship in the nation and (2) God-centered military leadership.  Even then, Rabshekah would have shown up to taunt the people, but their victory would have been sure…rather than a last-minute prayer from the king and deliverance from the Lord (2 Ki. 19:14-36).

The questions we must ask ourselves are obvious…am I seeking to honor God in every aspect of my life, or is my life divided into compartments?  Does God’s Word affect my attitude and behavior in my career, or do I see its place only in organized Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons?  Am I seeking to live a God-centered life apart from God-centered commitments to God’s people or corporate worship?  [These last two are incompatible, by the way…but that’s a subject for another blog.]

God’s people must never separate God’s influence from any part of life.  He is King, and there is no part of our lives exempt from His dominion…not our family, not our career, not our friendships, not our recreation, not our entertainment…nothing.  He rules it all, and we are to live in such a way that our lives reflect His rulership over it all.  May God help us not compartmentalize our lives.  Rather, let us commit, once again, to “make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9) in every part of life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why All The Judgment Talk?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "God's Message for the World".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

The oracles found in Isaiah 13-23 are weighty words. They are called ‘burdens’ in the King James Version, and when one reads through them, we understand why. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31), and considering the jaw-dropping nature of God’s judgment, this statement is absolutely true.

In the world in which we live, there is a trend of skipping over God’s judgment all together (or minimizing it) and heading straight for His love and mercy. This is an understandable thing because the Bible’s depiction of judgment is quite incredible, and it is more palatable to think on God’s love and mercy instead. It also may be understandable because Uncle Bob (or Aunt Mabel) isn’t a Christian, and we don’t want to think about those we love suffering as the Scripture describes.

Yet, as understandable as it is, the various teachings which skip or minimize God’s judgment also skip or minimize God’s teaching on the subject. Some do this dismissively, thinking that since they can’t reconcile God’s justice and love in their minds, they can dismiss the one they like the least. Others do this painstakingly, trying to look at the Scriptures (and even passages on judgment) in ways that fit what they want to be true. Needless to say, I believe that both those who ignore the Scripture and those who try to make the Scripture fit their desired end have failed in their understanding of the biblical witness.

Now, having said all of that, there is a pressing question that lingers after studying this heavy section of Isaiah. Why all the talk about judgment? Why deal with nations individually? It’s as if Isaiah is saying, “Babylon, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Moab, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Tyre, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Edom, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God. Damascus, it is a fearful thing for you to fall into the hands of the living God.” And he just keeps going and going! Why is all this talk of judgment so necessary?

This is a great question, and I think there are answers. God's pronouncement of judgment is not purposeless, and it's not just information He wants to communicate. It is ultimately meant to foster faith. It may not seem like that at first glance, but let me give you three examples of what I mean. How does the reality of judgment feed our faith?

(1) It gives us confidence in the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God speaks of His power. In human terms, a king is the sovereign over his domain. In the days of Isaiah, kings were understood to lay down the law and enforce it…the buck stopped at their throne. The king’s vision for the kingdom was lived out in the way he punished and rewarded certain action. God is the King of the Universe…that is His domain. He has laid down the law, and one cannot transgress His laws without facing Him and receiving the due penalty for that transgression.

God has a vision for His kingdom…a vision of holiness, of righteousness, of justice, of peace…and God will being that vision to fruition. The evil that often seems to reign in this world will be dealt with by the Sovereign of the Universe. If God did not deal with evil nations and evil men, then His vision would never be accomplished…He would not be a just God…He would not be worthy of our worship. Yet, Isaiah’s oracles of judgment remind those hearing his message that God is sovereign over all things. Their lives of faithful suffering as the servants of God will not be meaningless. It is not for God’s people to take revenge, for God has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).

Now…let me clarify. The judgment of God is not an opportunity for the believer to shake his finger in the face of the world and arrogantly say, “You’ll get yours! Just you wait!” If it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, then it should make our souls tremble. Instead of boasting, we recognize that apart from the grace of God, the sentence of condemnation would be ours as well. We look to the cross, where our condemnation was endured by Christ. We entrust the souls of others into the Lord’s hands, knowing He will judge justly. We carry the message of the gospel (which brought us from condemnation to reconciliation) to the nations (who need to be brought from condemnation to reconciliation), knowing that the sovereign God who judges also justifies the one who believes (Rom. 3:21-26).

(2) The pronouncement of judgment leads to assurance in the hearts of believers. This was implied in the last paragraph, but it is worthy of its own heading. How do oracles warning of God’s judgment give assurance to believers? The simple answer is…the heart of the believer is genuinely struck by messages of warning. The believer knows that what God has said will come to pass, and that person is sent back to the basis of his/her acceptance with the Lord.

When the believing heart hears threats toward those are unbelieving and unfaithful, it is stirred. “How will I escape such a terrible threat? I am just as sinful as those who received that oracle. How can I be certain?” Then, the believing heart finds its resting place…in the person and work of Jesus. “Jesus is my faithful high priest forever. He didn’t make atonement with the blood of bulls and goats but with His own blood. He is not ashamed to call me ‘brother.’ God has accepted me on the basis of Christ’s work, so that my sin is no longer held against me.”

This is not a one-time experience. Our assurance in Christ is built over time, not in a single moment. Each day, we must remember that our standing before God is in Christ. Listen to the writer of Hebrews again, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts in rebellion’” (3:13-15).

It is ‘today’, and the warnings of Isaiah 13-23 are as true and relevant today as they were when they were first uttered. The judgment of God is certain and serious, and His wrath is against all unrighteousness and ungodliness (Rom. 1:18). How does that strike your heart? Does it stir you, or do you turn a blind eye? Does it take the eyes of your heart back to the cross, seeing the Son of God stricken with the wrath of God in your place? Having seen this, do you reaffirm the confidence of your salvation…carrying it one step closer “to the end”? If so, then God’s judgment has led to assurance in your heart. See how it works?

(3) Finally, the pronouncement of God’s judgment is meant to lead to repentance in the lives of unbelievers. As Isaiah is preaching these messages in Judah and Jerusalem, certainly there is the expectation that those living in unbelief will repent and believe. We see it in Isaiah 22:12 – “In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth.” These words were spoken in Jerusalem about Jerusalem. God’s call was for repentance. It’s what God called for back in 1:19 – “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat of the good of the land.”

It is God’s call toward the end of the book as well. God is still confronting sin, and yet he is calling for repentance. “I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain” (57:12-13). It’s one of those great “but” statements in the Scripture. Judgment seems sure, but the one who will turn and take refuge in the Lord will inherit the holy mountain.

The severity and certainty of God’s judgment does not need to be the final word. In fact, through the pronouncement of judgment, God desires the repentance of the unbelieving man and woman. He wants them to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (55:6). How? Isaiah 55:7 – “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
It is true that judgment is a weighty subject, but according to God, it is a needed subject. It reminds us of His sovereignty, it helps build assurance in believers, and it calls for repentance in unbelievers. May it have God’s desired effects on our souls!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Did I Worship God Today?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Here I Am to Worship".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

"Worship is recognizing the supreme value in God, such that one's life is consumed with knowing, exalting, and enjoying Him."  This was the definition of worship I gave on Sunday morning.  It's actually an edited definition I heard many years ago, the origin of which I do not know.  In looking at Isaiah 12, we thought first about the reason we worship...our salvation from God.  Second, we thought about the atmosphere of worship...personal and corporate communion.  Finally, we finished with the evangelism of worship...evangelism is worship among the nations.  This third point is the subject of my writing today.

Evangelism is worship.  That's what we claimed.  So, that means that evangelism is an expression of knowing God, exalting God, and enjoying God.  Let's briefly look at all three to see if it holds up.  First, evangelism is an expression of (1) knowing God.  We know Him as the only Creator of the world...the holy Judge to whom all mankind must give an account.  Apart from some kind of intervention, men and women will suffer eternally under the wrath of God.  This we know as we evangelize. 

Second, evangelism is an expression of (2) exalting God.  As we evangelize, we are proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the only way of salvation.  We are exalting Him above all others.  We exalt Him, as the song says, "Above all powers, above all kings.  Above all nature and all created things.  Above all wisdom and all the ways of man...above all kingdoms, above all thrones.  Above all wonders the world has ever known.  Above all wealth and treasures of the earth..."

Finally, evangelism is an expression of (3) enjoying God.  This may be the most difficult to believe because most of us are terrified when faced with an evangelistic opportunity...especially one in which we have to 'make a way' into the conversation.  Yet, once we get through the door and share the gospel, how do we feel?  We typically feel incredible.  Even when the conversation gets shut down, there is a joy in obeying the Lord...in speaking a gospel word to an unbeliever.  I once heard John Piper talk about this joy after evangelism...this feeling of "give me somebody else!"  He said that once, as he was praying for his congregation, he prayed, "Lord, give us the feelings we have after evangelism before the evangelism begins..."

Well, I want to give a brief testimony to this myself.  I do not share to exalt me but to give testimony to the joy that God gives in evangelism...that evangelism is enjoying God.  God ordained an amazing opportunity this morning, as I had breakfast with a friend.  Our waitress noticed we were reading our Bibles, and she began asking all kinds of probing questions on all kinds of topics.  Then, she said it...she uttered the words of an open door.  She said, "None of us is perfect.  You just have to do your best, and that's all you can do."

There it is...my opportunity.  My eyes got big, and I said, "You know...it's a noble thing to do your best, but God says it's not good enough.  He demands perfection."  This led to an explanation of the gospel, an invitation to study the Bible at our church, and a "Two Ways to Live" tract for her to read over.  There's more...as all this was happening, all the waitresses in the diner seemed to make their way over for some portion of the conversation.  Prayerfully, gospel seed was spread in many a heart this morning.

And...how did it feel driving away?  Well, I sure didn't feel good about me...I wasn't proud of me.  If it were up to me, I probably would have eaten my omelet, had a good discussion on Ephesians 5 with my friend, and gone about my day.  I didn't go in with the idea that I would be evangelizing anyone.  Yet, God ordained an appointment with this girl...who knows what her last few weeks have been like?  She just got up and went to work today...not thinking she'd run into a Christian with an open Bible.  Yet, in that moment, God opened her mouth to ask questions and opened mine to answer them.  God opened her up to be interested in what I was saying, and God kept helping me interact with her.

How did it feel driving away?  It felt humbling...it felt convicting to not go in praying for such an opportunity.  However, above all, it felt exhilarating...I was ecstatic...I was oozing with joy in the Lord.  He had graced me with an opportunity to worship Him among the nations today.  When I shared it with our staff this afternoon, how did they respond?  Joy!  As another staff member shared an evangelistic opportunity, what filled the room?  Joy!  I long for these types of moments to be multiplied in my life and to be multiplied in yours as well.  May God give us the boldness to worship Him through evangelism today!