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The Incarnation and the Worshiping Community (Part 1 of 2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.  And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

A friend suggested to me recently that Christian truth is contained in three great Christian doctrines:  the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection.  As I’ve considered his statement, I have often found myself challenged in my thinking and reviewing the depth of each of these foundational beliefs.  Whether or not we want to hold to this view, we can surely spend a lifetime studying and learning them.

The season of Advent affords an excellent opportunity to explore the ideas found within the doctrine of the Incarnation.  This doctrine is considered in detail in such studies as T.M. Moore’s set of articles titled, “Why God became Man.”  In this series, T.M. leads the reader through the arguments put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in his classic treatment of the subject.

My purpose—in this article and the next—is to ascertain how the Incarnation might be appropriately made part of the worship experience in a gathered community.  We must be careful to balance the intricacies of this doctrine as it explains the miracle of “God with us,” while at the same time connecting it with why it really matters today.  We must stay away from reciting a dusty doctrine and be sure to see how it encourages transform lives.

That Jesus Christ is the God-man stands at the center of the Incarnation, as we can see from the opening verses of the Gospel of John quoted above.  These verses swirl around and create a picture of a Creator who spoke, whose very Word has life, and that this living Word is God Himself.  It is this Word – which embodies the fullness of knowledge, wisdom and truth – which becomes embodied.  The Word becomes flesh and dwells among fallen mankind.  God becomes man.  God is with us!

When placed within the scope of the Christian Worldview, this is a revelation for wonder and celebration. From both theological conviction, as well as common experience, all of mankind knows the state of their plight (see Romans 1:18-32).  We know all too well that we are separated from God and that our best efforts have failed to repair the damaged relationship created by Adam’s disobedience (see Romans 3:9-12, 23).  It is in the midst of this despair and hopeless state that Christ comes.

And His coming to us is a vital aspect of the Incarnation.  The humble willingness and submissive obedience of Jesus to lay aside the privileges of His divinity to come near to us in human form is nothing more than a miracle (see Philippians 2:5-11).  The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ, existing as the “exact representation” of God, yet took on flesh and blood in order to identify with humanity – not just in theory, but in reality (see Hebrews 1:3 and 2:14).

As a result of this great story, we gather together in communities of faith with much to celebrate.  Yet, it must be done is such a way that we worship more than a babe in a manger, but reflect the fullness of the gospel message as it flows through the creation-fall-redemption paradigm.  The wonder of Jesus coming in the flesh is lost if we miss the need of humanity to overcome the sin nature as a result of Adam’s disobedience.

One specific example of how this can be done well – and memorably – is in the great hymn by Isaac Watts that we sing each year, “Joy to the World.”  Let’s consider how Watts reflects the themes of Christian Worldview in this victorious hymn.  After a statement of rejoicing and hope in the first stanza, Watts calls together the voices of both mankind and the created order for celebrating both of the first two stanzas.

We can see this theme in the lines:

Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy…

And what are they celebrating?  The restoration of what had been broken.  Romans 8:18-23 reminds us that creation was “subjected to futility” as God laid upon Adam the consequences of his sin and the ripples into the whole of creation.  Watts is noting in these few words that something had been broken after a good and perfect creation.

In stanza three, Watts clearly explains the problem that involves all of human kind and the whole created order – sin and the curse.  The repercussions of Adam’s sin were like a shockwave that impacting everything.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found…

By drawing into his lyrics the seriousness of the effects of sin, Watts skillfully reminds us why we need a Savior.  Watts shows us why the rejoicing he calls for is important and vital.  In the final stanza he returns to his original point of lifting our voices in joy for the Savior that has come.  Our King has come!  His rule is “with truth and grace” which shows the wonders of His love.

It is the fullness of this story that we celebrate at Christmas.  It is in considering the full sweep of the creation-fall-redemption paradigm that we can understand – and celebrate – the meaning of the Incarnation.

(Original Post on December 5, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/18892-the-incarnation-and-the-worshiping-community-part-1)

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Worship and The Legacy of the Arts

So Moses summoned Bezalel, Oholiab, and every skilled person in whose heart the Lord had placed wisdom, everyone whose heart moved him, to come to the work and do it.”  (Exodus 36:2)

It was the middle of the week, and my family stepped into the church in the midst of a busy tourist town.  As we entered the church, I found it interesting – even strikingly so – that amidst the activity and noise of the street outside, the church’s interior was quiet.  In fact, I would certainly describe it as a “sacred” quiet.  As people entered the church, they whispered to each other.  Many would find a pew and sit, listen and observe the peacefulness discovered within the walls of the sanctuary.  Calmness permeated the place and everyone seemed to know that respect and dignity were found there.

The church had been built (and apparently rebuilt several times in 170 years) in the fashion of a small cathedral.  The entire sanctuary was notably shaped as a cross.  The entry was the foot of the cross, and as you approached the altar there were two “wings” with pews that shaped the arms of the cross.  Unlike our modern buildings, cathedrals and churches of ancient times were constructed to preach the gospel without words.  We can certainly see the reflection of God’s image in this human creativity when we consider that God, Himself, also preaches without words – for Psalm 19 tells us that the “heavens declare the glory of God” even though “there is no speech, nor are there words” (vss 1-3).

But it didn’t end there.  I began to walk about the building and look closely at the stained glass windows.  There I found bold, unapologetic statements of Christian doctrine and truth.  The doctrine of the Trinity – fashioned in glass – showing the truth of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three persons, yet one God.  Reminders of God’s power as experienced by Israel in various Old Testament stories.  Images from the medieval church reminding visitors of Christ’s work, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, the uniqueness of Jesus as the God-man, the stories of the four gospel writers, St. Paul preaching at Mars Hill, Zaccheus in the tree, and on and on.  I could have spent hours there and even my kids were intrigued as I began to explain the meaning of this artwork.

Just as Bezalel and Oholiab were chosen by God to build the Tabernacle, and commissioned by Moses, so those who infused the gospel into the structure of this church were expressing their faith without words.  From the comments of a local evangelical pastor, the clergy and membership of this church hardly stood for the gospel any longer – but were social activists based upon a liberal and ecumenical religious stance and political correctness.  Acceptance of the profane and immoral were the norm – all in the name of tolerance.

Yet, here the gospel was proclaimed faithfully from years past.  Those artists had built a message that stood strong against the social ills of this age.  And I wondered whether we were doing the same for future generations.  Does the structure of what we build – buildings for worship, worship services, musical forms and expression, recordings and videos – are these things really infused with the truth of Christ like that?  Not just words or the message, but the mediums and methods themselves?  Could they see or hear our Christian convictions if the words were silenced?

We must work and pray that it might be so.  We must work toward establishing artistic expressions in all of the arts that represent Truth deeply and concretely.  We must think further, clearer and deeper as we proclaim the gospel, seek first His kingdom, and share the love of Christ with those around us.

Our Father, help us in Your grace to honor You in ALL we do.  Not just by words, but in the very structure of what we create, as those created in Your image, and reflecting the creativity of the One whose voice is heard even without words.  Amen.

Worship, Songs and Life

Your statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.”  Psalm 119:54

The dynamics of our life at home have evolved over the years and have come to include a family devotional time.  Our particular pattern is to share a Scripture passage, often as part of an ongoing reading of a book or chapter, and then have a short discussion about what that passage might mean in our lives.  After that, we share some “good thing” that God has brought to each of us that day, or something that we were successful at accomplishing – all to recognize God’s goodness in our lives.  We are able to share in this way four or five times a week.

At one point our path led to Psalm 119.  I began to read this Psalm, section by section, and each night we would discuss the meaning of each section.  As anyone who has read through this Psalm might realize, our discussions always turned toward the importance of God’s Word in the life of the Psalmist.  Over and over again the writer of this Psalm declared, expounded, and stated in a multitude of ways how God’s Word penetrated every part of his thinking and activities, and really, his entire life.

Certainly, we had noted the importance of God’s Word in other passages, but my children seemed intrigued by how many ways the Psalmist wrote about the Word of God.  He used descriptive words like commandments, laws, precepts, statutes, ways, testimonies and others to paint a broad picture of how God’s Word infiltrated every idea, thought and action of the Psalmist.  We couldn’t help realizing that the presence of God’s Word in the Psalmist’s mind and heart did not just transform his mind, but changed his life.  He recognized the value of the constant presence of God’s Word.

I like the short phrase from verse 54, “Your statutes are my songs…”  As worship leaders and musicians, I’m sure we find ourselves leading songs that are full of Biblical references – either as direct quotes from the Bible, or in some form of paraphrase.  These musical representations of Scripture are important, and often a vital method of hiding His Word in our hearts (another quote from Psalm 119:11).  We shouldn’t underestimate the value of God’s Word and music combined in such a manner.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if the Psalmist might mean something quite different when he says that God’s Words are his songs.  Because the “statutes” refer to God’s directives for how to live life, could the Psalmist mean that by following these statutes life becomes a sort of “melody”?  Could it be that, rather than an actual song (with music and notes), that the pleasure of living life according to God’s Word produces a life that “sings” in harmony with God’s purposes?

Consider how much of our life we live that we cannot, or at least should not, burst out into song.  We may be listening to or giving a lecture, playing hockey, welding a frame, or completing any number of tasks from caring for a child or the elderly, to depositing a check into the bank.  Does God’s Word so fill us that we see our daily activities as an extension of living His Word out into daily life?  Could it be that our obedience in life could become a melody of living?

Think of it in this way:  maybe the Psalmist is suggesting that our lives are songs springing from the heart of God, through His Word, into our world.  What an awesome life that would be!

Lord, may we learn to become a melody of life based on Your Word.  Grant us submissive and obedient hearts to live out Your Word through each day, in each decision and in each interaction with those around us.  In Jesus name, Amen.

Now What? Worship AFTER Easter…

Now What?

Now that the great Easter services are over, what do we do?  How do we top that?

I have found over the years that churches, pastors, worship leaders and music planners have a tendency to create such grandiose worship services for Easter, that the following week(s) are something of a let-down.  After the hours and hours of work and preparation, rehearsal, and the adrenaline rush of Easter morning, we get tired.  And it shows.

I don’t write this in order to take away from the importance of great and celebrative worship.  We certainly see examples of this in Scripture, when His people see God move they are often moved to celebration.  I’m reminded of the festival-like procession and worship that Nehemiah led after completing the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  Two choirs, all the officials in attendance, and an enormous feast!

In fact, our Christian year seems to “bounce” from one grand celebration to the next.  From Christmas to Easter to other events that are liturgically based as well as cultural.  Yet, the intervening weeks sometimes exist as if in a mist.  The march of the Sunday to Sunday schedule is relentless, and even after the BIG EVENT the next week is just a few days away.  So what do we do?  How do we keep up and keep fresh?

Well, ideas may abound to work through these things.  Some churches have the ability to draw on resources of multiple teams of people to plan and lead worship, which allows them to plan for and execute the next Sunday’s needs with a fresh perspective and fresh people.  Others have leaders that apparently have abundant energy.  No need for a break, they just keep going and going (like that pink bunny in the commercials).

Yet, there are many churches and leaders that don’t have such resources of people or energy.  One suggestion I have is to be purposeful about quietness and reflection.  The members of the congregation may be experiencing some exhaustion from Easter activities as well, not to mention that some Spring Break activity goes on in the same time frame.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Review the story of Christ’s appearances following the Resurrection. Consider what it may have been like for those who saw Him.  How might that idea work in a worship service?
  • Spend time in the service reflecting on the coming summer months – what is God preparing for your congregation? How might we bring redemption into the lives of those God has put in our paths?
  • Consider the grandeur of God and the ascension of Christ to His right hand? What might it be like in their presence?

These are only a few thoughts.  The flow of worship from week to week should follow the “warp and woof” of life.  Just like we celebrate in life, we must also get on with the daily life of work.

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