Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why and how to use creeds in worship

Isaiah 29:13–14 (NKJV)
13 Therefore the LORD said: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men, 14 Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work Among this people, A marvelous work and a wonder; For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.”

Every Lord’s Day we have opportunity to confess our common faith with one of the ancient creeds. Currently, we are reciting the Apostles’ Creed but we use others at different times of year. In churches like ours that use the creeds – as well as other written responses and prayers – there is an ever-present danger – the danger of mindless repetition, of drawing near to God with our lips while our hearts remain far from him. As our passage in Isaiah illustrates, the prophets were stern in their rebukes of the people of God for this sin, the sin of failing to draw near to God in our hearts and substituting external ritual for an inward love for Him. So if common confession entails this danger why even do it? There are numerous reasons that we recite the creeds – consider just a few.

First, reciting the creeds enables us to declare boldly and clearly whom we worship. Amid a pluralistic society in which a variety of gods are honored, we declare our trust in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship Vishnu, nor Zeus, nor Allah, nor the Mormon deity; neither do we worship America’s idol, some general theistic deity. We worship the Triune God; in Him is our trust.

Second, by reciting the creeds immediately after the reading of God’s Word, we declare our trust in the Sovereign Lord who has revealed Himself in sacred Scripture. As God’s Word continues to be spurned in our culture and even in many churches, we confess openly, “We trust in God and His Word. He is God; we are not. We shall do what He says and follow Him.” With the creeds, we express our faith--we trust the One who has spoken to us in His Word.

Third, reciting the creeds reminds us to preserve the faith which has been handed down to us. Jude commands us to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). When we confess the creeds, we acknowledge our indebtedness to the saints who have gone before. We confess the faith because they preserved it; and this now is our duty for future generations. The God we worship is the God of Abraham and Isaac, Peter and Paul, Ambrose and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Edwards and Whitefield, J. Gresham Machen and Francis Schaeffer. They lived, breathed, suffered, and died to preserve this faith for us and we are called to hand it down in turn.

While remembering why we recite the creeds, it is also important to emphasize how we are to do it. And this brings us back to our opening danger – the danger of mindless repetition. As we recite the creed each Lord’s Day we declare, “We believe…” It is important to ask, believe it or not, what we mean by the word “believe”? James reminds us: “You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe and shudder!” There is a certain type of belief that will not deliver in the day of judgment. So when we confess the creed, the belief that we should be confessing is not a mere admission of intellectual assent, “Oh, yeah, this is what I think,” but rather an expression of heartfelt commitment, “This is the One I love, I trust, I cherish, I adore.”

And so, how are we doing? Children, how are you doing? Are you embracing and cherishing the One who has called you His own in the waters of baptism? Are you approaching worship in faith, hungering to hear the voice of Christ, to be changed and transformed by His SpiritHHHeH? Adults, how are you doing? Is worship growing ever more sweet and lovely? Are you reciting the creeds intelligently and faithfully or merely by rote? Our confession should be robust, lively, and full of faith. Beware lipping the words and losing your heart.

Reminded of our propensity to draw near to God with our lips and fail to draw near Him with our hearts, let us seek His face and ask Him to forgive us and make the fruit of our lips a pleasing sacrifice in His sight. And as you are able, let us kneel together as we confess our sin to the Lord. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sanctity of Human Life Sunday

Ezekiel 16:20-21 (NKJV)
Moreover you took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to [your idols] to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to [your gods] by causing them to pass through the fire?

Once upon a time there was a man and wife who longed to have a child. However, for some years the wife could not conceive. Finally, to their great delight, she found herself with child and husband and wife eagerly awaited her birth

It just so happened that the couple’s home overlooked a walled garden that was owned by a terrible witch. As the wife’s pregnancy progressed, she developed an intense craving for the nut lettuce or rapunzel that she saw growing there. She begged and pleaded with her husband to get her some of the rapunzel but he refused, knowing it was wrong to steal and being afraid of the witch. However, when his wife became so desperate that she ceased eating altogether, he relented, broke into the garden, and stole some rapunzel.

His wife was delighted. She made herself a large salad and devoured the rapunzel. But her desire for the rapunzel only increased. The next day she demanded more – and again the next day. But just as the husband was making away with the lettuce, he was discovered by the witch. Great was her wrath as she loomed above him.

“How dare you steal from my garden?” demanded the witch. “Prepare to die!”

“Please,” begged the husband, “have mercy! I would not have dared to steal from your garden but my wife is pregnant with our first child and declared that she would die without this rapunzel.”

At these words the witch’s demeanor softened though her lips curled in derision and her eyes bore a hungry look. “Very well, you may take the rapunzel. But this is the price you must pay – when your wife has borne this child, you must give it to me.”

The man agreed. After all, what else could he do? He had stolen from her garden and would lose his own life if he refused. And perhaps the witch would forget the bargain? So he departed with the rapunzel. Soon his wife gave birth to their child, a lovely daughter. Immediately the witch appeared to claim her prize and the parents watched helpless as she took the child away. They were brokenhearted.

The story of Rapunzel reminds us that when we choose to serve other gods, they frequently give us their goods – even as the witch gave away her rapunzel – but these goods always come at a price; and that price is frequently our children. It was for this abomination, the abomination of handing their children over to other gods, that God exhorted our fathers through His prophet Ezekiel.
Moreover you took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to [your idols] to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to [your gods] by causing them to pass through the fire?

Today we celebrate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Today is the 44th anniversary of the diabolical Roe v Wade decision. Since then Americans alone have slaughtered over 59 million children, offered them up to our gods and polluted our hands with blood. In America the gods that we have been worshiping – consumerism, greed, immorality, power, influence, convenience, beauty – have been demanding our children. We’ve made a pact with the witch and now she’s taking our children. Even more tragically, many of these slaughtered children were slain by professing Christians. We have taken God’s children and caused them to pass through the fire.

Is there hope? Only in our Prince, the Lord Jesus Christ. He can rescue us and our children from our false gods, deliver us from the madness that has overtaken us, and take us to His own kingdom. For though He too demands our children, He demands them that they may live not that they may die. So let us listen to Him, hear His voice, and turn from the false gods we have worshiped.

Reminded that we have been worshiping other gods and sacrificing our children to them, let us kneel as we’re able and confess our sins to the Lord.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Public Reading of Scripture

Nehemiah 8:5, 8
“Ezra opened the book [of the law] in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. . . . They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”

Every church has traditions. They are unavoidable. They span from the type of music used in worship, to the clothes the preacher wears, to the time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Every church has traditions.

This realization should cause us some concern. For when we read the Gospels we know that Jesus issues some severe admonitions about the dangers of tradition. He warns that our traditions can become subtle or not-so-subtle ways to disobey the commandments of God.

It is refreshing, therefore, when we read the Word of God and behold faithful traditions which have been established by the people of God in the past--traditions which do not violate but rather uphold the commandments of God. Such are the traditions in our text today from Nehemiah. There are three.

First, Ezra read from the book of the law. The law or Word of God, we are told repeatedly, is our wisdom, understanding, and life. It is this Word that conveys to us the truth of God and that is used by the Spirit of God to enliven us spiritually. Therefore, what better way to testify to this life transforming power of God’s Word than to read the Scriptures publicly in our worship?

Second, notice that in reading the Law, Ezra read it is such a way that the word was “translated to give the sense.” Have you ever wondered why we don’t read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek during our Sunday worship? Have you ever wondered why the Reformers objected to the Roman Church’s practice of reading the word of God exclusively in Latin? Here is your answer. When the law is read aloud, it is to be read in a manner which the people of God can understand. We must not erect traditions of language which preclude the people of God from accessing His Word. And so, our tradition is that we read the Word of God in English translation.

Third, notice that when Ezra opened the book of the law, the people of Israel stood up. Standing communicates respect, attentiveness, eagerness, and determination. It is, after all, at the most intense moments of an athletic competition that the spectators stand on their feet, on their tiptoes, straining to see the action. And when we stand for the reading of the Word we are communicating that here is one of the most central moments of worship. God is speaking to us—not through the frail mouth of the preacher, not through the symbolism of the sacrament, but through the living words of the text directly.

The tradition of reading the Word of God week in and week out, therefore, upholds the centrality of God’s Word in our worship and lives. The Word of God is that which gives us focus, meaning, and direction. Apart from it we are no more than a rudderless ship. So Paul commands Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (ESV, 1 Tim 4:13).

What then is to be our response to the reading? First, we are told in Nehemiah 8:3 that “all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” And this is our first obligation. We should be straining our ears to hear the words of the living God. Our ears should be attentive; all our being should be focused on God’s revelation of Himself.

Second, we should determine to give heed to that which we hear. We are told in the 12th verse of this same chapter that “all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” Having read the law’s regulations on the Feast of Booths, the people immediately set out to obey it. The people understood the law and gave heed to it.

This reminds us that we often fail to give heed God’s Word as we ought. Our attention is often distracted when it is read. Our own opinions often intrude. Our heart often refuses to obey when we have heard. So let us draw near to God and ask Him to cleanse us of our faults.