Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.

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David Murray – Rehearsal for Calvary

murray__005_400x400David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary.  He is also pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church.  David is the author of Christian Get Depressed Too, How Sermons Work, and Jesus on Every Page (USA Link).  You can read his blog, HeadHeartHand or follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray.  David is married to Shona and they have five children ranging from 1 to 18 years old.  I am thankful to David for contibuting to our Incarnation Series marking the release of Pleased to Dwell. Here, David takes us back to the book of Judges and points our hearts to Christ:

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Judges chapter thirteen opens with the nation of Israel suffering under the reign of the Philistines. In the middle of this a woman is suffering under her own personal grief: she is barren.

Into this national and personal sorrow the Son of God appears as the angel (literally “messenger”) of the Lord appears to this woman, promising her an end to her barrenness and an end to the Philistine occupation. His appearance is such that she describes him as a man of God with a very awesome appearance, like the angel of the Lord. Neither the woman nor her husband yet realize that this is more than a man.

Manoah, her husband, prays that the messenger might return to give them more instruction on how to raise this promised son. God listens to Manoah’s prayer and the messenger returns to give them further instruction. During this second encounter, Manoah offers a meal to their guest, not yet knowing exactly who their guest is. The angel of the Lord refuses to eat, but tells Manoah to make an offering to the Lord.

A Wonderful Name

When Manoah asks the visitor for his name, he receives this enigmatic response: “Why do you ask My Name, seeing it is wonderful?” or beyond comprehension?

What a puzzling response. What sort of man claims that his name is beyond comprehension? Remember that throughout the Old Testament, names are very significant indicators of character. There is something special about this man with a wonderful name.

A Wonderful Act

As the flames begin to consume the sacrificed goat, Manoah and his wife are amazed to see the messenger step into the flames and rise up to heaven!

What was he doing?

As the pre-incarnate Son of God we may say that He was “practicing” or “rehearsing” His future sacrifice of himself, when in real human nature he would ascend heavenwards.

They immediately fall on their faces for they realized that this had been THE Angel of the Lord. As is often the case, this recognition often comes only after the Angel has departed.

A Wonderful Faith

Although a great fear takes hold of Manoah because he knows that no one can see God and live, his more believing wife comforts him with this thought: If God had really intended to kill them, he would not have accepted their offering nor given them the great promises he had.

It’s amazing to think about the Son of God’s ascension in the flame of this sacrifice as a picture of his ultimate sacrifice at Calvary. We often read in the Bible of God’s delight in the sweet smell of sacrifices to him. How sweet must Christ’s ultimate sacrifice have been: the perfect, spotless lamb. And yet how horrific the experience for Christ himself.

There He stepped not into the flames of a burning goat, but into the flames of an angry God. He did not just rise heavenwards in a few brief moments, but stayed in the fire until the divine flames burned themselves out on Him.

A Wonderful Question

No wonder the prophet Isaiah says, His name shall be called Wonderful. Who can fully comprehend the mystery of God manifest in the flesh, and sacrificed in flames? Yet, let us keep asking Him, “What is your name? Tell us more about yourself, that we may honor you.”

Easter is Coming – The Power of Identification

I know Easter is still a couple of months away, but as a preacher it is never too early to think about Easter.  In fact, there is a sense in which commemoration of Easter is never more than six days away – the Lord’s Day is a weekly gathering because of His resurrection.  So here’s a thought regarding Easter (whether you’re planning for April or preparing for tomorrow’s message).

In preaching any narrative section, we need to consider whom listeners will gravitate toward, with whom they will identify.  We should consider how to encourage that or redirect that through our preaching.  In the case of the passion narratives, this tendency to identify can be powerfully used in our preaching.  Luther pointed to this when he wrote:

“Although Christians will identify themselves with Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; sinful, condemned actors in the Gospel story – there is another who took the sins of humanity on himself when they were hung around his neck.”

When it comes to the story of the crucifixion we find ourselves identifying with so many characters: Judas, Peter, fleeing disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Roman soldiers, Simon from Cyrene, mocking executioners, mocking crowds, mocking thief, repentant thief, followers standing at a distance, followers standing close by, even the Centurion.  Yet the wonder of it all is that we are invited to identify with the perfect One hanging on that cross, for in that act He was most wondrously identifying with us.

Consider how the natural function of narrative – to spark identification – can be utilized to communicate the wondrous truth of Calvary this Easter, or even this Sunday.

Preaching Easter (Pt2): Shock and Awe

I expect we would agree that the typical crucifixion image that comes to mind is probably a little too “hygienic.” The traditional pictures seen in old churches with the Lord serene and clean, hanging on the cross with a minimal element of humiliation are so far from the brutal reality of the event. Those pictures, combined with the regularity with which we refer to the cross, lead many believers to have an unrealistic mental picture of Calvary.

As we preach the Easter story in the next days, we have the opportunity to tell the story well. We can give enough description, and take enough time, so that the image is able to form in peoples’ minds. We can give enough description so that the image forming is more accurate, less “clean” and closer to what actually happened. Historical and biblical accuracy should permeate our preaching of this great event.

However, this does not mean we should automatically “go all out.” It may be that overly graphic detail is unhelpful to some. I’ve heard some very effective presentations of the crucifixion that went into the medical details and the sickening truth of the event. I’ve also heard some where the “shock and awe” tactic backfired significantly. We must be aware of who will be listening and what will be most effective for them. Our goal is to present the biblical truth and call for response, not to repulse people with images that obscure the message. Remember that people will be drawn and convicted by the Holy Spirit, not by our skill in story telling that can stir the emotions into a frenzy.

Let’s try to find the right balance for our listeners this Easter. We need to tell the story well, we need to help people see and feel the reality of Calvary. But we also need to be careful to allow the Holy Spirit to stir the heart, rather than merely stirring the stomach by excessive shock and awe tactics.

Preaching Easter (Pt1): Back to Basics

In some ways Easter is not like Christmas.  The Christmas story tends to remain largely unmentioned for eleven months of the year.  So when the advent season comes round again people expect to hear the basic Christmas story.  But the events of the first Easter get mentioned and preached on throughout the year.  So there is a temptation for us as preachers to try and get clever with our Easter messages – perhaps hyper-creative, or super-subtle, or whatever.

Our regular listeners need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to share bread and wine, “in remembrance” of Him.  In a sense the Easter story never grows old for Christ’s followers – it means too much to us.  So as a preacher don’t feel pressure from somewhere to say something that is somehow clever or different.  There are plenty of biblical passages that can be used, and people will appreciate a clear preaching of any of them.

Remember that irregular listeners need to hear the basic Easter story.  At Easter time there is a higher likelihood of visitors.  Maybe they feel they should go to church at Christmas and again at Easter.  Maybe they are visiting family who go to your church and politely join their hosts.  These people don’t need some kind of creatively opaque and nuanced message.  They need the message of the text clearly presented and applied.

As a preacher you may be feeling the pressure to do something different this year.  I’m not suggesting we should be boring or predictable.  I’m not saying that creativity is inappropriate.  Let us be as effective as possible in our communication of the biblical message of Easter.  However, let’s remember that sometimes it is very effective to simply preach the basics – the story from the text, the implications for us today.