01 Filled with Compassion- Mark 1_40-45

01 Repenting of Our Righteousness

magi

In 2005, author David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon College in Ohio. TIME Magazine recently ranked it the number one commencement speech of all time. Being a fan of such speeches, I wanted to know what Wallace said that made such an impression. I found the speech online and was grabbed early on by these words:

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

It’s inescapable– human beings are wired to worship. What distinguishes Christians is NOT morality or ethnicity or geography. At core, what makes Christians unique is what we choose to worship. Throughout history, Christians have chosen to worship God as he has been revealed through Jesus Christ. For that reason, the first “core value” of the church I pastor is “Christ-centered worship.”

But how do you know if worship is centered on Christ or nor? What does Christ-centered worship look like? The best place to find an answer to that question is in Matthew chapter two, the story of the Magi visiting Jesus. This is the story that churches have traditionally reflected upon on the first day of Epiphany, which is January 6th. It is ultimately is a story about worship. Therefore, as we begin this series on the core values of New Life Presbyterian Church, it is fitting that we look to this story to find out just what we mean by “Christ-centered worship.”

The story recorded in the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel highlights seven characteristics of Christ-centered worship. Let’s explore them.

Christ-centered worship is invitational. The first thing the story tells us is that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.'”

Who were these guys referred to as “Magi”? Contrary to popular portrayals, they were not kings. Some ancient Jewish literature even mocked them. And here’s why: They were from the “east,” which means they were Gentiles, which means they were non-religious, and therefore considered to be outsiders. Furthermore, they were astrologers. Some scholars even portray them as practicing magic. And this is precisely the point: They were non-religious outsiders and yet they were invited and welcomed into the presence of God. This sets up what will be characteristic of the rest of Christ’s ministry– he was constantly inviting outsiders. Rick Carlson comments, “This story is showing that God is inviting the type of people you wouldn’t think he would invite.”

What might that mean for us in practical terms? It means that in spite of all the gimmicks, programs, and advertising campaigns we seek to implement in order to bring people into the church, the only sure way to grow the church is to personally invite people into it. And it means that our worship services and sermons are not to be filled with “we/them” lingo, constantly referring to the faithful Christians in the church as the “we” and the sinners who don’t go to church as the “them.”  The point of this story is to show us that God’s kingdom is for the “them”.

Christ-centered worship is physical. What initially captured the Magi’s attention and called them to worship? A star in the sky– an actual object in the heavens. Then they traveled to a physical town, entered a physical house, physically knelt down and in the presence of other physical people and worshiped a physical baby, presenting him with actual material gifts, one of which was aromatic incense. The point is that their worship was rich with visual symbols and physically tangible elements and actions and gestures, and ours should be too. Martin Luther wrote: “God gave us five senses. It is sheer ingratitude to worship him with any less.” 

This is why aesthetics actually are an important part of worship. This is why the Eucharist– the most tangible way Christ makes himself present– must be a regular, central element in our liturgy, just as it has been in most churches throughout the world ever since Christ’s ascension into heaven.

Christ-centered worship is scriptural. When the Magi and Herod asked where they would find Jesus, the religious leaders answered them by referencing the Scriptures, specifically a verse from Micah chapter 5.

Here’s why this is important: Rooting our worship in the Scriptures takes worship out of the realm of personal preference and puts it in the realm of something authoritative and decisive. Let’s face it, people join churches and leave churches for all sorts of reasons. This is normal. But I wonder sometimes if our decisions are driven much more by preference, opinion, and emotion than the Scripture itself.

Christ-centered worship is doxological. Picking up in verse 11, we read, “On coming to the house, he saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”  By bowing down the Magi were making clear that they were not there to be uplifted, have their needs met, or “get a lot out of the worship.” Rather, they were simply there to give honor to God. That’s what a doxology is: an expression of glory to God alone. Every Sunday we sing it- “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” as a reminder that worship is not about us, it’s about God: who he is and what he has done.

The reason this is important s because there is a tendency today to think that worship is about being changed. Though true worship does change us, the primary focus is not to be on our obedience, personal growth, inspiration, or how to live better. The primary focus is on the person and work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Christ-centered worship is political. The narrative makes clear that all of this was happening during the time of King Herod. In fact, Herod is quite central to the story itself- we read that he was disturbed by the news of people desiring to worship this newborn baby. They were now bowing down to the God of Israel. Not to one particular political party, but to God. The story is poking at Herod by challenging the assumption of where power lies. So, worship is political in the sense that when you choose to worship Christ, and you make that choice visible by receiving baptism and communion, reciting the Creed and making the sign of the cross, you are making a statement that you belong to a kingdom of that is not of this world. Though we are called to honor our leaders, we are never to expect them to be and do what only can be and do: rule the world with truth and grace.

Christ-centered worship is sacrificial. The Magi left their home and traveled to where Jesus was. This was not convenient. And when they finally came into the presence of Jesus, verse 11 tells us “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.”  This was costly. That’s the nature of worship; it demands that we give of our time and resources. But that’s what makes Christian worship so meaningful: we make minor sacrifices for God not to earn his favor but because he made the ultimate sacrifice for us. We get a glimpse of this in the third gift he was given: myrrh. This would have been a startling gift to give to a baby. Why? Because it’s primary use was for embalming corpses. Thus, the Magi were foreshadowing Christ’s impending death, which happened on a cross as a sacrifice for sin once and for all. The ultimate sacrifice, which made you acceptable to God forever. That’s reason to worship sacrificially.

Christ-centered worship is missional. The story ends in verse 12, “After being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

The journey of the Magi comes full circle at this point. They travelled to see Jesus, they entered his presence, they bowed down and worshiped, they gave him costly gifts foreshadowing the costly gift he would later give to us, and then they are sent back out into the world. That’s part of what worship does to us. It sends us out to be Christ’s body in the world, bringing peace, compassion, and justice for all. Timothy Radcliffe writes, “The reason we go to church is to be sent from it.” 

So, Christ-centered worship is invitational, physical, scriptural, doxological, political, sacrificial, and missional. In this new year at New Life, may God give us grace to be a church who worships in this way. Amen.

01 The Parameters of God’s Kingdom

01 Our Longing for Joy- Zephaniah 3_14-20

02 Our Longing for Purity- Malachi 3_1-5 (preached 12_9_12)

This Sunday the church I am privileged to pastor will celebrate her ninth anniversary.

Over the course of these nine years, countless congregants, visitors, and people in the community have commented to me on what they think about our church. I can honestly say the most frequent comment I’ve heard is, “This is a very welcoming church.”

Others have said the same thing in different words: “There is such an atmosphere of acceptance here.” And others, “I’m drawn to this church because it’s not at all judgmental.”

I love hearing that. I love the people of our church for creating such an atmosphere. But we need to continue to work hard at making sure we are a truly welcoming church.

And this raises a question: What are the characteristics of a welcoming church?

Jesus shows us two characteristics in a story that is recorded chapter 7 of St. Mark’s gospel.

Let’s take a look.

Characteristic #1: A welcoming church refuses to speak and act in an us/them manner.

Notice how the story begins:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles). So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

This seems somewhat strange to our American ears. But let’s place ourselves in first-century Israel for a moment. Through a “series of unfortunate events” the nation had become surrounded by infiltrated by “pagan” nations and the ungodly influence thereof. In reaction to this, certain religious groups within Israel began tightening up on various outward purity rituals as a way of saying to the other nations ‘We’re not like you. We’re holy.’

Surely Jesus would commend such attempts to be pure.

But he doesn’t. In fact, he rebukes them rather harshly:

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

Why such strong words? Because they had missed the point of who Jesus was and why he had come. They wanted a church that put up boundaries to keep the ungodly out, whereas Jesus was creating a church that drew the ungodly in.

A pastor friend of mine sent me a You tube video in which someone took an old movie about Jesus and dubbed over the sermon on the mount scene with an altogether different monologue. As Jesus walks through the crowd and stops to speak to each disciple, he says this:

“Peter, you lied to your mother the other day. Andrew, you said a naughty word when you hit your finger with a hammer. John, you drank to much wine the other night. Thomas you were slow dancing a little too close with that girlfriend of yours. Phillip I saw you smoking a cigarette the other day. Thaddeus you aren’t wearing your WWJD bracelet.”

Finally Jesus says to them, “Come along now sinners. Time to pay the piper.”

I’m afraid that humorous sketch is in reality representative of the way a lot of people perceive Christians and churches. And I’m afraid their perceptions are often correct.

That’s why it’s so important to understand that, in the words of Tim Keller, “The gospel is not ‘the good are in and the bad are out,’ but rather, the humble are in and the proud are out.”

The Pharisees’ were too pious to admit that they were just as sinful as anyone else. And when we act that way, we become unwelcoming.

So that’s the first characteristic of a welcoming church: it refuses to speak and act in an us/them manner. Now let’s look at the second characteristic.

Characteristic #2: A welcoming church refuses to require what Jesus doesn’t require.

The story continues with Jesus saying,

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Jesus is calling them out again on this hand washing thing. It’s not that washing your hands is a bad idea, it’s just that the Pharisees were insisting that everyone must do it. In the Old Testament, the washing of hands was only required for the priests before leading in worship. It was not required for everyone, but the Pharisees wanted it to be.

Again, such matters seem rather far removed from our own context. But in reality we try to enforce plenty of other things that Jesus never enforced. In the years I’ve been a Christian I’ve seen church folks insist that if a person is really a godly Christian they will register with one particular political party, dress a certain way when they come to church (avoiding jeans and shorts), only listen to certain kinds of music, avoid public schools, and never under any circumstances dress up as Santa Claus.

The problem with such rules is that Jesus never required anyone to live that way. And he made clear why. Notice what he says as the story continues:

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus is making clear that the real problem in life is the corruption of the human heart. And unless we personally acknowledge that problem then all of our attempts at godliness and virtue will only be cosmetic and superficial. Jesus concludes by describing the types of corruptions that reside in the heart:

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Sounds bad doesn’t it?! And if you’re like me you probably respond by thinking, “Well, I have my flaws, but I don’t do really bad stuff.” But did you notice that envy and pride are listed right alongside of fornication and licentiousness? That’s because Jesus didn’t come to categorize sin. Nor did he come to condemn or condone sinners. He came to cleanse sinners. And he does this by exposing the corruption of our hearts so that we may confess, be transformed, and live according the the requirements that Jesus actually did give us: generosity, humility, love, commitment, to name a few.

And so in the liturgy at our church, we often pray the following from the Book of Common Prayer:

We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

This isn’t a rote sentence. It is our inevitable response when the corruption of our hearts is exposed. We confess, Jesus cleanses. The rest of Mark’s gospel shows us this in story after story.

Granted, the more sinners in the church, the more messy things can get. But that’s okay. If the welcome mat outside our front door wasn’t noticeably dirty it would indicate that no one ever came inside, which would be sad. And the truth is, Jesus welcomed us into his Kingdom, the church, while we were dirty, by taking our dirt upon himself. If we truly believe this, we’ll start gazing at Jesus and welcoming others into his church and will stop being so obsessed with what’s pure and what’s and what’s sacred and what’s secular, which is the very mindset that makes the world so stricken with hatred and fear.

Alexander Schmemann put it this way:

It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the pure and the impure, to understand religion in terms of sacred ‘taboos,’ legal prescriptions and obligations. . . It is much more difficult to realize that such a religion not only does not constitute any threat to ‘secularism,’ but on the contrary, it is its paradoxical ally.

My God work in us what is pleasing to him, that we might continue to show people his love and grace by being a church where all are welcome. Amen.

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