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The first day of school in the fall of 1988 marked a turning point for those of us who were born approximately fourteen years earlier. Many of us who entered the school doors at Kempsville Junior High School in Virginia Beach that day had known each other since we were children. But a new era was beginning: we were now officially 9th Graders. What this meant was that even though we were still in the junior high building, we were now beginning the final and perhaps most crucial four years of secondary, pre-college education.

And so, as the Reagan era of the 1980’s drew to a close, several hundred Freshman in Kempsville were beginning a new era immersed in a world of dittos, mullets, bangs, acid-washed jeans, and chicken patties for lunch. By that time our ears had become accustomed to the sounds of Z104, which played a lot of Paula Abdul, Peter Cetera, Debbie Gibson, and Bon Jovi. On weekends many of us went in groups to Kemps River to watch movies like Big, Eight Men Out, and Child’s Play while our parents went to the adjacent theaters to watch Beaches and Dangerous Liaisons. We rode our beach cruiser bikes on our paper routes. We listened to our Walkmans. We laughed about who was recently caught French kissing and sent to “In School Suspension” to atone for their adolescent display of affection. It was a simpler time, no doubt.

In those days my life consisted of music and friends, usually at the same time. During the fall, Chris, Duane, Beth and I were inseparable— at school, after school at band practice, and in our homes on the weekends. Together. Constantly.

And there was always music present. We went to the school dances, awaiting that awkward phase of the evening when guys and girls coupled up as the music transitioned from Guns ‘n’ Roses or Fresh Prince to a ballad by Taylor Dayne or Simply Red.

We were also together at every football game. I fondly remember the glory of those Thursday nights in the fall. They seemed to bring everyone together: the band nerds (including myself), the jocks, the parents, and occasionally the Mayor of Virginia Beach (who lived in Kempsville). We would all cheer for Matt, Todd, Jason, and Tony as they tore up the field. Those guys were amazing athletes. Probably still are.

We attended concerts together. My friend Aimee and I, along with 10th Graders Mike and Neil, saw John Denver live at Christmastime. Not the coolest artist for young teenagers in 1988 to see, but we loved every minute of it none-the-less.

We also traveled together. We went to Myrtle Beach with the school band that Spring. I spent most of the week with my best buds Chris and Duane as well as Andy, Todd, April, Christie, Julie, and Lori. We laughed a lot, made a lot of prank phone calls in the hotel, and made music together at several competitions. Mr. Leonard was proud, and we were proud to be directed by him.

I picked up the guitar that Spring. I learned enough chords to begin playing songs by artists I enjoyed, such as John Denver and Bon Jovi. I also began to write songs, and would workshop them on my friends who were very gracious to listen. My lyrics were nothing award winning, but I found the practice of writing to be therapeutic during that period of adolescent angst and confusion. Over the next few years of high school I would write songs about Desert Storm, God, nature, and my close friendship with a classmate named Cathy.

My grandfather died that June during the final week of school. It nearly crushed me. I had a jazz band concert that night which I considered skipping, but my mom told me it would be good for me to go. She was right. When I arrived, Chris and Duane hugged me and told me they loved me, a bold thing for Freshman guys to do at school in 1989. But they knew what it meant to be a friend. Christine then appeared out of nowhere. She had lost her mother a few years earlier and knew what I was feeling inside. Few words were spoken. She simply embraced me, waited until I finished crying, and told me everything would be okay. At that point we all walked out on stage and played our hearts out, and once again I realized that my survival of 9th Grade had a lot to do with friends and music.

I’m reminded of those days every now and then. The reminders come through various means. But whether it’s by a song at church that I heard for the first time in 1988, or a phone call from Jimmy, who sat with me and made me laugh everyday in Earth Science class that year, it always makes me smile to think of the bond my friends and I shared. True, we were naïve in many ways, and had not yet faced the greater joys and sometimes-painful realities that can come with adulthood, but I firmly believe we cared deeply about each other. They all still mean a great deal to me. We correspond with one another only on occasion, but I think of them often and will forever be grateful for their friendship.

My hope and prayer for them is described in Rod Stewart’s version of the song that dominated the airwaves during the 1988-89 school year:

May the good Lord be with you down every road you roam
May sunshine and happiness surround you when you’re far from home
Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you’ll always stay
Forever young,
Forever young.

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)

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