A hallmark of society in the last 40 years is the sense of fragmentation. Especially in the church is the sense of fragmentation more noticeable. The unfortunate result is that we think we can piece meal together aspects of the church and its worship life as if it does not matter. But fragmentation of who God is and who we are is never healthy. Paul Althaus wrote — consider the totality of the church’s witness, especially insightful for us who struggle with the fragmented view of church:
The Word and its embodiment belong together, not only in the individual preacher, but also in the church as a whole. The preaching church is at the same time the serving church, which takes upon itself the need of people and in every way seeks to set up signs of the love of Christ in the world. It is intended to be understood as witness.
It is in this comprehensive context that the preaching of the church’s ministry stands. And there is still more to be said. Preaching also belongs in the totality of the church’s “worship of God,” all its forms and structures. This totality bears witness along with the preaching and thus sustains it. So it is with the liturgy, above all the word of the Bible in it, the songs of the church, its prayers, and hymns, the order of every service of worship and the church year, the whole of the church’s order and custom. But also the building, pictures and sculpture, liturgical music, the whole of Christian art, insofar as all this has had its impulse from the encounter with the gospel and is born of the Spirit of God, can become a witness that builds the the church.
Paul Althaus in The Minister’s Prayer Book: An Order of Prayers and Readings, edited with an introduction by John W. Doberstein, London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1986 (Fortress Press, 1986), p. 263.
1 If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, 5 is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. 6 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known. 13 Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love.
In our current world, love seems like a stop gap measure, a last resort because nothing else is working. Love becomes “what can I get out of this?” And by doing so, people are no longer treated as people, but pawns to manuever, to manipulate, to meet my goals.
But Scripture elevates love above that perspective. What Paul writes and Jesus perfectly exemplified is love that is given and learned from God. That kind of love willingly endures difficult times and circumstances. Love stands by a person when life is hardest, holding, caring, encouraging, and much more. That kind of love does not use people for personal gain nor practice one-up-man-ship. Love listens, cries, endures, holds, prays in the most difficult times.
Love does not look at barriers to stop something, nor to manipulate to get what we want. As Paul wrote: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” May that be our guidepost in the coming year.
No matter the age, love is above all else central.
Sunday (2021/01/03) the epistle reading for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas is Ephesians 1:3-14. Ephesians is one of my favorite books in the Bible, for the last 40 years. This introductory passage shows us the focal point: The theme “in Christ” is one of the key concepts not only in chapter 1; it is key throughout the entire letter.
One of the challenges of the Christian life is to see the integral nature of everything we do, say, and experience. In the U.S. there is a tendency to maintain a “rugged individualism” —“my way, my God, my worship, my life.” But is that consistent with the Biblical picture of discipleship?
Dr. John W. Kleinig offers a more wholesome, Biblical view of these separated existences. In his book Grace upon Grace (CPH, 2008) he challenges much of what passes for spirituality today. The key is his section on “Liturgical Spirituality.” His first paragraph:
There are two domains that provide the context for the spirituality of God’s people. One is the public domain of the congregation that gathers for participation in the Divine Service. The other is the private domain of the faithful who engage in their daily devotions in their homes and go about their daily work. These two domains complement…
Psalm 103 is one of those psalms that I start speaking (mostly from memory) and it’s like I sink into a large comfortable chair, and slowly exhale, saying, “Yes, this. This is what I need today.”
1 Bless the LORD, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits:
3 Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases,
4 Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
5 Who satisfies your mouth with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The LORD executes righteousness And justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
David praises God for so much. He starts not with needs, desires, or demands (contrary to some church leaders today), but an immediate declaration of who God is, and his desires to to bless, praise, hold God’s name above all other names.
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 And everyone went to register, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family line of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, his wife, who was pledged to him in marriage and was expecting a child.
6 And so it was that while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 There were in the same country shepherds staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified! 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. For behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all people: 11 Today in the town of David, a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude from the heavenly army, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward mankind.”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Now let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they told others the message they had been told about this child. 18 And all who heard it were amazed by what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The readings for the next few days come from Luke 2 using the Evangelical Heritage Version.
Our focus on this first Sunday in Advent is “Restore us?” from Psalm 80. But it doesn’t take long before we are overwhelmed by what needs people claim needs to be restored. Here is a short list I found within 5 minutes on the internet: Restore Physical health Restore Hyper Wellness (web site) National sovereignty Sudan said Saturday it has signed an agreement with the US to restore the country’s sovereign immunity.(Oct 31, 2020) Restore the United States To a Monarchy We are trying to restore all the power that was lost from the monarchy and we are starting this petition to see if we can restore the power that was lost. And the list goes on.
Psalm 80 But in Psalm 80, the psalmist has something else in mind. “O God, restore us And cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved” (Ps. 80:3, 7, 19)
The plea to God is to restore, but specifically linked to God causing His face to shine upon “us.” With the ultimate plea: “save us!!” That is, it was not indivdualistic, but communal, “we” “us.”
The underlying problem behind this plea: 80:4–5 How long will You be angry with the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears. God had heard the prayers of the people, but they were prayers not primarily for God, but for themselves. Self-centered prayers. And correspondingly their prayers were not for the benefit of others, for their health, safety, spiritual growth. This indifference by the people of God to others and their needs was repugnant to God. What they needed was confession of sin, their sin, not others’ sins. The Law spoke to their disobedience, their lack of concern for God and others.
In our worship services we confess our sins right at the beginning of the service. We see who the “players” are in the interaction: God and us sinners: Notice that the confession is not “I am sorry” (for being late? etc.), but rather for sinning against God (1st table of commandments) against others (2nd table of commandments). God: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Silence for reflection on God’s Word and for self-examination.
Us: I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being. God: Upon this your confession, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Psalmist calls for the people to reorient themselves, yes, individually, but especially communally. How does that take place? Confession is individual (and corporate); so absolution is spoken individually (and corporately). After confession and forgiveness, then we can look at the relationships through the eyes of Encouragement/Exhortation: individually and corporately. And we go through this process every week (daily, if possible). By following this, we are not caught in a dreary ritual, but a life-giving process of being renewed in our life in Christ that God gives us.
For some Scripture might be confusing. Paul wrote “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Elsewhere Paul writes about we are “saved by grace through faith in Jesus.” Which is it? Actually both. The cause of salvation is what Jesus Christ has done—only. If we have concerns about whether we are saved, we go back to the foundation: Ephesians 2:1″And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” But Paul continues:
So, which is it? Is salvation accomplished and completed in Jesus? Or is salvation still ultimately dependent on us? Note, that the above verse establishes the foundation of salvation—”saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” Nothing you or I can do will add to that salvation.
But when Paul continues, he addresses how we as Christians live. Does that make a difference? Absolutely. So when he writes: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he is encouraging living in the reality of salvation by grace through faith. As you read all of Philippians 2, you will discover that Paul is encouraging us to live in light of our salvation. We do that by imitating Christ, his attitude, actions, words. Or as Paul writes: “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
So Paul is not encouraging Christians to receive all that Christ has done, but when it comes to living out that faith, then we look to ourselves for assurance. Rather, because we are saved, how is that reflected in our living. Do our words reflect who we are “in Christ”? Do our actions demonstrate Christ’s love to others? Do our attitudes initate Christ’s?
We are not left on our own. We have God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, other Christians to encourage, comfort, teach, and support one another. Paul had sent his fellow worker, Epaphroditus, to encourage and support the Christians in Philippi (2:25). And he desires to send Timothy (2:19). Notice how Paul puts everything in perspective. Each Christian is involved in caring for and encouraging one another. But behind it all, there is God.
The God who saves us gives us everything we need to live out the faith. Is it difficult? Absolutely! At times very difficult. But that is why we live (walk) by faith, not by sight. And that is why God provides other Christians to walk with us. we are saved by grace alone, but we are never saved alone.
A sad fact of life today in many Christian churches is that the message is confused: the pastors set the agenda and many people follow. But is that the Church that Jesus established? Is that the Church that Paul describes? Not at all. But the problem is not new with this latest generation of pastors, leaders, and churches.
Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy in his second letter, these sobering, realistic, necessary words:
12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12–17 NAS)
If you believe in Jesus Christ and want to lead a godly life, the expectation is that you will be persecuted—in the church! And the church will not lack for “evil men and imposters” (v. 13). They will not be content with how God describes and desires the church to be, rather as evil men and imposters, they are not only open to deception but they will deceive so that the deterioration of the church will continue. The deceivers will mock, ridicule, and manipulate Christians who hold to the truth.
Paul lays out the path to follow for us as Christians. Notice that Paul does not give “Five easy steps to have a better marriage” nor “How to be successful in life” nor “Love everyone and be open to learn how to explore greater dimensions of spirituality.” Rather, Paul points them back to the basics of the Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ. That means seeing what the Bible says about sin, law, confession, forgiveness, Gospel (what Jesus Christ has done for us and still does for us), namely 2 Tim. 3:14-15.
Paul is not encouraging or promoting “new ways,” rather what has been given in Scripture is sufficient for all time: it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than blazing new trails ahead, Paul is calling Christians back to that which was given by God centuries ago, even before the era of the New Testament.
For pastors and teachers, popularity, latest trends or fashion are not the solutions, and never were. Nor is rewinding the calendar to a “golden age” the answer. Going back to what Scripture taught, what faithful pastors and teachers have proclaimed from Scripture, that will be revolutionary for the church today. And that will be life saving for people and churches as they grow in faith in Jesus Christ. Then not only pastors, but every Christian can rightly “reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, equipped for every good work” for the benefit of the church.
This is a special Psalm, that I just feel like sliding into a comfortable chair and breathe, contentedly breathe. But there is so much more.
The Psalm is not only a familiar Psalm, but it opens our eyes to the totality of what God has done for His people. In Psalm 103:1–5, the author highlights the individual aspect of God’s love for his people. In 103:6–12 he focuses upon God’s concern with the community of believers together.
Psalm 103:1 The Psalmist acknowledges that being a person of faith in this God of Israel cannot praise half-heartedly. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!” The “soul” and “all that is within me” stresses that there is no medium ground with God. Either we are all in with God, or we are outside of His realm. The Psalmist claims pointedly that with heart and soul, the believer is committed in blessing/praising God for all He has done.
In v. 3, he notes that when we are in that relationship with God, the first aspect means that we do not forget God’s benefits. In the swirl of life, anxiety, pressures, threats to life, we can easily slip into forgetfulness, especially with regard to what God has done for us. Hence the exhortation “And forget not all His benefits.” As an individual believer we are each called to remember, not forgetting what God has done, but refreshing our memory with all that God has done.
The first item of rememberance is “Who forgives all your iniquities.” We live in a sinful world, we are often a tempted, and more than we’d like to admit, we sin. But God… reaches out to forgive us. We need to recall that such is our heritage as people of God. How often we need that reminder. Thank You, Lord.
More remembrances: “Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” I look back at the many times I have been injured and scars to prove it. Even greater is God’s protection in the midst of injuries, diseases that affect all of us. Several times over the past seven decades I am reminded of these “benefits” continually. The phrase “forget not all His benefits” is a call for us to bless God, praise His name, repeatedly, continually.
In 103:6–12 the author now directs our attention to our life together as the people of God, as one people. Some of the statements are looking back to the days of Moses when God delivered the people. “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed…” Think of the great Exodus when God sent the plagues to provoke the Egyptians to allow Israel to escape. God not only delivered, He also sustained them with water and food in the wilderness for years.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever” (vv. 8-9). The Israelites learned about God’s anger against sin. But they also began to learn that God does not retain His anger forever. Rather they learned of His mercy, grace, forgiveness—repeatedly. He futher illustrates this with “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (vv. 11–12). See also Jeremiah 31:34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Note that some of these actions of God are seen only in part in present our lives. The key is that forgiveness is foremost in God’s work. That sustains us until Jesus Christ returns and He brings the complete blessing of God’s salvation and deliverance. Today we see glimpses of that, but the day will come when the fullness of what God has accomplished for us will be proclaimed throughout creation. All of these promises are foreshadowed in Psalm 103. What a blessing that we can read, refresh, and remember all of this. May Psalm 103 be part of our memory work, and our proclamation of what God has done, is doing, and will do.