The longer we walk with the Lord, the further we realize we have to go.

When I first started living as a Christian about 12 years ago, I thought I would be uber-sanctified. I thought the struggles I wrestled with then would be over and I would be aglow with holiness. Perhaps I never articulated that but it was an assumption nonetheless. Although my sins from then have ceased, they have morphed into something else. Better, I am realizing the depth of those symptoms is much deeper than I had feared.

I made it a discipline over the past few years to begin asking what was in back of all my actions. I would not be satisfied with the answer, “Well, it’s sin.” I wanted to ask the more precise questions of “why” it was sin, “how” it was sin, and the reason as to why I persisted in that sin. It is far too easy and affords not as much cleansing from sin when we stop short of what the Spirit wants us to learn when we test ourselves to see if we are in the faith. Instead of just saying “I sinned because I am a sinner,” we need to do the hard work of excising the cancer that is parasiting on our heart. To perform heart surgery you have to both break ribs and tenderly cut. This exercise I am getting ready to illustrate is the breaking of the ribs.

One of the disciplines I was taught early in my Christian life was to memorize Scripture. The typical rationale finds root in Psalm 119.11–“Your word I have hid in my heart, so that I might not sin against you.” This is a great motivation for memorizing God’s Word! Another reason is found in Proverb 25.11–“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in fittings of silver.” We want to have God’s word on our lips when a brother or sister are hurting and need encouragement to press forward in a trial.

While these motivations are definitely in back of my desire to memorize Scripture, they are intermingled with a nastier nemesis. I too often times want people to know that I have memorized Scripture so that they will exclaim my knowledge and humility. The things of God become tools to exalt me. The fruit of the Spirit is juiced for my aggrandizement. I am kind, I am good, I am gentle, I am self-controlled for my own glory.

The sooner we realize that all our acts of righteousness are tainted with sin, the sooner we will realize our need of a Savior. The longer it takes, the more we will wallow in pride or self-delusionment.

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What Is Sunday Worship?

I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.

The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.

In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.

The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.

If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model. 

The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself. 

What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers. 

So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not. 

I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner. 

What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth. 

This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.

Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.

Redeeming the Serpent

 

 

Israel found itself in the wilderness complaining against God for his ways of redeeming them. For the mundane activities he had them take part in (i.e., walking around in circles).

Side note: If you and I were led in the wilderness for 40 years we would be murmuring as well. We get in a tizzy when we have to do anything mundane for more than an hour typically.

So Israel complains and God sends serpents to bite them in judgment (see Numbers 21 for the full account). This act of judgment reminds us of the serpent in the Garden who is ever present with us. He tempts us to murmur and blame others rather than confessing and growing and trusting. These serpents become a vivid reminder of what each of our little speakings of our minds are really saying. That is, when we speak out against a circumstance or a person, we are setting ourselves up as the arbiter of right and wrong. Of truth. We are the ones to whom others ought to ask for permission.

But the act of healing did not come by taking a potion or jumping in a river or screaming out loud, “I’m sorry” followed by self-flagellation. The act of redemption came in the simple form of looking. Looking. Not reaching out. Not even crying out. Merely looking away from the self and to Another. There is no strength required. A mere acknowledgment of something outside of ourselves that needs to redeem.

What is fascinating further about this act of redemption is the object to which Israel was to look. They were to look to…a serpent. The Act of Rebellion against their Maker that started in the Garden is turned on its head. The Serpent is powerless to hold sway the delights of rebellion. He becomes the tool in God’s hands of redemption.

God doesn’t just say, “Stay away from serpents.” He doesn’t rid the earth of what would be deemed evil. Surely, the Adversary is not redeemer. That is not what we see in the text! Rather, we see that those things connected with and that can easily be lumped in with the hopeless, in this case a serpent, God redeems this seemingly hopeless object. He doesn’t merely get rid of the evil, he redeems the evil.

This is scandalous and you might find yourself saying, “Matt, you go too far!”

Do I? I venture to say that you have not entirely grasped who you are. You were an object of wrath. You were children of the Adversary. You delighted in your own desires and your universe orbited around your wants. God, being rich in mercy, took you out of that darkness. He didn’t merely remove you from the filth. He transferred you into the kingdom of his Beloved Son. The One he loved from before the foundation of the world. He not only transferred you into that kingdom. He has given you all the privileges of that kingdom. He has made you a son and daughter!

God is not in the business of just getting rid of his adversaries, but to those who will merely look to the Son who was also lifted up, he will give you the inheritance of his Beloved Son. No more to be destroyed. No more to be reviled and written off as hopeless. He gives you all that he has and all that he is.

How the Gospel Integrates

This past Sunday I preached from John 3.14-21. In an effort to help us hear with fresh ears, I offered my own translation from the Greek. Of note in the translation, instead of “perish” as is typically used for the word apollumi in the Greek, I opted for “destroy.” The lexical range for the word can also include “to undo” as in “untie.” What a strange word or concept to consider that to be destroyed is to be untied or undone. What is John (and Greek!) getting at?

As we consider the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation, the idea of being untied is a beautiful picture of what happened at the Fall. That is, when our first parents fell to the temptation of the Serpent they were untied, unglued as it were. They were broken down from the integrated selves God had made them as.

So many times we can understand the death we experience from the Fall as puntiliwr in nature. That is, as in that moment in the Fall death happened. What we see as the biblical storyline unfolds is that the concept of “death” is one of living under the reign of death. That is, the moment we close our eyes for the last time is merely culmination of living under the tyranny of death. Prior to that moment, we are being undone, untied, thread by precious thread.

I believe this coheres with our own experience. Consider the moment by moment decisions you and I make. Each one of those decisions could potentially be one more thread pulled out of our already threadbare sweater. Sin entices. We get hooked. Sin unravels us. After a life of this, we become naked and unashamed–where there should have been a covering and shame for the rebellion we relish. At the end of such a life, we come to the final thread being snapped.

The Gospel, however, is about the work of integrating us. Of bringing us into wholeness. Whereas we continue to live under the reign of death, we are merely tenants and not inheritors of such death. We have been given the life of Christ and are being knit back together into the integrated self that God had intended from the beginning. And so, the Gospel saved us, saves us, and will save us from the frayed existence of those who do not believe on the Son. Those who refuse to come to the Tailor to receive their garments of praise, will continue to wear the ashes. Those who do not submit to the rectifying work of the Author and Finisher of our lives, will find that they are undone. They are ultimately destroyed.

In this way, the Gospel of Jesus a moment of transference into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. And it then acts as the agent of reifying the imago Dei that was unraveled. What a beautiful picture of how God works in our lives moment by moment! When confronted with a juicy morsel of sin, by the power of the Spirit to say “No” to ungodliness and our own rule, another thread is tighter in our fabric. Each moment when the promises of slavery seem enticing, instead of being undone and destroyed, we are made into wholly, integrated image bearers.