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.

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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.

Blessed is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord – Isaiah 50.4-9

 

You and I are in great danger this morning. Comforts and Confronts. Cuts and Heals.

If you’re anything like me, you like comfort. You like pleasure. You like things to go your way and get a little hot when they don’t. Too often we choose to go with the flow rather than to swim upstream.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that’s not where life happens. As we’ve been talking about for the last four weeks, we are called to die so that our lives might expand and grow and become more than a mere seed. If we’re honest with ourselves, the most alive we have felt is when we have taken risks or stepped into the unknown. When we didn’t have it all figured out.

As one mentor of mine has said, “Comfort zones are where dreams go to die.”

If we opt for comfort, then the big dreams God has placed in our hearts. The fully alive human beings that he created us to be will be lost forever. By saving our lives, we lose them. By giving them up, we gain them.

Our passage this morning is often called the Third of Four Servant Songs in the prophet Isaiah’s message to us. This morning as we walk through this passage, I want us to consider, “Why would this Servant do the things he does in this passage?”

Isaiah 50.4-9

4 The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of those who are taught,

that I may know how to sustain with a word

him who is weary.

Morning by morning he awakens;

he awakens my ear

to hear as those who are taught.

5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious;

I turned not backward.

6 I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

7    But the Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8 He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

As I said, we are in great danger this morning. The New Testament makes it clear that this Suffering Servant finds its fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus. If the Christian life is one of more and more conformity into the image and life of Jesus, then we must be prepared for pain and suffering. We are intended to grow and become more than what we are. More accurately, we are to become all that God intended us to be.

When we look to Jesus, his life is not just outside of us. Something done in one time and place. But his work must also be done inside of us. In the very fabric of our lives.

So our roads to Calvary are modeled after the Perfect One who suffered on our behalf. And this suffering is not an altogether horrible thing. It is the friction that happens in life when we live in light of a different King.

The life we see in the Suffering Servant is one that he received from the hands of God. There are three times the covenant-keeping God is mentioned in this passage.

Verse 4: The LORD God has given me teaching. The calling he received was just that…received. It wasn’t contrived or made up as he saw fit. The Servant was taught by God himself.

Verse 5: The Lord God opened my ear. What does this mean? It is the action God takes to give us an understanding mind to what is being taught. This is a gift of grace. Unlike the ones the prophets indicted for ever hearing yet never perceiving, the Servant is marked by both sitting under the teaching of God and receiving it as his way of living.

Verse 7: The Lord God helps me. This is more than a pat on the back. The activity of God has gone from that of speaking and opening ears to coming alongside. Put your finger there. We’re going to come back to this concept in a moment.

What was the purpose of this teaching he received? To serve the needs of others. To sustain the one who is weary. The life he offers up as a spiritual act of worship is one of receiving first from God and then giving to others. This is the tenor of all four of the Servant Songs. His life is that of a Servant. He serves others on God’s behalf.

We saw this at the beginning of Advent in the First Servant Song—Isaiah 42.1: He will bring forth justice for the nations. As we saw last week, this Servant was never intended merely to save a certain ethnicity. Yes, he came from the Jews, but he was meant for all peoples.

As Isaiah continues to teach, we find that the way this Servant will bring about this justice will be by giving himself up as the substitute for the guilty—pre-eminently seen in the Last Servant Song in Isaiah 53 (bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

We get a glimpse of it here, though. Verse 6: I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheek to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. Why are these horrible things done to the one who serves others? This is what it takes to bring forth justice. 

But there is a fourth place that the LORD God appears. Verse 9: Behold, the LORD God helps me. Yes, this is the same word in Verse 7. And this is more than an encouraging word.

This is the same word to describe Israel’s cries for a Deliverer to help them (Exodus 2.23). But this is a theme throughout Isaiah’s prophecy. The word first appears in Isaiah 10.3: “To whom will you flee for help in day of reckoning?” The word shows up a second time in Isaiah 20.6. After judgment has come and Israel is scattered around, they say: “Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered.”

This is a theme throughout the time right before Israel’s Exile. They had trusted in princes and chariots and the mighty and forsaken their confidence in the Lord. They had opted for protection from Egypt and Assyria. And they found that they were cruel deliverers indeed!

This is the same option Jesus was given so many times before his crucifixion. Jewish Leaders. Caiaphas. King Herod. Pontius Pilate. The crowds. Why would he not entrust himself to them?

The word “help” shows up a third time in 30.5: “Everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace. Egypt’s help is worthless and empty.” Isa 31.1: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel.

This is our human default position. We see the strong and the mighty and we run to them. We are easily deceived by what seems to be strength. This reminds me of the Charmin commercials from some time ago where the little boy would take a whole lot of toilet paper and stuff his shirt with it and look very big…stronger than he was. We can laugh because of the humor in it. Of course he’s not strong. Yet, we still find ourselves leaning on those who appear strong and forsake the One who made the strongmen.

This is the fundamental difference between the Servant and us. He puts all of his trust in the LORD God. He doesn’t hedge his bets. He places his complete trust and confidence in him. This is the life he wants to free us to live as well. When this kind of confidence in God marks us we begin to understand how the Servant can be disgraced (V.6) but not be disgraced (V.7). How his cheeks can be chipped away at (V.6) but still remain as hard as flint (V.7).

Yes, the Servant suffers shame and is beaten, but his vindication comes from One who stands over all the peoples who mete out this punishment (V.8). He knows that this pain is temporary and will pass away like a garment eaten by a moth (V.9). 

This is the full life that Christ offers to all of us. As he enters into Jerusalem, as he is lifted up this morning, we are challenged with what we believe is sure and steady and real. We find that our confidence must be grounded in a higher ground. The earth surely gives way. Those things we put confidence in on this earth will fail us. They will use us. They will disappoint us.

The Servant frees us from the mirage of comfort in anything or anyone else other than the LORD God. This is not an easy path. This is a path of invisibility. Of walking by faith and not by sight. Much like the the Charmin boy. We can try to stuff ourselves with things outside of us…but God is about refining and strengthening the very substance of who we are. He wants to firm up our resolve and resilience to the moth-eaten promises.

This concept of help is a rich and dangerous feast if we will take it. Let me leave you with what the LORD God says in the chapter 41 right before the First Servant Song:

Fear not, for I am with you;

be not dismayed, for I am your God;

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

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.