“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Here’s a tough truth to accept: what we ought to eat and what we want to eat can be polar opposites. From a nutritional standpoint, it’s not rocket science—we ought to eat more fruits and vegetables. But we want to eat foods filled with sodium, sugar, cholesterol, and fat. Even when we know all about the risks resulting from high blood pressure and clogged arteries, we still indulge whatever our palates prefer.
Don’t worry, though, this isn’t a column about healthy eating. What concerns me far more is the discrepancy between what ought to happen when a preacher enters the pulpit and what we so often want to happen when a preacher enters the pulpit. What we focus on more than anything else are the superficial dimensions: we note the preacher’s tone and mannerisms, we wait for interesting anecdotes, we chuckle at the humorous, we crave uplifting encouragement, and—maybe most crucial of all—we expect everything to wrap up by 12:00 sharp!
We want preaching to address our felt needs—things like hope, guidance, love, peace, community, etc. So much preaching, moreover, caters to this desire by offering felt need sermons. The train of thought goes something like this, “Are you feeling hopeless, lonely, and discouraged? Then come to Christ and let him help you and give you a positive outlook to face life’s challenges.” Of course such a therapeutic message appeals to our therapeutic culture. Here’s how one popular, felt need preacher of an earlier generation characterized his approach— “Preaching is personal counseling on a group basis” (Harry Emerson Fosdick).
One critical question can distinguish felt need preaching from gospel preaching: are we in sin or are we just sinners? Many would confess they’re a sinner. After all, no one is perfect. But confessing we are in sin means acknowledging we stand in opposition to God and are thereby justly deserving of God’s eternal punishment. If we’re in sin then our thoughts and feelings are inherently disordered. Our ways and our thoughts couldn’t be more divergent from God’s. Our needs must be completely reordered, not merely met. The good news, therefore, is Jesus died and rose again to save us from the penalty of our sin and to convert us from being children of wrath into children of God (Jn. 3:36). Don’t be deceived, Jesus didn’t
shed his precious blood so sinners could be more happy and self-fulfilled. He came to save us from hell.
What does such preaching look like? “I preached as never sure to preach again. And as a dying man to dying men” (Richard Baxter). Let’s not settle for anything less. Lives are hanging in the balance.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
“Jesus is Lord.” This was, is, and will always be the foundational claim of the Christian faith. It is both exclusive (i.e. if Jesus is Lord then no one else is) and all- encompassing (i.e. Jesus is Lord of all—without qualification). We know such truth demands more than lip service; it calls for a wholehearted, full-time devotion.
Yet how often do we try to live as part-time Christians? We want the benefits of faith but not the costly burdens of discipleship. We want access to a Higher Power who can help us in our times of need but not the Master’s absolute authority over us. We try to compartmentalize our lives by separating the spiritual and the secular. We’ve become adept at playing the part of the faithful churchgoer. We know the lingo. We know the routines. We know the songs. We know our favorite parts of the Bible. We know church culture so well that it’s virtually become a part of our DNA. While such pretensions may fool others, God knows our hearts and the corruption that naturally grows beneath our thinly disguised veneer.
In reality there are no part-time Christians, only full-time Christians. What’s the difference? First, the full-time Christian understands that if Jesus is Lord, then the most valuable thing in the entire universe is the unrivaled renown of the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible calls this God’s “glory.” Our lives, our plans, our hopes, and our happiness are all subordinate to God’s reputation.
Second, the full-time Christian’s aim is to glorify God in everything. If “the heavens declare the glory of God,” then our goal is to use our voices and actions to magnify the greatness of our God (Ps. 19:1-2) “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” says the Westminster Catechism. Real joy results from fulfilling our God-ordained purpose.
Third, we can make much of God’s fame anywhere and anytime. For the full-time Christian, there is no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and the secular. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” (Ps. 24:1a). We can glorify God at church and at work. We can glorify God in the extraordinary and in the mundane. We can glorify God on the mountaintop and in the valley. We can glorify God in how we live and in how we die.
How do we do this? We pray for the Holy Spirit to give us a heightened awareness of God’s omnipresence, and we seek to honor him in everything we do. “You are not your own. You were bought with a price. So honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19b-20). May the Holy Spirit lead us to repent of the part-time Christian charade. It’s an exhausting act to keep up, and there’s no reward. Instead, let’s surrender every facet of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus.
I waited patiently for the LORD. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me from the pit of destruction, out of the slimy hole. He set my feet on a rock, and he gave me a secure place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD (Psalm 40:1-3).
Do you struggle with patience? I certainly do. While restlessness is not new to 2019, it does seem to be the case that we’re living in especially restless times. Maybe some of it has to do with having more at our fingertips than we can handle—more technology, more information, more news, more opinions (coupled with exponentially more forums for arguing!), more luxury and more convenience. Maybe some of it has to do with shifting expectations—when we know what we want, we expect to get what we want in a timely fashion. Fundamentally, however, our problem with patience pertains to something inherent to our fallen human nature.
Our patience is threadbare, if not non-existent, because we’re continually waiting for our hopes to be fulfilled and our needs to be met. We wait for flourishing finances, successful business endeavors, harmonious relationships and marriages, improved health and healing, the eventual triumph of our preferred political causes, etc. etc. Although none of these hopes or needs is necessarily wrong, they each fall short of where the author of Psalm 40 directed his waiting. He waited patiently for the Lord. He was aware of his need for deliverance, but he trusted God to act in God’s own way and in God’s own timing.
Consequently, whenever we feel the rush of restlessness overtaking our hearts and minds we’re called to look beyond our immediate desires. Only God can truly satisfy our deepest longings. We need to check our intentions, therefore, by asking ourselves if our preoccupations have been surrendered to the Lord or not. Are we ready to embrace the truth that it is God’s prerogative to bring about the total opposite of what we would prefer God to do? Does this sound nearly impossible? It is. Patience is one “fruit of the Spirit,” which means only the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit can transform our restless hearts and help us find rest in Jesus (Gal. 5:22-25).
Make no mistake, God can be trusted to save. No matter how deep our “pit” seems, and no matter how overwhelming our circumstances might become, the God revealed in Christ Jesus can lift us out and put us on solid ground. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then we can trust God to make a way where there is no way.
So let’s wait patiently for the Lord— “His will be done, not ours.” And may He put a new song in a our mouths, a song of redemption and hope. It’s worth the wait.
I am the vine. You are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
Have you made your New Year’s resolution yet? It’s time! There’s something uniquely motivating about starting a new year. Whatever forms of self-improvement we may have been putting off for months (or years!) suddenly seem within reach. Now that another year has rolled around we’re ready to eat more healthily, to exercise more regularly, to manage our schedules more effectively, to make more time for family and the things that matter most, etc. Even though the likelihood is that nothing has substantially changed about us from 2018 to 2019 (i.e. we have the same habits and tendencies, as well as the same problems and dilemmas), we can feel a renewed buoyancy when the calendar turns over.
I wish you all the best as you seek to harness that optimism in pursuit of a fruitful 2019. But before we get too far into the new year, I hope we’ll all carefully consider how the Lord Jesus defined fruitfulness. According to Jesus, real and lasting fruitfulness is inseparable from faithfulness to him. To our hears, Jesus’ words— “Apart from me you can do nothing”—may sound blunt and possibly even offensive. Our human pride wonders, “Is Jesus questioning the unconquerable human spirit? How dare he insult such a self-evident truth!”
Yet Jesus isn’t saying we aren’t capable of extraordinary achievements. Rather, Jesus is cautioning us against falsely believing we can ever obtain anything of eternal significance apart from him. Unless our fruitfulness derives from a relationship with Christ, it will count for nothing in the end. That means even if somehow we managed to check off all of our New Year’s resolutions, and even if our lives appeared to be marked by prosperity and personal triumph, we might still fail to be fruitful. Our fruitfulness and unfruitfulness in 2019 will be determined by the extent to which we are faithful or unfaithful to Jesus.
So does that mean we shouldn’t bother with resolutions and attempts at self-improvement in 2019? Not at all! Go for it! Just make sure you have your priorities straight. Our relationship with Jesus comes first. Only Jesus can save us, and so real fruitfulness and success must always be measured by our obedience to him. Using any other criteria to measure ourselves, our church, or other people will inevitably lead to misunderstandings and miscalculations. When we stand before the judgement seat of Christ—and we all will—only one thing will suffice, namely, a living and dynamic relationship with Christ. It won’t be our list of accomplishments, no matter how lengthy and impressive.
May the Spirit, therefore, help us cling to Jesus in 2019 and beyond.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory—glory as of the Father’s only Son—full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
“The Word became flesh…” Each of these words is chock full of life-changing significance. While a column like this can only touch the surface of their meaning, I hope the following reflections will serve to increase your love of our Incarnate Savior this Christmas.
The Word… From the first verses of Scripture, we learn that the God of Israel is One who speaks (Genesis 1:1-3). God reveals not only information about His identity but also declares what is good and pleasing in His sight (Genesis 1:4). To hear and obey God’s Word is to believe that what God says “proves true” (Proverbs 30:5) and that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalms 119:105). What God says to us shapes the course of our lives together as God’s people. Indeed this Word is not far from us (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), and the Word is described as “coming” to the Lord’s prophets, who in turn proclaim God’s Word to God’s people (see Jeremiah 1:2; Ezekiel 1:3; Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1). While flowers, grass, people, and everything else in God’s creation will shrivel and fade, “the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 4:8). But this Word is more than a concept to be analyzed and dissected. On the contrary, this Word is ultimately a Person—God the Son, who was in the beginning with God and who is, in fact, fully God. “Through him all things were made…” (John 1:1-2).
…became flesh… Although this same Word was “in very nature God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Rather, he emptied himself by taking the very form of a servant, being made in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7). Without ever ceasing to be God the Son, the Word became a human being—Jesus of Nazareth—and was born of the virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the Son knew the full breadth of the human experience. He was like us in every way—except He did not succumb to temptation and sin (Hebrews 4:15). His hunger and thirst were just as real as ours, even as His tears of sorrow were just as painful as ours. Most importantly, His shed blood—though infinitely precious—was just as real as ours.
…and dwelt among us… Because the Word became flesh, salvation is both possible and available! In the Word we have more than the perfect leader or teacher; we have Someone who is uniquely capable of saving us from the just penalty of our sins. In the Word made flesh we have more than a fellow traveler on the path of life; we have a High Priest who can offer to God what we could never offer ourselves—namely, a pure and undefiled life.
Hallelujah! What a Savior! Merry Christmas!
At our last Youth Lunch before the holidays, we served barbecue chicken, homemade fries, baked beans, chips and Christmas cookies to 56 students from Leesville Road High School – our largest group so far! The meal was prepared and served by our Associate Minister of Families, Trevor MacPherson, and two members of the church – Dottie Fogg and Beth Obenschain. The Youth Lunches will resume in 2019 – date to be announced.
On Sunday evening, December 16, our Chapel Choir and Orchestra presented “A Celebration of Christmas.” The Choir met for final instructions before the concert with the director, Dr. Ernie Rushing, and they were joined for a few minutes by a special guest. The concert began with familiar Christmas songs sung in a street scene and was followed by a more traditional performance of sacred Christmas songs. Afterward, we enjoyed a reception and fellowship with our many guests.
(You can click on the pictures to see a larger version.)
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1).
Evidence of the world’s brokenness is painfully apparent. Surely we can resonate with the cynicism expressed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he penned the following lyrics during the Civil War:
“And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong, And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
It seems as if our holiday festivities cannot escape an ever-threatening “yet.”
With the Nicene Creed we confess our hope that the same Jesus who “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate through the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary” will come again one day. Yet we’re also tempted to believe, “Where is this coming he promised? For ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4).
With Isaiah we confess that peace on earth is possible because the “Prince of Peace” has arrived (Isaiah 9:6). Yet we’re also tempted to believe our conflicts—both personal and global—are simply intractable.
With the angels we confess that the birth of Jesus, our Savior, is the source of “great joy for all people” (Luke 2:11). Yet we’re also tempted to believe joy is something we can only experience in fits and starts depending on how we’re feeling on any given day.
With the Gospel of John we confess that God’s love for the world is such that “He sent His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Yet we’re also tempted to believe (and we often act as though) God’s love is something to be earned or lost depending on our own efforts.
Is there any escape from this “yet”? According to the Holy Spirit speaking to us through Isaiah, this “yet” can be pictured as a stump, i.e. an impasse, an insurmountable obstacle, a dead end. God had promised to provide a dynasty to rule Israel in David’s stead. Yet centuries of civil wars, invasions, and exiles had caused this promise to look like a pipe dream. The God of Israel, however, is in the business of bringing forth life from the stumps left in the wake of our sin. Indeed, there is no “yet” that can stand in the way of the glorious truth announced 2,000 years ago: “Today, in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). It is a truth to be received humbly, celebrated joyfully, and proclaimed boldly. It cannot be improved upon or negated by our circumstances. May we, therefore, give thanks for what only God can do with a stump!
On Sunday evening, December 2, our Children’s Choir presented their musical “Angels Say What?!” They prepared for several weeks and concluded their preparation with a final dress rehearsal. Before the musical, they played two Christmas carols with bells and chimes, and a trio of choir members performed a Christmas Medley on their violins. Our thanks to the children and their director, Ernie Rushing, for their musical contribution to this Christmas season.
(You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.)
“This child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).
According to our 2018 calendars the Advent season will begin on Sunday, December 2. Yet believe it or not, we have actually been celebrating Advent for months now. How so, you ask? To read 1 Samuel is to read about the precursor of the Lord Jesus’ arrival, namely, David. Indeed, we will never fully grasp the significance of the nativity unless the grasp the significance of David. The story of Jesus is tightly intertwined with the story of David. Check out these additional references to see for yourself:
- This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1, NIV).
- Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah (Matthew 1:17, NIV).
- In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27, NIV).
- He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (Luke 1:69, NIV).
- But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20, NIV).
- So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David (Luke 2:4, NIV).
- Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11, NIV).
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, he stepped onto a stage centuries in the making. Faithful Israelites during the first century were not just watching and waiting for any king; they were hoping and praying for God to provide none other than a king like David. As we make our annual trek back to the manger in Bethlehem, therefore, we need to know both what God promised and what God fulfilled in the birth of King Jesus.
Like Israel in the days of Samuel and Saul, as well as Israel during the days of Caesar Augustus, our world desperately needs a King who will reign with justice and righteousness. We need none other than the One who is called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6b). May He reign forever and ever—starting in our hearts!
Our Associate Minister of Families, Trevor MacPherson, was ordained to the Gospel Ministry at Morning Star Baptist Church in Hickory, NC on November 18, 2018. The service was led by the church’s pastor, Rev. David E. Roberts, II. During the service, Trevor was prayed for by our pastor at Tabernacle Baptist church, Rev. Dane Hadley, by all of the ordained pastors attending, and by his mother, Ms. Beverly Snowden. Several members from Tabernacle traveled to Hickory to participate in the service, including special members from the Tabernacle Student Ministry.
Our congratulations to Trevor on this milestone in his ministry, and our prayers for God’s blessing on him as he serves in our church and community.
I am a wretched man. Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25a).
What’s your personality type? If you don’t already know the answer, there are a bewildering number of tests you can take to find out. These tests will analyze you and categorize you (and further subcategorize you) according to your dominant traits and predispositions. Some assessments will even prescribe certain careers that best align with your personality. While these techniques can be exceedingly helpful in identifying our strengths and overall patterns of behavior, they can present a danger Christians need to avoid.
Sometimes our efforts to understand ourselves can lead us to become trapped inside a static framework. We can think, “I am the way I am, and there is no changing that,” or “people are the way they are.” At its worst this mindset contributes toward fatalistic attitudes. For example, “I’m stuck. The die has been cast. I’ve made my bed, so now all I can do is lie in it.” But usually the peril is far more subtle. Without even realizing what we’re doing, we gradually develop habits that solidify our preferred self-understanding. We justify our actions—whether good or bad—using what I’ll call the “I couldn’t help it” standard. According to this standard, we say what we say (or don’t say) and we do what we do (or don’t do) because we can’t change who we are.
Disciples of Jesus, however, need not rely on the prevailing notions of therapeutic psychology to learn who we are. We believe the Living God has said clearly and authoritatively that radical change is both necessary and possible. In other words, change lies at the heart of the gospel. Apart from Christ we are enslaved to the power of sin. Although we might not be as bad as we could be, even the very best we could offer to God would never earn His favor or grace. Consequently, we are fully deserving of God’s just penalty for sin, namely, eternal death. Yet Jesus, the One who knew no sin, absorbed the judgement we deserved so that God’s righteous anger toward sin might be satisfied and so that we might become the righteousness of God (see 2 Cor. 5:21).
This change comes about through the new birth, whereby the Holy Spirit changes the believer from the inside out. Even though perfect righteousness before God will be impossible to attain in this life, the Spirit is fully able to finish what He begins in us (Phil. 1:6). Don’t succumb to cynicism; instead, trust the Lord to make you more and more like Jesus ever day.
I hope you have a lot to give thanks for this year. Above everything else, though, I pray you’ll take time to thank God for the saving transformation available to us through Christ.
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. Thus is everyone who has been born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
When I say “born again,” what comes to mind? Most of us, especially if we have any background in an evangelical church, will imagine a high-pressure sermon (“If you died tonight, where would you go? Heaven or hell?”), saying “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepting Jesus” into your heart, walking down the aisle (popularly know as an “altar call”), and being baptized. I praise God for the ways he has used these longstanding means to draw people to Christ and bring about their new birth. It is the nature of sin, however, to manipulate even the best things—including God’s Word (see Genesis 2:2-5). Consequently, I need to warn you about a grave danger that can creep into our understanding of what it means to be born again.
Far too many people have had the gospel presented to them in rigidly formulaic terms. It typically goes something like this, “hear the gospel+say the sinner’s prayer+walk the aisle+get baptized=salvation.” The problem is not the sequence; the problem is the way the sequence is packaged. As a result, two errors come into focus.
First, we risk believing salvation comes down to what we have done instead of what God has done for us. In other words, we’re tempted to think that because we’ve said a certain prayer or taken certain actions, God is thereby obligated to save us. Yet Jesus says the new birth is not subject to human control. Like the wind, the Spirit blows wherever he chooses. Although we can see where the Spirit has been at work, we cannot force the Spirit to do anything. God brings about the new birth, not us.
Second, we risk confusing birth with growth. We think because we have followed the prescribed formula we have sufficiently responded to the gospel. Our ticket to heaven has been punched, we believe, so now we just need to get as many people as possible to get their tickets punched as well. But the new birth is only the beginning of a lifelong process of having the Spirit make us more and more like Christ. We need the same Spirit who gives us new life to help us develop into mature Christians. Sadly, too many Christians remain “mere infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). They genuinely love Jesus, but they lack the wisdom and perspective to faithfully follow Jesus through life’s tumultuous trials.
Even though the exact nature of how the Spirit transforms a rebellious sinner into a redeemed child of God will remain a mystery, we can be assured of the fact that the Spirit’s work is unmistakable (see Galatians 5:22-26). I hope you’ll join me in praying for the Holy Spirit to move powerfully throughout our church family and beyond.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he or she will not be able to enter the Kingdom of God. What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of Spirit is spirit. You should not be shocked at my saying to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:5-7).
Getting-to-know-one-another questions are pretty predictable: Where are you from? Do you have siblings? Career plans? Favorite food? That’s the kind of thing I was expecting to hear while Scott and I were cooling down after running laps around the Havelock High School track. Since Scott was a 6’8” scholarship-bound senior on the basketball team, I was humbled that he would befriend a lowly freshman like me. We were both active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and he knew my Dad was a pastor. Nevertheless, as we crossed the 200 meter mark on the track, he asked me a question I will never forget: “Have you been born again?”
Some of us might consider that question to be too personal and bordering on intrusive. We consider “are you a Christian?” or “where do you go to church?” to be far safer questions. Our fear of confrontation makes us shy away from Scott’s pointedness. But lately the Spirit has impressed upon my heart both the indispensability and the urgency of this question. It is, after all, the key thing Jesus said to Nicodemus.
Using the “good person” index, Nicodemus ranked highly. He was a man who sought to do right by God and people. As a Pharisee, he not only knew God’s Word, he devoted his life to upholding its commands in scrupulous detail. He even recognized Jesus as a unique teacher from God (John 3:1-2). Yet Jesus told him the primary issue was whether or not the Spirit had brought about a new birth in him. Without embarrassment or apology Jesus said there is no access to God’s Kingdom without being born again.
Despite the distance of nearly two thousand years, the basis of entry hasn’t changed. Nothing short of new birth will suffice. To make it personal, I might say, “Jesus, I’ve given my utmost to ‘rightly divide the Word of truth.’ I’ve faithfully called people to repent and believe the gospel. I’ve been ready ‘in season and out of season.’ Surely that shows how much I love you.” In response, I hear the same response Nicodemus received, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God…”
I pray the Holy Spirit would lead Tabernacle to become a church where being born again is seen for what it is, namely, the most critical issue any person will ever face. Likewise, may the Lord save us from becoming a church of Nicodemuses—merely filling the pews and going through the motions of religion.
What does it mean to be born again, you ask? To be continued…
Every day they met together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with joyful and humble hearts, praising God and having the favor of all the people (Acts 2:46-47a).
What are your expectations for worship services? If we were to survey our congregation, I suspect we would find a bewildering number of different responses. Some of us key on the music. We expect to know the songs, and we expect them to be performed with excellence. We wonder about the sound and size of the choir—is it improving and growing? Will there be special music that adds variety to the service? Others key on the sermon. Will it be interesting and relevant to my life—or dull and boring? Will the preacher be funny and entertaining? Will it be finished in time for my lunch plans? Still others key on the social dimension. Who is here? Who isn’t here? Why is that person in my pew!
To some extent these are human thoughts that will inevitably cross our minds at some point. We can’t help it. Yet if these remain our only expectations for worship services then we have gravely missed the point of worship. We may enter a worship service having our expectations shaped “according to the flesh” (i.e. by what we want, how we want it, and when we want it), but we must guard against continuing to think along those lines.
How different were our spiritual ancestors in the book of Acts? They understood in a profound way that worship is all about God—not us. We tend to think of ourselves as the audience and whatever happens on stage as the show. In reality, however, God is the primary audience. Everything we say and do in a worship service represents an offering to God. When we sing, we’re singing to God. When we pray, we’re praying to God. When we give our tithes and offerings, we’re giving to support God’s work in the world. When I preach, I’m hoping to preach in a way that honors the God who called me to preach. While my words are addressed to the individuals sitting before me, I try to remain keenly aware of how the Holy Spirit is present and working.
Above every other expectation we may have for worship services, this one should be paramount: we yearn to encounter the living God. The same God who brought the world into existence has purchased our redemption through Christ Jesus and promises to meet us when we come before him in worship. “Where two or more gather in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). This is a mind-blowing truth that filled the earliest disciples with unwavering joy and praise. May the Spirit reshape our expectations so that we see worship in the same way—as an awesome opportunity to experience the glorious greatness of our God.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
Admit it: if I say the word “fellowship” you immediately think “food.” Food may not be the only thing we associate with fellowship, but the two things are no doubt inseparable in our minds. Why is this? At least part of the reason is because eating food at church has become so ingrained in our church culture (especially in a Baptist church culture!). It’s one of the things we do as often as we can together. But there’s also a far more important reason to associate fellowship with food.
Eating food with other people—no matter how different the individuals might be—illustrates a key element standing behind the biblical concept of koinonia, (i.e. fellowship). The root comes from the word koinos, which is often translated as “common” or “shared.” Thus, koinonia pertains to what we have in common with each other. Sharing a meal, moreover, tends to have a leveling effect as we become keenly aware of what unites us as human beings. We ALL need food for survival.
Yet sharing a meal with other believers symbolizes far more than our common humanity. It teaches us and reminds us of our shared partnership in Christ. Every individual who has been born again through the Holy Spirit’s work is grafted into the Body of Christ. As a result, here’s what we have in common:
- We share the same basis of entry. Admittance into the company of the redeemed cannot be inherited, bought, sold, earned, or taken by force. It can only be received. We all enter the same way, namely, through the shed blood of Jesus on our behalf.
- We share the same responsibility. We are all responsible for ensuring Christ’s church is growing in healthy ways. Although we might have different gifts to contribute, we’re all responsible for contributing what we can.
- We share the same mission. The church exists to reach those who are not currently members of the church. We’re called to do everything we can to take the Gospel to the farthest corners of the earth. Missions work is not optional for the believer.
- We share the same hope. Ultimately, we are citizens of heaven, not earth. Consequently, we put our trust in Christ and long for the day when our Father’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
While food has always been a key draw to bring believers together, let’s make sure we know fellowship isn’t limited to the food. The food merely represents our partnership. It’s a partnership I pray we never take for granted. We need each and every member of the Body.