The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes: Approaching Worship With Sincerity

When many worship songs written these days verge on being lyrically flakey, Matt Redman continues to buck the trend in writing singable melodies paired with rich theological meaning.

I love Redman’s song “Blessed Be Your Name” for those reasons. It is poetic, using contrasting imagery in each couplet, and yet forcefully reiterating a truth that in every season of our lives, our response should be to bless the name of the Lord.

Today, I heard someone say that we shouldn’t sing this song in church because it is theologically incorrect. This is the second time I have heard someone say this. The argument goes that God is a God who gives – not one who takes away. There are scriptural underpinnings for this. For example, Romans 11:29 says that God’s gifts “are irrevocable”. And James 1:16 says this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

So I’m not arguing with that premise. The issue here is whether we should be singing a song like “Blessed Be Your Name“, which itself has a scriptural source in Job 1:20-22:

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

If we accept that God is a God who gives (and who therefore does not take away), this passage reveals two interesting thoughts:

Firstly, the writer of the book affirms what appears to be contradictory: that despite saying that God is a God who takes away, Job was not charging God with wrongdoing. This goes to the theological issue because if God is a God who doesn’t take way, then surely Job was charging God with doing something inconsistent with His character.

Secondly (and more importantly), even if Job has expressed a theological mistruth, this did not affect the acceptability of his worship to God.

And this goes to the core of the issue of why we should continue to sing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“. Whilst our worship should be grounded in theological truths, sometimes we need to express our worship in raw honesty and choose to praise despite of our circumstances.

Wasn’t this how the Psalmists worshipped? In Psalm 22, David laments about how God who had forsaken him and failed to answer his cries. But then David says “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel”. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist laments about why God had forgotten him in the midst of the enemy’s taunts. And he concludes in v 11:

Why are you so downcast, O my soul? … Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Approaching God with honesty and sincerity is a protocol for acceptable worship.

John 4:22-23 tells us that God is seeking worshippers who worship “in spirit and in truth”. The word “truth” is from the Greek “aletheia“, which means (Strongs 225):

  1. objectively the reality lying at the basis of an appearance; the manifested veritable essence of a matter;
  2. subjectively “truthfulness”, not merely verbal, but sincerity and integrity of character.

It is one thing to verbally declare God’s truth in worship and yet not mean it. (Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing so as people who worshipped with their lips, yet their hearts were far away.) It is another thing to worship sincerely and with integrity. This might mean verbally lamenting that God has given and God has taken away, as long as our direction of worship has God at its endpoint. This is the type of worship that is not only acceptable to God, but which God is actively seeking.

So should we be singing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“? Absolutely! Because it expresses a thought we have all (if we were honest with ourselves) entertained, especially when we have experienced challenges in our lives. In the same song, we express our sincere disappointment (“You give and take away“), yet in faith we declare that our “heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed be Your name“. This is what it means to worship in spirit and in truth.

 

 

Making Room for the Presence of God

Presence Sunday South City

As worship ministers, it’s so easy, isn’t it, to play wonderful music, sing beautiful songs, move a big crowd, all the while thinking that God was in it all? I’m not saying He isn’t, by the way. But I wonder how much of it can sometimes be viewed as a substitute for God’s presence, even without our knowing?

Harold Best says it like this, in Unceasing Worship (p 166):

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek into idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf? Have we come to a place in our practices where God must say to us, ‘You cannot worship me in that way,’ meaning that music has moved from a place of offering to one of lordship, from servanthood to sovereignty? Or might he be saying ‘You shall not worship me in their way,’ meaning that we have adopted a pagan worldview that imputes a causal force to music that it does not properly have? We need to discover the critical theological difference between being merely moved by music and being spiritually changed by it. Yes, music might bring pleasure and change our pulse rates or blood pressure, but so does taking a simple walk in the park.

At the end of the day, music, programs, artistic expressions – all are means to an end. And the end must be nothing less than the presence of God. As worship ministers, we need to walk this fine line carefully.

This was really brought home to me tonight when I attended Presence Sunday at South City Church. My friend Darren Woon (who is one of the music directors at South City) had told me what they were doing at their church earlier in the week. My first thought was that I was going to be “churched-out” today. But I decided to go anyway. Partly because I wanted to see Darren and another friend of mine Clem do their thing on stage, but also because I thought it would be good just to worship from the audience.

Even though I only serve on stage two weeks in a month, as Assistant Worship Director at my church, it’s pretty hard to “switch off” from serving mode. You’re always wanting to gauge how the ministry as a whole is going, so instead of just letting go and worshipping, you end up critically evaluating all the worship sets. Then, instead of wholeheartedly singing, part of your mind is trying to remember some things that you want to feedback to the team at the end of the service.

So it was nice just to be in the crowd for a change with no agenda, with no one from your congregation expecting you to act in a particular way. Just you, God and some family members from a different neighbourhood, most of whom you haven’t met before!

After a pretty liberating time of worship, Ps Ken Lee came up to preach a short message about “Making Room for God’s Presence” from 2 Kings 4 – the story of the Shunnamite Woman.

In verse 10, the Shunnamite Woman decides that she would arrange a small room, put in a bed, table and chair so that the man of God, Elisha, can stay at her house whenever he visits the village. And here was Ps Ken’s point: even though the woman knew she had regular access to God’s presence (as represented by His prophet), she wanted to create space so the presence of God could stay. All it took was for some small adjustments in furnishings.

As a result, despite her barrenness, God worked a miracle and she conceived a son.

And years later, the son, who is then grown up, dies. The woman takes the dead miracle in her arms, and in verse 21, lays the body of her son on the “bed of the man of God” in her home. Elisha came into that very room and brought the son back to life. And Ps Ken’s point was that we must not only make room for God’s presence, but keep room for God’s presence.

It would have been easy for her, after receiving God’s miracle to rearrange the room. After all, her long-held prayer had been answered. She could easily put Elisha’s room to a different use. But she decided to keep room for God’s presence. And the result was that Elisha revived a dead miracle.

The message this evening really spoke to me.

I wondered what adjustments I needed to make to my life; to unclutter. Don’t get me wrong: the ministry opportunities this year have been amazing. In this Year of Open Doors, God has opened lots of doors of ministry and I’ve been able to confidently walk through them. But this has become singularly clear: Programs have replaced Presence. It’s been easy to try to implement change and to invigorate the culture of our ministry, to come up with brilliant new strategic ideas, but how much of it was birthed in God’s presence?

Pastor Benny likes to show us a video of Bill Hybels talk about a guy whose life was transformed because he chose to meet God every day in his rocking chair. This guy went from being a nominal believer to eventually going into full time ministry. Every decision he made was a result of sitting in the rocking chair and meeting with God.

I used to meet with God in my study room. But now it’s full of clutter. There are papers and objects everywhere. We treat it more like a store room. In my quest to keep the visible part of my apartment (the living room which guests get to see) neat and tidy, I shove things into the study room and close the door.

The analogy of furniture and clutter was too hard to resist. God was speaking to me about the need to de-clutter, to come back to His presence again. Programs can only go so far. It’s time for me to clean up the study and get me a comfy chair, where I can sip coffee, read my Bible, pray and host God’s presence.

I think as we draw near to the end of this Year of Open Doors, the thought that God impressed upon me was this: it’s one thing to walk through the doors God opens for us, but 2014 will be a Year of His Presence. It will be about making room for Him and opening the door for Him to walk in whenever He wants.

Should I Be Enjoying the Worship?

Last night, I held our first mentoring group meeting: a cosy group of guys in the worship ministry hungry to grow together and learn from each other. We had really interesting discussions, sharing our journeys, our dreams and our understanding of worship as we began to work our way together through Bob Kauflin’s book, Worship Matters.

The whole thing was actually initiated by the youngest in our group. I actually didn’t know him very well, but he came up to me one day after our church service and asked if I could mentor him. I looked at him and thought: “first, I don’t really know this person; but two, what a display of courage and humility to ask such a question of anyone”. And so I said “yes” and then we got a couple of others along and that’s how we started our group.

Anyway, last night we were talking about how worship as a lifestyle and the traps of idolatory and one of the guys asked: “is it worship when I’m playing FIFA?”

Good question.

If I believe that the whole of our lives offered to God is worship, then I suppose the answer must be “yes, I am worshipping when I’m enjoying playing games on my console”. Perhaps the issue is one of intensity rather than direction.

Of course, excessive FIFA-playing may easily cross the line into idolatory – just don’t ask me when that line is crossed.

The natural progression is to then ask this (in the context of corporate worship during Sunday services): “is it okay for me to enjoy the worship?”

I remember a worship leader who used to ask the question: “church, did you enjoy the worship?” and when everyone resounded with a mighty “Yes!”, he would say, “Wrong! Only God should enjoy the worship”. Darn, a trick question! I hate trick questions, especially after I am feeling enthused after a great time of worship which I genuinely did enjoy.

I’m now pretty sure that whilst our worship is for God to enjoy, our enjoyment of our own worship completes the cycle of God’s pleasure in our worship.

This is apparent in the Westminster Catechism, that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. No point glorifying and not enjoying. Otherwise, it’s just forced, or as they say, a duty rather than a delight.

John Piper says this:

Because God is unique as the most glorious of all beings and totally self-sufficient, he must be for himself in order to be for us…. His aim to bring praise to himself and his aim to bring pleasure to his people are one aim and stand or fall together

CS Lewis said it this way: 

We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.

In other words, our enjoyment of God is in fact the starting point for our expression of praise, but then our satisfaction in Him itself brings pleasure to His heart. And so the cycle of enjoyment continues.

With this fresh understanding, I started to enjoy the worship – guiltlessly! And so should you!

Shadow to Reality: Worship from the Tabernacle to the Heavenly Throne Room

The author of Hebrews tells us that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”.[1]

A principal theme that can be traced through the Bible is the loss and recovery of God’s presence, beginning with unbroken fellowship in the Garden of Eden, through to the Fall and separation, the Patriarch’s altar-building and sacrifice, the Tabernacle of Moses in the desert, followed by Solomon’s Temple, to Jesus’ tabernacling amongst humankind[2], the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the early church, to the glorious continual worship in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Tabernacle was first instituted in Exodus 25 according to the pattern and design that God revealed to Moses so that the Lord might dwell among His people.[3] Within the Tabernacle, were items of furnishings which hold special significance and which ultimately point to and prefigures the person of Christ.[4] Importantly, the Tabernacle was divided into three parts: the Outer Courts, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Whilst the presence of God dwelt in the Tabernacle (represented by the Ark of the Covenant), the Holy of Holies was only accessible once a year, when the High Priest would enter to make atonement for the people of Israel.[5]

The Tabernacle’s design emphasised the holiness of God. Allen P Ross observes:

One begins to realise that people could not presume to determine how to approach God. God himself had to make the way clear by revealing the plans for the tabernacle. Because it was “the house of the Lord,” the design had to stress the majesty, beauty and holiness of God.[6]

Significantly, God’s intention was that all of Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”, qualified to mediate between God’s presence and the kingdoms of the world.[7] The proviso was that the Israelites had to fully obey God and keep His covenant. However, the Israelites broke the first commandment even before Moses descended from Sinai to deliver God’s blueprint. The result was that God chose an exclusive priesthood from within the Israelites, the tribe of Levi.[8]

Solomon’s temple (situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) marked a permanent dwelling place for God amongst Israel: permanent in the sense that the site was immovable, but yet transient in the sense that God made it clear that should Israel turn from God, He too would forsake the temple as His dwelling place.[9]

The site of the Temple itself was significant. In Genesis 22, it was known as Mt Moriah, the place at which Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, “your only son … whom you love”[10] before God interrupted the show of obedience by providing God’s own substitutionary sacrifice: a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, being a type of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb crowned with thorns. In 2 Samuel, it was known as the threshing floor of Araunah, a place where God’s judgment met with His mercy[11], prefiguring Christ’s work of redemption on the cross.

The Temple preserved the structure of the Tabernacle but on a grander scale. None of the ritual and ceremony however could prevent the withdrawing of God’s presence and the Temple’s destruction when the Israelites turned away from God.

The Early Church’s worship represented a fundamental change in modus operandi. Based on Christ’s righteous qualification of God’s people through the work on the cross, the church was now the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation”[12] that God had desired ever since Exodus 19. Now, the church would be the mediator of God’s presence and the world. And the High Priest was no longer a fallible human being, but Jesus Himself, whose holiness was constant and undeniable, whose life was indestructible and whose sacrifice was once and for all.[13]

A key theme in early Christian worship, as Robert Webber observes, is that “Jewish ceremonies were reinterpreted as having been fulfilled in Christ and his church.”[14] Webber goes on to state:

These reinterpretations of Jerusalem, the temple, the sacrifices, the Passover Lamb, and the priesthood, along with their application to the emerging church, were radical and new. They reached into the very essence of Judaism and struck at the heart of Jewish worship.[15]

Breaking free from structure and regiment, freedom in form characterised the Early Church’s worship.[16] Acts 2:42 describes some of the elements:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Surprisingly little is said about how the followers of Christ actually conducted their worship. Historians such as Justin Martyr described prayers, the reading of Scripture, signing, the Eucharist, preaching of the sermon and Baptism amongst the actions of Early Church worship.[17]

But even then, the author of the Book of Hebrews prefigures a greater restoration of worship yet to come. In Hebrews 12, the writer states that “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire [Sinai]… but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” It is a prefiguring of a glorious, continuous worship described in Revelation, where God’s manifest presence dwells among His people in a celestial city and the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our reigning Lord and Christ.[18] And as joint heirs and kings, God’s people will rule and reign with Christ in this new paradigm.

Allen Ross observes:

John’s prophetic book brings forward the imagery of the Garden of Eden, with which we began this journey. The river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flows from the throne of God and from the Lamb, down through the city of God. And on either side of it stands the Tree of Life, bearing its fruit regularly and providing healing for the nations. The inclusion of the river reminds us that God is the source of life. And the emphasis on the Tree of Life tells us that the curse is over, that life has triumphed over death, that humans are no longer barred from living forever in the presence of God….”

Worship reaches its zenith in Revelation because not only have God’s people been spiritually united with Him in Christ, they are now physically re-united with their Creator in a new unceasing Paradise.


[1] Hebrews 10:1.

[2] John 1:14 says “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us”.

[3] Exodus 25:8.

[4] It is not within the scope of this essay to consider this issue further.

[5] Leviticus 16:34.

[6] Allen P Ross Recalling the Hope of Glory (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), p 191.

[7] Exodus 19:5,6 records this intention.

[8] Exodus 32.

[9] 2 Chronicles 7:19-22.

[10] Genesis 22:2. Isaac is a type of Jesus, God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

[11] Threshing often represents judgment in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 24, God judges David for taking a census of Israel and sends a plague which finally stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah. Here David purchased the threshing floor as the future site of the Temple that Solomon would build.

[12] 1 Peter 2:9.

[13] Hebrews 10:1-12.

[14] Robert E Webber Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:17, talking about the fading glory of Moses and the Law: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

[17] See “Spirit Filled Worship in the Early Church” in Lamar Boschman, A Heart of Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) pp 128-139.

[18] Revelation 11:15.

Worship: The Centre of Existence

It’s been a while since I last posted. Life has just gotten really busy. But I recently had to do some assignments for Metro Worship Academy. I haven’t written assignments in years! My friend Kelwin says that they should call them “adventures”, rather than “assignments”. We will see…

In an interview with the Canberra Times[1], former lead singer of KISS, Gene Simmons, professing to once being religious, reveals his objection to the worship of the Christian God. “Why,” he asks, “would this God who is very non-human want to hear his name repeated? … Now that’s a really frail characteristic.”

Simmons view discloses a perverted understanding of worship by projecting a human trait on a Being who is beyond and before created things. God’s passion for His own glory is in fact at the very core what it means to worship.

Harold Best calls it the “centre of existence”:

Worship is at once about who we are, about who or what our god is and about how we choose to live…. [A]t this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone.[2]

The question then is: who or what do we choose to worship? Simmons failed to understand that, by virtue of His being God, God necessarily must exalt His name and glory above anything else and that “His first and central love is Himself”.[3] This singular fact is the foundation and fountainhead of created order: for the individual, society, the nations and the cosmos.  Giglio observes:

When God makes His glory the centre of all things and the center of our affections, he gives us Himself – the very best gift He could give us, and the ultimate expression of His love.[4]

In other words, it is only when we understand the centrality of God in our universe that we can fully realise our personal destiny and the destiny of our cities and nations, undergirded by the love and generosity of God in His divine mission to reconcile all things to Himself.[5]

God’s desire and passion for His own glory, manifested in His goal of reconciling all things to Himself led to Jesus’ death on the cross, which is also for Christians, the starting point of our worship.  Paul says this:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.[6]

To offer our bodies suggests that worship must be an all-consuming, continuous act (in other words, “worship as a lifestyle”) but the use of the word “offer” (in the present continuous tense) requires a direct act, a sacrifice. In one sense, whole-life worship can be very much an unconscious reflection of the way we have chosen to live, manifested in our daily choices and actions. But there is also a place for direct, intense adoration and praise.  James Macdonald observes:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”…. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worthy directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intention, Vertical outpouring of adoration.[7]

So in light of this, the question we ask is: how do we worship? We must understand that worship begins with the heart, from our affections. God is not focussed on “outward appearance … but the Lord looks at the heart”[8]. Jesus puts it another way: God is seeking worship that is “in spirit and truth”[9], that is, worship that is initiated within our spirit by the Holy Spirit, and worship that expresses (and is consistent with) an inner reality.[10]  That does not mean that outward expressions are not important, for indeed the actions of worship themselves (singing, kneeling, bowing, raised hands, clapping, shouting) hold great spiritual significance[11]. The point is that outward expressions originate in inward attitude.

The result? Worship transforms us. We become like what we worship.  The Psalmist says that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”[12]  Hibbert observes that “worship not only changes our inner lives, it also affects the expression of our faith and service to God in the world around us”.[13] God uses us to change our community and cities, but in the midst of worship, God also supernaturally and metaphysically brings about transformation on the earth.

In Revelations 5, John has a vision of the Lamb who was slain, encircled by the 24 elders, standing as the answer to the question: who is worthy to open the scroll? As the elders worshipped with the harp and the bowl of incense (signifying prayer), the Lamb began to open the seals of the scroll. The scroll represents a will and testament, by which God bequeaths His divine destiny to the earth and all creation.  Through the means of worship therefore, God ultimately reconciles all things to Himself to the praise of His jealously-guarded glory.

 

[1] Peter Karp, Untitled Article, Canberra Times, 12 September 1999.

[2] Harold Best Unceasing Worship (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) p 17.

[3] Louie Giglio I Am Not But I Know I Am (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) p 162.

[4] Id, p 165.

[5] Paul states in Colossians 1:19, 20 (NIV) that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Note: all Scripture references are to the New International Version unless otherwise stated).

[6] Romans 12:1.

[7] James MacDonald Vertical Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2012) p 168-169.

[8] 1 Samuel 16:7.

[9] John 4:23,24.

[10] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance #225: “alethia”. The word translated as “truth”, according to Strong, means “signifying the realty lying at the basis of an appearance” and also “sincerity and integrity of character”.

[11] An analysis of the various expressions of worship and their significance are beyond the scope of this post.

[12] Psalm 135:18.

[13] Vivien Hibbert Prophetic Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) p 147. 

Taking our Place at the Love Feast: Good Friday Reflections

Today is Good Friday. On this day, Christians around the world celebrate one of the greatest events that changed the course of history:  the death of Jesus on the cross.

My wife and I usually like to go to a well-programed, evocative, sensory church service on Good Friday. If we can, we try to fit in a service at Riverview Church, Perth’s largest congregation, which every year puts on a high production-value service which ultimately gets the tears flowing. This year, we had a cell group outreach and we spent most of the morning preparing, so we didn’t get time to get down to any of the services at Riverview.

But I think spending Good Friday with our cell group, our close-knit Christian community and a few invited guests, sharing a good meal, worshipping together and taking the bread and wine is as close as we get to properly observing and celebrating Good Friday.

Good Friday always evokes in me some contradictory feelings. It’s a sorrowful day when you think about the sufferings of Jesus, how he took our place and our punishment.

But it is also a time of joy, of celebrating our deliverance and liberty, knowing that all our sins are forgiven and because of Jesus’ death, we now have right standing before God and are called His children.

First Corithians 11:23-33 says this:

 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.

Verse 29 says that we need to “discern the Lord’s body”, or to bear it in mind.

I think a lot of us misunderstand the significance of the Holy Communion. If you’ve been in the church long enough, it’s sometimes just treated as another part of our Sunday program once a month when on top of the bags we pass around, we also pass around a little plastic cup of juice and some crackers. In our church, we’ve maximized the convenience factor with a presealed cup and cracker combination.  Our little commercial, mass-produced cup almost lends a flippancy to the occasion.

On the other hand, we can approach it with deft solemnity.  I remember when I was younger hearing from the pulpit that we shouldn’t partake of the bread and cup unworthily in case we invite judgment on ourselves. In particular, if you weren’t born again, you shouldn’t partake. It’s as if being unsaved wasn’t bad enough, but the combination of being unsaved and taking something so sacred would somehow invite special judgment. The pastor would say that this was what was meant by taking the bread and cup in “an unworthy manner”.  So sometimes, when I was worried about whether I was saved or not, I would let the cup pass.

But both attitudes betray a lack of understanding about the significance of the Holy Communion and exactly what Jesus was calling us to celebrate.

Luke 22 describes how Jesus instituted the celebration of communion on the Jewish Passover. He could have done it on any other day, but he picked this significant day (the day before He was charged and crucified) – and it was no coincidence.  By doing so, Jesus was making a statement that he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament type of the Passover Lamb in Exodus 12, when Moses told the Jews to sacrifice a lamb without blemish and smear the blood on the doorposts of their homes so that when the angel of death passed, those identified by the blood would be spared. The Passover became the catalyst of the liberation of the Jewish nation from Egyptian captivity.  Since then, the Jews have generation after generation celebrated the Passover in remembrance of that great day of their deliverance.

The Jews traditionally ate the Matzah bread during Passover and this was the bread Jesus would have used when he instituted the Communion.  The Matzah is actually very symbolic, particular in the context of Isaiah 53.

  • The Matzah is unleavened, meaning it has no yeast in it. In the Bible, yeast is often associated with sin. So the Matzah is symbolic of the sinless of body of Jesus – He who knew no sin, became sin for us.
  • The Matzah is also flat because when it is being prepared, the dough is beaten flat. At Calvary, Jesus was beaten and flogged. Isaiah says of Jesus that “he was crushed and bruised for our iniquities”.
  • The bread is then put through fire to be baked. Jesus bore the fire of God’s wrath and judgment.  Isaiah says it this way: “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.”
  • If you look carefully at the bread, it has holes in it. Isaiah says “He was pierced for our transgressions.”
  • And you can also see the stripe marks.  Isaiah says that “by His stripes, we are healed and made whole.” Even as we take the bread, we believe that by faith that God can do a healing work in our lives too: healing our diseases and illnesses; emotional brokenness; disconnectedness; breakdown of relationships. God can heal all these things.

And then comes the wine. Jesus said of the wine that this represented the blood of the new covenant, poured out for us.

What is the new covenant?

Under the old covenant, the law was instituted to prescribe behaviour and standards fitting of the people of God. If you could do everything according to the law, then you will be blessed. But if you failed, then you would be cursed and punished. The apostle James says that if you fail in one aspect of the law, you fail the entire thing.

God saw that it was impossible for us to keep the law in its entirety.  Justice demanded punishment, so God sent his Son Jesus, who was completely sinless to die in our place. On the cross, the demands of justice and the wrath of God were completely exhausted in the body of Jesus.  As we are in Christ, the principal clause of the new covenant is in Hebrews 10:16-17 is that God has now written His law on our hearts. But not only that, He says that our sins and lawless acts He will remember no more!

The blood was also a mark of distinction. Like in Exodus 12, by the mark of the blood, the people of God were distinguished from the people of Egypt. When we drink of the wine, we remember how God has sealed us by His Holy Spirit as His own – we are His children and nothing can snatch us out of His hands.

You will notice that in Luke 22, there are actually two cups.  In the Jewish tradition, the first cup is known as the cup of sanctification.  Ephesians 1:7 says in Him we have redemption through His blood and the forgiveness of sins in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.

The second cup is known as the cup of praise. It is an acknowledgment of the goodness and love of God that has brought us all His benefits.

So I go back to 1 Corinthians 11. To drink in an unworthy manner has nothing to do with our own sinfulness because we are already deemed worthy in Christ. But the challenge in 1 Corinthians 11 is all about how we regard the wine and the bread (our attitude towards Christ) and how we regard one another and the people around us (our attitude towards others).

Just as Christ’s physical body was broken to bring us wholeness, Christ also resurrected, not just a physical body, but also His spiritual body: the church.

And that is why on Good Friday, as we celebrated the Passover meal, I think God was smiling on our small group as we gathered to eat together and fellowship.  Nothing unites more than fellowship and feasting. Today was all about remembering Christ’s death and sacrifice, but it was also about celebrating HIs redeemed body amongst the gathered community and taking our place at the love feast.

Book Review: Future Worship by Lamar Boschman

One of the assignments I have to complete as part of the Metro Worship Academy is a book review. Students were given a select list of texts on worship to read and review. I chose Lamar Boschman’s Future Worship because it is one of the key texts which have shaped my own views on worship practice. So I am killing two birds with one stone: I’m recommending an important book to those who read this blog (particularly if you are a worship leader) that will help you understand the intersection of worship and culture. And I’m also completing an assessment item at the same time. Win!


Future Worship

I have long considered Lamar Boschman one of the pioneers of the modern praise and worship movement. Not only did Boschman model church worship expression through his worship leadership, he also provided, as a teacher, the much needed Biblical blueprint that laid the foundation for the movement.

I first read Boschman’s Future Worship (Ventura: Renew Books, 1999) some years ago. Reading it again recently, with many more years of ministry experience under my belt, I was confronted by just how many of Boschman’s predictions about the coming shape of worship in the new millennium were beginning to be realised.

Blending references from theologians, philosophers and futurists (just so you know that this is going to be a meaty book), Boschman begins with an indictment on the current state of worship in many churches: overly plastic, image-conscious and performance-based worship that has fomented consumerism, dislocation and spiritual disconnectedness. In his wry style, he states:

Today, worship is too often a cacophonous, raucous, aerobic dance class. People stand on platforms and command you to do stuff that you would never do in any rational moment of your life… like turning to the total stranger next to you and screaming, MY NAME IS BRADLEY AND I’M A JESUS POWER RANGER! (pp 41-42)

But yet, there is hope. After all Future Worship is not just about the present, it is about learning the lessons of the past so we can paint a glorious future.

And so, the theme of birth pangs and contractions dominate: the idea that perhaps, the disillusionment and unsettledness is the result of the conflict between a dying era and one that is struggling to be born. Boschman states (at 48):

While most people may not describe that succinctly or eloquently, most are aware of a prevailing and bewildering sense of confusion and ambiguity. What they may not possess, however, is a sense of perspective about it: these things are merely the beginnings of birth pangs…. A new world is being born.

For students of worship, Boschman puts the modern worship movement in its historical context like no other book on worship (except perhaps say Robert Webber’s Worship Old and New). Boschman provides a sweeping analysis of communications media (from the oral tradition, to the printed word, to the electronic age and finally to the new digital revolution) and how they have shaped the development of the church’s worship expression and its core values. He tells us how we got to where we are. And then, importantly, he tells us to look beyond the familiarities of the past towards new frontiers of possibilities.

In the past 20 years, church (and its worship) has changed. Churches are becoming more “post-modern” and “emergent” even though they may resist those labels.

But the key point in Boschman’s analysis is that the new digital age is facilitating a convergence of the best elements of the preceding ages. He states (at 164):

A crucial part of this unhindered Church of the future is the principle of convergence – the recognition and blending of various strengths of worship found in the oral, print and electronic ages of the Church.

Personality cults are beginning to fade into the background as even the most insignificant of voices are given expression and validity through the digital platform. Communities are reaching beyond denominational, racial and geographical lines as members of the body of Christ connect and network across cyberspace towards truly realising the vision of a church universal. The rigidities of time are being overthrown. Even ancient kinships (as Boschman puts it) are being rekindled.

This is the new worship revolution. As another prophetic worshipper once put it, it is where “all the streams flow as one river / To wash away our brokenness” (Martin Smith, “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble”).

Lift Up Those Hands

I’m in Bali at the moment and one of the things I really hate is the traffic. The roads are narrow, the sidewalk is uneven and there are cars and motorbikes everywhere. Crossing the road is quite an undertaking.

What my friend does is that he steps onto the road with his hand outstretched, palm facing the ongoing traffic. To my surprise, cars, trucks and motorcycles stop in their tracks. I tried it myself too and I can tell you that I felt incredibly powerful.

I remember a long time ago a worship leader in our church telling the congregation to lift their hands in worship. I resented being instructed on how I should worship. I thought to myself that everyone worships differently. Why should I lift my hands if I didn’t feel like it? I now understand that worship on Sunday is a corporate activity under a corporate leadership inspired by the Holy Spirit. I also now understand that we experience a personal benefit too when we lift our hands.

Psalm 141:2 says this:

May my prayer be set before you like incense
May the lifting up of my hands be as the evening sacrifice.

God equates the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice!

In Exodus 29, God institutes the evening burnt offering at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and tells the Israelites that when the sacrifice is made, there is where God will meet His people.

The lifting of our hands invites God’s presence into our present situation.

And where God’s presence is, there is authority and power.

That’s why when Moses lifted up his hands, the enemies were defeated; in our lifted hands we are declaring God as our standard and victory.

And that’s why Paul says in 1 Tim 2:8 that he wants everyone everywhere to lift up their hands in prayer.

So the next time your worship leader encourages you to lift up your hands during worship – just go for it! It does a lot more than stop traffic.

I’ll leave you with this video from Tim Hawkins. In case you haven’t tried lifting up your hands before, Tim catalogues the various hand postures you can deploy. Pick your most comfortable one and lift up your hands in the sanctuary!

Hungry!!!

When I get hungry, I’m no fun to be around. I get cranky. Real cranky. Just ask my wife.

When you are hungry, you are longing for something which is yours to have, but which you may not yet have taken hold of.

I’m reading Bill Johnson’s Hosting the Presence at the moment.

Johnson observes that the prophets of the Old Testament longed for two things: that all of God’s people will have a new heart and a new nature, and secondly that they would all have the Spirit of God rest upon them.

The prophets were hungry. They saw what was coming and they longed for it in their day.

Johnson says: “When He shows us what’s coming, it’s not so that we can plan and strategise. It’s so we’ll get hungry and draw into our day what was reserved for another day!”

These are the days the prophets had foretold! May the Spirit of God fall on us in a fresh and powerful way. When that happens, I believe that there will be open heavens in our ministry, when the heavens will collide with the earthly realm and bring transformation!

Communicating and Shaping Culture by Drilling and Detonating

In my last post, one of the observations I made was about the arts communicating and shaping culture.

At its core, the gospel is about transformation. Which is why I believe worship, in all its various musical, visual and artistic expressions will play a critical role in the gospel’s penetrating society and bringing change and ultimately redemption.

I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s Centre Church in which he makes an important point about the need for contextualisation. Imagine, he says, that you need to remove a boulder. The key is to drill a shaft deep into the centre of the boulder, then sink some explosives into the shaft before detonating the explosives. if all you do is drill into the boulder, the boulder will remain. If you just plant explosives outside the boulder, you might shear off some of the surface but the boulder will remain in tact.

And so Keller says this:

To successfully reach people in a culture, we must both enter sympathetically and respectfully (similar to drilling) and then confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth (similar to blasting)

In the context of worship then, I believe our expression must be culturally cutting edge and undeniably attractive. We can’t continue doing things the way we’ve always done them, hoping that the truth in our message will somehow detonate the prevailing culture. Churches like to take the moral high ground, standing on truth alone and at all costs, even at the risk of alienating itself from culture and inevitably the very people it seeks to reach.

Instead my challenge to the church is to, through its music and artistic expressions, sympathetically and respectfully enter culture, to understand, embrace, welcome and even attract before it seeks to confront. Culturally informed, contextualised and, at the same time, penetrating worship may well be that key.