Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hold On!

The crew of the Endurance on Elephant Island

Life is a marathon.  Finishing does not go to the fast, but to the faithful.  Victory is had only by endurance. 
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic expedition in 1914 to Antarctica had a profound impact on me when I read it several years ago.  It is a tale of incredible survival and endurance.  His family motto was, “By endurance we conquer.”  Indeed, that was the name of his ship.
The Endurance became stuck in the ice when they were only eighty miles from the Antarctic continent.  Unable to free the boat, it was crushed by the ice pack and sank ten months later.  In 1914, there were no cell phones and there were no radio stations on Antarctica.  Shackleton and his crew of 27 men endured violent hurricane-force winds, temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an extreme diet of penguin and seal meat, dangerous ice flows and flagging hope in a seemingly impossible situation.
But Shackleton never allowed his men’s morale to sink.  When they finally arrived on the desolate Elephant Island they still had no hope of rescue.  Leaving 22 men on shore, Shackleton took five crewmen and sailed eight hundred miles to reach civilization.  Against impossible odds, the crew and their small 22-foot boat made it to the whaling station at South Georgia island. 
We can only imagine the thoughts of the men who were left as they watched their leader sail away from Elephant Island.  Though Shackleton promised to return with a rescue party, it was likely he would not make it.   The Southern Ocean has the worst seas in the world with converging currents of the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Waves are typically over fifty feet from crest to trough and winds can howl over 100 miles an hour.  Navigation was nearly impossible with the sun rarely visible and if they missed their destination, they would be swept out into the vast Atlantic Ocean with no hope of return.  The crew on Elephant Island knew all of this.  In their quiet moments, we can only imagine the thoughts of despair and madness they wrestled with.
The stranded crew had to wait another four months on the desolate and inhospitable rock before they were miraculously rescued.  Not one of them perished. They had overcome by standing firm and holding fast to the promise of their captain’s return.  Through it all, they survived the horrible ordeal with enduring hope. 
Sometimes, I think we must feel like the stranded men on Elephant Island.  We wonder, “What is to become of us and our world?”  We see things getting worse and worse.  Is there any hope for the future?
The ancient world in which the church was born was not unlike ours.  The church in Thessalonica had been taught that Jesus would return and set everything right.  But some false teachers had come to them and said that Jesus had already returned and that they had somehow missed it.  The Apostle Paul, who had planted the church, wrote to them to correct their thinking and to dispel their fears...
         The twenty-two men who remained stranded on Elephant Island after Shackleton departed could have wallowed in their desperate conditions.  But they didn’t.  The kept doing what the Boss had told them to do.  They had come a long way. They had endured incredible hardships.  They stood firm in the character they had acquired through their trials and they held fast to the promise of their rescue.
So, friends, stand firm in the spiritual maturity to which God has brought you.  Hold fast to the truth that has been delivered to you.  We will endure tough times in the midst of a world that is in rebellion towards God.  Stand firm and hold fast because your reward is glorious: "He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 2:14). 
(From the introduction and closing to a sermon delivered to the First Baptist Church, Galesburg, IL. 7.23.17  II Thessalonians 2:1-17)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Aliens in America

I Peter 2:1-17

Aliens in America
I Peter 2:1-17

Introduction – How Did We Get Here?
It has been a very interesting week on social media and in the blogosphere.  The Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land on Friday, June 26th has sent shock waves throughout Bible-believing congregations.  Not that we didn’t see it coming.  Our culture has been headed this way for a long time. 

But how did we get here – to this day – where sin is celebrated and institutionalized in same-sex marriage?  I think we must begin with understanding that the Devil is in the mix leveraging our fallen nature.  Beyond that broad understanding, we need to recognize that the factors that brought us same-sex marriage a few days ago have been at work a long time in our culture.  We have benefited greatly from modernism and humanism that has its roots in Europe about the same time our country was being founded.  The modern age has given us wonderful things like our democracy, the industrial age, modern conveniences like electricity, cars, and computers.  But at its core, modernism has elevated man over God and given us secularism, Darwinism, Communism, and militant atheism.  Into this secular, man-centered worldview, we added the ingredient of the sexual revolution in the late fifties and early sixties with the Pill and Playboy Philosophy.  Sex was no longer considered the sacred physical union between a man and a woman, as the Bible teaches, but it became solely a means for self-gratification.  In biblical marriage, where sex is an act of self-giving love, with the advent of the Sexual Revolution, it became a source of getting, rather than giving. 

That was the beginning of the destruction of marriage in our culture.  We furthered its demise by instituting “no-fault divorce” making it easier to break up what was promised to be “till death do us part.”  The proliferation of pornography during the same time and especially with the advent of the internet has further weakened the uniqueness of the marriage relationship and the sacredness of sex.  The entertainment industry, of course, jumped in all this and reflected what was happening in culture with its celebration of sex outside of marriage. In all of this, the church has not been innocent.  Our divorce rates and use of porn is not much different than those outside of the church. 

It wasn’t long, then, that media and our society began to celebrate homosexuality.  Why not?  Marriage had been diminished.  If the primary purpose of sex was self-gratification, then why not ignore what God revealed in his word.  You remember the shows.  Will and Grace.  The Ellen Show.  American Family.  And countless episodes of TV dramas and comedies that seem to always normalize and celebrate what the Bible calls sin.  It has been a non-stop onslaught to normalize sinful behavior.

And that has brought us, not surprisingly, to today.  Homosexuality and transgender lifestyles are now celebrated and considered a normal and healthy option in our culture.  All week long, I’ve read blogs and FaceBook posts fearing backlash against Bible-believing Christians who still believe that homosexual acts are sinful and same-sex marriage is an abomination of what God intended.  There is talk about loss of free speech and tax-exempt status for churches and para-church ministries. I believe the risks are real.  There is a lot of fear. 

May I suggest to you: this is not a time for fear.  It is a time for courage and clarity.  This is a time for the church to truly be the church.  What should we do?  How should we act?

Friends, the church of Jesus Christ has always been counter-cultural.  In fact, we have been at our best when the world has been against us.  That was certainly the situation when Peter wrote his first letter known as I Peter.  Rome was no friend to Christians, and Peter calls the recipients of the letter “exiles” and “aliens.”  Though they lived in the Roman world, their primary citizenship was elsewhere.  It is a good word for us today as American Christians.

The Word – I Peter 2:1-3
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

This is where we must begin.  We cannot complain about the world around us and live just like those who do not know God.  The sins that Peter lists are relational sins:  the way that we live and talk with other people.  We who call ourselves Christ-followers must live as the Lord taught us. 

And I love the picture that Peter offers in the second and third verses.  A newborn baby is dependent on its mother’s milk for survival, health, and growth.  In the same way, we are to earnestly long for what Peter calls “the pure spiritual milk.”  Some very good translations render it as the “milk of the word.”  Certainly, God’s word is central to what is necessary for our health and growth.  Other elements are important, too:  prayer, a sense of God’s presence in one’s life, and deep fellowship with other believers.  The important point that I want to make here is, if you have known the grace and goodness of God, then you will want to grow.  Your passionate desire for God’s word and work is evidence that you are spiritually alive.  Peter continues:

“As you come to him, (you’re coming to him, remember, because you long for “pure spiritual milk”) a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

“A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”  (vs. 4-10)

Jesus is the key – the Cornerstone.  He always is.  It’s true today, as it was nearly 2,000 years ago when Peter wrote this letter.  If it seems the world is against us it is because they are.  They have rejected Jesus.  If we are following Jesus, they will reject us.  Jesus said it himself:

If you find the godless world is hating you, remember it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you.  “When that happens, remember this: Servants don’t get better treatment than their masters. If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you.
John 15:18-20a (The Message)

So why are we surprised?  This all comes with the landscape of following Jesus. 

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (vs. 9-10)

We can whine and complain.  In a democracy, it is quite appropriate to let our voice be heard. But let’s not perpetuate the thought that the sky is falling.  God is still on the throne and Jesus is Lord of all.  In the midst of our concern, let us not lose hope or perspective.  We are citizens of another kingdom.  We are shaped by another culture.  We are God’s people, his holy nation.  We are to proclaim the greatness of God in our words and actions.  Look at the specifics of Peter’s statement!  We have plenty to be thankful for – every reason to be confident.  God called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once we were lost, with no hope and no identity.  But now we are God’s people.  Once we were destined for destruction and judgement, but now we have received God’s overflowing mercy. 

Let’s put fear and complaining aside.  We are God’s people. 

Aliens in America
We are aliens in America.  Hear me carefully.  America is not a Christian nation any more than this building is a church.  (That’s worth tweeting.)  Of course, that all depends on how you define “Christian nation” and “church.”  In this place, we gather and worship and pray and fellowship together.  But according to the Bible, this building is not the church.  We, the people are.  In the same way, America was established by mostly godly people who understood the wisdom of biblical principles.  And those biblical principles inspired and informed them as they were writing our founding documents.  (

We have much to be grateful for.  Biblical principles guided the founding fathers.  For many years, America has been blessed because those principles have been acknowledged.  We grieve because they are more and more being pushed to the side, resulting in the moral slide of our culture.  Nevertheless, we are not, nor have we ever been a Christian nation.  There is only one Christian nation, and that is you – the Church.  And the Scriptures make it very clear that God’s nation will always be counter-cultural to the world.  Finally, Peter continues with very specific teaching for us as to how we should live as aliens in America:

For Such a Time as This

Peter continues, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor”
(vs. 11-17)

Can you see how relevant Peter’s words are to us today?  Part of the bad rap against the church today is our own hypocrisy.  We must live above reproach so that the world will have nothing to leverage against us.  I read a blog just the other night by David Brooks of the New York Times.  (  Now normally, I wouldn’t read, much less cite, the New York Times.  Brooks was suggesting that socially conservative Christians give up on our moral culture war.  We’ve lost.  Well, I don’t buy that.  We’ll keep standing for life and for traditional marriage.  But I did appreciate what he suggested in its place.  We are postured to really make a difference in the lives of hurting people in our culture.  It seems that our biggest reputation is based on what we are against.  Friends, we need to turn that around.  We need to stand for life and morality.  But I believe the time has come for us to use our significant resources, imagination, and the power of the gospel to reach hurting people in our homes and on our doorsteps.  Let our reputation be changed.  We will not change our stand on moral issues.  But friends, let’s get about the business of changing lives through acts of love, mercy, and justice in the name of Christ. 

Along with changing our reputation, let me add a few more practical things that we can do that align with God’s word.

First, Honor the government.  Do you pray for those who govern us more than you criticize them?  I suggest that before we criticize them, let us obey the word of God and first pray for them.  Be thankful that you are blessed to live in America.  Be a good citizen.  Vote. 

Second, We must be Christ-like.  Love people, including LGBT.  Jesus loves them.  He spent a lot of time with sinners and society’s outcasts when he walked on earth.  Pray for them.  (That will help you to love them.)  Just like you, they need Jesus. 

Third, We must live like the church.  Honor marriage.  We must stop winking at our own sin.  If you’re having sex with anyone, either virtually through pornography or in reality, you cannot condemn practicing homosexuals without condemning yourself.  We cannot bemoan same-sex marriage and ignore other sinful sexual expressions outside of marriage. 

Finally, we live in challenging times.  The world is becoming more and more antagonistic against Christians.  God knew that you would be alive in 2015 when the Supreme Court of the United States mocked the Supreme Lord of All by making same-sex marriage the law of the land.  You were born for such a time as this.  We can’t play games.  We can’t play at this thing we call “church.”  We can and we should pray for revival.  But we need to do our part.  We need rigorous discipleship and an understanding of what it truly means to be a Christian and follow Jesus.  That’s why our mission statement is not only helping people find Jesus, but to follow him, too.  Our lives need to reflect Christ in all that we do.  We need to vigorously pursue our vision.  We are not holier-than-thous.  We are not spiritually elite.  We need the grace and mercy of God just as much as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders.  “We are ordinary people, being transformed as Jesus-followers through the power of the Holy Spirit, changing our families, our community, (our country) and the world for the glory of God.” 

Do not despair.  We are aliens in America.  But we are citizens of God’s holy nation. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Baptism – More Than an Event

As Baptists, there are several things that I believe we get right about Christian baptism.  New Testament baptism was always for those who personally embraced the faith through belief and repentance.  While I respect those traditions who baptize infants, I remain, and will always remain firmly convinced that believer’s baptism is the New Testament norm.  Furthermore, immersion was the mode practiced by the New Testament and early church.  In contrast to sprinkling or pouring, immersion is the most faithful to the original Greek word used in the Scriptures, baptizō - meaning “to dip.”  Perhaps even more importantly, immersion is a richer symbol representing dying and rising with Christ. 

But as Baptists, we’ve also had our weaknesses in our baptismal theology – at least in practice.  We’ve tended to consider Christian baptism as a necessary step of obedience (it is) and a public declaration of our faith (it is that, also).  But that is where we’ve often stopped.  But such an understanding isn’t nearly deep and rich enough to capture the full meaning of what the New Testament teaches about baptism. 

The Apostle Paul taught a baptismal theology that impacts the believer’s life every day:  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  Today, we will baptize four people.  But you will be brought into the experience as well as we “remember our baptism” together.  The new reality of the baptized life as taught by Paul gives us power for living in victory over sin.  It doesn’t matter how long ago you followed Christ in baptism.  It was more than just an event.  It is the new reality in which we are to live.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of Contemporary Song

Introduction – Experiencing Something New
One of the biggest challenges I face each week as I prepare a sermon for the morning service is to identify an experience I’ve had and with which you might resonate.  That’s not always easy.  But when I identify that common experience, we can set out on the sermon path together.  As I was considering how I might begin today’s message, I thought I might relay my experience with opera in honor of our new friends from California. 

How many of you really like opera?  That’s what I thought.  I didn’t grow up appreciating it either. Most middle class Americans don’t have much of a clue when it comes to opera.  And because the experience they may have had with opera was diminished from its ideal, many, if not most Americans would rather pass.  I had exposure to opera in school through music appreciation and music history classes.  I watched a little on PBS.  I also attended a few amateur and student productions.  The combination of high skill demand for opera and the not-fully-mature abilities of amateurs and students left me underwhelmed.  I wasn’t terribly impressed.

That wasn’t the case with my in-laws.  They were bona-fide opera buffs.  For many years they held season tickets to the San Francisco Opera.  They knew the names and the stories of the popular stars and the well-known operas.  On one occasion, they could not make a performance and gave their tickets to us.  That was no small deal.  They were $50 tickets back in the early 80’s.  Well, I was a music major and was supposed to appreciate it, so I agreed to go.  It was a big night out on the town.  A classy event for this blue-collar boy. 

I was surprised and enthralled.  Professional opera was like nothing I had ever experienced before!  Here was the pinnacle of artistic performance.  The combination of vocal virtuosity, a sensitive but powerful orchestra (that played in tune), dramatic story acted out with passion, fantastic visual sets, and, in the opera we saw, expressive dance was a tour-de-force of artistic presentation.  I was swept away into another world.  I was also surprised by the enthusiastic engagement of the audience.  The rich elite were acting like common folk at a baseball game.  When one of the primary singers would finish their song, the audience would clap, whistle, hoot, and throw flowers up on the stage while the singer would take multiple bows.  I fully expected ice cream and popcorn hawkers to appear in the aisles at any moment.  I will never forget that experience and I will never again disparage opera.  Given the chance to attend a professional performance, I would go in a heartbeat.  

Most people have some experience in their life that has surprised them.  It is not unusual for many to be afraid of something only to end up loving it after they’ve experienced it.  The fear or disdain we may feel for something is generally born out of ignorance or misunderstanding.  But once we begin to experience the thing and understand it, we may indeed come to fully embrace it and value it in our life.  Those are wonderful turning points.  We would be all the poorer for it if we refused to take a chance and experience something new. 

For many older Christians, the worship songs that began to appear in the 1970’s and blossomed in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to become a dominant voice in worship today have always been a problem.  For the WWII generation that raised teenagers in the ‘60’s, guitars and drums have symbolized rebellion.  Contemporary praise and worship has always been a hard sell to them.  For those a bit younger, it has still been a difficult transition, because the musical style wasn’t what you grew up with.  And even if you grew up with Rock ‘n’ Roll and you prefer praise and worship songs, I believe there remains a good deal of misunderstanding about the genre.

Our text this week is the same as two weeks ago.  Let’s read it together:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Colossians 3:16

In my last message, I contended that all three forms:, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were gifts from God through creative people to assist us in engaging with God in worship.  As no parent should prefer one of their children over another, I believe that Christians should embrace all three.  Two weeks ago, we celebrated the richness of hymns.  This week, I want to explain the power of contemporary song.

This message is the fifth in our series on worship.  In the first message we considered worship in a general sense: just what is it that is supposed to happen during this hour?  In the second and third sermons, we dealt with worship in the Old and New Testaments, respectively.  Two weeks ago, we celebrated hymns.  Throughout the series, in order to receive the most benefit, I’ve maintained that we must be:

·         Committed to the authority of Scripture
·         Learners
·         Servants of one another

A Look Back – The Origins of Contemporary Praise and Worship
The church has probably always had popular and contemporary song.  This is good and right, as the gospel must be relevant in every culture.  Part of the genius of Martin Luther’s Reformation strategy is that he wrote German hymns in the musical style of the day.  Charles Wesley, writer of over of 6,000 hymns wrote his words to be set to the popular songs of the day.  Along with psalms and hymns, the gospel should be set in the musical language of the people. 

The praise and worship music of today had its beginnings in the Jesus People Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Music, for that generation, became their prophetic mouthpiece.  The protest songs of the 60’s drove the anti-war and hippie movements of that day.  It was natural, then, that music would play a very important role in the formation of the Jesus People Movement.  I lived in Southern California at the time, which became the vortex of activity in the revival.  I attended a number of festivals where different bands would play for three or four hours and then an evangelist would speak for twenty minutes and give the invitation.  In a sense, the musicians became the preachers and the preacher the one who brought clarity and closure. 

Just south of Los Angeles, in Orange County, a little church called Calvary Chapel began to explode with new young converts.  Their growth was so rapid they had to assemble under a large tent for over a year before a building that was large enough could be built.  Unlike most of the evangelical churches in the day, Calvary Chapel encouraged musicians who were new believers to use their music for evangelism.  The church built a large stable of bands like Love Song, The Children of the Day, The Road Home, and Daniel Amos.  These bands, which were a mixture of folk and rock would tour around the region singing the gospel.  Thousands of young people came to Christ through those concerts. 

But not only did they use their music for evangelism, some of the songwriters began to produce songs to be used in corporate worship.  All of these early songs were very simple.  Songs like Alleluia, Seek Ye First, and Father, I Adore You were typical.  In their corporate worship, they were also experiencing a whole new dynamic as they sang to God rather than just about God.  Through this new music, the evangelical church was waking up to actually engaging with God in worship.  Music was now not just a warm-up to “prepare the hearts of the people” for the preacher.  Music had its own worth as a conduit of engagement with God in worship.    I cannot emphasize that point too strongly.  This is the great gift and paradigm shift that happened in evangelical corporate worship.  People actually began to connect with God through their singing.   It would be arrogant to assert that this kind of worship never happened before.  Tozer speaks of it as he sings classic hymns.  But after several generations of being fed on a full diet of testimony gospel songs, these new “praise choruses” ushered in a whole new understanding and experience in worship for evangelicals.

Why Context is Critical
Now it is critical to understand the spiritual dynamics that were in place during the Jesus People Movement and Calvary Chapel, in particular, where the Praise and Worship Movement began. This was a movement in which people were not ashamed to publically express how they felt about God. It was an environment in which people were not afraid of the mysterious work of God and were willing to take a risk to experience more of him in their lives.  The hunger and desire for genuine connection with God through the music is at the heart of the Praise and Worship movement.  Worshipping through contemporary praise and worship music is, in a sense, a transcendent and mystical experience.  And it is, almost always, an emotional experience.

Performance Practice
It is important to understand the roots and essential qualities of praise and worship music.  You cannot sing praise and worship songs the same way that gospel hymns were sung – to prepare hearts to hear the sermon. The person who sings praise and worship songs with the same expectations that he sings hymns will be disappointed.  Generally, hymns express compact theological truths through profound and beautiful poetry.  While they engage the emotions, their primary value is in the substance of their text; they engage the intellect.  Most praise and worship songs, on the other hand, express a theological concept simply but in a way deeply emotional way.  They engage the affections. 

Now in our modern world, we are prone to exalt reason over emotion.  You see it everywhere in our culture – even our Christian culture.  It is acceptable to demean and marginalize our emotions.   But such hierarchy between intellect and emotion is unfortunate and it is definitely not biblical.  Read the psalms.  They’re drenched with emotion.  We are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:8).  Praise and worship songs can help to give voice to our emotions and affections toward God.  That’s why people in praise and worship cultures lift their hands, close their eyes and are not afraid of tears.  Some of them even jump around and dance!  That’s why it is not a problem to repeat a phrase over and over and over again.  Not a problem at all if you are emotionally engaged.  But if you are not engaged emotionally with the song, then the repetition is boring and irritating.

Problems with Contemporary Song
Two weeks ago, when we discussed the richness of hymns, I also listed some of the challenges, namely, archaic language and a musical style that doesn’t resonate with the popular culture.  Contemporary praise and worship has its serious challenges as well. Obviously, I’m a very strong proponent of the genre, but I want to temper my promotion with these cautions.

1.      Because contemporary praise and worship is an expression of popular musical culture it is also subject to its worldly influences.  As is the case in the secular world, we are prone to idolize worship artists.  Nothing could be more repulsive to God (and I would think the artists, themselves) than to steal glory that is due to Him and give it to the artist.  And we are often naïve, unreflectively using the techniques of the world to highlight the artist and promote a performance culture in worship.  There may be a place for stage lights and fog machines in worship, but they must be used to draw us to God rather than the platform.  It is very easy in praise and worship to draw attention to yourself if you are on the platform.  It goes with the musical culture.  The burden of the worship leader is to lead the people in engaging with God through music.  Too often, the engagement is only with the artists as they become performers rather than prompters pointing the congregation to God. 
2.      A second problem with contemporary praise and worship is its tendency to reflect the cultural values of the world in the content of the text.  Here is where we need more theological reflection in our songwriting.  And I’m happy to report that worship song texts have been improving in the last several years.  One example, however, of how easy it is to fall into worldly cultural patterns of thought in our song has been the over-emphasis on self-fulfillment and” making me feel better” that has been pervasive in our contemporary worship songs for the last twenty years.  Often, these texts have been romantic in nature – you could easily sing them to your boyfriend or girlfriend.  The pervasiveness of these kinds of songs is an outcome of a self-focused and narcissistic culture.  Unfortunately, that is the state of contemporary American culture, but it shouldn’t characterize the church.  Those kinds of songs are the result of immature theological reflection.  We need to get out of spiritual adolescence and grow up.  I’m happy to say, also, that songwriters are becoming more aware of these problems and are giving us texts that are more spiritually nutritious.
3.      Finally, because praise and worship music is, by nature, emotionally engaging, it is subject to emotional manipulation.  This is a great danger and pastors and worship leaders need to be aware of this negative potential and put a stop to it if manipulation becomes a regular pattern.  It is very easy to shape your musical technique to move people emotionally.  Build it up here, break it down here.  We’ve got formulas.  When that happens, our worship is being empowered by manipulation and emotion rather than the Holy Spirit.  We must take care to be sure that it is the Spirit that empowers our affections which can be expressed in music rather than the music manipulating us to shallow and meaningless worship. 

In Layman’s Terms:  Enter into the Song
Many have said, with all of the dangers of contemporary praise and worship music, we should abandon its use in our churches.  That would be unfortunate.  I believe God was at work in the Jesus People Movement and has brought the church into a deeper understanding of worship through the Praise and Worship Movement.  Like hymns, praise and worship music is one of God’s gifts to the church.  How then, can we most benefit from this expression in worship?

In order to understand and engage with God through praise and worship music, you’ve got to be willing to release your emotions into the song.  You’ve got to emotionally engage.  You have to enter into the affect – the feeling of the song. 

I know.  It’s a risk.  But there is a whole world that opens up to you when you risk emotional engagement.  Those of you who are married:  what would your marriage be like if you were emotionally disengaged with your spouse?  There would be no intimacy and the relationship would eventually die.  Why then, should we be emotionally disengaged with God in worship?  Praise and worship music offers one avenue to passionately engage our affections with God.  I can talk about it.  But it’s probably a lot more effective to see and hear it and then I’ll make a few comments to close.  (Forever (We Sing Hallelujah))

I’m not a young man anymore.  Most of the people in the video are less than half my age.  God forgive me, but I don’t see myself jumping around like that in public.  But I wish I could.  The glory of God is worth my embarrassment.  The glory of God is worthy of all the enthusiasm and emotion I can muster.  So beat those drums with all your might for the glory of God!  Play the guitar with all your might.  Raise your hands lift your voice for the glory of God!  I’ve often been accused of playing too loud.  Can’t help it.  Sometimes, I’m just overcome in the worship of God. 

I began this message with my experience with opera.  I didn’t really appreciate it until I saw and heard a professional opera, as it was intended to be experienced.  Praise and worship is an experience that must be entered into emotionally.  Friends, I’m not asking you to become like those we saw in the video.  If you can worship like that, God bless you.  Lead the way.  But I’m old enough now to have earned the right to say I believe God is in this.  Praise and worship has it shortcomings, as do hymns.  But I believe with all my heart that God has given these songs to us at this time in our history to learn to engage fully and emotionally with him in worship.  All I can do is explain the songs to you, which I have done.  All I can do is invite you to risk releasing yourself into the song – no matter what your age.  But it is up to you to enter in.  This I do know:  when we as a people are willing to enter into worship and fully engage with God with all our heart, soul, and strength, then we will experience the manifest glory of God in our midst.  And once we experience that, we will never be satisfied with anything less.

The Richness of Hymns

(NOTE: There are three places in this post where I reference the hymns, "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord" and "All Creatures of Our God and King."  Unfortunately, I couldn't upload a copy of the print music.  If you're curious, I recommend a hymnal to get a visual on what I'm describing.)

Corralling the Cows in the Corn
There are two competing silly stories that have been making the rounds in churches since the 1990’s. They go like this:

An old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.
“Well,” said the farmer. “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”
“Praise choruses?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked the wife.
The farmer said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a hymn. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you, ‘Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh, Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, in the CORN, CORN, CORN, COOOOORRRRRNNNNN,’ then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus.”

As luck would have it, the exact same Sunday a young, new Christian from the city church attended the small town church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.
“Well,” said the young man, “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”
“Hymns?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
“They’re okay. They’re sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked the wife.
The young man said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you,
Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, glorious truth.
For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense,
Hearkenest they in God’s sun or his rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn chewed.
So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn,
…then, if I were to do only verses one, three and four, and change keys on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.”

I may be the only one, but I’ve never found those stories to be amusing.  Here’s why…

In Colossians 3:16, the Apostle Paul urges the church to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Psalms (which we will deal with this summer), hymns and spiritual songs are gifts from God through creative song writers to assist the church in engaging with God in worship as well as teach eternal truths.  I have two children.  Different as night and day.  I have never considered Meredith better than Wes or Wes better than Meredith.  To show partiality between your children is self-absorbed and cruel.  Anyone who prefers one of their children over another should have their parent license revoked.  In the same way, Christians should not shun one or prefer another of God’s musical gifts to the church.  Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are as different as night and day – apples and oranges.  It is my hope to be able to show the distinctions and great value of both hymns and choruses in the next few weeks.  This week, we will explore the richness of hymns.  In two weeks, we will consider the power of contemporary song. 

Why is Song Important?
Is singing really that important to Christians?  We joke about this all the time on the deacon board because I have them close each meeting with a hymn.  In the parallel passage to Colossians 3:16, Paul tells the Ephesians that singing is a mark – a by-product – of being filled with the Holy Spirit: “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:18-19).  Christian songs, which include hymns and contemporary choruses, are lyrical poetry about God and his ways.  They are intended to be sung.  Reading them has some impact.  But when you sing them…  Wow!  They come alive!  Hymns and spiritual songs carry theological concepts with the emotional power of music.  Let me give you just one example of how the music makes the text come alive.

Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord (#91)
This song is one of my favorite hymns.  It isn’t the most profound in its theology.  But it has spoken to me many times when I’ve been hurting, confused, and needing to be centered on Christ rather than myself.

Unlike some of the greatest hymns of the faith, like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, for example, Teach My Thy Way is a personal prayer.  The general feeling and spiritual impulse is that of surrender.  Interestingly, both the text and the tune were written by the same person in this hymn.  That isn’t usually the case.  But in this hymn, the music matches the spiritual intention perfectly.  Notice the rise in the melody line through the first half of the song.  That is the growing intensity of the prayer. But notice the second half of the song.  Here, you see the melody falling back – a beautiful expression of surrender.  This hymn illustrates clearly how the content of the text is made more powerful and meaningful with the emotion that is expressed through the music.  What a wonderful gift God has given us in music!

Secondly, songs are written in memorable form with their rhythm, rhyme, and poetic devices.  I love the beauty and the poetic pictures attempting to describe the indescribable in the third verse of The Love of God:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song!

Those are words that stick.  And those are words that will last – because they are profound and in a word – beautiful.

Third, singing is important because it is active participation.  I know.  Some people do not sing.   And frankly, that breaks my heart.  I don’t care if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Sing it out!  Hymn writer Isaac Watts said, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God!”  If you know God, you must sing – even if it isn’t pretty.  Singing is participating.  And we will learn much more when we “do” rather than just observe or listen.  Singing is a powerful educational tool.  Just ask any grade school teacher.  And learning is part of what it means to be a disciple. 

Finally, songs can be repeated frequently without becoming tiresome.  Typically, we’ll sing a well-known hymn two or three times a year and a contemporary song probably a bit more.  We can sing Be Thou My Vision four times a year easily.  We sang New Hallelujah during the Nehemiah series probably six or seven times.  Why the difference?  My own opinion is because the contemporary song won’t be around much more than a few years until its life is used up, whereas the hymn – if it is a good one – will last through generations.  We can repeat songs with good benefit.  How many of you would like to hear this sermon again in nine weeks?  The same can’t be said of sermons. 

What Are Hymns?
So what are hymns?  They are lyrical poetry.  Unlike the psalms, they are not divinely inspired unless they have been included in Scripture.  Because they are lyrical, they are meant to be sung.  Because they are poetic, they are artistic.  Their meaning lies beyond just the words, but in the way the words are expressed and the pictures and emotions that they convey.  Time does not allow me to detail all the wonderful poetic devices that hymn writers employ.  But theirs is a craft that is carefully cultivated and cleverly employed to produce a lyric that will capture the imagination and spirit of the singer. 

Hymns aren’t new since the Reformation.  There are several hymns quoted in both the Old Testament and New Testament.  Both Moses’ song and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 are examples of Old Testament hymns.  Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2 is one and Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 is a clear echo of Hannah’s hymn of praise.  The wonderful words in Philippians 2 describing Jesus’ humiliation and eventual exaltation are considered by many scholars to be an early church hymn.  The Book of Revelation contains many jubilant hymns of praise. 

What are the Unique Qualities of Hymns?
The best hymns are compressed theological statements.  This is perhaps where their greatest value lies – in their rich theology.  Now, not every hymn in the hymnbook is good or has this quality.  But the best ones – the ones that have stood the test of time – and some of the newer ones carry rich theology.  Some well-known examples include:

·         Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty
·         A Mighty Fortress
·         Immortal, Invisible
·         All Creatures of Our God and King
·         O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
·         Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
·         All Hail the Pow’r of Jesus Name
·         O Little Town of Bethlehem
·         Christ the Lord is Risen Today

…you get the idea. 

Because hymns are powerful ways to teach and communicate the theology of the gospel, they have frequently come to the center stage when the church was struggling with doctrinal issues.  It was in 325 A.D., at the council of Nicaea, that the church affirmed that Jesus Christ is fully divine.  We can hardly imagine the intensity and division that existed in the church over the question of whether or not Jesus was equal to the Father.  Our disagreements over homosexuality and marriage pale in intensity by comparison.  Those who opposed the opinion about Christ that prevailed in their region were often imprisoned or worse.  But it wasn’t so much the arguments that were presented by theologians that convinced the Council to affirm the deity of Christ.  The deciding reason was the fact that the people were already worshipping Jesus as fully divine in their liturgies and songs.  Martin Luther was not only a prolific writer of theological works, he also wrote hymns in the people’s language to support the Reformation that he was leading.  It was in the fierce struggle over the authority of Scripture in the 19th Century that Samuel Stone wrote, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  The hymn became the rallying cry for churches that would remain faithful to the Word of God.

Hymns are also valuable – and this is counter-cultural – because they are old.  The modern way is to reject the old completely and always press into the future.  I’m still mad at Microsoft for forcing me to go to Windows 8.  That’s the modern way.  But it’s also the arrogant and short-sided way.  History has such great value.  We do stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.  Hymns, because we can trace them throughout the history of the church, keep us connected to the Story.  To sing the hymns that Charles Wesley wrote, or that the people in the First Great Awakening found so powerful is very profound.  These timeless hymns reminds us that our fellowship with other believers is not limited to just our time and location, but spans the world and all time.  Hymns remind us that we are connected. Something resonates deep in my soul when I sing lyrics written by a blind poet: “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love!”

Finally, the best hymns have stood the test of time.  They have been filtered through decades, perhaps even centuries to make it to us.  They have to be good – they have to be timeless – to pass that test.  I cannot understand the shortsightedness or arrogance of a person who would reject such gifts from the past to us.  

What are the Challenges of Hymns?
Now, if I ended the message here, some of you would be quite happy and feel quite vindicated in your preference for hymns.  Sorry.  Can’t do that.  Because of all of the reasons I’ve stated above, I am committed to effectively using hymns and worship and passing them on to the next generation.  There are enormous challenges to that mission because the way that most hymns are presented in the hymnbook is not in the musical language of our contemporary culture.  Let’s be fair and let’s be honest with each other.  That’s where the root of our problem has been.  There are a few challenges that I want to mention.

First, most of the older hymns are written with archaic King James English.  You know – the thee’s and the thou’s.  It “idst’s” and “ouldst’s.”  Some of the old language can be altered to be up to date and many hymnals have done that.  Sometimes it has been with good result.  Other times, the updating of the language has destroyed the poetic power of the hymn.  I don’t have time to give examples.  But fortunately, for younger generations like the Millennials, archaic language is not that much of an issue.  It was for Boomers – my generation – because we were so set against the establishment and tradition.  Younger generations, however, tend to be more open to tradition – probably because their parents were so much against it.  …and that’s a good thing.  You know how it goes. 

But the bigger challenge is the musical language of most of the hymns.  Our hymns are arranged for piano and organ accompaniment, generally with four-part choral parts.  That is no longer the dominant musical language of our culture.  As you know, today, it’s the band, driven by guitars with three-part vocal harmony.  And for many of the hymns, the old arrangements are a nightmare for guitars.  They’re unplayable – except by the most virtuosic musicians.  Let me give you an example. 

All Creatures of Our God and King #77
One of the great hymns of the church is All Creatures of Our God and King, written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225.  In our hymnal, the chords change just about every note.  This is a guitar player’s nightmare.  It can’t be played smoothly, sustain the rhythm, and support the congregation in singing. 

There are some creative worship leaders who, like me, are not willing to let the hymn tradition die.  They have made a commitment to hymns and find a way for a worship band to play them.  David Crowder’s treatment of the hymn does just that.  He kept the melody and greatly reduced the chord changes so that a band could play it.  He also added a short, repeatable bridge or chorus to make it more like a praise and worship song. 

We’ve sung settings of great hymns like that:  All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name and Be Thou My Vision, are just two examples.  We need to continue selecting the best of the hymns and arrange them so that a worship band can play them.  In that way, though the music may change somewhat, the great treasure of hymns will be passed on from generation to generation.

There are, however, a number of great hymns that will not lend themselves to an effective treatment by a worship band.  They are rich treasures and we cannot afford to lose them.  We are in a great advantage because we have committed ourselves to being musically eclectic and blended in our worship.  We haven’t, like so many have, ditched the organ.  Unfortunately, the organ is a greatly misunderstood instrument. Unlike piano, which does not sustain notes (they dissipate as soon as they are struck), the pipe organ and their electronic copies are wind instruments, just like the human voice.  Because of that quality, the organ is a great help in supporting singing.  God does not favor the organ over any other instrument.  But we are blessed to still have one and someone who can play it.  We will continue to use the organ and explore ways in which we can even combine it with the worship band.

In today’s contemporary worship landscape there are also writers who are creating hymns – with their important compressed theology – that can be played by a worship band.  Stuart Townend and Keith Getty are one team of writers who have given us a wonderful hybrid of hymns in contemporary musical language.  Some of their songs you know:  How Deep the Father’s Love for Us and In Christ Alone – the song we’ll close this service with. 

Stretch Yourself – Embrace Hymns
So what shall we say to this – this lecture – on hymns this morning?  It needs to be more than informative.  It needs to be more than just a lecture.  It is my hope that the deeper understanding of hymns that I have tried to relay to you this morning will result in a commitment to learning and singing them.  If you haven’t liked hymns, I hope that you will change your mind and your heart.  You can’t reject them.  They are God’s gift to you passed down through the ages of the church.  If you’ve always liked hymns but are averse to contemporary song, I hope that you’ll be more understanding of the natural tensions and challenges between the two musical forms.  I hope that you’ll be open to new creative settings of hymns led by a band so that we will be able to pass them on to our children and grandchildren, who typically no longer listen to piano and organ, but have their ears tuned to guitars, drums, and keyboards. 

Friends, we are living the Father’s Grand Story through Christ.  Hymns, better than contemporary song (spiritual songs) shape the Story and its meaning in our lives.  Aside from the Bible, hymns are the most profound shapers of our theology.

Song of Response – In Christ Alone