I’m not easily disheartened by setbacks, and I thank Jesus for that gift. Recently, though, I was deeply impacted when one of our young pastoral couples left us. I’ll not share the details, but I want to note that the situation showed me a need our congregations have to adjust their posture (spirit, orientation) to be more open to receiving new, younger leaders and members into the GCI fold.
Though I usually write with a positive, what to do, approach, I sense the need to address in this letter what not to do. I want to share with you three exhortations, and I’ll end each with a positive prayer.
Don’t let the mindsets and habits of our past (old DNA) get in the way of adding to our church the creativity that new, younger leaders bring. Saying “We’ve always done it this way” is a non-starter that kills hope.
Father, as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, may that maturity be reflected in the life of our church and may our expressions of worship always be fresh and vibrant.
Don’t allow personal biases to get in the way of including new people and the exploration of new expressions in your worship. What I have in mind are things like willingness to adjust meeting times, hall locations and worship formats. Ask yourself this question: Are we simply doing church or are we being church?
Lord Jesus, may we be the very best expression of your love that we can be, and help us better position our congregation for making disciples alongside you.
Don’t allow negativity to overthrow the passion of young leaders and members. Rejecting new ideas without taking time to fully consider them and try them out, is tantamount to placing more value on the old wineskins than on the new, vibrant wine that God has graced us with.
Holy Spirit, allow us to remain flexible and have the awestruck wonder of a child as we welcome new people and new expressions of worship.
In an articlein last month’s Equipper, I asked pastors and ministry leaders to provide space, resources and relational support to young emerging leaders by serving as their sponsor-mentors. Now I ask all congregational leaders to work toward developing a posture within their church that welcomes young people into the life of the congregation with open arms—providing them opportunity to join in and participate right away.
Though we must not think of these younger ones as GCI’s saviors (we already have a Savior, and these young leaders don’t need that sort of pressure), we must tear down barriers that discourage them from bringing their creativity and abilities into the life of our congregations. It’s powerfully transforming when a congregation makes space for new, young leaders—making them feel safe and fully-supported.
I believe that all GCI congregations aspire to be the healthy church we’ve been discussing recently. My point in this article is that it takes careful thought and intentional action for a congregation to express that health by being a fertile environment that allows new, younger leaders to be birthed and then developed. Providing that sort of environment leads to a vibrant, sustainable future for a congregation, and thus for us as a denomination.
Thank you for prayerfully considering and then acting on these exhortations,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
Healthy Church: R.E.A.L. Teams (part 2)
Last month we defined a healthy leadership team as a R.E.A.L. team—one that is relationally connected (R), enthusiastically engaged (E), affirming (A), and involving liberating leaders (L). The resources below are designed to help congregations develop R.E.A.L. teams in alignment with GCI’s healthy church vision.
REAL Teams videos. The videos linked below address four defining and essential characteristics of a R.E.A.L. team. We encourage you to show, then discuss these videos over the course of several team meetings (click on the links to watch online or to download).
REAL Teams infographic. Click on the image below for an infographic that addresses the nature and context of R.E.A.L. teams within GCI.
Worldview Conversion: Addressing Idolatry
This article from Charles Fleming continues our series exploring Worldview Conversion and the related topic of Whole-Life Discipleship.
For some people, a discussion about worldview seems rather academic and abstract—far removed from day-to-day life. But for those wanting to live a life that is transformed in Christ by the Spirit, few things are more central, with profound real-life implications. As Ted Johnston notes in his earlier article, our worldview determines how we
…view all sorts of issues: God, politics, truth, education, abortion, marriage, the environment, race, gender, economics, what it means to be human, the origins of the universe… to name a few.
Worldviews are the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are. To ignore worldviews, either our own or those of the culture we are studying, would result in extraordinary shallowness. (p. 124)
When our worldview, with our related sense of identity, is more secular than Christ-centered, we end up, to one degree or another, departing from the mind of Christ. For that reason, it’s vital that we recognize and deal with any aspects of our worldview that are not yielded to the lordship of Christ. Thus this series emphasizes what we refer to as worldview conversion.
Having our worldview converted more fully to Christ is a challenge, for by the time we are mature enough to take God seriously, we typically already have a fully-formed worldview—one shaped as much by osmosis as by intentional thought. Worldview formation is similar to the way an infant learns language. It’s both a formal, intentional activity on the part of the child and the parents, and a process with a life all its own. Much of it just happens with certain values and assumptions just feeling right to us as they become the baseline from which we (both consciously and unconsciously) evaluate what goes on in and around us. It’s the unconscious reacting that often becomes the primary sticking point to our growth and witness as followers of Jesus.
Our relationship with human culture
Scripture warns us that, to one degree or another, all human cultures are out of step with God’s kingdom values and ways. As Christians, we are called to repudiate such values and ways to live as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Scripture often uses the word Babylon to describe cultures that are hostile to God, calling them “the mother of… the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17: 5) and admonishing us to reject any ungodly values and ways in the culture (world) around us. Note what the apostle Paul says about this:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8)
Fundamental to our calling as followers of Jesus is the imperative to live counter-culturally—counter to the sinful characteristics of the culture that surrounds us. It has been said that Jesus lived with one foot in the culture and one foot planted firmly in kingdom values. He often repudiated the culture to avoid becoming captive to the ideologies and practices that were an offense to God. However, in doing so, Jesus did not repudiate the people within the culture. Instead, he loved them and had compassion toward them. Moreover, while highlighting aspects of the culture contrary to God’s ways, he also emphasized aspects that were good—indeed, all cultures are a mixture of both.
We are called to follow Jesus’ example. Our resurrected and ascended Lord expects us to be subject to the leading of his word and Spirit, so that we live as faithful ambassadors of his kingdom of love, shining the light of his glory in an often-dark world.
To live as Christ’s ambassadors in the world with its various cultures, we must follow Jesus’ example of being constantly aware of the deepest sin of human culture—the one that is the problem behind the problem of a secular worldview. That problem, that sin, is idolatry.The sad reality is that idolatry is widespread in our modern, me-centered Western culture. We need eyes to see this reality—both in the world around us, and in our own worldview. Doing so is a challenge, for idolatry is not always easy to spot.
Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. It involves loving, trusting, and serving something or someone above God. Throughout Scripture we find God and godly leaders helping people recognize and then abandon idolatry. For example, the Ten Commandments begins by prohibiting idolatry. The book of Judges and the books of the Prophets chronicle the ways that social, political and economic problems result from people trusting in someone or something other than the true God.
The great sin behind all other sins is idolatry—the failure to love, obey and serve God. As noted by the apostle Paul, the results are devastating:
Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…. [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Rom. 1:21, 23-24)
Paul shows that an unwillingness to accept God as God leads to immorality, the corruption of minds, and the darkening of hearts.
Anyone interested in bringing about the conversion of their worldview would do well to spend time reflecting deeply on Romans 1:16–32 where the apostle Paul makes it clear that idolatry (the problem behind the problem) must be addressed if we are to produce consistently good fruit (wise decision-making and moral behavior). Paul is consistent with this point throughout his ministry (see, for example, 1 Cor. 10:14 where Paul exhorts Christians to flee from idolatry).
Educating our members
Given that idolatry thrives in modern Western cultures, it is crucial that we help our members understand the threat it presents. We need to reintroduce this understanding to a generation that tends to view idolatry as only a matter of bowing down to physical objects (as pictured below). Idolatry is much more than that!
A word of caution, however: Our calling as church leaders is not to be constantly pointing out to people exactly where the idolatry is in their behavior and thinking. It is their responsibility to figure that out. Instead, as “helpers of their joy,” we are called to help them recognize the attitudes and behaviors that are symptomatic of idolatrous attachments. We need to alert them to the dangers of idolatry, and give them biblical criteria to help them examine the assumptions and values that make up their worldview to see if they are consistent with the Christian faith they profess. Doing so involves the whole-life discipleship process Gary Deddo addressed in an earlier article in this series.
Paul provided this sort of instruction in his letter to the church in Colossae. He wrote about the link between idolatry and covetousness (Col. 3:5). When we want something so much that we covet it, that thing has taken over our hearts—it has become an idol that we seek after at the expense of giving God his due. In our age of rampant materialism and consumerism, we all need help in combating the covetousness that leads to idolatry. The entire world of advertising is built on cultivating in us a dissatisfaction with life unless we have the product or lifestyle being promoted. It’s as if someone decided to create a culture designed to undermine what Paul told Timothy:
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:6-10)
Each month, the average person in the U.S. is exposed to about 150,000 messages that promote a product or idea. Part of our calling as church leaders is to help our members understand how the culture appeals to our hearts, creating not just strong desires, but also a sense of entitlement, and even the notion that we are less of a person if denied the product or lifestyle being promoted. What makes this educational task especially challenging is that most of the things we make into idols are good things. In and of themselves, having a better home or a better job are good things. But if they become things that define our identity, significance, security and/or our dignity, we have invited an idol into our lives. It’s important that we help our members recognize when their relationship with a good thing has become idolatry.
Explaining idolatry as the problem behind the problem helps people set up guardrails in their lives to help them sense when they are taking a good thing and turning it into an idol—something they depend on for peace, joy, personal significance and safety (things only God can truly provide). Some of the good things that people are tempted to turn into “ultimate things” include relationships, money, fame, ideologies, patriotism, and even personal piety. The Bible is filled with stories of people doing this. Let’s explore these stories with our members in sermons, Bible studies, discipleship classes, etc. (For a helpful resource, click here for videos of “Uncover,” a series of lectures given by Tim Keller).
Idolatry in the Knowledge Age
We live in what historians call the Knowledge Age (as distinct from the Industrial Age of the past). In our era, idolatry is less about the worship of physical objects and more about the worship of ideas and knowledge. The forms of knowledge that most aggressively seek to win our hearts are ideologies—economic models, psychological theories, political philosophies, etc. As church leaders, we leave God’s people vulnerable if we fail to help them develop the ability to evaluate for themselves when a good idea or philosophy is becoming an idol in their hearts and minds.
We can help them by teaching them to identify their deepest values and assumptions—their worldview. We can teach them how, in prayer, to discern why they react so strongly to something in the news or on social media. We can help them ask questions like these: Why did I get so angry? Why do I feel this strongly? What value does this come from and when and how did this become a value to me? Does my reaction bring glory to God and express Jesus’ love and compassion for people?
Note also that we need to be self-aware—we need to recognize the “sacred cows” in our hearts and minds—the ideas, attitudes and things that we don’t want God to touch, the things that are “off-limits.” As church leaders, we need to ask God to convert our own worldview so that what we say and do bears kingdom fruit.
Many of our missteps as Christians come from the often-unrecognized influence of our personal worldview. One of the most damaging effects is seen in the diminished quality of our Christian witness to a hurting world. Too often we take on pressing problems in ways that reflect the partisan views of the secular culture around us. As a result, many of us stay away from addressing the problems presented by the culture and thus leave our members vulnerable. We owe it to Christ to help his people discern the ways their worldview may be the seedbed of Christ-dishonoring ideas and behaviors. We need to help our members evaluate the posture of their hearts in light of Christ’s command to love God above all else. This means learning to recognize any idolatrous attachments they might have.
It’s our prayer that this article provides helpful insights to reflect upon. May the God of all wisdom inspire you as you seek to equip his people to be that light on the hill he wants us all to be.
Worldview Conversion: The Power of Liturgy
This article from Ted Johnston looks at the transformative power that a gospel-shaped liturgy has in converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Though, in the minds of many, the word liturgy conjures up images of rigid, formulaic worship, when rightly shaped and followed, liturgy is a powerful tool for converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Liturgy is a biblical word. The New Testament uses the verb leitourgia to speak of service (ministry-worship) within the church. It then uses the noun leitourgos to speak of those who lead worship, with Jesus being the supreme leitourgos. From these Greek words comes the English word liturgy, which means “the service (work) of the people” with the word used informally to refer to the order of service by which the people of God structure worship. Given this informal definition, all churches (whether they know it or not) have a liturgy. In some cases, it’s formal and highly structured (typically referred to as “high church liturgy”), in others it’s less structured (called “low church liturgy”), and in still others it’s so informal that these churches are said to be “non-liturgical.”
Use a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy
Though it is not my purpose in this article to lobby for any one form of liturgy, I do want to urge our pastors and others who plan worship in GCI congregations to think through answers to three related questions:
Is your congregation’s liturgy (your order of service each week, and the way you structure your worship throughout the year) fully Christ-centered?
Is that centering on Christ abundantly clear to all the worshippers?
Does this centering involve all aspects of all of your worship services?
If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, it is likely that your liturgy is effective in discipling your members in the way of Jesus, which includes leading them to embrace a fully Christ-centered worldview.
In the Practice of Ministry course I teach at Grace Communion Seminary, I urge my students to make their congregation’s liturgy both Christ-centered and gospel-shaped. The two go together because the gospel is Christ’s “story.” Why then mention both? Because a life-transforming liturgy points to and exalts Jesus by re-telling (re-presenting) the gospel, which as the apostle Paul notes, is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes….” (Rom. 1:16). Following a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy week-to-week is a powerful way to help people think more like Jesus and so, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, become more like Jesus.
Reenacting/inhabiting the gospel story
I urge you to approach the liturgy you use in your congregation as not merely an “order of services” (with certain elements to be checked off a list), but as the script for a life-transforming dramatic reenactment of the gospel—Jesus’ story. Effective liturgy helps worshipers to not merely hear the story, but inhabit the story in a way that Jesus’ story becomes their own. As that happens, by the power of the Spirit, their whole being—heart, mind and body (including their worldview)—is converted more and more to Jesus Christ.
Liturgy as gospel reenactment is not about a single Sunday worship service in isolation from the others. Instead, through a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy, the gospel story is retold as a drama that spans the course of the full year—what we call the liturgical year (or Christian year). With this integrated approach, the liturgy followed each Sunday will be located within the flow of the full gospel story, unfolding over the course of the entire year.
In the Western Christian tradition, the liturgical (worship) year begins in late November or early December with Advent Season, then proceeds to Christmas Season, followed by Epiphany Season, the Season of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Season, which stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The season that follows is called Ordinary Time, not because it’s unimportant, but because it addresses our day-in-and-day-out responses to the great gospel events celebrated throughout the other seasons. Those responses involve our participation in Jesus’ life-transforming, disciple-making mission. Because this participation is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the long stretch of ordinary time that follows Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called the season after Pentecost (or the Pentecost Season).
When this year-long liturgy is followed, each worship service is deeply connected to Jesus through the retelling/reenacting of his story (the gospel). Optimizing that connection takes planning, creativity and time—but it’s energy and time well-spent because an effective, creative liturgy engages the worshipper at multiple levels: heart, head and hands, helping them to be active participants rather than merely passive spectators. The liturgy places our individual lives and particular stories in the context of God’s overall, history-long story of redemption. The flyleaf of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, has this to say concerning the power of liturgy to help people inhabit God’s story:
Remembering God’s work, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Spirit’s coming will change you, drawing you into deeper intimacy with God and pointing your attention to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit right now, in and around you. You’ll be reminded daily that your life is bigger than just you, that you are part of God’s huge plan that started before time and will continue into eternity. Keeping liturgical time, making it sacred, opens us further to this power as, year after year, we rehearse the Story of God—remembering with gratitude, anticipating with hope—and over time live more deeply the Story of our lives.
Creating the Hope Venue
A Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy helps turn the worship service into what we in GCI call the Hope Venue—a ministry environment that engenders hope, thus enhancing the conversion toward Christ of the worshipper’s worldview and the transformation of their sense of identity along with the patterns of their living in the world.
As a transformative environment, the Hope Venue is enhanced when the worship liturgy used is multi-sensory—designed to engage all five senses. This helps worshippers inhabit the story of God in deep, transforming ways as they transition from being spectators to active participants (actors) in the divine drama. Here are examples of ways to engage all five senses (and I encourage you to think of other creative ways to do so):
Post banners, pictures, etc. in the worship space that point to/illustrate key gospel messages/events.
Burn candles or have ways to set the mood through other uses of lighting.
While the service is being conducted, in full view of the congregation, have a gifted artist in your congregation paint or draw a picture that illustrates the gospel-shaped theme of that service.
Utilize dance and drama to reenact aspects of the gospel story being addressed in the readings and sermon.
As the worshippers enter, provide music that sets a worshipful mood/tone, thus inclining their hearts toward God.
Have the worshippers sing together (which means selecting music that they know and can easily sing, adjusting the volume of accompaniment so the worshippers can hear themselves and others).
Have the worshippers recite one of the ancient creeds (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed).
Have the worshippers recite together the Lord’s Prayer.
Have the worshippers pray for each other (some churches call this the “prayers of the people”).
Engage the congregation in the sermon by having them respond verbally, perhaps by answering questions posed by the preacher.
Have a time in which the worshippers get up and greet one another, offering a word of blessing (some churches call this “passing the peace”).
Have the worshippers come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper—some congregations provide a place to kneel while the elements are received (see more about the Lord’s Supper below).
For bread at the Lord’s Supper, use a freshly baked loaf, still warm, which when broken provides a wonderful smell throughout the sanctuary.
Burn incense or scented candles—doing so may help eliminate unpleasant odors in the meeting hall (caution: some members may be allergic to certain smells).
The Lord’s Supper offers this in a powerful way (which is one reason I recommend serving warm, leavened bread and good-quality wine and/or grape juice).
In evaluating which of these elements of worship to use and how to do so, remember that the overall goal is to create a transformative, hope-engendering environment (what we refer to in GCI as the Hope Venue). In that regard, remember that Jesus is both the source and object of our hope, not someone or something else. The purpose of these elements is thus always to facilitate the reenating-dramatizing of Jesus’ story, the gospel, not some other story.
I encourage you to think of the worship service as a play with multiple scenes, or a symphony with multiple movements. Think in terms of choreographing the liturgy accordingly—with movement, pace, building to a crescendo, then benediction/dismissal. All parts of the liturgy should interrelate in telling the gospel story in the most memorable way possible, thus engaging the worshippers in the drama. It is through this engagement—their participation in the drama—that the worshippers’ worldviews (and thus their personal identities) are more and more converted to Christ.
A word of caution: worldview and identity conversion often occur rather slowly (more slow-cooker than microwave stuff). However, there are times when sudden and significant leaps occur. Ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the converting, but as his servants we are participants in his often-mysterious converting/transforming work. Let us participate well!
Concerning the sermon
In GCI, we strongly recommend that our congregations use a liturgy that syncs with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). A primary aspect of the RCL is its weekly Scripture readings (called “lections” or “lessons”) that track with the order/themes of the liturgical year (the Christian calendar). The RCL arranges these readings so that if all four passages are read each week (as recommended), over a three-year period the congregation will hear the entire biblical story: creation, fall, Israel’s exodus, captivity and return, the promise and advent of the Messiah, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of the coming kingdom. Each week, one (and sometimes more) of the lections will be addressed in the sermon, and, where possible, the songs and hymns and even the prayers and announcements (in other words, all elements in the service), will reinforce and expound this single theme. In that way the service will be fully Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, and so contribute to the formation of an atmosphere of hope. The result? Transformed lives.
Concerning the Lord’s Supper
Though it’s common for many churches to view the sermon as the high point of the liturgy, historically (and in many churches today) the high point, or call it the focus of the service, is Communion (the Lord’s Supper). Some congregations follow this emphasis by serving Communion weekly. They also portray this focus visually by placing the Communion table front and center in the worship space. Though GCI does not require its congregations to serve Communion weekly, many congregations are finding that doing so is a great blessing.
Some worry that if they serve Communion weekly, it will become too common, or that it will take too much time away from the sermon or other worship elements. While these concerns are understandable, consider what Thomas F. Torrance in Gospel, Church and Ministry says concerning how Holy Communion proclaims the gospel in unparalleled ways:
It is at Holy Communion above all that we see Christ face to face and handle things unseen and feed upon his body and blood by faith. It is there in the real presence of Christ that we grasp something of the wonder of the Savior’s love and redeeming sacrifice, and understand that it is not our faith in Christ that counts but his vicarious life and sacrifice, his redeeming life and death that count. It is at Holy Communion when the bread and wine are put into our hands, that we know it is not our believing that counts but he in whom we believe, not what we do but what the Savior has done for us and what he means to us. It is at Holy Communion, in short, that we really understand best the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Thus it was at Holy Communion that [as a pastor] I found it easiest to proclaim and make clear to people what the unconditional grace of God’s saving love really is….
I have found in my own ministry that it is easiest to preach the unconditional nature of grace, and the vicarious humanity and substitutionary role of Christ in faith, at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the call for repentance and faith is followed by Communion in the body and blood of Christ in which we stretch out empty hands to receive the bread and wine: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.” There at the Holy Table or the altar I know that I cannot rely on my own faith but only on the vicarious faith of the Lord Jesus in total substitution of his atoning sacrifice on the Cross….
That is what the covenant in his body and blood, which the Savior has forged for us, actually, practically, and really means. It is the very essence of the gospel that salvation and justification are by the grace of Christ alone, in which he takes our place, that you may take his place. (pp. 47, 88, 251-252)
Some congregations put a lot of emphasis on music. Worship music (when rightly presented) is a powerful tool for conveying the gospel message in a highly participatory way. However, music can also be a distraction when used to merely entertain rather than to engage the congregation in the worship of our triune God. When we sing, let us sing the liturgy, not merely “sing at” the liturgy. In that regard, the words to worship songs are of particular importance.
Concerning church service liturgy
In the historic liturgy of the church (still used by many churches today, including many GCI congregations), the liturgy first proclaims Christ in spoken word (through Scripture readings, recitations, hymns and sermon), then in enacted word (through Communion). In that way, what is spoken in addressing the gospel and in praise of the Lord, leads the worshippers to the Lord’s Table where the gospel is enacted and the Lord is encountered in a unique, powerful way. Preceding the Lord’s Supper there typically will be a prayer of confession—not to “earn” or somehow “qualify” for the blessing that comes with Communion—but to acknowledge the need we all have for the grace that Communion represents to people who have placed their trust in Christ.
To assist congregations in following the annual worship calendar of the Western church, GCI (here in Equipper) provides sermons synced with The Revised Common Lectionary. GCI then provides a recommended order of service adapted from The Book of Common Prayer. For additional related information and resources, click here.
In offering these resources, we’re not saying that it is a GCI requirement to follow this order of service. However, we are suggesting that, rightly used, this liturgy is highly effective in giving prominence to the proclamation of Christ in Word (readings and sermon) and Sacrament (Communion). This order of service is strongly Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, where the response of the congregation at each point flows from a presentation of Christ and his gracious benefits.
If you are a pastor, I highly recommend that you try this liturgy in your congregation if you’re not using it already. Note, however, that any significant changes in liturgy must be handled with utmost care. Some members, having grown up in churches that use a liturgy similar to the one GCI recommends, may have negative perceptions about the liturgy. Thus you’d need to carefully explain the liturgy (including the meaning of its flow and each of its elements) and the benefits it offers in worshipping the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I recommend the following:
For a series of studies about worship (good for a worship team to review together) click here
For a series of videos from Fuller Studio that provide meditations on various liturgical themes, click here
What About Liturgy?
This article is by GCI-Germany Elder Santiago Lange.
Liturgy is an important aspect of worship in the Christian faith. It helps us mature in our relationship with Jesus. But to gain that benefit, we need to understand what liturgy is, and how it is used in various worship traditions. Unfortunately, some Christians condemn all “church traditions” and “liturgical practices” (whatever they may mean by those terms), seeing them as cloaked attempts to undermine and weaken the authority of the Bible. But, is that actually the case?
Are worship traditions permissible?
In England, at the Tower of London, every afternoon at exactly 4 PM there is an interesting ceremony. The Beefeaters, British royalty’s ceremonial guards, come out of the Tower and feed the ravens on the front lawn. There is a legend that as long as the ravens are fed, London would never fall to her enemies. During WWII and the Battle of Britain, when London was being bombed by the Nazis, many ravens were frightened away. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Beefeaters to secretly clip the wings of the remaining ravens, so they could not fly. Why? To provide a sense of stability and security to Londoners in a troubled time.
We know that Jesus is our strong anchor and that our primary identity must be in him. We don’t have to worry about “our ravens flying away.” We are secure in our Savior’s hands. And yet, there is a proper place in the Christian church for God-honoring traditions. Simply defined, a tradition is “that which is handed down from generation to generation.” Of and by themselves, traditions are neither “good” or “bad.” The content and reason for our traditions determine their potential value.
The New Testament speaks of tradition in a positive light. The apostle Paul wrote this: “…Stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15, NET). Jesus did many things for which the only authority is tradition. For example, attendance in a synagogue (Luke 4:16) is not mentioned once in the Old Testament. Giving thanks before eating (Matt. 14:19) was not part of the Law. It was purely a Jewish tradition. The singing of a hymn at the end of the Passover meal (Matt. 26:30) was not part of the Law regarding Passover observance. The Feast of Dedication that Christ attended (John 10:22) was a Jewish celebration. Do these facts have any implications for a liturgy that is not directly commanded for Christians under the new covenant?
There are two extremes regarding traditions. The Pharisees were guilty of making tradition equal with the authority of Scripture. They believed in the Oral Law, a set of traditions reaching all the way back to Moses. The Pharisees taught that the Law in both its oral and written forms was binding. Unfortunately, they introduced various traditions that were designed more to protect and enrich themselves than to honor God.
What is liturgy?
An explanation of terms is needed at this point. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives this definition of liturgy:
Liturgy (Gk. λειτουργία from λεώς ‘people’ and ἔργον ‘work’). The original Greek word was used of a public work of any kind, not only religious, but in the Septuagint, it is applied particularly to the services of the Temple. The word in English is used in two senses: (1) of all the prescribed services of the Church…and (2) specifically as a title of the Eucharist (as the chief act of public worship).
Over the centuries, some Christians have defended worship traditions or certain “liturgical practices” as having an equal footing with Scripture. As Evangelicals, we believe and assert that God’s Word is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The most notable “liturgical celebration” directly instructed by our Lord to his disciples is the “Lord’s Supper” (also called Communion and the Eucharist). But, that fact does not prohibit Christians from framing, expanding, teaching and cherishing a God-honoring liturgy for worship that focuses on God, who he is and what he had done. The above-mentioned examples and the New Testament witness underscore this claim.
Liturgical practices can help us focus on the story of Jesus, with the great events of his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension at its core and center. The RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) offers Christians a widely-accepted and meaningful liturgical pattern of worship that is strongly Christ-centered and gospel-shaped.
Revised Common Lectionary (Year C)
The next Christian worship year (called “Year C” in the Revised Common Lectionary) stretches from December 2, 2018 through November 30, 2019 (Advent to Advent). The chart below (click it to download) will help you plan worship (including preaching) for the year ahead. For related worship resources on GCI’s Resources website, click here. For a related series of posts on The Surprising God blog, click here.
Prayer guide: October 2018
Here is the Prayer Guide for October (click on the image to download):
Kids Korner: Teaching Kids About the Christian Year
Kid’s Korner this month is from GCI Equipper Editor Ted Johnston.
We’ll soon begin a new cycle in the Western Christian worship year, which begins with Advent Season (the period that includes the four Sundays prior to Christmas day). This year, December 2 is the first Sunday in Advent, so now is the time to prepare.
GCI strongly encourages its congregations to structure worship in accordance with the Christian worship calendar, following the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). To help congregations do that, we publish here in GCI Equipper RCL-synced sermons for each Sunday and a few other special worship days (such as those during Holy Week in the Spring).
Those of you who teach children’s church and teen church and classes can capitalize on this tie-in to the Christian worship calendar by syncing what you teach with the RCL. There are many ways to do that, and I encourage you to use your creativity. To help you, I’ve listed below some RCL-synced curricula available online. None of these are produced by GCI and thus we don’t necessarily endorse all their content, though we see these as some of the best resources available (if you know of others, let us know by posting the information in the comment box, below).
Resources for RCL-synced children and teen studies/classes:
Spark House curricula (various options for children and teen teaching curricula, including ones synced with the RCL)
Note on today’s liturgy: November 1 in the Western Christian liturgical calendar is All Saints Day—a day to remember and thank God for the lives of God’s people down the centuries who have faithfully witnessed to Christ, often at great cost. Today’s sermon picks up that theme, correcting a common misunderstanding concerning what a saint is.
Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Ps. 119:1-8;
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
Sermon by Martin Manuel (from Mark 12)
True Devotion: True Sainthood
When you hear the word saint, what comes to mind? For many, a saint is an extraordinary person—one with special devotion to God. A holy person. When someone says, “I’m no saint,” they typically mean that they are imperfect. Thus the common understanding is that a saint is a person who is essentially free from sin—one who has devoted their life to doing good and being devoutly religious. However, that understanding is not what the Bible means when it speaks of saints.
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, referencing Ps. 85:8 (KJV), notes that the word saints “seems to be synonymous with the people of God.” It notes that the emphasis in the Bible’s use of the word “does not fall on character… but on divine choice and the bestowal of God’s favor.” In biblical terms, a saint is a person who God, by his initiative, has set apart (sanctified) for his purposes. Just as a person might choose a decorative vessel to hold a plant in their home, God has chosen human vessels for his household. The Bible calls these vessels saints.
Devoted by God, for God
To call a person a saint does not mean they possess goodness of themselves. Saints are ordinary people (sinners all) who God has set apart (sanctified) by the Spirit, to be participants in the sanctified life of Jesus, our representative and substitute. Thus saints cannot boast of their holiness; neither should they be ashamed about being different from the non-believing world around them.
Those made saints of God can consider themselves early participants in the desire God has for all people. All Saints Day, which occurred last Thursday (November 1), and is celebrated by many churches this Sunday, celebrates these facts. One of the common themes of the day is devotion to God—the devotion that characterizes the people of God—those the Bible calls saints.
Our Scripture readings today emphasize this theme of devotion. In our reading in Ruth, we saw the extraordinary devotion that Ruth had for her mother-in-law Naomi. In this sermon, we’ll see what is said about devotion, and about being a saint, in our readings in Mark’s Gospel and also in the book of Hebrews.
Generally speaking, devotion involves committing to the service of the object of our devotion the things we possess and control—our time, energy, interests, finances. As people who are devoted to God, we commit all that we are and all that we possess to him—we choose God above self in every aspect of life. But don’t misunderstand a vital truth of the gospel—before we chose God, he chose us. Before we devoted ourselves to God, he devoted himself to us. Biblically speaking, a saint is a person set apart (sanctified) by God through his initiative, not the initiative of the person being set apart. God then expects set-apart-ones to live the set-apart (devoted) life—the life we share with Jesus. What does that life look like? Glad you asked.
Jesus defines true devotion, true sainthood
Our Gospel reading today in Mark sheds light on this important, though often misunderstood topic. It tells of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the last time before his arrest, and the attacks upon him by various Jewish religious leaders who sought to have him killed. Different groups of these leaders took turns trying to trap Jesus with their questions. Each took their turn in the debate: first the priests, then the Herodians, then the Pharisees, then the Sadducees. All failed to outwit Jesus. Then came a teacher of the law. We pick up the story in Mark’s account:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)
Unlike the previous challengers, this teacher’s query does not appear to be a trick question. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to understand what Jesus believed. In any case, Jesus gave him this answer:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
In his answer, Jesus first quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6. To this fundamental creed of the Jews, Jesus added an ethical requirement of the Levitical law that beautifully explains the right relationship between people. We’ll look more at this in a few minutes.
Unlike the others, this Jewish teacher seemed to recognize the wisdom and understanding in Jesus’ answer. He also seemed to understand Jesus’ association of the two commands:
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)
When Jesus heard this answer, he replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). What was it about this Jewish teacher’s response that triggered Jesus’ compliment? Two things:
Jesus saw that the teacher was sincere. He had approached Jesus with a respectful attitude, unlike the others. He listened to, agreed with and summarized Jesus’ statement—quite a contrast with the approach of the others. Though they were, presumably, devoted to the teaching of the Law, including the Shema, there was nothing saintly about their approach! Thus, when it comes to true devotion, intent is important.
Jesus saw that the teacher understood that devotion is not synonymous with religious practice. His comparison of the Great Commandments with ceremonial worship showed that he distinguished between true and counterfeit devotion. The ancient practice of offering many religious sacrifices—hundreds and even thousands of animals by some—fell short of revering God and respecting all people. Strangely, people who do not consider themselves religious often understand this truth, a matter that too often evades super-religious types. Jesus said that one who understands this truth is closer to the kingdom of God than those who practice what is essentially empty and thus vain religious devotion.
The makings of a saint
Thus Jesus gets at the heart of what true devotion to God looks like. But who can live up to that? We all fall short. Are we thus without hope? Our reading today in Hebrews gives some needed encouragement and instruction:
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 9:14)
Here is the solution to our quandary. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, perfectly obeys God—he is perfectly devoted to God—on our behalf, as our representative and substitute. Jesus’ unblemished life—a life of perfect submission to the Father, out of love—fulfilled the Great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, cleanses us inwardly by erasing our sins and consecrating us as holy and devoted to God. The ESV, NASB and NRSV translations of this verse all have “dead works” instead of “acts that lead to death” as in the NIV. Dead works include not only violations of the Law but also fruitless religious activity.
It is this consecration of humanity by Jesus that is the basis of our being saints. The ultimate purpose of that consecration is to set us free, as saints (those set apart by God), to minister to God as his holy (sanctified) vessels. That is what the word serve in Hebrews 9:14 means in context.
Saints are vessels that have been devoted, by God, to his purposes and will.
This then takes us back to what Jesus said in Mark’s account concerning the two Great Commandments of the Law. As those set apart by God (saints), we share, through the Spirit, in what Jesus has done to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
“But,” you might be asking, “what does that sharing look like?” The answer is important, for misunderstanding it leads to many bad results—things like discouragement, weakened faith, self-righteousness, legalism, and even licentiousness.
The truth is that 1) Jesus accomplished obedience for us, and 2) now the Holy Spirit is working that obedience out within us over the course of our lives as we trust in and follow Jesus. Knowing and relying on these twin realities encourages us to confidently live in Christ, yielding to him in all things. Then when we fall short (and we will), we admit it, face it, prayerfully confess it, and go forward with our lives, knowing that we are saints, not sinners. Yes, we are saints who sin, but our sin has been forgiven, and we live accordingly as the saints we were chosen to be.
Instead of saying, “I’m no saint,” we can confidently declare that, in Christ, we are saints, set free to live accordingly, in Christ, by the Spirit. Think about what that means: We have been set apart by the Creator and Owner of all that is! That is a special status—a high calling. Being a saint is not a matter of personal pride—we did not earn this designation. Being a saint is not about being better than others—God selected us because he is good, not because we are good. He did so that we might participate with him in his plan for the restoration of all humanity, indeed all the cosmos!
I’m sure you know the lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s famous song:
Oh, when the saints, go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Here is the wonderful truth: If you are a follower of Jesus, you are in that number already. You have been set aside as a saint of God! You and I have been forever devoted to God in and through Jesus. Therefore rejoice! Our Father, who set us apart in his Son before creation and gave us the Holy Spirit, placed us in that number. So saints—march on! March on in your devotion; march on in your participation in the Father’s mission!
The hymn embedded below addresses the All Saints Day theme. It could be shown as an alternate conclusion to this sermon.
Sermon for November 11, 2018
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146;
Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Sermon by Ted Johnston
(From Mark 12 and 1 Kings 17, drawing on insights from
the New Bible Commentary and the Bible Knowledge Commentary)
Two Lessons About Generosity
Our Gospel and Old Testament readings today tell stories about generosity. Let’s begin with the one in Mark’s Gospel:
[Note to preacher: if today’s passages in Mark and 1 Kings were read in the Scripture reading portion of the service, they need not be read again.]
The widow at the temple
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44)
This passage falls within the section of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is giving examples of those who reject kingdom values and those who embrace and exemplify them. Ironically, it’s teachers of the Law who reject them. Rather than exemplifying God’s generosity, they love power, position and wealth. Their lives are about an outward show of religion, not about kingdom values. They devour (gobble up) the property of helpless people, perhaps by continually demanding religious contributions.
Then, in stark contrast to these religious leaders, Jesus tells of an impoverished widow who willingly and gladly gives God the money on which her life depends—she holds back nothing. This sort of radical, selfless generosity exemplifies the generous heart of God, which soon will be seen when Jesus offers himself on the cross as God’s gift to all humanity. In the incarnation and crucifixion, God gave everything in the person of Jesus. He held back nothing.
The impoverished widow thus mirrors the generosity of God. Though what she gave, monetarily speaking, was insignificant, her actions spoke volumes concerning her heart of generosity. As far as we can tell, she was not being forced to give. The implication is that her generosity was motivated by love for God. She gave in response to what God had done for her. Generous God, generous widow.
Generous God, generous people
True generosity in the lives of God’s people has always been about saying “thanks” to God—their grateful response to God’s great generosity. But what did this widow have to be thankful for? Socially, she was an outcast. Not only was she poor, she was without a husband, and thus was very limited in what she could do in that culture. Yet, she does not seem to consider herself poor. Her actions seem to signify that she saw herself as greatly blessed. She had the gift of life, and lived in the reality that she was a child of God. She responded with generosity.
Look around—look at your life. Has God richly blessed you? Even though times might be tough, and though you may have suffered loss and pain, are there things in your life for which you give God thanks?
Of course there are—you have life, and a relationship with a living, loving, gracious God. You are his child. You are part of this family of faith—a congregation of people who love you and care about you. You have food, clothing and shelter. You are richly blessed.
Giving to God of our treasure through offerings here at church is a tangible way in which we say “thanks!” for the blessings God has poured into our lives—for the new lives we have in Jesus, for the callings we have received to serve all humanity with Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.
The impoverished widow in this story gave all she had to the Lord. In doing so, she demonstrated her trust that God would provide for her for the next day. We might say that she “put her money where her mouth was.” That’s remarkable, considering the human tendency to worry about not having enough, and so to hold tight to what we have. Make no mistake about it, it was true then and still is true that being generous is an act of faith. Through the generous sharing of what God has given us, we are saying that we trust him to provide what we need, and through us to provide for others.
The widow of Zarephath
This sort of generosity was also exemplified by the widow of Zarephath, who we are told about in our Old Testament reading in 1 Kings.
Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah]: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ ”
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16)
Due to a severe drought, the great prophet Elijah was suffering. So God sent him outside Israel’s territory to the Phoenician town of Zarephath and there introduced him to a gentile widow. How ironic that it would be a gentile, a pagan, and a widowed woman at that, who would, with generosity, come to the aid of God’s prophet.
This widow willingly fetched water for Elijah, but when he asked her for some bread, she was forced to admit her abject poverty and state of near-starvation. Elijah reassures her that God will honor her generous hospitality by multiplying the very little that she possesses—a meager supply of flour and oil. The promise is that God will see to it that she has enough to get them through until the drought ends.
Perhaps recognizing him as a prophet, the woman trusts Elijah and obeys, and the truth of Elijah’s words to her were borne out. God kept his promise as a response to her generosity. Once again, we see the generosity of God himself being reflected in the generosity of a person. This impoverished widow’s generosity to Elijah was a response to the initiative of the generous God. True generosity, you see, is a reflection of God’s goodness to us. Once again, we find the maxim true: Generous God, generous people.
Beware a scarcity mentality
Sadly, we live in a me-centered culture that has a scarcity mentality. It preaches the message: “There’s not enough to go around, so I’d better get more and hold on to what I have.”
This mentality is nothing new, and is not unique to Western culture, for it springs from deep within the fallen human nature we all possess. Sometimes that nature (what Paul calls the flesh) raises its ugly head in extreme ways. The Mazatec Indians in Southwest Mexico are an example. By custom, they seldom wish other people well and hesitate to teach others the trades they have mastered. This inhospitable behavior stems from their concept of “limited good”—they believe there is only so much good, so much knowledge, so much love to go around, and so you must hold tight to what you have. For example, they believe that if you teach another person how to bake bread, you will be draining yourself of that knowledge. They even believe that if you love a second child, you will be loving the first one less. To them, if you wish someone well, you are giving away your own happiness and well-being.
A person and even a whole culture that lives according to this scarcity mentality robs themselves of one of the most important keys to happy, successful living: generosity. Happiness in life is about giving, not getting. It’s about open hands, not closed fists. The two widows in our readings today, though poor, were rich in life due to their generous spirits. From them we learn some important lessons:
At its root, generosity is a response to God’s initiative in our life. Occasions for generosity are more than mere opportunities—they are ways God sets us up to share in his generosity. Let me ask: Where is God calling you to be generous?
When it comes to generosity, what’s important is not the amount given, but the proportion. Both widows in our readings gave all, trusting that God would supply their need. What does that sort of trust look like for you?
Generosity springs from this trust—the belief (call it faith) that God is indeed generous and will supply your need. Where is it that God is calling you to a deeper level of trust by calling you to be more generous in your giving?
Let us ponder these questions in the days ahead as we reflect on these two stories of generous widows.
Sermon for November 18, 2018
Scripture Readings: 1 Sam. 1:4-20; Ps. 16;
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Sermon by Ted Johnston
(From Mark 13:1-37, drawing on commentary from
New BibleCommentary and Bible Knowledge Commentary)
The Little Apocalypse
In our journey through the Gospel of Mark, we come to chapter 13, a passage often called “The Little Apocalypse.” Here Jesus gives a prophecy concerning a coming time of judgment. Unfortunately, some people misuse it, trying to force-fit it into their prophetic scheme. In doing so they miss the point of Jesus’ exhortation to his original disciples and the point that applies to all followers of Jesus down through the centuries, including all of us. Let’s see if we can hear what the Lord was actually saying.
Our Gospel reading today covered Mark 13:1-8. In this sermon we’ll also look at the rest of the chapter so we see the full message, in its context.
[Note to preacher: if vv. 1-8 were already read, pick up from there—either reading vv. 9-37 as you begin, or as they occur within the sermon.]
A little background will help us understand the meaning Mark intended for his original readers. It’s likely that Mark wrote his Gospel sometime during the period of AD 66-69. He likely sent it to churches in Italy, including the house churches in Rome. Rome had burned in AD 64 and Christians were blamed by Roman Emperor Nero. Both Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome somewhere between 64 and 68. Mark chapter 13 would have meant a great deal to the Christians in Rome at this very perilous time in history.
In chapter 13, Mark quotes extensively the words Jesus had spoken about 40 years earlier, just before being crucified in Jerusalem. Jesus predicted a terrible time of judgment coming upon that city and upon all of Judea. He also warned and exhorted his disciples, noting that the coming judgment would impact them as well. Persecution was coming their way and he wanted to prepare them. When Mark wrote his Gospel, the fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied some 40 years earlier was at hand. Thus Jesus’ words were of great importance to those early Christians.
The Little Apocalypse of Mark 13 falls within a long section in Mark’s Gospel that addresses the judgment that comes when Israel, formed as a nation by God to represent all humankind, rejects Jesus, her Messiah. The Little Apocalypse sounds a severe warning that, though tinged with sadness, also offers the hope of redemption that follows judgment. As Mark explains through the course of his Gospel, the one who does the judging is none other than the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, who having united himself to our humanity, takes upon himself our judgment, dies on the cross in our place, and is resurrected to new, glorified human life, thus redeeming us.
Warning and exhortation
Mark first introduces Jesus’ warning concerning the judgment coming upon God’s people Israel in chapter 11 with the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem where he curses a fig tree (a symbol of the nation of Israel) and drives the merchants from the Temple courts. Both are signs of God’s judgment against his people and its corrupt Temple-centered religious system.Then in Mark 13, Jesus gives a detailed warning to his inner circle of disciples concerning the coming judgment, making it clear that it will also test them.
In Mark 13:2, Jesus makes it clear that the coming judgment will mean the total destruction of the Temple. Jesus’ disciples no doubt believe that this event will mean the end of the current age and the beginning of the Messianic age. Thus they are anxious to know the signs that will announce the arrival of the judgment (Mark 13:3-4). In response, Jesus avoids the issue of timing (though he tells them in Mark 13:30 that these things will occur before the present generation is gone). Rather than focusing on the timing, he gives them a simple, yet vital exhortation: Be watchful! (Mark 13:5).
What are the disciples to watch for? First (Mark 13:5-6) Jesus says to pay careful heed to avoid false teachers—those who deceive. Second (Mark 13:7-8) Jesus tells them to watch for various alarming events. Both parts of this exhortation would have been highly relevant to Jesus’ first disciples and also to the original readers of Mark’s Gospel living in Rome (where several early heresies in the church were erupting, and a great deal of political intrigue and threat was ongoing).
Despite these ominous signs, these followers of Jesus are told not to be alarmed or overly-concerned (Mark 13:7a, 8b). Certainly, they are not to try to cobble together a speculative prophetic timeline! Instead, they are to see the coming time of trouble as an opportunity to witness to Jesus and his kingdom (Mark 13:9b) by proclaiming the gospel (Mark 13:10).
Preach the gospel!
Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples in about AD 30 and then through Mark to Jesus’ disciples in Rome just prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, and to his disciples down through the ages, is the same: preach the gospel! Mark puts this exhortation in the form of a command that is essentially the same as the one given by Matthew in his Gospel (Matt. 28:19)—we call it the Great Commission. Mark, no doubt, before writing his Gospel, had seen obedience to this command in the ministries of Peter, Paul (who had been martyred for their testimony to Jesus) and other apostles, New Testament prophets, pastor/elders and other Christians.
The promise that comes with a warning
According to Jesus, the terrible, earth-shattering effects of the judgment coming on Jerusalem and Judea will include the breakdown under stress of the closest of natural human ties (Mark 13:12)—the opposite of how Jesus’ true ‘family’ (Mark 3:34-35) is to relate to one another, despite times of hardship. Indeed, many of Jesus’ followers will be hated by their own kin for loyalty to their Lord and Savior (Mark 13:13a). Yet, despite the threats they face, they are given a great promise: faithful endurance to the end, in the face of persecution, will mean salvation (Mark 13:13b), even if not safety in this world.
Don’t misunderstand: Jesus is not saying that the loyalty of his followers in the face of persecution earns salvation. Scripture is clear: salvation is a gift of grace apart from our works and personal merit. However, Jesus is saying that by persevering loyally through even through the most challenging of times, his followers will experience the reality of Jesus’ love and life (their salvation) both now, and then in its fullness in the life that is coming to the faithful in a new heaven and new earth.
But when will this occur?
Understandably, Jesus’ disciples ask their Lord, “When?” Using carefully veiled language, Mark records Jesus’ answer by hinting that these events will come upon Jerusalem and Judea when the idolatrous Roman army standards are planted triumphantly in the temple at Jerusalem (Mark 13:14).
Though Mark puts Jesus’ words in code language, the little addition he gives in Mark 13:14 shows that Mark expects his readers to understand what Jesus is referring to, for the code language used is taken from the familiar book of Daniel where we learn of the desecration of the Temple by the persecutor Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC. The abomination in that case was an idol, set up in the temple itself, thus defiling it.
The verses that follow in Mark 13 seem to describe the terrible suffering in the first Jewish wars, when Roman armies invaded Galilee and Judea beginning in AD 66. These terrible events took place only a generation after Jesus’ death, and the Christian church in Palestine would have shared in the suffering at that time. Tradition says that Christians in Judea fled at that time to Pella, east of the Jordan River, taking Jesus’ warning to heart (Mark 13:14).
Don’t be hoodwinked
One of Jesus’ most urgent warnings to his disciples at that time (and it certainly applies today) is the need to avoid false Messiahs and prophets (Mark 13:22). One of the tactics these deceivers use is various signs and miracles. Being quite impressive, these can hoodwink the gullible. Perhaps that is why Jesus performed miracles only sparingly.
Everything Jesus predicts up through Mark 13:23 can be fitted into the time around AD 68-70, with Roman armies ravaging Palestine and Roman emperors fighting for the throne. Mark’s readers, receiving this message somewhere around AD 68, would have recognized the references, even if some are not clear to us now.
Some see in Mark 13:24-27 a shift in perspective, viewing these verses as referring to what will happen at the very end of the age when Jesus returns bodily to earth. However, others see these verses as continuing to address what occurred in and around AD 70. Either way, the Bible uses the imagery of sun, moon and stars (Mark 13:24-25) to refer to earthly powers—using coded language, he’s talking about the fall of governments (i.e., the Roman Empire), not heavenly bodies. When that is occurring, the Son of Man will come in glory to gather his chosen ones (Mark 13:26–27). The “ends of the earth” (Mark 13:27) again draws on the imagery of Daniel and contains a hint of the Gentile mission—it’s not a reference to gathering in only faithful Jews, as some claim.
In deciding on the timing of “all these things” (Mark 13:30a), note that this phrase seems to be included in Jesus’ statement concerning “this generation” (Mark 13:30b)— the generation of the disciples that Jesus is directly addressing. Attempts to relate Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13:24-27 to events in our day (or events that occurred when the Jewish state in Palestine was founded in 1948 or some other time in our generation) seem unjustifiable. That being said, it does seem likely that Jesus is looking forward, predicting continuing and escalating trouble in the world down through the ages. That trouble will often mean persecution for those who follow Jesus, though there is also a message of hope: deliverance follows the judgment. That deliverance, in its ultimate sense, will come with the in-breaking of the fullness of the kingdom and the coming of a new heaven and new earth. We can count on that!
Guidelines for understanding this passage
Here in Mark 13, Jesus unveils truth about himself and forthcoming events. In considering how to understand his message, three things should be kept in mind:
When Mark was writing this to the churches in Rome, using open language was hazardous due to the political dangers. Thus he uses code language to conceal the meaning from outsiders, including Roman authorities. John did the same thing in using code language in writing the book of Revelation, some 20 years later.
This code language is intended to reveal, not mystify, and certainly not to send Jesus’ followers off on a wild, speculative goose-chase. Beware prediction addiction!
The main point of what Jesus is saying is to urge his followers to be faithful. His purpose is not to enable them to predict the future and to set dates. This is shown by the fact that not even Jesus knows the date of these things (Mark 13:32). But this we know (because Jesus promises it): In the shaking of all else, the words of Jesus remain unshaken (Mark 13:31)—a saying used in the Old Testament for the words of God himself. And so, prophecies (like this one) are ultimately about revealing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and to reveal the true nature of his coming kingdom.
Thus ends The Little Apocalypse, a message concerning the judgment that comes when people respond to Jesus once they see him clearly. In the first century, when Jesus was revealed to both Jews and Romans, he was rejected and crucified—bringing calamity to Jerusalem and all Judea.
But as Jesus predicted, his death was not the end of the story. No, he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and came back to earth through the Holy Spirit to begin a ministry of further revelation that is impacting (as Jesus predicted) the entire world.
One day (and we don’t know when that day will be), Jesus will return bodily, in glory, to usher in the fullness of his kingdom, which now is present on earth and growing. In the meantime, our calling as followers of Jesus is not to be fixated on prophetic speculations, not to be overly-worried about world events, and certainly not to pull back into a cave of fearfulness. No, our calling is to do what Jesus told his original followers to do: share with others what we know of this Jesus and his coming kingdom—proclaim the gospel, for it is truth that delivers and transforms!
We’ll have a marvelous opportunity to do just that in the season of Advent that begins soon, leading up to Christmas and our celebrations of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Let us, dear ones, with Jesus, and by his Spirit, be about our Father’s business!
Sermon for November 25, 2018
Note on today’s liturgy: November 25, 2018 is Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday. It concludes Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, marking the end of the worship year (Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary). Next Sunday (December 2, 2018) we enter a new worship year (Year C) with Advent Season. Our focus today is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. On this Sunday, we look back to Jesus’ transfiguration, resurrection and ascension and forward to his appearing in glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Scripture Readings: Dan. 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps. 93;
Rev. 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
Sermon by Sheila Graham
(from John 18, Daniel 7 and Revelation 1, drawing on
Expositor’s Bible Commentary and Anchor Bible Dictionary)
All Hail King Jesus!
People in many countries, the U.S. included, seem fascinated with Britain’s royals. They enjoy the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Queen and her family. In the U.S., everything the royal family does (marriages, births, even divorces) makes the news. That’s a bit ironic, given that Americans are quite adamant about not wanting to be ruled by a king or queen. Perhaps they should rethink that position though, given that Americans (and all the people of the earth) have a king—one whose kingdom is not of this world. We’re talking, of course, about King Jesus.
Early in the morning of the day on which he died on the cross, Jesus affirmed his kingship:
Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:33-36, NRSV)
Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, was curious as to why the Jewish religious authorities had brought Jesus before him. Jesus didn’t look or act like the other rebels he had seen. And, Jesus’ answers bewildered him.
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37, NRSV)
It became clear to Pilate that Jesus was not a dangerous revolutionary. When Jesus said he was born to be a king of some other-worldly kingdom, Pilate probably thought Jesus was a philosopher or eccentric visionary—certainly not a threat to the Roman government. But Jesus was speaking the truth! He truly was (and is) a king! He does have a kingdom!
Jesus’ kingship is well established in the prophecies of the Old Testament. The book of Daniel tells of the prophet Daniel’s strange visions. Though they are full of symbolism, their message for us is clear: Jesus was destined to be a king.
As I [Daniel] watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NRSV)
Who is this that Daniel sees being enthroned as king? It’s a person “like a human being,” or “like a son of man” (NIV). This glorified being, who as king will rule over all the earth forever, is human, yet divine. This person, the only one both fully human and divine, is our Savior. Jesus often referred to himself as “the Son of Man.”
But there’s more: Israel’s King David recorded that God had made a covenant with him. David said it was “an everlasting covenant.”
The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” (2 Sam. 23:3-5, NRSV)
What was this everlasting covenant that God made with David? Note what it says in Psalm 132:
The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” (Ps. 132:11-12, NRSV)
Jesus, who was born from David’s lineage, will be king.
“There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one. His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam.” (Ps. 132:17-18, NRSV)
The prophecies were true: Jesus was born of David’s line in the town of Bethlehem. He was Lord and God in the Old Testament and his kingship was celebrated throughout the Psalms:
The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.” (Ps. 93:1-2, NRSV)
The psalmist declared that the Lord (the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus) is not only king over the world but also its creator, who “established the world.”
Jesus is proclaimed king throughout the Old and New Testaments. We’ve seen a few of the Old Testament references; let’s now look at a prophecy of Jesus’ return as king in the book of Revelation. As we do, we must remember that the book of Revelation was written by John to early Christians. Some of it sounds strange to our ears, but the original readers were accustomed to its literary style, called apocalyptic, which is highly symbolic. John likely used this style in order to hide the message of the book from the Roman authorities. That should not be surprising, given that a major purpose of the book is to show that God is sovereign over the governments of the world, the government of Rome in particular. Note this from Revelation chapter 1:
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev. 1:4-8, NRSV)
Christ is Lord, capital L. Unlike the British royals, who are basically more symbol and tradition than rulers, King Jesus will rule. He is not only a king, he is the King of kings. He will be in charge over all. He will make dramatic changes in this world and how it is run.
Americans fought the Revolutionary War to end the rule of a British king over them. Americans wanted to rule themselves—to choose their own leader. Ever since, Americans have had mixed feelings about kings and queens. Some even feel that the U.S. President should not bow to the royalty of another country.
Be that as it may, the decision has already been made—for Americans, and for people in all countries. Everyone, everywhere already has a king and his name is Jesus. Not only will all people in all nations bow before him, the Bible says all will kneel before him as Lord. When he returns to earth bodily, King Jesus will be recognized as the universal Judge with absolute dominion over everything and everyone.
For us who are disciples of Jesus, that reality is not something we fear or resist. We understand that his rule will bring about welcome change:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert….
No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:5-6; 9-10, NRSV)
What a beautiful picture of Jesus’ kingdom! Certainly the world has not experienced anything like it on this side of Eden.
It’s not likely that any of us will meet the Queen of England. But if we ever do, we’ll have to endure all sorts of protocol. You don’t just go up to the Queen and give her a friendly hug or pat on the back, or even shake her hand. If any handshaking is going to happen, she must first extend her hand to you.
In contrast to how the Queen of England is approached, our King—King Jesus—invites us into a personal relationship with him. He welcomes us with open arms. He treats us like family. Jesus isn’t like any ruler, royal or not, that we’re familiar with. Our King is a champion of the poor and helpless, the widow and the fatherless. He is our healer and protector. King Jesus is forgiving and merciful. When he ushers in the fulness of his kingdom there will be no more death or sorrow—only joy and gladness, forever. Who wouldn’t want that?
All hail King Jesus! Come soon!
Here is a video that could be used to introduce or conclude this sermon: