Sunday, March 01, 2009

Audio from Mar. 1

Andrew Henry reads Psalm 81.

Sermon from Sunday, Mar 1

On Psalm 81.

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Lent is a 46-day time period just before Easter that in much of the church is dedicated to spiritual renewal and reflection. In some churches, the whole period before Lent is taken up with a renewed focus on the cross; this is true to some extent in our church, where Dick Rusbuldt has penned a Lenten Devotional that is in essence a journey to the cross, where we walk with Jesus to the crucifixion and focus on that event. I recommend this year’s devotional to you as an important exercise.

But in some ways, Lent is about more than what Jesus did on the cross; it is about what we are doing today. Because Lent focuses us in on the cross, we also must ask the question, “In light of Jesus’ love for us (exemplified on the cross), how should we respond in our way of living?” What difference does it make that Jesus died on the cross? Is it simply a ticket to heaven for us? Or is it an implicit challenge, a picture that says, “Live your life as if God loves you this much?” So the other theme of Lent is spiritual discipline. It is during the season of Lent when we must ask about how we are living. How are we spending this precious life God has given us, this life that is so precious that Jesus died to give it to us for all eternity? If we sit down and take stock, what are we really happy with and what do we really want to change, if we will admit to ourselves that we want to change some things? Lent invites us in to ponder this question, to ponder how we might live differently by disciplining our bodies and our spirits.

We don’t naturally live good lives on this earth; it is not our default setting. We need a strategy for how to live like Jesus, because the world does not encourage us to live like Jesus. You can’t swim upstream unless you decide to swim upstream and take steps to make it happen. We can’t naturally live holy lives in a world which encourages us not to. Early Baptists knew this and so they came up with a strategy for how to live godly lives in an ungodly world: a covenant.

A church covenant is a document agreed to by the members of a church that set down standards for church membership. In some churches, a covenant is a rather major part of church life. When new members join the church, they literally sign the covenant, that these are the standards they are willing to abide by for the sake of their common life together. I know of one church where when members agree to abide by the covenant, they sign the tablecloth that is used for communion: the idea is that by abiding by the standards of the community, you become part of the fabric of the community, indeed part of the communion we enjoy together. Another church I know of has an intense process of becoming a member where the covenant is taken so seriously that you can be either a covenanting member or a non-covenanting member; but if you take the covenant, you are expected to keep the covenant. Every few years, everyone in the church re-thinks their decision and can choose to withdraw from the covenant if they feel they can’t keep it.

Our church has a covenant too; though it has long laid dusty on the shelves. When I came up with the idea of looking at our church covenant during Lent, I first had to go looking for the covenant. I found it, and then I wanted to find out some of the history of it; I e-mailed our church’s former pastor, Beth Congdon-Martin, who suggested it may have been early in her pastorate that the covenant was last examined; I followed up and I found out that indeed it was in 1989 and 1990 that the esteemed deacon board of this church last took up the issue of the church covenant. That was 20 years ago! In fact, a church covenant is so far from most of our minds that when I came to pastor the church 7 years ago, I never even thought to ask about the church’s covenant—and in fact had to go hunting one down when a new member of our church asked if we had one.

During Lent I’m going to lead us through a series of sermons on the church covenant. We will also be hosting meetings in people’s homes to discuss the covenant and to see how we can keep it better as individuals and as a church. Given the fact that the covenant is sort of arcane, you may wonder why I want to do this now. Well, there are a few reasons, but the biggest is that it dovetails nicely with the season of Lent. Because Lent focuses us in on the pursuit of Christlikeness, because Lent makes us take stock of our lives, it seems to make sense to look at our covenant during Lent and say, “OK, how are we doing? If we really have this strategy to become more like Jesus, are we keeping this strategy?”

This past Wednesday, the Phillies played their first spring training game. I love this time of year because even for the worst baseball team in the league, hope springs eternal during spring training. But when your team has just won the championship, you really feel like anything is possible during spring training. I was listening the other day to an interview with Phillies backup catcher Chris Coste. And the interviewer was asking him who the easiest Phillies pitcher was to catch. He responded that it was Cole Hamels or Jamie Moyer, because as a catcher you knew they were going to pitch the ball right where you set up your mitt, that it was very predictable and easy. Then the interviewer asked him who the most difficult catcher was to catch, and he responded Brett Myers. And he said it was not so much that he was erratic or that his pitches were uncontrollable, but he said it was more mental. Mentally, he said, he and Myers would have a plan before the game; this was how they would pitch to certain batters, this was how they’d approach the game. But, if one thing went wrong, the slightest little thing, Myers would want to change course, to push out of the game plan and try something different. As a catcher, Coste said, you had to try to rein that in, to keep to the plan in order to get the results you want.

I picture this Lent as a chance to review our game plan. It’s a pretty good game plan, even if we haven’t looked at it in 20 years. It focuses on five main areas, which I’ll be talking about for today and the next four weeks. And the truth is that keeping these five main areas will result in a change of heart as individuals and a change of culture as a church. Like they say in AA, it works if you work it. If we want to take the time and pains to make measureable changes in our lives, we will see measurable change in our spirits and in our church. I’ll ask the ushers to pass out the copies I have made of the covenants now, and you’ll see that these are little folders to get you ready for the home meetings we’re going to be holding during the month of March. I hope you’ll sign up for one of these meetings to discuss how we can better live out these ideals as a church.

What I want to focus on today is the first three paragraphs of the covenant, which focus on worship. The first item in the game plan to have a Christ-centered and fruitful fellowship together is worship. I’ll just read that aloud for us: “We, the members and friends of the Exton Community Baptist Church, in accordance with our understanding of our responsibility to the kingdom of God as it is derived from the scriptures, do hereby covenant: To acknowledge and celebrate the existence and loving presence of God in our lives. To affirm Jesus Christ as the Son of God, our Lord, and Savior, and the center of what we think, feel and do.” These first two items in the church covenant focus us in on worship: acknowledging and celebrating God’s existence and presence in our lives, and to affirm that Jesus is the center of everything in our lives, that whatever goes on, he is in the middle of it. Jesus is the one who serves as the guidepost for our decision-making; Jesus gets to say yes and no to everything. Worship is where we give witness to the fact of this reality in our lives, that God is present in our lives, that God is central in our lives.

Let’s look at the passage Andrew read for us this morning, Psalm 81. You can’t read the psalms without realizing how important worship was to the ancient Israelites: Raise a song, sound the tambourine, make music with the lyre and the harp, blow the trumpet…why? Simply because God said to. We worship because that’s part of how God created us, with the ability to recognize the one who made us, who redeems us, who sustains us. God calls us to be his people, and when he does, he wants us to worship him.

Well, we might say, that’s all well and good, but isn’t it kind of selfish of God to create us just to worship him? I mean, it’s one thing for Gracie to have a doll who loves her unconditionally and does whatever she wants it to. It’s another thing for Jill and I to have a baby, a real live person who has free will and free choices and sometimes loves us and sometimes demands their own way. If God is creating people, doesn’t it seem sort of like he treats us like Gracie’s dolls, with the expectation that we are created just to make him happy?

Ah, but read the rest of the Psalm. The first thing a person must do when they come to worship is honor God, praise God, recognize that God is awesome, and raise a sacrifice of praise to God. But the Psalm doesn’t end there. Because once the person has done that, once the person has confessed how awesome God is, we see something amazing happen—God talks to the psalmist. And God says some things we might expect God to say if we heard from him today. He says, first, “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.” This is a reference to Israel’s time in slavery, and God is saying, “I was the one who freed you; I was the one with you when you thought you were lost; I was the one who made all of this happen. I was the one who brought you out of bondage.” So in the context of worship, once the worshiper has turned his heart toward God, we find that God turns his heart toward the worshiper, and talks with the worshiper; this is not at all God treating us selfishly, because it appears that once the worshiper becomes vulnerable to God, God becomes vulnerable to the worshiper.

Then we read a bit more; as we go on, we see “Hear, O Israel, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you will just listen to me!” Then God lays out a path for the worshiper to follow: don’t have any other gods, no foreign gods, no false gods. If you do this, says God, there will be good consequences, and if you fail to do this, there will be negative consequences. If you fail to do this, you will follow your own wisdom, and you will be harmed, because you’re not as smart as you think you are. But, he says, if you follow the path I have set for you, I will feed you, I will give you the best that I have. “Open your mouth wide,” says verse 10, “and I will fill it.” “I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you,” says verse 16. This image is beautiful, that God would give us the wheat, the staple, nutritious food that we need to survive; and God would give us the honey, something we don’t really need, but would simply delight us, simply to make us happy.

This Psalm, then, functions as a picture of worship. We orient our hearts rightly to God, give him praise, glory and honor. When we tune our hearts right, we are able then to encounter God, to see Him, to hear Him when he speaks to us. And when he speaks to us, he sets out a way of life for us, and if we are willing to follow that way, he offers us the deep needs and the deep desires of our soul. If we will come and worship him, he offers us a path to follow and the gift of finest wheat.

This is why worship is the first thing listed in our church covenant; this is why worship is the key to a strategy to change our hearts and to change our church. Worship is where it happens; worship is where we pause from the busy-ness of our lives, worship is where we intentionally cast aside all the competing agendas of this world and worship is where we re-orient our hearts. Consequently, worship is where we catch a vision for our lives, a path to follow, and worship is where we taste the finest gifts that God has for our lives. A church that does not take worship seriously cannot prosper long; it can be popular, it can rise with a charismatic leader or a catchy advertising campaign, but it cannot prosper for long because it depends on human activity. But a church that worships has gone beyond human leadership and gone beyond cool marketing ploys into a relationship with the living God. If you don’t have that, plain and simple, you don’t have a church. You have a cool club of nice people doing nice things for each other and nice things for the world, but you don’t have a church, because you don’t have a gathering of people who are seriously pursuing what God would have them to do in their lives and receiving those good gifts from God.

This Lent, I’m challenging you to commit to worship in a way you never have before. I realize that we all come from different places on the worship spectrum, that some of us are extremely committed to worship and some not so much; so I’m not asking for you to make a jump. I’m asking you to take one step up the worship ladder this Lent. If you never come to church, I’m asking you to consider coming more often. If you come to church when you feel like it, and not when you don’t, I’m asking you to make it a priority to come to church here each week—your spirit and your church will thank you. If you come to church each week, I’m asking you to make it a priority to deepen your sense of private worship, to live at least a few minutes everyday with the awareness of being in God’s presence, of taking time each day to read your Bible or spiritual writing and to pray. If you do that every day, then I will challenge you to be aware of God and asking him to be present with you two minutes out of every hour every day. Whatever you are doing now to worship, Lent is a chance to step up your worship involvement so that you are constantly re-orienting your heart rightly. And as this psalm shows us, when you are re-orienting your heart rightly, God gives you a path to follow and delights us with the gift of finest wheat.