They Belong Together

When we come to confession before the Lord, should we think more about our sin or His holiness? Should we think more about our sin or the sacrifice of His Son? Should we think more about our sin or His grace? The answer is obviously both but, I would argue that even when we confess our sin, our focus is on God and not ourselves.

Apart from His holiness, we would have no standard by which to examine ourselves. Apart from His grace we would not even have the revelation of His standard, let alone the revelation of His invitation to confess. Apart from His righteousness, in particular Christ’s perfect life and the Father’s righteous judgment poured out on the Son, any offer of forgiveness to those who confess would be judicial fiction. And apart from His Spirit, we wouldn’t be sensitive enough to notice or care about our sin.

Our confession is part of our worship because in confession we receive and submit to His holy standard. In confession we also take hold of His Son’s sacrifice by the Spirit’s work.

So, who does the work in confession? God does. God serves us through His Word, His Son, and His Spirit. He serves us by graciously inviting us into His presence, by graciously making a way for us to come near, and by graciously cleansing our consciences so that we can worship motivated by joyful freedom, not slavish guilt. True confession is worship because we can’t take any credit for the conviction or the comfort.

When it comes to confession, deeply mourning our sin does not prohibit God’s rich blessing of comfort (think Matthew 5:4). They belong together.

Dust Sure Does Have Problems

God is compassionate and He knows our frame. He knows that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14) and yet, dust sure does have a lot of problems. Even as His children we are easily discouraged, hungry, tired, and fearful. That is why He invites us to share a meal of communion with Him and it is why sharing this meal as an assembly every week is so valuable.

Many of us have trouble. We are not under the threat of torture or death, but we have affliction nonetheless. Our plans didn’t work out, we’re not sure if we’ll be able to pay the grocery bill next week, the alarm clock rings early and our heads hit the pillow late, and we doubt that we’ll be able to make it through.

God has not promised to make His people comfortable, to give us more than daily bread, to fill our physical sails with fitness, or to reveal how it will all work out in the short term. But He has promised that there is always an overabundance of grace. He hasn’t promised that we won’t have need, He has promised to help in those times.

Only by the death and resurrection of Jesus can we come for grace with confidence. Our High Priest sympathizes with our weaknesses, especially when we are tempted to doubt and fear. He was tempted, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So we draw near to the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). We eat around the table of grace. We find grace to help, and there is more than enough.

Enculturation Centers

All schools are religious schools. All schools teach worldview. All schools have a philosophy of education. All schools have creeds, liturgy, and dogma. All schools have orthodoxy and doctrine. In short, all schools – public, private, parochial, and home–are enculturation centers, and none are neutral.

—Bradley Heath, Millstones and Stumbling Blocks

Better Than a Thousand Elsewhere

The sons of Korah wrote eleven songs that were recognized into the canon of Israel’s worship including Psalm 84.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
(Psalm 84:1–2)

The song celebrates God’s “dwelling place,” His “courts.” In other words, the Psalm expresses delight over God welcoming His people into His presence. For Israel, God’s house was the temple in Jerusalem. So this song exalts how great it is to be with God, to meet the “living God” as “heart and flesh sing for joy” to Him.

Later in the song, the sons of Korah put their desires into perspective.

For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
(Psalm 84:10)

This is extreme by both chronological and occupational standards. There is no better way to spend time than appearing before God. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how lowly a position one takes as long as he can be in the presence of God.

We sing a popular version of this Psalm today and it applies in a brand new way. In His Son, Jesus Christ, we are invited into the place His glory dwells. We are satisfied and our souls are made wet by the Spirit as we see and taste His beauty. And around the Lord’s table, He invites His people for a meal of communion, a meal of blessing, and He holds nothing back.

For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
(Psalm 84:11)

This promise is certain because He has already given us His Son. One meal of peace with the King is better than a thousand elsewhere.

Confession Songs

The book of Psalms include some of the deepest, most desperate confessions of sin found in Scripture. The poetic lyrics, and presumably the key of the music, communicate with precise form both the heaviness of conviction and the relief of forgiveness. No man is permitted into God’s presence unless his sin is pardoned, so it is not surprising to find these confession songs as part of the congregations’s worship.

King David, a man known for his musical skill and for his disastrous sin, wrote in Psalm 32:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(Psalms 32:1–2)

“Transgression” concerns revolt or rebellion against God’s law. “Sin” emphasizes missing the mark, failing to live up to God’s law. And “iniquity” stresses a twisting away or deviation from God’s law. All three make a man guilty. David describes forgiveness as a great blessing,

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
(Psalms 32:3–4)

God sees, God knows, and God humbles those who attempt to cover their sin with silence rather than have it covered by His sacrifice. Sturdy bones “waste away,” they are worn out through “groaning.” The groaning results from God’s “heavy hand,” His personal pressing on the hearts of His people. Why does He do that? Because they can’t be happy/blessed unless their sin is acknowledged, atoned for, and absolved. God will reprove us unto repentance so that we can worship in His presence where there is fullness of joy.

On Our Side

Eating at the Lord’s table week by week ought to feed, foster, and fortify our faith that God is on our side.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32)

In a series of rhetorical questions, God, through Paul, lifts up our hearts to trust Him. We need not fear tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, or slaughter (verses 35b-36). These things cannot separate us from His love in Christ Jesus (verse 35a). These things can’t stop His Spirit from leading us as adopted sons (verses 12-17). These things can’t cancel His guarantee to glorify those He predestined, called, and justified (verse 30). No suffering hinders our future glory (verse 18). No weakness can keep us from conquering through Him who loved us (verses 26, 37).

Why? Because the Father gave His Son for us. The Lord’s supper is our remembrance and proclamation of the Lord’s death, of the Son being given for us. Just as Jesus gave His disciples bread and the cup, He gave His body and poured out His blood so that we might hope in God.

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:34)

Christ died for us, He rose for us, now He intercedes for us. This meal celebrates that He is our help, our life, for all time. He is on our side.

Two Strings to Tune

Liturgy is an effective teacher. The way we do things and the order in which we do them shapes us and shows others about the worship of God. Because we are souls with bodies, the outward parts of our worship matter.

Likewise, because we are whole persons, because our thinking and our acting are necessarily connected, it is dishonest to conceal heart problems with religious ceremony.

God gave Israel instructions for how to draw near to Him. The sequence of sacrifices cleansed and consecrated the worshipper for sake of communion with God. But Israel often followed the directions and failed to bring their heart along. So, for example, David wrote:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
(Psalm 51:16–17)

We are not obedient no matter how carefully we follow certain liturgy if we do not deal with our hearts before the Lord. Then our conduct must match. In David’s case, the song followed and finished with (often ignored verses):

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
(Psalm 51:18–19)

A two-stringed guitar has two ways to be out of tune. Our souls and our service are His, both must be tuned for harmony. The inside must be right. And if the inside is right, it must come out right.

God loves our worship when we offer our sacrifices as humble, whole-hearted, open-handed people. He made blood and tongues and knees and hearts for worship. He is pleased with broken hearts and then delights in the offerings we are. True worship begins in the heart, but it doesn’t end there.

Too Close for Some

The Lord’s supper is a meal of peace and provision. Not only do we commune by eating His food, we must eat His flesh to live. Jesus said,

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48–51)

This connection is so close that it’s disagreeable.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52–53)

But,

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:57–58)

The imagery is God’s miraculous supply of manna to the Israelites. Of course, the imagery also fits with the peace offering. The sacrifice was killed, cut, cooked, then consumed. Jesus Himself prophecies that He would be killed and that He must be consumed. Without identifying with Him by consuming Him we have no life.

That’s how serious God is about being with us. He sent His own Son to take on flesh so that we could live forever with the living Father, with the Son who lives (6:57), and with the Spirit who gives life (6:63). God wants fellowship with us, so we must eat Christ’s body and drink His blood. That’s true life and true communion.