Every once in a while someone at our church throws around the word liturgy. Because most of us don’t come from traditions that talked about liturgy at all or we’re from backgrounds that badmouthed it if they did, it’s easy to misunderstand.
Liturgy refers to a predetermined or prescribed set of practices in corporate worship. Every church, every one, has liturgy, whether or not they talk about it or whether it is obvious. A church that says, for example, “We don’t want to follow any liturgy, we want the Spirit to lead,” is at that moment, of course, making plans beforehand. To say, “We don’t want to focus on liturgy” is basically saying, “We don’t want to give thought to how we worship.”
Our liturgy is more obvious, though not too sophisticated. We don’t follow our order of service for sake of tradition, but for sake of the points it makes. Let me illustrate a point for those who still wonder about the point.
One part of our plan includes confessing our sins every Lord’s day. I usually offer a brief exhortation each week about a specific area that might need confession. But, do all of us remember what sins we confessed a year ago today? Do we remember what sins we confessed last Sunday?
Most of us probably don’t remember the details we confessed but we do remember that we did confess. If we forgot because we didn’t actually confess, then that’s no good. But if we confessed and can’t remember the specific sins, is there a point?
The liturgy of confession makes the point that, as long as we’re on earth, we still have sin. It makes the point that sin keeps us from fellowship with God and must be dealt with first. It makes the point that the gospel of Jesus has an answer for sin. It makes the point that if we confess our unfaithfulness, He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us. The liturgy of confession does us good because grace is greater than all our sin, no matter what our sins were that week.
Looking at our corporate service from an unbeliever’s point of view, how ridiculous must it seem for us to confess our sins as part of our worship? What idiots would assemble in order to acknowledge their failures? From an outsider’s perspective, why would anyone go to get worked over like this? If you were an unbeliever, and if you were forced to acknowledge that God exists, you wouldn’t want Him to be authoritative. If forced to acknowledge that He is authoritative, you wouldn’t want Him to holy. If forced to acknowledge that He is holy, you wouldn’t want Him to made His standards known. If He did make His law known, you wouldn’t want Him to offer forgiveness as easy as asking for it. To an outsider, confessing sins is ridiculous all the way down the line.
Turn it around though. From a believer’s perspective, how advantageous is it for us to confess our sins like this? Think about how many things we proclaim without even using words. In our confession of sin we confirm the existence of God; we confess to someone. Without words we affirm God’s authority over us. We acknowledge His holiness, that He has a standard. We recognize that He has revealed His standard; we can’t claim ignorance. We affirm that He cares, that He hears us. We admit that we are guilty, that what He said about us is true. We assert that we can’t buy or work our way out of guilt. We declare our belief in the free forgiveness of the gospel, in the sacrifice of God’s Son.
How advantageous for us! How economical! In one element of worship we honor His existence, His authority, His holiness, His revelation, His love, His sacrifice, His forgiveness. If only all of our worship was as easy as confessing our sins.
We take time in our service every week to confess sin before the Lord. Each of us could all do it at home, before the service, all by ourselves and that would be good. It’s good to confess individual sins individually to the Lord whenever we sin.
What if each of us actually did that? What if we all showed up all confessed up? What if this exhortation was blue on black, if it dug up no fresh dirt, if it suggested nothing new for any of us to confess? Should we still do it? Would it still have a purpose?
The hypothetical situation, of course, is academic, not actual. Odds are that someone here has some sin that needs confessing, maybe even in the car ride from home. But why not make it a point to get people confessing pre-service? One reason is because it pictures the gospel. It reminds us that fellowship comes from forgiveness and forgiveness requires confession. We believe that and we enact that every week in our confession. But we also have this time because we have corporate sin to confess.
Should you think about your sin during this time, or the sin of others? You should first take the log out of your own eye. And yet if you never consider the sin of others then you haven’t considered your connection to them. We ought not think about the sin of our neighbor in order to blame them, look down on them, or compare ourselves to them. But we remember that we are connected to each other. When one member sins, the whole body suffers. When one citizen sins, more guilt gets on the nation.
When I pray after giving persons time to pray, I pray for groups, for our country, for Christ’s Bride, and for our local body. We’re in this together, and we confess our sins together.
A common Christian abuse of Christmas poses in a spiritual position. The abuse occurs when Christians reluctantly, or refuse to, love others who don’t rise to the level of understanding that we think they should have about Christmas. In other words, since they don’t get Christmas like we do, they’re not worthy to share our Christmas joy. If only they would grow up, then we wouldn’t have to teach them a lesson by being so fussy.
This behavior reverses the gospel, it abuses Christmas.
Jesus didn’t wait for people to get it before He came. He didn’t take on flesh because that’s where the glory was. Flesh is precisely not where the glory was. He came to redeem and restore fallen men. That’s the point of Christmas.
In some ways, Christmas is the anti-holiday, at least as the Hallmark channel portrays it. The incarnation in Bethlehem was the anti- “everything is just right” moment that brings people together. We stress to arrange all the details to be perfect. Jesus came because nothing was perfect, and He came in an inconvenient and unacknowledged way. Interestingly enough, 2000 years or so later, we’re still talking about the love He displayed.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9–11)
It is easier to despise Christmas than to love Christians. We want to be with people when they get it. Jesus went to people because they didn’t.
We often say that familiarity breeds contempt. Our contempt starts with that statement itself; it’s contemptible to hear about how easily we’re made contemptuous. But our condition is one in which we get dirty and forget about it, we develop callouses and live with them, we fall down and it’s easier to stay there. We need to be washed, we need to have the hard parts cut off or filed down, and we need to get back on our feet.
We’re familiar with Christmas. Jesus is the reason for this season, we know, so how does He fit in our familiar celebrations? It’s hopefully more, though not less, than reading the story of His birth on Christmas morning. For sake of scrubbing our holiday grime, let’s start with our Christmas trees.
Consider our pine tree configurations. We stand our trees in a location for maximum visibility. We place our presents under the tree for others. We hang lights and garland and other ornaments on the branches. We typically perch a star at the top most point. Which part is for Jesus? Which part is meant to honor Him?
Isn’t He pictured and honored every where? He is the visible center. He is the Father’s gift to sinful men. He is the light of the world, the creator who decorated the universe. Not only did a star mark His birthplace for travelers, He Himself is the guiding star. We can’t limit where we honor Him. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, worthy to be honored from top to bottom. He ought to be so in our Christmas celebrations.
We cannot be overly familiar with Christ, only wrongly familiar in a way that doesn’t honor Him everywhere at all times. If we don’t honor Him with every part of our Christmas trees, are we honoring Him everywhere else?
It’s hard to take responsibility. It is much easier to push, not only blame, but to push work onto others. That’s no good. When we’re lazy, when we wait to see who else will serve first, we remove ourselves from the channel of joy.
God didn’t make us to be idle or to find others to do our work for us. He created us to labor. He often uses an agricultural metaphor to encourage us when He says that we will reap what we sow. He’s established the world the way He wanted and in Him this principle holds together. We ought to believe it and work accordingly.
A farmer who plants corn seed should expect corn to grow, not wheat. But the point is not necessarily about produce genus, the point is that everyone reaps. “From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him” (Proverbs 12:14), which also means that a lazy man’s hand will receive another sort of fruit. A farmer who plants nothing reaps something, he reaps starvation. He may blame it on the weather. He may complain to his buddies down at the co-op. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4). If he doesn’t plant any seed, his field is just empty.
We have many areas of application. We will not reap sanctification if we’re not sowing God’s Word into our schedules. We’ll not raise our kids to maturity if we’re not diligent to love them with discipline (see Proverbs 13:24). We won’t reap godliness unless we worship Him in spirit and in truth and see more clearly what we’re to become.
This may sound like a lot of doing. Don’t Christians live by faith, not works? Yes. But faith trusts God. So we trust what He says when He says that our shelves will be full of whatever we put on them, or don’t.
Is it more important that God is light or that God is love? Is it more necessary for us to know Him truly or for us to love Him deeply? These are tough questions, impossible questions. What God has joined together let no man tear asunder (separate).
Some men are quite sincere, authentic even. They believe and feel and experience. They look alive. They appear to really care. Heat radiates from them. We might even say that they have real zeal for God. Of course, Paul said his brothers, his kinsmen, had a zeal for God but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Their ignorance kept them from the righteousness of Christ and, therefore, kept them from salvation. Heat without light is disobedient heat.
Light without heat is no less disobedient and equally damning. The great commandment requires, it commands love, affection, heart strings, movement out of the brain and into the bowels. The demons have better theological libraries than we do. It doesn’t matter because books and brains by themselves only make men more guilty, not better worshippers.
God’s own people have many sins to confess, including criticizing all the people who aren’t hanging on our side of the pendulum. We must also confess as sin, some of us more than others, a disregard for true knowledge, proper theology proper, and an absence Scripture study. Likewise, we must confess as sin, a different some of us more than others, lightweight loves and lazy spiritual tastes and frozen affections. The Father is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and truth. We should confess that we don’t do both too well.
Who do we confess for? I don’t mean, do we confess for someone else’s sin or for our own. Instead I mean, do we confess for our sake or for God’s sake? Who needs the confession?
God already knows all our sin. He is omniscient, yes. Jesus knew the sin of the woman in John 4 before He met her at the well. But also, if the Father poured out judgment on His Son for the sins of all who would ever believe, then He had to know all of the sins that Jesus needed to pay for. The Father knows every transgression committed by us, including the ones we’ll commit after church, and the Son died for them all. Also, the Spirit isn’t waiting for us to tell Him. The Spirit’s convicting work brings sin to our attention.
We do not confess in order to inform the Trinity of anything. Rather, we confess to acknowledge that we now understand what was keeping us from fellowship with Him and we acknowledge His graciousness to forgive us. He doesn’t call us to confession because He’s spiteful or because He’s trying to embarrass us. He’s saving us out of sin’s crippling effects. He’s inviting us to life, offering us the living water, and we won’t drink unless we sense our dryness.
“Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28–29). We start by confessing.
Thanksgiving is this week and it seems almost obligatory to address our weak attitudes of gratitude as an area for confession. It is true, we are probably not as thankful as we should be. I often feel as if I’m still sitting at the kids’ card table when it comes to thankful feasting for the Lord. But our personal half-hearts of thanksgiving are only half of the problem. Thanksgiving should be a weapon.
Many of us will sit down around a table on Thursday and think we’ve done our duty if we muster a few things that we’re thankful for. Thanksgiving is basically a list; some lists are shorter and others longer (from the godly people, who probably have verses, too). We share our lists and call it a holiday. A list is fine, but a list doesn’t fool our kids who watch us stressing out as we prepare the abundance of menu items. A list doesn’t make our cranky family members say, “Hmmm, I wish I believed in Jesus so that I could have bullet points like them.”
We will sit down with others who are not thankful. How should we combat that? How do we overcome the passive aggressive thanker, or the relative that can’t wait to complain as soon as she comes in the front door? As Christians we’re to be thankful to God in our hearts, yes, and thankful to Him obviously in front of others. Being thankful to God in front of our kids trains them for the war against sinful selfishness. Living in thankfulness overcomes the hopelessness of unbelief.
Others will learn and imitate what they see. Gratitude should incarnate our faith, not itemize it. We are happy if we’re thankful but we keep that thankfulness internalized like we keep a sword in the scabbard. Our sin isn’t only ingratitude, our sin is not fighting with gratitude.
Jesus commanded His disciples, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Good works can’t save, but they are fruit of our salvation and a witness to the world. That said, there may be even a better description than doing good. Christians should be doing truth.
I do not mean that believers should do the truth in contrast to those who merely hear or know the truth, though that is true. I mean that they should do truth rather than do evil.
The apostle John contrasts evil-doers with truth-doers in John 3:19-21. Those who do evil hate the light and don’t come to the light in order to keep their evil covered. Those who come to the light, however, aren’t branded as those who do what is good, but those who do what is true. Why? The express reason is so that they don’t take credit for the good works. That’s how a person can both do good and give God the glory. It is also true, and this is why I bring it up now, that those who do truth have their not good deeds exposed, and they don’t mind. They don’t want to hide anything because sin messes up the fellowship in light.
Christians aren’t perfect, just unafraid of the light. Believers have nothing to cover up; they love the light. The light shows everything, good and bad. There is freedom, not just in forgiveness, but freedom in open fellowship with our Father. Failure to confess presses us toward darkness and fear and isolation, and hides our light under a bushel.