Lord's Day Liturgy

Hard Feelings

You may not be familiar with some of the discussions, debates, and derogatory broadsides going on about empathy (here is one recent thread about it), but I am sure you’re dealing with the mindset. It used to be talked about in other ways, one of the more famous is “people don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” Which, sure, is fine as far as it goes, until you get to the Emergency Room with the bone sticking out of your thigh. As for me, I’d rather not know if the doctor cares; knock me out and do what you know to do.

I first read about a distinction between sympathy (feeling with) and empathy (feeling the same as) in a book about leadership almost a decade ago. It matters how one defines the terms, and some people use empathy as a synonym with sympathy, but others in our culture have begun to magnify empathy, even weaponize it, and that’s bad. (Here is a good example of how bad it can be.)

There is zero equivocation on whether or not we as Christians are supposed to love others, including our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44)(. God’s Word also describes the bowels of compassion (σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ, Colossians 3:12), and God’s Spirit enables the right sort of kindness and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23). The book of Proverbs talks about sweetness of speech increasing persuasiveness (Proverbs 16:21, see also Proverbs 27:9), and we come back to Paul’s exhortation, with the goal of building up the body in love, to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).

But to be clear, sin is not something that is fixed with empathy. It is not fixed with anything but Christ’s sacrifice. We have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, but the difference is that He was tempted like us but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

The gospel is not affirmative therapy. A good parent doesn’t share in fussiness to get his five year old into contentment, a good pastor doesn’t share bitterness to get his sheep into patience, a good friend doesn’t share doubt to get her friend to live by faith. A good prophet doesn’t say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Of course there are sufferers who can, and should, be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-6; 13:11). We are exhorted to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). But we are also instructed to exhort one another that we would not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Sin creates hard feelings, and again, hard feelings aren’t fixed by someone else sharing in them. The God-breathed Word doesn’t endorse whatever we’re feeling, it rebukes and corrects, it breaks us up, so that we would be complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Lord's Day Liturgy

The Beautifying Stage

Being loved into greater loveliness is a gospel canon.

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27)

This is the loving sacrifice of the Bridegroom. It is the standard for husbands with their wives, and in fact, husbands and wives were made for sake of modeling in miniature the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32). It really is profound.

Christ gave Himself up, He gave Himself out of love, He gave Himself in order to nourish and cherish the church into loveliness.

It’s sort of like the months of beautifying for King Ahasuerus: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women (Esther 2:12). In a spiritual sense, the church is in the beautifying stage. What’s more, we are not being adorned with uncertainty about who will be chosen as was the case with Ahasuerus, we are being adorned because we have been chosen.

And more than given skin treatments, we are being fattened up, not starved. The sacrifice which Jesus made, which Jesus gave a meal to remind us of, is the sacrifice that makes our invitation to the great wedding meal effective. We are also being clothed, and the “righteous deeds” that belong with our garment (Revelation 19:8) include our obediences, our obediences includes rejoicings, and our rejoicings include proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes in communion.

We are given a supper (1 Corinthians 11:25) in anticipation of a supper (Revelation 19:9).

Lord's Day Liturgy

Obviously Hated

It was a year ago this past Sunday that our church started the first of seven livestream only services, including Resurrection Sunday. As a church we initially accepted what we were told, trusting the message about the severity of the virus as well as the timeframe for the lockdown: fifteen days to flatten the curve. We have learned a lot since then, not just about COVID but about the many faces of soft-(and scientific sounding)-tyranny.

A couple weeks ago at our Life to Life group we discussed the past year. A couple men mentioned that they sort of wished that we, as Christians, not just at TEC but including us, would have been both more unified and more attacked. As a church we’ve tried to avoid being obnoxious, and who knows all the ways we’ve been protected. But again, some of the guys wished that we’d been more obviously hated.

A few things:

First, we’re not done, there is still plenty of time.

Second, at heart this is a good longing.

Blessed are you when others revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12).

Being jealous for the blessing is appropriate. Being pour in spirit, mourning for sin, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, these are things that are more up to us. But being persecuted, and receiving the blessing that comes with it, requires outside hatred.

Third, now is a good time to get ready for not just the blessings, but the pains. It’s a less good time to talk about the sovereignty of God for the first time right after your friend’s cancer diagnosis, and it’s a less good time to talk about rejoicing and reward for being reviled once the attack bots on Twitter are released.

We are to “rejoice and be glad.” We will respond that way when we mourn our own sins first, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, when we are pure in heart, when we make as much peace as possible. We will respond that way when we see ourselves in the long line of God’s people (as in the prophets) and when we see that we are promised great reward in heaven for worshiping the Son.

Lord's Day Liturgy

His Doom Is Sure

When Scripture describes our salvation it does so with all three tenses: past, present, and future. According to the Father’s eternal plan Jesus saved us by delivering us from the penalty of sin when He died and rose again (2 Timothy 1:9), Jesus is saving us by delivering us from the power of sin as His Spirit makes us more holy (Romans 6:13-14), and Jesus will save us by delivering us from the presence of sin, bringing us into the Father’s presence blameless and with great joy (1 Peter 1:5; Jude 24).

Did you know that Scripture also describes our enemy’s defeat in all three tenses?

Jesus cut off our adversary’s reign when He died and rose again. “(God) disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in (Christ)” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus continues to cripple our adversary’s efforts when we pray for Him to deliver us from the “evil one” (Matthew 6:13; 1 John 5:18). And because of the Lamb our adversary will be finally cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10). As Paul told the Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).

This is not to say that we aren’t being hunted. The devil is like a roaring lion seeking to devour (1 Peter 5:8). One of the ways he threatens is by causing division, even as Paul told the Corinthians that he was forgiving others, “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11).

So “in all circumstances take up the shield of faith, which which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.” This hope comes from the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord's Day Liturgy

Assume It’s You

One Friday night at halftime of a high school varsity basketball game, my coach kicked the proverbial five-gallon, orange Gatorade water cooler while yelling at us about our unacceptable performance through the first two quarters. Not that anyone enjoys that sort of thing, but it made me sort of athlete-sick to be yelled at, and I remember feeling guilty like it was mostly my fault. It is also true that I had been on the bench the whole time.

So it is definitely possible to have false guilt.

It is also possible, and probably more normal, to miss the point.

Every so often after the service someone says to me that something I said seems to have been aimed directly at them. It’s like I’d been hanging out at their house, or reading their diary, or something. Turns out, most of my ideas for exhortations come from sins I see not just in my house, but in my heart. Other exhortations may be rooted in the sermon text for that Sunday. I’ve never used this part of the liturgy as a substitute for a personal conversation that I just didn’t want to have.

With all that said, it’s best if you start by assuming that I am talking to you, directly, specifically. It is best if you start by figuring that the Holy Spirit is not convicting you about your neighbor’s sin, or your spouse’s, or your children’s.

King David stole another man’s wife and then stole his life. David lied, David conspired, David covered it up while his sin gestated for almost nine months. And yet he hadn’t lost his sense of righteousness. When Nathan told him the story about the rich man who stole a poor man’s sheep, David was furious. He called for action. And of course Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7)

The point is not to find extra guilt, the point is to be completely honest.

A Shot of Encouragement

A Time to Bother with Principles

Abraham Kuyper in 1870:

I fully agree that anyone entering a house in ordinary times is not thinking about the foundation on which it rests; so also in Jesus’ church there can be times when people dwell together and labor together while hardly bothering themselves about any principles. But in times like these that we are now experiencing, now when in every area the foundations are being undermined, now when everything is pressing down to the depths and people are proceeding restlessly to pry the deepest principles loose—now in these times it would be all too naïve, all too negligent for people to sidestep the issue of principles any longer.

On the Church, 68-69
Lord's Day Liturgy

Word Then Wine

I noticed something last Saturday for the first time while reading Nehemiah 8 for the Bible Reading Challenge. Nehemiah 8 is classic passage about preaching. Ezra “brought the Law before the assembly” (verse 2). “He read from it from early morning until midday,” “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (verse 3). Ezra “stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose” (verse 4). He “opened the book in the sight of all the people” (verse 5), he “blessed the LORD, the great God” (verse 6). “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that people understood the reading” (verse 8).

As a preacher I’ve gone to numerous preaching conferences where other preachers preach about preaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this paragraph of Nehemiah preached. Preachers who love the Book, who own the stewardship “to make the word of fully known” (Colossians 1:25), who do not “shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), point out the priority of reading the Word and explaining the Word.

What I cannot remember ever hearing are any comments about the next paragraph in Nehemiah 8, about the application that Nehemiah and Ezra expected of the people who had heard the Word. Those who “taught the people said to all the people”:

“This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:9–12)

When God’s people hear God’s Word they are tempted to make holiness glum, to mourn and weep. They are tempted to act as if they must reject taste in order to prove they’re taking it seriously. But if we read and understand the Word, that is not to be the required response of those who understand the Word.

The joy of the Lord is your strength. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine. Share portions and make great rejoicing. Though Nehemiah 8 obviously isn’t a reference to the Lord’s Table, it does provide a pattern for us: Word then wine, big portions, generously shared.

The End of Many Books

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

A friend recommended this book to me almost three years ago. I affirm that it is fabulous, and almost unbelievable. Having read Unbroken and having just finished The Boys in the Boat, the former about WWII and the latter right before it, this tale about Pino Lella is as brutal as it is surprising. I think I would have preferred the straight narrative rather than the “novel” and “filling in the gaps” approach by the author, but I’m still glad I listened to the story.

4 of 5 stars

Lord's Day Liturgy

The Weight of Hell on His Shoulders

Sometimes we say that a man with a big decision is walking around carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. We can also say that a man with sin, big or not, is walking around with the weight of hell on his shoulders.

I was thinking about the heaviness of “the stone like a great millstone” which an angel throws into the sea in Revelation 18:1. The stone represents the city weighed down in her evil-doing. But Scripture describes the weightiness or heaviness of a man’s sin as well.

Jesus warned against “hearts [being] weighed down with dissipation/self-indulgence and drunkenness and the cares of this life” (Luke 21:34). “Weak women” are “burdened with sins and led astray by various passions” (2 Timothy 3:6). And David sang,

There is o soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
(Psalm 38:3-4)

In The Pilgrim’s Progress we follow Pilgrim and grow more and more anxious for him to take off the load that makes him stoop and sweat. Then,

I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

This time of confession is a time for you to take off any burdens, not of your suffering, but of your sin. Jesus is the only one who can forgive and free us, and this is the way: confession and repentance.

Are you carrying sin because you think that’s better than others finding out you’re a sinner? Are you thinking you can handle this on your own? Are you waiting for someone else to go first? Give it up. There is no more burden for all who believe, because Jesus was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5).

The End of Many Books

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos

The only time it would be better to read this book than RIGHT NOW is to have read it long before now. The text is a few hundred years old, but the biblical principles for recognizing tyrants and then how to resist them as Christians are evergreen and ever needed. If the church, and her shepherds, and her members, understood this book perhaps our republic wouldn’t be crashing so hard.

Living in 2021 requires wisdom, and courage, and this is a book that is protein for building those kinds of muscles.

4 of 5 stars