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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.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

More Melody Than Misery

It is more than possible that at least some of the Corinthians had participated in the worship of Dionysius, also known to the Romans as Bacchus. Bacchus was the god of wine and festivity and fertility, a god well known and served for centuries before Christ came. In the name of Bacchus men and women became drunk and in many cases caused destruction through frenzy and ritual unrestraint. Some of the Corinthian Christians may have brought this baggage with them to their fellowship meals.

Paul went out of his way in Ephesians 5:18 to contrast being filled with the Spirit to being filled with, another way to say “controlled by,” wine: “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

But it is interesting to see the results of that Spirit-filling: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20). This does not sound like the death of Bacchus, it sounds like his salvation and submission to Christ. The opposite of Dionysian madness and indulgence isn’t commiseration, but melody and thankfulness.

Worshipped as a god, everything brings damnation. Seen as a servant of God, all lawful things are good for God’s glory. So were the Corinthians behaving inconsistently at the Lord’s supper? Absolutely. What would have made it consistent? Consistent would not have been misery instead of revelry, consistent would have been loving God and others joyfully in remembrance of Christ.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Mask Is Off

When Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, what did that miracle do? It seems that there are at least two things. First, it enabled the party to continue. Second, it demonstrated that Jesus had divine power.

But is that it? Is the point of the miracles to reveal Jesus as God? It is certainly one of the things that happened, and it is important to acknowledge Jesus’ identity. But any given sign that Jesus did, such as turning the water into wine, is intended not merely to make us think about that one event, but to think about every time God ever does a similar natural thing.

Athanasius was the first to make this connection regarding the Incarnation. C. S. Lewis followed up on it in his essay, “Miracles.” All the miracles Jesus performed were supernatural, but they were focused demonstrations of what God is always doing naturally.

[E]very year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana. (God in the Dock, 29)

It doesn’t make the miracles less significant, but it does mean we should be more in awe and giving thanks for the mundane.

The Lord’s Table is not a miracle, but as we eat the bread and the wine it is a focused, and special, opportunity to remember the death of Jesus, followed by His resurrection and the vindication of His sacrifice for sin. But this is not the only time we should think about God’s provision of bread and wine, or about His provision of a church body, or His provision of everything, and how He is building it all together.

Many things come into focus when we focus on this meal rightly.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

No Good Drunk

The first man to get drunk that we know about was Noah. He’s given credit for consummate obedience in the matter of the ark, he’s given credit for cultivating science in the matter of the vine, and he’s given no free pass in the matter of his overindulgence. He sinned, albeit in the privacy of his tent, because he drank too much.

We ought to appreciate Noah’s viniculture. As the psalmist sings, God causes plants to grow that man cultivates for wine that gladdens man’s heart (Psalm 104:15). Drinking wine and beer and strong drink can be done for God’s glory; the Israelites were commanded to do it as worship during certain festivals (Deuteronomy 14:26). The goodness of fermented grain and grapes is something that not everyone is persuaded of, and it’s worth more attention at another time. But what must be received without question or qualification is that drunkenness is always wrong.

God prohibits it in both Testaments, before and after the coming of His Son (Ephesians 5:18). Drunkenness is a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:21). Drunks are listed among sinners who cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

The reason for the prohibition is that drunkenness scotches the image of God in man. It disrupts, if not ruins, relationships and it impairs ability to fulfill responsibilities. Drunkenness is a state of control by something else when, for Christians, we are to be controlled by the Spirit.

Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is no good god. The best he offers is forgetfulness and, even that is temporary and incomplete. As Jim West has written, unbelievers drink to forget but believers drink to remember and to give thanks to God for specific gifts. That can’t happen when the brain is foggy. Drunkenness is not funny and it is not godly, not ever.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Complex Carbohydrates

God chose man-made products to represent something that man could not do for himself. Bread and wine are modest when compared to Solomon’s daily menu, yet bread and wine are too elaborate to be found in the world unprocessed.

Joe Rigney writes about this in chapter 7 of his book, The Things of Earth.

God mediates grace to us through created goods that have been cultivated and transformed by human effort. Bread is grain, but transfigured. Wine is grapes, but glorified. Human creativity and labor mingle with the stuff of God’s creation, and then God establishes the result as the church’s sacramental meal. (147)

God gave man grain and grapes, but men took those and developed more complex carbohydrates. This is the work of image-bearing, and God ratified the cultural advance by using bread and wine to honor the body and blood of His Son.

We can say that God gave us bread, but He gave it through agricultural and culinary discoveries. God continues to give to us through farmers and cooks. God also gave wine to gladden the heart of man, but no wineskin or bottle dropped from heaven. Other than the miracle in Cana, God has men plant and pick and press and wait. Communion, then, is a cultured meal.

Communion is also a meal that creates culture. This Table teaches us the way of love, of giving, of sacrifice. It also reminds us to depend on God and one another who share Christ’s body. The bread strengthens us and the cup gladdens our hearts, by faith, through earthly means that God ordained. Here the fruit of the field and the kitchen remind us of the fruit of the cross. Here is the seed that the Spirit will grow into more cultured fruit.

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A Shot of Encouragement

The Best of Burdens

Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.

—N. D. Wilson, Death by Living, 117