The fires on the hillsides of Israel and Judah flickered with clockwork regularity, fires that illuminated for the people in the villages below where their allegiance and hope had found its home. In Jerusalem, the holy city, the feet of the worshippers carried them away from the temple and up hilltops covered with poles of wood and trees decorated and adorned in honor of the goddess Asherah. The worship of Yahweh God in the temple was to be marked by reverential holiness and an acknowledgement of sin. Asherah demanded carnal reverie and sexual offerings in order to gain favor. Yahweh dwelt with his chosen people in spirit. He had delivered his people through feats of strength and provision. He had proven his faithfulness and love over and over again, and in return he had asked to be the sole recipient of Israel’s faithfulness and love. However, the rules of the law had not suited Israel's true desire, so they fashioned new gods out of wood and gold and gave themselves to them in unbridled sexual passion. On the high places won for them by Yahweh God, Israel sank into the depths. Wood driven in the ground on the hillside would become the symbol of Israel’s impending slavery.
The Old Testament is littered with references to the goddess Asherah and her place in the history of Israel’s worship. As time progressed she would not be limited to just the high places, but would find a place in the temple of Yahweh God himself. Israel never rejected Yahweh in a wholesale fashion, they always leaned on and maintained pride in their place as the chosen people of God. They longed for and demanded the blessing of God because of his promises to them through the covenants made to their forefathers. In order to maintain a semblance of who they were called to be, Asherah would become the “wife” of Yahweh and would be given a place of honor in the temple in Jerusalem. In the halls constructed for the worship of the God of heaven, the people of Israel brought in the Queen of their debauchery and presented her to Yahweh as a bride. Speaking of coming judgement, the prophet Jeremiah facetiously references the people’s feasts for “the queen of heaven” and the peoples love and honor given to her above God himself. As God had proclaimed himself Israel’s father, the broken hearts of the people would give birth to a destitute, false, and wicked mother. There were brief periods of time where good kings like Josiah would remove Asherah from the temple and destroy the high places, but as quickly as she was removed, kings like Manasseh would welcome her back into the holy places with open arms. Modern archeological discoveries in the land of Canaan have found figurines fashioned in her likeness residing in every aspect of Israel’s life. Women would hold her as they birthed children and pray for safe deliveries, Men would seek her blessing as they gave themselves to prostitutes in her honor, and families would pray for her fertility to bless them as they grew crops to sustain their family. Israel would soon learn the truth of Isaiah’s warning...God will not share his glory with another.
Asherah was not the only dead god that Israel would swear allegiance to. She was joined by gods like Baal and Molech, each demanding their own sacraments of carnal expression in order to gain their favor and blessing. All would eventually be welcomed into the temple of God, turning what was once a shining display of God’s presence in the midst of his people into a den of death and sexual debauchery. In a horrific display of how far the hearts of the people had fallen into the darkness, Israel’s kings would cut the throats and sacrifice their infant sons in fires of worship to the god Molech. In the depths of their rebellion Israel was blind to the fact that God was still crying out to be their God while shouting his warnings through the prophets of the brutal judgement that was on the horizon. In their darkness, Israel was confident that they were secure as the people of God even as their actions told a story of a people who had no idea who he was.
Israel’s sin has never left the heart of mankind. They wanted God on their terms. Their worship was crafted in a way that fulfilled the desires they had for themselves, never the desires God had for them. The worship that God had laid out, through Moses and the law, sought to change a lost and wayward people into the image of a supreme and holy God. The worship Israel made for themselves sought to change a supreme and holy God into something small and common birthed out of their own desire. It seems impossible that temple prostitutes would be brought into God’s holy places so that the people could live in sexual “freedom” as they simultaneously worshipped the God who had declared his hatred for it. Rather than God, the people’s hearts decided what worship would become, and whenever that is the equation communion with God will be replaced with his judgement.
Israel would be conquered by her enemies as God would burn the temple to the ground with fire, consuming the gods that had found their home there. Asherah, Baal, and Molech would melt in the hot heat of God’s demand for holiness. Israel’s pride and self dependence would meet the same fate. The people would eventually return in oppression to their homeland. A new temple, smaller and less grand, would eventually be built. God would be silent for 400 years. No prophet would speak. No king would lead. Asherah and her lifeless compatriots would fade into the darkness as Israel’s hope began to do the same. But… God always fulfills his promises, and he never abandons his people.
As wood driven in the ground on the high places outside of Jerusalem had marked the rebellion of his chosen people, God, in his goodness, would take the symbol of their brokenness and use it for their redemption. Just like the Asherah poles of Israel’s past, years later, another pole would find its place on the hillside outside of Jerusalem. The feet of the worshippers would once again make their way up the hillside and away from the temple. Where the hearts of his chosen people had once given themselves to other gods around poles of wood, Jesus would hang on a cross to make atonement for their sins. As the eyes of Jesus scanned the faces of his accusers, as his heart remembered the sins of Israel’s past, as his ears heard the sounds of cursing and rejection, as his flesh felt the searing pain of being joined to the symbol of Israel’s death, his voice would cry out and echo over the hills of Jerusalem…”Father forgive them.” Wood driven in the ground would no longer be the symbol of Israel’s slavery it would become the sign of her deliverance.
There is a striking question to ask of our own hearts in the modern church. As we have created massive spectacles of worship all over the world, drawing thousands of people to the sounds of our songs, are we worshipping out of a desire to be made into the image of the resurrected Jesus or are we worshipping in a way that is demanding that he be made into ours? Are our lives marked by a desire for holiness and surrender, or are do we feed every carnal desire throughout the week and then declare ourselves the people of God in the darkened rooms of our worship gatherings. We are now children of grace born out of the love of God. However, grace is our freedom to be made into the image of Christ never our excuse to stay the same. The apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome poses the question in chapter six, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer he gives is a resounding NO! He continues by asking, “how can we who have died to sin continue to live in it?” In chapter twelve of the same book he equates worship with physical sacrifice…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
Worship is transformation. Worship is sacrifice. Worship is the presentation of a broken people to a perfect God in order to become something different than what they were. Worship is never marked simply by passionate declarations of allegiance, it is marked by the gritty day to day act of change, sacrifice, and dying. Jesus says as much in Luke chapter nine where he says, “If anyone wants to come after me they must die daily, take up their cross and follow me.” Israel wanted God’s promises absent from his holiness. We must not fall into the same way of thinking in our worship. Are we allowing our worship of God to change us into his image, or are we setting the terms for our worship and demanding that God change into ours?
The Old Testament is saturated with story and metaphor that still lives in every dead cavern present in the heart of man. Where the means of grace have changed and found their being in Jesus, the broken places of our hearts have remained unmoved. God’s heart beat and grieved for his children in the Old Testament just as it does now. God longed for a redeemed people who would become his chosen family and would reflect his goodness. The stories of Israel prove that this could never happen through nationalistic dreams and the leadership of fallen kings. We needed a true king who could lead us to the heart of the Father. After God’s wrath was poured out on Israel for their unrighteousness and rebellion, his love would compel him to pour out the entirety his wrath on his only son, as he hung on a pole, outside the city on the high places. God’s people would be born again in Jesus himself. May we become those who worship in spirit and in truth through the grace given through Jesus our true king.
I had the privilege to preach one of my favorite passages a couple of weeks ago. I hope it encourages you in Jesus!
The new love is all around us. It is the love that says, “I love you, therefore I want you to be happy, therefore I affirm your decisions.” We have all had conversations where people understand love in this way. “Accept who I am and who I want to be or you do not love me.” Acceptance of sexuality, morality, and belief has become the litmus test for whether or not people truly love others or are full of venomous hate. Perhaps the most quoted verse in the Bible comes from Matthew 7 where Jesus gives the command to, “Judge not.”
“See, see,”, people scream, “Jesus says that I am the sole decider of what is good, you have no right to speak otherwise.”
Is this what God really meant? Is this what God really thinks? How does God define love?
Here is a short video documenting our trip to China to bring home Josie Rose.
My home state of Alabama has a marked history of racial lines and discrimination. On September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls and injuring countless others. This was the pinnacle act of hatred that placed a gruesome exclamation point on a year of racial shift in Alabama’s communities. The bombing had been preceded, just a few months prior, by the Civil Rights movement spilling into the streets of Birmingham causing Sheriff Bull Connor to attack the protesters with dogs and firehoses in a stunning scene of racism and horror. In that same year schools would be desegregated in the state, only after the National Guard was called in to shut down Governor George Wallace’s attempt to keep the racial status quo. 1963 is recent history. For those who are young it may seem as if it is a contemporary to every other historical event in school. George Washington crossed the Delaware; George Wallace tried to keep schools segregated. The reality is that our society is still filled with those who were alive and present during those dark days of American History. The lightning shift in our racial sensibilities since 1963 is something of a historical wonder. We have since elected a black president and seen many black Americans rise to the highest roles in society and government. Because of these achievements many in our country would like to act like all that was done before is atoned for and should be forgotten.
In 1993 I was a fifteen year old homeschool kid with pimples; a winning combo on all accounts. I was not unaware of the racial tension that existed in the country or in my community, it just felt distant and incapable of reaching me. The year before, in 1992, the country had watched spellbound as an almost all white jury had acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a black man named Rodney King. The beating itself had been captured on camera (a precursor to modern America) but even with the overwhelming evidence of injustice the men were found innocent. The ensuing riots gave a face to the tension that had been boiling in the shadows for decades. Still, in the midst of the national turmoil I felt safe in the midst of my white high school suburban existence. My father was on staff at a First Baptist Church, in a small town in Alabama, and was responsible, as is always the case in small churches, for a large range of things. One of his major responsibilities, in the heat of the Alabama summer, was running the church’s annual Vacation Bible School, a week long event that was part Bible Study, part snack time, and part local carnival. This week was a huge outreach moment into the community, and the church always sought to leverage it to encourage new families and faces to join. There was a home for children in our small town that housed kids who were wards of the state and my father saw this as a perfect opportunity to bring people into our church who may have never heard the gospel. He reached out to the home’s leadership and invited the resident children to be a part of VBS that year. Many of the children were black. Throughout the week of VBS child after child made professions of faith in Jesus, including several black children from the group home. The Sunday morning after VBS a handful came down to the front indicating, along with the home church white kids, that they had been changed by Christ and wanted to be baptized. My father was fired from the church that week.
I heard the news of my Father’s firing on the way to basketball practice at the local Recreation Center. I was crying bitterly as practice began. My coach, a black man from the community, put his arm around me and told me that things would work out in the end. The beauty of a black man consoling a middle class white kid in small town Alabama over the ugliness of racism is still not lost on me. Later on in life I would scrape the details together in bits and pieces from my parents. Dad was called into an emergency deacons meeting where he was ordered to “fix this” problem he had created. The deacons rallied around the idea that, “no nigger has ever been baptized in our church and never will be.” My Father refused to bend and was fired immediately.
I had never felt racism before on a personal level. The sting of my Father’s firing was immediate and deep. Because we lived in the church parsonage, that literally shared a driveway with the church, we were forced to move immediately. We were graciously taken in by friends who ran a local Baptist conference center and were allowed to live there for the following few months while my family figured out what to do.
It is not an understatement to say that the rest of my life was formed by this experience. While our housing was a Godsend it was also small. I slept on the floor for months. As the oldest of 8 children it fell to me and my brother Bret to work full time to help support the rest of the family in our day to day expenses. My father, still bruised from the experience, did not want to jump right back into a church position so he took the first job he could find driving an 18 wheeler on long hauls coast to coast. We would not see him for days at a time. Any sense of security that I had been accustomed to was forever replaced with a constant sense of the unknown. Beyond the physical realities of our new situation, the heart damage that I had acquired burned with the emotional fire of a knife wound. Men whom I had trusted, men who had taught me in Sunday School, had proved to be the worst of humanity. It is hard for a young heart to process the reality of hypocrisy. The stinging reality of racism had pulled back the veil, more than any other thing, into the darkness of the human heart.
It seems that, in spite of all our progress of the past 50 years, we have again hit a wall in race relations in America. Whatever conversation had been started has seemingly been replaced with sound bites and slogans that can be easily tweeted or spun on cable news. Cable news sells advertising with eyeballs and nothing can grab eyeballs like stories on racism. The media is making millions by stoking the flames of our distrust. We retweet and share these sound bites and slogans because we feel they give us something solid to hope in. Slogans will not heal our divides. Presidents and racial figureheads will not mend the bones that have been broken. It will take something that is outside of what we can create.
I am a now a Pastor in a church. I lead the people of God in worship on a regular basis. It is ironic that this is who I am now because after my Father was fired in 1993 I swore that I would never work within the church. Just as the brokenness represented in the church had reached out and wounded my young heart, it would be the true mission of the church that Jesus would use to reach out and mend it. The church is God’s plan to bring us back to reconciliation. Worship is our only road back to unity.
In John 4 Jesus meets a woman at a well. It is well documented that he meets her in the heat of the day because she is seeking solitude from those who would deride her for her past sexual indiscretions. He asks her for a drink of water. She asks for clarity on racial divisions. She is a Samaritan, he is a Jew. Perceiving that Jesus is a prophet, she asks him a question about worship and racial tension.
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Her question is physical in nature. Years of prejudice and distrust between her people and the Jews had led to alterations that frequently ended in physical violence. The Samaritans were the offspring of Jews who had married Gentiles. Halfbreeds. Unclean. Unworthy. Less than because of their DNA. This woman associates worship with a place, a people, a culture. She associates worship with division. These are the realities of those who focus on the physical. If the physical is the determining factor in who we are then it will also become the determining factor on where and how we worship and who we worship with. Those who focus on the physical prove that they have not felt the life giving engine of the Spirit. I love how Jesus answers her question. A physical question is answered with a spiritual reality.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24 ESV)
The physical is temporal. The spiritual is eternal. Worship, fueled by the Spirit of God, is the door toward our racial healing. When a people worship God in spirit and and in truth the flesh is stripped away. Spirit is absent of color. Truth is absent of race. Jesus moves beyond his Jewishness and slaps away any ideal of Samaria’s inferiority. The invitation into the kingdom and into eternity, will have nothing to do with skin color or geography. When we find ourselves looking at the Father through the eyes of those bought by Jesus the only thing that remains is spirit and truth. The only thing that remains is that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus. When you see another human do you see a race or do you see eternity? Do you see a cultural reality or do you see spirit?
I recently sat with a black friend, who pastors an amazing church here in Knoxville, and we talked about the fear that his congregation was battling because of the results of the last election. He is wise in his response to their fears. Rather than defending or supporting our new leader he is pointing them toward something better. He is pointing them toward the eternal. He is inviting them to see and savor Jesus. Leaders will rise and fall, as will the governments and freedoms afforded by them. These things must not define how we interact with one another. The cross reveals that we are all the same. We are not our culture. We are not our race. We are not our gender. If we are in Christ we are simply that and nothing else. Or as Paul says...
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28 ESV)
There will come a day when the Church of Jesus will forever live in this reality. Revelation says…
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12 ESV)
Here is the eternal cure to our distrust, misunderstanding, and division. We will worship. But, according to Jesus, this is not to be some future reality alone. Jesus burst onto the scene in Mark chapter one declaring that, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The unity we display, and the story we are telling as we worship will reveal or disprove kingdom reality in our churches and communities. We must learn to worship Jesus as one. Not simply cheering each other on from a distance. Not just leaning on conversations in neutral locations to get “a plan together”. We must approach God’s glory, through the access provided by Jesus, and standing side by side, our spirits joined in worship. This is the way to unity. This is the means of reconciliation. The world needs the power of the gospel and the mission of the church more than ever. Let us embrace one another and become now who we will be in eternity.
It is fascinating to me that the Bible ends with the hope of racial healing…
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2 ESV)
Of all the sins and brokenness represented by the human heart, it is our propensity for hatred and disunity that is spoken of in the end. I believe it is a perfect picture of why we need redemption. In the end we will not have hearts guarded and broken by the fall. We will not be defined by our differences. We will be united by the salvation of Jesus...and we will worship.
In Exodus 19, Mount Sinai is the place where God formally introduces himself to his newly released and redeemed people. Israel had been enslaved for hundreds of years, and through Moses God had brought them out of the hand of Pharaoh. Sinai is the stage for proper introductions. Moses tells the people to wash their garments and prepare themselves to meet with God. Like a child bathing and putting on fresh clothes for a meeting with an important adult, the nation of Israel takes three days to make sure they are spiritually ready to be introduced to Yahweh. Lines are drawn around the mountain and warnings are given not to get too close, because to haphazardly come into the presence of God would bring certain death. When God comes to the people they are terrified. Exodus says that they “tremble”. They have spoken and longed for this moment for hundreds of years, and now that it is here they cannot wait for it to be over. God is more than they had expected him to be. Israel immediately understands that they are not worthy of standing in the same zip code with this God. They tremble because they lack. They tremble because they are weak. They tremble because this God seems too holy for them to deserve an audience.
What is God’s purpose for this meeting? What does he want the people to know? What is he trying to accomplish by showing up and terrifying the people simply by showing his existence? Thankfully God gives his purpose statement in Exodus 19 when he says,
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV)
God’s revelation of himself is followed by his stated intention to change them into something else. When God invites a people into his presence to worship and behold him it is a glorious invitation that is extended for a singular purpose...to change those invited into something that they are not. A holy nation. A kingdom of priests. This is God’s purpose statement for Israel. It has not changed for us. The invitation by God to come and worship him has never been an invitation to simply come into a room and sing general niceties about him in three part harmony. It is not an invitation to simply come and “feel” something of the divine. Worship does not conjure God into our presence, it is the invitation to come into his.
What was to be done for Israel in this equation of holiness and need? God begins to provide a way to make this transition happen in his chosen people. Moses is called up on the mountain and God begins to give the law, a law that will seek to change a common people into one that follows after the heart of God. Israel, however, has other plans. As Moses hears from God, Israel begins to craft worship by different means. They contribute their gold and form a calf. They engage in “revelries” and declare their allegiance to gods made by their own hands, fashioned from their own sense of virtue and beauty. Just as in the Garden of Eden, God’s newly formed people abandon him and seek out their own way. They desire to worship, but they will be the ones to establish the means and the results of that worship. God has once again been abandoned.
What follows is tragic. God tells Moses that he will wipe this people off the face of the earth and start over through him. Moses, having already been changed in the presence of God, begins to intercede on behalf of the people.
So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32 ESV)
Moses is becoming the priest that God had desired his entire people to become. He is offering his life in the place of the people. He has heard the voice of the Lord, he has become an intercessor on behalf of the people, and he will be the one to point them back to Yahweh. He has responded to God’s invitation to come up on the mountain to worship and has been changed into something different. Moses has been transformed.
We are called to be transformed as well, but I am afraid that in our modern context we are dangerously close, and in some instances already dancing around calves of gold. For many, worship is no longer an invitation to come and be changed, it is a gathering of those who wish to remain the same. It is filled with those who equate the gospel with words of affirmation and acceptance for their sinfulness and not in spite of it. Worship has become the shouts and emotions of those who have decided what holiness should look like and are now inviting God into the midst of their creation.
Worship does not exist so that God can make us feel better about our brokenness. God is not seeking to give us comfort in spite of our imperfections. The love of God we sing about over and over again is not a love that simply accepts who we are or who we desire to be. We have changed love into an affirmation of personal choice. Sexuality and morality now depend on how the individual feels, not on what God has demanded, and now, even for some in the church, to love is to let a person remain as they are with arms wide open. God does not accept our sin because of his love, his love is the force that is seeking to crush it. Worship reveals sin by inviting the worshipper to behold the perfection of God. The grace extended by that invitation is our means of escape and victory over it. Our hope lies in our deliverance, not in our desire to remain. We must be changed.
I love Luke 24. Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, reveals to two men that he is the fulfillment of all that was spoken of through Moses and the prophets. Just as Moses had led the people to the mountain, through Jesus, God was again inviting a people to the mountain to worship, but this time not to the edge, he was inviting them all the way to the top, giving them full access to his life altering glory. Hebrews 12 says it beautifully.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore 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 12:18-29 ESV)
Are we offering acceptable worship? We are invited into his presence to be changed into a people that are set apart in holiness to proclaim his excellencies as a kingdom of priests. The purpose of the invitation has never changed. The means of the invitation (Jesus making a way for us to come with boldness before God) has been gloriously altered.
The cross of Jesus did not give God an excuse to sweep our sin under the rug. God cannot simply look the other way from sin...it must be dealt with and we must be changed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When God calls a man he bids him to come and die”. This statement is a summation of Paul’s words in Romans 12 where he writes,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)
And so there it is. Worship will kill you. It is self sacrifice. To truly worship in holiness the self must die and the mind must be transformed. Are you being changed? Through Jesus, are you accepting the invitation to come into the presence of God to be made into his image, or are you looking from afar, making him into your own? Those who truly seek to worship the divine will be altered and pressed into his holiness, those who do not will remain the same. Eternity will resound with the former, death will forever silence the latter. Hebrews again speaks to us,
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31 ESV)
May we worship in holiness. May we worship in truth. May the love of God and the grace of God bring us to the knowledge of God. May we accept his invitation to come and worship and be forever changed into his image. Amen.
I lead worship in the summer for an organization called Student Life. Teenagers from all over the country meet in different locations for week long sessions to hear the gospel preached, and to see God elevated and glorified. June 22, 2015 was the start of one of these weeks. I was in Ruston, Louisiana at Louisiana Tech University, participating in our first student pastor meeting of the week. Student pastor meetings at camp are an amazing time where all the different leaders who have brought students to camp get together and share prayer requests and expectations for the week. One request at this first meeting stood out to me that night. One pastor shared that one of his students had been looking forward to camp all year but had received news, the week of camp, that a hole in her heart had gotten to the point where immediate surgery was required. He said she was in Houston that very night, scared and very sad. He also said, that along with her parents, she had been joined by her grandparents who were not believers. He was praying that God would use her surgery to show his power.
After the meeting I pulled the pastor aside and asked if we could pray for her in our session that night, that I didn’t want to embarrass her or make a spectacle out of it but, if she was willing, I felt like we were supposed to rally the body of Christ around her situation. After getting in touch with her and her parents we received the green light. That night, via Facetime, over 1,000 students lifted their hands toward a face, on a tiny iPhone, and prayed on behalf of a girl they had never met. It was unbelievably beautiful. Leading the people of God that night to sing his praises was effortless. We wanted to sing. We wanted to praise the name of the one who could move mountains and defeat enemies. We wanted to see Jesus.
The following afternoon the student pastor who had shared the request pulled me aside with amazing news. That morning the doctors had done one final check before surgery and were stunned to find the hole, that had been there the week and months prior, was gone. No surgery was needed; she was going home. That night I shared the news with everyone present, and again worship was fueled by the mighty working of God. That week was filled with students being freed from addictions, turning from sin, and committing their lives to the kingdom of God. God had moved, by showing himself strong in a situation hundreds of miles away, and those who had seen it responded to the hope of his gospel.
Fast forward to 2017...this past week. I am now the father of a beautiful little girl from China who we have named Josie Rose. She was born with a hole in her heart. We have prayed, since the day we met her on a piece of paper sent to us by our adoption agency, for her healing. We have also prayed that God would advance his kingdom through her story and ours. This past week, on March 28th, we handed Josie off to a team at Vanderbilt hospital, who took her to the operating room and began the long, ten hour process of attempting to repair her broken heart. That day was the longest day of my life. My wife Emily and I had no idea if the surgery would be a success. For hours and hours we waited to hear the news. Finally the surgeon came out and told us that she had repaired the many issues in her heart and that, in a couple of hours, we could see her in PICU. It goes without saying here that our hearts were overwhelmed with emotion. Our little girl had made it through surgery, and now had a repaired heart beating in her chest.
We were told to expect a hospital stay of 2-3 weeks after surgery. Josie progressed so fast in her recovery that we were discharged exactly one week after her procedure. God was doing what we had asked him to do. One week after open heart surgery found us packing our bags and waiting for our final consult with the hospital cardiologist. Because everything had gone so smoothly we honestly thought the final consult would be smiles, pats on the back and ‘hope we never see you around here agains’. Instead we heard some different news. Josie’s final echocardiogram, given that morning, had revealed severe leakage in her newly formed mitral valve...the hole was not all the way closed. Our complete repair was incomplete. Josie was still in need of intervention. We drove home stunned. We tried so hard to see the victories of the past week but could only seem to think on a tiny hole still present in a tiny heart. Smiles and joy had once again turned to tears. That was two days ago.
This morning God reminded me of that night almost two years ago at a camp in Louisiana. I honestly had not thought about it in a while. He asked me to ponder the question, “Why did I heal that little girl in that way and not yours?” The answer came with ease. Because you are using Josie’s story in a different way. I began to think back on our whirlwind week in the hospital. I cannot begin to tell you about all the gospel encounters we had there. We shared lunch with a family who were suffering with a child who had a severe brain injury. We shared a brownie with grandparents who had been watching their 8 year old grandson fight for his life on the heart and lung bypass machine since January. We talked over and over again about Josie’s story and the gospel of Jesus with doctors and nurses as they came into our room. We told the story again to the people who changed out the trash and mopped the floor. Josie’s story and her presence at Vanderbilt, were doing what we had asked God to do. He was revealing his kingdom through a little girl, who like Moses, had been abandoned in a box and taken into a culture that was not the one of her birth.
When you look at the whys and hows of Jesus’ miracles, it becomes clear that Jesus always did them for a purpose. We are surrounded by a culture that elevates miracles as a magic trick or a test of individual faith. Jesus did miracles to reveal the kingdom of God. In Luke 4 he tells a paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk, only after saying that reason He was doing it was so that those present would know that he had the power to forgive sins. He wept at the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and commanded the stone be pulled back. His voice spoke into the darkness and thundered, “Lazarus come forth,” so that those present would understand that his voice could even command death to release the dead. Jesus also understood that sometimes things have to be hard in order for the kingdom to shine. He would pray, with blood running down his face in the place of sweat, that God would remove the cup of the cross from him. He would end that prayer by saying, “Not my will Father, but yours be done.” The pain of the cross, leading to the power of the resurrection, would become our hope of glory.
Jesus is speaking Josie’s story in the exact way that it is meant to be told. He is answering our prayer to use it to advance his kingdom. Last night I stood in her room and prayed, hot tears running down my face and off my beard, that God would use her life and mine for the glory of his name. When we received her file, all those months ago, the agency had named her Jo. Jo is the female iteration of Joseph. Joseph lived a life of suffering and rejoicing. He lived a life that would impact an entire nation and history itself. His name means “May Jehovah give increase.” Josie’s name now bears that same promise. No one knows when Josie was born. The only thing she had with her when she was found in that cardboard box was a note that read, “We are very poor, her mother has a very bad cancer, and we hope someone can save her life.” I am adding to that note, and am asking that in addition to honoring that request for her life to be saved, that Jesus will use her life to point the way to his Kingdom, and in doing so, use her life to bring other lives to salvation. The birthday the Chinese government assigned her was June 10, 2015. I will not be surprised at all, when I enter eternity, to find out that her actual birthday was June 22, 2015, the day God healed a little girl, to his glory, at a camp in south Louisiana.
Some quick thoughts from this morning. I am reading book titled, “From Dawn To Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun. It is history of western cultural life from 1500 to the present. If you are a history buff like me I recommend it. This morning the section on Renaissance art and how it was shaped has me fascinated with the kind of artists we have become today. Here is a quote from the book defining the mission of Renaissance art and artists.
“The Renaissance treatises declare that apart from his moral mission, the artist’s duty (and thereby his intention) is to imitate nature. He must minutely observe “God’s footstool”; it is a way to worship Him. This discipline parallels the scientist’s, and more than one artist of the period thinks of himself as a ‘natural philosopher.’”
In simpler terms the Renaissance artist’s mission was to study the created order and reveal the nature of what it truly was. The artist saw the mission of art as a quest to reveal the nature of God as an act of worship. In general art follows the feeling of the greater culture, and this idea represented the Renaissance feeling about everything. Art, Science, and Learning all existed so that one could have a greater understanding of who God was and is. Every occupation existed to reveal the eternal. In even simpler terms, art existed to express God.
Fast forwarding through the events that have led us past modernity and into postmodernity it has been well documented that the starting point of reason and learning is no longer God but the self. We no longer value what is to be known apart from how it affects us personally. Our starting point of art is no longer to reveal the eternal, it is to reveal the self. Artists speak about how their art is an extension of themselves. It is a way to express themselves more fully to the culture at large. No longer is the goal of art to express what is eternal and outside of the self, in order to understand it, the goal of art in the present is only to express the self so that the self may be understood. This idea in general carries connotations about how we view everything including art and love. Love is no longer a story that is given from the divine to express the eternal, it has become something that originates in the self, existing to express our desires and our stories. Instead of creating art that seeks to understand God, we create art that wonders why God does not understand us, and instead of seeking love that resonates with the heart of God, we demand that his heart resonates with ours. In love and in art we have become God.
This has found its way into the church and our postmodern worship culture. The hymns of the Reformation sought to teach the singer about the nature of God and the gospel. The hymn writers were theologians first and musicians second. In order to love God you must know who he is, and to the reformers all of life was a tool to seek truth about the eternal.
In the present, many of our songs are devoid of anything but self expression, mirroring the culture at large. Many of our worship leaders are artist and musicians first and theologians on the side. We are prone to sing at length about how God loves us, knows us, cares for us, works miracles for us, never leaves us, and how we feel about these promises in return. We have built a culture in worship that hinges on our ability to emote our heart to God rather than seeking to understand his. Our songs must tell the story of God. Jesus is looking for those who will worship in Spirit and in truth and the search for truth comes through hard work and study. You cannot feel your way to truth, in most cases you will probably feel your way in the opposite direction.
Our worship must start with God and a desire to understand him, it cannot start with us and a desire to be understood. Because we have not done this well our churches are filled with people who do not know the doctrines of God. Sin, wrath, repentance, and atonement have been reduced, in many cases, to vague phrases about how God loves us no matter what we do, with no mention of grace that leads to repentance. We cannot see God starting from the self, we must see God first and then we will be informed about how little the self can actually be trusted. This is the call of the Gospel itself, leave the self and follow Jesus. If we are to see our people truly engage God in Christian worship the litmus test will not be how it felt, it will be whether or not it caused repentance and a life moved toward the gospel. There is more to be said here, and more implications for how we lead, but for now I will leave it here.
For ages within the church, and even dating back to the nation of Israel, the goal of her leadership has been to reveal to the world the nature and promises of God so that the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit, might repent and believe resulting in true worship. While the means of doing this has remained static through the ages (Bible, prayer, worship, communion, service, gospel community), the style of communication has changed as culture itself has morphed and moved into its various forms. What I am about to say is not an attack on modern culture or even modernity itself. Neither am I saying that the use of modern means and methods of communication are to be anathema within the church today. I am not proposing a move toward the Amish tradition of cart and buggy in order to achieve some sort of aesthetical spirituality that has no bearing on the soul itself. If someone is reading this on my blog you will see the use of modern media to deliver songs and ideas to the church and world at large. These things are tools that are morally neutral in my view. I am also not attempting to shout from the rooftops that everyone is doing it wrong. There are many dear brothers and sisters that are chasing Jesus with everything that they are and attempting to reveal his nature through the gift of song and storytelling. These things are an amazing gift to the church. With that said as introduction, I wish to take aim at one aspect of modern Christian culture.
We are a culture obsessed with celebrity. The Oscars, The Grammys, TMZ, and any magazine cover will provide ample evidence of this reality. It is also an increasing reality that the church has embraced this part of the culture with open arms. Self promotion has become synonymous with gospel promotion. Examples of this abound. Just this week I have seen a Groupon for a night of worship with a major Christian “superstar”, a flyer for a women’s conference led by a current Christian celebrity, and tickets being sold for a Christian Bonnaroo type experience. All the promotion for these events revolve around the personalities that are the “main events”. The Groupon is a hip black and white photo of the artist, the flyer is a picture of the speaker, and the Christian Bonnaroo is a backlit photo of a singer surrounded by thousands of hands and smartphone cameras stretched heavenward. The simple question has to be; what and who are we promoting? I am not questioning the content of these events, rather I am questioning the push and elevation of celebrity status in order to sell tickets and gain a hearing. The content of the Groupon artist’s songs are gospel filled as are the conference speakers books. The issue is not the what, it is the who. God is clear in Isaiah 48:11 that he will not share his glory with anyone, and on the surface of things it seems like a lot of glory is being sought after and shared in the modern church.
I imagine that for some the push back against this will be to say that these people love Jesus and are trying to gain as large of an audience as they can in order to deliver the truth of the Gospel. However, if the means of drawing that crowd are in opposition to the message of the Kingdom itself, is this not self defeating from the start? A phrase that is often thrown around is “God has given me this platform” as if God is in the business of making people great so that they are more qualified to speak on his behalf. This seems to go against the very core of the Gospel message itself. The Kingdom does not seek to elevate the individual so God can use them, it seeks to humble them so that God himself is elevated through their weakness. The message of celebrity is self elevation and attention. The message of the Kingdom is inclusion and equality in the cross. The message of celebrity is artist circle and backstage passes. The heart of Christ is found in service and self sacrifice leading to his body being elevated on the cross. Paul knew this to be the truth. He battled the “Super Apostles” of his day as they came into the church preaching the gospel with an air of professionalism and superiority. They were the smooth talkers and smooth dressers of the day. Paul pleads with the Corinthian church to reject these men not based on their content but on their self aggrandizement. Speaking about these men he writes...
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. (1 Corinthians 4:9-10 ESV)
Paul understood that the power of the gospel was not revealed by flash and awe on the conference circuit but through the work of the Holy Spirit through the average person. God makes sure to point out to Israel over and over again that he chose her not because she was strong and beautiful (meaning that he could really leverage that strength and beauty to get himself noticed), he chose her because she was the weakest among the nations so that his strength could be made evident in that weakness. God is not looking for superstars, he is looking for paupers. Paul himself did not speak with eloquence but lived in the power of the Spirit. Again Paul writes…
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17 ESV)
Here is where the rubber meets the road. God always seeks to use the average and lowly to display his power. Israel was small and weak. A poor teenage girl was chosen to carry and be called mother by the Messiah. His birth was announced to lowly shepherds in lieu of kings. Jesus called fishermen not rockstars. If we embrace wholesale the elevation of individual superstars among us are we not preaching a different gospel simply by buying the ticket? God is not looking to advance his kingdom with faces on posters, he is advancing it with those who are on their knees. In the economy of heaven weakness is power and humility is strength.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV)
I am painfully aware that the plank may be in my own eye here. My face been displayed on posters and I have led worship for events based on the personalities that would be leading them. I am struggling through these thoughts for myself as much as anyone else, and I cannot simply use the metrics of ticket sales and popularity as the measuring stick for what is good and holy. It was the multitude that danced around the golden calf convinced that they were worshiping Yahweh, when in reality they were at that moment being sentenced to death because of their idolatry. Jesus was irate when he turned over tables in the temple because of the monetization of God’s work of atonement. It is life and death to worship God on his terms and not our own.
I should be careful to point out that I am not speaking about those people whom God has raised up to preach the Gospel with such power and humility that the world takes notice. These do not need booking agents or Groupons to draw a crowd, the faithful preaching of the Gospel is enough. Also, please hear me say that I am not questioning anyone’s love or devotion to the Gospel. Those with their faces printed on glossy posters are not all evil people just looking to make a buck on the back of Jesus. It is possible that they are frustrated with the seeming lack of power that all of this shock and awe type ministry really seems to produce. This is not an attempt to throw a bomb or to accuse anyone of anything, it is a plea for us to look at what we have built and become. It is a begging of the question, is this what we were sent out to be? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he sent us out to do his work? Are we working in humility and service? Are we elevating our weakness or pointing to our strength? Are people leaving our conferences and concerts wanting to lay down their life in service, or thinking how cool it would be if they were on that stage next time? Our hearts are hard wired toward idolatry. We find comfort in praising that which we hope to be. Church leaders must model death to the self and humility in order to see the church reject the need for self exaltation. When we are weak Jesus will shine as strong. Public gatherings are vital to the health of the church. The answer is not to retreat into the shadows, rather the answer is to work as hard as we can to thrust the gospel of Jesus into the light. This cannot happen in concert with our own agenda being pushed into that same light. We must fade into the shadows so that Jesus is the only thing that remains. The content of our speech will not matter if the conduct of our lives does not resonate the same.