Emily and I wrote this song to tell the story of how Jesus has changed everything through his coming. To sing it with my family in such an amazing setting was the best present I could ever get. My girls are getting taller, and I'm getting older, but one thing remains constant. We have been redeemed by Jesus and will remain in Him forever. One day, in the not so distant future, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with these girls praising Jesus face to face.
Come and magnify the Lord
All you shepherds and kings
Put away your fear and swords
Peace on earth, and all your praises bring
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.
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.