Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Revelation 5:6-14 - “A New, 2000 year old, Contemporary Song”

3rd Sunday of Easter (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, April 21, and Sunday, April 22, 2007

That hymn we just sang is about the song on the cover of your bulletin. It’s a hymn about getting to sing that new, 2000 year old, contemporary song. It’s a hymn about where that song comes from. The hymn we sang is like a description of the concert where this song was performed, a description of the worship service where this new, 2000 year old, contemporary song was used to praise God.

The way I printed the song on the bulletin cover shows you how it was performed, used in worship. First it begins with the Select Choir—28 leading voices—who sing:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.

Then the Mass Choir—thousands and thousands of voices—join in:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!

After that, the Congregation—the people gathered around the Altar of God—they’ve heard all of these moving words of praise and so they add their voices to the song:
To him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!

Finally, this new, 2000 year old, contemporary song comes to a close with a Quartet—four voices from the original Select Choir—lifting their voices in a final: “Amen!”

It must be an incredibly moving piece of music. I’d play you a recording of it, but there isn’t one. I’d have us try to sing it as choirs and congregation, but no one knows the music. It hasn’t been written down.

You see—and maybe you’ve already figured this out—even though this is a new song, a contemporary song, it’s also 2000 years old. We don’t know what the music sounds like. All we know is that it must be a tremendous song, because it is the song being sung in the throne room of God.

This new, 2000 year old, contemporary song is the one sung by the Four Creatures, the 24 Elders, the angels, and the saints who are gathered around the throne of God the Father in the vision that John received, the vision he wrote down in Revelation. In John’s vision, he sees all of the ones around God the Father singing praises to Jesus Christ—the Lamb who was slain, nailed to the cross to save His people. This song is 2000 years old, because it’s the song they started singing in heaven when Jesus rose from the dead, when He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.

One of my Seminary professors, Dr. Lou Brighton, wrote about this song saying, “There has never been a celebration like that which began when the Son returned to his heavenly Father. For some two thousand years it has been taking place, and it will continue forever. Heaven broke into joyful song and celebration when the Son came back victorious” (Revelation, CPH, 145).

The song you have on the cover of your bulletin, this song that comes from the Word of God in the book of Revelation, this song is 2000 years old, but it is still very, very contemporary.

“Contemporary” means to be happening at the same time. While this heavenly song is 2000 years old, we also have to remember it’s a song that heaven hasn’t stopped singing. It is a contemporary song, because the Four Creatures, the 24 Elders, the angels, and the saints are still singing it today, right now, contemporaneous with our worship. As we sing and praise God down here in worship today, they’re singing and praising God in heaven today. As we sing and praise for just one hour a week, they sing and praise all of the time, 24/7, a continuous, contemporary, non-stop, vibrant, living party for the Lord. Our worship here is just a glimpse into what that celebration might be like. . .just a glimpse, and sometimes I wish we could see more of what it will be like, what it means to praise the Lord.

Ten days ago I got back from the South Wisconsin District Pastors Conference, and I was demoralized. Instead of being lifted up by time spent with brothers in the ministry, I felt trampled on. The topic for the conference was essentially the new hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book that we have in our pews. I went expecting to gain new insights on how to use the hymnal, stories behind the hymns and liturgies, and ways to use the hymnal to teach the faith.

I got a few of those things from the conference, but mainly I got another message: any worship songs that are not hymns, songs that don’t conform to some pattern of what we’ve always had, any ways of constructing a worship service that are different from the hymnal are wrong and don’t bring glory to God. I left the conference feeling like the pastors with the loudest voices would not approve of what we do in worship, wouldn’t approve any attempt to add different kinds of styles of music into our worship. There was also very strong opinion expressed by some. . .just some voices. . .that music styles like rock and pop, things that have a backbeat, are inherently evil and cannot be used to worship the Lord.

It’s the same worship war that’s been going on for decades, but frankly, I’m tired of it. It happens on these big, denominational levels, but it also happens locally. I know that each of you has your own personal preferences about what style of music you’d like in worship, what you want the worship service to be like, what kind of preaching you prefer. I know you have debates among yourselves, debates in your own mind, debates with us as pastors, but frankly, I’m tired of it.

You see, here with this new, 2000 year old, contemporary song, we know it’s biblical, it’s approved by God, it’s being sung in His throne room, but we don’t know what it sounds like. It says the Four Creatures and the 24 Elders had harps—although the actual word there is kithara, a Greek instrument more elaborate than the harp we might imagine, an instrument that is a precursor in design and name to the guitar. That’s all we know about what it might have sounded like. It probably wasn’t the harp strumming that gets used in movies, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about organs and old Lutheran hymns.

So here is this biblical song, but it doesn’t prove one side right in the worship war. We don’t have the music for this 2000 year old song, and that’s probably because the sound is heavenly, beyond anything we can probably imagine. It isn’t traditional or contemporary; it isn’t a church hymn or a rock song; it’s something much more than either side of the worship war.

In Revelation, John doesn’t even try to describe the music. Maybe he didn’t describe it because it was so many different things, maybe it kept changing even as he heard it, maybe the music incorporated so many different styles, tempos, melodies, rhythms, instruments, and voices that he could hear all of the music of the God-given creativity and artistry that was unleashed into the world at Creation.

I imagine that over these 2000 years that this song in the throne room of God has been like a jazz vamp. I’m not saying it’s a jazz song; I’m saying it’s like what a jazz combo does. They start with a melody, play that through, and then each time around, they start changing the melody, messing with it, adding to it, taking away from it, going off in different directions, letting new sounds appear, disappear, reappear, until maybe you’re not even sure that it is the same song. A jazz combo, though, brings it all back together at the end, hitting that original melody for one more run through. I imagine that over 2000 years, this heavenly song has been going on like that vamp—the same words, the same essential song, but always looking to develop that song with different voices, instruments, sounds, tempos, rhythms.

Worship like that is kind of like someone saying to the group: “I have this way of singing; join with me.” Everyone jumps in, sings, and then someone else comes along and says, “That’s great. Will you try singing this way with me?” And then everyone tries that, let’s that song come to life, and then someone else says, “I think I could combine those two songs and make a new one.”

I don’t know exactly what that would look like in a weekend worship service, but I know the spirit when I see it. I know the spirit of collaboration—instead of competition. I know the spirit of letting all voices rejoice—instead of getting all of the voices into one line. I know the song by Bill Staines, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir/Some sing low, some sing high,/Some sing out loud on the telephone wires/Some just clap their hands or paws or anything they got now.” All God’s creatures got a place in the choir making whatever music they can.

At the Festival of Faith & Music that I attended a few weeks ago, I saw this band called Anathallo. They are an eight-person band playing this really diverse sounding kind of rock/folk music. Watching them was to watch a collaborative, worshipful spirit. They launch into tunes, everyone moving around on stage from instrument to instrument, people sharing duties, and you can just see the pure joy of making music, of raising a song to speak a truth about God. That’s a collaborative spirit—where even us who were watching were a part of things as they invited us to clap along, stomp our feet, be a part of the experience. That’s more akin to what I imagine is happening in that new, 2000 year old, contemporary song in heaven. There’s no one leader dictating what everyone must do, what the song always will sound like. It’s a collaborative spirit, a moving spirit, a way of letting all of the voices in the room be a part of making sounds for the Lord.

We tend to think of worship as being pastor-led with an organist keeping the tunes going, but worship is more collaborative than that. It’s always a combination of pastor, congregation, organist, choirs, and others. There have always been musicians who decided they could add something to the organ, so they bring their trumpets, guitars, flutes, violins, pianos, and bells. Worship is a collaboration; people are in choirs or ring bells or play instruments or turn the lights on or off or get communion ready or decorate the church or clean the church or welcome people.

And even when we start seeing people moving away from hymns and organs, it’s still a collaboration, a building on what has already been a part of worship. Rock bands playing hymns with their own style. I know a folk singer who wrote a folk song to a hymn tune and turned it into a song for a hymnal. There are rappers who quote “Amazing Grace” in their raps. Music is all about taking what people have done in the past, turning it into something of your own, putting your mark on it, and letting that new thing fly. We’re not done with what might be called traditional worship; we’re collaborating with it.

And that’s the collaborative spirit of the new, 2000 year old, contemporary song. Think of that choir in the throne room of God. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. Every time a believer in Christ dies, her soul is taken to be with Jesus, taken to rest in the throne room of God, waiting for the day when Jesus will come again to bring this world to an end and create a new world for us. Those believers arrive all of the time, arrive to join the choir, and the choir makes room for them. They’re welcomed into that choir: “Add your voices, raise your voices, make a joyful noise to the Lord.”

I’m not arguing today for any specific kind of music, any specific way to do worship here at Redeemer. That’s not my decision to make; that’s our decision to make. Worship is a collaborative spirit, a way of us all joining together to praise the Lord, a way to do something here on Earth that is a glimpse of what has been happening all of the time for 2000 years.

You are the redeemed people of God; this is your worship. Jesus Christ has saved you from your sins, so we sing and speak and move in worship to thank Him for our salvation. No one more is redeemed than another in this room, so worship isn’t just for some people because they’re more holy than you. You all have places in the choir. This is your worship.

This new, 2000 year old, contemporary song is your song, your story. The Lamb was killed for you to save you from your sins. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, returned to the Father, is reigning in glory until the day He comes to take you to live with Him forever. Worship is a collaboration, because we all share that story, that song, that Word of God, that truth.

A songwriter gets up on stage and sings her song to you. Maybe you find a connection with her song, but it’s her song. Worship is our song. The connection is Jesus Christ, and it’s our story of salvation. We sing this song together.

It’s that collaborative spirit that I see in John’s vision of the new, 2000 year old, contemporary song in Revelation. It’s that collaborative spirit that I desire to see here, so that as we sing, as we worship, as we unleash our collective, creative, artistic talents to the Lord, together we will raise the beautiful truth about Jesus Christ our Lord.

It begins with one group sings or plays or dances saying:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.

Then another group, a larger group raises up the next part of the song with pictures or woodworking or decorations or instruments or stories saying:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!

Then we all join with our voices or hands or anything we’ve got now:
To him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!

Finally, this new, 2000 year old, contemporary song comes to a close with someone singing: “Amen!”

Scripture text: English Standard Version, Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Festival of Faith & Music 2007:
The Collective Spirit of God, Art, & Anathallo

“God cares about the details of senseless beauty, and He encourages us to care also,” said Lauren Winner in her keynote address that opened the 2007 Festival of Faith & Music at Calvin College. Winner bases this comment on Exodus 31-32 where God directs the Israelites in the most intricate, non-utilitarian aspects of creating the tabernacle. It is where we see God as artist enlisting His people as fellow craftsmen.

Winner’s words reminded the FFM audience of 1300 that the arts have always been a central part of what we do in the Church. “We sing, listen to live music, read poetry,” in some cases dance, and there is also drama—skits and the liturgy itself.

Senseless beauty in the hands of God’s craftsmen. That is an apt description of the FFM Friday night concert featuring Sufjan Stevens and Anathallo. Both performances communicated more than the mere lyrics, and a good portion of what is communicated is an undefined, non-utilitarian, overwhelming truth of the beauty of God’s world and gifts of life we experience.

It’s no wonder that Anathallo’s workshop at the Festival of Faith & Music was titled “Creation & Communication in a Band Twice the Size of Yours.” Their Festival performance shows the collective nature of their music.

Besides the fact the Anathallo themselves are an eight member troupe, guitar/vocalist Matt Joynt’s brother-in-law arranged the songs for a twelve member trombone choir from Northern Michigan University. The stage was alive with music—action, rhythm, art, spirit, and collaboration.

When the band took the stage, there was a huge response as Anathallo formed at the nearby Central Michigan University and grew as band by playing at Calvin. In fact, they give much credit to Calvin’s Ken Heffner, Student Activities Director and guide of FFM; on stage, Joynt called Heffner their “Father Goose.”

In reaction to the warm greeting from the crowd, Anathallo delivered a nearly hour-long set which envelopes the listener from many different aural angles while also presenting a dizzyingly intoxicating visual art as the eight members slide from instrument to instrument. They exhibit the joy of throwing yourself into performing—attacking their instruments, doing a whole band shudder on a musical breakdown, and unfolding like flowers for a ballet-like flourish.

Musically, Anathallo owes a lot to Sufjan Stevens with their orchestral broad strokes, Beach Boys background singing, a Carpenters-like 70’s sheen, and the love of horns. There also complicated rhythmic patterns leading to stomps and something akin to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. False stops, dying horns, buzzing trombone mouthpieces, hand clapping to punch out the rhythm combinations.

As the songs shift, take shape, fall apart into apparent chaos, and grow to huge places without a clear sense of pop song structure, you might be tempted to thing that the whole thing is an exercise in improvisation—throwing up a bunch of sound and seeing what sticks. However, the benefit of this live performance was seeing the conductor directing the trombone choir. His presence signaled that this was far from chaos. While Anathallo certainly creates music from a collective spirit that rises up each individual’s offerings in the mix, this is not some aimless spirit. Anathallo crafts this process may lead us wandering down dead ends, shortcuts, circling back paths, and running wild across fields, but the band is our tour guide. They know where they want to take us, and this tour bus does not break down.

The tour often finds its destination in senseless beauty where a listener stands seeing the intricate, meaningless details of God’s temple in the world—a temple wrought of song, rhythm, sounds, movement, and words. This is not didactic; this is experiential—and the experience is a reminder that despite our fallen “floating world,” God did indeed declare His Creation to be good. There are still those marks of God’s goodness today.

Thanks to Anathallo for the review CD. The Anathallo picture is © 2007 Nicole Rork.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Psalm 116:12-19 - “The Offertory as Prayer in Preparation for Communion”

Maundy Thursday (Lutheran Service Book readings)
Thursday, April 5, 2007

These words which Stephanie just sang are from an Offertory that is part of Divine Service, Setting II, in the Lutheran Service Book, an Offertory which we will sing as part of tonight’s service. These words were also used in similar offertories in the blue hymnal, Lutheran Worship, so they’ve been with us awhile. . .and actually, they go back farther than that. In fact, they go all the way back to their original source: Psalm 116, verses 12-19.

The Offertory signals a transition in the worship service, a shift from the Service of the Word to the Service of the Sacrament. In the Service of the Word, the part of the service that includes everything after the Confession and Absolution and up through the Offering, we receive God’s Word in the Scripture readings and the sermon—which is an exposition, an extended explanation of God’s Word. With the Offertory, though, we’re shifting into the Service of the Sacrament, the preparation, distribution, and thanksgiving for Holy Communion, receiving God’s Word of forgiveness in a tangible way in the body and blood of Christ.

I always used to assume that the Offertory, the song sung while the offerings were brought forward by the ushers, handed to the pastor, and placed on the altar, I always assumed that this song was just about giving thanks for the offering. We were telling God we were giving something back to Him and asking God to bless the use of those offerings.

That’s only part of it, though. In fact, looking at those words of the Offertory that Stephanie sang today, those traditional words, those words that go all the way back to Psalm 116, it seems that it doesn’t have much to say about money, offerings, or paying for the work of the church.

This question perhaps seems like an offering kind of question, a money question, since you could also translate those words to say:

It sounds like a question of trying to pay God back for all of His gifts. It sounds like a question to ask as you’re putting your offering in the plate: “How can I make it up to God for what He has done for me?”

Yet, you look at the rest of the Offertory, and it doesn’t ever mention money and getting your checkbook out. Instead, it sounds bigger than that; it’s talking about what we do in worship, how we live our lives, and what happens in the Lord’s Supper.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the words of Psalm 116 don’t actually seem to answer the question: “How can I pay God back for all of His gifts?” Instead, the answer seems much more about receiving the gifts with thanksgiving, accepting what God has offered, and fulfilling a vow to the Lord—not an act of obedience hoping to gain favor but more in the sense of a “vow of praise,” a promise to proclaim God’s goodness in the courts of the temple.

So then, the Offertory is not focused on any kind of attempt to actually repay God for all of His goodness to us. Instead, our focus is on responding with our worship, responding to God’s gifts with thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise—which is why the Offertory is a shift in the service. It isn’t a static part of the service where we’re just thinking about the offering plates. And it’s isn’t a song that only looks back at what has happened already in the service. The Offertory is encouraging us to have a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise in response to God’s gifts. The Offertory is anticipating what comes next in the service: the Service of the Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar.

The Offertory is a prayer in preparation for Communion.

This Offertory pulls together the verses from Psalm 116 that were traditionally used as private prayers offered by the priest in the Roman Mass as he prepares the Lord’s Supper. Luther encouraged similar prayers, although he encouraged them to be said aloud and spoken on behalf of all the people—not just the priest.

Over the centuries, then, these words have showed up in various forms in the Roman Mass, and Lutherans have encouraged their use in different ways—most prominently in the Offertory.

We’ve purposely designed tonight’s service to help you see the benefit of the Offertory as prayer in preparation for Communion. Stephanie sang the Offertory to help us focus on the words. I am using this sermon hoping to help us see the rich, deep meaning in the words. Immediately following the sermon, we will take the offering followed by the congregational singing of the Offertory—leading right into the Service of the Sacrament, the Order of Holy Communion. Let us see how these words of Psalm 116, these words of the Offertory, these words of the traditional, liturgical prayers prepare us for receiving the body and blood of Christ.

When the table is ready, the bread and wine having been consecrated by the Words of Institution, we are invited to Communion, and we offer the only thing we can possibly offer in response to God’s gracious gift: thanksgiving.

Communion is not our act; it is God’s act, and so the Offertory prepares our hearts by focusing on what God has done and focusing on our response of thanks—which is a very small response in comparison to the great goodness of forgiveness and salvation offered to us in the Lord’s Supper. That focus on God’s act in the Lord’s Supper is shown even more clearly in the traditional words of the prayer which change this line to: “I will receive the Bread of Heaven, and call upon the Name of the Lord.”

Before receiving the bread, the body of Christ, the traditional prayer is similar to this question from Psalm 116. The traditional prayer says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed,” words which are based around the words of the Centurion who asks Jesus to come and heal his servant but then shows his faith in the power of Christ by saying that Jesus would not even have to travel to the house in order to do the miracle of healing.

With the traditional prayer, “Lord, I am not worthy,” and the question from Psalm 116, “What shall I render to the Lord,” the focus is on how we cannot possibly measure up to the Lord’s standards. There is nothing we could possibly offer that would compare to what the Lord has given us. Receiving the true body of Christ in, with, and under the bread in the Lord’s Supper has nothing to do with deserving to eat the body of Christ.

A gift is something undeserved, unearned, freely given, and as soon as we attempt to give back a gift of equal worth, as soon as we feel obligated to exchange gifts, we’ve lost the focus on gift giving and now we’re in the realm of obligation. We have trouble accepting gifts, letting gifts be gifts, and perhaps that’s why we have so much trouble seeing the body of Christ in the bread at the Lord’s Supper as a gift, only a gift, something which we cannot possibly repay. Tonight, pray the words of the Offertory, “What shall I render to the Lord for all of His benefits to me,” and remember that the answer is nothing. We cannot repay God for His wonderful, gracious gift of the body of Christ given for us. Instead, the Offertory focuses on responding with a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise.

Before receiving the cup, the blood of Christ, the traditional prayer says, “What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord. I will call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from all mine enemies.”

Our first impulse may be to think that this prayer turns our focus back on our actions—I will take the cup of salvation. However, you are no more able to take the cup of salvation by your own actions than you are able to make the wine into the blood of Christ by your own action. The cup of salvation, the life-giving drink, the blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, that is offered to you as a gift by God. You might do the action of walking up to the communion rail, you might take the cup from the tray, you might put the cup to your lips, you might drink and swallow, but you are not the one who is acting to make this a sacred act. The Lord, His Word, His power, His miraculous, gracious action makes that small cup of wine into the cup of salvation, gives you the blood of Christ in, with, and under the wine.

The psalmist asks, “How can I repay the LORD for all the good that he has done for me?,” and the implied answer is, “Nothing. There is nothing I could possibly give to repay good for all of His good gifts.” Since the implied answer is nothing, the next line of the Offertory isn’t encouraging some action on our part to even things out. Instead, as the psalmist says, “I will take the cup of salvation,” we’re still talking about responding to God’s gifts with a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise. We respond to God’s gift in the Lord’s Supper by accepting, receiving the cup of salvation. We respond to God’s gift by thanking Him and calling on Him for the very salvation He offers us. We respond to God’s gift with words of praise, words that continue to put our focus on what God has done—not what we have done.

And what God has done is to offer His only Son as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus offers Himself as the victim, invites us to partake of the sacrifice, to taste and see the life-giving body and blood. In the Lord’s Supper, God’s actions give us forgiveness, life, and salvation, strength and assurance for our faith. This is what God has done, and this is what God will do for us again today in the Lord’s Supper.

And now during the offering, give thanks to the Lord for all of His gifts to you. You’re responding to God’s gifts by returning thanks, returning a portion of possessions, offering something to God for the work of His kingdom. But once that offering plate has gone past, remember to see this time as a shift in the service, a shift signaling that the Service of the Sacrament is about to begin. Let yourself use the Offertory as a prayer in preparation for Communion. Let the Offertory encourage you to respond to the Lord’s Supper with thanksgiving, acceptance of God’s gracious gift that cannot be repaid, and a life of praise declaring the incredible forgiveness and salvation that Jesus Christ won for us by the cross.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Philippians 2:5-11 - "Lord Over Neon"

Palm Sunday (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)/Confirmation

Hymn: Then Ev’ry Tongue Will Confess Christ is Lord
Written for the 2007 Confirmation Class based on their selected sermon text, Philippians 2:5-11

Christ Jesus, who is God,
but made himself— noth—ing—
Serv—ing us
as— a man,
and humbly dying on—the—cross—

Christ Jesus, exalted
to the right hand—of—God,
Name above names,
heaven and earth,
ev’-ry-where all knees—should—bow—.

Then ev-ry tongue— will con-fess— Christ is Lord,
Followed the Fa—ther’s will, death on the cross.
Blessed is He, King of Kings, who comes—in the Name—of—the—Lord;
Humble me, Lord—with a heart—just like Him,
Set a-side my wants, and fill me with Yours,
May I bow down—to the Ser-vant and serve—the— world—.

TEXT: © 2007 Pastor Benjamin C. Squires, Stephanie Bowman, and Soul Power

(student plays the first verse of “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar)

Nick, it’s time to stop playing the guitar. (student stops playing guitar). It’s time for the sermon. You have to choose the Lord over the guitar.

And that’s exactly what Nick did for the Confirmation Retreat a few weeks ago. He chose to come on the retreat instead of staying home and working on his blazing solos for Classic Rock songs. He chose the Lord over guitar.

And actually, all of the DJs, Disciples of Jesus, our Confirmation students had to give up other things in order to be at the retreat where the Confirmation class always helps me plan the sermon for Confirmation Day.

A majority of our students this year attend Wilson Junior High, and the very same Friday of our Confirmation Retreat was the Friday that Wilson was holding a dance, the Neon Dance. (use pulley to raise up some rope lights) Neon lights as the theme for the dance.

Back here in Manitowoc at Wilson many students were at the dance, but these eighth graders were out at Camp Sinawa working on this sermon. They chose the Lord over neon. That’s the meaning of the wuzzle word puzzle on the front cover of the bulletin: Lord over neon. The students chose the Lord over neon. (use pulley to raise “Lord” sign higher than the rope lights) Instead of dancing on that Friday night, the students chose to study the Bible and figure out what they wanted to teach everyone through this sermon. They chose a church retreat over a dance; they chose the Lord over neon.

So whether it was Nick not playing his electric guitar or others not going to the Neon Dance or in the case of our two Mishicot students, Liz and Karl, giving up other things that Friday night, whatever they gave up to be at our retreat, all of these students had to give up something in order to do what Philippians chapter 2 calls on us to do: confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

These confirmands looked at the Bible readings for today, and they decided they wanted this sermon to be about Philippians 2:5-11. They studied what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, they studied what he meant in these specific verses, and after all of their studying during our retreat, they decided they want all of you to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Philippians 2:5-11 makes a nice reading for Confirmation Day, because certainly, in a few moments, you will see these 10 students confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They will stand here publicly in front of you all saying that they believe in Jesus as the One who died and rose again, the One who forgives our sins, the One who will give us everlasting life. Philippians 2:5-11 has that perfect tie-in with what these students are doing today; they are confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Yet, the students didn’t pick this reading for the sermon because it was about them. Instead, what they said they wanted this sermon to teach was that everyone would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

They have spent the last three years in our Disciples of Jesus Confirmation program learning that Jesus Christ is Lord. Before that, they were learning this in Sunday School. Every week they hear this in worship services. They continue seeing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and so they wanted today’s sermon to be another reminder of that truth.

Jesus Christ is Lord, because He came from God the Father, He is the second person of the Trinity, He is true God from everlasting, He became a man in order to suffer and die in our place, He died on the cross for our sins, He rose again to give us life after death, He ascended into heaven and pleads with God the Father for us, He sent His Holy Spirit to live in our hearts, He has taught us love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope. These are the reasons that Jesus Christ is Lord; these are the reasons that the students have learned; these are the reasons that we want you to know. We want you to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, so that you, too, will trust in Him for everlasting life.

But now we’ve got to go back to these lights, the Lord over neon. Most of you probably didn’t have much trouble giving up the Neon Dance that Friday night, because you weren’t even invited. However, what is big and important in your life? What is raised up in front of your eyes, taking up a lot of time on your calendar? What is your Neon Dance that you have to give up in order to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

Even just this morning, what did you have to give up to be here in worship? Would you have liked to sleep in, make a big breakfast at home, go out for brunch, watch TV, go fishing? What are the neon lights hanging around you today that had to stay lower than the Lord? What did you have to say would wait until later because now is the time to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

Of course, choosing the Lord over neon, choosing the Lord over the guitar, choosing the Lord over brunch-fishing-sleep-work isn’t just about a rule thing. The students aren’t encouraging you to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord just so that you follow a rule and look good to God.

Choosing the Lord over the other things in your life, confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord through the choices you make, that’s about having a relationship with Jesus. That’s why we call our Confirmation program the Disciples of Jesus, because we continue to be disciples through our whole lives, we continue to have a relationship with Jesus through faith. If it was just about a program, completing enough steps, following the rules, making the students look good, well, we could have them fill out some computer-scored tests and make them jump through some hoops.

But it’s much, much more than that. It’s a relationship with Christ that they have been learning about, it’s a relationship with Christ that they are affirming today, it’s a relationship with Christ that they want you to have today—to remember today—to confess again today. Jesus Christ is Lord; that’s not a statement of rules; that’s saying Jesus is our Lord, our Master, our Teacher, our Guide, our Savior, our God, our Messiah, our Christ, our whole reason for having any hope beyond this life.

So talking about choosing the Lord over neon, choosing the Lord over other things in your life, well, that’s relationship talk. You have a relationship with the Creator of the world. Despite being sinful and completely going against His will, still you have a relationship with God the Father. You have that relationship, because Jesus Christ has come to forgive you, to save you. Because of Jesus, you are now a child of God and Jesus is your brother. When we talk about confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and making choices in your life to show that He is your Lord, we’re talking about showing the world who you are, who you have a relationship with. When people see you and how you live, are they able to see that you have a relationship with Jesus Christ?

Hey, Nick, I actually think it’s time for you to play the guitar again. Really! (student plays first verse of “Stairway to Heaven” again)

Many of you may recognize that Nick there is playing a little bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven;” some people may wonder why I would let Nick play that in church or encourage him as he learns to play the guitar—mainly by picking up on Classic Rock stuff, but you know, it’s based on a principle I’ve been teaching these confirmands—a principle I use in a lot of my teaching: the Lord is the Lord of the whole world. “Stairway to Heaven” asks some deeply spiritual questions, and while I don’t think Led Zeppelin came to the true answer in Jesus Christ, still the Lord could use that song to begin a search, a search that could lead someone to God’s Word and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Nick talked about this song in one of his assignments for DJs, and he said he thought God was more “Mozartish,” a Mozart-type God. I wrote back that even God made the electric guitar and could use it for his glory. If God isn’t the God of the electric guitar, than we really have to debate whether the god of the electric guitar is Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. That doesn’t seem right. God is the God over all things. God is the One who truly works in the world. God can use the electric guitar to bring glory to His Name.

It’s the same with the Neon Dance. I mean, I’m glad these students chose to come to the Confirmation Retreat rather than going to the dance, but the dance itself wouldn’t have meant they were giving up their faith. The Lord is the Lord of neon, the Lord of the Neon Dance. Whenever our youth go to a dance or a party or hang out with friends, the Lord is there. The Lord can use those times, times not at church, to still help people confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

(lower “Lord” sign to be among the rope lights) As much as the Lord is to worshipped and honored above all things, the Lord is also a part of the things of this world. The Lord is present everywhere, and so even when these students do go to dances, the Lord is there. We talk a lot in Confirmation about how to live out your faith, how to live as Christians in day-to-day life—not just at church. That’s why one of the goals of the DJs says: “The student will be able to articulate the Christian faith and recognize how they might live as a Christian in the church and the world.” Speak the faith to the people around them, and understand how to live as a Christian—even while rocking out on an electric guitar or going to the Neon Dance.

It’s the same reason that the mission statement of Redeemer Youth Ministries is: “To give youth an experience of the Christian faith that teaches them how it applies to every aspect of life.” Experience the faith—and experience it in daily life. We choose the Lord over neon, but the Lord is also the Lord of neon, the Lord of the Neon Dance, the Lord of the electric guitar, the Lord of everything in this world. The Lord is over all things—highly honored, and we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. However, the Lord is also present everywhere—always among us, and we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all things.

I’m going to leave these lights and sign up here for the rest of the service, because that’s especially what I want you to remember when you see these students take the Confirmation pledge and when we all go home after the service. I want you to remember that the Lord is the Lord of all things—wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, the Lord is present there. He might not always like where you are or what you are doing, but the Lord is there. You might not always like where you are or what you are doing, but the Lord is there. You might think that what you are doing or where you are doesn’t have anything to do with church—but if the Lord is the Lord of all things, if we confess with our tongues and confess with our lives that Jesus Christ is Lord, well, then, everything we do has something to do with God—for good or bad.

When these students leave here today, that’s not the end of the churchy part of their lives, and we send them back to their “normal” lives. Today these students are saying that Jesus Christ is Lord of their entire lives. It’s the same with you—if you like to think that you’ve set the Lord above all things especially by coming to worship, but then you never see that He is a part of your day-to-day life, then you’re missing the point. Jesus Christ is Lord over your entire life.

Whatever you do today, wherever you go today, I want you to remember to lower that sign, to see how the Lord is the Lord of your Neon Dances, to see that the Lord is with you in all things. The Lord will be there, will use you to share His love, is able to use all things to bring glory to Himself.