Sunday, March 30, 2008

John 20:19-31 - “ESPN Classic”

Second Sunday of Easter
(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 30, 2008

This weekend’s other services feature the cantata, a service of music and Scripture. It is sung by our Family Singers with additional voices, and in this contemporary version, also features drama clips shown on the screens. This year’s cantata called The Sacrifice: Greater Love Has No One Than This... retraces the Passion and Resurrection of Christ—from Palm Sunday to the Last Supper to the arrest to the cross to Easter morning. In that way, today’s cantata is a bit like ESPN Classic, the cable channel that replays the greatest moments in sports.

(Play video of “NBA Classic Finals Weekend” promo courtesy of Perception NYC; click on picture to see their Website)

Today’s cantata is like ESPN Classic: it goes back to THE classic, game-winning moment in salvation history. In fact, Easter is like ESPN Classic: it’s a replay, a rerun, archive footage of the day Jesus conquered death and rose again.

When I first heard about ESPN Classic, I didn’t really understand the concept. Who was going to watch reruns of sports? Part of the excitement of sports is not knowing how it’s going to turn out. Anything might happen to change the outcome of the game.

Same with Easter, I guess. Does it make much sense to repeat the same story every year? You know who’s going to win the game. There’s no suspense. You know how the story ends. Jesus is rejected by His people, nailed to a cross and dies. Everyone figures it’s over for Jesus. Then on Sunday morning, the tomb is open, Jesus is back from dead, back and better than ever. There’s certainly some great suspense in that story the first time you hear it, but where’s the excitement when you’ve heard it before?

Well, I was certainly wrong about ESPN Classic. Sports fans like to watch classic games, reliving those moments or seeing the games they never saw in the first place. In fact, it became such a popular concept that now other channels like the NFL Network have copied the idea. Sports fans like to watch those classic games again to see what happened and how it happened.

Which is exactly why we have Easter in the Church, why we replay the Passion and Resurrection of Christ in our worship. We have the Easter Classic, because we want to go back to see what happened and how it happened.

First of all, Easter is about remembering what happened. With ESPN Classic, it’s interesting to watch a game when you can’t remember who wins. If you don’t have every season of every team memorized, watching a classic game takes you back to a pivotal moment, one which you might not know the outcome.

Sort of like ESPN Classic, some of the suspense of Easter comes because we forget the outcome; we forget who wins.

Of course, with Easter, you never really quite forget. You know it’s about Jesus. What we forget is that this victory is a truly big deal, and it means everything for us. The victory on Easter means that our sins are forgiven, we can be God’s children again and that after we die, we will live again. We forget that the outcome of Easter gives us hope in our daily lives.

That’s why we replay the Passion and Resurrection, that’s why we have Holy Week and Easter every year, that’s why we mention Jesus dying and rising again every week in worship, that’s why we have the cantata today that takes us through the whole Gospel story. It’s not that we really forget, but we forget that it changes everything about our lives.

Because of the Easter Classic, we no longer wander around in fear, confusion, and hopelessness. The Easter Classic has meant that death is defeated and victory is ours. We can have life again after we die.

Satan would love for us to forget why Easter is important. The world would rather have us focus on the Easter bunny than on the Easter Classic victory on the cross. Our sinful nature would rather spend time thinking about our own thoughts, our own problems, our own desires.

But then like a suspenseful, charging, heart-pounding, intriguing promo ad for ESPN Classic, God’s Word brings us back to the Easter Classic, back to our senses, back to the Truth that Easter changes everything about our lives, our futures, and our purpose in life. When we go back to Easter and watch again what happened, we see that Jesus dying and rising again is what gives meaning to our lives now and gives us the hope for life after the grave.

But sometimes you sit down to watch ESPN Classic, and you already know who won the game—but you want to watch those amazing last minute shots, that game-ending goal-line stand, the persistence of certain players, the game changing events that made the game a Classic. That’s the other reason we repeat the Easter story; we watch the Easter Classic just to see again how Jesus was able to pull off that victory.

So whether it’s each year going through Lent and Easter, or whether it’s today’s cantata, or whether it’s in a Bible study, worship service, or talking with friends, we go back to the Easter story, watching the story unfold again to see what makes it a classic story of divine proportions, see again just what Jesus went through, see how Jesus saved us.

We watch to see how Jesus didn’t fight back when they arrested Him, when they put Him in the penalty box. He didn’t get angry, let His disciples start a fight, didn’t try to escape; He accepted the penalty even though He did nothing wrong; He did the time in the box for the penalties of everyone else; He was arrested for our crimes.

We tune into the Easter Classic to see how in the trial Jesus admitted that He is the Son of God. It’s like a locker room interview with hard-hitting reporters pressing Jesus to talk, but Jesus only says the truth, only says a little, doesn’t try to explain it to everyone, doesn’t expect that anyone is really listening to understand anyway.

We see how the leaders had to make up stuff, in other words, cheat, in order to have Jesus put to death. They didn’t really have any indisputable evidence to overturn the ruling on the field; they didn’t really have a case against Jesus to say that He had taught falsely. So they doctored the videos, stirred up the media, started a smear campaign, got the sports talk hosts on their side, and they brought him down. So the leaders got the crowds stirred up, got some people to make false testimonies, and threatened Pilate with fears of a Jew claiming to be king.

In the Easter Classic, we see how everyone thought the game was over, the fat lady was singing, as Jesus said, “It is finished,” and breathed His last on the cross. We see how the followers of Jesus buried Him in the tomb, huddled up with no time on the clock, feeling like there wasn’t a desperation play to win the game.

But we tune in to watch this every year, watch this every Sunday, watch this over and over again, because we love to see how Jesus rose again from the dead on Sunday morning, the crowd shocked and hushed for a brief moment before exploding with cheers, excitement and hysteria. We love to see how much Easter is a true miracle, a true buzzer beater, a stupendous, unbelievable, exhilarating, tremendous, unexpected, Cinderella finish.

It’s the 16 seed beating the Number 1 seed. It’s the car 5 laps down coming back to take the checkered flag. It’s the Hail Mary pass caught for a touchdown, but of course, it should be called the Hail Jesus pass! It’s the over-the-fence catch to stop a game winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. It’s a comeback from the dead that conquers sin, death, and the devil, so that all of God’s people have the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus—our captain, coach, team leader, superstar, first-round draft pick who used to be a walk on, practice squad member, club reject, carpenter-turned-athlete, waterboy. Yes, that’s right, the Easter Classic victory was brought to you by the One that no one thought capable of even playing the game, and yet, now He has given you the ultimate victory.

Watch the ESPN Classic promo again, and see how the narration could all apply to Jesus and Easter.

Where dreams become reality
Where teams become dynasties
Where all it takes to become a champion is just one play.

Where dreams become reality—the dream of salvation becomes a reality in the cross and resurrection, God’s hope to have His people with Him forever, our hope to escape death and eternal punishment, that dream becomes a reality in the Easter Classic.

Where teams become dynasties—the team of Jesus, His disciples, His apostles, they are the dynasty. The Church has become the dynasty, the legacy, the continuing, reigning world champions. Of course, on this team, it’s not because of anything we’ve done. We’ve just been sitting on the bench. Worse than that, we don’t even show up for practice, we’re stuck in contract negotiations, we’re hold outs from training camp, we’re suspended for breaking team rules, we’re under investigation by Congress for lying under oath. We’re sinners, and it takes Jesus to make us into a team, into the Church, into His people who carry out His mission.

Finally, the promo says, Where all it takes to become a champion is just one play. Bigger than any miracle in sports, any classic moment in the NBA Finals on ESPN Classic, bigger than all that, Jesus rose from the dead. That’s the play that makes Him THE champion. That’s the play that makes us champions. He rose from the dead so that we too can have life after death. That Easter morning is “where dreams become reality, where teams become dynasties, where all it takes to become a champion is just one play.” The Easter Classic—that’s the only Classic moment you ever truly need.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jeremiah 31:1-6 - "Dance of the Merrymakers"

Easter (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

Unlike most of my sermons, I did not write out a manuscript for this Easter sermon. Because of its intense approach and multimedia format, I just went with talking points to help me construct what I wanted to say. Because of that, I can't print out the sermon here, but you can watch a video of it. Thank you to our computer guru, Larry, who made this video-post possible.

The video clip is from Moving Images for Worship: Vibe Volume One (Zondervan). The song for the second half of the sermon is Songs of Water's "Long Journey Home" (

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Psalm 116:12-19 - “Eucharist”

Maundy Thursday
(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Thursday, March 20, 2008

(sung to the tune of “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”)
Eucharist with a grateful heart, Eucharist to the Holy One. . .

Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, is also known as the Eucharist. And while it might not look like it, that song we just sang is about the Eucharist.

(sung)Eucharist with a grateful heart, Eucharist to the Holy One. . .

Eucharist is a Greek word which means “to give thanks,” so we could certainly switch the words of that song and insert “eucharist” every time it says, “Give thanks.”

The Lord’s Supper is known as the Eucharist, a Thanksgiving Meal. The name is taken from the fact that before Jesus gave the disciples the bread and before He gave them the wine, He gave thanks. Eucharist.

Which means that tonight, the night we commemorate the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the first time that Jesus offered this sacrament to His people, when He gathered the disciples for the Passover meal but instead took them a leap ahead of anything they had ever experienced on Passover, this night when we remember that the Last Supper is when Jesus invited all believers to come to the table for the Lord’s Supper, tonight called Maundy Thursday, tonight could also be called Thanksgiving.

We give thanks tonight, because Jesus offered Himself as the Passover Lamb, a final and lasting sacrifice to cover the sins of the whole world. At the first Passover, families were saved by the blood of a lamb, one lamb per family, with blood on each of their doors. The first Passover was a one-time event, always to be commemorated, remembered, and celebrated, but there was only one night when the blood of lambs protected the people from the angel of death that swept through Egypt killing the first-born sons of the Egyptians so that Pharaoh the king would let the people of God go. That was one night in history, forever remembered because it tells us who our God is, one night always commemorated because it is good to give thanks to God for what He has done for His people, but it was one night.

So when the disciples gathered to eat the Passover meal with Jesus, giving thanks didn’t make it different. They celebrated, prayed, praised, and gave thanks. These were all of the normal reasons for the Passover meal. When Jesus took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks, the disciples wouldn’t have expected anything different than a ceremonial meal meant to help them remember that their God had saved His people and was still their only hope for salvation. When Jesus gave thanks, they may even have had the words of Psalm 116 on their lips—singing those words that we heard tonight.

What shall I render to the LORD
For all His benefits toward me?
I will take up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the LORD.
I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
And will call upon the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD
Now in the presence of all His people,
In the courts of the LORD’S house,
In the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!
(verses 12-13, 17-19, NKJV))

So it wasn’t in the giving thanks that made the meal any different, and in some ways, calling this meal the Eucharist doesn’t tell us how different this meal is.

What Jesus gave the disciples on that night, and what He has given all of us, is more than a thanksgiving meal, more than a turkey dinner meant to recall the Pilgrims and Indians. The Lord’s Supper is more than a reenactment, more than a repetition for the sake of remembrance, more than raising a toast to somebody who died, more than putting flowers and a wreath in the shoulder of the highway where someone died in an accident, more than a symbolic gesture to make us think of a spiritual truth, more than a memorial meal shared among friends and family.

The Lord’s Supper is more than that, because it is about God’s action, it is about what God is still doing through this meal.

What the disciples wouldn’t have realized when Jesus took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks, was that He was about to give them something more than a one-night in history memory. He was about to give them a life-eternal moment, a connection to God’s love, grace, and mercy, a visible, tangible way of knowing that their sins are completely forgiven and they have the promise of eternal life.

And He wasn’t just going to give them this gift at the Last Supper, a one-night in history event for those gathered in that Upper Room. No, He was giving them a life-eternal moment to share with all people, to share from generation to generation, to share so that it would come down through the ages and miles so that even a gathering of people in Brookfield, Wisconsin, would be able to experience the same life-giving meal.

And that means it’s much more than saying, “Cheers,” “Salut,” “Prosit,” and raising a glass to our dear brother Jesus. This Eucharist is Jesus offering Himself to us as the means, the way to eternal life. It’s the power of God for salvation.

So I’ve always preferred to call it the Lord’s Supper, to focus on the fact that Jesus invites us to eat and drink, Jesus gave His body and blood for us, Jesus laid down His life so that we could have life. I’ve always preferred to call it the Lord’s Supper. . .but Psalm 116, the appointed psalm for Maundy Thursday made me realize that I don’t give thanks during the Lord’s Supper nearly enough.

I mean, I truly believe that we teach the truth according to Scripture about what the Lord’s Supper is and why it gives us hope. I believe that it is the body and blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine. I believe it brings us the gifts of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. I believe it is about God’s action, not ours. I don’t think we are sacrificing Christ again, that He was sacrificed for all people, for all sins when He died on the cross. I believe the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, a visible, tangible way to connect us with God’s Word of forgiveness.

But I’m afraid that if we let it, we may get ourselves into a trap sometimes of coming to the Lord’s Supper because of what we get out of it. . .never pausing to see that the Lord’s Supper is also a celebration, a memorial, a remembrance of who our Lord is. It’s a thanksgiving meal, it’s the Eucharist, where we turn our hearts to the Lord, rejoicing in what He has done for us, giving Him all the glory, honor, and praise that we can muster, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify His glorious name, evermore praising the Lord.

Psalm 116 verse 17 says, “I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving,” or putting it another way: “I will offer to You a song of thanksgiving.” As one scholar says, “Thanksgiving in the Old Testament is word and act, song and sacrifice, address to God and proclamation to others, performed by an individual but in the presence of other people, lifting up the experience of a human being but only to point to the God who has redeemed, bearing witness to the salvation of a single individual…but calling for thanksgiving by a chorus…. It is thanks, confession, and praise all wrapped up in a single reality,” (Miller, 197-198).

That’s the deep, wide dimension of what it means to give thanks to the Lord; it’s the song of thanksgiving that is ringing out through the whole Lord’s Supper—the Preparation, the Prayers, the Words of Institution, serving the meal, singing the hymns, receiving the dismissal and peace, the Thanksgiving Song, and the Thanksgiving Prayer. There’s a song of thanksgiving running through every part of the Lord’s Supper.

“Thanksgiving…is word and act.” We give thanks to the Lord in the words of our prayers during the Eucharist, but our actions also show our thankfulness—coming to receive what He has given, kneeling before Him, taking the bread and wine, the body and blood with honor and respect for the Lord.

“Thanksgiving is…song and sacrifice.” We sing His praises, but we also make sacrifices to Him. Not animal sacrifices like the Old Testament, and not a repeat of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but as you worship and take the Lord’s Supper, you are giving thanks to the Lord by your sacrifice of time, sacrifice of offerings, sacrifice of a part of your lives that you set apart for the work of the Lord, and the sacrifice of pride, laying down your pride and humbling yourself before God and admitting that you need His forgiveness. That sacrifice is a song of thanksgiving to the Lord.

“Thanksgiving is…address to God and proclamation to others.” You’re coming before the Lord, the Lord’s Supper is about you at the feet of Jesus, but it’s also a way of confessing before others, showing people that you believe in the body and blood of Christ, believe in the Lord, and come to His table to be forgiven and receive salvation.

“Thanksgiving is…performed by an individual…but calling for thanksgiving by a chorus.” We each come forward to receive the body and blood, but we support one another through singing hymns and anthems and saying prayers. We give thanks to the Lord for the salvation He has given all of the people around us.

“Thanksgiving is…lifting up the experience of a human being but only to point to the God who has redeemed.” Yes, when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we are laying our sins before God, believing that we need His grace, and experiencing His mercy, but it doesn’t point to ourselves. It points to our God, it points to who God is. We don’t leave here saying how wonderful we are because we took Communion; we go out giving thanks for our wonderful God who has saved us by this meal.

“Thanksgiving… is thanks, confession, and praise all wrapped up in a single reality.” The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion is thanks, confession, and praise all wrapped up in a single meal. We give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One who is far above our sinfulness, we give Him praise for the body and blood of Christ which is given to us for our salvation.

And that’s why this meal can be called the Eucharist; that’s why this night could be called Thanksgiving, because when Psalm 116 says, “What shall I give to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?.... I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving,” when it says this, it’s not turning this into something about our actions, it’s not undoing our theology which stresses that the Lord’s Supper is all about what God has done, what God gives us. This song of thanksgiving doesn’t undo all of that, because the song of thanksgiving, what we sing by word and act, song and sacrifice, what we offer to the Lord is a response to what He has done. The words we say, the songs we sing, the actions we take, they’re all about giving thanks, but they’re all pointing to what the Lord has done. We wouldn’t have a song of thanksgiving to sing if the Lord didn’t take action.

The Eucharist is a thanksgiving meal beyond any memorial, commemorative, ceremonial meal that we can imagine. A commemorative meal is only powerful as far as it causes us to remember something in the past; the power of the meal is in the memory; the power comes from our action in the commemoration.

The Eucharist is far beyond that, because while we are giving thanks, the meal continues to work its power, the meal continues the power that’s always been there, the meal continues to offer what was offered on that first night, the meal continues to give us the body and blood of our Lord in a mysterious way, the meal continues to grant us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

We’re not conjuring up thankfulness for the past; we’re continually being prompted to give thanks through the entire meal because God is still here, God is still giving, God is still working His power, so that even when you think the meal is completed, it continues to feed and nourish your soul.

So don’t be afraid to give thanks tonight, don’t be afraid to be singing, “Eucharist with a grateful heart,” because your song of thankfulness isn’t your focus. It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who takes the bread, breaks it, gives thanks and says, “Take eat, this is My body.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who takes the cup, give thanks, and says, “Take drink, this is My blood.” As you give thanks, He gives thanks. As you give thanks, He gives you His body and blood. As you give thanks, He gives forgiveness. As you give thanks, He saves. We celebrate, commemorate, remember, and experience His action in this Eucharist tonight.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lenten Midweek: “Psalms for Worship, Psalms for Lent”
Psalm 67 - “Benediction”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This commentary by James Boice refers to Psalm 67 as an unpopular psalm. He says that because very few other commentators or scholars spend very much time on Psalm 67—if at all—in comparison to popular psalms like Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

But I guess it surprises me that Psalm 67 would be unpopular, because when I read it, I immediately see the great connection it has to the Benediction in worship. That’s the very reason we’ve been using verses from Psalm 67 as our Benediction on these Wednesday evenings.

Psalm 67 says, “God be merciful to us and bless us, And cause His face to shine upon us,….God, our own God, shall bless us.”

It’s so strikingly similar to the benediction, the blessing that the Lord gave to Moses in book of Numbers, a benediction for Aaron and the priests to use to bless all of the people. It’s the Aaronic Benediction, the traditional Benediction we use in worship, from Numbers chapter 6 that Pastor Dan read this evening as our Old Testament reading: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD look upon you with favor and give you peace.”

Psalm 67 is written with the purpose of reminding the reader of this blessing that they here every time they come into God’s house. They’ve been sent out into the world with God’s blessing, sent out with a peace that can only come from the Lord.

I guess it just surprises me that people haven’t spent more time studying Psalm 67, or using it in worship. I guess it just surprises me that it would be known as an unpopular psalm, because for me, the Benediction is one of the most moving parts of the worship service. So a psalm that reminds me of the Benediction. . .well, that’s a psalm that should be popular.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church, so I grew up hearing the traditional Benediction. Perhaps that’s why I am so fond of it, and if you’ve come to Immanuel from a different background or tradition, perhaps those words—“The Lord bless you and keep you”—don’t quite excite you in the same way, but no matter how you feel about this Benediction, this blessing of God, let me you tell some stories about how I came to be so fond of those words from the Lord.

First of all, the Benediction has always been comforting to me, because as long as I can remember, it’s been a picture in my mind. Now this picture of a smiley face was drawn by our son, Samuel, just a couple of weeks ago, but the picture captures something of what I always imagine when I hear the Benediction: “His face shall shine upon us.”

The Benediction paints a picture for us before we leave church and go back to our daily routine. The Benediction helps us to picture the Father in heaven looking down us, following us with His eyes, not in a scary, Big Brother, surveillance camera sort of way. No, the Father’s face is shining down on us, shining with the brightness of the sun, shining with a smiley face to fill the sky, shining down like those rays of light you see coming through the clouds on a gorgeous day.

Even when I was younger and didn’t understand everything that was happening in the worship service, still those words of the Benediction made sense to me—“The Lord look upon you with favor”—because I knew that look. When you’re young, when you’re little, it’s the look that you’re always hoping for. Everyone is tall, everyone is looking down on you from above, and so you’re always hoping you’ll see a smile, a bright smile, a face of love, pride, and joy when they look down at you.

So it only made sense that we’re all leaving church, needing to know that God’s big smiley face is shining down on us, looking on us with love, forgiveness, mercy, and the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. We’re leaving church where we just confessed our sins, heard God’s Word about our sins, heard a sermon where we had to think some more about changing our ways; we’re leaving a church service where we also heard forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness, but now when we leave, we need to hear it just one more time. And this time it comes with the perfect image to carry with us during the rest of the week: God’s face shining down us.

So the Benediction was always one of the comforting parts of worship for me, but then I left for college. I remember that my dad encouraged me to keep going to church once I was on campus, but the temptations of freedom, independence, and sleep often won out over getting up for church. Most of the first year at Northwestern—without a good Lutheran option nearby—I would get up just barely in time to go to the campus chapel service on Sunday. It was mostly a watered-down affair, short on Gospel, short on attendees, and not much of a fellowship building experience. It was hard to stay motivated about getting up in time.

Except that the campus chapel had a student choir that often closed the service by singing the Benediction, the traditional Benediction, “the Lord bless you and keep you,” in this beautiful arrangement by Peter Lutkin.

Peter Lutkin was Northwestern University’s first dean of the School of Music. A small recital hall named for him remains on campus.

Even if I didn’t get much out of those worship services at the chapel, I left feeling strengthened, comforted, and hopeful, because of those traditional words, those words of Scripture, that Benediction that was so familiar, the image of God smiling down on me with this new melody I sang to myself all the way back to my dorm and my sleeping roommate.

Much like I said last week, there’s something to be said for tradition, repetition, and hearing the ancients worship with us. The Benediction connects us with the worship as God designed it for the people of Israel thousands of years ago. For me specifically, the chance to hear those traditional words, those words of God meant that God was still able to encourage me during a worship service that often wandered away from His Word of hope. Despite what else was happening in worship, His Word came through loud and clear, beautifully sung by that choir, beautiful for the way it sent me out knowing again that through Jesus, God smiles on us with His love, mercy, and forgiveness.

Thankfully, many of the congregations in Evanston used Lutkin’s arrangement of the Benediction, and it was always one of the things that helped me in my spiritual life as I spent a lot of time in strange congregations, strange worship services, during the kind of nomadic college experience.

And then I went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis where I learned one more thing that would unleash the power, meaning, and comfort of the Benediction.

I grew up, like I suppose many of you, thinking that to make the sign of the cross was a Catholic thing. Lutherans didn’t do that. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that making the sign of the cross was superstitious, and I knew that we weren’t supposed to be superstitious, so I avoided making the sign of the cross completely.

So it came as quite a shock to go to chapel that first year at the Seminary and see all of my fellow students—Lutherans, Lutherans studying to be pastors—and they’re all crossing themselves. At the Invocation, at the Absolution, at the Lord’s Supper, at the Benediction, a lot of them were making the sign of the cross. I couldn’t believe it, because I thought we weren’t supposed to do that.

Until a friend showed me Luther’s catechism. There in the section of the Daily Prayers a little sentence that I suppose all of my pastors had skipped over in Confirmation class, not wanting to stress something that only Catholics did, and there Luther says, “In the morning when you wake up, make the sign of the cross, and say, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Luther encourages us to make the sign of the cross. I was dumbfounded. And as awkward as it seemed the first time, I tried it the next time I went to chapel. The Invocation: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Absolution: “I forgive all of your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And then the Benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD look upon you with favor and give you peace.”

I was sold. Making the cross made the Benediction complete. Oh, I mean, God giving me His blessing with that picture of His face shining down on me, that’s His Word promising me His favor, but making the sign of the cross brought it all together, these words from the Old Testament with the Gospel of the New Testament, the blessing of the Lord brought together with the cross and resurrection of Christ.

For me, it just developed the picture even more. The Benediction make me think of God smiling down on me, but making the sign of the cross makes me feel like that’s God’s embrace, His hug, His arms wrapping around me through Jesus.

God’s embrace. That’s not a bad way to think about what happens in the Benediction. God is sending us out with His blessing, with His love, mercy, and forgiveness, He’s sending us out with His watchful protection, with His joy over us showing up in His shining face, but He’s also sending us out with His embrace, His hug. He’s lifted us out of our sins, lifted us out of our despair, troubles, grief, and darkness. He’s lifted us up, embraced us, and holds us forever in His protection.

So now you’ll see me making the sign of the cross over myself, and I encourage you to do the same. Not out of obligation, not because you’re a bad Christian if you don’t, not because the ritual makes the blessing more real, or anything like that. No, I’d just encourage you to think about making the sign of the cross at the Benediction, because I want you to remember that when worship ends, when you hear the Benediction, that God is sending you while He’s looking down on you with favor, His face shining down on you, and His embrace, His arms wrapped around you in love.

You know, going back to that commentary James Boice, he may have called Psalm 67 an unpopular psalm, but he also calls it a missional psalm, a psalm about missions. And I suppose he’s right, because besides talking about God’s blessings, Psalm 67 also says, “[Let] Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let all the peoples praise You. Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”

This psalm is about God’s blessing going out in the world, His blessing drawing all people to Him, His blessing being over all of the nations.

Which makes me realize one more thing about the Benediction: it’s about mission. When the worship service comes to a close, when we’re sent out with God’s blessing, His face shining upon us, His embrace around us through the cross, He’s also sending us out to share that blessing with the world, with all of the nations.

Psalm 67 is a missional psalm, and the Benediction is about the mission, too. It’s God’s mission; it’s what He’s done for us through Jesus Christ; it’s about His forgiveness, love, and mercy; it’s His gift to us as we leave the service, but it’s also a gift for the whole world.

If we go out thinking about God’s smiley face, if we go out singing a Benediction song (like we will tonight), if we go out knowing that God’s blessing comes through the cross, well, then we also go out realizing that we’ve been given something that God wants to give to the whole world.

So tonight, and for as many times as you can remember, I want you to take all comfort in the Benediction, but also see it as the Benediction Mission. And I want you to think about it this way: when you get a chance to tell someone about Jesus, what you’re really hoping is that one day they’ll be in a worship service, they’ll get to hear the Benediction, they’ll get to see God’s face shining down on them, they’ll get to sing words about God’s grace and favor, they’ll get to be embraced by the cross, they’ll know God’s wonderful blessing of salvation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. That’s your mission: invite someone to hear the Benediction, and now I invite you to hear that Benediction—please stand.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Lenten Midweek: “Psalms for Worship, Psalms for Lent”
Psalm 136 - “Prayers of the Church”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I spend so much time talking about popular culture and how the Gospel connects with today’s world that perhaps it looks like I don’t have a sense of history or tradition or how the past connects with us.

But the truth is, I love when I hear the ancients singing with us, the ancestors of our faith speaking words with us. The Prayers of the Church are just one such moment when we join our voices in a way that echoes how God’s people have come together in prayer for generations.

Our focus tonight is on Psalm 136 as we explore the Prayers of the Church in worship, and I selected Psalm 136 because of its pattern, written for use in worship, written with the priest or leader calling out each line and then the congregation responding with the refrain.

On page 7 of the bulletin, and on the screen (click on the picture to the right to see entire bulletin insert), we’ll look at three different translations of this refrain. The first, the New International Version, is perhaps what we’re most familiar with these days: “His love endures forever.” After each portion of the psalm, after each part of the prayer, the people respond saying that God’s love will last forever, go on for eternity, and so whatever God has done in the past, however He has shown His love in history, we can trust that He continues that same love, that He will always love His people.

The second translation comes from the poet Gordon Jackson who beautifully translates and paraphrases each psalm in his book, The Lincoln Psalter, which I’ve used in various places for our liturgy on these Wednesday nights. His version of the Psalm 136 refrain is: “For His love goes on forever.” I like that, and we’ve been using his version in our Prayers of the Church just because it helps us remember what it means that God’s love “endures.” His love goes on and on and on and on.

The third version comes from the poet John Milton—a paraphrased version that puts it into English metrical poetry. Milton lived from 1608-1674 and wrote this psalm when he was 15 years old. Since the poem is nearly 400 years old, I suppose it makes sense that his version takes a moment for us to understand. Milton’s refrain says: “For his mercies aye [“ā”] endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.” “Aye” [“ā”] means “forever, always.” In other words, Milton’s refrain says, “For his mercies always endure, they’re always faithful, always sure.”

Now I wanted you to see these different version of the refrain, because I believe the beauty of Psalm 136, the history and tradition of Psalm 136 are in the refrain, because there are different places in the Old Testament that a psalm, song, or prayer was written for use in worship, but many times they used this same refrain—which meant that the people we’re freed up to simply respond, to concentrate on what was being said about God and to God, to let the priest lead them in worship and prayer, and to always have their response on their lips, always ready to respond with a heartfelt refrain: “For His love goes on forever.”

And that pattern of prayer and refrain, psalm and refrain, is very similar to our Prayers of the Church. The pastor calls out in prayer, speaking the prayers of the people, and then when he says, “Lord, in Your mercy,” it signals all of us to join in the refrain, “Hear our prayer.” It’s a call and response pattern, it’s a pattern that’s similar to Psalm 136, it’s a way to free us up in worship so that we can simply concentrate on the prayers, on what we’re saying to God, about God, what we’re asking for, what we’re taking to God in prayer. We’re free to concentrate on the prayer, and the refrain, the response is already on our lips: “Hear our prayer.” The pastor reminds us that God hears and answers our prayers because of His mercy, a love that we don’t deserve, a love that flows freely from His heart, and so when the pastor says, “Lord, in Your mercy,” the response flows freely from our mouths: “Hear our prayer.”

There’s plenty to be said about innovation, creativity, and variety in worship, and we certainly don’t shy away from that. However, when you think about Psalm 136, when you think about the refrain, when you think about how we all can join in the Prayers of the Church, it’s a great reminder that there’s a place for history, tradition, and repetition.

If you don’t think we get excited about repetition, listen to this (10 second sound clip).

Camp Randall stadium, before the fourth quarter, they play House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and the place goes nuts. They’ve been doing this since 1998, repeating it every game for 10 seasons, and no one seems bored.

Why? Why is that kind of repetition okay? Because we like a certain amount of repetition. We like it when there are little cue ins, little signals to us that something is about to happen that has happened before, signals like “Jump Around” that we know, that we call us to participate. “Lord, in Your mercy,” is that kind of signal, something we repeat to call us to pray, to get you to jump around in your heart, focused on praying and seeking the Lord. “Lord, in Your mercy,/hear our prayer.”

That’s what the refrain of Psalm 136 is—a cue-in, a signal, a “Jump Around” for the people of Israel. When they heard the priest say, “O give thanks to the Lord for His goodness,” they knew right away that their response was: “His love goes on forever.” They knew, because it was an ancient tradition, a refrain went way back in history.

And you’ve already seen echoes of that history in tonight’s worship. We started with the hymn “Oh, that I Had a Thousand Voices” which was inspired by the psalm David wrote which is recorded in 1 Chronicles chapter 16—our Old Testament reading tonight. David’s psalm is a song he wrote for the people to sing as the Ark of the Covenant was being brought into the Tent of Meeting, the place of worship in Jerusalem. The psalm celebrates what God has done, and the people respond with the refrain: “His love endures forever.”

Years later when David’s son, Solomon, completed the Temple, the people again joined in song as the Lord’s glory filled the Temple. They pulled out the old, traditional refrain, their liturgical, worshipful version of “Jump Around,” and they sang, “His love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7)

That was around 950 BC. Flash-forward 300 years when Jeremiah is prophet, and he is calling on the people to repent or face the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet, Jeremiah also carries a promise from the Lord, a promise to save a remnant, a faithful portion of His people, and in painting the picture of the restoration and salvation to come in future days, in helping the people see that picture of what God would eventually do, Jeremiah pulls out the traditional song and says, “there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD, saying, “Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good; his love endures forever” (33:10b-11).

And then perhaps 100 years after that, when the second Temple was completed in 516, according to Ezra chapter 3, the people took their places as was directed by David—500 years earlier—and they sang the age-old refrain, the ageless refrain: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And that’s probably when Psalm 136 was written and used.

Now when we read Psalm 136, now when we use Psalm 136 in worship, now when we hear those words, “His love goes on forever,” or when we join in that similar pattern and refrain in our Prayers, “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer,” now we know that we’re standing with the ancestors, standing on the shoulders of giants, hearing the same cue-in, signal, the call to sing and pray, hearing an ancient “Jump Around” that turns our attention to calling on the Lord, seeking the Lord, crying out for God, pleading with Him, thanking Him, praising Him, waiting for His answer to our prayers. “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.” “O give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, for His love goes on forever.” “Jump around, because the Lord hears your prayers.”

Of course, if Psalm 136 is 2500 years old, and if it is mainly praising God for the things He had done in the past, perhaps it’s still hard to see how this psalm has much to do with us. Sure, the refrain comes up in our hymns, it has that same pattern we use in our prayers, but Psalm 136 itself—does it really have much to do with us today?

Well, on your insert, I broke down Psalm 136 into five sections. And the theme or focus of each section shows up in our Prayers of the Church, so Psalm 136 has everything to do with us today.

Let’s just take a brief look at the five sections, and I’ll show you what I mean. You can take this home and study it more in-depth, use it for your prayers at home, but just take a quick look with me right now. I’ll put it on the screen, too.

The first section praises God for who He is, for His qualities, His characteristics. I titled this section, “He is I AM,” meaning that God is “I AM”—that’s His personal Name, Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM. He is our God, our incredible God, and our Prayers often praise and thank God for who He is, for His love, forgiveness, faithfulness, or as our refrain says, “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.” We seek God in prayer, because of who He is. He is I AM.

The second section is titled “He made what is,” because it focuses on praising God for everything that He has made—the world, the sun, moon, and stars. And really, when we go to God asking Him to heal people, to watch over newborn babies, to give food to the poor, to protect people as they travel, when we pray for these things, we are acknowledging that God is the only One who can help us with these things. He’s the only One, because He made the world, He is over the world, He is in control of the world, He has the power to grant these prayers, because He made what is.

The third section focuses on what God did to free the people from Egypt, and now we might even more feel like Psalm 136 is history and doesn’t have as much to do with us—unless we see what this section tells us about God. The people of Israel didn’t keep bringing up being freed from Egypt because they all felt connected to that event that happened 1000 years earlier. They brought it up, they remembered it, because it reminded them who their God is. “He destroys the powers that be.” In history, the powers that be were Pharaoh and Egypt. At the time of Psalm 136, the powers were the Babylonians who took the people into exile. And now in our day and age, now the powers that be that threaten to destroy God’s people are sin, death, and the devil, false teaching, and anything that would threaten the Church and our faith. So as we pray for missionaries, as we pray for help in temptation, as we pray that God would give us courage to speak His Word, now we’re remembering that He destroys the powers that be, that He can answer our prayers because He can defeat the powers of this world—all the way to defeating the power of death and giving us the promise of the resurrection through Jesus.

The fourth section, and now we’re on page 8 of the bulletin, the fourth section is titled: “He leads the leaderless and landless.” It’s a section that again goes back to a very specific time in history as God led the people in the desert as they wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt. He led them when they didn’t know where to go; He led them when they didn’t have a land to call their own. Again, it may seem like it doesn’t have much to do with us today, but this section of Psalm 136 is similar to when we pray for the leaders in our Church, in our congregation, those who are guiding us in our mission. It’s similar to when we pray for building projects and long-range planning. It’s similar to when we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we wander this world. If God was the leader of the leaderless and landless back in the desert, then we can trust that He will hear our prayers and be our leader today.

Finally, it seems like the psalm just continues to talk about history when it says, “He kept us in mind when we were oppressed,” talking about past slavery or recent exile, but I think there’s a shift here at the end of the psalm. That’s why I titled the section: “He remembers.” No matter what kind of oppression, no matter what kind of exile, no matter where you find yourself struggling and feeling separated from God, he remembers you. He hears your prayers. His love goes on forever.

We go to God with the Prayers of the Church precisely because of this section of Psalm 136. We go to God, because we know that He keeps us in mind when we are oppressed by sin, death, and the devil, and the world around us. We go to God, because He saved us from these enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We go to God, because He gives food to all His creatures, because He cares for our daily needs. We go to God, and we give thanks from the heart to the God of heaven, and His love goes on forever.

As you might have noticed, I gave you some quotes from Milton’s version and showed you with arrows how they match up with Psalm 136. As a way of bringing all of this history together, bringing this ancient psalm that echoes the even more ancient refrain of the people of Israel, as a way of calling us to celebrate the Lord with a refrain as we pray to Him, we’re now going to sing Milton’s version as it was put to song. You’ve got the hymn at the bottom of page 8; it’ll be on the screens, too.

As we sing, I want you to think about how these words come from long, long ago, but still carry what is on our hearts. We pray to God and trust Him to hear us, because He is I AM, He made what is, He destroys the powers that be, He leads the leaderless and landless, and He remembers.

Let’s sing now, and make this hymn your prayer. Please stand.