Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sweet Hour of Prayer

Thanks to my friend, Adam Willett, for this blog post. Coincidently, you can hear Adam preach at Perryville Second Baptist Church coming up in October! Click here for more details.

Here's Adam's post:

I would imagine not many of us have gone through life without having at least heard of the song, Sweet Hour of Prayer. But I wonder how many of us have actually experienced prayer that we would describe as “sweet”; or being so wrapped up in prayer that we lose track of time. Maybe the idea of an hour of prayer doesn’t even register because you’ve never had a consistent 15 minutes of prayer. If you would consider your prayer life lacking, you're certainly not alone. Many in our churches, I would dare to say most, don’t have a prayer life they would be glad to speak about. Much like our Bible reading, I believe the problem lies with the fact that most of us have never been taught. We don’t know how to pray because we've never been exposed to good prayer and have never known what it is to personally and intimately meet with the Lord every single day. We try, we struggle, and then we give up. We feel hopeless before God and that simply won't do for the Christian. The good news is that we can be taught and we can learn how to pray.

I would suggest that the first real battle we face when trying to have a meaningful prayer life, is the battle of consistency. If you are not consistent, then everything will fall apart. We know that it’s true with other common goals, like diet and exercise, and it is just as true with prayer. We must be willing and determined to spend time with the Lord every single day. That’s not always easy to start considering most of us already have a routine and structure set up that we don’t want to part with, so this may very well mean that we will have to sacrifice other things that take up our time. Jesus would wake up before everyone else to meet with his Father in private. Even though Jesus was fully God, He was also fully man and was willing to sacrifice sleep in order to have that time in prayer. If you are not willing to sacrifice your time for Christ, then your priorities would suggest that time with the Lord is unimportant. No lover would ever accept a beloved that didn’t care about being with them. So it should be for the Christian. That means that we must discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. (1 Timothy 4:7)

I think something also important for the Christian prayer time is that it is done in private. I referenced the prayer life of Christ above. He would wake up to be alone with the Father. Personally, I can't seem to focus with a million things going on around me. It is almost completely unprofitable for me to try to read my Bible with noise around me, much less when I try to pray. Of course, I still try to pray throughout the day, but that set apart time with God should certainly be an alone time. We can't rely on a prayer life consisting of sporadic 15-second prayers throughout our day. While we are called to “pray constantly”, that alone is not adequate. We must be spending time with God alone every day. Also, Jesus told us to do it this way in Matthew 6. It is not only the most profitable but a direct command from Jesus. This allows us to be honest and lay bare before God; with nobody to impress or even to hide behind. We can cast our petitions before God with only Christ Jesus there as our witness. We have many that are scared to death or even refuse to pray to God in public. Perhaps it is because they have done so little praying to Him in private.

Now we must look at how we should pray. Most would say they find themselves praying the same old ways about the same old things. I'm sure you’ve been in services and heard a church member pray the same things he prays every week. It is because we are creatures of habit that often struggle to move outside of our routines. This is the same for our private prayers. The answer is not simply to go to our thesaurus and come up with alternative words that say the same things. The answer is not that we need to be more creative. The answer is that we need to become more Biblical; and I mean that quite literally. We need to go to the Bible to learn how to pray and we also need to be praying the Bible. First, we have example after example of saints going to God in Scripture. The entire book of Psalms is prayers and petitions before God! We also have the prayers of many New Testament saints that pray by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are in no way lacking examples of how we should pray and what our prayers should be focused on. It is clear in the Bible that the saints prayed in a way that would seem strange to our 21st-century congregations. The bulk of their prayers weren’t about the physical well-being of others. In fact, physical issues are mention few times in the prayers of New Testament saints. That seems odd considering it was the New Testament saint who experienced much persecution and hardship. Yet, their concerns centered on growing in Christ and bringing God all glory. Imagine how different our prayer lives would be if we found ourselves praying with Christ at the center rather than ourselves. We would be far more biblical in that way, and far more profitable.

I believe it is also extremely helpful to pray passages of Scripture. This has been the most profitable adjustment that I have ever made, and it may be the case for you as well. The Scriptures are inspired by God Himself, so what better way to ensure that our prayers are in line with what He would want us to pray? If we find ourselves often not knowing what to pray, praying through Scripture allows us to have guidance and direction rather than trying to be creative and innovative. Start, for instance, with the Psalms. Read through a Psalm and then pray to the Lord that very word! Scripture is often filled with an author’s own spiritual concern and pleas before God. While praying through Scripture, we are able to use their words as a springboard of thoughts and suggestions of prayer. Look to the very first Psalm as an example. The psalmist says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” So we could perhaps pray, “Lord, let me not take counsel from ungodly sources. Keep me from relying on the counsel of the world or the guidance of those around me, rather than guidance from you.” Later the psalmist states that the blessed man is one who delights “in the law of the Lord, and on his law, he meditates day and night.” So, we could plead with the Lord that we would delight in God’s law and that we would enjoy Scripture and that we would conform our lives to Christ. We cry, “God, give me a joy like the psalmist; a joy that comes from you alone.” We pray for discipline to be one who meditates on God's Word and who relies on it for our strength. Are you starting to see how profitable this could be? Praying Scripture never gets old and never runs dry. It never leads us in the wrong direction and never fails to point us to our Creator. Praying Scripture only brings us closer to the God of the Bible and to the one to which our prayers are for.

Lastly, I would suggest writing down prayers. This helps us to focus our thoughts when our minds want to do anything but. It also helps us remember what to be praying for. You have probably been in a situation in which you told someone that you would pray for them, only to later forget. It is incredibly simple but it may be what helps you keep your thoughts in order.

Prayer is essential for every believer. It is not something that we can ignore or something we reserve to those fleeting moments right before we fall asleep at night. We should be committed to spending time with the Lord every day. If you only have a small amount of time, spend some of it reading Scripture and some of it praying through Scripture. Also, start small. If you have a meager prayer life, then you are probably going to feel lost trying to spend two hours with the Lord each morning. You can't spend years distancing yourself from the Lord and expect Him to flood your prayer closet with His presence. You must labor in prayer. Spending daily time with the Lord is vital for the Christian and must be something we long for. It is impossible for the believer to have a heart for Christ, while at the same time being apathetic toward prayer. We must be willing to fight for communion with God even when you feel cold and distance. Your seeking the Lord in prayer and Bible reading is what cultivates a heart that God is pleased to draw near to.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Why You Should Preach Dressed Up

I'm sort of snickering as I write this because I know you probably clicked this link thinking I was going to write a post about why you should wear a suit and tie to preach in. As an aside, I don't think you should look like you just rolled out of bed when you preach, and I personally like a suit, but that's another blog post.

For this one, I'm talking about the dress referred to in Jeremiah 1:17 -
But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.
That's from the ESV which sort of loses the luster of 'gird up thy loins' as translated in the Authorized Version.

It's a dangerous method to jump straight from the office of Old Testament prophet to New Testament preacher without any clarifications. The prophets of the Old Testament literally heard the Word of God audibly. Furthermore, the office of prophet in the Old Testament was fulfilled perfectly by Christ who is our Prophet, Priest, and King. Finally, the prophet in the Old Testament is most similar to the New Testament Apostle, the office which is no longer in service to the church.

However, with all of those qualifications aside, I think there are some excellent applications for preachers of the gospel. I'm sure I'm not the first one to use these alliterations, but let's consider some encouragement from the text for New Testament preachers.

Preachers should:

1. Prepare for the Task

The LORD tells Jeremiah to 'dress for work.' In other words, prepare for the task. Preachers need to preach dressed up. And by dressed up, I don't mean a suit and tie, but from a prepared heart. And not that preparing for sermons is not important, but I don't think this text means that kind of preparation. I think it means to prepare for the reality of the task. Realize the gravity of what it means to proclaim the Word of the living God. Gird up thy loins!

When we proclaim the word of the living God in its proper context we are saying to the people 'Thus saith the Lord.' This isn't child's play. This isn't waking up and fixing a flat tire. This is preaching the truth of God's Word. Our hearts should tremble at the Word of God (Isaiah 66:2) and at the awesome task we have in preaching the very oracles of the living God. Don't walk into the pulpit, or street corner, or any other preaching venue jovial. Have a reverence for the task at hand. Dress up and preach.

Preaching the Word is a man's task. It's not for boys looking for a quick buck. It's not for charlatans. Preachers, prepare for the task. Preach dressed up.

2. Preach the Truth

Again, Jeremiah had a direct audible command from the Lord. "Say to them everything I command you." Not the same for us. However, we do have His infallible, inerrant, all authoritative, all sufficient Bible. The 66 canonical books of Scripture are the very commands, promises, and descriptions of God from God. You aren't smarter than God. Preach what He says. You don't have a better understanding of how to win people to Christ than God. Preach what He says. You don't know how to grow a church better than God. Preach what He says. Preach the truth. If the Word of God says it, you preach it.

Gentleman, let's preach the Word. Let us not preach our hobby horse, or ear tickling sermonettes. Let us dress up and proclaim the truth of the Living God. Let us endeavor to preach the full counsel of the Word of God. Let's preach book by book, verse by verse, and not shy away from any of it. Preach the easy doctrines. Preach the hard doctrines. Preach when you know the people will say 'amen!' Preach when you know it might be hard for them to hear. Preach when they pat you on the back and preach when it may cause them to talk behind it. Preach everything.

It is the truth of God that sanctifies His people (John 17:17). It is the Word of God that is a rock and a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29). It is the Word of God that is a sword (Hebrews 4:12). People don't need our jokes, charisma, hair gel, or eisegesis. They need Scripture. Preach what God says and see Him work.

3. Persevere without Timidity 

I'm sure most people reading this are familiar with Jeremiah's ministry. He saw basically no real fruit in terms of nationwide repentance. But what is his charge? Do not be dismayed! There is nothing more discouraging in preaching than being prepared, giving a solid proclamation, and seeing no visible fruit. But what is our charge? To keep preaching. We aren't given a pass in being boring, but we do need to remember that the power is not in us, but in the Word. After all, God tells Jeremiah that He is watching over His Word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12).

In other words, as we faithfully expound Scripture, God is using it to bring about His sovereign purposes. Trust in that! Do your due diligence in sermon preparation and prayer. But when you preach you must understand that God is bringing about change not because of you, but through His own Holy Word.

The word for 'dismayed' in our text carries the connotation of fear or terror. If we are rightly understanding the fear of the Lord, there is no room left for the fear of men. Persevere without timidity. Keep preaching in boldness. I'm not saying 'yell' at people. Decibel level doesn't equal passion. But people can tell whether or not you've been gripped by the text or if you're just another dog and pony show going through the motions for a pay check. No, my brothers. May we not preach that way. Persevere without timidity. Preach with passion for you are God's herald. What can man do to us if God is for us? True, they threw Jeremiah down a well. And they threw John Bunyan in a jail. And they threw Adoniram Judson in a Burmese prison. And they killed Nicholas Ridley. But guess what? We won't answer to men after death but to our holy and awesome God. Fear Him and preach the Word. Keep laboring brothers. Persevere in the task. Persevere without timidity. God is for us in Christ. Preach the truth.

"I am with you declares the LORD" (Jeremiah 1:19). And I don't think its unacceptable to the text to claim this promise for preachers who are faithfully expounding God's word.

I'm thankful for faithful men of God like Jeremiah. More importantly, I'm thankful for our true Prophet, Jesus Christ who bore the wrath of God in our place. Because of His atoning work we have a right standing with God and truly good news to proclaim to the Nations. Proclaim it all. Preach the Law and the Gospel. Prepare for the task, preach the truth, and persevere without Timidity. Our God is faithful. This is why you should preach dressed up.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Don't Sing Noisy Songs

Some churches like to crank it up to 11. But honestly, this post isn't about decibel level. It's about noise. Noise, after all, doesn't require electric amplifiers.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (Amos 5:23)

The Lord addresses this to Israel who had been treating religious practices as a mere formality. If you read Amos 5:21-22 you see the Lord say some astonishing things:

I hate
I despise
I take no delight in
I will not accept
I will not look upon

Woe to us if the Lord should say such a thing about our worship services!

In American evangelicalism, we have been conditioned to believe that just because we show up to church on a Sunday morning, that God is present to bless and He is pleased with what is going on. I think we need to think through that a little better, for God is not after our lips or hand motions, but our hearts. Many churches think intentionally, and some even pay a staff person, to create a good 'atmosphere' of Sunday morning worship. I do believe careful thinking about worship is important, but I also know it's possible to have a service that moves the people emotionally and is simultaneously offensive to God.

Yes, I wrote that: offensive to God. So offensive that He might just say "I hate it" or "take away from me the noise of your songs." Again, this isn't about volume, but hypocrisy. The Hebrew word for 'noise' in this text carries the connotation of 'multitude'. I think what it is communicating is that the songs being sung were just layers of empty noise not because of the style or words of the particular song, but because of the lack of honesty in the heart. There may have been a lot happening musically, but there was no substance to the worship. Instead, the songs just piled up in such a way before God that the were like a burden to Him. 

Is God weary of your worship?

It's actually sort of alarming how well we can sing songs in church without a heart that is fully devoted to God. The Israelites were going through the motions of worship but they harbored sin in their hearts. For us, this isn't about singing out of the Heavenly Highways vs. the newest Christian songs out there. This is about singing from a heart that is clinging to Christ and repentant of sin vs. singing from a heart that has no real interest in treasuring Christ. 

It's scary how easily a noisy song can lead our hearts to believe everything is ok just because we feel worshipful. It's the song you've sang since you were 5 or it has the beautiful melody or the bridge almost always causes a tear to form in your eye. But if we are singing these songs with a heart that loves sin, God doesn't want to hear them.

Doctrinal fidelity does matter. I think songs that are more 'me centered' and devoid of any clear gospel or could be sung to a boyfriend/girlfriend just as well as to Jesus do tend to be more dangerous in deceiving our hearts.  We sometimes think that by virtue of us singing how much we love Jesus that it automatically makes it so, all the while our hearts are clinging to sin. Or we can sing the same line of a song so many times that we are convinced we believe it even if our hearts aren't really submitting to the truth (the Senior Saints call these '7/11' songs - 7 words sang 11x!). So, singing songs that are gospel heavy, doctrinally sound, and Godward focused are vital. However, doctrinally sound songs don't necessarily preclude noisy-ness. It's reasonable to assume that the Israelites were singing at least a portion of the Psalms. Is there anything more doctrinally sound than songs breathed out by God Himself? Your lips can go on autopilot singing some of the most beautiful and gospel rich songs ever written all the while your heart is not truly on the same page. Instead, it's secretly in love with gossip, sexual immorality, drunkenness, the idolatry of Sports, greed, lying, and the list goes on. It would be like telling your wife how much you love her while fantasizing about another woman. It's spiritual adultery. Singing the right type of songs does not necessarily mean that God is pleased with our worship. He's after our hearts.

So, how do we avoid singing noisy songs? 

You guessed correctly: it begins with the heart. It's a really tragic endeavor to create an atmosphere of worship that thousands of people want to be part of but that the Triune God wants no part in. You need to remember that our hearts can be terribly deceitful and even compel us to continue in noisy singing simply because it makes us feel good and numbs out the reality of our situation. 

Does your whole heart belong to the Lord? 

When you sing, is it an act of faith trusting in the great promises you're singing about? Are you approaching God as though He must accept you by virtue of your attendance at a worship service or are you clinging to the hope of the gospel that God accepts you based on the finished work of Christ? Is there sin in your heart that maybe even others don't know about that you need to repent of, trusting that the blood of Jesus is enough to cover even that sin? Whatever you are clinging to other than Jesus, it's not worth it, turn from it and trust Christ.

We can also avoid singing noisy songs by taking more seriously the corporate worship of God's people. If Sunday mornings are just 'sometimes' given to the Lord, then you're not taking worship seriously. If Sunday mornings are something you just 'show up to' without any though of the 'one anothers' of Scripture or any prayer for your leaders or your own heart, then perhaps you could stand to take worship a little more seriously. Christianity is personal, don't get me wrong. But it's not just personal. If you miss the seriousness of the corporate aspect of Christianity, you are missing a big portion of the Bible.

We can further avoid noisy songs by remembering that the heart is not meant to lead but to be led. This means that truth must inform our worship. Yes, it's true that we can get stuck in truth without feeling but I think the more prevelant danger in many places is feeling without truth. Knowing who God is, what He has done, and how that applies to our lives is vital for true worship.

The people of God are singing people because we serve a singing God (Zephaniah 3:17). As His image bearers, we delight to sing to Him for who He is and what He has done for us through the work of Christ. What a travesty to let singing become mere formality and noise! 

I want to encourage you that the gospel is still big enough to address the sin of noisy singing. Jesus' death is still enough to cleanse us of the sin of mere formality in worship. So, rest in Jesus today and don't sing noisy songs.