The Heart of Worship

What is at the heart of worship for you? Is it the beautiful stained glass windows, the prayers, the music, the message … where in worship do you connect with God? Sadly, a lot of folks walk through church doors without any expectation of meeting God there. Church can become a duty, a ”check in the box,” or worse, a see-and-be-seen social event, indicating that our hearts for true worship have grow cold.

Matt Redman’s song “I’m Coming Back to the Heart of Worship” serves as our text today. It dates back to the late 1990s, born from a period of apathy within Matt’s home church, Soul Survivor, in Watford, England. Despite the country’s overall contribution to the current worship revival, Redman’s congregation was struggling to find meaning in its musical outpouring at the time.

“There was a dynamic missing, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”

Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor, Mike Pilavachi, asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” Read more here.

King of endless worth
No one could express
How much you deserve
Though I’m weak and poor
All I have is yours
Every single breath
I’ll bring you more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what you have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart

And I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about you
It’s all about you, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about you
It’s all about you, Jesus.

At the heart of Christian worship are awe, praise, reverence, yielding, and adoration. Worship ignites the human spirit as the spark of God touches our souls. In Exodus 25:22 God says, “And I will meet with you there and talk to you….” And so we should strive to commit to a return to pure and true worship this Advent, where we communicate heart-to-heart with our Holy God. 

Commu­nity worship experiences bring the corporate body into concentrat­ing on God. The same principle holds true in individual worship, as our center of attention is focused on the living God. Did you make it to church last Sunday? Check in the box! But what is your plan for the rest of the week? 

Worship is an attitude of putting God on his throne every day as you acknowledge his reign in your heart. And may we offer God our finest first fruits, the best of our resources, and the full tithe of our harvests. Then we will truly be worshipping God as he deserves.

The Heart of Worship by Michelle Robertson

And So It Begins

Today we celebrate the first week of Advent. Advent is our four-week season of preparation for the nativity of Emmanuel, God-with-us. The first week is always spent talking about the prophecies that foretold Jesus’ coming, and today’s passage is one of those prophecies that leads us straight to Jesus. We begin with a word of warning from John the Baptizer:

Luke 7 (New Revised Standard Version)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 

John’s startling appearance at the beginning of Advent always reminds me of someone’s weird Uncle John who shows up 4 days late for Thanksgiving and disrupts the tryptophan-induced coma that the family has been comfortably enjoying. He looks strange, he dresses oddly, and he eats some weird kind of keto-paleo-whole 30-vegan diet that only consists of locusts and honey. He barges in with a loud message of repentance and warns about the judgment that is coming. He interrupts the football games and calls the family a “brood of vipers” … basically killing the mood as you’re trying to get ready for Christmas. Yeah, John is a total buzz kill. John’s message was hard to hear then, and it is hard to hear today. What does he mean by bearing fruits that are worthy of repentance?

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Did you get that?

Share your resources with people in need.

Practice integrity in your work.

Treat people fairly.

Don’t cheat anyone.

Only speak the truth.

Be content with what you have.

And repent and return to God with your whole heart.

John’s “Getting Ready for Christmas List” was long, complicated, and had nothing to do with decorating, shopping, buying, and waiting for Amazon deliveries. Getting ready for Christmas really involves getting our hearts and minds ready to worship the Christ child in the manger, and bowing down our expectations, disappointments, hopes, ambitions, frustrations, and every other part of our selves before his throne.

How will you get ready this Christmas? May we heed John’s words and share what we have while we adopt a life of Christ-like integrity. This is the best way to prepare for the birth of the baby king. Are you in?

Ready or Not by Kathy Schumacher

Something God Alone Can See

Time is truly a valuable commodity. Time that is squandered is time that is lost forever. We live in a culture that prizes busy-ness as a status symbol. In our rushing around and trying to get things done, are we ever guilty of neglecting to take time to be holy? God calls us to be good stewards of this gift of time, and we will be held accountable for how well we spent our days here.

Ecclesiastes 3:17 (Common English Bible)

 17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed.

Ecclesiastes 3 steps into our time this week as a reminder that while everything changes all the time, God brings order to it all. We are meant to experience everything that God does as a token of love. Ecclesiastes brings us a word of encouragement to look to God as the only answer to our longing for purpose in every season of like. (Look back at Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Without God, we can’t make sense of life, death, or life beyond death. Acknowledging God allows us to interpret everything through God’s lens of time. Our man-made reasoning will never make sense of what God is doing. Only through the wisdom of Christ will we ever hope to understand the heart of God.

In our United Methodist Hymnal, we find a lovely summary of everything we have been talking about this week. Often sung at funerals, Natalie Sleeth has captured the mystery and beauty of God’s timing in our seasons of life in this Hymn of Promise:

“In our end is our beginning
In our time, infinity
In our doubt, there is believing
In our life, eternity
In our death, a resurrection
At the last, a victory 
Unrevealed until its season
Something God alone can see.” (UMH, 707)

Are you taking enough time to be holy? What could you change in order to spend more time with the Lord? You indeed are a creation of God that is still unrevealed, and God alone can see you for who you are. May we spend this season of life discovering who God is, and Whose we are as his children.

Unrevealed Until Its Season by Kathy Schumacher

A Time for Everything

Ecclesiastes 3 is offered to us today as a lesson that brings a word of reality into our study of God. The writer, who refers to himself as ”Teacher,” says that God is in every part of creation and is present in every moment. Times of planting and uprooting, times of throwing stones and gathering stones, times of keeping and throwing away … everything comes under God’s purview:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 
There’s a season for everything
    and a time for every matter under the heavens:
    a time for giving birth and a time for dying,
    a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,
    a time for killing and a time for healing,
    a time for tearing down and a time for building up,
    a time for crying and a time for laughing,
    a time for mourning and a time for dancing,
    a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
    a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,
    a time for searching and a time for losing,
    a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,
    a time for tearing and a time for repairing,
    a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,
    a time for loving and a time for hating,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Even the jarring examples he offers are part of God’s plan. It can feel disconcerting to read that there is a time for killing, a time for hate, and a time for war. Yet we know that in acts of self-defense and in times of battle, killing happens. We know that hate is too often experienced when people engage in anger, sin, and revenge. Yet perhaps it is understandable when we hate evil, injustice, and anything that opposes God. We know that wars are inevitable on earth and will not cease until Christ returns. The Teacher sought not to condone or approve of these things, but merely to pull the listener in with relevant examples. In like manner, he also assured us that there are times when weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing will be our response to something. We may have little say over things that happen to us, but how we respond to them is important. The Teacher encourages us to respond with trust.

By being so specific, the Teacher has captured our attention. But the comfort that he intends to impart is found in the first verse: “There is a season for everything, and a time for every matter under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Our Creator set the stars, the planets, and the seasons in motion at the beginning of time. Our Creator is present with us in every matter and every minute. Our Creator is watching everything that happens under the heavens.

Our Creator is here, with us, in it all. What comfort! What joy! To know that things aren’t just randomly happening to us, but that everything has a purpose, is the word of hope we need for today. This word of illumination should bring peace to our hearts. God is in control. God is omniscient (all knowing). Even better, God is omnipresent (always present).

God controls time …. the best of times and the worst of times. Whatever you are going through right now, God is IN IT with you. Thanks be to God!

Time to Rise and Shine by Michelle Robertson

Folding Up Tents

I grew up in a camping family. In fact, the first time I stayed in a hotel wasn’t until I was 17 years old and on a band trip. We started in a tent, moved to a tent trailer, and finally graduated to a comfy travel trailer in my parents’ later years. In the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about tents in a wonderful way:

2 Corinthians 5 (Contemporary English Version)

5 Our bodies are like tents that we live in here on earth. But when these tents are destroyed, we know that God will give each of us a place to live. These homes will not be buildings that someone has made, but they are in heaven and will last forever. 2 While we are here on earth, we sigh because we want to live in that heavenly home. 4 These tents we now live in are like a heavy burden, and we groan. But we don’t do this just because we want to leave these bodies that will die. It is because we want to change them for bodies that will never die. 5 God is the one who makes all of this possible. He has given us his Spirit to make us certain that he will do it..

I love the image of tents in this passage.  My family traveled all up and down the East Coast to campgrounds located near interesting, educational and often historical locations.  My first camping adventure was when I was 6 weeks old and my parents took my sister and me to the beautiful mountains of Central PA where we camped for two weeks in a faded green tent.  Every summer we would return to the Greenwood State Furnace and camp with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all spent many happy moments in this temporary home. But then we would come back to our real home again, and the tent would be put away until next summer.

Last week I said goodbye to a very dear friend whose ”tent” had been taken down and folded away. He was an outstanding human being in every sense of the word, and his death leaves a void on the earth. But our faith in God assures us that we will see him again, and this brings us comfort. For all of our dearly departed, whose tents fell into disrepair and were taken down, we can rejoice in knowing that God has replaced their temporary dwellings with a permanent home in heaven. We indeed live by faith and not by sight.

For all believers, death is the beginning of life.  That is what we believe.  Our Lord has taught us that our finish here is but our beginning there.  It means we will have a new and glorious life in the Father’s home. Paul concludes with this reminder:

6 So always be cheerful! As long as we are in these bodies, we are away from the Lord. 7 But we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We should be cheerful, because we would rather leave these bodies and be at home with the Lord.

It is hard to be cheerful in the face of loss, but we can be cheerful in the face of gain. We will all gain a place in our Father’s house … Jesus assures us that there are many rooms there, one for each of us.

John 14 selections (New Living Translation)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

This last part may be the most important thing you will hear today:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The world, and all of it’s temporary things, will never give us peace. Only Jesus, with his heavenly mansion of many rooms, can bring us real and everlasting peace. So do not let your hearts be troubled! You can trust this, even to the end of your life.

A Sign From Heaven

A Messenger Arrives

It is hard to imagine that the season of Advent begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Even as we prepare for our Thanksgiving celebrations next week, pastors all over the place are starting to write their first of four advent sermons. Advent is the season of preparation for the “advent” of Christ on earth, and we mark it off by lighting candles in our churches that remind us of the hope, peace, joy, and love that he came to bring. And we always begin by listening to the messengers. The prophets of the Old Testament wrote about a much-needed messiah who would come to save their people. Their prophesies set the stage for Jesus. Listen to Malachi’s words about a messenger who would come to announce the arrival of the savior:

Malachi 3:1-4 (Common English Bible)

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the Lord of heavenly forces. 2 Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance. He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver. He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. They will belong to the Lord, presenting a righteous offering. 4 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and was written to address the religious, spiritual, and moral laxity that had overtaken the Israelites. The people had returned from their Babylonian exile seventy years prior, and the temple had been rebuilt. But they had fallen into laziness and cynicism about their relationship with God. Their disaffection led them to bring “polluted offerings” to the temple, breaking the covenant law about first fruits, which required that only the finest and unblemished offerings be presented. (Malachi 1:7). Malachi speaks directly to their powerless worship and warns that judgment is coming.

It was always the mission of the prophets to bring God’s message of God’s covenant relationship to the people and the expectations that came with it. God established a covenant through Abraham, reinforced it through Joseph, and defined it through Moses. The covenant promise continued through the major and minor prophets and always carried both warnings and hope. Their work involved warning against social injustice and the worldly powers that oppressed God’s people, but it also included words of hope about their future deliverance and a peace that would last. The prophetical writings breathed hope into humanity’s present condition, regardless of the century they were written. Malachi warned that in order for a righteous offering to be presented, a cleansing fire will occur first, beginning with the slack priests (the Levites) who should have been leading the people in true worship.

We see Malachi’s prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, who came and will come again to do the final and ultimate refining. Those who repent and believe in him will never perish, but will become a righteous and pleasing offering to God through the unblemished First Fruit of the Son. (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Only in this way can any of us endure the day of his coming.  Sound scary? Hang on … hope is also coming. John the Baptizer, the messenger chosen to clear the way for Jesus, shows us the way: repent, for the kingdom is at hand.

When we begin looking toward Advent with a call to repent, it sounds as thought we have confused the season and are jumping to Lent. But the call to repentance is season-less. Malachi reminds us that a refiner’s fire is coming and we need to be ready.

As we make ourselves ready next week for great Thanksgiving feasts, football games, and the start of Christmas preparations, let us not neglect to make our hearts ready as well. “Suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple”, says Malachi. Let us make the temples of our souls ready and waiting.

Ready, and Waiting by Kathy Schumacher

Raising Up a Roar

Coastal storms (often called ”Nor’easters”) in the Outer Banks are a very present reminder of the power of the water. Certainly during storms and hurricanes, we see extraordinary and damaging tides, waves, and flooding. I had a conversation with an Atlanta friend last week about the precariousness of living on a small island off a small island, and explained that sometimes the road connecting us to the main road gets so flooded that it becomes impassable. Of course it is usually a matter of waiting about 12 hours for the wind to shift, but even as I was saying it, I had a renewed appreciation for the majestic and dangerous power of water.

During a recent off-shore storm, I could hear the roar of the ocean from the front steps of my church. Given the fact that the church is located three miles inland, that is saying something.

The 93rd Psalm uses imagery of robes, thrones, floods, and waves to describe the power of God. Even with the first line, we see the psalmist taking a stand against all of the earthly powers and pretender idols:

Psalm 93 (Common English Bible)

The Lord rules!

Right out of the gate, the psalmist makes his position clear … the Lord reigns over everything. Substitutions and fakes need not apply. Then the writer goes on to describe how the Lord is clothed:

He is robed in majesty—
    the Lord is robed,
    clothed with strength.

The word majesty conveys a sense of dignity, sovereign power, and grandeur. The first listeners to this psalm would have had a beautiful word-picture of God that could stand in contrast to the wooden or metal false gods of their neighbors.

Yes, he set the world firmly in place;
    it won’t be shaken.
Your throne is set firm for a very long time.
    You are eternal!

This invites the listener to compare the temporary thrones of the earthly kings to the permanent throne of God. The psalmist contends that there was never a time when God’s throne didn’t exist. What a comforting thought!

Lord, the floods have raised up—
    the floods have raised up their voices;
    the floods raise up a roar!
But mightier than the sound of much water,
    mightier than the sea’s waves,
    mighty on high is the Lord!

Hurricane Irene hit the Outer Banks during the first year that we lived here. The flooding and winds caused $25,000 worth of damage to our home. We lost a chimney, followed by two days of rain water that poured into two rooms of our house. We lost a dock, and the canal water flooded the entire back yard up to the house, where it took out our HVAC system. And we lost a car. When you live through something like that, you understand the power of water and floods. But God’s power is far greater, thanks be to God!

Your laws are so faithful.
    Holiness decorates your house, Lord, for all time.

This short but impactful Psalm is a great reminder today of the strength of the God we serve. There is nothing in this life that has more power than God. There is no earthly power, no force of evil, no demon or antagonist that can ever threaten or harm those who are children of God. Even death bows in obeisance to the eternal throne of the Lord.

No matter what you are up against today, take heart. God rules! His covenant lasts forever! And he is mightier than the storm that you are in. Thanks be to God.

Water’s Power by Michelle Robertson

Famous Last Words

Have you ever wondered what people said the moment they knew that death was imminent? I am curious about that. According to Business Insider, these are some examples of famous people’s last words:

Nostradamus predicted, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.” He was right. Joe Dimagio said, ”I finally get to see Marilyn again.” (Referring to his beloved ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe.) Winston Churchill’s son-in-law offered him a glass of champagne, and Churchill replied, ”I’m just so bored with it all.” And finally, former Beetle George Harrison: ”Love one another.” That will preach, George.

Today’s Scripture takes a look at the last words of King David, as recorded in 2 Samuel:

2 Samuel 23 (Common English Bible)

23 These are David’s last words:

This is the declaration of Jesse’s son David,
    the declaration of a man raised high,
    a man anointed by the God of Jacob,
    a man favored by the strong one of Israel.

The Lord’s spirit speaks through me;
    his word is on my tongue.
Israel’s God has spoken,
    Israel’s rock said to me:
“Whoever rules rightly over people,
    whoever rules in the fear of God,
    is like the light of sunrise
    on a morning with no clouds,
        like the bright gleam after the rain
        that brings grass from the ground.”

David made many mistakes in his life, and yet at the end, he was reconciled to God. His words about ”ruling rightly” were hard fought and hard won. He learned through his errors what it meant to rule rightly. As he was looking toward the next generations of leaders, he likened them to the light of the sunrise and the bright gleam after the rain … as long as they were ruling in the fear of God. Listen now to his words of appreciation and the acknowledgement of God’s faithfulness in keeping his part of the covenant, even when David had failed:

Yes, my house is this way with God!
    He has made an eternal covenant with me,
    laid out and secure in every detail.
Yes, he provides every one of my victories
    and brings my every desire to pass.

David lived a turbulent life, but he died in the peaceful security of the eternal covenant God had made with him. He relished the security he found in his restored relationship with God, and credits God with every good thing that happened in his life. Then he ends with a warning, perhaps one born of his own experience of thorniness:

But despicable people are like thorns,
    all of them good for nothing,
    because they can’t be carried by hand.
No one can touch them,
except with iron bar or the shaft of a spear.
    They must be burned up with fire right on the spot!

If David can be redeemed, so can we. If David can be restored, so can we. If David can die with gratitude and security, so can we.

Have you grown thorny? It is never too late to return to your eternal covenant with God. If a despicable, adulterous murderer can come back to God, so can we. Thanks be to God!

Last Road Home by Nancy Barniskis

Clean Slates

Our journey through Hebrews continues this week as the writer again makes the case for Jesus’ superiority as the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins. He points out the futile efforts of the human priests, who can’t make a dent in the sin problem, and the single sacrifice made by Jesus that wipes out sin forever:

Hebrews 10 (The Message)

11-18 Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process.

You just have to love Eugene Peterson’s creative writing ability in this passage. ”It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people.” Preach it, Eugene! We are indeed some very imperfect people.

The Holy Spirit confirms this:

This new plan I’m making with Israel
    isn’t going to be written on paper,
    isn’t going to be chiseled in stone;
This time “I’m writing out the plan in them,
    carving it on the lining of their hearts.”

Again, the imagery of God’s new plan being written on the lining of our hearts goes a long way toward a deeper understanding of the depth of God’s plan. God desires his covenant to be engraved not just on our hearts, but on the lining … in other words, the deepest, inside part … of our hearts. Peterson reminds us that God does not desire a superficial relationship with us, but wants us to present him with the most inner part of our souls. He literally wants us to love him from the ”inside-out.”

He concludes,

I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins.

Once sins are taken care of for good, there’s no longer any need to offer sacrifices for them.

Let’s take this in a different direction now. If God provided the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, can we really be unforgiving toward each other’s sin? And if we continue to hold grudges and refuse to forgive one another, what does that say about the power of the cross? That our stubbornness is greater than the blood that was shed there? Does that make sense?

God calls us to forgiveness. Jesus made it conditional: ”Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us.”

Is God calling you to forgive someone today? Maybe it is time for you to wipe clean all the slates.

Blustery Day by Michelle Robertson

With All That I Have

I have done my last wedding for the season. It was a beautiful fall day on the beach in Corolla, and I was blessed to marry a “sister of the cloth” to a very nice man. She is a retired United Methodist pastor from the Michigan conference, and their small family came to stand with them as they exchanged vows.

It is uncommon anymore for people to want to write their own vows. Nowadays, folks seem to be content with the traditional ones, or perhaps don’t want the stress and worry of writing something and having to remember it on a day that is already fraught with anxiety. Indeed, it is easier on the nerves to rely on the pastor for the ”repeat after me” vows. But this couple wrote their own vows and they were stunningly beautiful.

As we progressed to the exchange of the wedding rings, we got to a “repeat after me” moment. I have a tender fondness for the ring vows in the United Methodist wedding service. Truth be told, there is one phrase that makes me tear up every time:

I give you this ring
as a sign of my vow,
and with all that I am,
and all that I have,
I honor you;
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

There is something very poignant in the words “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you”. To make that commitment is a bold and audacious thing. It tells the other person that you promise that nothing will ever be withheld from them. It affirms that there is no part of your personhood that will be shared with anyone else. It says that you are “all in,” and they can count on you for the rest of their life. It is a precious commitment.

In our passage from Mark today, notice how a poor widow demonstrated to Jesus that she was “all in”:

Mark 12 (The Message)

38-40 He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

41-44 Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

Are you all in for Jesus? Are you willing to say to him that with all that you are, and all that you have, you will honor him? Have you committed your time, your talent, your resources, your giving, and your future to the furthering of his kingdom?

Jesus calls us to a covenant relationship that will outlast even our earthly ones. Are you all in? He is.

Nothing Withheld by Michelle Robertson