February 26, 2012

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent

Truth in Worship
Psalm 50, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Matthew 4:1-11
First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012

"Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ." In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In spite of the winds and temperature, we see the days lengthening and the calendar telling us March is near, and Spring is not far behind it. We are now fully in the Season of Lent, and today we are looking at the important Biblical teaching of truth in worship. The Collect is another new prayer, meaning, less than five-hundred years old. It reminds us that the fasts and self-discipline we practice in Lent are not done to impress God, but to bring our desires under the control of His Spirit. 2 Corinthians 6 reminds us that St. Paul kept his physical needs in check in order to endure hardship in the service of Christ, and Matthew 4 shows Christ subduing His own flesh to resist temptation in the wilderness.

Psalm 50 is about controlling our own desires and thoughts in order that we may worship God in truth. The Psalm makes two primary points, which I want to state here at the start of the sermon. First, worship matters. Second, holiness matters.

Let's talk about the first point; worship matters. If worship matters, two things are true about it. First it must be done. We must worship God. Second, it must be done correctly. The people God addresses in this Psalm were participating in the worship of God as required of His people. Their problem was that they weren't doing it right. The Psalm begins by showing us that God pays attention when we worship Him. He comes to us. But, notice that His coming is not described in terms of gentleness, the way we generally think of Him coming to worshiping people. A consuming fire goes before Him and a tempest surrounds Him. He comes in power, like an immense wildfire combined with a hurricane His very presence destroys and consumes the earth and its people. He comes to judge His people and their worship, and He finds problems in them. He finds insincerity, false worship, false doctrine, strife, and division among them. And He has come to testify against them. "I myself will testify against thee, O Israel; for I am God," He says in verse 7.

How fearful this sounds. The One who can cast your soul into hell has come to testify against those who worship Him How can this be? These are not the pagans, the unbelievers, the sinners. These are the good people, the Church people. They offer the sacrifices and keep the feasts and fasts. Yet God is angry at them because, in spite of all their religious fervour, they haven't got it right. Here is their problem, influenced by the idolatry of Canaanites tribes, many in Israel had begun to think of God as kind of a glorified idol, and they had fallen into one of the main errors of Canaanite idolatry. They assumed the only thing God wanted was a few nice ceremonies and a few nice people. They thought everything was fine as long as they kept the ceremonies and lived fairly moral lives. They did not understand that God wants the heart as well as the sacrifice, and if you don't give your heart you may as well not give the sacrifice.

They had even begun to think their sacrifices provided food for God. The Canaanites thought their gods ate the sacrificed animals. They pictured their gods gathering around the smoke of the sacrifice and feeding on it. When the Jews adopted this view of God it changed their worship. In fact, it changed everything. They began to think of themselves as great, magnanimous people who took care of poor, hungry little God. So, even though their outward forms in the sacrificial ceremonies were done in accordance with the directives of the law of God, they were not really worshiping God; they were simply glorifying themselves and learning to feel good about themselves. It was really all about them, not God. Thus, God rejected their worship. He would not even receive their sacrifices. He says in verse 9, "I will take no bullock out of thine house, nor he-goats out of thy folds." He owns all the beasts of the forest and all the cattle on the hills. We can not "give" Him anything. If He can create them, surely He could eat them. If I were hungry, He says, I would not tell you. If I were in any kind of need I would not tell you because there wouldn't be anything you could do about it. Of course that is the point. You can't do anything to improve God's condition. You can't feed Him. You can't make Him more glorious than He is. You can't add to His honour in any real sense of it at all. You can't add to or detract from His state of blessed perfection. In the first place, God doesn't have any needs. God is complete in and of Himself. In the second place, even if He had a need you couldn't fulfill it. Even your worship doesn't add to His glory. The worship of Old Testament sacrifices didn't feed God's "body," and your worship, love and obedience doesn't feed His "ego." He needs nothing, but gives everything.

There is something very important in this, a lesson we all need to hear and take to heart; there is such a thing as a wrong way to worship God. In fact, there are many wrong ways, and God does not take wrong worship lightly. And one of the most prevalent wrong ways to worship God is to adopt the ideas and practices of the world, bring them into the Church, and use them in the worship of God.

So, worship matters. That was the first point of this Psalm, and the second point is, holiness matters. According to Psalm 50, even "right" worship is refused by God if it is not accompanied by a serious intent to live a holy life. Have you ever noticed how many times we pray for holiness in Morning and Evening Prayer? We start in the General Confession, asking "That we may ever hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life." In the Absolution we beseech God "to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy." In the Lord's Prayer we ask to be delivered from evil. In the versicles we pray that He will "make clean our hearts within us," and "take not thy Holy Spirit from us." In the Collect for grace we pray that "all our doings, being ordered by thy governance, may be righteous in thy sight." Even the prayer of Thanksgiving asks that we will show forth His praise, "not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days."

These prayers are in complete accord with the teachings of Scripture. I used to criticise the sermons of many ministers because they were only about being forgiven and going to Heaven. I criticised those sermons because the scope of the Gospel is far greater than being forgiven and going to Heaven. It is about being restored in our souls so we can know God the way He intends us to know Him, live the way He intends us to live, and be the people He intends us to be. You see, we don't just need to be forgiven; we need to be repaired. We are broken, so we need to have our souls, our wills, our hearts fixed so that we love God and desire His ways above all else. Holiness matters.

That's why Psalm 50 makes such a big point of the fact that God does not receive the worship of people whose lives are lived apart from Him. "Why dost thou preach my laws, and takest my covenant in the mouth; Whereas thou hatest to be reformed, and hast cast my words behind thee?" He asks in verses 16 and 17. God is warning people who go by the name of God but not the ways of God. They call themselves Christians, but they rarely attend Church, or they attend churches that are compromised in their faith and practice. Their morals and lifestyles are patterned after the world instead of the Word, often to such a degree that they actually approve evil and think God does too. "Thou thoughtest wickedly that I am even such a one as thyself" (vs. 21). Holiness matters.

The Psalm closes with a dire warning and a gracious promise. Those who forget God will be plucked away; thrown into the trash; cast out of His presence into everlasting and unimaginable sorrow. Those who offer God true worship, true thanks and praise, and "ordereth his way aright" will see the salvation of God.

"O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdues to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

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