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Sermon Series

 

March 12, 2017 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

JUDGES 2:7, 10-19 [NLTse]
7 …The Israelites served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the leaders who outlived him—those who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.

10 After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things He had done for Israel.
11 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight and served the images of Baal. 12 They abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, Who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods, worshiping the gods of the people around them. And they angered the Lord. 13 They abandoned the Lord to serve Baal and the images of Ashtoreth. 14 This made the Lord burn with anger against Israel, so He handed them over to raiders who stole their possessions. He turned them over to their enemies all around, and they were no longer able to resist them. 15 Every time Israel went out to battle, the Lord fought against them, causing them to be defeated, just as He had warned. And the people were in great distress.
16 Then the Lord raised up judges to rescue the Israelites from their attackers. 17 Yet Israel did not listen to the judges but prostituted themselves by worshiping other gods. How quickly they turned away from the path of their ancestors, who had walked in obedience to the Lord’s commands.
18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge over Israel, he was with that judge and rescued the people from their enemies throughout the judge’s lifetime. For the Lord took pity on His people, who were burdened by oppression and suffering. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to their corrupt ways, behaving worse than those who had lived before them. They went after other gods, serving and worshiping them. And they refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

SERMON

Our reading this morning shows why we cannot trust in earthly leaders or victories the Lord gives us, or any other blessings or good things that come to us from God’s hand to keep us strong in faith and living for the Lord: Earthly leaders will always die; and, the victories and blessings and good things – no matter how thrilling and wondrous – will always fade over time and under the pressures of new challenges, temptations, and trials here in the world. And, if we are trusting in such good people or good gifts to keep us strong in faith and living for Christ, then it will only be a matter of time before – like God’s people among the Israelites – we return to “our corrupt ways, behaving worse than we did before, going after other gods, serving and worshiping them, and refusing to give up our evil practices and stubborn ways.” No, if we want to stay strong in faith – and grow stronger! – and if we want to live for the Lord – and live more and more abundantly! – we need look to Jesus Christ alone to be our leader, and we need the Holy Spirit to minister everlasting victories and blessings and good things within us. And for all that we need the spiritual practice of Study.

Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they are content with a “little word from God for today”. Such folks may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling all their religious duties, and yet their character remains unchanged. I’m not talking just about those who are going through the “motions” of religion. This is true for those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive visions and revelations from God, but the flavor of their lives remains unchanged because they don’t invest themselves in the Word or let the Word do its saving work in them: They read, but they don’t Study.

You see, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul wrote that we are transformed – that is, we are changed to be more and more like Christ – through the renewal of our mind (Romans 12:2): Replacing old, destructive habits with new, life-giving ones. And that happens as we Study the Scriptures. Our minds are renewed as we apply them to – as we fix them upon – those things we desire to be transformed into. Paul says it like this: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8) The practice of Study is all about “fixing our minds on” such things.

The Lord Jesus made it unmistakably clear that knowing the truth would set us free. (John 8:32) Good feelings won’t set us free. Ecstatic experiences won’t set us free. Getting “high on Jesus” won’t set us free. Without a knowledge of the truth, human beings will not be free. (And this sadly includes, not only those who’ve never known God’s truth, but also those who have been taught false truths by unfaithful teachers.)

The mind will always take the shape of what it sets itself to. So, if you’re always watching or listening to or reading trashy stuff filled with backbiting, deception, violence, and sex, don’t be surprised to find your life becoming more and more focused and set on such things, as well. If you are fearful and a worrier, and you are content to follow your fears and to run with your worries, don’t be surprised to find yourself overrun by them.

That’s why, in the Bible’s book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the Israelites to “commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates!” Moses called Israel to such excessive practices so that they might set their minds repeatedly and regularly toward God’s truths about Himself, and His truths about them as His people, and His truths about their relationships with others and each other; to protect them from the way society thinks and what society can tempt them to think about; but to help them think about the good and glorious ways of the Lord Who loves them. Our habits – that is, what our minds tend to think about, how we respond in situations and circumstances – will take on the shape of what we Study! (Which is why Moses urges Israel to focus on God’s ways and commands, and why Paul urges us to focus on all that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise in the Lord.)

Sociology, anthropology, and the experiences of the great men and women of faith across history have come to recognize three major aspects of Studying: They are repetition, understanding, and reflection.

Fifth Avenue advertisers and nation-twisting propagandists have long understood that repetition affects the inner mind, even if the person doesn’t understand anything about what is being repeated. You can train your own and other’s thoughts by repetition alone, which will, of course, over time, change your or even an entire society’s ways of thinking and behaviors. (This is why what we and our families watch on television is so important. With lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and sleeping around being so commonplace on newscasts and prime time TV, such repetition alone alters the inner mind, training watchers in destructive thought patterns.) And so, hearing Scripture over and over again in Worship Services or reading Scripture over and over again in daily Bible reading or talking about Scripture over and over again in regular discussion with others can be so helpful in shaping us into Christ-likeness as we repeat His Word to ourselves and each other in all these ways again and again and again.

Add to repetition a firm understanding of what is being studied and we reach a whole new level. Remember, Jesus tells us that it is not just the truth but the knowledge of the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). Have you ever been trying to figure something out, when all the sudden, “Aha!” This great big “click” happens in our brains, and it all makes sense! Suddenly we can see it all so clearly, and we wonder how we ever missed understanding it all before! Understanding what we are Studying takes our transformation to a whole new level.

But even repetition and understanding can only transform us so much. The kicker is when we reflect on what we’ve been Studying. Repetition and understanding establish what the truth is; reflection establishes what that truth is going to mean for us! What will my day look like if I apply this truth to my daily living? That is, what must become a part of my life? What must never be a part of my life again? And how might it lead me to use my time differently? What will my speech be like if I live this truth out each day? How will it change what I say to my parents, my co-workers, my friends? How will this change whom I hang out with? How will it change what I think about and what I do with my free time? We ask all those questions, and more, when we reflect on the truth…

Of course, Study demands humility. We cannot truly Study if we are constantly judging what we are Studying: Judging the author’s credibility; judging the circumstances around it; judging whether or not it is true. We need to be subject to the subject matter. If we’re going to truly Study Scripture, we must trust it as God’s truth and come to it as a student to learn from it, no matter what it says or where it leads…

Some of you have heard the story of how I came to Christ. (I’ll share it again, briefly, for those who have not.) I was in seminary (the college you go to to become a pastor), and I was walking to class one morning. I had been reading through different sections of the Bible, all at the same time, for several of my classes. I had grown up in a church that didn’t believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but believed the Bible to contain the Word of God, each of us getting to determine for ourselves what was truth and what was not. All the Bible reading I was doing in my classes was challenging this fairly small understanding of the Scriptures. I was at a crossroads. I knew I needed to either trust the Bible completely (instead of picking and choosing what to believe based on what made sense to me) or I needed to drop out of seminary and become a part of some faith that I could trust and live wholeheartedly.

So, as I was walking to class that day I committed to the Lord that I would believe everything I read in the Scriptures for two weeks. If I read about a miracle, I would believe it happened instead of immediately questioning it. If I read about things that seemed to contradict each other, I would work to figure out how both could be true instead of so quickly saying, “See, it can’t be true.” If I read about things contrary to science or logic or history or whatever I would give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, where before I’d been very quick to simply write the Bible off. (It seemed like a faithful commitment. After all, if God is truly God, shouldn’t miracles be easy for Him? We encounter seeming contradictions around us each day in the world, but a little exploration and creativity often show us how they work together. And shouldn’t I expect God Almighty to know more about science even than scientists, and to know more about reasoning than even the best thinkers, and to know more about history than human scholars? And isn’t science and logic and our understanding of history changing almost every day on account of new discoveries? So, shouldn’t we expect God to know truths that we human beings haven’t come upon yet?)

So, I submitted myself to the Word. I believed everything I read in the Bible for two weeks. And God changed my world!
All of the sudden, He wasn’t so far away, He was right here with me, just like the Bible said He is. All the sudden, life made sense, and my place in it! All the sudden I knew what the Bible meant when we read that He makes us new, and washes us clean of pain, regret, and shame, and gives us a new start, a new life… I trusted the Bible to be truth and I let it teach me. And all that the Bible says God is and I am and the things of this life are came into stunning focus and clarity for me. Through humility as I Studied…

Daily devotional reading is important for every Christian as we grow in faith and live for Christ each day. But there are times when the unsearchable depths of God are calling out to us, calling us to spend time searching Him and plumbing His glorious heights and depths: God calling us to Study Him and know Him more intimately! The Lord wants us not just to know about Him, but to know Him – fully, deeply, like a lover and a best friend. And to grow to be more and ever-more like Him.
That takes Study…



March 5, 2017 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

JOSHUA 9:3-15 [NLTse]
When the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, 4 they resorted to deception to save themselves. They sent ambassadors to Joshua, loading their donkeys with weathered saddlebags and old, patched wineskins. 5 They put on worn-out, patched sandals and ragged clothes. And the bread they took with them was dry and moldy. 6 When they arrived at the camp of Israel at Gilgal, they told Joshua and the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant land to ask you to make a peace treaty with us.”

7 The Israelites replied to these Hivites, “How do we know you don’t live nearby? For if you do, we cannot make a treaty with you.” 8 They replied, “We are your servants.” “But who are you?” Joshua demanded. “Where do you come from?” 9 They answered, “Your servants have come from a very distant country. We have heard of the might of the Lord your God and of all He did in Egypt.

10 We have also heard what He did to the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River—King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan (who lived in Ashtaroth). 11 So our elders and all our people instructed us, ‘Take supplies for a long journey. Go meet with the people of Israel and tell them, “We are your servants; please make a treaty with us.”’

12 “This bread was hot from the ovens when we left our homes. But now, as you can see, it is dry and moldy. 13 These wineskins were new when we filled them, but now they are old and split open. And our clothing and sandals are worn out from our very long journey.”

14 So the Israelites examined their food, but they did not consult the Lord. 15 Then Joshua made a peace treaty with them and guaranteed their safety, and the leaders of the community ratified their agreement with a binding oath.

SERMON
With the death of Moses, the LORD had chosen Joshua to lead the Tribes of Israel. They conquered the kingdoms on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, and have now had a series of decisive victories over several city-states within the Promised Land itself. So great is the idolatry, wickedness, and depravity of the peoples living in the land, though, that the LORD has told them to leave no survivors.

So, the kingdom of Gibeon, hearing of Israel’s miraculous victories, and less than a day’s journey away – it will be their turn soon – they decide to try and trick Joshua and the Israelite leaders in the hopes of surviving Israel’s bloody conquest. Even if they and their children must become Israel’s slaves, at least they will live! And, as we’ve read, the trickery works: Their representatives dress up as though they’ve travelled weeks or more, pretending to be from a kingdom outside of Canaan (the Promised Land), and they propose a treaty with Israel, and because Joshua and the elders don’t consult the Lord, they sign the treaty…

It seemed like a good idea. They did their best, after all. But there is a striking Proverb in the Bible, that has become a favorite of mine. It states: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it leads to death.” (14:12) That is, there are situations and circumstances we face in this life that we think we can handle on our own, apart from the Lord’s guidance. “This one is easy God,” we think. “I can make this decision myself.” But as the Proverb implies, and as Joshua and the Israelite elders’ situation shows clearly, the LORD knows things we don’t, that we can’t – He knows hidden things, He knows the truth behind trickery, He knows the inner thinking’s and motives of people, and He alone knows the future that our actions and responses will lead to. And when we don’t submit ourselves to consulting Him in all things, we can make a lot of mistakes and lead ourselves into a lot of hardships that He’d like to save us from.

The 15th Century priest and Reformer, Martin Luther, once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. [And] a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” That is, the absolute freedom we live in as followers of Christ, and the overcoming power we have to face any and every circumstance comes from being willing and forever slaves to and subjects of this Jesus Christ. Our freedom in Him is the result of our slavery to Him. No power in Heaven or on earth has authority over us because we have submitted ourselves to Jesus Christ as Lord.

This idea of submission – of putting ourselves under the authority of another – is not a popular one in human culture. We want to be the head, not the tail; at the top, not the bottom; to win at all costs, not to lose… ever! And, of course, putting ourselves under the control of another means that we are not in control. But I tell you, this obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today.

People will spend weeks, months, even years in a bitter fury because something in the past did not go as they wanted. People get sick, they get ulcers, over it! But if we truly believe in the sovereignty of God, and practice the discipline of submitting to Him and to the circumstances and people around us, we are released to let go of our grudges, to forget about it!

When the world talks about submission – putting ourselves under the authority and control of another – it often talks about it as being “our lot” in life: “Those are just the cards we’ve been dealt. Keep at it. You’ll get your turn to be on top and then you can pay everyone back for what they’ve done to you!” Sound at all familiar? Well, not the Christian.

At the heart of the Bible’s submission-mindset is Jesus’ amazing statement, “If any of you wants to be My follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). And many respond saying, “Give up my own way? But what about me? What about my hopes? What about my dreams?” But Jesus’ teaching on self-denial – about giving up getting our own way – is the only way to get to our own true hopes, to get to our own true dreams. Our happiness, our self-fulfillment, is not dependent upon getting what we want. As a matter of fact, Jesus says, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it” (Mark 8:35).

And here’s the proof: Did Jesus lose His identity – did He ruin His life when He set His face toward Jerusalem and the cross? Did Peter lose his identity and fall into a meaningless, empty life when he responded to Jesus’ call to “Follow Me!” (John 21:19)? Did Paul lose his identity and take God’s second-best when he committed himself to the One Who had said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name” (Acts 9:16)? Of course not. As a matter of fact, the opposite was true. They found their identity, they found true hopes and dreams and meaning for their lives beyond their wildest imaginations in the act of submission to God and self-denial! Our difficulty is due primarily to the fact that we have failed to understand Jesus’ teaching that the way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial.

The most radical social teaching of Jesus was His total reversal of human ideas of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all. Power is discovered in submission. “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” (Mark 9:35). The call for Christians to live in submission is rooted in the submissive life of Jesus Christ Himself.

Of course, there are limits to submission. When submission leads us into conflict with the Lord, it is no longer submission, it becomes rebellion!

Peter calls Christians to radical submission to government when he writes, “For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed… (1 Peter 2:13-14). Yet when the properly authorized government of his day commanded he and his fellow apostles to stop proclaiming Christ, Peter was the one who answered, saying, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than Him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).

And the apostle Paul, understanding submission, wrote, Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Rom. 13:1). And yet, when Paul saw the governing authorities in Philippi perverting justice, he called the leaders to account and insisted they do what was right (Acts 16:37)!

Peter and Paul simply understood that submission reaches the end of its blessing when it leads people against the will of God and against the Lord God Himself.

In his letter To the Ephesians, the apostle Paul explores what submission looks like in three of humanity’s most basic relationships: Husband and wife; parent and child; and, master and slave (or, for us today, employer and employee). As the Holy Spirit conveys to us through Paul, when you serve another person because you want to instead of because you have to, you’ve changed the whole power dynamic in the relationship. We see that so specifically in the Lord Jesus’ commands about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. You see, the Roman soldier can force you to carry his bags a mile, and he’s in control! But when you then offer to carry his bags a second mile, all the sudden, he’s not the one in charge, now you are. Why the difference? Because at first he was forcing you. But once you submit yourself to willingly serve him, to seek his best and to be for him God’s blessing, now you’re in charge! (Or, at least, Jesus is in charge through you!)

The household power-plays of life between husband and wife, between parents and kids, between masters and servants – employers and employees – these power-plays come to an end when we begin to serve one another – submit to one another – to seek their good instead of just our own.
When you want what’s best for you and your husband or wife wants what’s best for them, you have a power-play. But when you want what’s best for you and you want what’s best for your husband or wife, then you are free to submit to them when the discussion seems to be going their way. You win, too, when you want them to succeed, when you want them to “win”.

When you’re fighting with your kids over what they want versus what you want, it’s a power-play. Even if you end up giving them what they want, it’s still a power-play because you know that a time will come when you can say to them, “Hey, I gave you what you wanted at that time. Now you need to give me what I want.” But when you genuinely want what’s best for your kids, when you are submitting yourself to them, there’s no power-play when you give in because you’re not giving in to what they want you’re giving in to what is best for them. It’s not you versus them anymore. You genuinely want their best; you genuinely want to help and serve them; and in such a situation we stop being parents who are either too strict or who spoil our kids and become parents who submit to the things that are best for those around us.

Submission changes everything. It turns our relationships and the world upside down, and it shines the light of Jesus so brightly. We are never more like Jesus Christ, we are never bearing our cross more boldly, than when we are submitting ourselves to others – giving up our rights to get things our own way – and practicing submission in our relationships…

Sometimes the limits of submission are easy to determine. A wife is asked to punish her child unreasonably. A child is asked to help an adult in an unlawful practice. An employee is asked to violate Scripture and their conscience for the sake of the powers that be. In each case we, as disciples, must refuse.

But other times the limits of submission can be extremely hard to define. What about the marriage partner who feels stifled and kept from personal fulfillment because of their spouse’s professional career? Is this a legitimate form of self-denial or is it rebelling against the Lord’s will? What about the teacher who unjustly grades a student? Does the student submit or speak out? What about the employer who promotes his employees on the basis of favoritism and personal interests? What does the deprived employee do, especially if the raise is needed for the good of his or her family? There is no such thing as a “law of submission” that will cover every situation. We need to trust that the Lord will lead and show us the way.

All this being said, there is an order to our submission here in the world: We must submit to the Lord first, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We must yield our body, mind, and spirits to His purposes. In the second place is Scripture: We must yield ourselves first to hear the Word, then to receive the Word, and, finally, to obey the Word. In third place is our family: Freely and graciously making allowances for each other, “submitting ourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

Next we submit to our fellow-Christians, our neighbors, and those we meet across our daily lives: If they are in need, we must help them. After our neighbors is the Church: So often there are jobs to be done and tasks to be accomplished; we must look at each and everyone closely, is God inviting us to submit to Him and one another in any of these ways? We cannot do everything, but we can all do some things.

The sixth area of submission is to the weak and the hated, to the helpless and undefended in the world. The Bible speaks of such folks as “foreigners and widows and orphans” (James 1:27). The Lord calls us to be among them, to listen to them, and to serve them in His name. Lastly, the Lord of Heaven and earth calls us to submit ourselves to the world around us: To live as responsible members of an increasingly irresponsible world.

God first, then Christ (by the Holy Spirit) through the Scriptures, then our family members, then our neighbors and the Church, then widows and orphans and outsiders around us, and, lastly, the world as a whole. The Lord Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these, you were doing it to Me” (Matthew 25:40)!



February 26, 2017 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

NUMBERS 25:9-34 [NLTse]
9 The Lord said to Moses, 10 “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.
“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. 12 These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. 13 Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, 14 three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. 15 These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.

16 “But if someone strikes and kills another person with a piece of iron, it is murder, and the murderer must be executed. 17 Or if someone with a stone in his hand strikes and kills another person, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. 18 Or if someone strikes and kills another person with a wooden object, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. 19 The victim’s nearest relative is responsible for putting the murderer to death. When they meet, the avenger must put the murderer to death. 20 So if someone hates another person and waits in ambush, then pushes him or throws something at him and he dies, it is murder. 21 Or if someone hates another person and hits him with a fist and he dies, it is murder. In such cases, the avenger must put the murderer to death when they meet.

22 “But suppose someone pushes another person without having shown previous hostility, or throws something that unintentionally hits another person, 23 or accidentally drops a huge stone on someone, though they were not enemies, and the person dies. 24 If this should happen, the community must follow these regulations in making a judgment between the slayer and the avenger, the victim’s nearest relative: 25 The community must protect the slayer from the avenger and must escort the slayer back to live in the city of refuge to which he fled. There he must remain until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the sacred oil.

26 “But if the slayer ever leaves the limits of the city of refuge, 27 and the avenger finds him outside the city and kills him, it will not be considered murder. 28 The slayer should have stayed inside the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest, the slayer may return to his own property. 29 These are legal requirements for you to observe from generation to generation, wherever you may live.

30 “All murderers must be put to death, but only if evidence is presented by more than one witness. No one may be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 31 Also, you must never accept a ransom payment for the life of someone judged guilty of murder and subject to execution; murderers must always be put to death. 32 And never accept a ransom payment from someone who has fled to a city of refuge, allowing a slayer to return to his property before the death of the high priest. 33 This will ensure that the land where you live will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land. And no sacrifice except the execution of the murderer can purify the land from murder. 34 You must not defile the land where you live, for I live there Myself. I am the Lord, Who lives among the people of Israel.”

SERMON
We’ve been reading through the Bible together since the beginning of 2017 and, as we’ve read, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy especially are filled with all manner of rules and regulations, definitions and descriptions. Measurements are exact and materials are specified for the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. The different sacrifices are described in detail, including what can be offered in the variety of situations the people might find themselves in, and how much or how many are required. Laws and regulations are spelled out for family and community life: Laws and regulations that show what it looks like to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

In these last chapters of Numbers, the Promised Land has been surveyed and divided up among the Tribes of Israel with great exactness: The larger Tribes getting larger allotments of land and the smaller Tribes getting smaller allotments. And here we’ve just read of the Cities of Refuge – the Sanctuary Cities – that Israel was to set aside as places where those who’d been accused of murder could flee for protection from avenging friends and family members until they’d been given a fair trial.

And then the Lord reveals why all these details are necessary, why all the precision is important, why all the exactness and detailed measurements and meticulous lists. The Lord says, “You must not defile the land where you live, for I live there Myself. I am the Lord, Who lives among the people of Israel.”

Since the opening pages of the Bible, when the Lord used to visit with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God has shown His desire to be with us, that He wants to hang out with us, to live with us and among us, His family, His people. One of the Lord Jesus’ many titles, Emmanuel, underlines that it remains God’s desire and God’s heart, because this title of Jesus – Emmanuel – means, “God With Us”.

During His last supper with His disciples, the Lord Jesus said, “All who love Me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and We will come and make our home with each of them.” (John 14:23) Since “in the beginning” it has been the desire of God the Father and God the Son to live with and within human beings through the agency of God the Holy Spirit. Not some far-off deity, but God with us; God within us.

(Of course, this doesn’t make us God, to have God living with us and within us, just as it doesn’t make a dog a tapeworm if that dog has a tapeworm living inside of it. The dog is a dog. The tapeworm is a tapeworm. We are human beings. And God is God. And He is living with us and within us, the moment we put our trust in His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins; the moment we give our lives to get to know Him, to love Him, and to become more and more like Him.)
Which brings us to my point today: God wants to be with us and to live within us, but do we want to be with God? Do we want God living within us?

I think we do. At least, I know that many of you do, and I know that I do. So, how do we be with Him? How do we make ourselves more “homey”, more welcoming, to His indwelling presence?

Across the centuries Christians from among the famous and the influential alongside those most humble and simple in the circumstances of this life have found “exercises of grace” or “grace practices” that, when incorporated into their lives, have given them a growing sense of God’s presence with them and of sweet and deepening communion with Him within them. I’m going to use the Sundays between now and Easter to talk about some of these “grace practices” to help us nurture an awareness of God-with-us, and to help us cooperate with Him living within and through us each day.
As for today, I want to call us to the grace-practice of Worship: I call each and every one of you not to miss being in Worship on the Sundays from now through to Resurrection Sunday. If you can’t be here because you are out of town, then commit to participate in a Worship Service wherever you are. If you need to be traveling, then commit to identify a church along the way. Stop and take a break for the Worship Service as you drive by.

If the Lord is to be Lord, worship must have a priority in our lives. Come into Worship expecting to actually hear the voice of God. When Moses went into the Tabernacle, he knew he was entering the presence of God. It didn’t surprise the early church when the building they met in shook with the power of God. It had happened before! The Veil has been torn in two. In Worship, we are entering the Holy of Holies! We are coming into the awful, glorious, gracious presence of the living God! Gather with anticipation! Know that Christ is here among us! Expect Him to teach! Expect Him to touch you and those around you with His living power!

The Bible describes worship in physical terms, so be ready to move. The root meaning for the Hebrew word we translate worship is “to lay yourself out flat on your face”. The word bless (as in “bless the LORD, O my soul”) literally means “to kneel before”. Thanksgiving refers to “an extension of the hand”. Throughout Scripture we find a variety of physical postures in connection with worship: Lying prostrate, standing, kneeling, lifting hands, clapping hands, lifting the head, bowing the head, dancing, and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Worship is a physical activity. Sitting still looking dour is simply not appropriate for praise!

Prepare for Worship by going to bed early on Saturday night. Examine your life and confess your sins and faults to the Lord Who forgives us when we confess our sins to Him. Arrive in the Sanctuary early and ask God for His presence. Let go of any distractions so you can really participate.

Remember that the Worship Service is not about you. The language of Worship is not “me” but “we”. Genuinely desire for God’s life to rise up among the congregation, not just within yourself.

Come praying. Come expecting. Come looking for God to do a new and living work among us all.