jasonbwatson

September 10, 2015

Integrity in Worship

With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.

I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.

To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.

Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.

These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.

God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?

The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.

God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.

We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.

In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.

I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.

In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!

God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?

1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)

What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.

The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.

Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?

September 3, 2014

Live It Out, part 2

Last time I addressed specifically the importance of living out our faith so that people will see demonstrated in us that which we say we believe. Several years ago I explored this idea as it pertains to Christians in the workplace. I had seen, as you no doubt have, an abundance of material in bookstores, online, at conferences and in graduate programs about what it takes to be a good and effective leader. Even within the Christian world, however, I was finding very little about what it means to be a good employee. While we are all called to be leaders (I like to say “if you’re breathing, you’re leading”) we are not all called to serve in formal leadership positions. Nevertheless, we all have responsibilities to do our best within whatever capacity we may serve. As a result of my studies and fleshing out some ideas that had been percolating in my mind I eventually developed a course entitled “UNTO THE LORD: The Roles and Responsibilities of the Christian Worker.” Through that course I (I hope) demonstrated what Christians are called to do no matter where they work or what they do because they are representing Christ. I hope someday to turn the course into a book, but that has not happened yet. I have been pleased to see that a few books related to this idea have emerged in the past few years, so perhaps others, too, are recognizing this often-forgotten area of the Christian life.

R.C. Sproul, Jr. addresses this idea in his “Seek Ye First” column in the September 2014 issue of Tabletalk. His column is titled “The World and All” and in it he points out that Christians are all too often guilty of separating the kingdom of God from the everyday activities of our lives. He explains that when Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world, He was not suggesting that our Christianity is to be limited to what I will call church world. “It is true that Jesus distinguished His kingdom from the kingdoms of this world,” Sproul writes. “The difference, however, is not dimensional or geographic. Rather, the difference is in terms of our weaponry. What sets apart the kingdom of God is that the soldiers of the King do not fight with swords and spears.” In other words, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world only insofar as He was not planning to lead a rebellion against the Roman government (much to the dismay of Judas and others) and He is not calling us to use bullets or bombs to overthrow the United States government. But He is calling us to be about the business of His kingdom every day and in everything that we do.

Sproul goes on to write this…

When we forget the glorious truth that Jesus’ kingdom is everywhere, that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto Him, we end up dividing His realm. We think the real kingdom is where the church is, where it is doing ‘churchy’ things. When we are praying, when we are giving and receiving the sacraments, when we are preaching or hearing sermons, then we have entered into His kingdom. When, however, we are making widgets, buying groceries, or coaching Little League, then we have left the safety of the kingdom and have ventured into the world.

The truth is, of course, that His reign is universal. We do not move into and out of His kingdom so much as we vacillate between recognizing it and failing to recognize it, manifesting it or failing to manifest it. When we leave the church, and enter into that which is para–alongside–the church, we are not crossing some kind of border, entering into Pilate’s realm. Because we are still within the kingdom of our Lord, we are still to be about our Lord’s business. We are to do all that we do as unto Him.

In other words, regardless of where we live or what we do, every believer is called to full-time Christian ministry. We may not work for a Christian company or be paid by a mission board. We may not carry a Bible to work or be employed someplace where meetings start and/or end with prayer. Yet we all are called to do everything we do for God. That means whether we are stitching a wound, filling out tax forms, collecting garbage, mopping a floor, remodeling a house, selling a pair of jeans, fixing or serving food, investing money or answering phones we are just as much within the kingdom of God and called to live out our faith as if we were pastors, Christian school teachers or missionaries. Sproul writes, “The plumber, then, if he serves our Lord, is a parachurch worker. he is most assuredly in ministry. And make no mistake about it: there is a Christian way to do plumbing.”

This is a crucial lesson for all of us to learn. It is one that I strive diligently to communicate to the students at the school where I serve…they do not have to go to a Christian college or work in a church in order to live out their faith. We strive to show our students how biblical principles are connected to and relevant to every area of study, every occupation and every life choice. I am in a setting where I am privileged to have both that opportunity and responsibility. But it is not one that should be unique to me or those of us in Christian education. Every Christian should seek to apply the teachings of Scripture in their every day lives. Every Christian parent should seek to teach their children that the Bible is not just for Sundays, but is relevant and applicable every day and in every setting.

Paul says in I Corinthians 10:31, “…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He says again, in Colossians 3:23, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.” Whatever you do is all encompassing; it excludes nothing. Wherever you are and whatever you do…live it out.

August 29, 2014

Live It Out

Ravi Zacharias is, in my opinion, one of the wisest and most articulate Christian apologists on the planet. Rarely do I listen to him speak or read something that he wrote without being struck by something I want to be sure to remember and to try to apply in my own life.

Today, as I was flipping through some index cards on which I have written quotes that I find meaningful and worth reflecting on from time to time I was struck by the relationship between two consecutive cards in the stack. Maybe they have always been next to each other and it never struck me, or maybe they just ended up that way today, because some of the cards had come out of the clip in which I keep them and got rearranged. But I think that these two thoughts complement each other so well, and are such poignant reminders for all of us (and those of us who work with children specifically) that I want to share them with you.

The first is a quote from Ravi Zacharias. He says, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.” The implications of that one sentence could fill pages–could actually probably fill books. The Bible talks clearly in so many passages about the importance of living out our faith. Professed belief is questionable if it does not impact the way in which the one making the profession lives his or her life. James, of course, says that believing in God is all well and good but is, for all intents and purposes, worthless in and of itself because even the demons believe. There must also be action, an out-flowing of the change that takes place inside.

I have heard on several occasions–and I am sure you have too–a political candidate say, “My faith will not interfere with my job,” or something along those lines. While I can perhaps appreciate the point the candidate is trying to make, particularly vis-a-vis the “keep religion out of the public sphere” atmosphere that dominates America today, I always find myself thinking in response, “Then it must not be much of a faith.” If someone can profess a religious faith and also profess that he or she can execute the duties of a political office without that faith having an influence on him or her then that faith is either completely meaningless or completely compartmentalized. (Actually, that’s redundant, isn’t it? A completely compartmentalized faith would be completely meaningless…) There are few positions that involve the influence and the potential impact of a political office; if one’s faith is not influential there, where would it be influential?

To the point that Zacharias is making, many people are completely turned off by those who profess the gospel message and therefore never even give the message itself a chance. When one who professes something lives in a manner completely inconsistent with that which is being confessed such a rejection is hardly surprising. This amounts to little more than “do as I say, not as I do,” and I think we all know how effective that is(n’t).

The index card right behind the one with the quote from Ravi Zacharias was one with this quote from Alison Thomas: “The most persuasive apologetic we can offer our children is not a series of carefully constructed verbal arguments, but a life beautifully lived close beside them.”

These two quotes are so complementary because they have the same idea at their roots. Zacharias’ point is that the gospel has the answers, but when those of us who claim it turn seekers off by the way we live our lives they will never give the gospel a chance. Thomas’ point is that coming up with the grandest instructions, arguments and rules in the world will matter little, if at all, if others–and in this case, children specifically–do not see the gospel demonstrated every day in our lives.

Neither Zacharias nor Thomas is suggesting we must be perfect–because none of us can. We will all stumble, make mistakes and “blow it” from time to time. That’s because we’re human. The frequency with which we do that should diminish over time as we grow in our relationship with the Lord but it will still happen. The question is, what do we do when that happens? Do we acknowledge it and repent? Do we apologize to those we may have hurt in the process? Or do we try to cover it up or excuse it away?

The inverse of Zacharias’ point is equally true, and is the point at which Thomas is getting. If we live a beautiful life alongside our children, one in which they see us growing, learning, struggling, messing up and handling it well, they will learn from us. They will ask questions. They will model what they have seen. The probability is high that they will embrace the faith themselves. Our words can be powerful teachers and testimonies, but only if the reinforce and echo what our actions are already teaching.

I suspect that if I were God I would not have chosen to entrust my message of love, redemption and forgiveness to the human race. Even if I had loved humans enough to offer them that, I would probably have done it in a manner that eliminated the possibility that humans could, through their own bone-headedness, become an obstacle to other humans wanting to receive or even hear my message. God, in His sovereignty, chose to give us mortals that responsibility…and what a responsibility it is! If we are going to profess a faith in Him, we better be sure to live it out.

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