Thursday, December 5, 2013

Preaching to the Choir

Church choirs have notoriously been a hotbed of controversy and aggravation in recent ecclesiological history. Whether your church has completely removed choirs altogether or continues to have a vocal ensemble that leads worship, pastors and other church leaders often view the musical component of church services as an angry bear that need not be poked or prodded unless absolutely necessary. When awoken or shaken in any way, disaster follows closely behind.  I know one such leader that has even said 90% of all of the problems he has encountered over his long tenure of ministry find their root in the choir. But why?

Why would one small representation of the church suffer from such a stigma? Why would such a minority have the potential of creating such a problem? Why have many churches decided to not even fool with this group in the first place?

I believe that the answers to these questions might, in part, be theological.

Choirs are found throughout Scripture and deserve at least some attention. In the Old Testament, choirs were used as special vessels of praise to God. Accompanied with instruments, these groups of singers led in the worship of the Almighty, focusing everyone’s attention on Yahweh (2 Chron. 5:12-14; Neh. 12:31ff). In the New Testament, men, women, and even angelic beings are said to have participated in the phenomenon of choir. Choirs of angels helped celebrate the coming of the baby Jesus (Lk. 2:13-14). Even a diverse group of elders, angels, and creatures stands forever singing in the throne-room of heaven (Rev. 5:11-12)! Choirs of all shapes and sizes and members are represented throughout Scripture. However, what choirs represent is far more important than the entity itself.

Several fundamental characteristics of choirs can be delineated from the Scriptures mentioned above. First, choirs are made up of unique individuals. Not only are the people distinct from one another, today, a variety of parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) exist as well.  Second, though made up of individual members, choirs exist as one body. You cannot have a choir of one and any one member is not greater than the collective whole. Third, it would appear, at least from Scripture, that church choirs exist for one purpose and one purpose only—glorifying God through the gift of music as presented through words sung in discreet melodies, harmonies. In the Bible, glory to God may have been given to commemorate a special event, military victory, creative work, or special revelation. Regardless of the motive, glory to God always resulted from these music groups.

Therefore a rough definition of a church choir, as defined by these fundamentals might read as follows:

A church choir is one musical body made up of individual believers who have come together to glorify God through participating in the phenomenon of music.

When juxtaposed against a definition of the church, the similarities are striking

The church is one body made up of individual believers who are committed to the glory of God through the phenomenon of Christianity.

When placed alongside each other, the only distinct difference between the choir and the church is the means by which each seeks to glorify God!

In so many ways, the choir is a representative microcosm of the church. Just as a choir is supposed to cooperate within itself to produce a harmonious sound, the church is to cooperate within itself to produce harmony among believers. Just as a choir is made up of individuals singing different parts, the church is made up of different members equipped with different talents. Just as a choir continues to refine and improve its craft through rigorous rehearsal, a church is sanctified through experience and grace in the ministry. Just as a choir gives a musical performance designed to draw the attention of the congregation to the person of God, 
the church shines the light of God before men, directing attention to Jesus Christ.

But how does this begin to answer why choirs are often such a source of turmoil?

What more efficient way would there be for the enemy to create division, dissention, or disillusionment in the church than to attack an institution that reflects the body of Christ so nearly? What easier way would there be to grieve a pastor or discourage a congregation than for Satan to corrupt those leading that congregation in a worship experience?

As is the case elsewhere, the institution of choir is not inherently wicked, irrelevant, or cumbersome; it is the enemy that turns the beautiful harmonies into meaningless noise.  

Whether your choir suffers from the poison of pre-madonnas, the subtle slip into self-promotion, the demon of divisiveness over styles and song choices, or the glow of glamorization, understand that the battle is very real and the enemy would love nothing more than to use your group for discord instead of worship.

With great grace comes great responsibility. If your church has been graced with a choir, understand that it has an extraordinary opportunity to help people encounter the person of God in wonderful ways. However, don’t forget that they are also uniquely at risk of the enemy’s very real attack to taint the image of the church that the choir is intended to emulate and the harmony that it is supposed to create as it leads the congregation in worship.

But what am I saying? You already know this and I’m just preaching to the choir. J

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gabriel's Great News!

Any man who is married has experienced the following scenario: You wife comes in and tells you something that she presumes you already know and you obviously have no idea to what she is referring. She then proceeds to say that she already told you about the event, situation, or errand earlier, perhaps even days before. In this moment, the husband has a choice to make. He can be a stupid and try and prove that she did not make him aware of whatever it is they are discussing, or he can plead ignorance and chalk it up to not remembering what she must have made perfectly clear. In my short tenure as a married man, I have learned to choose the latter.  I learned this fairly quickly because, unfortunately, I am very adept at forgetting the unmemorable. There are few conversations that I can remember the specifics of. Unless, it is really important or commands my full attention, I will probably forget the details. However, I do remember the conversation I had with Brianna’s parents before I asked her to marry me. Everything from where we ate to what was said to how we left is imprinted in my mind. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my parents as they dropped me off at College my freshmen year and drove off. I can still remember what was said and how long the embraces lasted. I remember every detail surrounding the moment when Brianna told me we were expecting our first child! Some conversations you just don’t forget. Today we are going to look at 4 Parts of a conversation experienced between two unlikely individuals, an archangel and a teenage girl, as we look forward to Christmas time from Luke 1:26-38. Like my conversation with Brianna 10 months ago, a young woman is soon going to learn that a baby changes everything. How she responds will teach each one of us how we ought to respond when God speaks.

I. PART 1: The Context of the Message-1:26-27

The timing of the conversation ties itself with the first 25 verses of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ story begins as yet another story has already been introduced, the birth of Jesus’ would-be cousin John.  This discreet connection is made to show how Jesus’ life and work was a large part of an even greater narrative God was setting up. Just as Elizabeth had conceived miraculously in her old age, Mary would conceive even more miraculously in her virginity. When John would be called great in the sight of the Lord (1:15), the Lord Jesus would be great without qualification (1:32) and would be called the Son of God (1:35). 

After the timing of this conversation is identified, the messenger is revealed.  The messenger is Gabriel and the message is straight from the eternal glory of heaven. So rare had God’s activity in the world become that this would have been absolutely shocking and incredibly significant.

Gabriel’s angelic resume is riddled with eschatological events. Twice in Daniel, it is Gabriel who brings news of the end of the ages. This announcement of God’s coming to earth is also a look ahead to His work on the earth and how that work ushers in the age that would lead to the end of time.

Next, Luke is oddly specific concerning where Gabriel was sent. Nazareth was the Burnt Chimney of Israel. Have you heard of Burnt Chimney, VA? Exactly. In order to help his readers understand where the tiny town of Nazareth was, he specifies its location in the land of Galilee. The humility of this birthplace is made even more acute in John 1:46 when Nathaniel says, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” These humble beginnings are not accidental nor are they superfluous. It is purposeful that God would allow his Son to be sent in such a humble way as His ministry would be forever marked with humility and his destiny marked with an even greater humiliation. God’s glory is, even in Christ’s birth, shown most beautifully in the most unlikely of places.

I’ll never forget finding a 20 dollar bill on the road one day as a kid, how exciting it was to find something so valuable in such an unlikely spot. I would not have been so excited or pleasantly surprised to havea 20 dollar bill given to me from my dad’s wallet. In the same way, to create something special and galvanize excitement and draw attention to the glory of Christ, God places Him in the most unlikely of situations.

Part of understanding this situation involves understanding who was included in the activity. Luke clearly emphasizes here and elsewhere that Gabriel was sent to a virgin woman. Not only was this woman a virgin, she was given to be married to a man; something that could not be broken except through something similar to a formal divorce. At this time, Mary would have probably been only 15 years old, some scholars suggest she was even a younger 13 as this was the normal age of betrothal.

The lucky fiancĂ© of this young lady was none other than Joseph of the line of David. This is incredibly important as it shows Jesus’ relationship to the line of the king of Israel that was promised a forever kingdom. Through these context clues, Luke reveals that the message has something to do with the family lineage of David. This, along with the unlikely setting and even more unlikely miracle would have created quite a stir Mary and Joseph’s life.

Before we move on to talk about the content of the message consider this. An angel going to Nazareth of Galilee to deliver this message to Mary would have been like an angel going to the outskirts of Burnt Chimney to speak to the young daughter of a family who lived in a double-wide. This is a proper way to view the situation as it was for Mary and Joseph. This is how this news found them in their lives. You can bet that she would never forget this encounter or the conversation that would take place.

II. PART 2: The Content of the Message-1:28-33

So eager was Gabriel to bring this news that he begins talking as he was coming into Mary’s presence. As Gabriel is in the process of appearing, he tells Mary that God considers her highly favored, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). There is no evidence to suggest that this was because of any merit or special holiness she possessed (as some suggest). Instead, she had been chosen for his own mysterious and glorious purposes. This proclamation of God’s choosing is quickly followed with a promise of God’s presence in her life (the Lord is with you), revealing a timeless principle: once God chooses you, there is no escaping His presence in your life.

There is nothing implicitly confusing about Gabriel’s greetings. However, think for a moment about how it was given in the first place. Here is an angelic being appearing to young girl in the middle of nowhere after God has proven almost silent for 100s of years. A little confusion is understandable of this young girl who had seen nothing of this sort in all of her life, “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was” (1:29). Maybe she wiped her eyes thinking it was a dream or checked herself to see if she had hit her head on something.

The heavenly being is able to read her expression of dumbfoundedness and quickly assures her that there is nothing to be afraid of. God’s favor has found Mary. (As stated earlier, this does not suggest that Mary had earned it in some way, but it does mean that she had been sovereignly chosen of God for the task she would soon hear about)

After assuring her, Gabriel eagerly divulges the prediction he had been sent to communicate, “…You will conceive in your womb and bear a son…”(1:31).

Immediately following the prediction of the child Himself, Gabriel provides Mary with the name of the child. 
This follows an Old Testament pattern of prophecy and then naming.

Notice that Mary is not given the opportunity of waiting to see what the sex of the baby will be. Nor is she able to name the baby for herself!

Gabriel states that the name will be “Jesus.” Luke doesn’t make a big deal out of the name, in fact, the commonality of his name in the Jewish culture runs parallel to His ordinary birthplace. However, Jesus (which means God is salvation), would prove to be anything but ordinary and his life everything but common.
 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David” (1:32). Jesus will be great period (no qualifications, nor conditions). He will be the son of the most, which is simply another name for the Son of God. He will also prove to be the heir to the throne of David. The Davidic throne is clearly a regal image drawn from the Davidic covenant’s promise of a son, a house, and an everlasting rule. In fact, the promise of David (the hero of the Old Testament) will in fact culminate in Jesus Christ. The words “son” and the reference to “David” are examples of strong regal language. Gabriel was divulging to Mary that her son would prove to be the King her people had waited for a long time.  

However, not only will Jesus have a title and claim to the throne of David, “He will reign over a the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end…”(1:33). The phrase “house of Jacob” is another way to refer to Israel. However, the everlasting quality of His reign seems to suggest that his sovereignty will extend beyond Israel’s borders.

What an earful! Sure I don’t get to name my baby or talk things over with Joseph but the son of God! Wow! He is going to be the King! He is going to rule the forever kingdom the OT looks forward to! But wait…how is this even possible? A justified question from a young Jewish girl.

III. PART 3: The Explanation of the Message-1:34-37

Given her lack of sexual experience, Mary questions how this will transpire. While not yet through high school, it is obvious that Mary understands that several things need to take place biologically for this to happen, and yet, in keeping her vow to stay pure, she has not known a man. This question along with the couples resolve to abstain from sexual activity until after Jesus’ birth help to prove that Jesus was miraculously conceived as Gabriel speaks of next.

What Gabriel tells Mary next runs parallel to what was spoken to Elizabeth and is similar to other stories of miraculous births in Scripture, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (1:35). Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Isaac had Jacob and Esau, Hannah had Samuel, etc. God, it seems enjoys bringing life from barrenness and glorifying Himself in these miraculous births. In fact, these allusions are small images of Christ himself who brought life in a dead and dying world. In the midst of spiritual barrenness, Jesus would breath life.

Jesus’ birth through the power of the Holy God is what gives Him His perfect nature and sets Him apart from any other man. His birth is the direct result of God’s creative power and therefore can be called the Holy Child and Son of God. Holy in that Jesus was set-apart for Spiritual Service, like His Father in every way. First called the Davidic son because of his practical parents (Joseph and Mary), Jesus is now revealed to be the Son of God because of His real Father and divinity.

To help Mary to process this incredible influx of information, Gabriel draws her attention to her relative Elizabeth whose miracle birth would have given Mary pause to consider the possibility that with God, all things, yes even bringing God to earth in flesh, are Possible, “and behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month” (1:36).
Only God could perform this greatest of miracles, the incarnation. God coming to earth- The outsider and creator of everything coming to the creation to save it from itself.

Message complete, proclamation given, and  predictions made, Gabriel’s task is complete leaving the ball in Mary’s court. This early teenage girl’s response to the message is what I hope inspires us today. Before we think about how excited we would be to accept such an offer, consider the risk it was for her. She was pledged to be married. What would Joseph say about the teenage baby bump that would eventually show? What would friends and family members speculate happened to her?  Sure her life was simple and common, but it was familiar and stable. What if she did not want this God-sized interruption in her life? What if she wished it upon someone else? She realized more than anyone else that she was no one special. Why me? However, Mary says none of these things.

IV. PART 4: The Response to the Message-1:38

”And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”…” (1:38). Mary calls herself a slave of God and places herself under His rule, His will, and His ways. As God’s handmaid, she openly accepts what God asks of her. Mary proves exemplary in the way she responds to God’s message of grace. In response to the grace shown to her (God found favor with her simply because He was pleased to do so), she proved submissive and obedient to Him. God can now do with her what he wishes. Despite all the risk involved, as the Lord’s servant, she willingly accepts.

Mary says yes in spite of what Joseph would choose to do with her. She says yes in spite of what her family would say. She says yes, in spite of what her community might do to her. She says yes in spite of her own plans for her life. In response to the grace of God in her life, Mary is willing to leave everything to follow Him in obedience.

With this positive response, the Angel departs, back toward the heavens, excited, overjoyed, and grinning at the news he is eager now to share with his angelic peers.

So What?

What a conversation! The great thing about it is we don’t have to wish we were a fly on the wall to experience what took place, Luke reveals what happened with pinpoint precision. After understanding the context of this incredible message and observing the content and explanation of the message, how will we choose to respond? While I’m sure God will never appear to you and ask of you to bear His Son, what does he keep asking you to do for Him. Haven’t we also been shown favor from God undeserved as Mary? Haven’t we been given unearned grace from the Almighty? If so, then why don’t we respond like Mary does with complete obedience? If and when we do this God is able to do with us far more than we ever could have imagined. Isn’t it about time we stop letting age or circumstance keep us from responding to God’s grace with the action He has already commanded of us? What better gift could we give God this Christmas season than to allow our “yes” to be on the table when God asks us to do anything? What better activity could we engage in as believers to busy ourselves with actually doing what He has already instructed in His Word? Maybe it’s time you had a memorable conversation with God.