Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 9, 2009

Sermon for the Dedication of “Christian Worship: Supplement”

This sermon was preached for the dedication of “Christian Worship: Supplement,” the new hymnal supplement authorized by the Commission on Worship of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

LET THE WORD DO ITS WORK IN WORSHIP!

Text: Colossians 3:16

If you have gotten to know me at all during my time here in Belmont, you could have safely guessed that I have been looking forward to this day for a long time.  I have many weaknesses as a pastor, more than I care to admit, but if there is a strength God has given me, it’s in the areas of worship and music.  And if there is a strength that God has given this church, it’s also in the areas of worship and music.  Name another Lutheran church the size of ours that can claim to have the caliber of musicians we have been blessed with!  You won’t be able to name too many, if any.  And so a day like today, when we dedicate a new worship book for use in our congregation’s worship life — well, that’s a day when we can put our best foot forward!

I have had the privilege not only to prepare our congregation for Christian Worship: Supplement, but also to be on the committee that introduced the supplement to the over 1,260 congregations of our Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  One of my tasks on the introduction committee was to prepare the 30-page booklet of introductory resources which was distributed to people who attended supplement workshops held across the country.  As I was compiling and editing the articles for the supplement’s introduction booklet, there was one Bible verse that popped up several times in the articles, Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”  Two articles and the dedication rite from this booklet included that Bible verse.  I also used that same Bible verse for my opening devotion at the supplement workshops I led in California over the past few months.  So as I thought about today’s service and sermon, it only seemed natural to take another look at Colossians 3:16 for the dedication of Christian Worship: Supplement.  Let’s take another look at this verse that St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, a verse that encourages us to let the Word do its work in worship.

The apostle Paul authored 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament.  Most of those books follow a similar pattern: Paul explains Christian teaching in the first part of the book, and then he encourages Christian living in light of Christian teaching in the second part of the book.  Colossians is no different.  Our verse for today is in the second half of the book, where Paul encourages godly Christian living.  But Paul always encouraged Christian living in light of Christian teaching, and that’s exactly what he does in the verse for this sermon.  In the midst of his encouragements, he reminds his readers how the Christian life is fueled in the first place.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  The fuel that runs the engine of the Christian life is the “word of Christ.”  The first thought that probably comes to your mind when you hear the term, “word of Christ,” is the Scriptures, the Old and New Testament.  But I believe that Paul had a slightly more specific point in mind here.  There’s no doubt that he wants people in all of the Scriptures, but he especially wants them to focus on the “word of Christ” –– the gospel message about Jesus Christ.  In another New Testament letter, Paul wrote, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  The message about Christ creates and sustains faith, so that was the focus of Paul’s preaching.  In yet another letter, Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Paul exaggerates to make his point.  It’s not as if he forgot everything else he learned in life, but he especially focused his ministry on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” –– the gospel message about Jesus Christ.  Paul wanted the good news of peace with God through Jesus’ redeeming work to be the predominant message in his ministry and the preeminent thought in Christians’ hearts.

Practically speaking, what is this supposed to look like?  Paul told his readers to let the gospel continually dwell in their hearts.  Were they supposed to find a quiet corner at home or start the first monastic movement in order to meditate?  That’s not what Paul had in mind.  He envisioned Christians focusing on the gospel in a couple of different contexts, and these contexts sound a lot like what we do in worship.  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

Paul pictured the gospel dwelling in our hearts as Christians teach and admonish one another.”  That could happen in a one-on-one personal setting, but most often that happens when Christians gather for worship and study.  We teach the great truths that Christ taught and that Scripture teaches, and many of those truths are connected to the gospel.  God chose you to be his own from all eternity, before you were born and even before the world was made.  God sent his own Son into this world as a tiny Jewish infant born in Bethlehem.  Jesus was both God and man in one person-an absolutely necessary miracle for him to be our Redeemer.  Jesus died a criminal’s death on the cross where he suffered our hell, but he rose in divine victory on Easter when he won our victory over death.  These truths and many more are the gospel truths that we teach to one another.  And when we teach those truths to each other, the Word can do its work in our hearts.

Along with teaching comes admonishing.  Even when we have to call people to repentance or warn them about temptation, the gospel is still dwelling in us.  For if it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus Christ’s atoning work, repenting of our sins could only lead to punishment, not forgiveness.  If it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus Christ’s gracious redemption, we would have no reason to avoid Satan’s temptations.  As we use the law to condemn sin, our thirst and need for the gospel to dwell in our hearts becomes that much more important.

On top of teaching and admonishing comes the situation that connects most closely to today’s service: singing.  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”  Paul mentions three kinds of songs that Christians could sing as the word dwelled in their hearts.  Psalms were the inspired song book of the Old Testament, and they still find their way into Christian worship today.  It’s hard to specifically define hymns and spiritual songs, but both appear to be New Testament Christian songs.  “Hymns” implies something sung to God; “spiritual songs” may have been songs that told a story — in this case, the story of salvation in Christ.  There is a subtle encouragement for a variety of songs in Paul’s words.  Of course, Paul isn’t saying that anything goes, but he indirectly suggests that we don’t have to be locked into one kind of song when we gather as a Christian congregation.

Paul wrote another letter, Ephesians, that is very similar to this letter, Colossians.  Ephesians is a bit longer, but if you compare the two side by side, you can see many parallel thoughts.  Paul talks about singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in Ephesians as well, but it is interesting how he phrases the point in that letter.  “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20).  The point is obvious that our singing and thanksgiving are directed to God, but our songs are also directed to each other.  “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”  No wonder Paul wanted the gospel message to permeate our hearts when we sing with fellow Christians.  Our singing may be directed to God, but it is also intended for each other.  We built one another up as we sing the gospel to each other.  That’s one way that the Word does its work in worship.

To make this point, I’d like to quote an illustration from a recent book by a Lutheran pastor that deals in part with Lutheran worship.  In The Fire and the Staff, Klemet Preus writes,

[Hymns] praise [God] by telling the story of Christ.  In the process of praise, doctrine is taught.

I have three daughters.  Suppose a young man is dating my daughter and I’m talking to him about her.  I ask, “What do you think of my daughter?”

He answers with words that describe his affections.  “I just love her.  I think so highly of her.  I admire her.  I am so taken by her.”

I have to say as a father that I would not be impressed with this answer no matter how sincere.  What does the guy even know about my daughter?  Nothing that I can tell.

Let’s try again.  I ask, “What do you think of my daughter.”

He answers this time with adjectives, “What a nice young lady.  What an elegant creature.  What a lovely woman.  She’s wonderful, she’s marvelous, she’s beautiful, and she’s fabulous.”

I’m still not impressed.  The young man is improving, but he still hasn’t overwhelmed me with his understanding of my daughter.

I try a third time.  “What do you think of my daughter?”

He answers with verbs.  “I love her because she stops what she is doing to talk to you.  I love her because she thinks of me and gives me presents for no reason.  I love her because she works so hard and won’t let anything get in the way of her goals.  I love her because she loves her family and values them highly.  I love her because she trusts Christ.”

I would tell my daughter to marry a guy like that.  He knows her.  He loves her.

Our praise and love of Jesus should be the recounting of his verbs for us (p. 147).

Saint Paul didn’t tell us that we have to specifically sing songs that retell the story of salvation in Christ.  But he did tell us that the gospel of Christ should dwell in us richly when we sing, and that we are singing not just to the Lord but also to one another.  And since it is the gospel of Christ alone that nurtures and strengthens faith, doesn’t make perfect sense that our songs be filled not with the adjectives of our feelings for God but the verbs of God’s grace for us?  When so much of our week is filled with sin and temptation to draw us away from God, doesn’t it make perfect sense that we fill our services with the “word of Christ” as “richly” as we can?  When we come into church each week dragging behind us the sinful laundry load of our lustful hearts and biting tongues, doesn’t it make perfect sense that we proclaim the burden lifted even as we praise Christ for lifting the burden from us and carrying it to the cross?  When we come into church one step closer to the day of our death, doesn’t it make perfect sense that we sing of the one whose resurrection has given us eternal life?  What better message and greater news could richly fill our hearts than

Christ, the song of love incarnate,

Touching earth with heaven’s grace.

For your living, suff’ring, dying,

For your rising, hear our praise!

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Christ, Redeemer, Lord of life!  (Christian Worship: Supplement #724, st. 3)

A fellow pastor once observed to me that throughout most of the Christian Church’s history, solid, biblical, orthodox, Christ-centered teaching and preaching have not been the norm.  It’s a sad and scary thought, but that pastor was right.  Think of the dark medieval era prior to the Reformation.  The church had all but lost the gospel about Jesus Christ before the Lord used Luther and the Reformers to restore the gospel.  But God has promised that his church will always exist, and with the gospel missing from so many pulpits for so many years, where did people get the gospel to sustain faith?  The gospel was still in the liturgy — the weekly service whose songs tell the story of salvation.  The words and songs of the liturgy, repeated each week, repeated the gospel message and truths people needed each week.  That’s what we sang about in the first supplement hymn used we used in this service.  Fred Pratt Green wrote,

So has the Church, in liturgy and song,

In faith and love, through centuries of wrong,

Borne witness to the truth in ev’ry tongue:

Alleluia!  Alleluia!  (Christian Worship: Supplement #734, st.3)

You know the gospel facts.  You know the story of Jesus’ life and his work of redemption.  But that message in the Word of God isn’t just a message.  It’s power.  It’s the power God uses to keep your faith fueled and burning brightly in this sin-darkened world.  And that message from the Word of God doesn’t have to be confined to the 20-minute sermon.  The Word is doing its work in worship when we sing, “Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.”  The Word is doing its work in worship when we confess, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.”  The Word is doing its work in worship when we sing, “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.”

What a tremendous blessing that as we sing the story of salvation each week, the Word is doing its work in worship!  Amen.

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Responses

  1. Pastor, Does your church use any contemporary music beyond that which has been included in the new hymnal? I’d be interested in hearing some of your favorite contemporary songs or artists. I know that you are a fan of GIA and some of Haugen’s work. Anything else?

    Thanks in advance for your response,
    Steve


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