Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 20, 2016

Sermon on Colossians 3:16

Second Sunday after Epiphany — January 17, 2016 — Sermon starts at 24:30

During the “middle” Sundays of this year’s Epiphany season (January 17, 24, and 31, 2016), St. Mark’s is offering a three-week sermon series that focuses on the congregation’s three-part mission statement: [1] Glorify God, [2] Grow in Grace, and [3] Go with the Gospel. This is the first sermon in the series.

Sermon Series Title:  St. Mark’s, Rise to Your Mission!

WORSHIP IS ALL ABOUT THE WORD

Text: Colossians 3:16

Introduction

Nearly a dozen years ago, when my wife and I had just one child who was then a less-than-one-year-old baby, we took a vacation for about a week to Yosemite National Park. We stayed in a cabin just outside the park’s borders; there were three other units in this set of cabins, and we exchanged some pleasantries every so often with the people who were staying in the other cabins. Sunday morning came around, and since there were no congregations of our fellowship near us, worship consisted of a family devotion instead of a church service. As I stepped outside our cabin that morning, I told one of the neighbors how strange it felt for me, as a pastor, to not be in church for worship on a Sunday morning. He responded to my comment, looking up at nature’s beautiful scenery around us, and saying, “Well, this is a great church! You can worship God anywhere!”

True or false: You can worship God anywhere. Like many good true/false questions, the answer to that question depends; it depends what you mean by the word worship. Like many other words in our language, the word worship can refer to more than one activity. Let me give you an example before we answer the question. Right now my Sunday morning Bible class is studying Roman Catholicism. The word catholic is another word that can mean more than one thing. Catholic can mean universal, something that Christians have done around the world and over the span of many centuries. Catholic can also mean something that is associated with the Roman Catholic Church. As Lutherans, we have no problem with activities that are universal catholic, like speaking the Nicene Creed after the sermon. And as Lutherans, we do have an issue with things that are catholic, that is, uniquely Roman Catholic, such as praying to the saints when Scripture directs us to pray to the Triune God alone. So Lutherans are catholic and not Catholic at the same time, because the word means two different things.

True or false: You can worship God anywhere. It depends on what you mean by the word worship. Worship can refer to the way Christians live their lives to honor God by all that they do. In that case, yes, you can worship God anywhere—in fact, we’ll want to worship him everywhere! But the word worship also refers to the regular, usually weekly gathering of Christians around the Word of God and the Sacraments. I can read the Bible on my own, but it would be difficult to hear it read and applied to my life without connecting to some type of larger gathering of Christians; and I will certainly have a difficult time receiving the Lord’s Supper unless I’m connected to a larger gathering of Christians. That sense of worship is something I cannot do on my own; I need to be with other Christians, just as the Bible encourages us: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 11:25, NIV84).

Today we are beginning a three-part sermon series that will consider the three-part mission statement of St. Mark’s that is printed on the large banner in the gym and is now on display on the wall in the back of church. That three-part mission statement states that St. Mark’s congregation exists to [1] glorify God, [2] grow in grace, and [3] go with the gospel. Today we will examine the first part of that statement, to glorify God—which is just another way of saying that we gather to worship him. Just as worship in daily life is different than worship as a group of believers gathered in God’s house, so the expression, glorify God, means one thing in daily life and another thing as a group of believers gathered together in God’s house. The two terms are basically interchangeable. So we will learn more about what it means to glorify God as a Christian assembly as we study Colossians 3:16 in depth today, and learn from St. Paul that our public worship is all about the Word. 

Exposition

 The chapter that our Second Lesson comes from includes all sorts of encouragements about worshipping and glorifying God in our daily lives. Paul wants his readers to think about all the blessings they have in Jesus Christ and to let those good blessings of faith inspire their lives so that they put away sin and live as God’s chosen people. But then, a little more than half-way through this chapter, he describes some aspects of what it looks like to worship God as a congregation. Our verse for today says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” All of the other encouragements in this chapter describe how they would worship God in their daily lives, but this verse contains a description of some things that happen when they would gather for worship as a public assembly.

Paul begins, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly.” An older translation of this verse says, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” but I prefer the translation “message” here. There is one message in the Word of God that tells us what to do—including all of the godly encouragements for the Christian life found in this chapter. We call that message the law. But as Paul moves the discussion to the congregation’s regular gathering, he wants them not so much to focus on the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the Bible—the law. Rather, he wants their gathered congregation to focus on the word about Christ, the “message of Christ”—the gospel. Paul wanted their worship to put the spotlight on the life and work of Jesus for our salvation above anything and everything else. This matches something else Paul wrote in another New Testament book: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Christian worship and Christian ministry zero in on the blessings of grace and forgiveness that Jesus accomplished for us by his death on the cross.

So what would that look like? How would the “message of Christ dwell among [them] richly”? Paul says that the gospel message should dwell among them “as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” This phrase shows us that Paul has moved the discussion from personal worship to public worship. They would instruct one another. Paul’s two instruction words are to “teach” and to “admonish.” When you admonish someone, you correct them if they’re doing wrong, and you warn them against doing wrong. That is the law. And sometimes the law is very uncomfortable to hear. Young people don’t like to hear the law call them to sexual purity before marriage. Parents don’t like to hear that they need to be patient with their children as they discipline them. Children don’t like to hear that they should respect their parents. People don’t like to hear that we should assume the best of others when it’s so natural to put a negative spin on the words and actions of others. We don’t like to be admonished, and sometimes we don’t like to admonish others, but Paul says that we must admonish one another.

But the admonishment of the law always sets us up to hear the gospel. Paul said that his readers should “teach” one another. And since he already said that he wanted the message about Jesus to dwell among them richly, it is safe to say that this “teach[ing]” was not a top ten list of ways to be a better person, but a generous and clear focus on the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. When the law makes me feel miserable for my sin, the gospel makes me joyful that I have a Savior who loved me so much that he endured the eternal punishment for my sin. When the law makes me realize how great my shortcomings are, the gospel makes me rejoice over how great my Savior’s gracious love for me is and always will be. When the law shows me that my grave should be filled with a dead body, the gospel shows me that one day my grave will be vacant because Jesus vacated his grave and rose from the dead on Easter morning.

During the Lutheran Reformation in the 1500’s, some of Luther’s opponents said that Lutherans were “singing their way into hell” because Luther’s hymns taught people what the Bible said—and of course, that biblical message of salvation by faith alone in Jesus wasn’t what the church of Luther’s day had been teaching. In reality, Luther’s hymns were causing people to sing their way into heaven, because his hymns taught the faith.

That is the very concept that Paul encourages at the end of our verse for today. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Paul says that the psalms and hymns and songs we sing in worship are meant to teach one another. That probably isn’t the way we look at songs in worship. We sing to God, right? We praise God in worship. We glorify God in song. Paul doesn’t deny that, but he says that our singing together helps the gospel message to take hold in our hearts, because through these songs we actually teach each other the truths of the Christian faith from the Scriptures. So as we reinforce the message of God’s love to us, our singing won’t be some empty ritual, but it will be filled with genuine, heart-felt gratitude to God for his great love for us.

Application

The idea that our worship is addressed to the people who gather together almost seems wrong. The word “worship” sounds like our main job on Sunday morning should be to praise God. And there’s no doubt that we thank God for the gifts he gives us and the message he brings to us in worship. But we can’t put the cart before the horse. You can’t thank someone if you haven’t received a gift. You can’t glorify or praise God if you don’t know why he is worthy to be praised. You cannot worship God if you have no knowledge of his Son Jesus who came to be your Savior and Redeemer. Our words that glorify and worship God follow his words of grace and forgiveness to us. So the “message of Christ” is the first and foremost ingredient when we gather for worship. Worship is all about the Word!

But sometimes we are inclined to think that worship is more about us, or about appealing to some particular group, than it is about the Word. If the pastor crafts his sermon in just the right way, if the soloist or choir just sings the right inspiring song, if the congregation just sings the right style of hymns, then we’ll feel like we’re worshipping. Then God will be praised. Then people will hear the gospel. Then the church will be strong and will grow.

Don’t misunderstand. Pastors and musicians should do their best. We can sing the best new songs and the best classic hymns (and the hymns in today’s service give good examples of both!). But sometimes our thinking assumes that the right ingredient will be the magic bullet to really make worship work. And this kind of thinking can become quite polarizing. And so one crowd thinks that if we just return to The Lutheran Hymnal from the past, then we’ll really be worshipping God properly. Meanwhile, the other crowd thinks that if we just get rid of the old and bring in all new, modern music, then worship will finally become effective. Each of us has a sinful nature that tends to gravitate toward one or the other of those poles as the answer that will make worship effective. But the problem lies in the fact that this kind of discussion tends to forget that worship is not so much about how I praise God, but that worship is all about the Word. We should ask ourselves if these discussions of style and preferences can, and maybe sometimes have, led us away from focusing on the Word of God and message of Christ—the one and only thing that can keep us on the path to heaven.

But that is the beauty of the message of Christ and the Word of God. When we are tempted to engage in discussions and debates that miss the point, God’s Word directs us back to the Word who became flesh and made his dwelling among us. When we forget that worship isn’t about us, God reminds us that his Son came into this world to be the Savior of sinners just like us. When we fail to keep our focus on Jesus, God uses his Word to fix our eyes on the cross of Jesus where he forever fixed our problem with sin. When we feel that the Word has become boring, God redirects our attention back to the story that never gets old or stale, the good news that his Son broke out of his tomb on Easter morning to prove that we too shall rise and live forever as the redeemed children of God in heaven. Could there be a sweeter message than that? Could there be a more comforting truth to hear? Could there be anything greater for us to spend our time with than the “message of Christ” that proclaims forgiveness now and eternal life forever? Could there be any better purpose of worship than to focus on the Word?

Conclusion

In the Bible, there is a story where a woman who had previously led a sinful life came to Jesus with repentant tears, and Jesus forgave her (Luke 7:36-50). Our Lutheran forefathers mention this account in the Lutheran Confessions, the collection of official Lutheran statements of faith from the sixteenth century, and they point out that this woman’s example of coming to Jesus and receiving his message of forgiveness is the greatest form of worship. “The woman came with this conviction about Christ: that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from him. This is the highest way to worship Christ. Nothing greater could she ascribe to Christ. By seeking the forgiveness of sins from him, she truly acknowledged him as the Messiah. Now to think about Christ in this way, to worship and take hold of him in this way, is truly to believe.”

If you want to glorify God when we gather for this public activity that we call worship, don’t worry about how well you sing or speak. Focus instead on what Christ says to you. Let worship be all about the Word—God’s Word of grace and love and forgiveness for you. Receive his gifts with thanks. Never tire of them. Never tire of receiving them. Never tire of learning about them. Never tire of worship that is all about the Word! Amen.

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