Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, and many Christians who did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar are now becoming very interested in it. Some are madly in love with all things liturgical, seeing Lent as one way to rediscover lost roots. Others are critical of it as faddishness, a sort of picking and choosing of one’s piety according to whatever seems interesting. And then there’s always the perpetual fear of subtle Romanizing. Lent can be abused in a legalistic way. I would be more than happy to talk about each of those concerns at another time, but it is my belief that each of those conversations actually distract us from the real point of what Lent is supposed to be. Like all forms of liturgy, Lent is meant to be an aid in worship, a way of assisting our thoughts and devotions in focusing on God’s majesty, our sinfulness, and the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
What would you think if you saw a man staring at his own glasses? He might be adjusting them or fixing something that had broken. That would make sense. But what if he never seemed to finish? What if he just kept staring and commenting on his glasses, asking other folks to admire his glasses, but never got around to actually wearing them? You’d think he probably didn’t know what glasses were for in the first place or that he had some other serious disorder. You certainly wouldn’t be inspired by wonderful blessing of cured vision! Liturgy works the same way as a pair of glasses. You are not supposed to look at it. Instead you are supposed to look through it to see something else, namely Jesus. Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus. How should it do that? During Lent, we ought to remember the significance of our sin, the guilt which we bear before God, and the great price paid by Jesus on our behalf. We have no thought of atoning for own sins at this time. That would be insane, an impossibility that would only leave us in perpetual despair. No, instead we remember the death of Christ, the curse which he bore for us, and, in response to that saving act, we put to death the remaining sin within us in order to show our gratitude towards Jesus.
Have you ever been disappointed by God? Have you ever asked Him for something and not gotten it? Are you ever let down by His providence? We probably feel like we’re not allowed to admit to these kinds of feelings, even though we have them from time to time. But what if I told you that the people of God had these very feelings, and that, in fact, there is a whole psalm devoted to this feeling? That’s what Psalm 89 is. It is a song, meant for use in corporate worship, where God’s people lament the fact that it looks like He has not kept His promise to send them a faithful king.
The Covenant With David
Psalm 89 begins by praising God’s covenant. “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations” (vs. 1) This is not just any covenant, but the specific covenant made with the house of David:
I have made a covenant with My chosen,
I have sworn to My servant David:
Your seed I will establish forever,
And build up your throne to all generations.” (vs. 3-4)
O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
Psalm 51 is King David’s famous prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin with Bathsheba. The psalm is an important penitential prayer, but it also provides a very important observation about the true understanding of the old covenant worship. David clearly states that the true worship of God and the true sacrifices are not the external forms and offerings of bulls and goats, but rather the sacrifice of praise coming from the human heart. “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (vs. 6). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (vs. 10). “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise” (vs. 16-17).
Those last lines about brokenness are what I wish to discuss with you now. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart. This is how we must come to God. As strange as it may sound, we have to learn how to be broken and contrite. We must cultivate a sense of brokenness in order to worship God in the only way that He finds acceptable, with true sacrifices. Continue reading →
The psalms are the Manna of the Church. As Manna tasted to every man like that that he liked best, so do the Psalms minister Instruction and satisfaction, to every man, in ever emergency and occasion. David was not only a clear Prophet of Christ himself, but a Prophet of every particular Christian; He foretells what I, what any shall do, and suffer, and say. And as the whole book of Psalms is… A Balm that searches all wounds; so are there some certain Psalms, that are Imperial Psalms, that command over all affections, and spread themselves over all occasions, Catholic, universal Psalms, that apply themselves to all necessities. This is one of those. (John Donne, sermon on Ps. 63.7)
The wilderness of Judah
The context for writing this sermon is most likely 2 Samuel 15, when David had to flee Jerusalem from the forces of his own son Absalom. We know that the psalm is written by David when he was in the wilderness. When we look through his life, we see that he was in the wilderness on two occasions. The first was when he lived as a political exile from Saul in 1 Samuel 23-26. But he was not yet king then, and this psalm seems to indicate that David is already king when he is writing it. Thus the the occasion is David’s war against his own son, Absalom, who has temporarily taken possession of Jerusalem. This is a time where David is in danger of losing both his throne and his life. Yet he doesn’t seem to be concerned with these matters as much as he is concerned with something higher. Indeed he is most concerned about being separated from God’s sanctuary, and he writes this psalm to express his desire to be reunited with God’s holy place. Continue reading →
Today we’re going to cover what is perhaps the most popular carol, “Joy to the World.” But did you know that it actually isn’t a Christmas carol at all? Written by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” originally appeared in his 1719 The Psalms of David, and it was Watts’s unique take on Psalm 98. The full title of Watts’s song book is The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship, which sounds like a noble effort, but in reality most of the words bear only a slight resemblance to the Biblical text. Watts began his project in a time when many Puritans only allowed for the use of the Psalms in worship music (no other songs of any kind), and his title makes it clear that the goal was to “Christianize” the psalms, making the person of the Savior explicit. In retrospect, Watts actually managed to supplant the use of Psalms in worship altogether, as most of his hymns are paraphrases at best and their popularity cleared the way for even less-textually based worship songs in the future. As an extended result, there aren’t many psalm-singing churches left at all, not even among the Presbyterians. But that is another conversation for a less happy occasion. Today we’ll stick to the fun stuff. Continue reading →