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            On Thursday, March 29, at roughly 12:30 pm, some relatively unknown Miami Marlins pitcher (if you watch baseball you will understand that nearly every Marlins player is relatively unknown) will throw the first pitch of the 2018 baseball season. After almost five months away, baseball, real baseball, is finally back.

The remarkable thing about Opening Day (and yes, it does deserve capital letters) is that all teams start out with the same record, and every fan has the same hope that this year will be their year. For the first game of the season, we put what we expect our teams to do aside, and believe that we will be the last team standing (I mean, in this century the Red Sox, the Cubs, and the Astros have won the World Series, if they can, any team can.) The poet, Alexander Pope (and yes, I do know more things than just sports), while not talking about Opening Day could have been, wrote these words:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:”

            The poet was actually trying to explain the human condition and his need for God. He was offering us hope. Each man and woman is born with hope. Hope that there is something better out there, hope that there is someone who will love me unconditionally, hope that my life has a real purpose. Even Stephen King of countless horror books understood the need as he wrote in The Shawshank Redemption,” Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Artists, philosophers, theologians, and many of the rest of us understand, it is hope that keeps us from falling into a dark abyss that would be near impossible to escape. The human heart is consistently trying to find hope in a dark world.

            On Sunday, April 1, at roughly 10:55 we will begin our 2018 Easter service. It will be a great day full of joy and hope. We will see people join the church, take part in communion, and The Word of God will be opened and given to us. All of this is possible because of the Easter nearly 2,000 years ago.

            Can you imagine what that Sunday was like? I would be willing to bet that “hope [was not springing] eternal in the human breasts.” I would say that doubt and unbelief were the greatest emotions and feeling of the followers of Jesus. Three days earlier, Jesus was nailed to a cross and all hope seemed gone. Not only, was the followers hope vanishing, but they also feared for their lives. If they could kill Jesus, surely a few fishermen and tax collectors would not be hard to silence.

            An amazing thing about hope is that it manages to show up in the least expected places in the least expected ways. A word from a friend can bring hope. A song at just the right time and hope will explode. A book or article ignites hope. There are a thousand ways for hope to be delivered in our lives, but none as great as the message of hope that the angel delivered to the women who went to Jesus’ grave that Sunday morning, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? … He is not here, but He has been resurrected.” (Luke 24: 5-6 HCSB)

            The women did not just encounter an empty grave. They encountered messengers from heaven. They did not hear empty platitudes about just trying harder and being a better person. They heard the greatest message they could hear. The one who died for you is now alive. The sins you once bore are now gone. The punishment you deserved had been delivered to the only one who could fully bear it. He was not dead. He is still not dead. At the empty grave, hope does truly spring eternal.

            As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, I witnessed in the ‘90’s them start a streak of 14 straight years of being a playoff team. They even managed to win one World Series. During this time, Opening Day was easy. There was not a need for a lot of hope because you just knew they were going to be good. Unfortunately, the good run ended, and they have been pretty bad, the last few years. Now, Opening Day becomes a day of hope. Hope that they will get back to being the team they used to be.

            Maybe you feel this way in your life. At one time, you did not seem to need much hope. You just knew life was going to be fine. Unfortunately, life changes, good times end. Now is the time in your life you need hope the most. Here is the great news – hope is offered at the times you need it the most. The cross and the grave make sure of that. The hope you need to get you through the toughest times is offered. All you must do is accept it. Jesus literally died to give it to you.

MJ

                Recently, famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, sent out two tweets that summed up the problem many atheists face – that there is no real meaning for our existence. (I believe that there are two main types of atheists – those who reject God on the basis of science; and atheists who reject God because they do not like what God might represent in their lives. Unfortunately, they both find themselves in the same place.) On Christmas, Tyson tweeted, ”Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus, Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.” On New Year’s, he tweeted, “Not that anybody’s asked, but New Year’s Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.”

            Factually there is not a single thing he said that is wrong. Christmas was on a Monday whether you celebrated it or not, and New Year’s Day does not carry any real astronomical significance. The issue is not the validity of such statements, but the heart behind those kinds of statements (it would be interesting to see if he would be willing to make such a bold statement about a Muslim holiday.)

            What is the heart behind such statements? I believe, and having read more from him and those who believe similarly to him, the true issue is significance. If Christmas is just a Monday (and not the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, or a day we just celebrate being with our families) then does any day have any significance? If New Year’s Day does not matter scientifically, then does your birthday (the same truth holds – your date of birth is just an arbitrary day that you had very little to do with.)  Why celebrate your birthday if it only means that is started the countdown to the day you die? Your death is the end. There is nothing more after that. No day matters. No need to celebrate any event since only the Cosmos matters, and there is nothing you can do about any of it.

            The sad truth is, there are many people all around us who have this worldview. They try to find significance in anything they can, but if they have to be honest, all they can do is recognize that it is all fleeting or just by chance. Could you imagine living a life where the grave actually is the end? Could you imagine living as if nothing you do really matters? All your achievements will be forgotten shortly after the dirt covers you (for a good Biblical view of this type of life, read Ecclesiastes. The author clearly reminds us that this type of life is meaningless, just a vapor that exists for a time, then it is gone with nothing left.)

            What is our response to this? Should we scold them for not believing as we do? Should we pity them for their fatalism? Mock them for their doubts? No, we cannot do any of these. We will let them do that to us, but we must do something different. We must bring Jesus into their lives. The only real answer for life is Jesus. Apart from him, life really is meaningless. We really are just here today and gone tomorrow. When we introduce people to Jesus, we bring significance into their lives. We bring hope into their lives.

            Our excitement for evangelism (we should be excited to tell the story of Jesus) is not just to keep people from Hell, as good as it is, but also to bring real truth and meaning into their lives. Those around us need to know that life is not just random chance, but a divine plan from God. A divine plan that He has for each of us. A plan of significance with hope, joy, and a promise of life beyond death. 

MJ

                Several weeks ago, Jennifer and I went to a concert. It was not just any concert, but a performance by Chris Tomlin and Matt Maher. It was awesome and blew us away. It also had something a little different than most concerts I’ve attended. During the middle of it a preacher (Darren Whitehead) came out and shared a sermon with us. It was over the seven Hebrew words used for praise (worship) in the Old Testament. I had never heard them before, so it was very eye-opening.

                The most remarkable thing about the words for praise is that they are all active words.  In praise and worship, we are to celebrate, to be clamorously foolish (Hallal), we are to throw open our hands in worship (Yadah), to extend our hands in thanks for things not yet received (Towdah), to shout (Shabach), to kneel down (Barak), to play an instrument or sing joyfully (Zamar), and to sing hymns of the Spirit or praise (Tehillah) - (https://www.aglow.org/images/leaderDev/seven-praise-words.pdf). In praise and worship, we are to be actively involved in lifting up the glorious name of God for what He has done for us, what He is doing for us, and what He will do for us.

                The preacher spoke about the first time he went to a church that had real, active praise and worship, it freaked him out. I understand that. The church I grew up in did not do any hand raising or get too excited. The deacons might occasionally throw out an “amen” if the preacher made a point that we really agreed with, but not much more than that. It was always a little shocking to go someplace new, where people really got into the worship. Outwardly, it always felt wrong, but inwardly I knew that they were doing something that I truly longed for – being free to let God know how I really felt about Him. This is what the heart of really worshipping is – letting God know what we think, believe, and experience about Him. The Old Testament writers understood that worshipping God meant not being comfortable, but being honest.

                Our worship must be honest adoration. It must come from the place inside of us that understands that we were once both dead because of sin and slaves to sin. This truth is crushing and takes the joy out of living. The Good News of Jesus Christ brings us to true life and frees us from the bondage of sin. This truth should set our souls and hearts on fire. It should push us to move away from what is comfortable and to what is right. The truth of the Gospel should make us tap our toes, clap our hands, lift our arms, and sing as loudly as we can. We have been freed. Free people live like free people and they sing like free people.

                We are God’s people. We are his redeemed. We are under the blood of Christ. Now it is time that we proclaim God’s praises. If you are redeemed, then you know that God is worthy of your praise. It really should not be that hard. I know that I have no problem declaring the praises of many other things (take for example my beloved Dawgs – I can easily spend an hour telling you how great they are.) The praise to the one who saved us should flow so easily from us. It should be like breathing. Breathe in – proclaim God’s goodness. Breathe out – declare His awesomeness. It needs to be that easy for us.

                I believe that a church should be the most exciting place on Earth (even more than Disneyworld.) Nowhere else does one find true freedom. Our church should echo with the voice of a hundred lifting our great God. Arms need to be lifted, hands opened to God, and voices rising to the heavens proclaiming what has happened to us.

                Imagine what Sundays would feel like if we truly praised God (and yes, I do believe that there is clearly time for quiet reflection and remembrance. Worship does include time for quiet and time for loudness. There is absolutely no hostility between the two, nor should there be in a church.) If our hearts were set to worship as the Psalmist of the Old Testament led their people to set their hearts, we could not wait to get to church. We would get up earlier and prepare beforehand. We would invite as many people as possible to share in our joy. This only happens when we open up to Him and get out of our own way. It also opens the Heavens and the Spirit pours down upon us.

                Our goal should be to worship as God intends us to. Our goal is to bring the same level of excitement to worship that we bring to a hundred other places that does not mean as much as the church does. If you are willing to be free in your worship, I promise that God will be free in sending His Spirit to dwell with us. When we lift Jesus up in our praises, other people will respond, and want to be a part of what is happening.

MJ

                Imagine that you travelled to a previously undiscovered island with inhabitants somewhere in the Mediterranean. These people that lived on the island were quite normal except for the fact that they had not been exposed to Western culture (which is not actually bad, in some ways.) As you spent time with these people, they invited you to their church. In their church they sang the most beautifully written songs, sung with the most angelic voices you had ever heard.  After talking to the people you realize that these songs are worship songs written to Personapapiza, a god made of pepperoni. One of the great oddities of their worship of a god made of pepperoni is that the people seem to have no real idea of what that delicious meat actually is. They are simply singing songs, great songs performed perfectly, to something that is not there with them and can do nothing for them.

              If we heard about something like this, we would probably shake our heads, and say “bless their hearts” in the most Southern way that we could. It would be strange for someone to worship something like pepperoni, especially if you had no idea what it was, no matter how well you do it.

            This leads us to the third part of true worship - the most important part of worship is not the songs we sing, or the volume at which we sing them, but the One to whom we are worshipping (don’t misunderstand – what we sing and how we sing is important, just not as important as to whom we are singing.). We can write the greatest songs and have the greatest singers perform them, but if the object of our worship is not worthy, or with us, then it is all done in vain.

            Worship is “God’s people, proclaiming God’s praises, in God’s presence.” When we come to worship God, we must always remember that God is with us as we do it. Worship is not a performance of our most talented, entertaining us (there is a time for being entertained by talent, but let’s not confuse that with true worship.) Worship is the most unworthy being allowed to praise the God of Eternity. Worship is a beggar standing before the King of Kings and letting the King know how great He is.

            A problem of many churches is that we forget that God is in the building with us (or at least He should be, if He is not we are doing something completely wrong), or, even as sadly, we take for granted that God is there. Church members show up and act as if God is impressed that we happened to make it on this particular Sunday. We muddle through Sunday school without taking full advantage of being able to study God’s word with fellow Christians, and then we go to a worship service and sit checking our watches making sure we get out exactly the prescribed hour. Everything about the service is about us, and if it is not to our liking then someone will hear about it. No wonder churches become dry, boring places. It becomes all about us, and compared to God of Heaven, we are dry and boring people.

           Worship is a time for us to be with God and let Him know how great He is and how satisfied we are in Him and His provisions for us. Church worship is where a whole bunch of us gather together to remind each other how great God is and lift Him up. When worship is done correctly, we do not leave feeling entertained, but we leave feeling excited. We have been in the presence of God, and we have lived to tell about it. Worship should be a fire in our bones that consumes us, and forces us to want more. If we walk out of the church building just like we walked in, then we are doing it wrong. No one comes into God’s presence without being changed. Worship is where this begins.

          Let us throw away boring and useless worship that does us no good, and barely allows God to be involved. Let us long for time to be near God with other fellow believers. Let our voices cry out to the goodness of God, and allow Him to touch our lives and change us completely.

 

MJ

I've heard a thousand stories of what they think you're like
But I've heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
And you tell me that you're pleased
And that I'm never alone

(Good Good Father, Songwriters: Anthony Brown / Joseph Patrick Martin Barrett Good Good Father lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group)

Last week (10-28-17) my beloved Georgia Bulldogs took their annual pilgrimage to Jacksonville, Florida to play the villainous Florida Gators. For the last twenty years, this trip had usually left us Dawg (this is the proper spelling to address us) fans feeling very blue. The Gators have owned us. This year was different though. We were a much better team, and it did not take long to show. We (I have no problem counting myself as part of the team) were up by three touchdowns within the first eight minutes of game time. The game really was never in doubt, and I enjoyed every minute of it (don’t get me wrong, I panicked from time to time – some habits are hard to break.) I celebrated our success and have no problem letting everyone know how awesome my team is right now. I do not have to be told to be excited. It just comes naturally as if my sporting soul yearns to celebrate with my team.

You're a good good father
It's who you are, it's who you are, it's who you are
And I'm loved by you
It's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am

                Our souls do cry out to celebrate, to worship. We were created to worship. We will worship something. This is why stadiums are filled with screaming lunatics living and dying for what some athlete does. This is why concert halls are packed with people shouting out the lyrics of their favorite songs being sung by their favorite singers. Both instances are acts of worship. It is our souls lifting something up. We do not need instructions on doing this. It comes naturally. We are creations that are created to worship. Our problem is that we worship other created things and not the true creator. There is a reason why football games and concerts always leave us feeling empty at some point. They cannot do what we need them to do – fill the hole in our souls that worshipping the One, True God does.

I've seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we're all searching
For answers only you provide
'Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word

            At the heart of worship is a simple statement – God’s People, proclaiming God’s Praises, in God’s Presence (I do not know who originated this statement, but I love it and am stealing – I mean borrowing it.) Our worship begins with realizing who we are. We tend to flip things around. We act like worship begins with music or words, but it does not. It begins with us. It starts with His people living like they are his people. Worship begins with the absolute true belief that we were sinners on our way to a deserved eternity in Hell. We took every opportunity we could, to do the exact opposite of what God desired for us to do. We were rebellious creations who thought we were good enough to be our own god. Then one day, we were confronted with the Good News of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our sins were exposed and our need for a Savior was clear. We confessed and repented of our sins and asked Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.

Oh, it's love so undeniable
I, I can hardly speak
Peace so unexplainable
I, I can hardly think
As you call me deeper still
As you call me deeper still
As you call me deeper still
Into love, love, love

            When our hearts are turned towards the Savior of our life, then we begin to truly worship.  We know that we have been redeemed, and not through our works. Our works were never good enough. We needed rescuing, and like the hero he is, Jesus stepped out of heaven and put on flesh to become the sacrifice for our sins. While we fought against him, he died for us. Our hearts are now healed, and our hearts can now lead us to sing and shout to the Creator and not to the creation. We no longer live and die by athletes, singers, or any other person. We are God’s people. The natural response of the saved, is to worship the one who saved us. Worship is the outflow of the inward change, so we worship. We worship in our homes, we worship in our cars, we worship at our jobs, and we most definitely worship at church. This Sunday, and every Sunday, let us live as God’s People and show it. Sing at the top of your lungs. Do not worry about what others might think. You are not singing for them. They did not rescue you from Hell – God did. We are His People and let us let everyone know it.

You are perfect in all of your ways
It's who you are, it's who you are, it's who you are
And I'm loved by you
You are perfect in all of your ways
It's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am

MJ

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