Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The intersect of law and religion

Check out this link:


I found the article to be very interesting. My immediate reaction was to agree with Justice O'Connor that “[o]ur Nation’s Founders conceived of a Republic receptive to voluntary religious expression, not a secular society in which religious expression is tolerated only when it does not conflict with generally applicable law.”

However, consider what that means: either everyone becomes a "law unto himself," or the courts must entangle themselves with religion to determine what the core beliefs of a particular religion might be. In the first situation, anyone could claim any religious belief they want, and most laws could be enforced only if the state could prove that the law furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing that. Libertarians might be happy in such a scenario, but the ability of the government to act for the benefit of the community at large would be eviscerated.

In the second situation, there would be two problems: first, the courts would become tangled up in determining and interpreting the doctrines of various religions and denominations, something even church synods and assemblies have difficulty doing for themselves, much less having outsiders trying to do the same thing in the context of a court battle. Second, what about people who join a particular church, but don't hold to every view held by that church? For example, consider a pacifist who happens to be a member of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that has specifically stated that it holds to the "just war" theory, rather than pacifism. Would this person be forced to serve in the military in case of the draft, while his friend who attends the Brethren Church down the street would be exempt?

But of course, the problem with the Lockean view supported by Justice Scalia in the Smith case is the concern that a majority religion would probably be safe from limitation of their free exercise because , but a members of a minority religion could have their free expression limited very easily. Christians are beginning to realize that the majority religion today in America is not Christianity, but rather the American Civil Religion--a mish-mash of ideas (including some ideas that come from Judeo-Christian roots) that is becoming more and more opposed to orthodox Christianity. Under Scalia's view of the founders, America is simply "a secular society in which religious expression is tolerated only when it does not conflict with generally applicable law."

Frankly, I don't believe a simple appeal to the Founders' ideals is all that helpful. Some founders were secularists (despite their reference to the Almighty and natural law), while others fit Justice O'Connor's description. In the end, we may need to go beyond looking to the past and instead decide once and for all whether the pont of view expressed by the Reynolds and Smith decisions or that expressed in Yoder and Sherbert v. Verner is preferable.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the only way to keep the balance is to remain on a pendulum, with the legislative branch and the judicial branch each pulling one way or the other, and the nation remaining in an uncertain middle.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Following is a sermon I preached last night on Psalm 139.
Praise the Lord, O My Soul
Psalm 103
Good evening.

Turn with me, please, to Psalm 103. Many of you will immediately recognize this psalm. You might be able to recite much of it by memory. For some of you, that might be because our tradition at Calvin Church of reciting Psalm 103 every time we celebrate communion together. I appreciate that tradition, because it is a good way of ending our celebration of communion with a congregational song of praise to God. “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.”

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head, and you can’t shake it, whether you want to or not? I certainly have, and I suspect most of you have as well.

I wonder, have any of you ever had the same thing happen with a Scripture passage? Has God ever put a Scripture passage in your brain in such a way that you can’t shake it? Well that happened to me this summer with Psalm 103. In a period of about eight days this summer, a pastor used it as a call to worship and commented on it, we celebrated communion here at Calvin and recited it, it came up in my nightly devotions, and it was the text of a wonderful sermon given by the pastor of my parents’ church. Needless to say, Psalm 103 got stuck in my head.
Tonight, my comments will reflect the words that God stuck in my head this summer. But it is also an excellent passage to reflect on as we head into the Advent season. In fact, it is my hope that the opening words of Psalm 103 will also get stuck in all of your heads, and stay there at least through Christmas. “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.”

Hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 103:

1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
6 The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children-
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Praise the LORD, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
22 Praise the LORD, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.

In my family, Thanksgiving is a very important holiday. The Adamses have been getting together for Thanksgiving for decades, and while not everyone is there every year, this was the 27th consecutive year that a majority of us have been able to get together, all in either Oostburg or in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Any family that gets together every year for 27 years has deeply held traditions. For example, we played Oostburg Bowl 27 on Friday at the Oostburg Park. I’m proud to tell you that my team won 35-14, in one of the more lopsided games in Oostburg Bowl history.

Another tradition we celebrate as a family is similar to a tradition I think a lot of families have—on either Thursday or Friday evening, we all get together in a circle, and after a time of singing and praying, we each tell what we are thankful to God for. We start with the youngest child able to speak—this year that was my daughter Hannah—and in the order of our ages, and including all family members and guests we share God’s goodness in our lives. Since my grandfather passed away nearly 20 years ago, my grandmother has always been the last to speak. And one thing she always repeats is “Praise the Lord!” Whether the family has given thanks for wonderful events like new births and marriages and good health, or for perseverance through dark times, Grandma always repeats those words: “Praise the Lord!”

And that’s how the Psalmist begins and ends Psalm 103: “Praise the Lord, O My Soul!” I hope that today you, like King David, and like my grandma, can sing out “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise his holy name.”

Before I get into the specifics of what the psalmist is saying in the different verses of the psalm, let’s take a look at Psalm 103 as a whole. When we do that, it is clear that Psalm 103 is both a well-crafted poem of praise as well as an excellent hymn of worship.

English teachers will often teach about poetry by looking at how the author put together the poem—often the beauty of the poem is as much in the form as it is in the actual words. I think the same can be said for Psalm 103, which many commentators have called one of David’s best poems. He begins and ends with the same call to “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.” And in between the Psalmist takes us on a trip from the innermost depths of his soul to the farthest depths of the universe.

Rev. Herm van Niejenhuis, whom I heard preach on this passage this summer, pointed out that Psalm 103 is a lot like the short movie “Powers of 10.” I am sure many of you have seen the film—science teachers all over the country have used it for decades. I think I first saw it in a fourth grade science class in Wyckoff, New Jersey, and most recently I saw it with my kids as part of an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The film starts with a view of a man lying on a blanket in a park near the Chicago lakefront. Each side of the frame is one meter wide, and the man is snoozing in the sun. There is some food nearby, and a book next to him that he evidently put down as he started his nap.

The frame then expands out by a power of 10, so that each side of the frame is 10 meters wide. Now the man looks small, surrounded by an expanse of lawn—he and his female companion are the only ones taking advantage of the beautiful day. Then the frame expands out again, each time by another power of 10, and slowly we see not only the park, but Lake Shore Drive and the nearby harbor, and then a bird’s eye view of much of the city, then the bend of Lake Michigan, then what looks like a satellite view of the entire Great Lakes region, with Lake Michigan front and center. As the shot keeps moving out, we get farther and farther away—by the eighth frame, the earth is just a small sphere, and by the eleventh frame, the orbits of Mars and Venus are also visible.

But the camera appears to continue to move out, faster and faster, until it reaches the 25th frame, a billion light years on each side, and the frame is nearly empty; a super cluster of galaxies of which our Milky Way is a part dimly visible at the center.

The film maker then reverses the journey, taking us back to the man on the blanket, and then going smaller and smaller, first to the skin on the man’s hand, then to a cell, and then the DNA inside the cell, and then all the way to the atomic and subatomic level.

Powers of 10 was created in 1968 and revised in 1977, so it is only about 40 years old. However, the psalmist has been taking us on a similar journey via Psalm 103 for thousands of years. He starts in the depths of his own soul, in his very DNA—“Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being praise his holy name.” As he continues with the psalm, the frame gets larger and larger. In verses 3 through 5, the frame includes David’s whole self; in verse 7 we see the people of Israel and in verses 8-10, we see all the people of the world.

But David is not done. As the psalm continues, the frame just gets bigger and bigger. We see in verse 17 that praise encompassing not only space, but time as well—“from everlasting to everlasting.” And in verse 19, we see the praise encompassing not only the kingdom of this world, but the next as well. As the psalm comes to an end, David is calling on not just his inmost being, not just the people of Israel, not just the population of the world, to praise the Lord.

He then sings “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you servants who do his will.” And then he ends it, “Praise the Lord, all his works, everywhere in his dominion.” Not even the biggest frame in the movie “Powers of 10” is big enough to cover the dominion of God. David knew nothing of the Virgo Super Cluster; he knew nothing about subatomic quarks, yet David calls on every single one of them, and everything in between—all the works of God’s hands—to praise the Lord!
Psalm 103 is certainly a poetically beautiful poem, one of several that warrant David’s inclusion among the greatest poets of all time, along with people like William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, or T.S. Eliot. Psalm 103 is a poem that not just in its words, but in also its very form, expresses the depth of gratitude and praise God deserves. But Psalm 103 is not just a wonderfully crafted poem—it was also written as a hymn of praise, a song written for use by a congregation of believers in worship of their God.

In today’s church, we often argue about whether we ought to sing hymns or praise songs. That argument is rather silly, since hymns and praise songs are not mutually exclusive of each other. Hymns are simply songs that are composed, rather than simply made up as one sings; that are designed to be sung in worship as a corporate act of worship by those singing; that are written as poetry with regular verses; that deal with a religious message; and that address the thoughts of the people singing.

By this definition, Psalm 103, which is most certainly a praise song, is also a hymn.

The key to the definition is that hymns are written to be sung by a congregation as an act of worship. Like the other psalms, Psalm 103 was written to be sung by a congregation of believers. I think that it is not at all a coincidence that the largest book of the Bible, Psalms, is a book of songs. Regardless of whether you are an accomplished musician or a tone-deaf droner, God created you with a song in your heart—God created you with the ability to hear, understand, and enjoy music. And he did that primarily to give us a most excellent way to praise God.

A couple of years ago I read a science fiction novel entitled “Century Rain,” in which a minor part of the plot involved the fact that a virus had destroyed the ability of the human brain to process music. I cannot fathom living in such a world. Think of the way music functions in our world—the first notes of a familiar Christmas carol are enough to get us into the Christmas mood. Hearing a song from your teen years is enough to make you nostalgic about “the good old days.” A song with a good beat is enough to get you dancing, or if you are Christian Reformed, at least to get you quietly tapping your toe. God created music, and he created songwriters like King David, as a way to help us praise Him.

Most of you know the hymn “This is My Father’s World.” The first two lines of the song say that “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears; all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.”

During the Middle Ages, scholars believed that the movements of all of the celestial bodies—the sun, moon, planets, and stars, created a kind of music called the “music of the spheres.” This was one form of music, the other two being the music of the internal workings of the human body; the kind of music made by singing and playing instruments.

God created us all to with the ability to hear and make music as a way of praising him. King David wrote Psalm 103 as a piece of praise music, as a hymn designed for humans to sing together in praise of a majestic and holy God. Whether in the extolling of his own soul, “all my inmost being” to praise his holy name, or his calling on the angels and the heavenly hosts to praise the Lord, David is calling us to a life in which our souls are attuned to the music of praise, a life in which even the rhythms and patterns of our lives blend into a hymn of praise to the Father, a life in which we join in with all of God’s creation in the music of the spheres.

Psalm 103 is wonderful song of praise to the Lord of all creation, the God who created us and the creation around us to burst forth into songs of praise.

So we see that Psalm 103 is both a beautiful poem covering the span from our innermost being to the depths of the universe, and a wonderful song of praise that we can join with all of creation in singing. Now, let’s talk specifically about what the Psalmist says about God—about why the Lord is worthy of praise from every part of creation.

As we’ve already mentioned, the Psalmist begins in verse 1 with an exhortation to his own soul, to his inmost being, to praise God’s holy name. In doing so, David recognizes that, to our very core, we were created to praise God. Our hearts, souls, and minds are all able to praise God. As one commentator has put it, not one of our faculties or powers is exempt from the ability to praise God. And of course that means that everything we do is meant to be praise to God. It is not just our music, but also our work, our recreation, everything that we do that praises God.
And then David tells us why every breath of our life should be a song of praise to the Lord—because of all his benefits, benefits David describes in verses 3 through 10.

Notice that just as the entire psalm is designed as a journey of praise from the inner soul of the psalmist to the farthest bounds of the universe, David writes verses 3 through 10 in a way that shows how God’s benefits to us run the whole range from benefits to us as individuals, to benefits for us as the community of God’s chosen people, to benefits given in common to all humans around the world.

Verses 3 through 5 describe God’s benefits to the individual: “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

The very first thing that David lists is the forgiveness of sins. And of course that ought to be at the top of any list of what God has done for us. God has mercifully erased our sins, so that we no longer bear the punishment we deserve. Despite our contamination by sin, contamination caused by our own sinfulness, God mercifully forgives us and does not, as the Psalmist says later in verse 10, treat us as our sins deserve.

A few years ago the Newsboys sang that “When we don't get what we deserve, that’s a real good thing.” I don’t know that there can be any better definition of mercy than that—not getting what we deserve. God’s mercy is all about withheld punishment. And the psalmist reminds us to thank God for the benefit of withheld punishment.

But God’s benefits to us as individuals go beyond just mercy. When the psalmist tells us that God redeems our life from the pit, he is telling us that we have been saved from death. In other words, God has provided us not only with the benefit of mercy, but with the benefit of grace.

Mercy and grace are often seen as one and the same, but really they are two sides of a coin. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve, but grace is getting something we don’t deserve—an unmerited favor. When David says that God “redeems your life from the pit,” he is saying that not only has God been merciful, but he has been gracious, granting you the gift of eternal life, the gift of freedom from death.

Those of you who have studied the Heidelberg Catechism probably know that it is divided into three sections, sections we often title “Sin, Salvation, and Service,” or “Misery, Deliverance, and Gratitude.” In verses 3 through 5 we see this same pattern in David’s verse. He points to our sins, which God forgives, and shows us God’s deliverance, his redemption of our lives from the pit of eternal death. And then he gives us an image of a life of gratitude. At the end of verse 4 he says that God “crowns you with love and compassion.”

What David is saying is that God’s work of lovingkindness and mercy in our lives is so great that they become the crown, or the ornament of our lives. By bestowing his incredible mercy and grace upon us, he has in fact put a crown of love and compassion on our heads, on the most visible part of our body.

If we are crowned with love and compassion, then that is the first thing that people around us see in us. It is one of the greatest benefits of being a child of God that God has equipped us with that crown so that we can live lives of service and gratitude. God has granted us the benefit of being used as his tools for compassion, as his instruments of justice and righteousness, and as his implements of love. Because of God and his gift of mercy and grace, we can live lives of service and gratitude to God.

As I mentioned, though, David has crafted his Psalm so as to point out that God’s benefits are more than just those we receive as individuals. In verse 6 David makes clear that God is a God of righteousness and justice; he cares for the oppressed—in fact he cares so much about those who face injustice that he constantly refers, both in the Old Testament and New, to our duties to the poor, to the oppressed, and to the strangers within our gates. It is my prayer that as we go into an election season where immigration policy may end up being a key issue, Christian voters will not forget the importance that God places in His law on justice toward the strangers within our gates.

In verse 7, David points out another benefit of God for his people—he has provided us with all we need to know about Him—“He has made his ways known to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel.” God has revealed his will and his law to us, so that we are able to know what God wants from us. And he has revealed the path to salvation through Jesus Christ, a path that we can only learn about through God’s revelation of Himself to his people.

And then in verses 8 through 10, David points to benefits that all humans receive from God, whether they know it or not. He points out that “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” These words evoke Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, when he said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

No hymn to the greatness of God would be complete without a comparison to our utter smallness, and David reminds us of that in verses 14 through 16. In a way, those verses almost come as a shock as we read through the Psalm. David has just finished telling us that “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” He has reiterated the mercy and grace God has given us once again and he points to God’s love for humans when he says “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”

But then come those jarring words in verse 15: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field, the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” If we somehow try to puff ourselves up, to fill ourselves with pride, David is there to pop that balloon. We are nothing, David reminds us, but a pretty flower in a field, hardly noticeable among all the others, and gone with little fanfare or notice.

One of my hobbies is genealogy. Whenever I get the chance, I spend a few hours searching the internet and various databases for information about my ancestors and relatives. But there is always a dead end. In some parts of my family, I can go back pretty far—I know I am descended from Francis Bohan, a tenant farmer from the tiny village of Killyvehy, in County Leitrim, Ireland who married a woman named Margaret Reily in 1770.

On Kim’s side we can go even farther, to Frisian fishermen in tiny North Sea villages in the 1600s, and to numerous Dutchmen of the same time period living in a number of small villages and towns where the Rhine River forms the border between the provinces of Utrecht and Gelderland.

But no matter how far back I can go, there is always a dead end, a point at which the people for whom I am searching have disappeared into the mists of history. Some of those disappeared and forgotten ancestors have been in the grave for little more than 100 years. I’m sure they lived interesting lives; I would love to learn more about them, but their lives have passed, no more noticed than the flower of the field. In fact, not only do the places where these people lived no longer remember them, but many of the little villages in which they lived have disappeared, merged into larger cities that have taken them over.

But now listen to verse 17: “But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” I love that phrase, “from everlasting to everlasting.” Of course, it is meant to contrast with the shortness of our lives, to point out how even though our days are numbered, the days of the Lord are forever. But there is something more there that I want you to see. When the Psalmist says that the Lord’s love lasts “from everlasting to everlasting,” he is saying that it began in the eternity of the past, the eternity out of which God created the world and everything in it, and it will continue on into the eternity of the future. God has always loved us, even before we existed, and he will do so forever.

My daughter and I have a little game we play, where she says “I love you more than you love me,” and I say, “No, I love you more than you love me.” Last night, maybe thinking of these verses, I told her, “I love you more, because I loved you before you existed.” If you are a parent, you probably know the feeling—loving a child before he or she even existed. Before any of my children were even conceived, Kim and I loved them, looking forward to the day when God would bring them to us. God loved every single one of us in the same way—he loved us before we even existed; he loved us before he even created the universe we would live in. He loved us from everlasting.

And God will love us to everlasting—he will always love us, even after our days on this earth have faded to nothingness; after the place in which we live has completely forgotten us; long after the earth ceases to exist. For, as the psalmist tells us in verse 19, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” God will love us through all eternity, an eternity we will spend with Him in the new heavens and new earth. Our days may be like grass, but our God is from everlasting to everlasting, and therefore he is worthy of praise from our innermost souls, and from the stars and galaxies of the universe.

As we finish reading the psalm, we read David’s exhortation to the angels and the heavenly hosts in verses 20 and 21: “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord all his heavenly hosts, you servants who do his will.”

Now that we are heading towards Christmas, I hope these words are a foreshadowing to you of the praises sung by the angels and heavenly hosts to the shepherds on a wonderful night near Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

We can praise God because he has provided his son, Jesus Christ. He has mercifully provided a way that the stain of sin can be removed from us and from the groaning creation around us; He has graciously provided a means by which we, and all of creation, are redeemed to a perfect and eternal life of gratitude and praise to our God.
David did not know when the Messiah would come. He did not know exactly how God would send his son to redeem his people. But David knew that God would do it. He knew that God had an ultimate plan to forgive our sins, to redeem our lives from the pit of death, and to fully establish his throne in heaven and his kingdom to rule over all. And for this, David knew that God deserved the highest of praise. And for this, we too should lift our voices together: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”


Friday, June 8, 2007

Supporting the troops in an unjust war

On Father's Day, a police officer I have worked with is being deployed overseas with the reserves. While he is not a close friend, he is an acquaintance, and the person I know best who has been or will be involved in this war. He is a father with kids approximately my kids' ages.

It is hard to know how exactly to support the troops in a war you don't believe should even be happening. Duane Shank gives one idea in Jim Wallis's blog, "God's Politics":

I’ve made reading the news each morning into a spiritual discipline. I read the
names in the almost daily U.S. casualty lists aloud and say a prayer for these
young men and women, their families and friends. Each one of them is a unique
child of God, with unique experiences and lives, now gone. Lifting them in
prayer has become a way to lament the continuing deaths.

I tried this earlier in the war, but it got very depressing. However, I never thought of it as a spiritual discipline. I think I will try this any time I read about a death in the paper. Whatever you think of the war, maybe you could join me.

You can see Shank's entire post at http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2007/06/duane-shank-lord-have-mercy.html.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


The following is a short homily I wrote for a preaching class. I am working on expanding it for a sermon this summer.

Original Sin and Election

“It’s just not fair!” She had a pained look on her face. OK, so a lot of high school juniors have a permanent pained look on their faces while I am trying to teach them their Sunday School lessons, but this look wasn’t just put on.

When I asked her what she thought was unfair, it turned out that she was upset by my statement that only those people who God chooses are saved. “It’s so random,” she complained.

And in a way, it is random, at least to us humans. Our minds can’t fathom why God chose some and not others. We know that all humans are sinful and deserve only death and punishment. We recognize that Jesus Christ’s willingness to bear the punishment and death we deserved is an incomprehensible act of undeserved mercy. We confess what the Canons of Dort say: “The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision.” We can even say, as I did, that God works according to a good and merciful plan, but a plan we do not completely understand. Yet God’s decision to save some and allow others to remain in their sin still bothers us.

A different student made a wise statement: maybe we ought to simply thank God for the salvation He has given us, instead of worrying about who is elect and who is reprobate. That student was absolutely right—God is God, and He does what He does to bring honor and glory to His name. Think about it—don’t we bring more honor to God by living lives of gratitude for his merciful acts than by dwelling on how He went about deciding to whom He would give His greatest gift? Let’s go out and spread the news to everyone, in hopes that God will use us as a small tool in his plan.

But it turned out there was more. The girl with the pained look said, “But what if you believe in God and do good, but it turns out you weren’t one of the ones chosen?” It was then that I realized that this was more than just the standard teenage complaint about “fairness.” This was a crisis of faith. And that’s when it struck me that even the cold, dark truth of total depravity, that we are so helplessly lost in sin that without God that we can do nothing righteous, can bring us comfort.

If our sin is truly so pervasive that we humans are totally unable to turn to God and do what is right and pleasing in his eyes, then the only way we can be saved is by something superhuman—by God.

If we recognize in ourselves a faith and belief in God, even if that faith seems weak, and regularly challenged, then that faith had to have come from God. If we recognize in ourselves a desire to do what is right in God’s eyes, even if that desire is often accompanied by temptations to do otherwise, then that desire had to have come from God. And if God, as we confess, is almighty and all-powerful, then the very fact that He is working in our lives ought to persuade us that He has extended His mercy to us and we can rely on that mercy. Once we recognize that God has chosen us, we can rest assured that that choosing is for all eternity

The fact that God chooses us, that we belong to him, can be disconcerting to us humans, who like to think that we remain in control. But that choosing, that assurance that we belong to God, gives us comfort that we belong “body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

At the end of the class we read Q&A 1 from the Catechism. The pained look didn’t completely disappear from the student’s face. But I am convinced that God had provided a measure of comfort to one of his chosen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thine Is the Kingdom

Thine Is the Kingdom

Isaiah 61

I. Introduction—Citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven

Good evening.

This evening, our text is Isaiah 61, and I will get to the text in a few moments. If you already have your Bibles open to the passage, that’s fine, keep them open. However, if you’ll turn to Lord’s Day 52 on page 924 in the back of the hymnal, I’d like to first read the three questions and answers there. You may notice that we are a bit out of order—several weeks ago Pastor Rob asked that I preach on this Lord’s Day, since it would have been the one we would be up to this evening. Unfortunately, after I had already spent time working on the sermon, the snows came and cancelled the services two weeks ago. Pastor Rob gave me the option of either starting over on Lord’s Day 51 or just going out of order. I chose going out of order—I really don’t know how pastors prepare two sermons each week—I didn’t have time to change in midstream, so we are doing Lord’s Day 52 this week. I hope you don’t mind—the words of the catechism are certainly powerful and beautiful, dealing with the last portion of the Lord’s Prayer. Listen to these words:

127 Q. What does the sixth request mean?

A. “And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one” means,
By ourselves we are too weak
to hold our own even for a moment.
And our sworn enemies--
the devil, the world, and our own flesh--
never stop attacking us.
And so, Lord,
uphold us and make us strong
with the strength of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may not go down to defeat
in this spiritual struggle,
but may firmly resist our enemies
until we finally win the complete victory.

128 Q. What does your conclusion to this prayer mean?

A. “For yours is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory forever” means,
We have made all these requests of you
because, as our all-powerful king,
you not only want to,
but are able to give us all that is good;
and because your holy name,
and not we ourselves,
should receive all the praise, forever.

129 Q. What does that little word "Amen" express?

A. “Amen” means,
This is sure to be!
It is even more sure
that God listens to my prayer,
than that I really desire
what I pray for.

Last week, I read in the Sheboygan Press about a middle school writing contest on citizenship. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars sponsors this contest, and this year, the topic was “Citizenship in America.” The article caught my eye because the son of a friend won the third-place award. My friend, Pete, grew up under Communism in Poland, but immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in the late ‘70s. His son’s prize-winning essay described how proud Pete is of his American citizenship, and characterized Pete’s work as a police officer as a way of serving the country of which he is proud to be a citizen.

I have to admit that I don’t think a lot about my citizenship, and what it means. But citizenship is important. I knew a missionary who was on furlough in the U.S., but flew back to the Dominican Republic so his wife could have their baby there, thus giving her dual citizenship. He wanted to make sure that his daughter, who would grow up in the D.R., had the choice to remain there as an adult citizen if she chose. When I was a kid, my parents were friends with a family whose three children were citizens of both the U.S. and Canada. Each child eventually had to choose their citizenship—one chose Canada and two chose the U.S.

This evening, though, I’m not going to talk about citizenship in the United States or any other nation or dominion you can find on a globe. Instead, I’m going to talk about another dominion, one in which I hope all of you hold citizenship—the Kingdom of God.

What do you think of when you hear someone talk about the Kingdom of God?

Some of you might think of heaven—that place with the streets paved with gold and with no need for a sun because God casts enough light for the whole Kingdom. You look forward longingly to this Kingdom. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, saying “Thy Kingdom Come,” you are expressing a desire for an end to this world of sin and suffering and looking forward to an eternal Kingdom of bliss. And maybe you think of that Kingdom of God as being at war with this world, a war that isn’t over yet, but whose outcome is not in doubt.

Others of you see the Kingdom of God in the here and now. You see the Kingdom of God at work when you hear about missionaries in Nigeria and Russia, or when you hear about evangelism and church planting in Fond du Lac and Horicon. You see the Kingdom of God in the work of volunteers spending a week of their own time helping repair homes in Mississippi and Louisiana, or in the work of the Salvation Army, providing food, shelter, and employment assistance right here in Sheboygan. To you, the Kingdom of God isn’t some far off, hoped for future. It is a present reality.

If I were to ask you which vision of the Kingdom is closest to yours, I’m sure some of you would fall on one side and others on the other. And you know what? You’d all be right! Kids, wouldn’t it be great if your tests in school were like that? But the truth is that both answers get at part of the truth. The Kingdom of God is certainly involved in a mammoth struggle with the forces of evil, with the devil, that will end in a final victory. But the Kingdom of God is also present today, preaching good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming freedom for the captive. The Kingdom of God is about both the now and the not yet.

This evening, I want to talk about both sides of the Kingdom—first the Kingdom of God as a struggle against the world, and then as a ministry of restoration to the world.

Before we read Isaiah 61, just a few words about the entire book:

Isaiah is really made up of two intertwining parts—judgment and restoration. On the one hand, Isaiah’s ministry was primarily one of judgment—telling Judah about how evil they were, how they had become no different than the pagan peoples around them, and warning them of the sure judgment they would receive at the hands of their neighbors. Isaiah doesn’t pull any punches—the first chapter of Isaiah is written in the form of a lawsuit brought by God against His people.

But Isaiah balances his message of judgment with a promise of restoration—restoration of the relationship between God and His people Israel. Isaiah 61 is all about that hope for restoration. In fact, when Jesus gives his first sermon, in his hometown temple, Jesus reads Isaiah 61 and tells those listening that the promise of restoration had been fulfilled in their hearing.

The word of the Lord from Isaiah 61:

1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to bring good news to the poor;
   he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
   the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
   that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.
5 Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
   foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
   they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
   you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
   and in their glory you shall boast.
7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
   instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
   therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
   they shall have everlasting joy.
8 For I the LORD love justice;
   I hate robbery and wrong;
   I will faithfully give them their recompense,
   and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
   and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
   all who see them shall acknowledge them,
   that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
   my soul shall exult in my God,
   for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
   as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
   so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
   to sprout up before all the nations.

II. The Kingdom of God as a Struggle Against the World

Some of you know the old folk song that goes “This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through. My pleasure and my hopes are placed beyond the blue.” 

Like a lot of old folk songs this song was written in the context of a world of struggle and loss. The people who sang it were looking forward to the “not yet” part of the Kingdom of God, a time when there is no more death, no more weeping. The people who first sang the song are no different than the rest of us—we all experience daily the struggle of daily life. It might be the struggle of recent loss, like the little boy I saw on television last week crying because his grandmother had been killed in Iraq. Maybe it is the struggle of pain, like the defendant I talked to recently whose wife told me he hadn’t been the same person since being injured at work and having to undergo painful surgery. Maybe it is the struggle of increased stress at work, worry about children, or trying to deal with a classmate who has decided he just doesn’t like you and wants to make your life miserable.

When the struggle of life in the world gets difficult to bear, we tend to focus primarily on the hope of a future kingdom of God. We feel alienated from the people around us and separated from God, so we look forward to a better time we know is coming.

Of course, we must recognize that the reason for this misery we feel—the reason for the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be—is our own sin. Genesis 6 says that “From the very beginning, every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil all the time.” That evil in our heart, that natural tendency to hate God and the people around us, has opened a gap between us and God, and is the direct cause of the pain in the world and the struggle that we undertake each day.

Fortunately, we have a Savior who understands fully our struggle. Jesus Christ came to earth to live as a human for a while, suffering the same struggle, the same separation from God. The gospel of Mark, telling the story of Christ’s last moments before his death on the cross, describes Him crying out to His father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even though He did nothing to deserve it, He felt the complete separation from God that comes as a consequence of our sin. Even more, he completely conquered sin so we are no longer separated from God, and we can look forward to eternity with God in the new heavens and the new earth. As a result, we naturally want to separate ourselves from the world of sin and death, because it was out of that world that Christ called us to become “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” as Paul says in Romans 8. We live in hope for the day of Christ’s final victory, even as we remain in the sinful world.

That tension of remaining in the world even as we hope for the final consummation of the Kingdom of God is behind Christ’s teaching us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We are weak people—apart from God we can do nothing. No matter how much we desire to live lives of perfect gratitude, no matter that we are now citizens of the Kingdom of God; we still easily fall back into the patterns of the Kingdom of this World. As the Catechism says, “By ourselves we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment.”

We are too weak to hold our own even for a moment. When I hear that phrase, I think of a woman I’ll call Jane. I learned of Jane through my work with Neighbors Against Drugs. Jane lived in a neighborhood in which a friend of mine was working. Jane was a cocaine addict, but had gone through intensive rehab to try to kick her habit. But once the in-patient treatment was finished, Jane was sent back to her old house in her old neighborhood, right across the street from a drug house.

She told my friend that when she went back, every moment was a struggle—she could see the people going in and out of the drug house, and her own addiction was calling her to go over there and get the drugs she still desired. One day, someone at the house recognized her, and told the people there that she had been involved in drugs. After that, people kept coming over to invite Jane to the house, even offering her a discount just to get her back. Several times Jane gave in. Eventually, with help from my friend, she simply quit her job and moved to another city where she hoped she could make a clean break.

Unfortunately, we citizens of the Kingdom of God don’t have the option of simply moving on to another location to avoid our temptations. We’re here until we die or until Christ returns. And just as the people around Jane and her own desires conspired against her to drag her back into the depths of drug use, our enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—never stop attacking us. That is why when we pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we are praying that “God will uphold us and make us strong with the strength of the Holy Spirit, so that we may not go down to defeat in the spiritual struggle, but may firmly resist our enemies until we finally win the complete victory.” 

Peter gives sound advice to Kingdom citizens trying to resist the devil and our own flesh when he urges us in I Peter 2: 11-12 to live “as aliens and strangers in the world.” It is this verse, I think, that inspired the Christian band Petra to sing “We are strangers, we are aliens, we are not of this world.” The first verse of the song captures the tension we feel living in this world: “We are pilgrims in a strange land; We are so far from our homeland; With each passing day it seems so clear; This world will never want us here; We're not welcome in this world of wrong; We are foreigners who don't belong.” As citizens of the Kingdom of God we are aliens, we are foreigners. We don’t fit in; our ways of doing things are strange to the people around us; we don’t even really speak the same language. The world around us questions our loyalties. At best, they merely tolerate us; at worst, if we refuse to join in their practices, they persecute us. Being citizens of the Kingdom of God while living in the world, means that we are involved every day in a struggle against the world, and every day we need to be pray that God will give us the strength to maintain our alien-ness, to “live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse [us] of doing wrong, they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

III. The Kingdom of God as a Ministry of Restoration to the World

But there is more to the Kingdom of God than just a future hope. Unfortunately, Christians too often focus only on that future aspect of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God is present in the here and now. As I mentioned, Jesus’ very first sermon was based on our text this evening. That text is the culmination of the theme of restoration found throughout Isaiah. Jesus Christ, by reading from Isaiah 61, is announcing that God has acted on His promise of restoration of the broken relationship between Him and His people. Christ has come “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” 

If you still have your Bibles open, look especially at verse 4 and see the three words Isaiah uses that show us that God’s work here is a work of restoration. “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

Rev. Roché Vermaak, a Presbyterian pastor from South Africa, describes this theme of restoration in Isaiah and in Jesus’ reading of that passage in his first sermon this way: “Jesus announced that in his ministry, God would put right again everything that has gone wrong since the fall with creation. The peace with God was broken through sin and the broken relationship with God led to a broken creation. Jesus would offer himself as a sacrifice on the cross to reconcile humanity with God, and to restore creation and establish God’s kingdom on earth.”

The story of Jesus reading Isaiah 61 in the synagogue is the very first act of Jesus’ earthly ministry that Luke describes, coming before he chooses disciples or healing the sick.

If you read that section sometime, pay close attention to what Jesus says after he reads the section of the scroll. He says “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He doesn’t say “I am the person who will fulfill this,” or “This scripture will be fulfilled at the final consummation of the Kingdom.” Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom is here, right now. While he will make clear that the full expression of the Kingdom is yet to come, Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is here and now, and as citizens of that Kingdom, we have a job in the ministry of reconciliation.

While Jesus’ words certainly came as a surprise to his listeners in Nazareth, we can see already in the Old Testament signs that the Kingdom of God is not simply about a future in the new heavens and new earth, but also about our life here on earth. When Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:3 by saying he has come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he is making reference to the Year of Jubilee.

Over a thousand years before Christ came to earth, God had already commanded the Jews to celebrate a year of Jubilee every 50 years. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year, in which the land was not to be sowed with seed, and the plants were not to be pruned, a cycle that not only had the practical effect of ensuring the Israelites’ fields would remain productive, but also reminded the Israelites that God had created the earth and continued to rule over it as a King.

After a cycle of seven Sabbath years, 49 years in all, came, the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee. During that year, everyone was to return to their family property, thereby restoring family relationships that may have become strained or weakened by distance. Any land sold by a family because of their need was to be restored to them, and any people who sold themselves into servanthood because of their need for money would be released and their status as free people restored. Even non-Israelites were to be set free during the year of Jubilee, a sign that God’s blessings, and the Kingdom of God itself, would come to encompass more than just the Jews, but all who bow their knees to God as King.

While the people of Israel did not faithfully adhere to the Year of Jubilee—apparently they never celebrated it after the reign of King Solomon—the Year of Jubilee was clearly a command meant for the here and now, an opportunity for all of Israel to be reminded that God is sovereign over the entire earth and that he desires to remain in relationship with His people.

So while it is true that the Kingdom may not yet be consummated, that we still wait in hope for the final appearance of the Kingdom of God in its fullest form, it would be a mistake to think that that final appearance of the Kingdom of God ought to be the be-all and end-all of our lives as Christians. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a former professor at Calvin College says that it is a “theological mistake” to “see hope for consummation [of the Kingdom] as the only legitimate form of Christian hope.” We are citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now, and we have a job, a calling, as Kingdom citizens.

Look at the last verse of our passage: “For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” This world isn’t just a temporary stopping place on our journey to a celestial home. No, we are to be God’s tools for righteousness and justice to take hold among all the nations of this present world. We are to be a part of restoring the Creation so that every part of that Creation, even those most affected by sin, sings out in praise to our Sovereign Lord.

Rev. Vermaak, the South African pastor I quoted earlier, tells a story that shows the difference between someone whose hope is solely in the future coming of the Kingdom and someone who understands the hope that comes from being a citizen of the Kingdom of God today. One day just before Easter, the pastor was in a grocery check-out line and met a Christian woman he knew from the town in which he lived. The woman’s out-of-town sister was with her, and after being introduced to the pastor, the sister commented that the pastor must be very busy, it being Easter time and all, and asked “Are you saving a lot of souls?" To her utter shock and dismay, the pastor said “I am Presbyterian. We don’t save souls. We don’t just save souls so that they can go to heaven.”

Of course, such a response was designed to shock a little, and he had to explain what he meant—that there is more to the Kingdom of God than the future hope of heaven. Of course we hope that God will save people through the work of our churches and organizations. But we invite people into the church not just so they can be saved and be assured of going to heaven. We invite people into the church so we can disciple them and equip them as Kingdom citizens and then send them back into the world to live out their faith. To quote Vermaak, “For [the woman in the store] the call of the church is to proclaim the gospel in order to save souls. But I believe simply saving souls is having a tunnel vision of what Jesus came to accomplish. The salvation work of Christ includes much more than the promise of a future eternal life in heaven. The salvation work of Christ is very much about the present.”

The well-known preacher and social activist, Tom Skinner, preaching on the Kingdom of God, said that when we pray for the coming of the Kingdom, we are praying “that whatever is going on in heaven might become reality here on earth. So what's going on in heaven? There is joy and celebration; there is peace and reconciliation; there is righteousness and justice; there is love and faith abounding; there is redemption and salvation; and there is God in the middle of it all. That's what we're praying for when we pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We're praying that all of that will happen right here."

So if the work of Christ is about what is happening right here, what does that mean for us as citizens? If we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have a responsibility to promote that Kingdom and bring about its eventual fruition. That may seem like a strange, even presumptuous statement to make—to suggest that we could have any power to bring about the final fruition of the Kingdom of God. And of course if we’re saying that humans can bring about the fullness of the Kingdom on our own, we deceive ourselves, since we can do nothing on our own.

But think of this in the same way we think of evangelism. We recognize that there is nothing we can do as individuals to bring about the conversion of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit, working in the heart of the unbeliever, can turn a heart cold as stone into a living organ pumping in worship of our sovereign God. But we also realize that the Holy Spirit can and does use each of us as His tools. That is why we support missionaries and church plants and practice lifestyle evangelism—we live in the hope and assurance that God will use us, frail jars of clay that we are, to convert the lost.

It is no less true, then, that God will use us, weak as we are, to bring about the final consummation of the Kingdom. And we do that by preaching good news to the poor, by binding up the brokenhearted, by proclaiming freedom for the captives, and comforting those who mourn. In doing those things, we are serving God in his ultimate task of making righteousness spring up before all nations, doing justice for every part of creation, and restoring right relationships among all humans, between humans and the rest of Creation, and between humans and their Creator God. The Kingdom of God is about a ministry of reconciliation to the world.

Remember that song I mentioned with the chorus saying “We are strangers, we are aliens, we are not of this world”? Listen to the second verse of the song: “We are envoys, we must tarry; With this message we must carry; There's so much to do before we leave; With so many more who may believe; Our mission here can never fail; And the gates of hell will not prevail.” As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have become God’s envoys to this world, ambassadors with a mission to bring restoration to a world that is enslaved by sin. During World War I, the American government worried that the large German population in America, especially in places like Wisconsin, was a fifth column of German sympathizers who had wormed their way into every aspect of society in order to do the will of the Kaiser. In a way, we Christians are a fifth column, a group of insurgents who embed ourselves in the world, doing everything we can with the talents and gifts we have been given by God to do the will of our Father, to bring about a revolution of justice, bringing about the restoration of God’s full and complete rule over all.

IV. Amen—What Comes Next?

So the Kingdom of God is both a struggle against this world as well as a ministry of reconciliation to that world. When we pray to God saying “Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” we are confessing that God is in fact sovereign over all, reigns over all of Creation now, and will reign forever over the eternal Kingdom of God. Then comes that little word, “Amen,” this is sure to be.

Some of you may know the old TV show M*A*S*H. One of the cast members is an army chaplain, Father Mulcahy. In one of the episodes, Father Mulcahy offers a prayer among a group of soldiers who know very little of religion. After a moving and eloquent prayer, he ends by saying “Amen.” For a few seconds there is quiet from the soldiers. Then one of the soldiers asks, “is that it?’ Another soldier replies, “Of course! NOTHING comes after Amen!”

But of course, something always comes after Amen. After we are finished praying, after we have confessed that the Kingdom, the power, and the glory all belong to God, we say Amen because we have confidence that what we are saying is sure to be. We know that the final consummation of the Kingdom of God is coming and that the Father is working through us to struggle against and defeat the sinful power of the Kingdom of this Earth. We know that the Kingdom of God is here, and we are a part of the ministry of restoration started by Jesus Christ during His time on earth. And, the Catechism assures us, we can be confident that the Father has heard our prayer. 

Because of that confidence, a confidence expressed by that little word, “Amen,” “we can delight greatly in the Lord; our souls can rejoice in our God, for He has clothed us with garments of salvation and arrayed us in a robe of righteousness.”

Most of us wear some kind of uniform at work that signals what we do. As a lawyer, I have dress up in a suit and tie—I call it my lawyer costume. McDonald’s employees wear uniforms, while nurses usually wear scrubs, and vets seem to wear lab coats. Well, the garments of salvation and robes of righteousness are the uniform of citizens of the Kingdom of God. We wear them now as we struggle against sin and work for restoration, and we will wear them forever as we worship of a holy and sovereign God. They are the uniforms we wear.

We wear that uniform of righteousness while doing the tasks we must do as Kingdom citizens. Obery Hendericks, the writer of the book “The Politics of Jesus” described the task Jesus gave his disciples in the New Testament, and it is the same task he gives us. Hendericks says, “in essence, what Jesus imparted to his disciples was that they must strive for true justice on earth as in heaven, as their righteous service to God; that they must honor God by doing indiscriminate justice, by lifting up ‘the least of these’ on the altar of God's justice and mercy; that they must set into motion a revolution of love and holistic spirituality that demonstrates love for God by treating the needs of even the least of God's children as holy.”

No doubt, it’s a big task. We are striving to bring joy and celebration, to foster peace and reconciliation, to fight for righteousness and justice, to preach love and faith abounding, to exhibit redemption and salvation, and to declare, as Tom Skinner said, that God is here, in the middle of it all!

Amen—this is sure to be. The Kingdom of God is here, and it is coming in power.

V. Conclusion

I’d like to end by reading the words to an old hymn by John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace.” This hymn, “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” is less well-known than Amazing Grace, but its recent inclusion on a CD of old hymns sung in a modern style by the band Jars of Clay has given it new recognition. The song takes us through the story of redemption, starting with Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament law and the Spirit’s awakening our hearts. Then in verse three and four we hear the themes of the Kingdom—our daily struggle against sin and our present work of restoration and justice. Finally, in the last verse, we look forward in hope to the return of Jesus and the ushering in of the fullness of the Kingdom. The words go as follows:

“Let us love and sing and wonder
Let us praise the Savior’s name
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder
He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame
He has washed us with His blood
He has brought us nigh to God

Let us love the Lord Who bought us
Pitied us when enemies
Called us by His grace and taught us
Gave us ears and gave us eyes
He has washed us with His blood
He presents our souls to God

Let us sing through fierce temptation
Threaten hard to bear us down
For the Lord, our strong salvation,
Holds in view the conqu’ror’s crown
He, Who washed us with His blood,
Soon will bring us home to God

Let us wonder grace and justice
Join and point to mercy’s store
When through grace in Christ our trust is
Justice smiles and asks no more
He Who washed us with His blood
Has secured our way to God

Let us praise and join the chorus
Of the saints enthroned on high
Here they trusted Him before us
Now their praises fill the sky
Thou hast washed us with Thy blood
Thou art worthy Lamb of God!”

And all God’s people say… Amen

Note: I preached this sermon twice in March--once at New Hope CRC in Wisconsin Rapids, and once at Calvin CRC, Sheboygan. This is the version I preached at Calvin on March 11.