Links for the Weekend (2023-08-04)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

The House of Mourning Is Good for the Soul

This article takes a close look at Ecclesiastes 7:2 (“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart”). Why is mourning better than feasting?

Two houses are contrasted: the house of mourning and the house of feasting. The house of feasting would be understandably appealing. Feasting denotes celebration, liveliness, fellowship, joy. Haven’t you been at a table with friends or family and thought, “I don’t want this to end. The joy is so palpable, the company so delightful”?

On Preparing Yourself for Corporate Worship

Here is some advice on preparing your soul for Sunday morning worship.

Some Christians bemoan, “But I just don’t get anything out of the church service.” Maybe so. But often when believers express these kinds of sentiments, it’s because we don’t personally prepare ourselves for worship. We think we can haphazardly enter a worship service and assume it will be engaging because it’s a spiritual activity. We assume it’s entirely on the leaders of the church to give us a good worship experience; if we don’t have one, it must be the pastor or the music leader’s fault. But this is not the case. 

What Is Sloth?

Sloth is one of the “seven deadly sins” of antiquity. But that word might sound strange to modern ears. This article provides an explanation of sloth.

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

Giving Thanks is Serious Business

For many Christians (especially in the U.S.), thanksgiving means either a quick prayer before a meal or the fourth Thursday in November. But for the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, giving thanks was a serious endeavor.

Completing Hard Tasks

When some of the Jewish people were sent back to a decimated Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they faced a steep challenge. They needed to rebuild the temple, the city walls, and the city itself. The tasks themselves were difficult, but they were made more so by enemies who lied about, threatened, and attacked the people. (These stories can be found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.)

But God was still with his people, after all these years! He protected them, strengthened them, and provided for them over and over and over again. So, when the wall was finished and ready to be dedicated, it was time to give God proper thanks.

The Ceremony

To prepare for the dedication ceremony, the first order of business was to call all the Levites and singers back to the city (Neh 12:27–29). The Levites were the assistants and managers of the temple, and for this occasion they were needed for their musical abilities. This was to be a worship service, so the Levites and priests purified themselves, the people, the gates, and the wall (Neh 12:30).

The procession to the dedication service was a bit unusual. Nehemiah appointed “two great choirs that gave thanks” (Neh 12:31). It seems these choirs were created just for this purpose, which says a lot about the importance of their work! These choirs were part of a split march around the walls of Jerusalem—half in one direction, half in the other (Neh 12:32–39). Since the ceremony was explicitly for the purpose of thanking God for the walls, this unorthodox march makes sense. It was as if the people were saying along their walk, “We thank you, God, for these very walls.”

The destination of this procession was “the house of God” (Neh 12:40). This was the only logical location for a service designed to worship God and give thanks to him. And their gathering was overflowing with joy.

And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away. (Neh 12:43)

Our Thanksgiving

The way that modern Christians give thanks to God looks weak and miniscule in comparison to this gathering in Nehemiah. To be fair, this was a singular, enormous accomplishment that the people of God were celebrating. Completing the temple and the wall of the city allowed them to regain some of the identity they had lost in the exile: they could now worship God again in the place where he desired, and they could do so with some larger measure of physical safety. Our day-to-day giving thanks doesn’t need to look like this once-in-a-generation celebration in Nehemiah.

However, we really have swung in the opposite direction, haven’t we? We might offer up a few words of thanks to God when we pray, but we usually spend most of our time in supplication. We focus on what we want God to do rather than what he has already done.

But these are connected! We can trust that God hears our requests and will answer both because he has promised this in his Word and because he has always done this for his people—including us!

It is good and necessary for us to cultivate a thankful spirit, both individually and as a community. Giving thanks regularly reminds us that we receive all that we have, not because we have earned or deserved it, but because God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Meditating on God’s provision for us gives us a natural connection to the saving work of Jesus.

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Links for the Weekend (2022-11-11)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

Am I Resting or Just Being Lazy?

Because we’re sinners, temptation can spring up when we’re doing something very good. We all need to rest, but how do we distinguish between faithful rest and slothful laziness?

Rest, however, reorients us. It reminds us that though work is important, it’s not all there is. We were made to know, love, and enjoy relationship with God. He doesn’t value us based on our productivity. We can slow down and sit at his feet. We can put aside our tasks to commune with him as we explore creation. We can prioritize time with others, making memories and sharing laughter as we were created to do.

The Worshipper

Here’s an article which helps us think about how worship shapes our affections and actions.

There is no doubt about his worship. Everyone knows the object of his worship, because he cannot stop talking about it. Even the way he dresses and behaves declares his commitment to his cause. On a Monday morning he is full of the activity of the previous day, recounting everything that took place in the recent worship. 

What is the Holy Trinity?

In this video, Sam Allberry gives a helpful introduction to the topic of the Trinity.

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

Turning Thanks to Praise

Among the many elements of Christian worship, praise and thanksgiving are perhaps the most common. Though these aspects of worship are related, they are not the same.

Traditionally, praise has more to do with who God is—his character and his attributes. Thanksgiving concerns God’s actions in time, some of which we observe and experience. Because thanksgiving has more to do with our senses, many people (and churches) gravitate more to thanking God than praising him.

But the Scriptures point us to praise through thanksgiving. The actions of God reveal his character. We see this in the opening chapters of the book of Ezra.

The Book of Ezra

After the Israelites had been in exile in Babylon for several decades, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, the king of Persia (Ezra 1:1). Cyrus issued a decree sending Jewish people back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of God that had been destroyed (Ezra 1:3–4). He sent back the tools and utensils which the Babylonians had taken from the original temple, and he made sure that this construction project was funded (Ezra 1:5–11).

The rebuilding begins in Ezra 3. The people built the altar of God first (Ezra 3:2) and immediately resumed burnt offerings, feasts, and sacrifices (Ezra 3:3–6). Of chief importance, the altar was built before the foundation of the temple had been laid.

Completing the foundation was a huge step forward and an occasion for praising the Lord (Ezra 3:10–13). The priests and Levites made music and everyone “sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord” (Ezra 3:11). The biblical author gives us a glimpse of their song.

For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel. (Ezra 3:11)

This was a significant worship time, so this quotation is likely just a summary of their song. But it is instructive.

God is Good

The people gathered to worship God “because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid” (Ezra 3:11). The occasion of worship was thanksgiving. Yet the Israelites used this moment of thanks to declare God’s goodness—not just the good things God had done, but the fact that he himself is good.

When we confess that God is good, we are not only declaring that he is upright, consistent, and free from every bit of evil. To say that God is good means that he is the very definition of what is good. He is so fundamental to the creation and to our notion of morality that we understand what is good by understanding him.

As always, the historical context is important. Israel had spent decades scattered in an unfriendly land, driven from the promised place they loved and, because they were unable to worship the Lord, they were in danger of losing their very identity as a people. These are the people who sang about the goodness of God!

His Steadfast Love

This song was not only about God’s character. The people also recognized his posture toward them.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). A version of this description of God shows up repeatedly in the Bible and it is a consistent confession of God’s people. God’s steadfast love is related to his mercy and grace, to the way he pledges himself to a people who are frequently disloyal.

When the Israelites sang this in Ezra 3:11, they confessed God’s mercy toward them. He relented of his anger; he made a way for them to return to Jerusalem; he provided this reconstruction of the temple. Though God had every right to wipe out the nation because of their rebellion, he preserved a remnant and stayed true to his word.

God’s steadfast love was set upon Israel—not because Israel earned his love, but because God is gracious.

His Love Toward Israel Forever

The last phrase in this worship summary is stunning. God’s people celebrated his love toward them forever.

In singing like this, the Israelites highlighted the promises of God and how deeply they shape our hearts and hopes. If God loved us now but his love tomorrow were uncertain, that would be of little comfort. But God has made promises to his people, and God does not break his promises.

If God’s steadfast love toward Israel endured forever, they could count on it. They could move into the future knowing that whatever happened around them, God’s love would endure. This brings a deep security to God’s people, both then and now.

Resolved in Christ

The returning exiles sang about the character of God, the grace of God, and the promises of God. These are excellent foundations for our worship too.

But consider how much deeper and clearer our song can be now that Christ has come! He has shown us the character of God in the flesh (Hebrews 1:3). God’s grace was demonstrated through the sacrificial work of Jesus (Hebrews 2:9). The many promises of God find their fulfillment in the Son of God, sent to rescue sinners (2 Corinthians 1:20).

So, let’s continue to thank God for all he is doing and all he has done. But let’s also spot God’s character in his actions—and praise him!

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When the House of God Doesn’t Feel Like Home

Twelve weeks ago, when our in-person services were suspended, I daydreamed about walking through the church doors once again, bare-faced, hugging my friends, proudly carrying my newborn son. Instead, we’ll be peeking over masks from six feet away with a baby who by now is hardly new. 

Walking through the doors will bring a different range of emotions for each of us, but suffice it to say, we’ll all be disappointed. We’re grieving for the worship experience we remember. 

The Latter Temple

As the Israelites began returning from their 70-year exile in Babylon, the glorious temple built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 3) was in ruins. When the foundation for a new temple was laid, most of the people rejoiced—but many of the elders who remembered the old temple wept over how much less glorious the new one would be (Ezra 3:12). 

The completion of the temple seventeen years later caused a new round of mourning: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3). 

God, through his prophet Haggai, exhorted his people to “be strong … for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4). The glory of the former temple had never been in its gold or its cedar, but in God’s presence. “My Spirit remains in your midst,” he told his people, so they need not grieve the loss of a particular building (Haggai 2:5).

More than that, God promised that “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9). The latter glory that brings peace is widely understood to be Jesus. The new temple is where Jesus was dedicated, where Simeon declared him to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Like many prophecies, Haggai’s declaration of “latter glory” has a second layer of meaning, pointing to the final glory when God’s people will not gather at a building to worship but will dwell with God and worship before his throne. God, through Haggai, called his people to not look back to Solomon’s temple, but to look ahead to what the glory of Solomon’s temple prefigured. 

The Latter Glory

It is fitting to grieve our losses in our new worship logistics: losses of intimacy, comfort, focus, connection. When the elders wept over the new foundation, God did not chastise them. It was acceptable to have mixed emotions: “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13). 

We cannot remain in our grief, however: “Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:4). Though stifled behind masks and distanced by six feet, we must continue the work of the church—to worship and serve our Savior. We can persevere, despite awkwardness and discomfort, because what makes the church “the church” is still present: “My Spirit remains in your midst,” declares the Lord (Haggai 2:5)! 

God is present with his people! Church may not look how we hoped. But God is still the Lord of hosts, Jesus has still saved us from our sins, and the Spirit still dwells in us, so we have all that we need to worship. 

Finally, we must remember, like the Israelites, that our earthly worship services are a foreshadow of eternity. We have never worshiped perfectly; our minds wander, our hearts are cold, our strength wavers. But a glorious day is coming when God’s church—the whole bride of Christ, not divided into local congregations or spread across time—will sing God’s praises loud and long, side by side before the throne. 

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