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Joe McKeever Christian Blog and Commentary

Pastor, if you are like the rest of us, you’ve had this happen:
You brought a sermon on an important scriptural passage which you knew beyond a doubt was from the Lord and inspired of God.  You had a great time studying and praying for this sermon, and you knew this was cutting edge stuff. So, why was the sermon itself so poorly received?  Halfway through, you could sense the congregation’s collective minds wandering.  How could this happen?
Clearly, the problem could be any of one thousand things. But if I may, I will share a strong conviction on the number one reason your excellent sermon was so poorly received.
You failed to lay the foundation for it.
That is, you preached the event without setting the stage and placing the context for it before the congregation.  For instance:
–You preach Matthew 1:18ff and Luke 1:26ff, the Mary and Joseph event.  This beloved story needs you to point out how the world had lain in darkness for centuries, with no word from God, no prophets appearing, no fresh revelation.  And then the angel Gabriel showed up.  Bingo!
–You preach John 1:14. “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”  The incarnation is the story of the ages, to be sure. But no one is going to appreciate “the people have seen a great light” until you first establish that they “sat in darkness.”  Tell us about the darkness, pastor. Tell us why earth needed a Savior.  For news to be “good news” (gospel), it must address the bad news.  So, what bad news was it sent to remedy?
–You preach Mark 1, the story of John the Baptist and the baptism of our Lord.  Until John began preaching, no prophetic voice had been heard for centuries.  Like raindrops falling on a harsh desert landscape, his words were life to the thirsty people. Meanwhile, the religious leaders were playing their games, building their careers, and manipulating the people. Into that chaos, Jesus came.
–You preach Acts 2, the story of Pentecost.  It’s a great story, one you could spend hours on.  But the account of God’s Spirit arriving to give light and power and direction to His people is pointless until you establish that at that point, the church was powerless and directionless and was still locking itself inside secret hideaways.  When the Spirit arrived in force, He blew the doors off the hinges and drove the people into the streets and empowered them with a fearlessness and purpose.
My wife and I bought a painting from an artist whose stuff we liked.  A couple of years later, we attended an exhibition where he was showing much richer, more detailed, more brilliant paintings. “What happened?” we asked.  He said, “Someone taught me to put the dark backgrounds in.  It has made all the difference.”
The riches of God’s Word shine more brilliantly when the teacher/preacher adds the background.
Publication date: August 26, 2015

I’m preaching on worship today at a church in Southwest Mississippi. A few weeks ago when the pastor asked for my subject, I quickly said “Worship is a verb” for a title of the message. Hardly without a thought. This is a big deal with me, I thought. God is working on this in me. I’ve preached and written on it before. I know some basic texts and have one huge burden on the subject, namely, that most Christians I know have it backward and think worship is all about "me." Then, as often happens, when I began preparing and praying for the message, I realized just how little I actually know on the subject. God help me. 

1) God wants His children to worship.  In fact, He wants “everything, everywhere” to worship Him.

In Revelation, at the climax of all history, the praise chorus will include “every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them” (Revelation 5:13).  No wonder Scripture says “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).

I wouldn’t be surprised if finally “the rocks cry out” (Luke 19:40).

2) The question of “why” God wants us to worship Him nags at a lot of people.

Not me personally, but it clearly does some people.

C. S. Lewis used to struggle with the idea of an infinite God almost begging for worship from His subjects, like a puny potentate who needed the constant reinforcing of his subjects’ loyalty.

Eventually, Lewis came to see that God does not “need” anything from us, and our failure to worship Him takes nothing from Him. He would write, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

God does not need our worship any more than the Pacific needs the water in this bottle beside my laptop, or the moon needs another crater.  Or Mercury is hurting for a little more sunlight.

3) God does not need anything from me.

Poor God. Sitting up there in Heaven, wanting so desperately to have the adoration of puny earthlings and not getting it.

That is laughable.  No wonder people reject that image; it is so skewed as to be ridiculous.  God needs nothing from me.

“If I were hungry, I would not ask you. The cattle on a thousand hills is mine” (Psalm 50:10-12).

4) Worship is “unto the Lord.” It’s not all about me.

“Give unto the Lord the glory due His name,” says the Word in I Chronicles 16:29 and Psalm 29:2.

And yet, listen to the average church-goer entering and exiting the house of worship.

“I hope I get something out of this service today.”  “I didn’t get anything out of Reverend Buster’s sermon.”  “I got a lot out of the Bible lesson.”  “We’re going to join because we like this church.” “We will not be back because no one spoke to us.”

As though it were all about us.  Pastors have been terminated because church members concluded they were not being “fed.”  As though the worship were all about themselves.

God help us.

5) Worship is an active verb and it’s directed Heavenward.

The 16th chapter of I Chronicles contains David’s song of thanksgiving on the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Israel.  Notice the active verbs which he associates with worship of God….

Verse 8: Give thanks.  Proclaim His deeds.

Verse 9. Sing to Him. Praise. Tell all about His wonderful works.

Verse 12. Remember.

Verse 23. Sing to the Lord. Proclaim His salvation.

Verse 24. Declare His glory.

Verse 28. Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Verse 29. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name.  Bring an offering.  Worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness.

Verse 34. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.

When we enter the Lord’s house for worship, we are not there to sit and listen, to passively dare the preacher to draw us out of our shells and make us worship.  We are there to give thanks, proclaim His deeds, sing to Him, praise Him, to remember what He has done. We are there to declare His glory and to “ascribe” to Him glory and strength and every other attribute we can think of.  And to bring an offering.

6) Worship benefits us, but it must not be “about” us.

When I worship the living God, I’m the one who benefits.

Worship enlarges my soul.  Worship grows me.  Expands.  Changes my perspective.  Makes me a greater person.

Psalm 73 is our illustration of this. The songwriter was struggling with an issue that has perplexed God’s children through the ages: Why do the righteous have it so hard while the wicked seem to prosper?  After stewing on this too long, the songwriter was tempted to speak out and share his frustration, vent his anger at God.  Then his senses returned. “If I had decided to say these things aloud, I would have betrayed Your people. When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless” (Psalm 73:15-16).

And then, something happened to reverse his thinking.  He went to church.  “It seemed hopeless–until I entered God’s sanctuary.  Then I understood….” (73:16-17).

That’s how worship works.  It changes our thinking, reverses our self-centeredness, enlarges our perspective. Throughout the rest of Psalm 73, we see just how worship has changed everything in the hymnwriter’s mind: “Yet, I am always with you…. You guide me with Your counsel….My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever.  Those far from you will certainly perish…but as for me, God’s presence is my good….”

Worship puts eternity in my heart.  And the more I avoid worship, the more I shrink until finally I become a tiny self-enclosed ball of miserable self.

7) There is however a horizontal element to my worship.

When done right, my worship connects with other people.

–With other believers….

“Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your heart, giving thanks always….submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-21).

“Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).

Away with the idea that worship is a solitary business, that, as people are wont to say, “I can worship just as well on a creekbank with a fishing pole in my hand.”

Some churchgoers who get a thousand things right about worship, miss this point.  They speak against the performance aspect of singer’s Sunday offering and resent the applause that almost inevitably follows.  “She should be singing to God, not to man.  And yet, Ephesians 5:19 acknowledges there is another dimension to this.  When we worship with our songs, we “speak to one another.”  And–let us not miss this–we “submit to one another.”

The Lord is present when “two or three” gather in His name.  “In His name” clearly means they are either worshiping or working for Him.  And we should count on His presence.  I do not claim to understand how He could be “more present” than when I am here in this kitchen typing on a laptop with no one else in the house. But it seems to be the case.  In what we call “corporate worship”–meaning, with the full body of believers–something special happens.

–And with outsiders.

“About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. And the other prisoners were listening.” (Acts 16:25)

They are always listening, checking to see what we are doing and what it means; what it says about us and about our God.

Let them see something of eternity in us, something divine, something of the living God.

David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord and He inclined unto me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the miry clay and set my feet on the solid rock, and made my footsteps firm.  He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:1-3).

We do not worship God to put on a show for those who “see and fear and put their trust in God.”  But they are watching, make no mistake.

We owe it to them to make sure that what they see is a true child of God worshiping in Spirit and in truth.

8) Worship is permanent.  An hour in His presence does something lasting.

I’m not quite sure how this works, but I believe it.

When in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, our Lord sat and rested and began speaking, Mary stopped whatever she was doing and sat at His feet.  She was worshiping.  When Martha interrupted this little “service of worship” to call Mary to get up and come help, and accused the Lord of not caring, Jesus said, “You are full of cares and worried about many things. But only one thing is needful. And Mary has chosen that one good thing, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42).

Notice that: Shall not be taken away from her.

Everything Martha was doing would have to be repeated the next day. All the cleaning and cooking and household chores never end. But an hour spent at the feet of Jesus is eternal. We are forever different.  And that time can never be repeated, duplicated, or removed.

9) In worship, we begin by giving the Lord ourselves.

“I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, wholly and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).

When Paul praised the churches of Macedonia for their generosity in giving to help the starving Christians of Judea–see the early verses of 2 Corinthians 8–he adds this line:  “They didn’t do it the way we expected. First, they gave themselves especially to the Lord, and then to us by God’s will” (8:5).

First, to the Lord.

That’s how it’s done.  The rest of it–worshiping, bringing an offering, praising and remembering and giving thanks and praying–flow from that initial gift of oneself.

And, as in the rest of worship, we do it unto the Lord but the blessings all flow toward us.

If we do it for the personal payoff, it will not pay off.  But if we do it unto the Lord, we are blessed.

This is why Paul told the Corinthian church, “I will not burden you; for I am not seeking what is yours, but you” (2 Corinthians 12:14).

Does the Lord have you?  Nothing else matters until you can answer in the affirmative.

10) There are 999 other dimensions to worship. I wish I knew what they were.

“There’s more. So much more,” says a wonderful gospel song from years back.

A radio commercial yesterday said, “And now, here’s a special message to the canines in the audience.”  Dead air.  Then, “The dogs heard that!”

Animals have more acute hearing than we humans.  And their olfactory senses are hundreds of times sharper.  The eagle has vision that puts ours to shame.

I’m thinking that when we get to heaven, we will find that the music we have heard and enjoyed on earth is just a sliver of all that is on the Heavenly spectrum.  That the colors we know in our rainbow are only from, let’s say, 49 to 51 on God’s scale of 1 to 100.  The senses will not be just five or six, but ten thousand.

“Eyes have not seen; ears have not heard; neither has it entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).

We shall worship God the way we have always wanted to.

I have stood underneath a maple tree in all its autumnal radiance, and tried to take in the golds and reds and oranges, and have almost wept because I could not do it.  I was on the outside of all this beauty, and wanted to take it in.

I have listened to choirs and orchestras and great soloists and ensembles who lifted my spirits heavenward, and I wanted to take it inside and keep it with me forever. Alas, the notes died away and the music was gone and I wanted to weep.

But one day.

One day we shall know as we are known.  We see be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.  And then we shall worship God the way we’ve always wanted to.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Publication date: July 15, 2015

Watch this. This is how it’s done.

Robert Mueller was giving a commencement address at the College of William and Mary. This former director of the FBI in the first Bush administration is the epitome of dignity and class. He is anything but a comic or comedian. That day, speaking on “Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity,” which he called the motto of the Bureau, he showed us a great way to use humor in a serious talk.

“In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than thirty years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come into my office for one of two reasons: either to ‘see and be seen’ on the one hand, or to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work, on the other hand. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone walked in the door, and that question was ‘What is the issue?’

“One evening I came home to my wife, who had had a long day teaching and then coping with our two young daughters. She began to describe her day to me. After just a few minutes, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, ‘What is the issue?’

“The response, as I should have anticipated, was immediate. ‘I am your wife,’ she said. ‘I am not one of your attorneys. Do not ever ask me ‘What is the issue?’ You will sit there and you will listen until I am finished.’ And of course, I did just that.”

Mueller went on to say how he was learning–from his wife among others–how to be still and listen, truly listen, before making a judgment.

His was not a funny story as such. But it got a great laugh from the entire crowd, and became a great illustration for you and me today.

In his story, he is the goat. He did something foolish and his wife called his hand on it. He conceded that she was in the right and he in the wrong.

Every female in the audience identified with Mrs. Mueller and appreciated the speaker’s point. Every husband in the crowd identified with Mueller himself and felt an immediate connection with him.

Any story that connects the speaker to the audience for the rest of his talk is a great one.

Telling a story in which you yourself are caught red-handed in some offense and then properly humbled is a great device to connect you with your audience.

Let’s analyze it for a moment.

Suppose the story were reversed. Suppose Mueller had been the one telling his wife about his hectic day. And suppose Mrs. Mueller had stopped him in the middle of his monologue and asked him to get to the point. And, suppose he had responded sternly, the way she had done him, and then he told the audience about that in his message.

In the first place, it would not have been funny and would not have gotten a laugh, not the first one. Secondly, it would have alienated the audience from the speaker since his story would have made him look like some hotshot and put his wife down.

We have to choose our stories wisely.

What makes the story work is that Mueller was somebody. That’s why, before telling what his wife had said, it was important to establish that he was running the Criminal Division for the U.S.Attorney’s Office in Boston. He was supervising a lot of lawyers. As government employees go, he was a big shot.

But his wife brought him back to reality that day.

As a result, the commencement audience bonded with him through that story.

It’s a great device, if you have a good story and can make it fit.

One day last week, I had a comeuppance in the waiting room at the Toyota dealership. It was crowded with customers and I was trying to read my paper. At one point, unable to find the rest of my newspaper, I noticed the lady to my immediate left deeply engrossed in hers. “Is that my paper?” I wondered. “Did that woman take my New Orleans Advocate?”

Now, there are 586 acceptable ways to politely inquire whether she had my paper. I considered none of them. “Ma’am,” I said, “Are you reading my paper?”

She looked startled at first, then assured me she was not, that this was her newspaper. “You’re probably sitting on yours,” she said.

I was confident I’d already checked, but as I felt behind my back, sure enough, there was my newspaper wedged up against the chair.

I said, “I’m sorry,” and read my paper.

Ten minutes later, as my car was called and I stood to leave, I turned to her. “Please forgive me. I’m so sorry.” She forced a smile and said, “Next time, use a softer voice.”

I posted this on Facebook, prefacing it with, “I made a fool of myself in the car dealership waiting room today.”

The comments flew in. Practically every one said things like, “I’ve done that,” “You’re human,” and “She’s probably a school teacher.”

Get that? Even though what I did was somewhat rude and thoughtless, by telling it myself and owning up to what I had done, the “team” rallied to my support.

Pastors and other public speakers, this should be written in stone somewhere:

–Humor is almost always acceptable in a sermon or public address;

–A well-placed humorous story is a treasure;

–But the most effective use of humor will tell how the speaker/preacher goofed and was put in his place by his wife, a child, some elderly grandma in the store, or some other unlikely individual. People love hearing how the little person brought the high and the mighty down to earth.

Finally, a couple of notes of explanation.

–By “humor,” we do not necessarily mean something hilarious or side-splitting. Humor is a broad category and includes the type of stories we’ve told here. In a sermon or commencement address, gentle humor works far better than hilarity.

–After telling the story of one’s comedown, it’s important that the speaker/preacher not dwell on it. This is not about you, but about the point you were trying to get across. (I’m thinking of a preacher who told such a story, then proceeded to destroy its effect by bursting out, “Oh God! I’m making myself look so bad!” I was in the audience and will not soon forget the lesson that preacher demonstrated that day: Tell your story, then get on with the message. No groveling allowed.)

Preach Jesus, friend.