Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Understanding the Times

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream..."

The words are from Isaac Watts’ rendition of Psalm 90, one which we considered on Sunday evening when I spoke about how Christians should approach the New Year. What I failed to point out – something which I was musing on as I drove to church on Sunday evening and then forgot to mention it – was that Psalm 90 provides a God-centered, Gospel-focused, Christ-infused, and Heaven-bent way of looking at how to live wisely. It was, I think, my best thought and then in the delivery forgot to mention it! So let me explain what I intended to say:

First, the psalmist’s (Moses’) way of saying, “Teach me to be wise” (which he does in verse 12 when he asks for a “heart of wisdom”) is to turn all his thoughts upon God. This is the answer to the me-centered sickness that pervades our existence: watch how the psalmist insists that wisdom (practical, day-to-day advice about how living for God) is a by-product of contemplating God’s character. Yes, watch him ring the changes on God’s eternality, sovereignty, severity and mercy. The first question we need to ask in Bible study is not, “What is this text saying to me?” but “What is this text saying to me about God?” God-centered living puts God first, second and last. Those in love will understand full well: we just can’t get enough of those we love and if we truly love God we will be equally dissatisfied with anything (or anyone) else.

Second, Moses’ understood gospel-dynamics. Yes he did! Law-laden Moses, that is! Watch him ask for mercy for his increasing consciousness of sin by mentioning God’s “loving-kindness” (Miles Coverdale’s famous translation) or “steadfast love” as the ESV renders it in verse 14. This must be the most important word in the Old Testament for sure! Its frequent appearances always speak of God’s unmerited favor shown to sinners through blood-bought redemption and forgiveness. It is God’s covenantal, "promise made – promise kept" word denoting how sins are covered and sinners reconciled. It speaks of gospel (for there is no obligation on God’s part to make such a covenant) and ultimately of Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son. He – Jesus – is the seed of the woman that will bruise the head of the seed of the serpent as Moses had written in his opening pages of Scripture (Gen. 3:15). Gospel-focused and Christ-infused – this is the way of wisdom: recalling that each moment we exist in this love-relationship with God is only because of God’s “unspeakable gift” to us – the death of his Son for us. Wisdom comes from knowing we are recipients of mercy!

Third, the psalm encourages a heaven-bent mentality, what the Puritans called living sub specie aeternitatis – in the light of eternity. Our time here is short and living for the things that this world offers is not only misguided but foolish. This world is passing away and we along with it (remember Moses’ warnings about the average life-span being seventy years in verse 10). Dust we are and to dust we shall return. Moth and rust corrupts everything and only what is done for Jesus will last. Wise Christians know this and put it into practice: giving away what they do not need to further God’s kingdom. The brevity of life is a sobering reality, one should force us to look up and say: “Here am I, Lord! What will you have me to do for you today?”


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Market Day of the Soul

Lessons from the Visitation: Elizabeth's Humility

This morning, we will be looking at Luke 1:39-45, a passage that records Mary's meeting with Elizabeth after the angel's announcement to Mary and in the sixth month of Elizabeth's expectancy. This initial encounter in what was probably about a three month stay has been called "The Visitation." One of the outstanding features of it is Elizabeth's humility. Geldenhuys has a beautiful description of it in his commentary.

"Elisabeth nobly and voluntarily placed herself in the background and acknowledged unreservedly and joyfully that her younger relative had received infinitely more honour than she. The gift of God to herself she accepted in grateful worship. But when she meets Mary, to whom a still greater gift has been given, she does not become jealous or unsympathetic. She humbles herself and sings to the honour of the all-excelling privileged one among women who is to become the Mother of her Lord. Because she is filled with the Holy Ghost, she was capable of such special maganimity. Whilst jealousy would have darkened her life, her humble attitude opened for her the gates to true, deep and jubilant joy. He who elevates himself is constantly engaged in wrecking his own life. But he who is sincerely humble finds richness of life and happiness."


Friday, December 26, 2008

Missionary Spotlight

Ed and Emily Hartman, Romania

When God called the Hartman’s to Romania, he didn’t just call Ed, or Ed and Emily. He called their entire family. The Hartman’s believe it to be a privilege to serve together, even and especially when the service is simply moral support. Here’s a small picture of the family and what they like to do.

Ed is the team leader, a pastor, a dad, a husband--not necessarily in that order. He is the shepherd of the MTW team working here in Romania and the keeper of its vision. He is a mentor for several Romanian pastors and a trainer of leaders in the church.

Emily is a wife and a mom, in that order. She also spends time with Romanian women in Bible studies, in the kitchen, and in the community.

Michael is a sophomore at Belhaven College in Jackson, MS. He runs on the college cross country team, is enrolled in the Air Force ROTC, enjoys Ultimate Frisbee, and misses his family dearly. If you can, please let him know we are praying for he and his family.

Katy is a senior at Kingstone Academy in Codlea, Romania. She still loves horses and playing the piano. This year she’s pursuing voice lessons, as well. Her plan is to attend university next year somewhere near her brother and major in something to do with international studies.

Abigail is a freshman at Kingstone Academy. She is taking piano and art lessons, but her real passion is cooking! She enjoys sewing and making anything creative. When Abi’s not making something, she’s most often reading something.

Daniel is a freshman at Kingstone Academy. He plays on a football club (soccer team) in Codlea and takes guitar lessons. He often leads in worship for their team on Sunday night studies. Daniel loves to do pretty much anything as long as he’s with somebody else.

This is their family! Thank you First Presbyterian for keeping these missionaries in your prayers.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Alright, it is in fact three nights before Christmas as I write this and neither am I about to retell Clement Clarke Moore’s unforgettable story, though I could add since I’m home alone this Christmas that noting is stirring in my house, not even Jake (my dog), who’s fast asleep dreaming of… food, I suspect.

What makes Christmas special, to Christians at least, is the mystery which is the incarnation:God becoming man, taking on human nature – not just a human body but a nature, body and soul – all the while remaining as much God (with all the properties of deity) as he ever was and shall be.

In Jesus Christ we the ultimate mystery: “two entire distinct natures and one person for ever.” In fact, I found myself unwittingly in the Sunday morning “Pastoral Prayer” citing from the Westminster Confession about the relationship of the divine and human natures being “without conversion, without conversion, without composition.” The memorable phrases come from the ancient Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451) and they are worth pondering for a few minutes.

It’s all too easy to focus on the baby Jesus lying the manger and manner and circumstances of his birth and miss the staggering fact that the baby was also the Creator of the world! I have no idea how much he weighed at birth, but guessing that he was under ten pounds, how in the world could such an entity have created everything that is? Little wonder that recent surveys among evangelical churches reveal a large number of professing Christians who do not in fact believe any such thing! The baby Jesus, after all, could not make so much as an egg let alone the entire cosmos in which we live. That is why it is necessary for Jesus to be both man (a baby in this instance) and God at the same time, and that neither nature be any less or more than it is meant to be.

It is possible that the ancient Church Fathers meant these phrases to be taken as synonyms (as the renowned Scottish theologian William Cunningham believed), in which case the error in view is one called Eutychianism after its principal exponent, Eutyches of Constantinople (c. 380-456). Eutyches taught that the human nature was overtaken by the divine, an understandable idea in the face of skeptics who could believe that a baby could be called God! It gave rise to pictures of Jesus in which a “halo” surrounds his head, distinguishing the child from any other baby before or since and, at the same time, removing him from any possibility of becoming our substitute – the book of Hebrews is at pains to point out that in order for Jesus to save he must be like us in every way, apart from sin – “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 2:17).

We could go on, but the point I am wanting to make is that there is profound mystery here: the Word, who was with God in the beginning and is God now and forever was also made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-2, 14).


Monday, December 22, 2008

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols

The 2008 "Music of Christmas"

We were filled to capacity last night for the annual Service of Lessons and Carols, with choir and orchestra. It was just superb. Our thanks to Bill Wymond, Connie Wadsworth and everyone who took part. Here are the musical pieces and the readings.

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols
First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi

The Orchestra Prelude – Farandole (Bizet)

The Welcome
On behalf of the Session of the First Presbyterian Church, I want warmly to welcome you to this, our annual service of lessons and carols.

Please note that the choir and orchestra seek no applause for themselves, but rather desire to give praise alone to God, and to help you worship him in your hearts.

At the end of the service, after the Benediction, the Choir will be remaining here until the orchestra is finished with the postlude. You are, of course, welcome to stay and listen to the postlude, but at that time I will give you some indication that you are free to depart.

During the service, there will be an offering taken this evening for the relief and aid of retired ministers and their families. We encourage our congregation to contribute, but our visitors should not feel compelled to do so. This service and music is our free gift of love to you.

The Call to Worship
Beloved in Christ, at this Christmastide let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.

But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this our city and congregation.

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember the hope which is set before us; we think of all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for evermore.

To God be the glory.

The Processional Hymn–Once in Royal David’s City

The Anthem–Nova! Nova! (arr. Chilcott)

The First Lesson
Genesis 3 (8-15) – The first offer of the Gospel.

God tells sinful Adam and Eve that they have lost the life of Paradise because of their rebellion, but that (in His mercy and grace) the seed of woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done?

And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain (arr. Jennings)
The Second Lesson
Genesis 22 (15-18) – God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.

AND the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said,
By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore;
and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;

because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–One December, Bright and Clear (arr. Wilberg)

The Third Lesson
Isaiah 9 (2, 6-7) – The Prophet foretells the coming of the Savior.
THE people that walked in darkness have seen a great light:
they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder:

and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–Ubi Caritas (DuruflĂ©)
The Fourth Lesson
Isaiah 11 (1-9) – The Peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots:

and the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD.

With righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–Ding Dong Merrily on High (arr. Wilberg)
The Fifth Lesson
Luke 1 (26-33) – The angel Gabriel salutes the Virgin Mary.The arrival of the promised Messiah is announced

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–I Saw Three Ships (arr. Rutter)

The Sixth Lesson
Luke 2 (1-7) – Luke tells of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel account of Christ’s nativity.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into JudFa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–The First Nowell (arr. Wilberg)

The Congregational Carol No. 201 "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
The Prayer
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thine only son, Jesus Christ:
Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer,
so we may with sure confidence behold him, when he shall come to be our judge;
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
And receive these our offerings for thy needy servants.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Joy Gift Offering for Retired Ministers and their Wives

The Anthem–Carol to the King (arr. Wilberg)

The Seventh Lesson
Luke 2 (8-16) – The shepherds go to the manger, upon hearing the angelic heralds of Messiah’s birth.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–Still, Still, Still (Wilberg)

The Eighth Lesson
Matthew 2 (1-11) – The Wise Men are led by the star to Jesus. The ancient prophecy is fulfilled.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of JudFa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–The Coming of Our King (arr. Rutter)
The Ninth Lesson
John 1 (1-14) – John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation. The Divinity and Glory of the Messiah is set forth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.

That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Thanks be to God.

The Anthem–O Come All Ye Faithful (arr. Wilberg)

The Congregational Carol "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" (arr. Pelz)

The Benediction
May he who by his Incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly,
grant you the fullness of Gospel favor and peace;
and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
rest upon you, and be amongst you and remain with you always.

Go in grace and peace.

The Postlude–God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (Organ and Orchestra)


Pastor's Perspective

Nothing is Impossible with God:
The Sovereignty of God gloriously displayed in the virginal conception of Christ

Well, I'm still enjoying the afterglow of a glorious Lord's Day at First. In the morning services, we were in Luke 1:26-38, a passage telling of Gabriel's visit to Mary, commonly know as, the Annunciation. We began by reflecting on the fact that at Christmastime, American evangelical Christians are perhaps more conscious than at any other time of the year of how the world shapes us. And we also, perhaps, long more than at any other time of the year to be shaped by Christ and his Word and Spirit, rather than by the world. We asked how can we see some growth and encouragement in this area. And answered this way. First, it begins in the desires, the affections. Then prayer. Then self-examination. Then attention to Scripture. Then repentance. Then new resolve. Then deeper dependence upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, and greater treasuring of Christ.

And we observed that Luke 1:26-38, while being first and foremost about Christ, and God's work of redemption in him, offers us some help and hope here. If the world offers us worship of stuff and status, treasuring of fading pleasures, worldy wisdom, self-reliance and freedom to do as we please, the Gospel offers us superior joy. In particular, we saw this through five words: (1) Humility, (2) Privilege, (3) Mystery, (4) Sovereignty, and (5) Submission.

I. The humble circumstances of Mary and the humble conditions of our Savior’s birth, set forth something of God’s condescension and Jesus’ humility (26-27). In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary."The great Gabriel sent to mean Nazareth is a picture of God's amazing condescension and foreshadows Jesus' course of humility. As Kent Hughes says: "Mary was a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere." God dwells with the humble indeed. And should this not move us to lives of humility?

II. The privilege of Mary in bearing the Messiah, God’s only Son, ought to make us think of the privilege we have in being children of God, through faith in Him (28, 30). And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
Though it is true, as Luther said "No woman has ever lived on earth to whom God has shown such grace." It is also true that there is no greater privilege than the adoption we have by faith-union into God's family. Remember Luke 8:21 where Jesus said, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." And John 1:12 where we learn that "to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." As great as Mary's privilege was, we must not forget that by grace through faith in Christ, we have becomes God's children, members of his household, brothers and sisters of Jesus and joint-heirs with him.

III. The Mystery of the Virgin Birth, far from a problem for faith, proves the worthiness of God to be worshiped, and the importance of our walking by faith and not by sight (34). And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"
Do you have a problem with the idea of a virgin birth? So did Mary! She was befuddled by such a concept. But think about it friends, if you believe in an infinite and omnipotent God, miracles and mysteries shouldn't surprise you. After all, Christians believe that Mary's baby was God in the flesh! Surely that is no less amazing than her virgin conception of him.

IV. The Sovereignty of God is seen in the Angel Gabriel’s answer regarding the Virgin Birth (and the birth of John the Baptist) (37). For nothing will be impossible with God."
How does Gabriel answer Mary's query? "There's nothing God can't do, Mary!" So, faith rests on the truth and reality of the sovereignty of God. As our favorite dead Anglican bishop once said: "Faith never rests so calmly and peacefully as when it lays its head on the pillow of God’s omnipotence" (J.C. Ryle). By the way, this shows at the outset, that our salvation must be all of God and all of grace! If the entrance of the Messiah into the world is marked by a singular, sovereign intervention by God, it serves to remind us that HE will accomplish our salvation, without our aid or assistance. This is his work. His sovereign work. His gracious work. This is the heart of the passage, and a key to the Christian life.

V. The Christian life can be summarized by Mary’s response to Gabriel – God-centered believing, thinking and living, and self-renouncing service (38). And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
Mary's response is stunningly mature. Indeed, it's a picture of how the Christian life should be lived. "Let it be according to your Word" about sums it all up, doesn't it. I love how the hymn "Father, I Know That All My Life" captures this idea in its fourth stanza: "In service which thy will appoints there are no bonds for me; my secret heart is taught the truth that makes thy children free; a life of self-renouncing love is one of liberty." (Anna L. Waring).

So while the world offers us worship of stuff and status, and fading pleasures for treasures, and worldy wisdom, and self-reliance and freedom to do as we please, the Gospel offers us solid joys and lasting treasure, because of God's grace to us in Christ Jesus. And thus we have a superior joy. And that joy is expressed and experienced in our (1) life of humility, (2) sense of Gospel privilege, (3) acceptance of mystery, (4) embrace of his sovereignty, and (5) joyful submission to God's will.


Derek's Christmas Carol

Stars of Heaven Glowing Softly to be featured at Tenth Presbyterian Church Lessons and Carols Service

Many of you know that our own Derek Thomas is not only an author, but also a hymn writer. He has written a Christmas carol called Stars of Heaven Glowing Softly that will be sung by Choir and Orchestra at the Tenth Presbyterian Church this Wednesday.

The Tenth Presbyterian Christmas Eve Carol Service program says: "Tenth has premiered five new carols in the last few years on texts by James Boice, Philip Ryken, and Derek Thomas. The choir will offer one of Rev. Thomas’s carols, Stars of Heaven Glowing Softly, on these two evenings. A joyful setting of the traditional West Indian carol, The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy, arranged by John Leavitt, will follow. In addition to the calypso rhythms, conga drum, and claves called for in the score, we are adding traditional steel drums to more fully realize the musical colors of the Caribbean islands."


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Market Day of the Soul

Gabriel Came to Galilee (Luke 1:26-38)

Here's another new carol, by Duncan, Thomas and Wymond, that we will sing in public worship this morning. Use the words to prepare to hear and respond in faith to Luke 1:26-38, the passage that will be read and preached during our morning services. This carol is based on that passage and is called "Gabriel came to Galilee" (sung to the tune of "See Amid the Winter's Snow" by John Goss).

Gabr’l came to Galilee, “Gospel news I bring to thee.
“Hail to you, the favored one. You will bear God’s only Son.”

Refrain – Glory to our blessed Lord! Praise Him, Praise Him, Son of God.
Bless the Lord, we all must sing. God for us can do all things.

Troubled in her heart was she. “Gabriel how can this be?”
“I am still not yet a wife. I’ve been pure for all my life.”

Refrain – Glory to our blessed Lord! Praise Him, Praise Him, Son of God.
Bless the Lord, we all must sing. God for us can do all things.

“There is nothing God can’t do. His great pow’r o’ershadows you.”
“I’m the servant of the Lord; let this be by His own word.”

Refrain – Glory to our blessed Lord! Praise Him, Praise Him, Son of God.
Bless the Lord, we all must sing. God for us can do all things.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sunday's Coming

Prepaing for Worship By Asking "What is the Aim of Our Form of Worship?"

If it helps us to ready ourselves to gather with God's people to worship him - to ask "what is worship? and "why ought we to worship?" and "what ought we to do in worship?" (as we already have, here and here and here) then it may also help to ask "what is the aim of our form of worship?" or "to what end or purpose do we do what we do?" or "what is our aim in worshiping in the manner in which we worship?"

The Presbyterian answer to this query is essentially: "our goal is to have radically biblical worship, worship that is uniquely directed by God's word, so that God is clearly in charge of both the form and substance of our worship of him.

Radically Biblical Worship
Our aim then is to have a public worship service that is according to Scripture: that is, a service rooted in the Bible's teaching about the form and substance of congregational worship. Presbyterians often call this the "regulative principle" in arranging our public worship - the axiom that we ought to worship God in accordance with the Bible's teaching about the public worship of God. This axiom applied, in turn, helps us with the whole scope of worship. How we go about corporate worship is the business of the second commandment, but it is also a central concern for the New Testament church as well (see, for instance, John 4, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and Colossians 2).

For our worship to be biblical in all its aspects means, among other things, (1) that its content, parts and corporateness are all positively in accord with Scripture; (2) that it is simultaneously a communal response of gratitude for grace, an expression of passion for God, the fulfillment of what we were made and redeemed for, a joyful engagement in a delightful obedience, as Scripture teaches; (3) that it is a corporate Christ-provided, Spirit-enabled encounter with the almighty, loving and righteous Father, and thus always has in view the Triune God, again in accord with the Bible's teaching; and (4) that it aims for and is an expression of God's own glory, and contemplates the consummation of the eternal covenant in the church triumphant's everlasting union and communion with God.

Determining that the Bible will guide our worship, helps the church ensure that the elements of worship (like singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments, making solemn vows, confessing the faith and giving offerings) are unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture, and that the forms of worship (how you go about singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments) are in accord with Scripture and serve the elements they are intended to help convey, and that the circumstances of worship (incidentals like whether you sit in pews or chairs or stand, whether you meet in a church building or a storefront, what time you meet, how long you meet, etc.), are maximally helpful in assisting us to do what the Bible calls us to do in worship.

Why the manner of congregational worship is important
Presbyterians have not been concerned with forms and circumstances so much for their own sake as much as for the sake of the elements and substance of worship, and for the sake of the object and aim of worship. The Reformers (from whom Presbyterians have learned much about Scripture) understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the "law of unintended consequences." Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message. For example, if you sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Gilligan's Island" (the meter works, but the tune doesn't - a light, quasi-sea-shanty, with comedic associations, coupled with gravely serious words) it changes the whole tone of what one is doing in singing that text, and easily becomes a sacrilege. Second, they knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.

So Presbyterians care about how we worship not because we think that liturgy (the order of service) is prescribed, mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy can get out of the way of the gathered church's communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul's communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the word of God to and from God, from and to His people. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: "As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God" (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say: "In true worship men have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness." That is, in biblical worship we so focus upon God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him, and thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.

Worship, Culture and Reverence
By the way, Presbyterians do not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do. We are against culture-derived worship, and are more concerned to implement to principles of Scripture in our specific culture (and even to emulate the best of the Bible-inspired cultures of Scripture), than we are to reclaim current cultural forms for Christian use. This is precisely one of the areas productive of the greatest controversy in our own age. Many pastors and churches think that, in order to reach people, you must use the church's worship "style" to position the church for evangelism. Hence, pop-contemporary forms or the distinctive ethnic forms of a particular sub-culture are employed in order to reach an audience that likes that particular "style." This is exceedingly dangerous and turns the focus of corporate worship on its head, and opens the door to encouraging participants to view themselves as consumers rather than as worshipers. This is a significant problem in our consumer-oriented context.

And we Presbyterians believe that worship ought to be reverent. If worship is meeting with God, how could it be otherwise? It is precisely the reverence and awe of the greatness of God that should characterize worship at its best. We agree with Hughes Oliphant Old who says "The greatest single contribution which the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence, of simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God." That's why we aim for a worship service that is Scriptural, simple, Spiritual, historic, heartfelt, majestic and reverent.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Missionary Spotlight

Dale and Kathy Hollenbeck, Uganda

Dale and Kathy Hollenbeck have been serving the Church in southwestern Uganda in theological education since 2001. Dale served as a lecturer in Biblical studies with fellow RTS Jackson graduated at Uganda Bible Institute, a school established in 2003 to equip church leaders with the tools they need to preach and teach the Word of God.

Dale also serves as a trainer with Veritas College, a mobile ministry focusing on training pastors and church leaders in the skills of Biblical exegesis. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Dale is the Les Collines Unit Leader for Africa Inland Mission International (southwest Uganda and Rwanda), recruiting and caring for fellow missionaries. Kathy home educates their three boys, Micah (9), Benjamin (6) and Zachary (4). Kathy is a member of a team trainers that conducts periodic Sunday school teacher trainings throughout churches in Mbarara. She also teaches ladies’ Bible studies in the neighborhood and at the local university. The Hollenbecks host a weekly children’s catechism club in their home for neighborhood children. In all of their endeavors, the Hollenbecks seek to bring glory to Christ as they disciple Christians for the growth of the church and the advance of the Gospel in missions.

Please pray for them as they further the kingdom through preaching and teaching!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Window on the World

Why Heaven will be like Mississippi

I had this thought while out walking the dog this evening – heaven is going to be a lot like Mississippi.

I’m well aware that many would hardly consider this new revelation. After all, everybody knows that the local dialect is the accent of heaven. But two events today reminded me of something else about Mississippi and made me think about heaven.

The first happened on Facebook, when two of my seemingly separated worlds collided. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was enough for me to see that not only is the world a small place, increasingly, cyberspace is as well.

The second happened at supper tonight. We had the McNeils here with us (missionaries to Uganda). I knew they were here and wanted to introduce myself and put some faces to names. As I was speaking with Don he commented, “you know, I don’t think you’ve changed much since you were a kid.” Something between confusion and panic struck. Was he confusing me with some other good looking child from his past, or did I know these people? I said something about hairlines and waistlines and time, and then the conversation moved along. (I sure hope Don and Fran don’t read the FPCJ blog!)

As soon as I could, I went back and did what every grown man does in such a situation – I called my mom. Nothing but voicemail. So I tried my dad, who was reachable.

“Hey dad, do you know Don and Fran McNeil – and more importantly right now, do I?”

“The McNeils, why yes, they were in our church in Louisville when we were (mid 80s).”

Mystery solved. I did know them, or at least knew them when I was ten or eleven in another part of the state. Welcome to Mississippi, birthplace of interconnection, where everybody is related and it only takes two minutes when meeting a stranger to find out he went to school with your brother or that your sister in law is his cousin, or any of the seemingly endless connections that link everybody here with everybody else. I’m sure there are other places in the world where this happens, but I doubt anywhere in the US can boast the same concentration of connection than the state of Mississippi. It becomes like a little game, figuring out how people are connected. I spent the first twelve years of my life in Mississippi, and I cannot count on one hand the number of people in this congregation to whom I am somehow connected. Bebo Elkin was my childhood principal and Barbara Porter my first grade teacher. My brother played baseball with Roger Caperton. My dad followed Brister Ware in campus ministry at USM and was later on staff at a church with Palmer Robertson. And on and on the list goes.

Which leads me back to heaven, where in eternity we will have the chance to pursue a favorite Mississippi pastime – figuring out how we are connected to everybody else? But instead of fraternities and hunting clubs and marriage, Gospel connections abound. I look forward to hearing the stories of how the lives of heaven’s inhabitants were connected in this life in ways we never knew. How the ministry of the a couple I forgot I knew led to the building up of the ministry of an African pastor whose own ministry was used by the Spirit to draw men and women to Christ. How many connections will be discovered in heaven? Who knows, though eternity is a long time to try and find out.


A Heart-Wrenching Story and Wisdom from a Feminist

The Impact of Divorce on Teen Girls
Yesterday, I got a double whammy. I read Russell Moore's excellent post with the tantalizing title of "Vampires, Teen Novels, and . . . Divorce?," and later I received an email from the National Center on Fathering with a heart-wrenching story of a teenage girl who, by reason of a divorce, writes a letter longing for her absent and uninvolved father. I think there is wisdon to be learned here.

The National Center for Fathering sponsors an essay contest called "What My Father Means to Me" and this is an essay from a 14-year-old girl named Crystal. Here is Crystal's Christmas wish:

I am 14 years old and my father left me when I learned to say "daddy." Even though my father's not around, in my heart he is always here. Every birthday and every Christmas I cross my fingers in hopes that my father will come home. Does my wish come true? No, but I never quit looking and hoping.

What really hurts is walking through the mall and seeing little girls with their fathers walking hand in hand. I can see how much he loves his little girl.

I see my father a lot in my dreams, but never does he turn around. I call for him, but he keeps walking away. I'd like to believe he misses me, but how can he miss a stranger?

Every time I blow the candles out on my birthday cake, I wish the same wish that I wished for the past 13 years. I wish that stranger would turn around and look at me. Maybe if he saw all the pain and suffering from living without him in my eyes, he would become a part of my life. For now all I can do is to wish and never give up hope, for hope is all I have to hold onto.

Even though it's hard to say, my father means the world to me and if I had the chance to tell him all of this, I would not change anything, but I would add a couple of "I love you's."

Now, Russ Moore's article quotes feminist Caitlin Flanagan saying this:
“Divorce in a young-adult novel means what being orphaned meant in a fairy tale: vulnerability, danger, unwanted independence. It also means that the protagonists must confront the sexuality of their parents at the moment they least want to think about such realities. It introduces into a household the adult passions and jealousies that have long gone to ground in most middle-aged parents, a state of affairs that is particularly difficult for girls, who have a more complicated attitude toward their own emerging sexuality than do boys, and who are far more rooted in the domestic routines and traditions of their families, which constitute the vital link between the sweet cocooning of childhood and their impending departure from it. The only thing as difficult for a girl as a divorce—if we are to judge from stories aimed at the teen market—is a move.”


Another Architectural Award for the First Presbyterian Church Meeting House

South Central Construction Judges' Award
Ruling Elder Doug Dale and his architectural associates (and our Session's Ad Hoc Sanctuary Committee) are to be congratulated again, for yet another award relating to the Sanctuary Expansion and Enhancement, and Building Renovation here at First Presbyterian Church. McGraw-Hill's South Central Construction Awards for 2008 are out, and First Presbyterian has received the Judges' Award for Design. You can read the article, here.

By the way, to date (just over three years since we started receiving monies toward pledges back in 2005, and just a year and a half after we occupied the building) about $7.5 million of the $11 million required for the project has already been given. And with the remaining debt from the Twin Lakes Conference Center phase two expansion, and the Gillespie Street property acquisition, now rolled into one loan we will still have less than $4 million in total church indebtedness going into 2009. We are budgeted to pay off the debt at a rate of about $52,000 a month, plus any additional monies given directly to debt retirement. That's a clip of about $800,000 or so, per year. This puts us on pace to pay off everything in about five years.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Understanding the Times


As it happens, the reading for today (Dec 16) in my “ESV Bible Designed to be Read in a Year” is Micah 5-7. Written in the time of Isaiah, seven centuries before the event, it contains the Christmas prophecy of Jesus birth in Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Mic. 5:2).

It’s that time of year again: Christmas, the shepherds, the baby Jesus in the stall, angelic visitors with “good news,” and of course holly, ivy, eggnog and Santa.

No, I am not about to start a diatribe against the sentimentalizing of Christmas. I’m actually all for it – it’s religion that ruins Christmas. I’m all for mince pies and Yule logs so long as we don’t attach any religious significance to any of it! We try, of course (unsuccessfully), to insist that “Jesus is the real meaning of Christmas,” but the truth is that much of the paraphernalia we now associate with December 25 has nothing to do with Jesus; nor should it.

But I said I wasn’t going to begin my anti-Christmas diatribe; and I won’t. Instead, I want us to think about Bethlehem and the birth of the baby Jesus. It is, after all, one of the greatest mysterious we ever encounter: “God contracted to a span” as Wesley put it in one of his hymns (a “span” is the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, i.e. the size of an infant).

The attempt to formulate in human language what happened at Bethlehem brought about one of greatest church councils ever witnessed – the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The Chalcedonian Creed is profound and precise, stretching language to breaking point as it attempts to find a way through competing errors about what the incarnation of Jesus Christ actually means. Having already affirmed the full deity of Jesus a century and a quarter earlier (at Nicea A.D. 325), countering the Arian heresy that Jesus was God’s first and noblest, Chalcedon affirmed it (Jesus is consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father) now attempted to define how Jesus was both true man and true God without diminishing or confusing either nature:

• Denying that Jesus had a split personality (the Nestorian idea) Chalcedon, Chalcedon affirmed Jesus to be one divine-human person

• Denying that Jesus deity had swallowed his humanity (the Eutychian idea), Chalcedon affirmed Jesus to have two natures having two capacities for action, reaction and experience

• Denying that one nature’s experience out-did the other nature (as in Apollinarius idea that Jesus human mind was submerged beneath his divine mind), Chalcedon insisted that each nature retained its own distinctive attributes without mixture, confusion, separation or division.

The language takes your breath away and every word of it has our salvation (the possibility of it) at its heart. J. I. Packer correctly says that the greatest mystery of the Christian faith is not the resurrection of Christ or his miracles, but his blessed incarnation—“the plurality of persons in the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God [Downers Grove, IL: 1993, InterVarsity Press], 53). Packer further states, “But once the Incarnation is grasped as a reality . . . other difficulties will dissolve” (Knowing God, p. 54).

He is correct, of course. And we have a couple of weeks to think about it, pray about it, and worship!


Monday, December 15, 2008

Pastor's Perspective

Merry Christmas! and the Church Blog Schedule

The last First Epistle for the Year of our Lord, 2008 will be printed this week. Our faithful editor (and publishers!) will take a brief break and then get right back at it in 2009. As usual, we will not publish the week of Christmas or New Year's Day, so the first issue of 2009 will be dated January 9. Now, for those of you who can't imagine going two weeks without the First Epistle, be assured that things will keep humming along here on the church blog. My online version of the Pastor's Perspective will appear here (as per usual) on Mondays.

By the way, this gives me a chance to tell you (again) about the regular schedule and some of the regular features here on the First Presbyterian Church Blog.

Generally, we will try to have the first post of the day up by just after midnight of the day on which it is scheduled to appear (so that our British, European and African readers can get it first thing in the morning when they are waking up and getting to work and school). Don't forget that you are able to post comments, suggestions and questions on the blog. Our contributors are automatically and immediately alerted when you do.

Well, here's the lineup:

Sundays– Market Day of the Soul, these entries offer resources for preparation for, and reflections on the enjoyment of, public worship on the Lord's Day here at First Pres.

Mondays– Pastor's Perspective, these posts contain my meandering thoughts on life and ministry here at First Presbyterian, reflections and resources on current events, recaps of recent messages, alerts about important events in the life of the church and more.
Blog of the Week, every other week, we'll tip you off on the best of the blogosphere. Anyone who spends time on the web knows that lots of time can be wasted there. We'll point you to the most edifying and informative blogs out there.

Tuesdays– Understanding the Times, Derek's musings and reflections on (usually by Derek) life, theology, culture and "our times." Derek tries to get us to think Christianly about all of life and to live Christianly in all of life.

Wednesdays– Hymns of the Faith, material from our weekly radio program of the same name, focusing on the texts, authors, composers and backgrounds of the best hymns ever written. We hope this is a help and encouragement for you in public and private worship.

Thursdays– Window on the World, Jeremy and Nate look at the world through biblical glasses (or via a biblical window, to keep the metaphor of the title going!), and ask us to think and act biblically in all of life.
Sunday Orders of Service, on Thursday mornings we'll post the upcoming Sunday bulletin to assist you in preparation for worship.

Fridays – Missionary Spotlight, Jeremy introduces you to the evangelists, campus ministers and missionaries supported by First Presbyterian Church.

Saturdays – Sunday's Coming! (by various ministers), quotes and thoughts to help you prepare for the Lord's Day and to ready you for public worship.

Now, this schedule doesn't include Donna's and Ashley's weekly entries. Partly because I don't know if we've/they've come up with a regular name for them (Ashley has one called "From Dishes to Discipleship" which sounds like a keeper to me!), and partly because I don't know whether they want to post on the same day each week. Stay tuned. Also, all of the contributors will make occasional posts, and there will be intermittent features like: Ask the Pastor (a post in which I, or other ministers or staff) respond to your questions.

Merry Christmas!


Want to Read your First Epistle in Color and Three Days Early?

Read the First Epistle, early, every week at www.fpcjackson.org

Well, you can! How? On Wednesdays, visit the First Presbyterian Website. And click on "Recent Updates" and then on "First Epistle" or just click here, and bookmark it.

Here 's this week's edition.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sunday's Coming

Preparing for Worship by Asking "What Do We Do in Worship?"

So far, in this mini-series designed to aid your preparation for congregational worship on the Lord's Day, we've asked (and answered) the questions "what is worship?" and "why do we worship?" or rather "why ought we to worship?" Answering these questions biblically is one good way to ready oneself to "go into the house of the Lord." This week, we ask a third question. "What is it that we are supposed to do when we gather for public worship?" "What are the essential elements of the regular worship of the people of God?" "What things are to be done when we gather for the purpose of giving God the the glory due his name and engaging with him?"

What our worship looks like: the Elements and Principles
When a congregation committed to the ordinary means of grace meets on the Lord's Day, Bible reading, Bible preaching, Bible praying, Bible singing and biblical observance of the sacraments are at the core of what we do in public worship. This means the following for our services.

Read the Bible
We read the Bible in our public worship. Paul told Timothy "give attention to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13) and so, a worship service influenced by the teaching of Scripture will contain a substantial reading of Scripture (and not just from the sermon text!). The public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. In the reading of God's word, He speaks most directly to His people.

Preach the Bible
We preach the Bible in our public worship. Preaching is God's prime appointed instrument to build up his church. As Paul said "faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:14, 17). Faithful biblical preaching is to explain and apply Scripture to the gathered company, believers and unbelievers alike. James Durham put it this way: "This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without, and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord's side, so should they never be separated on our side." This means expository and evangelistic preaching, squarely based in the text of the word of God.

People who appreciate the Bible's teaching on worship will have a high view of preaching, and little time for the personality driven, theologically void, superficially practical, monologues that pass for preaching today. "From the very beginning the sermon was supposed to be an explanation of the Scripture reading," says Hughes Old. It "is not just a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture." "Preach the word," Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). "Expository, sequential, verse by verse, book by book, preaching through the whole Bible, the 'whole council of God' (Acts 20:27), was the practice of many of the church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom, Augustine), all the Reformers and the best of their heirs ever since. The preached word is the central feature of Reformed worship."

Pray the Bible
We pray the Bible in our public worship. The Father's house "is a house of prayer" said Jesus (Matthew 21:13). Our prayers ought to be permeated with the language and thought of Scripture. Terry Johnson makes the case like this: "the pulpit prayers of Reformed churches should be rich in biblical and theological content. Do we not learn the language of Christian devotion from the Bible? Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don't we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people, for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout." The call here is not for written and read prayer, but studied free prayer. Our ministers spend time plundering the language of Scripture in preparation for leading in public worship.

Sing the Bible
We sing the Bible in our public worship (Psalm 98:1, Revelation 5:9, Matthew 26:30, Nehemiah 12:27, 46; Acts 16:25; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). This doesn't mean that we can only sing Psalms or only sing the language of scripture, though this tremendous doxological resource of the church should not be overlooked. What we mean by "sing the Bible" is that our singing ought to be biblical, shot through with the language, categories and theology of the Bible. It ought to reflect the themes and proportion of the Bible, as well as its substance and weightiness. Terry Johnson, again, provides this counsel: "Our songs should be rich with Biblical and theological content. The current divisions over music are at the heart of our worship wars. Yet some principles should be easy enough to identify. First, what does a Christian worship song look like? Answer, it looks like a Psalm. The Psalms provide the model for Christian hymnody. If the songs we sing in worship look like Psalms, they will develop themes over many lines with minimal repetition. They will be rich in theological and experiential content. They will tell us much about God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. They will express the whole range of human experience and emotion. Second, what does a Christian worship song sound like? Many are quick to point out that God has not given us a book of tunes. No, but He has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words. They will be sophisticated enough to carry substantial content over several lines and stanzas. They will use minimal repetition. They will be appropriate to the emotional mood of the Psalm or Bible-based Christian hymn. Sing the Bible."

"See" the Bible
We "see" the Bible in our public worship. That is, we are to observe the appointed visible ordinances or sacraments in public worship. When we say that we are to "see" the Bible, we do so because God's sacraments are "visible words" (so said Augustine). A sacrament or ordinance is a picture of a promise, or to be more precise it is a rite that pictures a promise. In other words, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are the only two commanded dramas of Christian worship (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

In them we see with our eyes the promise of God. But we could also say that in the sacraments we see/smell/touch/taste the word. In the reading and preaching the word, God addresses our mind and conscience through the hearing. In the sacraments, he uniquely addresses our mind and conscience through the other senses. In, through and to the senses, God's promise is made tangible.

A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to his people. Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the reality of which is received or entered into by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance.

And so these "visible symbols of Gospel truths" are to be done as part of our corporate worship. They will be occasional, no matter how frequent, and so we are reminded that they are not essential to every service. This is not to denigrate them in the least. After all, they are by nature supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word, and the grace conveyed in them is the same grace held out via the means of preaching.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Brister Ware's Christmas Greeting!

Brister Ware was "captured" with his harmonica this afternoon playing "Away in the Manger".



Missionary Spotlight

Allen and Sandi Smith, Peru

Allen is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ministering with Peru Mission (Christian Missionary Society) in Trujillo, Peru.

He is originally from El Dorado, AR and graduated from Louisiana Tech University. In 1999 he married his college sweetheart, Sandi, and they moved to Jackson, MS to study at Reformed Theological Seminary.

After graduating from RTS with an M.Div. in Missions, Allen and Sandi joined a short term team to Trujillo, Peru. It was through this trip that the Lord put a strong desire in both of their hearts to join the vision of Peru Mission. While raising funds for Peru, Allen was called to the Ellisville Presbyterian Church in South Mississippi to serve as pastor for two years.

In Trujillo, Allen's responsibilities include leadership and music development as well as the Short Term Team Administrator. He disciples and trains men to be Godly leaders in their homes and churches which includes Bible studies, deaconal training, and accountability groups. Music development consists in training musicians and choirs, teaching Peruvians how to be God-centered song leaders, and composing music for psalms and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

His wife, Sandi, stays busy with their three children and much hospitality. We have three daughters, Abigail (6), Adeline (4) and Mary Allen (1). We have been serving in Peru for three years.

They are so thankful for First Presbyterian Jackson's love, prayers, visits and financial support during their time in Peru!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Remembering the Season

Quotes for Christmas Time

After the turkey and dressing are cleared from the table on Thanksgiving day, I let down the ladder that leads into the attic and make the annual ten foot pilgrimage into the dark, wide expanse... 

Up and down, up and down, carrying box, after box, after box of yuletide decorations fit for the season. Garland and ornaments, candles and stockings – everything is carefully removed from the neatly packed boxes to occupy their usual positions of honor in our home.

Hidden, somewhere between the lights and the angel that will top the tree is my collection of favorite Christmas books. It is here, in the words of saints old and new, that I find my own heart warmed to the wonder of the incarnation. Yes, this is where Christmas begins for me.

Whether it’s a classic like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens or recent favorites like The Mitford Snowman by Jan Karon, I always look forward to revisiting the stories of the season. This year I’ve enjoyed a brand new title from Crossway books entitled, Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus. It features sermons from reformed pastors, both contemporary and classic, including one contribution from our own Senior Minister. If you have not purchased a copy for yourself, do so now!

This year I’ve had the joy of looking back through a file of old Christmas sermons, devotionals, stories, and quotes that I’ve collected over the years. From my reading, I’ve posted a few quotes that I hope will stir your heart this Christmas season…

“Infinite, and an infant. Eternal, and yet born of a woman. Almighty, and yet hanging on a woman’s breast. Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms. Kings of angels, and yet the reputed son of Joseph. Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son. Oh, the wonder of Christmas.”—Charles Haddon Spurgeon

“Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies His head with beasts of the stall;
Angels adore Him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all.”
—Bishop Reginald Heber

“O be not so ungrateful to him who has been so kind to you! What could the Lord Jesus do for you more than he has. Then do not abuse his mercy, but let your time be spent in thinking and talking of the love of Jesus, who was incarnate for us, who was born of a woman, and made under the law, to redeem us from the wrath to come.”—George Whitfield

“When I think of Christmas Eves, Christmas feasts, Christmas songs, and Christmas stories, I know that they do not represent a short and transient gladness. Instead, they speak of a joy unspeakable and full of glory. God love the world and sent His Son. Whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. That is Christmas joy. That is the Christmas spirit.”—Corrie ten Boom

“Personally, of course, I believe in Santa Claus; but it is the season of forgiveness, and I will forgive others for not doing so.”—G.K. Chesterton

Well, I had to end with a fun one... Merry Christmas. 


Newsweek on "Gay Marriage"

Responding to Newsweek's "religious" case for "homosexual marriage"

I've been asked by folks in the congregation and without, for solid resources rejoining Newsweek's travesty of an article that purports to make a biblical case for "gay marriage" (but only after explaining that it's stupid to appeal to the Bible to defend one's view of marriage!). Well, here are a few.

Robert Gagnon, of Pittsburgh Seminary, who is an acknowledged and published expert in this whole area, has written a devastating rejoinder, here.

Christianity Today (online) has responded too: here.

Al Mohler weighs in here.

Mollie Hemingway of GetReligion.org drops an atom bomb here.

JT links to some good Tom Schreiner sermons on the subject, here.

Or search the CBMW site, starting here.


Christmas: "Bah humbug" or "Deck the Halls"?

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

An interesting article from Crosswalk. Here. Now, anyone who knows my wife, Anne, knows her rather emphatic answer to this question! "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

And, by the way, Merry Christmas!


Sunday Order of Worship

Sunday Morning and Evening Services 12-14-08

Here is a pdf of the Sunday Bulletin, for December 14, 2008. We provide these here and on the website weekly, on Thursdays, with a view to assisting you in preparation for the public worship of God.


From Dishes to Discipleship…

Christmas Traditions and the Gospel

After moving out of my parent’s home and into a house of my own, I began making my own Christmas traditions which includes the all-important “real” Christmas tree. This year, just after Thanksgiving, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Farmer’s Market to purchase my tree, hoping for the one that is “just right” for the small space I have allotted. And much to my delight, I left with a small tree strapped to my rooftop, ready for lights and trimming...

However, in between the purchasing and the fully decorated tree is quite a process! First the sawing off of the end of the trunk, then the wrestling of the tree stand, then the readjusting because of course the tree is crooked. When I finally got it into the house, there were needles all over the floor, my hands were covered with pine sap, and I had to turn the air conditioner on to alleviate the sweat that had been worked up during this process! And then the thought occurred to me,“what happened to chestnuts roasting on an open fire?!”

Traditions are important and I hope to make the case, biblical. Of course, so many times our right desire for traditions to be established with our families is made slightly more stressful by our own self-imposed heightened expectations, i.e. desires for stockings to be hung by the chimney with care and for children to be nestled all snug in their beds with visions of sugarplums dancing in heads. Wives, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and daughters seem to have an inborn desire to make holidays a special time and dare I say, a perfect time, for all involved. So how do we take right desires for lasting traditions and infuse those traditions with the Gospel so that we keep the main thing, the main thing?

From the very first families in Scripture, we find God commanding man and woman to be diligent in telling and passing on His Truths to each generation. “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut.6:6-7). Traditions, by definition, are the handing down of statements and beliefs from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice. As adults who are further along in their walk with Christ, we know of His faithfulness, goodness, strength, and grace in increasing measure, and we are given the privilege of passing on that knowledge to those who come behind us. For Christians, God intended the tradition of teaching His Truths along the way to remind us of where we come from and where we are going – God made us, sin has distorted us, Christ came to redeem us, and ultimately, He is returning to restore all that was lost in the fall. Can we (and shouldn't we!) make this the basis for our Christmas traditions?

As Christmas day is quickly approaching, let me encourage you to take a moment to consider the traditions that you partake in and are perhaps endeavoring to pass along to your children and grandchildren—are those traditions rooted and grounded in God’s unfailing love for His children? Rather than trying to create the perfect atmosphere for tree trimming, instead consider the conversation possibilities with those young and old who will be helping. As you hang ornaments, talk about those who gave you the ornaments and how you have seen God at work in their lives. As the needles fall to the ground and the tree begins to turn brown, turn the conversation towards Heaven where “death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

Consider what an opportunity we have this month to reflect Christ, to pass on the tradition of being Christ-like, to a watching world by serving them rather than demanding to be served. Christ was born to be a servant. Reflecting on Bethlehem ought to encourage us to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). Serving is not a matter of doing more and becoming more overwhelmed. Serving is about denying self and putting the needs of others first, so that the expectations for perfectly wrapped gifts become secondary to looking to the needs and interests of others, counting others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4). Let us prayerfully consider how our Christmas traditions can promote and remain consistent with the desire to embrace and to pass along to our children the tradition of knowing and loving God, of spending time in His Word, and of reflecting Christ by serving and loving others.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Singing Nehemiah

A Metrical Paraphrase of Nehemiah 8:9-12

Bill, Jeremy, Derek and I have been writing metrical versions of passages in the Psalms, Isaiah and other Scriptural readings of late, for use in congregational singing. We've done another one for this coming Sunday evening service. Sunday night Derek is going to be preaching from the great passage in the middle of Nehemiah 8 that goes like this:

Nehemiah 8:9-12 "And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them."

Here's how we put that into verse.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (To Winchester Old)
[Duncan, Wymond and Thomas]

The preachers taught the Word of God,
And all the people feared
So overcome by truth were they,
their eyes filled up with tears.

They wept at hearing God’s own Word
–His precious, holy, Law–
Yes, all were sobered by the truth
and listened, filled with awe.

Their pastors comforted them and said:
“dear friends, this day’s for joy!”
“Don’t cry or weep or mourn or grieve,
but hymns to Him employ.”

“Today’s a day of joy and strength,
of feasting and of mirth.”
“Go eat and drink and feed the poor.
Declare God’s matchless worth.”

“Be still, this day’s for holy joy,”
their priests said unto to them.
The people held a festival
and praised the Lord of heav’n.

It was the Word of God, that day,
that caused their joy and awe.
So, Christians ever ought to say:
“O Lord, I love Your Law.”


A Jewel from Matthew Henry

Matthew Henry on a Wise Teacher's Handling of "Impertinent Unprofitable Questions"

While Anne was studying last night for a Bible Study she gave this morning, I spied in her notes a great quote from Matthew Henry. Here it is.

"Those that would be apt to teach must be swift to hear, and study to answer. It is the wisdom of teachers, when they are asked even impertinent unprofitable questions, thence to take occasion to answer in that which is profitable, that the question may be rejected, but not the request."

From Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody : Hendrickson, 1996), vide notes on John 6:28.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And speaking of books . . .

Christmas Shopping, Saturday, December 20th at THE PRESBYTERIAN BOOKSTORE

For your convenience, The Presbyterian Bookstore will be open Saturday, December 20, from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., so come for coffee and do some last minute, low-stress Christmas shopping.

The bookstore is, of course, located in the Learning Resource Center just off the Greeting Courtyard and the main hallway into the sanctuary.

We invite you to browse through our varied selection of Bibles (the new ESV Study Bibles are in stock), children’s books, music CDs (great stocking stuffers!) and more that is sure to please those on your Christmas list.


Books for Christmas

It's that time again and you're wondering what to give as a Christmas present. The answer is: a good Christian book! First, I want to recommend some books for young children written by Sinclair Ferguson.

These two volumes of Bible Truths for Children, written by Sinclair Ferguson, are about the best thing you could give a child. Come to think of it, it would be the best thing to give yourself! Reading these to little children would be so much fun and I for one can't wait for my grandchildren (well, number two is due next week!)to grow up a little so that I can read these to them. Doug tells me there are some in stock in the church bookstore.

Then, once you have bought these two books for the children or grandchildren, think about this one for the teenager in your life (I mean, the forty-something husband who thinks he's a teenager):

Right! You're not expecting me to recommend a book about blues music! True, it isn't Wagner, but Steve is a dear friend and this book is wonderfully absorbing and provides a fresh perspective on the influence of the gospel on this music, much of it stemming form Mississippi! I've read it and thoroughly recommend it.

On the more serious side, 2009 promises to be a year full of all things Calvin (he's 500 years old next year!). Why not join us at reformation21.org as we blog our way through one of the most important theological texts ever written, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Blog of the Week

Al Mohler's Blog at albertmohler.com

This week's FPCJ Blog of the Week goes to the extraordinary Al Mohler. Of course, albertmohler.com come gives you much more than just a blog, though Al's daily posts are (in and of themselves) worth every second you spend reading them. The site also provides you with his longer posts under the heading "Commentary," links to his outstanding radio program, sermons and speeches, articles, book reviews (particularly valuable, since Al reads more widely and retains more of what he reads than anyone I know), biographical information and links to other resources. This is a site to bookmark and add to your feed reader. Essential.

Al is the ninth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary-the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world. He has preached for us here at First Presbyterian on many occasions.

Dr. Mohler has been recognized by such influential publications as Time and Christianity Today as a leader among American evangelicals. Time dubbed him the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S" - and with good reason.

Al hosts a daily live nationwide radio program on the Salem Radio Network, and writes, comments and is quoted in the nation's leading newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution and The Dallas Morning News. He has also appeared on such national news programs as CNN's "Larry King Live," NBC's "Today Show" and "Dateline NBC," ABC's "Good Morning America," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS, MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" and Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

A native of Lakeland, Florida, Al was a Faculty Scholar at Florida Atlantic University before receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He holds a Master of Divinity degree and the Doctor of Philosophy (in systematic and historical theology) from Southern Seminary. He has pursued additional study at the St. Meinrad School of Theology and has done research at Oxford University (England). He has has presented lectures or addresses at institutions including Wheaton College, Samford University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the University of Richmond, Mercer University, Cedarville University, Beeson Divinity School, Reformed Theological Seminary, Geneva College, Covenant Theological Seminary, The Cumberland School of Law, The Regent University School of Law, Vanderbilt University and the historic Chautauqua Institution, among many others.

Dr. Mohler is listed in Who's Who in America and other biographical reference works and serves on the boards of several organizations including Focus on the Family. He also serves on the Board of Reference for The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.


Pastor's Perspective

A December Miscellany

Our gatherings for worship on the first Sunday of December were exceedingly blessed. The morning services featured choir and ensemble singing special carols (like Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of “The Infant King” and Mack Wilberg’s version of “Still, Still, Still) and the congregation’s singing of our first carol of the season, Wesley’s joyful and majestic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” We also started our study of the Gospel of Luke. The evening service included the ordination of thirty-five new officers: ten elders and twenty-five deacons. Derek’s message was resounding and the occasion solemn and happy and tender and hopeful. My friends, do not underestimate the privileges we regularly share together on the Lord’s Day here in First. It is not always thus.

Now, a few important words on a variety of subjects. First, a brief but strategic comment about our year-end giving. December contributions are always important for us in First Presbyterian Church, and this year particularly so. We are in a time of national and global economic uncertainty, and though your giving has been strong to this point of the year, even through the turbulent days of October and November, December will (as it always does) determine whether we meet our budget and ministry commitments for 2008.

Basically, about 22% of our annual church contributions are given in December. That means, that for our budget to balance this month, something like $1.4 million will have to be received in our general fund. This is roughly three times our normal monthly giving towards the church budget. Now, this (and more) has routinely come in in years past, but this year there is uncertainty. What will replace the gifts of appreciated stock (something which is presumably in rare supply) which often amounted to tens of thousands of our December contributions? What will replace tithes off of partnership shares and bonuses that are non-existent or diminished this year? The only certain answer to this (on our end) is sacrificial giving over and above our commitments on the part of every one of us.

So, let me urge you to faithfulness in generous giving during these final weeks of the year. There are three things, in particular, that I want to emphasize. (1) Be mindful of your year-end giving to the church. It is particularly important this year. (2) Give generously and sacrificially to the ministry budget of the church. (3) Give over and above your tithes and faith promise towards the debt retirement of the remaining cost owed for the sanctuary expansion and building renovation (which is now down to about $4 million).

Now on to another subject. Do remember that this year’s Music of Christmas is at 5:00 o’clock pm on Sunday, December 21. This annual service of lessons and carols has become a beloved tradition. A nursery will be provided. Note that there will only be one service. Come early for your seats.

Let me also remind you that our annual Christmas Eve Family Carol Service (a very special time of singing and joy) will take place, as usual, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, on Wednesday, December 24. Make plans for your whole family to participate.

We will have our Midweek Bible Study and Prayer Meeting, as usual, with supper, on Wednesday night, December 17, but the Family Carol Service will take the place of our regular Wednesday activities on December 24.

Men, thinking ahead to January, on Friday night, January 30, 2008, Rick Phillips (who was an army officer, graduated from the Wharton School and taught leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point), Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA), Greenville, SC, will be here to preach the Mid-South Men’s Rally. He will also preach for us on the following Sunday morning, both services (February 1, 2008).