January 8, 2017

Some Reflections for a Snowy Sunday Morning…

Good morning.  I’m Jonathan Waits, the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA.  Thanks for tuning in to our very first episode on Facebook Live.  (If you’re reading this, would rather see the video, and have access to Facebook check out this link: https://www.facebook.com/Central-Baptist-Church-294424061543/.  You’ll have to scroll down just a bit to find the video.)  This morning’s broadcast is brought to you courtesy of the thick blanket of snow that fell yesterday, temperatures that make me think I’ve gone to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Edwards, CO, and the treacherous travel conditions those two circumstances have so kindly given us.  In light of all that we regretfully cancelled our Celebrate Sunday festivities, but fear not: We have rescheduled them for January 22.  Which means that between Rick Pyle sharing about his mission trip to Nigeria next week and the rescheduled Celebrate Sunday in two weeks you will not want to miss either of the next couple of weeks!

In any event, with a little more time than usual to sit around the house and ponder, I got to thinking about the snow and just how beautiful it is.  As I did the old hymn Whiter Than Snow drifted into my head and I was humming it all day.  With a lot of old hymns like that we sing them in church without paying too much attention to the words.  We do this for a couple of reasons: 1. We know the melody so well that we don’t have to think about it very much; and 2. We’re bored singing them and use the time to stretch our legs and let our minds wander.  It’s okay, I’ve done that before too.  But listen for a minute to the lyrics to this one because they’re pretty good.  The first verse says this: “Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole; I want Thee forever to live in my soul.  Break down every idol, cast out every foe; now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Once you break through the King James English going on here, this is a pretty powerful prayer that many folks have prayed in some fashion or another: “Jesus, I want you to come in and make me whole.  I want you to give me a new heart and fix all the broken places inside of me.  You don’t ever turn away folks who come after You, so please don’t let me be the first.”  That’s powerful stuff.

The hymn is based at least in part on a promise God offers the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 1:18.  The full verse says this in the ESV: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Now, that’s good stuff all by itself, without any of the surrounding context to help us understand it better.  But—as is the case with pretty much all of the Scriptures—when you take a minute to read what’s going on around it the promise gets even more powerful.

Check this out: This past Wednesday at the Kitchen Table, we started a new part of our Believe series by talking about worship.  The bottom line then was that we worship God for who He is and what He has done for us.  Along the way we talked about the fact that while we tend to think of worship mostly in terms of singing songs on Sunday mornings, the list of things that can justifiably fall under the category of “worship” is vast.  When we understand worship to be giving glory to God in whatever situation we happen to find ourselves, worship can consist of just about anything.  There is thing worship can’t be, though: heartless.  Jesus made clear that we can’t serve two masters.  If we’re trying to give glory to something else—anything else—we’re not worshiping God anymore.  It just doesn’t work.  And, if we are not worshiping God, we are out of sync with reality because the simple truth about this world is that He is only One worthy of our worship.

Here’s the thing, though: We were created for worship.  That means we are going to worship something or someone.  Everybody does.  Every single person you have ever met or will yet encounter worships something or someone.  The only question is what, not whether.  This is where things can get a little tricky.  For folks who are connected to a community of faith, there is going to be a fair amount of peer pressure to join in the worship everybody else is doing whether you are feeling it or not.  The result of this is that worship can sometimes become a ritual we perform rather than an offering we bring.  Do you see the difference?  It’s all a matter of heart.

This finally brings us back to the context of Isaiah 1:18.  The prophet opens his book by blasting the people of Israel for going through the rituals of worship without committing their hearts to the Lord.  This is a dangerous thing to have happen for a couple of reasons.  First, it puts us in a place of essentially lying to God for the benefit of the people around us.  He’s not a big fan of that.  Second, when we get confused and convince ourselves that the rituals are the most important part of the worship then we start to hold to tightly to a certain set of worship practices which leads us to judge and condemn folks who aren’t practicing them in the same manner or with the same enthusiasm that we do.  We can become very country club-ish and self-righteous in all of this.

Well, again, God’s not really a big fan of self-righteousness masquerading as genuine worship and He had Isaiah make this point for Him pretty poignantly.  Listen to this starting in Isaiah 1:10: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”  Now, he’s talking here to the leaders of Israel, but by comparing them to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities that were so irredeemably sinful that God destroyed them, he’s making what would have been a pretty unsettling comparison for his original audience to swallow.  In order to put this in terms that might connect a little better take a  minute to imagine the most vile group or individual you can think of.  Now, imagine further that God is calling you by their name because He’s seeing you in those terms.  Yikes!  Talk about getting your attention right out of the gate!

Next comes the indictment starting in v. 11 now: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.  New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

I’d say he could have used some onomatopoetic punches in there to illustrate the rhetorically flying fists!  Listen: When God says He hates your worship, you know you’ve got a problem!  The challenge here is pretty clear: If we are going through the motions of worship instead of bringing our whole hearts to lay before our Lord, we are offering God a gift He does not want to receive.  Period.  He’d rather us just stay home than go through the pretense.  We’re not fooling Him and it’s not doing anything positive for us except to gain a particular image in the eyes of the culture around us.  And Jesus made clear that if we are worshiping God just for the reaction we get from others, their acclamation will be our only reward.  That’s not very much when compared with everything God wants to do for us.

But before we find ourselves in a snow drift of melancholy up to our eyeballs, this is where the good stuff happens.  The people had fallen far from God in their many worship rituals that never quite made it to their hearts.  This much is true.  But this next part is equally and even more powerfully true.  God’s not interested in condemning us or anyone else.  He’ll certainly convict, but condemnation is never on the menu.  Instead, God offers mercy and an outstretched hand.  If we’re willing to get ourselves back on track with the lifestyle of Christ–something with which He readily helps us–we will find only open arms ready to receive us.  Look how Isaiah frames this for us: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  And if we will do all these things we will find ourselves right back where we started this conversation: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

As white as the snow.  Yesterday afternoon the sun finally came out.  The light of the sun reflecting off the pure whiteness of the snow was blinding.  If you were out in it you know you had to squint to see anything.  Can you imagine your whole life being like that?  That’s exactly what God wants to do for you.  He wants us to worship with our whole hearts so that we can receive the life He so eagerly desires to give.

And so as you have some time today (and tomorrow…and—let’s be honest—probably Tuesday too) to reflect on the beauty of the snow, know well that God’s desire is to make your life even more beautiful.  If you will come to Him with your whole heart and commit yourself to pursuing the life of Christ a life whiter than snow can be yours.  It doesn’t matter what sins you currently have standing in the way either.  God’s desire is to forgive those and bring you close.  He is for you.  He is for me.  He is for all of us.  As you enjoy the beauty of the snow, may you enjoy a life that is even more beautiful still.