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I can’t remember the last time I used the word. I’ve heard it from time to time. But it comes up in Romans 5 three times. The word is “exult” and it means “to delightfully celebrate and boast in.” To put it more simply, “to happily and joyously make much of.”

The three times it appears in that chapter are:

Therefore , having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. (5:1-2)

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (5:3-5)

And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (5:11)

These passages come at the apex of Paul’s explanation of the glorious and good work that God has undertaken to do in and for us through Christ Jesus. Paul is describing the heart response of those who have come to experience “justification by faith” and have entered into eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus on their behalf. Future posts will look at each of these verses individually, but today I am simply captured by the idea that Paul used this one word–exult–to talk about what he felt was the fitting response from the souls of those who had encountered God in the Gospel.

Now I don’t think that we need to resort to using that word to describe our own experience with God. But I am nudged to consider . . .

Has the magnitude of what God has done in the Gospel and has the staggering graciousness of God in Christ so gripped me that others would recognize that I am expressively and delightfully making much of the God who reaches us in the Gospel? Would they recognize that I “exult” in God and all he has done, whether they knew that word or not?

 

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I really wanted to sing, to worship. But there was a line in the refrain that didn’t sit well in my soul. The idea? That Jesus left heaven to come to earth to “enter into our story.”

Now, of course, the incarnation–the Son of God taking on human life to carry out the Father’s plan for dealing with sin on planet earth–does seem to be something like Jesus “entering into our story.” He did leave heaven and “became flesh and dwelt among us.” But the refrain still didn’t sit well with me.

Perhaps it was because the song seemed to lean in the direction of praising God because of how he came to join us in our story rather than celebrating God’s overthrowing of our stories and drawing us into his one story.

I don’t want to be critical. I’m not trying to misread or over-react to a simple worship song. But it seemed to be like other things I hear in church circles. As if we are at the center of what God is doing, that he is most concerned with entering into our lives to make our individual stories make sense, as if rescuing us from sin is about . . . primarily . . . about us. And it’s right there that I stumble and wonder.

When writing to the Ephesians about the great good news that has come to them, Paul seems quite clear that what God is doing is for the praise of the glory of his grace (Ephesians 1:6, 12). That he is working all that he is doing for his own purposes (1:5, 9, 11). Although we are the beneficiaries of his benevolence, we are not the focus, or the reason, or the center. His glory is. It is about him, not primarily about us.

In Acts 2, where we read Peter’s first “Gospel message,” although Peter’s hearers are in view, the focus of the proclamation is what God is doing in Jesus for his own purposes. Read the message. It’s fascinating to see how un-like it is to many “Gospel messages” these days. It is all about what God did and was doing for his own sake through Jesus.

The message focuses on God making Jesus his promised king, on God raising his Son from the dead so that the Son could have that throne, about the Father exalting the Son to his “right hand,” about the Son receiving the promised gift of the Spirit. And the message ends with this call: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

It feels like Peter’s take and Paul’s perspective is that God is writing his story and has invaded the world in the person of the Son in order to carry out his intentions and plans. It’s not that God’s story doesn’t impact and effect our individual stories. It’s more that what God is doing is not about our stories as much as it about him.

I could be appreciative of a God who entered into my story in order to make it make sense to me. But I don’t think that elicits the kind of worship that rises in my heart when I catch a glimpse of God drawing us into his story, for his own sake, for the display of his glory, so that he might become the center and the focus of all of life.

On Sunday, in gatherings throughout the city in which I live (and throughout the world for that matter!), those who affirm their allegiance to Jesus will meet. Words will be shared, songs sung, greetings exchanged, Scripture read, prayer offered. And, invariably, as they do week to week, those who participate will leave saying, “It was good to meet with God today!” or “God was here, wasn’t he?”

But will there be any evidence that those things are so? Yes, the Christians met. Yes, the did stuff–the kind of stuff they typically do on an average Sunday. But will there be any evidence that God was there, that he showed up?

I’ve lived in church circles long enough to realize that we feel the need to tell ourselves that God was there. We want others to become convinced that we are not just talking to ourselves–and maybe we want to convince ourselves that we are not just wasting a few hours that could be otherwise spent. But will there be any evidence that God was present?

In writing about how he understood “ministry” to happen, Paul explained to the Corinthians:

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,  and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

A few things stand out to me in what Paul writes. First, he’s clear about the message. The center of the target in what he talks about is Jesus and what Jesus did in dying for us. It’s clear from his letters (read Romans, for example) that those aren’t the only words that Paul would say. But it is equally clear that Jesus–who he is, what he did, how he saves, what he’s like, how we know him–is what consumed Paul’s mind and filled his messages.

The second thing is what Paul was not about. He wasn’t given over to impressing people with words or persuading them as best he could. It isn’t that he wouldn’t speak forthrightly and honestly about the message. He just wasn’t all about leveraging his human skills and talents to be “effective”–even if it were for the sake of the kingdom.

The last thing I notice is the “evidence” thing. Paul writes that his preaching, his message-ing, came with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. That is, when he shared he not only anticipated but also saw evidence that God was really at work in and through the message about Jesus. Something would happen that could not be explained merely in human terms–and the result would be that people encountered God (really, not just saying they did!) and their faith would rest “in the power of God.” There was something experientially evident in Paul’s “church services” that made it clear that God was there.

So I wonder. As Christians gather–whenever and wherever they will tomorrow–would any outside observer see any evidence that God was also there? Would an observer merely conclude that a bunch of people who claim they know God and who insist they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus and who assert they live because of the Spirit of God did what a bunch of humans do–and nothing more?

It is part of country’s heritage; it is integral to the American way of life. It is often a big part of the life of any American family. Thanksgiving. The food, the festivities, the football games, the family times. All of that is wonderful. All is part of what makes Thanksgiving memorable.

Many Americans understand the roots of the Thanksgiving celebration. Although there are a variety of stories told that form the fabric of the tradition, the heart of the tradition is anchored in the experiences of the earliest settlers who came to America seeking religious freedom. And those Pilgrims, those Puritans, celebrated God’s goodness to them in providing for them in this “new world” by celebrating and giving thanks.

So, the giving of thanks is appropriate. It is right to thank God for all his blessings. But I was thinking about just what blessings I might give him thanks for.

Certainly, it is right to give God thanks for the rich provision needed for daily life. For food and shelter, for clothing and the basics of life. It is right to thank him for family and friends, for rich relationship and good company. Health and happiness, grace and sustaining power also come from him and are grounds for giving thanks. But there is something more that I wouldn’t want to overlook. It is something Paul mentions in one of his letters to the Thessalonians.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)

In thinking about his friends in Thessalonica, Paul thanks God for them. Specifically, he expresses thanks for two things he sees in them: the faith they have toward God that has increased, and the love that they have for one another that has grown.

That’s intriguing to me. Paul doesn’t thank the Thessalonians for their growth in faith and their deepening love; Paul thanks God. Apparently Paul believes growth in faith toward God and growth in love toward others is not simply the product of human effort. Apparently Paul is convinced that the growth he witnesses in these friends in faith toward God and love toward others is actually the product of divine grace worked into the lives of these friends. So, Paul thanks God.

That drives me to think about what I will thank God for as we sit together this Thanksgiving. Rich faith and deep love are a work of God, a gift that comes through Christ Jesus, an outworking of the Spirit’s presence and power. That  being the case, I will thank him for the faith I see in my friends and family and the love we share each and every day. And that will enrich my thanksgiving!

 

The World Cup was played the past summer. For many of those living in the United States, this wasn’t that big of a deal; but for most of the world,the World Cup (a world-wide soccer championship tournament) is huge.

For those who haven’t watched much soccer played on a world stage, one of the strange things was the nearly constant “background noise.” From the moment a nation’s team stepped on to the field of play, fans of that team began to cheer. And the roar was nearly constant, the whole nearly two hours of play, sustained and carried along by chants, and shouts, and the bleating of vuvuzelas.

It was clear that those who were there were not merely spectators, watching the game in a some-what disinterested way. These fans were participating in their celebrating. As long as their team was playing, they were cheering. And that picture got me thinking.

We don’t have many snapshots of what worship is like in heaven, that place where God’s presence is manifest in a more evident way. But what we do have is very telling. John sees some visions of that, and describes what he sees:

And around the throne [of God], there were four living creatures . . . each one of them having six wings . . . and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” . . . And I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne . . . and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” (From Revelation 4 and 5)

And after these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Now these snapshots are hardly a complete and full exposition of all that worship in the presence of God entails. But they do picture for us some of what it rightly should be. And did you notice? It seems a great deal like the cheering at a World Cup game!

God is, as it were, on the field! And he is carrying out his game plan for the world, for all of creation. And those watching, whether angels or saints, are cheering. And that is their expression of worship.

It is clear that those around the throne are not merely spectators, watching God work out his plan in a some-what disinterested way. These worshippers are participating by their celebrating.

As long as our God is “on the field,” should we not be passionately caught up in the celebrating of what he is accomplishing in our world? Does it not seem reasonable that we should “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15)?

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