Genesis 1:3-23

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Genesis 1

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

Somewhere around the year 1224, Francis of Assisi wrote his famous “Canticle of the Sun.” It reads:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.

The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.[1]

Around 640 years later, in 1864, Folliott S. Pierpoint was so struck by the beauty of creation that he took up his pen and wrote these words that many of us will remember singing at some point in our lives:

For the beauty of the earth,

   For the beauty of the skies,

For the Love which from our birth

   Over and around us lies:

Christ, our God, to Thee we raise

This our Sacrifice of Praise.

For the beauty of each hour

   Of the day and of the night,

Hill and vale, and tree and flower,

   Sun and moon and stars of light:

Christ, our God, to Thee we raise

This our Sacrifice of Praise.[2]

It is striking to see how creation can move men and women to great praise! It is as if creation is a work of art that is so beautiful, so overwhelming, that it leads us to want to praise the artist who made it. Indeed, that is the right and biblical way to think of creation, and Genesis 1 bears this out in striking ways.

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Genesis 1:2-3

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Genesis 1

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Genesis 1:2-3 is a fascinating text. It takes us back to the first movements of creation. It presents us with a primordial picture of pre-creation and then the first words of creation. It moves from the terrifying image of a watery deep, a black void, and then into the divine pronouncement of light. All of this is beautiful and awesome and soul-stirring!

Then we find the New Testament writers taking these very images and applying them to Jesus in a way that magnifies His person and work powerfully and provocatively. In doing so the New Testament writers show that these words do not deal only with the murky distant past but also with the nowand with our encounter with Jesus today.

Once again we see the abiding relevance and transformative power of the amazing book of Genesis. We, too, yearn for light in darkness and dare to ask if the words of these verses might be actualized again, here and now, in our lives. We therefore turn with great expectation to Genesis 1:2-3.

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Genesis (Part 2)

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Genesis 1

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Last Thursday night I missed a connecting flight in Atlanta, Georgia, and had to spend the night there and catch a different flight the next morning. The next morning I came down a little after 6:00 to grab some breakfast before the 6:30 shuttle. Just as I was sitting down with my plate the shuttle pulled up, so I quickly threw the plate away and went to get on. I took my seat and the driver said he would be back in a few minutes. There was just me and a young lady and an elderly Irish lady sitting in the van waiting for the driver to return.

I made the comment that perhaps I could have eaten my breakfast after all, given the wait, and this prompted the young lady to explain, with exasperation, that she had missed her flight. She then had some choice words about Delta that I will not repeat here. She was clearly agitated and irritated at the delay and had had quite a negative experience with the airline that day, at least to hear her tell it. It was a bit awkward to hear this great irritation in a van in the dark and cold with an elderly Irish woman sitting there! But then the Irish lady spoke up in her beautiful accent and said, “You know, I know it can be frustrating, but just think about this: we are alive and here and today will be better.” The young lady agreed, as did I, and she seemed to calm herself a bit and even became pleasant as we talked further.

It occurred to me in that moment that the Irish lady had diffused the situation by making an appeal to the most amazing miracle of all: the miracle of existence. Yes, your travel plans have been disrupted. Yes, the days greet us with a thousand irritations. Even so, above it all, we exist! We are here! We have life! It was a beautiful reminder.

I believe that a proper grasp of the first verse of Genesis can bring joy to us in the midst of the living of these days by reminding us that no trial we will ever face is as big as the miracle of our own existence! And when we get this right—the amazing and astonishing fact that we exist—we can then rightly praise the God who made it so while seeing our trials in the proper light.

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Genesis (Part 1)

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Genesis 1

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis can save your marriage.

Genesis can help you become a better parent.

Genesis might just even save your business.

I mean it.

In the book of Genesis we find the foundational truths of scripture and are equipped thereby for the living of life. I agree with the 16th/17thcentury reformer Christopher Pelargus who said of Genesis:

Genesis itself, explained methodically, encompasses a mirror of all of life, or rather is rightly called a theater of life, whether one wishes to consider divine matters, or politics, or household affairs.[1]

All of this is so, yet to put these things first—our needs, our success, our families—is to risk missing the whole point of Genesis, which is this: we have a great God who has created everything, who holds the whole world in His hands, and who has made us for Himself. That is, to put your marriage or your family or your business as the main point of Genesis is to risk ultimately harmingyour marriage or your family or your business. However, to get the main point right does indeed open the door for renewal in all of these other areas. Which is simply to say what Jesus said in Matthew 6:

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you

So let us do that. Let us seek first the kingdom of God and God our King! There is no better place to do this than at the beginning.

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James Earl Massey’s When Thou Prayest

51QE0ig4mvL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_I cannot speak highly enough of James Earl Massey, the famed preacher and homiletician who went home to be with the Lord last year. I was privileged to get to know him a bit during my Doctor of Ministry studies at the Beeson Divinity School and was honored to have him sit on my final project committee. I consider James Earl Massey to have been a great scholar, a true gentleman, a uniquely gifted preacher, and, most of all, an example of what a Christian should be. He was a model of humility and integrity and will be sorely missed.

I entered his name into Amazon a few weeks ago and noticed the Kindle version of his 1960 book, When Thou Prayest. I’m so glad I did! It is vintage Massey: beautifully written, wise, insightful, not derivative, and evidencing a life of practice behind it.

I recall once at Beeson an interesting moment in which a young lady asked Dr. Massey if he would share some of his own devotional practices. He responded kindly but a bit, to me, surprisingly, that he preferred not to at that time, given the personal nature of the topic. It did not strike me as rude. On the contrary, it struck me as strangely refreshing in our day of over-exposure. Even so, it was an interesting moment. I thought of that exchange when I saw this book because it occurred to me that I would now get to hear the answer that the young lady who asked the question, and that all of us who were in that room, wished to hear.

The book is brief, but profoundly impactful. Let me just share a few highlights to give a sense of what the book is like:

One of the teachings of Jesus on prayer begins with the words, “And when thou prayest. . . .” Thus we understand from Jesus himself that prayer is a necessary and normal action for men. No man is truly normal who does not pray. The Christian who does not take time regularly to hold communion with God by means of prayer is not at his best. (Kindle Locations 123-126)

During prayer, we are critically searched in the light of God. But that searching is necessary to lead us to strength. The feeling of emptiness is necessary to create hunger for the needed filling. It was to this that Jesus referred when he stated, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Here in large part is both the pain and the pleasure of prayer: the encounter always includes an examination of us. But as the needed searching takes place, the fact of God’s fatherhood assures our spirit. (Kindle Locations 156-160)

Without a forgiving spirit, prayer is but failure. We must not presume to hold a moment before God when we act in meanness toward others. (Kindle Locations 542-543)

One thing I appreciated about this book was the balance between theology and practice. It was at some points poetic and theoretical and other times imminently practical. For instance, consider Massey’s advice on how to fight distractions when we pray:

Step 1. Plan your prayer period to grant sufficient time for the quieting of your mind. Do not always rush into prayer. Silence should help to settle you; then the tensions of the body can subside and the pressures in the mind diminish.

Step 2. Find a place that lends itself well to prayer. Jesus had this in mind when he11_james_earl_massey instructed, “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray . . . .” (Matt. 6:6).

Step 3. Set yourself to pray. Let your purpose be stronger than any pressures that you feel. The reach of the soul should finally subdue any initial rambling of the mind.

Step 4. Assume a bodily position that will not soon cause you to be fatigued. The position of the body is often a distracting feature itself.

Step 5. Follow some creative procedure. Use some reliable guide for the mind during the time before God.

Rehearse some Scripture verses; read until you feel the thrust of the whole occasion. Softly sing some hymn or meditate over some Christian poetry until its message fully captures your attention. Then give that centered attention to God.

Step 6. Develop the ability to concentrate. Concentration is the ability to be attentive. It takes concentration to reduce mental images to a minimum for attentive prayer. (Kindle Locations 381-394).

The book also contains some memorable turns of phrase. For instance, Massey encourages the Christian who is struggling with the inadequacy of his or her words in prayer to remember that “even when we are disturbed because our plea is not fully sound, he looks beyond our statements and answers our state” (Kindle Locations 178-179). Beautiful! Also, I was struck by Massey’s two references to prayer as “a privileged tryst” (Kindle Locations 139-140 and 207). What an evocative and profound image!

When Thou Prayest is a tremendous and insightful little introduction to prayer that will challenge, encourage, and guide the reader into a much-needed reflection on this important aspect of the Christian life. Highly recommended!

The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 25)

Covenant1Let us conclude our consideration of the church covenant with a challenge. Our final statement is one of commitment to engaging in missions.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God by

gathering for worship faithfully,

singing to the glory of God,

joining together in fervent prayer,

doing good works to the Father’s glory,

living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,

giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.

We covenant to reach the nations by

sharing the gospel with those around us,

reaching out to the poor and the needy,

praying for the cause of missions in the world,

giving to the financial support of missions,

being personally involved in missions as God leads and as we are able.

In order to unpack the mindset and heart-set that must be in place for us to be involved in missions, we will consider Philip’s engagement with the Ethiopian Eunuch inActs 8.

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 24)

Covenant1It is astonishing how aggressive the early church was in her missionary efforts. In his seminal work of 1792, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, William Carey marveled at the spread of the gospel in these early years. He writes:

Peter speaks of a church at Babylon; Paul proposed a journey to Spain, and it is generally believed he went there, and likewise came to France and Britain. Andrew preached to the Scythians, north of the Black Sea. John is said to have preached in India, and we know that he was at the Isle of Patmos, in the Archipelago. Philip is reported to have preached in upper Asia, Scythia, and Phrygia; Bartholomew in India, on this side the Ganges, Phrygia, and Armenia; Matthew in Arabia, or Asiatic Ethiopia, and Parthia; Thomas in India, as far as the coast of Coromandel, and some say in the island of Ceylon; Simon, the Canaanite, in Egypt, Cyrene, Mauritania, Lybia, and other parts of Africa, and from thence to have come to Britain; and Jude is said to have been principally engaged in the lesser Asia, and Greece. Their labours were evidently very extensive, and very successful; so that Pliny, the younger, who lived soon after the death of the apostles, in a letter to the emperor, Trajan, observed that Christianity had spread, not only through towns and cities, but also through whole countries.[1]

Christianity Todayhas reported:

That Christianity reached China by the end of the first century has long been dismissed as a myth. Now, says the Chinese People’s Daily, evidence suggests it really happened. Wang Weifan from Jinling Seminary says tombstone carvings from about A.D.86 depict Bible stories and Christian designs.[2]

How astonishing. Christianity reached China by 86 AD? It is truly remarkable. Christianity from its beginning has been a missionary religion. For that reason, prayer support, logistical support, and financial support of missionaries has long been incumbent upon churches. Our covenant reflects this necessity:

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God by

gathering for worship faithfully,

singing to the glory of God,

joining together in fervent prayer,

doing good works to the Father’s glory,

living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,

giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.

We covenant to reach the nations by

sharing the gospel with those around us,

reaching out to the poor and the needy,

praying for the cause of missions in the world,

giving to the financial support of missions

On what basis do we justify the financial support of missions in the world?

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 23)

Covenant1John Piper has ably passed on the story of the birth of Baptist missions and of William Carey’s powerful image of the church “holding the rope” for her missionaries.

It was a little band of Baptist pastors, including William Carey, who had formed the Baptist Missionary Society on October 2, 1792. Fuller, more than anyone else, felt the burden of what it meant that William Carey and John Thomas (and later, others) left everything for India in dependence, under God, on this band of brothers. One of them, John Ryland, recorded the story from which came the famous “rope holder” image. He wrote that Carey said:

Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored, [and] we had no one to guide us; and while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said “Well, I will go down, if you will hold the rope.” But before he went down…he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us, at the mouth of the pit, to this effect—that “while we lived, we should never let go of the rope.”[1]

Church, we must hold the rope for our sent missionaries. As modern Americans we are perhaps accustomed to thinking of “holding the rope” in terms of financial support. In fact, I want to argue this morning that intentional, consistent prayerfor our missionaries and their efforts is the primary way we hold the rope today, as is reflected in our covenant.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God by

gathering for worship faithfully,

singing to the glory of God,

joining together in fervent prayer,

doing good works to the Father’s glory,

living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,

giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.

We covenant to reach the nations by

sharing the gospel with those around us,

reaching out to the poor and the needy,

praying for the cause of missions in the world

To “pray for the cause of missions in the world” is to fulfill William Carey’s plea for us to “hold the rope.”

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 22)

Covenant1From 361 to 363 AD, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustuswas the Emperor of Rome. He is widely known today as either “Julian” or “Julian the Apostate.” This latter appellation is because he abandoned Christianity, the faith in which he was raised, and sought instead a revival of the old pagan religions of Rome to counter the rising tide of Christianity. He sought to have the pagan temples restored and the pagan priests put back to work. It was, in many ways, a frustrating venture for Julian. At one point, in a fit of frustration, Julian wrote the following to one of the pagan priests: “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”[1]

What a telling statement! Julian the Apostate was irritated at the Christians’ undeniably impressive care for the poor in Rome. More than that, he marveled and chafed at the realization that the Christians not only cared for the Christian poor but also for the pagan poor. Historian and theologian David Bentley Hart writes this of the early church’s care for the poor:

Even pagan critics of the church were aware of the astonishing range of Christians’ exertions on behalf of others…Ultimately…one finds nothing in pagan society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and bound alike. Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.

And again:

From the first century through the fourth, I think one can fairly say, no single aspect of Christian moral teaching was more consistent or more urgent than this law of charity. In the surviving Christian literature of the first five centuries, both before and after the church’s transformation into the imperial cult, the refrain is ceaseless, and is most poignantly audible in the admonitions of the great church fathers of the post-Constantinian period-Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom-to rich Christians: to follow Christ, one must love the poor and give to them without reserve or preference. At its very best, the Christian pursuit of charity, both before and after Constantine’s conversion, was marked by a quality of the supererogatory that pagan religious ideas could simply never have inspired…And, as I say, even committed pagans acknowledged the peculiar virtues of the Galilaeans. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, who admired Julian and who harbored no rosy illusions regarding the church, still commended the faith of the Christians as a “gentle” creed, essentially just in its principles and its acts.”[2]

Caring for the poor and the needy has long been a key concern and focus of the Christian Church. In fact, it seems to have been one of the dominant concerns of the church. William Barclay has given another example of this reality.

In the East it was the custom for beggars to sit begging at the entrance to a temple or a shrine.  Such a place was, and still is, considered the best of all stances because, when people are on their way to worship God, they are disposed to be generous to their fellow men.  W.H. Davies, the tramp poet, tells how one of his vagrant friends told him that, whenever he came into a new town, he looked for a church spire with a cross on the top, and began to beg in that area, because there, from experience, he found people most generous.[3]

Yes, with all of the church’s problems throughout history, and all of its failures to care for the poor as it ought, there is something about Christianity in particular that has special care and concern for the poor and the needy. Our covenant expresses this concern and priority under the final section, “the reaching of the nations”

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God by

gathering for worship faithfully,

singing to the glory of God,

joining together in fervent prayer,

doing good works to the Father’s glory,

living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,

giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.

We covenant to reach the nations by

sharing the gospel with those around us,

reaching out to the poor and the needy

Of all of the numerous concerns that the church should have, why mention this one, “reaching out to the poor and the needy”?

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The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 21)

The early 16thcentury Isenheim Altarpiece truly is a stunning work of art. Painted by Matthias Grünewald, this stunning depiction of the crucifixion causes the viewer to catch his or her breath in awed amazement. You will notice something odd as you look at the main, center panel, namely, the presence of John the Baptist. The Wikipedia article on the piece aptly describes the oddity of this particular scene:

1 7.28.46 AM 3 7.28.40 AM

At Christ’s left, John the Baptist is accompanied by a lamb, symbolising the sacrifice of Jesus. The presence of John the Baptist is anachronistic. Beheaded by order of Herod in 29 AD, he could not possibly have witnessed the death of Christ. This last figure announces the New Testament by crying out in Latin, illum oportet crescere me autem minui (Vulgate, John 3:30), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The inclusion of John the Baptist in this scene is symbolic, since he is considered as the last of the prophets to announce the coming of the Messiah.[1]

What intrigues me most about this image is John’s long, boney, pointing finger. He is pointing to Jesus. Grünewald was no doubt seeking to capture the essence of John’s description of John the Baptist inJohn 1:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

Three times there we find the word “witness.” I believe that pointing finger captures the essence of witnessing about Jesus. To witness is to point others to Jesus. In that boney finger you find your calling and the very purpose of this church. The calling of the Christian and the purpose of the church is to point men and women and boys and girls to Jesus! Toward that end we have begun the fourth section of our covenant with a commitment to sharing the gospel.

As a body of born again believers,

We covenant to become an authentic family by

loving one another as Christ loves us,

praying for one another,

speaking truth to one another in love,

being patient with one another,

protecting one another,

considering one another as more important than ourselves.

We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by

studying God’s Word faithfully,

learning the gospel together in family worship,

giving ear only to sound doctrine,

living out the gospel in our lives,

embracing the whole counsel of God.

We covenant to bring glory to God by

gathering for worship faithfully,

singing to the glory of God,

joining together in fervent prayer,

doing good works to the Father’s glory,

living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,

giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.

We covenant to reach the nations by

sharing the gospel with those around us

Traditionally, sermons on witnessing tend to start with us and move upwards. These sermons stress our responsibility and the importance of witnessing. Furthermore, they stress the shame and scandal of Christians not witnessing. All of this has a place, of course, but I would like to start with God and move down to us.

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