As we stretch the end of the year into the advent season, I always look for the multitude of expressions of how God has come down to us. Perhaps it is why Francis Dubose’s book God Who Sends has meant so much to me. Dubose’s book is significant because it reintroduced the word “missional” for many people. However, even more significant is the message of how “sending” is in the very nature of God. Dubose carefully walks through the entire scriptures to show how God is such a Sender that He even sends Himself for our sakes and His glory.
One of the portions of the Bible that gives insight about our sending God is Psalm 113. In this short song of the Hebrews, we are taught to celebrate the God who stoops to us.
1 Hallelujah! Give praise, servants of Yahweh; praise the name of Yahweh. 2 Let the name of Yahweh be praised both now and forever. 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of Yahweh be praised. 4 Yahweh is exalted above all the nations, His glory above the heavens. 5 Who is like Yahweh our God—the One enthroned on high, 6 who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the garbage pile 8 in order to seat them with nobles—with the nobles of His people. 9 He gives the childless woman a household, making her the joyful mother of children. Hallelujah.
As would be expected, the psalm calls us to praise God. The song is bookended by shouts of “Hallelujah.” The whole point of thinking about God is to praise God. In fact, Psalm 113-118 are Hallel psalms specifically used during annual feasts. Psalm 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal.1 Our collective worship, like that of the Israelites, should celebrate the nature of God in how it reaches out to us.
In considering the nature of God, it causes us to look up. Our practice, whether inherent or learned I’m not sure, is to look up when considering God. It is certainly how He has revealed Himself to us. Psalm 113 uses language like exalted and above to emphasize that his glory is in the heavens. He is exalted above us. Isaiah 57:15 emphasizes this fact in saying,
For the High and Exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy says this: “I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.”
And there is the turn. It is painted beautifully by both the psalmist and the prophet. The Lord stoops. He lives with the lowly and oppressed. He comes down. God condescends to us.
It is not in spite of His majesty but because of His majesty that God condescends to us. In Psalm 113:5, the question is posed to us to answer: “Who is like Yahweh our God…?” It is in describing our great God, in setting Him apart for all others that the psalmist then shows that He comes off of the thrones and “lifts the need from the garbage pile” (v. 7). God departs the throne room of Heaven to visit us in the garbage dumps of Earth.
We see it clearly in verse 14 of Gospel of John’s opening chapter.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Jesus arrives completely mindful of the poor and needy. He travels to the ash heap of our lives. It is the place of abject poverty where people are cast aside like the trash. And what does our God do with those found in such a place? They – or better – we are given a seat of nobility. Imagine that. We are leaving the shanty made from junk. He trades our place of trash for dignity. Our barrenness is replaced with His joyous household.
But all of this happens because of one reason. Jesus is willing to wrap Himself in our injured flesh.2 It is a terrible trade for Him. It is the greatest of exchanges for us. God has bent down to the dust from whence we were made and rescued us.
Our response to all of this is caught up in the profundity of a prisoner’s letter to a needy group of believers. Part of the letter, we call the Christ Hymn.
5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7 Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8 He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. - Philippians 2:5-11
In the face of God’s condescension to us, we must do the same. People are still dwelling in the garbage heaps. Many are living a barren existence. Our great hope is their great hope. There is no time to lounge in comfort as others suffer in misery. In such a season as this, we should serve as He did and carry such good news to those living in yet to be healed injured flesh.
(1) The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5, page 713.
(2) An idea borrowed from “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice
The preaching of a sermon is an exhilarating and maddening process. After hours of study and prayer, you have what feels to be a few short moments to deliver eternal truths in contemporary language to your friends who face a world set against everything you are teaching them. Generally, each week, I try to listen to my sermon in order to prayerfully learn how I can more effectively deliver my next message. But I have learned that the review must not become an exercise in public speaking skills. As pastors, we are called to a higher task than to simply speak convincingly. Our work is similar to the men in Nehemiah 8:7. As Ezra read the Law, they moved among the people to help the people to understand the Law’s implications in their lives.
Here are five questions that will help us evaluate our sermons each week.
1. Did it make God the hero? We should be able to identify the pivot point on which the message hangs. It should be God, along with His self-revelation, glory, and redemptive purposes. If we placed people, good character, or even the church as the proverbial hero of the story, then we missed the mark.
2. Was it a clear exposition of the Scriptures? We need to ensure that we are exposing the truth of the text and not using it to make our own points. It is the old “preacher joke,” but too many of us have come up with a great point and then find a passage to preach it. We should be able to clearly hear the heart of a text in our message.
3. Did I allow the wisdom of God to outshine my witty ideas? In other words… Did I get in the way? We can get in the way by forcing points that are made into an acrostic, alliterate, or needlessly rhyme. It is not that we should throw out mnemonics that help people remember the point but they should not become the point. We should be certain that people are struck by the greatness of God and not the cleverness of the preacher.
4. Was there a clear call to make a decision? However you ask people to respond in your worship gatherings, the message should give people a reason to do so. Each time we meet with the text, we will be confronted by God’s holiness and the need for it to be applied to our lives. Each time the Word is proclaimed, it is a blessing to be convicted and comforted by it. We must also direct people how to respond to God through it.
5. Did I apply the truth to myself first? Each time I deliver a sermon, it is the opportunity for God to work over my own life first so that I will be ready to deliver the truth from a place of transformation. If you have not, people will know it and are tempted to discard anything you say. If the sermon had no application for you, then you will be hard pressed to apply it to others.
An assignment without a means of measuring success normally ends in frustration or abandonment. In the church, our work is to make disciples. But can you really measure discipleship?
A strong case can be made that it is ludicrous to attempt to measure transformation in a person’s life. Nevertheless, there are biblical injunctions that halt our progress into sin and prescriptions that lead us toward spiritual maturity.
In the Transformational Discipleship project led by LifeWay Research, we did not set out to randomly create objective measurements against which a person’s life would be deemed infantile, growing or mature. However, we did uncover attributes that indicate spiritual growth and/or the desire that growth is occurring.
The research revealed eight factors at work in the lives of believers who are progressing in spiritual maturity. We refer to them as the attributes of discipleship. They are not necessarily new ideas, but they stand out as key ideas in the lives of North American Protestants.
1. Bible engagement
It should go without saying believers will be engaged in studying the Scriptures. However, leadership must often begin restating the obvious. Transformation can be recognized in people when their minds are sharpened by the Bible, their perspectives are shaped by the Bible and their actions are directed by the Bible.
2. Obeying God and denying self
Discipleship is the process of obedience to one who is in authority over you. In our study, we found people progressing in their faith prioritize God’s desires over self-will. Transformation can be seen in them, because they progressively set aside earthly delights for Kingdom priorities.
3. Serving God and others
Just as Jesus said He had come to serve and not be served, so must believers. The choice to serve others is just that—a choice. It highlights a maturity of soul that we allow the needs of others to trump our own. Transformation is evident when personal needs, and even life goals, are set aside for the needs we see in others.
4. Sharing Christ
Inherent in being a disciple of Christ is the making of other disciple makers for Christ. Even with the need to live out the effects of the gospel, maturing believers know speaking about the message is a necessity. Transformation is evident when we talk about the source of it.
5. Exercising faith
Can you measure a person’s faith? Probably not. But you can see it when it is put into action. Believers participating in the research noted they knew the importance of living by faith as opposed to living by personal strength. Transformation is seen in believers when risk aversion is set aside and lives are characterized by faithful obedience to God’s will.
6. Seeking God
People become disciples of Christ because they intend to follow Him and become like Him. A continuous hunger should arise from this life. It is referred to in Scripture as our “first love,” and believers are commanded to return to it. Transformation is seen when our desire is to know God more deeply and experience His work more fully.
7. Building relationships
Our faith is personal, but it is not intended to be private. Jesus established the church for our collective good and our collective growth. After all, humans are naturally relational. Spiritually, we are no different. As believers, our horizontal relationships with others should develop just as our vertical relationship with God does. Transformation is occurring when relational maturity is evident in our lives.
The research noted believers felt it appropriate and even necessary for others to know them as Christians and be held accountable for a life exemplary of that name. Transformation is evident when a believer is unashamed in presenting his own life as being aligned with Christ.
The adage is “if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” At the very heart of Christianity is the work of making disciples for Christ. It should never sit at the fringe of our lives or the church. Through work like that of Transformational Discipleship, we are able to better recognize when we are effectively reaching toward that goal.
This article first appeared in Facts&Trends magazine. For more information visit LifeWay.com/factsandtrends.
Transformational Discipleship Assessment
The Transformational Discipleship Assessment crafted from LifeWay’s discipleship study is being used by churches in urban, suburban, rural, domestic and international locations to discover how their church is doing in the realm of discipling believers. To learn more, visit LifeWay.com/tda. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.
On Sunday, I finished up the message series at our church on “Real Questions People Ask.” It has been an important series for our church family as we have dug into the ideas of God’s sovereignty, the suffering we face, sexual ethics, and the importance of the gospel reaching all the nations.
In the last message, I was aiming to answer the question “Can I trust the Bible?” As you get to the end and I take my tour through the Bible, you can find the list of all the books of the Bible and the references I make in an earlier post here.
Philip Nation is the adult ministry publishing director for LifeWay Christian Resources. He earned a master of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a doctor of ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as teaching pastor for the The Fellowship, a multisite church in Nashville, Tennessee.
His works include Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow. He is also the general editor of The Mission of God Study Bible. Along the way, he has written the small-group studies Compelled by Love: The Journey to Missional Living and Live in the Word, plus contributed to The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Lifetime.