Lent and the Psalms

In many churches psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, according to a regular pattern. These churches have preserved for themselves a priceless treasure, for only with daily use does one become immersed in that divine prayerbook. With only occasional reading these prayers are too overwhelming for us in thought and power, so that we again and again turn to lighter fare. […] Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Prayerbook of the Bible

This year for Lent I'm spending some focused time in the book of Psalms. This collection of poetic, prayerful hymns has been central to Jewish and Christian spiritual devotion for thousands of years. They inform modern praise songs and ancient hymns, and the language we use when we pray to God and when we theologize about God. Both the New Testament in general and Jesus in particular quote the psalms more than any other book. Written centuries before Jesus wandered the dusty paths of Palestine, it is impossible to imagine what Christianity would be like without these 150 Hebrew poems and the depth of reflection, and the wisdom and the spiritual and human and divine insight that they contain. 

But in many of our churches they are underused and under appreciated, misunderstood and neglected. Which leads me to wonder: what are we missing? I want to encourage you to join me in reading a psalm a day for the remainder of Lent this year. I'll post the whole reading plan here in a printable format; you can find the readings for just the remainder of the season below. I should have shared this much earlier, but it is never too late to jump in. Imagine the depth and power you might experience if you just prayerfully read one psalm a day between now and Easter!

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3. Awake, Thou That Sleepest

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This post is part of a series of study guides on the Sermons of John Wesley that I'm putting together, mostly as a way to structure my own reading. Most of the sermons can be read for free online here or here

Date and location

April 4, 1742

University of Oxford

By Charles Wesley

Scripture

"Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light." (Ephesians 5:14)

Outline

  1. The Sleepers
    1. Sleep is the natural state of man
    2. pure darkness
    3. A sinner satisfied in their sin
    4. Some have the form of godliness, but deny the power
    5. Dead unto God
    6. Lacking senses to discern good and evil
    7. Lacking the Spirit of God
  2. The Exhortation (Awake, and arise from the dead)
    1. God is primed to judge you
    2. The morning is approaching - wake up!
    3. We are all bound for an eternity of either happiness or misery
      1. Intense barrage of rhetorical questions
  3. The Promise (Christ shall give thee light)
    1. If you awake and receive Christ you will inherit life

In his own words

"For where is he that loveth either God or his neighbour, as he hath given us commandment? On the one hand are those who have not so much as the form of godliness; on the other, those who have the form only; there stands the open, there the painted sepulchre. So that, in very deed, whosoever were earnestly to behold any public gathering together of the people (I fear those in our churches are not to be excepted) might easily perceive 'that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees': the one having almost as little concern about religion as if there were 'no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit'; and the other making it a mere lifeless form, a dull round of external performances without either true faith, or the love of God, or joy in the Holy Ghost." (III.11)

Preach it today

 

  1. This one of John Wesley's sermons is actually by his brother Charles.
  2. No Methodist that I know of gets this close to hellfire and brimstone. Have we softened the gospel to make it palatable, or are we merely adapting to a society without the Christian theological presuppositions both John and Charles Wesley could assume?
  3. I am completely in awe of how well the brothers Wesley know their Bibles. Charles here strings together quotation after quotation, almost effortlessly. I am humbled.
  4. Charles' intense, pages-long barrage of rhetorical questions makes for powerful reading. In these first four sermons the brothers are almost intentionally trying to offend their elite audience at Oxford University. But a less intensive barrage of rhetorical questions can be a powerful - and not excessively offensive - tool for preachers today trying to encourage their congregations toward introspection.

2. The Almost Christian

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This post is part of a series of study guides on the Sermons of John Wesley that I'm putting together, mostly as a way to structure my own reading. Most of the sermons can be read for free online here or here

Date and location

July 25, 1741

St. Mary's, Oxford University

Scripture

"Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." (Acts 26:28)

Outline

  1. Traits of an 'Almost Christian'
    1. Heathen virtue
      1. honesty
      2. justice
      3. love and hospitality
    2. Form of godliness
      1. Avoids things the gospel forbids
      2. Works hard at doing good, including evangelism and discipling others
      3. Does these things as often as possible
      4. Leads family in prayer (if head of household)
    3. Does all this with absolute sincerity
      1. The almost Christian really wants to serve God and do his will
    4. Can one do all this and be only 'almost' a Christian?
      1. Wesley claims he did this for years!
  2. Altogether Christian
    1. Love for God
    2. Love for neighbors
    3. Faith
      1. But not a devil's faith, i.e. not merely intellectual assent
      2. Christian faith is rather a sure trust and confidence
    4. Exhortation

In his own words

"I beseech you, brethren, as in the presence of that God before whom 'hell and destruction are without a covering: how much more the hearts of the children of men!' - that each of you would ask his own heart, 'Am I of that number? Do I so far practise justice, mercy, and truth, as even the rules of heathen honesty require? If so, have I the very <i>outside of a Christian? The form of godliness? Do I abstain from evil, from whatsoever is forbidden in the written Word of God? Do I, whatever good my hand findeth to do, do it with all my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere design to please God in all things?

Are not many of you conscious that you never came thus far? That you have not been even 'almost a Christian'? […] The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, 'My God and my all'? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?" (II.7-9)

Preach it today

  1. First, although Wesley is using this text in a classical Puritan way, one has to admit that it isn't the most faithful interpretation of this verse. After all, Agrippa, who speaks this line, is not an 'almost Christian' at all in the way Wesley intends. He would likely get poor marks from his preaching professor here! Oh well.
  2. This sermon is a rhetorical powerhouse. When I first read this years ago, as Wesley built up such a high moral and religious standard for the Almost Christian, the sermon had the impact that I imagine Wesley intended: I was genuinely wondering what he was leaving for the Altogether Christian! Great example of creating an 'itch' in preaching - then 'scratching' it.
  3. Being a Christian is not about becoming a good person. The Almost Christian is a fantastic and virtuous human being, and the world would be a much better place if it was full of Almost Christians. But though she is in many ways virtuous, she not yet a Christian!
  4. Being a Christian is about who and how you love - and where your trust and confidence in life lies. I'm hearing anachronistic echoes of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections here!
  5. But an altogether Christian that loves and trusts and is fully confident in God will be morally transformed. No room to rest on your laurels here - holiness matters.