The New Year is upon us!
No, I'm not talking about the new year in the Gregorian calendar that begins on January 1. I'm talking about the liturgical calendar; the Church's calendar. In Western Christianity, the liturgical year begins with the season of Advent, which begins on Sunday! If you receive our monthly Covenant Connection newsletter, you will see a historical explanation of Advent, but for those that do not, here's what most of it says:
Advent is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning "coming". It is a time in which Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate the season of Christmas. Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming. It is unknown when the period of preparation for Christmas that is now called Advent first began, but it was certainly in existence from about 480. Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas in the Western liturgical calendar. The usual liturgical color in Western Christianity for Advent is either violet (or purple) or blue. The violet or purple color is often used for hangings around the church and the vestments of the clergy, except for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when rose (or pink) is often used instead.
I'll speak more about this next week, but we use Advent as a way prepare ourselves. It is a time to relive the anticipation of Christ's First Coming, while simultaneously anticipating His Second Coming. This week however, I want to look at some ways to celebrate, observe, and, as author Bobby Gross says in his book Living the Christian Year, "inhabiting" Advent. His book gives some very helpful and meaningful ways of living in the anticipation and tension of Advent (which is only more noticeable in the highly commercialized "holiday season" in which we live).
He first points out that Advent was a time that, in its earliest stages, included fasting by new believers in preparation for baptism. While the season has evolved to be more of a preparation of Christmas than of baptism, fasting is still observed by believers throughout the Church, and would be a great way to enhance your observance of Advent. Keeping a traditional Advent wreath is another great way for families to observe the season together. It consists of four candles set in a circle, with a white candle sometimes placed in the middle. This mirrors what is done in many churches (including ours) every week, but many times families will take part in a daily Advent devotional, something even as simple as daily Scripture readings, while the candles are lit: one purple candle the first week, two purple candles the third, adding the pink candle the third week, lighting all four through the fourth week, and adding the white Christ candle on Christmas Eve. You can find Advent wreathes online, but since it begins on Sunday, you can also find them at your local Christian bookstore if you want to get it quicker. 
Throughout the rest of the Advent season, I will be using Mr. Gross's book, because there are many things to unpack about the tension we feel as called out, elect exiles who are called to live life with eternity in mind, while living in this world and a culture that places a premium on consumerism at this time of the year. But let's shift now and look at what will be happening for this first week of the Advent season at Covenant on Sunday.
 This first week's theme is Hope; the hope that Israel had in the promise of the Messiah through the prophets, and the hope that we have in that same Messiah's second coming, to rule and reign in the new heavens and new earth. Pastor John's sermon will focus on hope from the standpoint of Christ as the fulfillment of the covenants made with Abraham and David that all the nations would be blessed and that His kingdom would never end, and the songs this week reflect that.
Our Song of Ascent is one of my favorite Advent hymns. It couples the longing for the coming of the Messiah with imagery and words that reflect that Emmanuel will be of the house and line of David. Our psalms throughout the season of Advent, rather than moving consecutively, will tie in with each week's theme and sermon, so we will sing from Psalm 89, where the psalmist is praising God for His everlasting covenant with David. During Advent and Christmas I also like to pair our psalms with Christmas hymn tunes, so we will continue that this year. We will also sing our Hymn of Rejoicing to a Christmas hymn tune, as it perfectly speaks to the hope of salvation that was fulfilled in Christ's incarnation. After the sermon, our Hymn of Response will tie together the themes of hope and Christ's fulfillment of the Davidic covenant after we hear the Word of God preached.
Sermon: Matthew 1:1, 17
Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:11
New Testament Reading: Matthew 1:1-17
Hymns: Hymn of Ascent - "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (Trinity Hymnal, 194 - vs. 1, 3, 4, & 5; hear a recording here)
              Hymn of Praise - Psalm 89 (vs. 1-4, 28-37); the tune is "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus."
              Hymn of Rejoicing - "Fountain of Never-Ceasing Grace;" lyrics: Trinity Hymnal, 519; tune: "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."
              Hymn of Response - "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" (Trinity Hymnal, 311; hear a recording of the tune here.)
As the great Advent hymn "Joy to the World" says, "let every heart prepare him room." Advent is a wonderful season in the life of the believer and the Church overall to do just that. Not that we aren't to do that throughout all the year, but there us certainly merit in setting aside a specific time in the life of the church to focus on certain things. As Advent begins, let us prepare our hearts and minds to welcome Him in His first advent at Christmas, and to anticipate his second advent in these last days.
This week is both the final week of Ordinary Time, as well as the final sermon in Pastor John's series on 1 & 2 Peter: Encouragement for Exiles. He will be preaching on 2 Peter 3:14-18. This is Peter's conclusion to his letters, and we will focus on God's provision and His faithfulness, as well as our joyful duty to stand on His Word in our lives. This will be a beautiful wrap-up to this series that has been both theologically rich as well as full of practical application for our lives as believers, and I would encourage you to go back and listen to any of the past sermons in this series that you might have missed. Because the sermon will be focusing on these three topics, I wanted to find songs that would help direct our minds and hearts on these things. The first two songs do just that, and although the texts may be new, they are set to familiar hymn tunes.

Happy Tuesday! This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in November, which means that we only have three more Sundays left in Ordinary time! Advent is fast approaching! We'll look more at what this Sunday has in store in just a minute, but first, let's finish our walk-through of our church's weekly liturgy. Before we do that, though, let's recap each section up to this point:
Call to Worship We hear or recite Scripture to help prepare us to worship God.
Song of Ascent We sing together, acknowledging God as the one who has brought us together.
Old and New Testament Readings We hear God's Word read aloud.
Hymn of Praise We respond to the reading of God's Word by praising Him for His attributes.
Prayer of Adoration & Invocation/Gloria Patri We pray that God will come down and be pleased by our praises.
Confession of Sin We confess our sins, both corporately and privately, acknowledging that even as believers, we still need God's forgiveness.
Assurance of Pardon As a congregation, we recite Scripture together, to remind us that we have been redeemed in Christ.
Affirmation of Faith We affirm the basic truths of Christianity together as one body.
Pastoral Prayer of Intercession and Thanksgiving We prepare our hearts to hear God's Word preached, while the pastor prays a prayer of thanks.
Offertory We thank God for His provision in our lives by returning a portion of our resources back to Him.
Now it is time for the focal point of the service, the Preaching of the Word, or the Sermon. This is the section that most of you will be familiar with, but a Reformed sermon has some characteristics that set it apart from some other traditions. Unlike most, if not all, mainline churches, it's not a short homily of about ten or fifteen minutes. Nor is it a topical sermon such as can be found in a lot of modern or contemporary evangelical churches. Our pastor, John Clayton, preaches through an entire book of the Bible at a time, expositing the text to help us understand its historical and cultural context, revealing how the gospel can be found in the passage, and how believers can apply it to their lives and for their sanctification. By preaching through an entire book, John is able to show how the passages fit together to form a coherent whole, and by proclaiming the gospel every week, he is able to avoid preaching merely a self-help sermon or a sermon that tries overly-hard to be relevant to current events or cultural trends. The message of the gospel is simple and the writers of Scripture had clear messages meant to strengthen believers' walks with God. The Reformed expository sermon is a way to stay true to the gospel message and to preach the Word in its purest form. Sometimes John will take a break from his sermon series in order to preach a focused message, such as special services for Lord's Supper Sundays, when we have a baptism, and for special seasons or services such as Advent, Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter just to name a few, but even during these sermons, he preaches on one passage of Scripture, rather than topically jumping from passage to passage. After the sermon, we sing a Hymn of Response that ties in to the sermon in some way, usually by encouraging us to take to heart or to commit to practice that which we have just heard and processed with our minds, or else to emphasize one of the verses or points of the sermon. After that, John reads a Pastoral Benediction from Scripture that also, if possible, helps to further solidify what was just preached, and that brings us to the end of the service.
I hope this walk-through has been informative and helpful for you, to help you understand the symbolism and significance of what happens during our worship services week after week. Liturgy is a beautiful and helpful form to help us focus our entire selves on the worship of God, but it is crucial that we know why we are doing what we do, so that we avoid allowing it to just become a mindless, meaningless ritual done only because "that's what we've always done." As a form of worship, liturgy helps us not to get too wrapped up in our emotions by seeking a constant "high" while worshipping. It helps our worship to be done not just with our hearts but with our minds as well. If you missed any of the blog posts about any of the sections listed in bold above, you can always look back at any of our previous blog posts to catch up.
As I mentioned earlier, this Sunday is the first Sunday in November, which means that we will be celebrating the sacrament of the Lord's Supper after the sermon. This means that John will be taking a break from 2 Peter and preaching from Psalm 4. A main theme that runs through this passage is the fact that God hears us when we cry out to Him. As we usually do when a sermon is on one of the psalms, we will sing that psalm as our Hymn of Rejoicing, and the sermon passage offered many beautiful, rich options for the rest of the hymns in our service. I was able to find what I think are good hymns to compliment the main themes of the passage, such as God's care and provision for us when we need Him, and I must say that picking this week's songs was particularly enjoyable, as I began to see how they each fit together with each other and with the sermon passage. Our Song of Ascent mentions that God is "our shield and Defender," that "in you do we trust, nor find you to fail," and that his mercies are "firm to the end." Our Hymn of Praise says that God is our "health and salvation," and I love the second verse, which says:
Praise to the Lord, who with marvelous wisdom hath made thee,
decked thee with health, and with loving hand guided and stayed thee.
How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief,
spreading his wings to o'ershade thee!
What a beautiful declaration of God's care over His people! Even our Hymn of Preparation for the Lord's Supper talks about how God allows us to turn to Him to be filled when we feel unfilled, and how He his the Fountainhead that quenches our thirsting souls. There is a lot of beautifully rich poetry in the songs this week to convey our freedom to call upon God in our need.
Sermon: Psalm 4
Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 23:5-6
New Testament Reading: 1 John 5:13-15
Hymns:   Song of Ascent - "O Worship the King" (Trinity Hymnal, 2, verses 1, 2, & 5; you can hear a recording here)
                Hymn of Praise: - "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" (Trinity Hymnal, 53, verses 1, 4, & 5; you can hear a neat arrangement of it here)
                Hymn of Rejoicing: "Psalm 4;" the tune is "My Jesus, I Love Thee," and you can hear a recording here)
                Hymn of Preparation: "Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts;" you can hear a recording here)
As we focus on the freedom and the privilege we have as God's children to cry out to Him in our need, let us prepare our hearts to worship Him in spirit and in truth this week.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Happy Tuesday! The weather is finally beginning to get cooler, and it looks like we will have an Autumn after all! Today, I wanted to talk about the psalms. Those of you who have attended our church any time within the past year and a half or so (which, I would assume would be most of you reading this) have noticed that at least one of our songs each week is a either a passage from or an entire psalm from scripture. Since beginning this practice in May of 2015, I have had church members tell me that our weekly psalm is their favorite song that we sing, and I have had others tell me that they are so glad that we are singing the psalms on a weekly basis. However, I've also had several people ask me why we are singing the psalms, and I also know that the text of some of the psalms that we sing is not always easy to follow or sing, and that sometimes it makes us sing things that may not be as rosy a picture of God or ourselves as we might like to sing about. So, I wanted to give you some background as to why we sing the psalms in our church service.
To begin, this practice is not something that is unique to our church, nor is it in any way an invention or original idea of mine. It is not something that is done with any frequency in many contemporary churches today, but psalm singing has a very storied tradition in the life of the church. Obviously, they were sung by Old Testament Israelites (as they were the congregation that the psalms were originally written for), but they were also translated into Latin and sung by church choirs up until the Reformation (and even to the present day). However, as a result of the beginning of the Reformation, Martin Luther began translating the Psalms from the original Hebrew into German. One of the reforms of worship was that every possible facet of Christianity, from the Bible to the liturgy to the songs, was translated into the vernacular language of the people, in order to give worship back to them, so to speak. Until this point, as everything was done in Latin and by choir and priest, it meant that the average layperson was not able to participate in worship; they were reduced to watching the elements of worship happening around them. By translating and metering each of the psalms (and hymns as well), Luther was equipping the people to be able to sing and participate in worship once again. And although in many churches and denominations psalm singing has fallen out of frequent use, there are still many congregations and church traditions that do still consider it a vital part of worship.
The beautiful thing about the psalms is that, as God's Word, when you sing or read or pray them, you are literally singing or reading or praying God's own words about Himself back to Him. We don't have to rely on our own words or cleverness, because God has given us words to describe or worship or pray to Him within the very pages of Scripture. And while we believe that there is nothing wrong with singing man-written hymns, there is something special and beautiful about singing the psalms. As Terry Johnson says in his book Worshipping with Calvin, although it is perfectly right and acceptable to read the psalms in corporate and private worship, "God wrote the psalms. He wrote them to be sung. Therefore, we ought to sing them." I will speak more about this book in its influence on me in my own and, consequently, our church's journey in singing the psalms, but suffice it to say that the book of Psalms is unique in that it is both a prayer book and a song book. There is value in singing the psalms, because they give us a full and accurate picture of who God is and in who we are; it shows us His holiness and our lowliness. Reformed theology teaches that as a part of worship, the songs that we sing are sung corporate prayers. Why not sing, and therefore pray, God's own Word back to Him as we meet each week to worship Him? We will unpack this topic a little bit more next week, but for now, let's move on to Sunday's service.
We are rapidly approaching the end of our sermon series 1 & 2 Peter: Encouragement for Exiles, and this week, Pastor John will be preaching from 2 Peter 3:11-14. We are continuing the idea that Christ will come back to call His children, those of us who are "elect exiles," home, but that, in the meantime, the knowledge that life is fleeting and temporary should cause us to be in "lives of holiness and godliness," and that we are to be anticipating the return of Christ by the process of our sanctification. This is a beautiful passage that will have plenty of both biblical and theological richness, as well as plenty of practical application for how we are to live our lives in Christ. Central to my song selection this week was the idea both of Christ's kingship and our service to Him and to the world in His name. In our Song of Ascent, we claim that Christ is King, that He will come to call us home one day, and that Christ's kingdom cannot fail. For our psalm singing, we will continue Psalm 37, singing verses 20-28. Although I have not purposefully tried to choose a psalm to line up with each week's sermon in this series, I have been amazed that, in the providence of God, each of the sections of Psalm 37 that we have sung have still tied into the sermon for that week in some way. This week, the psalm talks about how we who are in Christ shall inherit the land, and that we are to depart from evil and do good because we belong to the Lord. And in our Hymn of Response, we will sing a beautiful song called "Christ, of All My Hopes the Ground," where we dedicate ourselves to union with Christ, both as we live for Him, and in our death as well. 
Sermon: 2 Peter 3:11-14
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 1:28, 2:15
New Testament Reading: Matthew 25:14-30
Hymns:  Song of Ascent - "Rejoice the Lord Is King" (Trinity Hymnal, 310; verses 1, 3, & 5. You can hear a recording here.)
               Hymn of Praise - Psalm 37 (verses 20-28; you can hear the hymn tune here.)
               Hymn of Rejoicing - "Before the Throne of God Above" (you can hear a recording here.)
               Hymn of Response - "Christ, of All My Hopes the Ground" (Trinity Hymnal, 518; verses 1, 3, 4, & 5. You can hear a recording here.)
I hope you enjoy and are enriched by your time of preparation for this week's service. And now that we have talked a little bit about why it is important for us to sing the psalms in worship, I hope our singing them this week will be especially meaningful to you. May God be honored by our praise to Him this week.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The past several week, we've been looking at the different sections of our liturgy, so that we can gain a better understanding of what we are doing every week and why. Forms, traditions, and rituals are not in and of themselves bad; they only become a hindrance or "dead," if we do them for their own sake, without understanding the meaning and significance behind them. We have thus far gotten to the Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, so let's keep going!
Following the Hymn of Rejoicing, we recite an Affirmation of Faith. Like other portions of our service, this is pretty self-explanatory. Here, we affirm the truths of Christian doctrine together as a congregation. This is a practice that has been used in liturgies for centuries. Historically, creeds such as the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds were written in order to refute and combat heresies within the early church, such as Gnosticism or Arianism, and a host of other false teachings that have threatened the truths of Christianity throughout the years. They have also been used historically as a way of instructing new converts. Oftentimes, new believes would recite the Apostles' Creed before being baptized. Their purpose is to put down in written form those things that are foundational and essential for right doctrine. In other words, it was a way for the early church to say that these are the non-negotiables. If you don't believe, for instance, that Christ is both fully God and fully man, or that God created all things, you are not subscribing to right, orthodox Christianity. So, we take time to affirm our faith together. Of course, these creeds and man-made confessions are always subject to the authority of Scripture, but we believe that they have value and are worthwhile for use in worship. Sometimes, we will also pull creed-like passages of Scripture and say them together. 
After the Affirmation of Faith, Pastor John recites a Pastoral Prayer of Intercession and Thanksgiving. This is a beautiful time of the service, wherein John uses his role as a pastor to pray for the congregation, to prepare us for the sermon, and, most importantly, to help lead us to the throne of God to communicate with Him through prayer. Although John is the only one who prays out loud, this is never meant to be a passive part of the sermon. We are to be listening and even praying along with John in our own hearts, in order to give God glory and praise, and to prepare ourselves even further to receive the Word of God during the sermon. After this, we Worship with Tithes and Offerings as a church. As John reminds us regularly, taking up the offering is not about balancing the church's budget or trying to force you to give us money. It is in itself an act of worship, a very tangible act that we take part in every week, where we acknowledge that all that we own is a gift from God. He is the God of all creation, and anything that we have is a gift from His hand. So, we are merely returning a portion of what we have back to Him, as a way to thank Him for His provision. After the offering is taken, we even sing a traditional Doxology, which is a way to say in song what we have gone by our giving: to praise God from whom all blessings flow. A deacon then prays a prayer of thanksgiving and also asks that God would allow us to receive His Word proclaimed through the sermon. Next week, we will finish our walk-through of our liturgy, but let's turn now to this Sunday's service.
This Sunday is a special Sunday in the life of the Church. It is Reformation Sunday, when we remember and give thanks for Martin Luther's nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of his church is Wittenburg, Germany and on October 31, 1517, which was the spark for the Protestant Reformation. The Reforms brought about by the Reformation are summarized in the five Solas of the Protestant Reformation (I'll talk a little more about that in just a bit). John will be beginning chapter 3 of 2 Peter, looking at verses 1-13, which talks about the imminent return of Christ to earth. Christ has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, but He won't stay there forever. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, to quote the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. For the songs this week, I tried to use songs that would either tie into the service, or else tie into the fact that it is Reformation Sunday. As I mentioned above, the Reformation is represented by the five SolasSola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). In order to help us commemorate those truths as a body, I have organized all of the songs, plus the prelude, in such a way that they will represent each of them. They will be labeled in the bulletin, but I'll also do so below. Also, the choir will sing a lovely arrangement of each of theses statements during the offertory, and we have even organized a responsive reading around these doctrines to use as our Affirmation of Truth this week.
Sermon: 2 Peter 3:1-13
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 13:9-13
New Testament Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:2-6
Hymns:   Prelude - "New Songs of Celebration Render // Soli Deo gloria
                Song of Ascent - "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (you can hear a recording of the tune here) // Solus Christus
                Hymn of Praise - Psalm 37 (vs. 10-19); you can hear a recording of the tune here. // Sola scriptura
                Hymn of Rejoicing - "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (Trinity Hymnal, 92; you can hear a recording here) // Sola gratia
                Hymn of Response - "My Jesus, I Love Thee" (Trinity Hymnal, 648; you can hear a recording here) // Sola fide
Four our Psalm this week, we are continuing Psalm 37. It continues to compare the fate of the wicked with that of the righteous. When Christ does return, he will come as judge over all the earth, and those that remain with "the wicked" will not be able to stand. Our final song will allow us to respond to God's promise to return for His won, and will encourage us to look ahead to the day when we will be with Him forever and ever.
If you haven't already, I want to again encourage you to purchase a copy of the Trinity Hymnal. It's a great way to prepare for worship each week, and would be a great addition to your daily personal quiet time. I posted links in the very first blog post for you to be able to find both the Trinity Hymnal, as well as the Trinity Psalter. May you be encouraged this week as you prepare for worship, and let us come together on the Lord's Day ready to worship our Almighty and soon-returning God and Father.

Soli Deo Gloria!