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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Dear brothers and sisters, today we begin again in reading the "Book of Comfort." That is what the Heidelberg Catechism has often been called. It’s not a volume of theology, or a collection of assorted texts, but a book of comfort. And the title for this short but wonderful book is taken from its very first lines, "What is your only comfort in life and death?"
Comfort. That’s what it’s all about. Sure, the Catechism is filled with doctrine. Yes, the Catechism is loaded with proof texts. And indeed, some of the Lord’s Days might even appear pretty difficult and harsh. But the theme of comfort carries through this book, from cover to cover, from Lord’s Day 1 right to Lord’s Day 52.
"Comfort" binds it all together, because it’s by the Bible’s doctrine that we really know our gracious God; it’s in the proof texts that we learn how true certain is our faith; and it’s through the difficult Lord’s Days that we appreciate the great need to stick up for what the Scripture teaches, lest any heresy or falsehood take even a little shine off the beauty of our comfort.
As we said, for this entire book Lord’s Day 1 sets the tone. Here is the bottom line, the summary, here is the starting point and the goal. Everyone – not just the Catechism students – everyone should know Lord’s Day 1, and should be able to recite it, explain it, sing it, and pray it. "What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own but belong with body and soul…"
But does everybody need comfort? Do the young? Do the healthy? Do people who are happy by disposition need comfort? The Catechism doesn’t try to prove this, because it’s obvious. Every person, no matter how healthy or wealthy or wise, needs the comfort of the gospel – because every person, no matter how happy-go-lucky or confident or even morally upstanding, is a rotten sinner. At every person nags the persistent questions of life and death, of purpose and eternity, and these are questions that will not easily go away.
That is why people will always seek some comfort. They probably won’t call it comfort, for even in our ears "comfort" might only seem appropriate to seek and to give at the hospital bed or graveside, or when things are not going well. People don’t name what they seek "comfort," but they’ll look for it just the same, because people always hunt for re-assuring answers, for tidy resolutions, for any way of explaining and also giving hope to their lives.
Many people take "comfort" (if it can be called that) in themselves, in their intellect or in their possessions. Others find "comfort" in friends, or in showing kindness to others. Others claim "comfort" in the distractions of entertainment or drugs or sex or alcohol. And others might deflect all nagging questions of existence with some weak philosophy about the circle of life, or karma, or the power of the human spirit.
And let us not think we are free from seeking or holding on to false comfort. We can all slip into thinking, "That brother or sister really needs Lord’s Day 1. But I’m OK. I have my health, good employment, a loving family, my hobbies." But the Catechism is direct, and demands that we all go home today, examine our hearts, and answer this question, "What is your only comfort in life and death?"
Beloved, we must recognize this: We are only humans – frail in body, weak in spirit, prone to wander, susceptible to the first sin that offers itself. We are humans, but God is God, and in him we will find our only comfort, and our entire comfort. I preach to you the Word of God as it is summarized in LD 1,
In the Triune God is our full comfort!
- the totality of the Son’s ownership
- the perfection of the Father’s care
- the completeness of the Spirit’s work
1. the totality of the Son’s ownership: The Catechism begins where we ended our introduction this afternoon: We’re only humans. Any self-made comfort, any proud rejection of help from outside our little world, shatters on this hard truth: "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…" (1 Pet 1:24).
This is why the Catechism is so eager to state this truth before anything else, "I am not my own." To unrepentant human ears this sounds like a mighty strange thing to confess. For everyone wants to belong to himself: "I am my own man, so I will make my own rules, set my own schedule, and fulfill my own desires."
But the person who is humbled in his weakness and shamed in his sins, confesses this gladly, even eagerly: "I am not my own." Because if we belonged to no one but ourselves, one day we’d have appear before God’s throne – all on our own. And what could we say at the last day? "I have not kept your law, O God. I have not loved you, I have not loved my neighbor. I sometimes had good intentions, but could never deliver. My sins and misery are great, and I deserve to die."
Yet God does not delight in the death of any sinner. He has opened up a new and living way to his presence. He has decreed that those who are morally penniless, those who are spiritually bankrupt, even those who are in debt a trillion times over with God, these may be purchased, and have all they owe transferred fully to Jesus Christ.
To purchase us from sin’s monopoly and to ransom us from Satan’s control, a price had to be paid. It was no small price, for consider how much we owed, and consider how little we could bring to the table. Money couldn’t cover it, neither could all the treasures of the world, for what was owed was blood. If we sinners appeared before God’s throne on our own, He would examine us and say quite simply: "Pour out your blood. Pour out your life. The price for one sin is one life." But, the sad truth is, we have only one life to give, and a trillion sins on our account. And so our penalty would never be paid.
But I am not my own! I belong to Jesus Christ, who is "the way and the truth and the life." No one comes to the Father – and lives – except through him (cf. Jn 14:6). Christ has ransomed us to the Father! Peter says it in chapter 1 of his first letter, "You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed… but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (vv 18-19).
Because Christ has purchased us with the sacrifice of his blood, we are fully his legal possession, his untouchable property. For though the price paid was enormous, even beyond any human calculation, it was still enough to buy us totally, body and soul. Yes, even our bodies belong to Jesus Christ. When we get sick, when we slowly become old, even as we’re growing up and have all kinds of complaints about the body we have, we can be comforted and assured in the knowledge that this body is not my own, but it belongs to my Saviour. He wanted my body enough to die for it, so that I might serve God with it, and so that my body might one day be glorified, just like his body is today.
Knowing our sins and misery, and also knowing the frailty of our bodies, we rejoice that we belong to someone else! For as all of us should understand, ownership also means responsibility. Take this example. A child receives a new bike for her birthday. She is very happy with this fine machine! She rides her beautiful bicycle everywhere, ringing its bell, changing its gears, making black marks on the street with its tires. But one night she leaves it outside when it rains, and another day she forgets it down at the park. So Dad sits her on his lap and gives her a little talk. And what does he say? "When you own something, it’s up to you to take care of it. It’s your responsibility – not just when you feel like it, but always. That’s the duty of ownership."
Jesus Christ owns us. He owns us "body and soul, both in life and in death." His ownership is total, therefore his responsibility is total. That means He will never leave us and never forget us. To do such a thing might be possible for us to do with a gift received freely, and might even happen with a possession paid for out of our own wallet, but it’s impossible for Christ to do. The price he paid was so high, the ransom so costly that He cannot walk away from the people He purchased.
He takes full responsibility, even when his possessions squeak and rust and break down, as we in our weakness are all prone to do. For even with a church community all around, we can feel completely alone. Even with all our daily needs supplied, we can feel completely empty. Even knowing the gospel of peace through Christ, we can feel restless and far from God. Yet we take comfort in this: Christ owns us, and Christ will forever keep us, even when we fall apart in our troubles. He said it to his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me" (Jn 14:1). Trust! Trust that the one who laid down his life for you, will forever cherish you as his beloved property!
That we so totally belong to Christ comforts us, and also calls us to action. Because, though we are owned, we are not just lifeless possessions, like that bicycle in the garage. Like slaves who belong to the kind master who purchased them out of captivity, we belong to our Lord Jesus Christ, and now for him we have to work! As Paul writes in 1 Cor 6, "You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body (vv 19-20).
An owner has every right to use his property as He pleases; so also Christ our Master is pleased to use us in his service. You ask, "What can He expect from weak and helpless sinners?" Christ expects – no, He demands – a life that rejoices in thanksgiving. Beloved, He’s given us every reason for grateful service! And through his Father, our Saviour makes sure we have every thing needed to remain as his possession!
2. the perfection of the Father’s care: Sometimes Christians focus so much on the wonderful benefits that are reaped from the life and death of Jesus Christ, that God the Father is somewhat forgotten. "We know there’s a Trinity, but we really like Jesus the best."
But we must remember that our salvation is a project of the Triune God! This, in fact, is what makes our comfort so certain and our hope so real: God in three persons, the blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit are hard at work for us, to give and to preserve and to apply redemption in the lives of us, insignificant little humans.
In these grand efforts on our behalf, God the Father is very involved. For the Father has perfect power over all things. He directs the seasons. He moves the nations. He decides all things in his will, even the disasters and wars that make us shudder. As the original Creator of all – creating with word of his mouth – God the Father still maintains all and governs all – ruling with the word of his mouth. He speaks, and it comes to pass. Any human prince, king, or president, and all his decrees will pass away – but the Word of the Lord stands forever!
This great God is fully dedicated to taking care of us. We’ve seen that the price Jesus Christ paid was too high for him to ever give up on us, his treasured possession. This is true for the Son, and this is also true for the Father. Working together on our salvation, both Father and Son are concerned that none who are cleansed in Christ’s blood be left behind, that none whom the Father has given to the Son be crushed under the burdens of this life.
Yes, the Father would not, could not, take care of us if we stood before him on our own. The wall of sin between God and us before was simply too high for him to care about who lay on the other side. "Sinners? Let them suffer life’s uncertainties, life’s burdens, life’s horrors and life’s end without a hope in the world – just as they deserve." But in Christ the dividing wall is broken down, and now in Christ, God the Father is our Father. The God who would have summoned us to his throne and demanded eternal death for a life-time of sin, now looks down in kindly favour upon us, and now takes loving care of us in his perfect ability.
The Father, though He has such unlimited and universal power, even able to move the nations, is not so powerful that He cannot be concerned with the small things of my small life. The Catechism makes this same point, "Without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head."
Indeed, it is often smallest of events that make us worry, cause us fear, and take away the joy of our salvation. In our minds, our little troubles always take on a massive importance – sometimes we cannot even think of anything besides our financial concerns or our toothache or our unreliable car. But the Father in his love stoops down to our level and promises, "Without my will, not even a hair can fall from your head."
And what about sorrow in death, and years of sickness, and wretched family strife? In the perspective of Almighty God, these things too are but small and insignificant. Not that He downplays our grief or minimizes our burdens, but He promises us that none of what we must bear is so large or so weighty it can ever threaten our salvation!
The Father’s assurance of his perfect care for us is all about perspective. Of course all things are under his government and control! But we need to have this perspective and live in this perspective. We need to see and to trust that our heavenly Father will do everything in his power – and what is outside of his power? – to preserve his adopted children! As Jesus said, "Trust in God; trust also in me." The goal of the Triune God is our salvation: In Christ’s precious blood we have it, and in the Father’s powerful care nothing can take it away! For in us God’s work of heavenly comfort has been started, and in us will be completed.
3. the completeness of the Spirit’s work: A Christian might sometimes reflect on all he has received. Just think: his innumerable sins are counted as nothing in the precious blood of God the Son! Just think: his sometimes troubling, often tiring, life is fully in the loving hands of God the Father! Indeed, "From the fullness of [God’s] grace we have all received one blessing after another" (Jn 1:16)
Yet even as the Christian considers all this, he might sink into a dark place. Given so much, how do we respond to the God of all mercy? The debt was paid, but with our constant sins we simply go into the hole again. In the precious blood of Christ we receive forgiveness time after time, even throwing ourselves into prayers uttered in self-loathing. But afterwards we don’t change. Later we make the same mistakes, repeat the same errors, and fall into the same old sinful habits.
The Christian who spends his life pleading on the mercy of his Master and the favour of his Father might sometimes wonder, "Will that precious forgiving blood ever run out? Will it one day be refused to me, such a stubborn sinner? Yes, I know the three pillars of Q&A 2 of the Catechism: I know very well how great my sins and misery are, I know how I am delivered from all my sins and misery, and I even know that I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance. But at that last part I keep on failing."
Indeed, many is the Christian who has sunken into a fearful dark doubt about his unworthiness before God. Such a feeling is not pleasant, and it does not make for a life in the "joy of our comfort." But a bitter taste of our unworthiness may be spiritually healthy – as long as the Word of God is also kept open. For what blessed words do we read? "You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children" (Rom 8:15-16).
Thank the Lord, Christians are not left on their own to try and be thankful. We all know we could never do it. But we remember: The Triune God is at work on our behalf! The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son to help us live in full realization, and thankful appreciation, of the comfort we really have. God the Holy Spirit gives and strengthens our faith. He purifies and renews our minds. He testifies and confirms in our hearts that we do in fact belong to God as his own children.
Christ said it to his disciples in John 14, and He says it to us, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (v 18). Just as we sometimes are, the disciples were trembling in fear and uncertainty. They were terrified, for their Lord and Master was leaving; they belonged to him, but He was going away! By themselves they knew they could to nothing. They felt like castaways, nobodies, like parentless children. But Jesus promises, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you."
Just as He has promised, every day Christ our Saviour does come to us, in the power of his Spirit. As each of us should never tire of saying, Christ would not leave at the side of the road the child He purchased with his blood. Nor will He abandon that child to a life of doubt and uncertainty. Though we do not see our Saviour, though we do not see our adoptive Father, we are assured by the Spirit – "I am not an orphan; I do belong; and I will be preserved to the end."
This is our assurance: We know the Spirit’s work in us will one day be complete. Yes, today it is not complete, for, in our sins we bump time and again into that third pillar: "I am to be thankful to God for my deliverance." Given this simple task of thankfulness – a task that merits nothing, a task that is only to be expected in light of all we have received – we fail miserably. Through no fault of the Holy Spirit, it is obvious that the Spirit’s work in us is incomplete.
His work is incomplete, but the good news is that He has begun. In frozen hearts, the Holy Spirit is thawing, even heating up our love for God. Former lovers of sin are slowly turning into haters of sin, by the power of Spirit. On trees that were dead, and on trees that previously only bore useless leaves, now good wholesome fruit is ripening!
Beloved, God the Spirit is at work, bringing forth in us fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 6:22-23). The spiritual fruit on our branches is small, is maybe a bit sour, is sometimes even diseased – but it is fruit, when before there was none! And this means the Spirit is near! No, our assurance, our comfort, is never in ourselves or what we do. But our assurance is in the Word of God, and in the Word of God powerfully confirmed by God, in our lives.
For when the Triune God begins a project, He also completes it: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). Consider what God through his Spirit has started in your life – though it be tiny, though it be imperfect, this divine work will one day be completed, and completed well!
Then do not stumble into the third pillar of our thankfulness to God, but build on it! Know that even your small beginning of thankfulness – in itself a gift of the Spirit – is but a foretaste of the perfect thankfulness we shall give to God forever. The Triune God has brought us this far, so He will also bring us home, carrying his children on our journey to eternal comfort. Amen.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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