Put On Your Priestly Robe: Prayer in Corporate Worship

A sermon preached at Commerce Community Church in Commerce, TX.
January 4, 2015

MP3 AudioPDF Manuscript

Prologue

This is the first of four sermons on prayer to kick off the C3 calendar for 2015. I think for as long as I can remember, C3 has begun the year with a special emphasis on prayer. Its place at the beginning of the calendar is intentional: your elders believe prayer to be a first priority in the life of this congregation. They also seem to understand (and I think rightly) that prayer may be one of the most consistently neglected areas of our spiritual lives. I know I need the reminder.

But before we dive in, especially in light of the cultural atmosphere we breathe as we open up a new calendar, it seems wise to take a minute and warn against a very easy trap waiting to ensnare us. New years bring with them a desire for new beginnings. And I’m not saying that’s entirely a bad thing.

Genesis 1:14
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.”

And God said it was good! God’s good design for his created image-bearers was to live in a creation with seasons, rhythm, calendars, and new years. We try to be more spiritual than God when we completely disregard the rhythmic nature of years and seasons, and their effect on our lives.

But there’s also a way in which we can approach the new year with a list of resolutions that looks more like the rebellion of Babylon, as they built a tower into the heavens to make a name for themselves. Yes, let the change of calendar pages encourage you to reflect and plan and resolve to follow hard after God in 2015. That’s a good thing. But it would be the irony of ironies to treat an annual commitment to renew our prayerfulness as something we vow to accomplish in our own strength in the New Year.

In fact, I think part of the wisdom of beginning the year with four sermons on prayer is that it underlines our total need for God’s help to accomplish any of our 2015 resolutions. So with that introduction aside, let us ask for God’s help as we open his Word together.

Father in heaven,
Even as I speak these words to you
in the hearing of these brothers and sister,
I confess with my mouth that we are not fooled
into thinking we can do anything pleasing to in our own ability.
Guard our self-promoting, tower-building hearts
from using prayer as an opportunity to make a name for ourselves.
Send the Holy Spirit in power, and speak through the Words you exhaled.
Give your servant clarity and boldness,
that I might not sin against you with my mouth
Give your church glad and eager hearts,
and lift high the renown of Jesus in our midst.
May we marvel at his excellencies!
It’s in His name we pray. Amen.

Introduction

The specific task the elders have given me is to explain what I just did. If you’ve been to church a lot, you probably didn’t think much of it. But imagine it was your very first time in a Christian gathering, and you heard the words that just came out of my mouth. You might think, “What is he doing? Was he talking to God, or talking to us? He started, ‘Father in heaven’ but this isn’t heaven, and some of the things he said to us seemed like he wanted us to hear.” Public prayer is a curious thing! If we’re honest, it seems like there are two audiences at once. We’re praying to God, but we’re also talking to others. Or at least, if not to them, we’re certainly not ignorant of their presence. But should we be?

Or let me ask it a little differently. Would it be more spiritual of me to completely forget you are in the room when I just talked to God? Does it make me junior varsity Christian that I prayed with you in mind? I’ll let you in on a secret: I didn’t even close my eyes! I actually typed that prayer last night on my laptop at the Starbucks on I-30 and Broadway, and read it. Why would I do that? Well, it was because wanted you to benefit. I wanted to pray to God in a way that ministered to you.

Anyway, I think you get the point by now. This can be confusing. When we pray in church, we don’t pray the same way that we do at home in our bedrooms. There is a different dynamic, and my burden this morning is to say, “That’s okay!”

Let me illustrate this briefly by the Apostle Paul. Listen to what he says in 1 Corinthians 14:

1 Corinthians 14:14-18
[14] For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. [15] What am I to do? . . . [18] I thank God that that I speak in tongues more than all of you. [19] Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Evidently, Paul prayed in tongues at home a lot, even more than any of the people in Corinth. But in the church gathering, he says he would rather speak five intelligible words rather than a thousand in tongues. Why? Because, he said, wanted to instruct others (more on that later). But for now, notice that it is not hypocritical for Paul to pray one way in his closet, and another way on Sunday morning.

So the focus for this sermon is prayer in the church. And by that, I mean specifically when we gather, like this morning for corporate worship. You will hear other sermons in this series on prayer in the home, and individual prayer, etc. So the question we are trying to answer this morning is, “What should my prayer life look like on Sunday morning?” And to answer that, we are going to look at what the bible teaches you about your role as a priest.

Did you know that you are a priest? You may not wear a white collar, but you have priestly duties!

Outline

We will cover a lot of Bible this morning, and touch down in four major passages. If you like outlines, here we go:

– First, in Exodus 19, we will see God’s desire to commission a Kingdom of Priests.

– Second, in Deuteronomy 20, we’ll see the role of the Priest

– Third, in Hebrews 5, we’ll see Jesus, Our Great High Priest

– Fourth, in 1 Peter 2, we’ll see the church as a Royal Priesthood

We’ll return to the text in Deuteronomy that you heard read earlier in the service in just a moment. But first, let’s see where this priesthood came from to begin with. Turn in your Bibles to Exodus 19.

A Kingdom of Priests

The Great I AM miraculously delivered the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s slavery through a showdown with the false gods of Egypt. He preserved them through the waters of judgment, led them by cloud and fire to the same mountain where he commissioned Moses at a burning bush. Only this time the whole mountain smolders with his consuming fire. He gives this message through Moses:

Exodus 19:5-6
[5] Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; [6] and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Yahweh desires a priestly people to represent him among the nations. Priests are people who stand between God and men. They are mediators, or middle-men. The idea is that if the nations wanted to get to God, they would have go through Israel, his priests. The natural duty of middle-man would obviously require them to be able to hear from God, in order to represent him to the nations.

So, he tests Israel. He speaks directly from the mountain. He gives them 10 commandments from His own mouth. Look at verse 18:

Exodus 19:18-20
[18] Now when the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off [19] and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” [20] Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”

In terror, they fail the test and reject his unmediated voice and come up with a new plan. They elect Moses to hear from Yahweh directly, to which he essentially concedes, “Good idea.” As theologian John Sailhammer puts it, “Now, rather than Israel being a kingdom of priests, they became a kingdom with priests.”

It seems clear at this point that Israel’s corporate priesthood will largely fail. A few verses later, Yahweh establishes Aaron’s line as priests to Israel. God’s commissioning a kingdom of priests is temporarily put on hold. But who were these Aaronic priests and what was their job? Turn in your Bibles to Deut. 20.

The Priestly Duties

In Deuteronomy, the “book of the law” presents the priests much like Yahweh’s house servants. They were to minister to Yahweh in the place he would choose (Deut 21:25). They were fed from the Lord’s sacrificial altar (Deut 18:1, 3), and would assist worshipers in the drama of sacrifice (Deut 26:3). They kept the copy of the Law (Deut 31:9) and approved the copy that the King would make (Deut 17:18). They also assisted in legal disputes along with the rulers (Deut 17:9, 19:17), seemingly because of their close proximity to Yahweh (Deut 17:12).

The law is emphatic that God is not visible (Exodus 33:20; cf. Colossians 1:15), and it is a great sin to pretend otherwise (Deuteronomy 5:8–9). But in his kindness, Yahweh chose to elect priestly representatives who could be seen. Priests were visible, enfleshed ambassadors to Israel, serving on behalf of the invisible God.

But look with me at Deuteronomy 20:1-4. Specifically, look at the role the priest played as Israel prepared to go to war.

Deuteronomy 20:1-4
[1] When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. [2] And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people [3] and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, [4] for Yahweh your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.”

Wouldn’t you expect a general on a horse with blue paint on his face to give the rousing speech? The next verses mention officers, so it was not due to lack of leadership. God commands the priest to repeat his Word to the army of Israel. He knows that what Israel needs on the outset of a battle, more than a mere pep talk, is a reminder of known truths from a tangible representative. The people already knew God’s promise. God spoke it to them in verse 1. But it was the duty of the priest, as God’s spokesperson, to remind Israel what God had said.

On the day of trouble, we need a priest to speak God’s promises to us.

Let me illustrate how a principle very similar to this plays out in my life:

I have a strange habit when I’m driving. Any time I suddenly come up on the familiar outline of a white and black sedan parked just off the shoulder, my right foot instinctively withdraws and I triple-check my speedometer. Moments before, I possessed all the same knowledge of traffic regulations, but the physical presence of a representative of the law makes that knowledge tangible. The authority represented by a police car vivifies familiar truth. Or to put it more generally, sometimes an embodied presence captures our attention in a way that abstract memories do not.

That’s why God gave Israel priests. The authority they represent makes the previously known truth come to life.

So let’s review what we’ve seen about priesthood so far. God wanted to establish a kingdom of priests. Priests were representatives, ambassadors, middle-men who would stand between God and men. Israel mostly fails the kingdom of priesthood test, and so the sons of Aaron, in the tribe of Levi, become established as the priesthood who stands between God and Israel.

At this point you might be thinking, “So what? That’s in the Old Testament. What does that have to do with me?” As a rule of thumb, when we look at the way God worked with Israel, we must ask the question, “What happened when Jesus came along?” Or, more specifically in this case, “What happened to the priesthood once Jesus came?” That’s a good question! Lets turn to Hebrews 5.

Jesus, Our Great High Priest

A greater priest came, but not from the line of Aaron. If you were to summarize the message of the book of Hebrews, it’s that Jesus is better. Better than the angels. Better than the prophets. Better than Moses. Better than sacrifices of bulls and goats. And better than the priesthood that came from the line of Aaron.

Jesus became a priest, but he was not descended from Aaron. Remember, the priesthood of Aaron was wrapped up in Israel’s failure, and Jesus was no failure. He has a better pedigree.

The author of Hebrews spends over four chapters devoted to Jesus’s priesthood. We won’t take time to look over all of it, but look at Hebrews 5:1

Hebrews 5:1
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

Okay, so that should be a review for us at this point: priests are middlemen. They “act on behalf of men in relation to God,” so if you want to get to God, you must go through a priest. And one of the primary responsibilities of a priest was to take the bulls and the goats and the doves to the altar in the temple, and on behalf of the sinner, slit its throat, sprinkle the sinner with blood, and at times the high priest would take the blood into the most holy place and present the sin offering before God.

There’s one major problem about this though: the priest is a sinner too. So how can he truly be a middleman, when he has to make sacrifices for his own sins? There’s an inherent problem in the system, and God knows it. And he has a plan to fix it.

But also, how can Jesus be a priest if he wasn’t from the line of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi. We know Jesus was from the tribe of Judah! (Remember, he’s the Lion of the tribe of Judah)

Hebrews 5:5-6
So also, Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
  “You are my Son,
       today I have begotten you”;
[6] as he says also in another place
“You are a priest forever,
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

So quoting God’s promises to the Messiah from Psalm 2 and Ps 110, the author of Hebrews says God made Jesus an even better high priest than the ones from Aaron. He’s better, because he goes even further back. Back to Melchizedek.

Now, Melchizedek takes us all the way back to Genesis 14, back to Abram, over 400 years before Moses, Aaron, and Sinai, where Aaron’s priesthood is established. Abram won a great battle and met Melchizedek, King of Salem, who was a priest of God Most High. And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Abram served this Priest King as an act of worship to God.

And since, the priesthood of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, was still essentially “inside” Abram when he gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything, the author of Hebrews says that Levi and Aaron’s priesthood must be lower in rank than Melchizedek. Because as Abram is serving Melchizedek, so are his future children, though not even born. Look at Hebrews 7:9:

Hebrews 7:9-10
One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, [10] for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.

So what is the author of Hebrews doing with all this strange talk? He’s trying to show you that Jesus completely eclipses the priesthood of Israel. It might help to illustrate this by way of Narnia,

Do you remember how at the stone table, after Aslan comes back to life, Susan and Lucy ask him how it could be? The Witch put Aslan to death because of The Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time that said all traitors’ lives must be forfeited to her, and therefore, Edmund’s treason required that someone die. Susan and Lucy get it: the White Witch’s claim is legitimate. So how can Aslan be released from her claim on his life? Aslan replies:

Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

In essence, the author of Hebrews is using Melchizedek and his priesthood like the deeper magic from before the dawn of time. Yes, the priesthood established at Sinai was legitimate. But there was a priesthood that goes way further back. And Jesus is that kind of a Priest. A priest-king. And even his name tells us that he is a different kind of High Priest:

Hebrews 7:1-2
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, [2] and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.

My friends, this is such good news. Jesus is a better kind of Priest, a Melchizedek-like high priest. And like Melchizedek he is king of righteousness, and king of peace. This is good news to sinners, like us. We need a priest king who is holy, and who is just. Jesus is our king of righteousness! But because we are sinners, we need peace with God. Jesus is a king of peace!

How can this be? How can Jesus be both king of righteousness, which means he must punish rebellion, and simultaneously offer us peace, when deserve wrath?

A priest like Aaron would just not do. They too were sinners, in need of sacrifice. They cannot be priests of righteousness and of peace. They needed the blood of bulls and goats just as much as the people they were supposed to represent before God! They couldn’t stand between God and man completely! They were guilty!

But oh, friends there is good news about our Priest-King Jesus:

Hebrews 9:11-15
[11] But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, . . . [12] he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. [13] For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, [14] how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. [15] Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Oh, dear friends, behold our Great High Priest. This is the deeper magic from before the dawn of time.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A Great High Priest, whose name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me!

Jesus, is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. King of righteousness, and King of peace. He completely eclipses the priesthood of Aaron, and that is good news for us. So we sing,

Hallelujah! Praise the One, risen Son of God!

But what about God’s plan to have a nation of priests? Since Jesus is our High Priest, does that mean there is no priestly people? Did Israel’s failure thwart God’s plan forever? Turn a few pages to 1 Peter 2

The Royal Priesthood of the New Covenant

1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession. That you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light.

God’s plan to possess a people of priests is fulfilled in the church, the gathering of his New Covenant people across the world. We are made royal priests by union to our great Melchizedekian Priest-King, Jesus. We don’t need to slit the throats of bulls and goats, because Jesus has done that once-and-for all. Our priestly duties are simple: to proclaim his excellencies. Our priestly duties are to point. To say, “LOOK!”

Behold him there the risen Lamb
My perfect spotless righteousness
The Great, Unchangeable I AM
The King of Glory and of Grace!

One with Himself, I cannot die
My soul is purchased by His blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ, my savior and my God

The reason we gather weekly is to perform priestly duties to God and to one another. Like the priest on the battlefield, we point to the promises of God and say, “The Lord Your God is he who is with you.”

We don’t neglect gathering together (Hebrews 10:25), because we are called to exhort one another every day (Hebrews 3:13) on the eve of battle.

The priesthood of all believers makes our participation in the weekly church gathering massively important.

Prayer in the Church

Now it may seem like I’ve taken a 30 minute rabbit trail from the topic of prayer in the corporate worship gathering, but don’t fear: I haven’t actually gone far at all.

We gather every week and sing priestly prayers. I say we sing prayers, because that’s what we are doing when we sing. We are praying exhorting one another in song. The music just helps us do it together. You could stand up here and pray a prayer, and hopefully my response would be “Amen!” When we pray together, we are striving to talk to God in a way that builds each other up so that our response it “YES!” “So be it!” “Amen!”

And the closest I can get to participating with you together is if I keep constantly chiming in with my agreement, “yes!” “amen!” “mmmm!”

Or, what if rather than saying “Yes! Amen!” I just, spoke the same prayer as you? That would be an “Amen” embodied. Well, that’s what congregational singing is. The rhythm and melody give us the tools to pray together, enacting our amen as we together perform our priestly duties of saying, “There he is!” “Come, behold the wondrous mystery!”

Like the priest on the battlefield, we sing familiar songs, repeating promises we’ve already heard. But like the priests on the battlefield, we look one another in the eye as fleshy ambassadors of God’s invisible kingdom. Yes, we are singing to God! We are singing prayers of adoration, singing prayers of confession, singing prayers of thanksgiving and supplication. But we are doing so with an aim to remind and to build one another’s faith.

We stand shoulder to shoulder, proclaiming his excellencies as a royal priesthood, adding authority and presence to these truths through our station as ambassadors of the God we cannot see.

Colossians 3:16-17
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, by singing: psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Ephesians 5:18-19
Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.

So am I being a hypocrite by praying to God in a way that has your good in mind? Absolutely not! That’s exactly what God wants us to do when we are gathered. God has created means by which he will sustain our faith, and the primary means is the gathering of priests every Sunday morning.

We’re going to sing in a moment, “He will hold me fast” and as we sing together, we will all put our “Amen!” on that prayer of hope and assurance.

But how is he going to do it? Christ is going to hold you fast, Christian. But how?

With his hands! He will send you Kevin Tibboel. That’s how he held me! Christ held on to me 7 years ago through the priestly means of Kevin, who pointed me again and again to Jesus. Jesus holds us through his body, performing their priestly duties. Jesus held me fast as David Ferguson looked me in the eye in January 2009 and spoke God’s Word to me: “No one born of God keeps on sinning without repentance. And no one comes into the light unless the Father is drawing him.”

Christ holds on to us with his hands and his feet and his mouth. That is, Christ holds us fast through his body, the church. My faith has been sustained in countless times and ways through the priesthood of the saints at C3. So we sing, “He will hold me fast,” God will use our singing to accomplish the very thing we are promising one another. He uses means. He holds us fast through songs and vocal chords, bread and grape juice, and bible reading plans, and grandmothers’ prayers, and rebukes from friends. He will hold us fast.

So we respond in singing. And as we pass the bread and the cup to one another, we perform priestly duties to God, and to each other.

Oh Father, you have been kind to us in Christ,
as you opened up your word to us.
Did not our hearts burn within us, as you spoke with us on the way?
Fill us with the Spirit that we may encourage one another,
and fix our gaze together on Jesus our Savior:
King of Righteousness, and King of Peace.
Let our sung prayers be acceptable in your sight,
and encouraging to one another.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.

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