Why have you come to church this evening? It may be such a habit that you haven't asked that for a while. Maybe it's never occurred to you to ask. Which is why I'm asking. If a house mate or friend or colleague asked you, 'Why do you go to church?' what would you say? Well let's put that question to these verses written by the apostle Paul: Paul, please give us the authoritative answer: 'Why do we meet?' And Paul gives three reasons: First, WE MEET TO LISTEN TO GOD; secondly, WE MEET TO THANK GOD; and thirdly, WE MEET TO GO AND LIVE FOR GOD. First, WE MEET TO LISTEN TO GOD It won't have escaped your notice that we can't actually see God anywhere in the building. There are some things you can see - like pillars and the back of peoples' heads - and if you're lucky enough to be under a light, your service sheet. But our Father in heaven and the Lord Jesus are nowhere to be seen. Which begs the question: how can you meet with someone you can't see? And this is where some people make their first mistake in this business of meeting with God. Since they can't see God, they think the way to meet him is to feel him in some way - at least, to try to feel him. So people say things like, 'I really felt God's presence tonight.' Or disappointedly, 'I didn't really feel God's presence tonight.' So it's very striking to see what Paul says. Colossians 3.16:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
He doesn't tell us to feel God. But to listen to God - through what he calls 'the word of Christ', which means God's message about the Lord Jesus. And that message in its final form is this book, the Bible. When I was languishing in bed with food poisoning recently I got a letter from a couple in my home group. And they said they were sorry I was ill and that they just wanted to take the chance to encourage me and thank me for everything I was doing. Now they weren't visible to me. But their written words brought home to me volumes of concern and friendship. And as a result I felt enormously cared for. Not because the feeling just came over me (my main feeling at the time was nausea). But as a result of their words. And it's like that when it comes to meeting with God. God is not visible to us in person. He will be in heaven, but he's not now. So we're told not to try to feel him, but to listen to him:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. (v16)
Let me try to illustrate the world of difference between trying to feel God, and listening to him. If we're healthy Christians, we'll want to have a sense that God accepts us. So let me give you 15 seconds to try to feel accepted by God.
............... Well I don't know how you got on, but I guess that you just felt whatever you were feeling. If you were feeling down about yourself anyway, you probably just carried on feeling down about yourself for another 15 seconds. Which isn't very helpful. Now let me take 15 seconds to read to you some of God's words. These are addressed to and apply to anyone who trusts that Jesus died in order to forgive them. Colossians 1.22:
But now, God has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
I don't know about you, but most of the time, I feel unholy (that is unacceptable to God), full of blemishes and frequently accused by my own conscience and by Satan. But in Colossians 3.16, God is saying to me as a believer: 'Ian, don't try to feel my acceptance; listen to me. I'm saying that on the strength of my Son's death for you, I look on you as totally acceptable, without blemish, and I have no accusation against you whatever.' You see the difference? If we try to feel God we'll end up meeting with our feelings. We'll only meet with God when we let the word of Christ - the Bible - dwell in us richly. When we listen to God's written word speaking to us from outside our own feelings and thoughts and doubts and emotions. And feelings then follow as a result of listening to God's word. That verse Colossians 1.22 makes me feel massively accepted and reassured. And I'd want to say unashamedly that a relationship with God involves and engages the feelings. But those feelings are the result of listening to the word of Christ, the Bible. That's why the centrepiece of what we do in these Sunday meetings is a sermon. And the point of a sermon is to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly: to slow down over a part of the Bible and dwell on it so we realise what God is saying to us and begin to respond. That's also why the small groups that do Christians most good are those which study the Bible together - Home Groups, CU Hall Groups, Focus, CYFA, all our midweek groups. And if the Bible loses its central place in those groups, we end up still with the benefit of meeting one another; but missing what we most need, which is meeting with God. So, Colossians 3.16:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly [OK, but how will that happen? Well,], as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
How will we hear God's words as we meet together? According to this verse, we'll hear God' words as we speak or sing them to one another. Now, I'd be the first to encourage individual Christians to read the Bible and pray for themselves, on their own. But the emphasis here and elsewhere in the New Testament is that we meet God as we meet together, and speak or sing his words to one another. And we're not just talking about preaching, although obviously that's what preaching is. Preaching is simply a prayerful attempt to open up a part of the Bible so that we realise what God is saying through it and begin to respond. But that's not the only way we can teach and admonish one another this evening. In the original Colossians 3.16 reads like this:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
There's no 'and' after wisdom - the NIV puts one in because they thought it made more sense. It actually hides the point. Christians do speak God's words to one another when they preach, or when they have Bible study groups. But we also speak God's words to one another when we sing. For example, our first song tonight, 'Unto us a child is born' had words taken straight from Isaiah 9 - to get us singing about and focused on the Lord Jesus. And all our songs are based on words from the Bible, so that as we're singing them we're speaking God's words to one another - and to God, too. The other day I said to Chris (one of our music staff) that I didn't think much of the words of a new chorus. He asked me where I thought they came from. I muttered something about some American songwriter. And Chris said 'Revelation 7 actually'. I ate humble pie. But it makes the point: we do our best to sing 'the word of Christ' in the Bible's own words. So please never think that you have no contribution to make here on a Sunday. It's easy to think that church is like cinema - 'The 6.30pm 'showing' at JPC will happen, whether or not I'm there.' But church and Christian groups are not like that. Just imagine 350 of you had thought like that tonight and not come, and I'd been here with a handful of stalwarts. It would have been far less helpful in meeting God. It's a powerful help for us to be with others singing and speaking to God and about God. I often come here feeling spiritually low and the faith the rest of you express as we sing and speak words revitalises me. You know, maybe we're singing that song, 'I'm accepted, I'm forgiven,' or 'Only by grace can we enter', but I'm not feeling remotely accepted or forgiven. But when I hear you singing those words, it encourages me to stop thinking that I'm the one of all of us who's too bad to be accepted. I say to myself, 'Come on, Ian. If they can believe God accepts them, why can't you trust him to accept you?' So that your faith gives mine a leg-up. And I meet with God with your help. Meeting like this is a powerful help to believers. And it's also a powerful witness to friends among us who don't yet believe. And they often say so. Visitors or first-timers often say to me, 'I was bowled over by the number of people who obviously have a real faith I mean, they actually sing, and they sound like they actually believe what they're saying.' So, don't think church - or Home Group or CYFA or Focus or whatever it is - will happen just as well without you. It won't because it's not an 'it'. Church is not 'it'; it's you. Home Group is you. CYFA is you. Focus is you. Etc. If you stay away, other people miss out on the help you can give them in meeting with God. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (v16) So, we come to Christian groups and meetings to give to one another; not simply to get. But, clearly, we also come to receive. And notice that in order to meet with God, we have to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. That's the active responsibility of each one of us. I was baby sitting for friends the other day. And I lovingly, painstakingly prepared one of those revolting baby meals - you know, Heinz liquidised fish and banana or something like that. I got it to exactly the right temperature. I got Suzie all bibbed up and excited and ready to go. And would she feed? No. It was all raspberried out again. She wouldn't let anything in. She wouldn't be fed. Now, Christians have this funny idea that ultimately other people can 'feed' them. 'Bible study leaders can feed us,' we think. 'Preachers can feed us. Services can feed us.' But that isn't true. Bible study leaders or preachers or music groups can provide the opportunity for you to meet with God. But they can't meet you up with God. It's down to each of us individually to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. If we come to Christian meetings passively, if we think the meeting will somehow meet us up with God, we'll be badly disappointed - and may even head off muttering about the leadership or the preaching or looking for a better church or a different group. Let me make some suggestions about how to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. (I'm thinking mainly about Sunday meetings, but some of these things apply to other meetings). For one thing, we need to come in a fit state to hear the word of Christ. I don't mean I suspect you've all been in the pub since 3pm. Nor am I forgetting that parents often have little control over being in a fit state. But if it's in our power to arrive fresh and unhurried and having prayed beforehand that God would meet with us, then I have to say: I think we should. Another thought. The services I benefit from most are the ones where I've had to prepare for preaching or leading - poring over the words of the Bible or of the songs and hymns. Which leads me to make this suggestion. How about arriving 10 minutes early, taking a service sheet and just quietly reading through the words of the hymns and songs and the Bible readings, so when the time comes, the word of Christ will dwell in you more richly? Then a thought on the sermon. If you're passively thinking it'll meet you up with God, it won't. We need to be following in the Bible - because if we don't see that what's being said comes from God not just from a human preacher, we won't trust it or obey it as a word from God. We'll just sit loose to it, toy with it, criticise it to ourselves and leave it - and it'll do us no spiritual good at all. And we'll have that sense that although we heard someone speaking, we didn't meet with God. In fact, through the same sermon or service or Bible study, some people will meet with God and some won't. The difference is attitude: some actively listening for God's words looking for what to trust, what to obey; others passively expecting the occasion to meet them up with God - which it won't. So, firstly, we meet to listen to God. Secondly, WE MEET TO THANK GOD Thanking God is a big theme in Colossians and it's there in 3.15,16 and 17. End of v15: 'And be thankful'. Middle of v16: ' sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.' End of v17 ' giving thanks to God the Father through [Jesus].' So we meet to thank God (or for 'praise', as the Christian jargon goes). And already some hearts will be sinking. You may be thinking, 'But I don't often feel like thanking God or praising him.' Well let's think this one through. Just think of a moment this weekend when you've said 'Thank you' to someone. Why did you say thank you? For example, I said 'Thank you' to the lady in Tesco's because she packed my shopping for me. I was obviously looking more than usually incompetent at the check-out - putting the eggs in the carrier bag first and then the eight-pack of baked beans, or something. Maybe you said thank you to someone just for being there with you. The point is: thanking is a response. So the secret of thanking is not how I feel, but having at the front of my mind what someone has done for me, or what someone is to me, or means to me. Just turn back to page 2 of the service sheet and that song at the bottom 'Jesus Christ, I think about your sacrifice.' Now forget the tune - music will always divide us and the sign of a united church is that the music displeases all of the people some of the time. Forget the tune. Just look at the words. It's an excellent example of something that helps us meet with God to thank him. It doesn't just try to drag a response out of us from cold - like the 'Oh Lord, I just I really just want to hug you when I get to heaven' sort of song. It helps us remember what the Lord Jesus has done for us, who he is to us, and then it gives us words with which to thank him. Very very helpful. You can start that song feeling unthankful, and the song itself lifts your spirit to the Lord and reminds you of the unchanging things you have to be thankful for, when maybe in the changing things of this week it's been the hardest or the saddest. Likewise, at the end of this (communion) service, we'll have bread and wine to remind us of the body of the Lord Jesus crucified for us and the blood of the Lord Jesus shed for us. Again, it slows us down so we remember and take in the most massive, unchanging thing for which we can be thankful - that he loved us enough to die for us. When Paul tells us to 'be thankful', he's not assuming Christians always feel thankful or always appreciate the unchanging things they have to be thankful for. Which is why the order of things in Colossians 3 makes so much spiritual sense:
[End of v15] And be thankful. ['But I don't feel all that thankful.' Well, v16:] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs [like that one on page 2] with gratitude in your hearts to God. [And if your faith is really low, let others around you sing and just listen and let their faith rekindle yours.]
Thanksgiving is response, which is why in our services we don't just say and sing thanks to God. We say and sing about those things for which we have to be thankful. So don't stay away if you don't feel thankful. The times we least feel like meeting are the times we most need to - to be rekindled by God, through one another. Thanksgiving is a response. It's also an effort. However good the presents are I guarantee you'll find Christmas 'Thank you' letters an effort. And you may need the discipline of someone standing over you to help you get down to writing them. That's just because we're fallen human beings. By fallen nature we're ungrateful and take things for granted. And we're the same towards God. And I need the discipline of meeting here with you like this to help me get down to thanking God. I do thank God in my own prayers. But I think I thank him most here in church, because you help me to. And Colossians 3 seems to say that's as it should be. So, firstly, we meet to listen to God. Secondly, we meet to thank God. Thirdly, WE MEET TO GO AND LIVE FOR GOD It sounds odd to say we come here in order to go, but it's true. We come to listen to God, and to respond by thanking him. But most of that response doesn't happen here according to Paul. It happens after we leave. Which is why v17 is there:
And whatever you do [that is, whatever you go back to - tonight and tomorrow morning], whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Our Father and the Lord Jesus are no more present here than they will be when we're back at home or school or work or wherever. The point of meeting God here is to remind us that he's with us everywhere and always. We're more conscious of him here because we've taken time out to listen to him and meet with him. But Paul says as you go, having met with God, you're not leaving him behind for another week. The Lord we've met with here is with us everywhere and always. So stay as conscious of him as you can, and whatever you do, do it consciously for him. Which is why the measure of whether you and I have really met with God tonight is not how we feel afterwards. But how we live. We asked Paul: 'Why do we meet?' And the answer is:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.