You have probably heard the story, and have most definitely seen the result. As the story goes, in 1743 King George II was attending the London premier of Handel’s “Messiah”, and when he heard the “Hallelujah” chorus he was so moved that he stood – and the rest of the audience stood as well, because when the king stands, everyone stands.
While it is not clear if this account is historically true, it is clear that it has become customary for audiences to stand for the performance of the “Hallelujah” chorus. Whether they feel moved to do so by inspiration, tradition or peer pressure, every time I have seen the “Hallelujah” chorus performed, everyone in attendance stands. What at some point began (most likely) out of a desire to honor God, has become a custom that may or may not be done to honor the Messiah.
It seems like we often approach our Christian lives the same way. We do things because, well, everyone else is doing them or they have become customary for us. It is easy for us to begin to do things “just because,” with no real meaning to what we are doing. We do not do them to honor the Messiah, but rather to please others, from force of habit, or because we think it is our religious duty.
How can we change this? I believe one of the key things we need to do is to learn to be gospel-centered in all that we do – that is, to focus on God and what He has done for us and not what we ourselves should do. I recently heard a speaker say that we need to get the order right when we read the Bible. Often we look at the Bible as a religious instruction manual and so we want to find in its pages what we need to do – and end up focusing on ourselves. When we do this we begin doing things as religious duty or custom. Instead, as we read the Bible, we need to start by looking at what the passage says about who God is. Then see that from God’s character flows what He has done for us. Out of what He has done for us comes who we are in Him. And finally, who we are in Jesus leads to what we do.
For example, the Bible says that we should love our enemies. If we try to do that, it will feel impossible – and, in fact, is impossible. But if we focus on how much we are loved, and that out of this love God sent the Messiah to die for us even while we were His enemies, His love will change us into loving people who will then love others – even our enemies. As the speaker I was listening to said, “if you are having trouble loving others, you have probably forgotten how much you are loved. If you are having trouble forgiving others, it is because you have forgotten how much you have been forgiven.” If we focus our attention on who God is and what He has done for us, then we will be transformed from the inside out, and right actions will flow from who we are.
This Christmas season as we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, may we remember to get the order right and think first about who God is and what He has done for us. Then we can be free to stand (or sit!) – and live, really live – out of a grateful response to our Heavenly Father.
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