Saturday, August 23, 2014

A New Song:-Worship as Hope in the Victory of the Justice of God (Psalm 149.. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12)

I read an article this week about singing in church… or the lack of it. It bemoaned the fact that modern technology had stopped people singing in church. With the advent of data projection and worship bands people had stopped participating in sung worship…Mainly because there were too many new songs… Before projection most denominations had a printed authorised hymn book of about 1000 songs of which only about one third were ever used, and there were definitely a top twenty loved by all. Now with the internet and mass electronic media you can hear new songs all the time from so many different sources and use them in services, simply downloading chords and lyrics. The article said it had become more about performance than congregational singing.

I don’t know if that’s true or  the whole picture.  I do know that it makes it hard choosing music for services … as a worship band when we introduce a new song we sing it three weeks in a row so people get to know it and hopefully can then use it to worship God. We try not to introduce to many new songs. I pick hymns that fit the Bible reading we are looking at and Stewart and I hope we can find a well-known tune… if the words are unfamiliar. I definitely try and pick a top twenty one to finish the service on a high note with.

So when it came to Psalm 149 this morning there may have been a collective groan as it invites us all ‘ to sing a new song to the LORD’. Not another one… what if we don’t like it…what’s wrong with the old ones…  But we can miss the encouragement in that invitation for a group facing real challenges and difficulties in their life. Alongside that you may have groaned about the use of military language in the second half of the psalm as well… as Craig Broyles says “in an Otherwise wonderful collection of Hymns  these verses sound particularly unpleasant”. But it lifts our worship from just singing songs to be about a just God who rights wrongs. This series of messages on the last five psalms is called ‘the last word on praise and worship’ and right at the back of the book as we are about to leave, this last word places our worship in a real life context. It gives it purpose and weightiness. As Walter Brueggemann puts it ‘Praise of God is not flight from historical reality”…  nor is it “escapism from either historical responsibility or historical temptation”.

Psalm 149 is a hymn of praise; In between its book ends of praise the LORD it is in two parts. The first follows the pattern we’ve observed in the other hymns of praise… it starts with a summons to worship, and then gives a reason for that worship. But the second section takes a surprising direction the congregation is not only summoned to worship but to take action as well. Action that is couched in military terms…

Psalms that summons people to sing a new song are usually associated with the coronation of a new king. These are seen as a time of fresh start, new hope, a chance for change and renewal. It’s not going to be the same old story, the same old tune. Maybe that’s a phrase we hear over used in an election year. But to make it a reality Israel’s kings were given the books of the law to remind them of the way God their true sovereign wanted them to rule. For the remnant that had come back to Jerusalem now just a province of the Persian Empire, they looked and saw God as their only king. This psalm fits in with the rest of the doxologies at the back of the book which emphasis the creator is their sovereign ruler and has shown his goodness and power to his people by his loving actions. The Lord has bought them back from exile and established them as a worshipping community once again. So they should worship him in song and dance and action. Instead of the king being given the law, it tells us in Ezra they had been read the book of the law and wept as they realised it called them to live in a new way.

Paul picks this up in the passage we had read from 2 Thessalonians this morning. He commends the church that found itself as a small minority in the Roman Empire serving a different king, they are a people who believed that in Christ the Kingdom of God had come and were prepared in their words and lives to sing a new song and live out a new story because of it. Trusting in God’s justice and victory.

The Psalm is a call for the remnant to change their tune, from the laments by the rivers of Babylon and the anxious songs as they wondered if they could make a go of it, to trusting in and celebration of God’s goodness and mercy. One of the things that depression does to a people or a person is rob them of their joy and energy. People often talk of lying awake worrying, tossing and turning in their beds or having no energy to get up in the morning and face the day.  Not having the energy to do the things that actually bring enjoyment into life and fill our tanks. The new song is one of hope and trust, to go to sleep and wake up in their beds acknowledging the goodness and grace of God.  To take steps to enjoy life, to dance and sing and make music, both in temple worship, and as they experience God’s provision and blessing in everyday life. God is sovereign and God had won the victory. 

The Psalm is a call to change the story, from the rule and domination of the powers of this world, to the exhalation and living out of the story of God’s grace and God’s justice. One the things that oppression does to people is rob them of their ability to take charge and live in the way that they believe is right. Because God is their sovereign even though they still find themselves in a difficult situation, a small and struggling community they are to act in a way that reflects the victory and liberty that God has given them.

In the west there is a reluctance to use the military language that this Psalm does. We are used to it being viewed from a position of strength and power, we are the product of Christendom, the crusades, sectarian bombings and violence, nationalism and tribalism being justified by the thin veneer of Christianity. AS Walter Brueggemann says we are used to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition… John Golderngay says we are used to people picking up the sword and then picking up the scriptures to justify it. For the remnant they are aware of their precarious position they come from a place of weakness and powerlessness. EM Blaiklock wonders if this Psalm does not come from the time of Nehemiah chapter 4 when those rebuilding Jerusalem have to work with their weapons strapped on or at least within arm’s reach because they fear armed opposition from their powerful neighbours.

It’s hard to see this as being understood literally. Judah did not have a standing army in the post exilic period, it was only a province of the Persian empire. However in the book of Maccabees the people who join the revolt and establish Israel as an independent state are called ‘The assembly of faithful people’. It’s hard also to write it off as simply the metaphoric language of poetry.  Some want to see the connection of dance and sword and see a ceremonial sword dance in mind. Others connect this image with the idea of the two edged sword being the word of God in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, very much picking up John’s vision of Jesus in the beginning of the book of revelation. Others see it as simply in terms of spiritual warfare.

However if we are to take it seriously we must see our worship as having an impact on the world around us. To worship God, to acknowledge the creator as our sovereign, to proclaim Jesus is Lord is to put ourselves into a position of opposing the powers of this world. To acknowledge the victory of Jesus is to actually acknowledge that the powers in this world, are defeated. They stand judged by the righteous God who has saved his people, not because of their own strength or power but because of his grace. 

It’s challenge to those in power… John Calvin wrote in the time of Christendom when to talk of the sword meant talking about the church having the power of the state. He differentiated between the violence of the saints and wicked violence that rings as a shrill mockery in God’s ears… That the battle for the saints is always fundamentally directed to giving praise to God, so is always a struggle for justice and righteousness.’ It’s interesting that even in today’s society  Christians will often speak of wanting political power and influence, and the challenge is that such things are used for God’s agenda and justice not ours. In our reformed tradition we are so aware of the dangers of such power, that it corrupts. Much of the checks and balances of a separate legislature, judiciary and executive built into the American democracy came from the influence of Presbyterianism.

But it also speaks to people who find themselves in positions of facing either themselves or others being oppressed and treated unjustly. To acknowledge the victory of the justice of God is to be prepared to suffer and to strive and to act to see it be defeated and changed. To see the rule and the reign of God.  Our worship of God calls us to be prepared to act for the justice of God. Knowing God is sovereign that Jesus has already one the victory gives us the hope to face those things.

I want to finish with two quotes that bring this psalm home to us today……

One is from someone you may not know John Pavlovitz.. a Christian pastor who wrote an article where he looks at why people are leaving Church… It has to do with singing a new song. He thinks that for many our Sunday Productions are wearing thin. Just maybe we need to rethink and change how we do church believe me I’m wrestling with that… but also he says that people have become concerned with the disparity between our worship; our acknowledging the sovereignty of Christ and our willingness to face in justice… Speaking for those who are leaving he says…

”Every day we see a world suffocated by poverty, and racism, and violence, and bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet. We wish you were as courageous in those fights, because then we’d feel like coming alongside you; then we’d feel like going to war with you.

Church, we need you to stop being warmongers with the trivial, and pacifists in the face of the terrible.”

Finally a quote about  the hope that knowing the victory of Christ can have in the face of on-going struggle… on the night before he was shot Martin Luther King jr preached an amazing sermon Outlining the struggle for freedom and liberty, giving voice to his hope and assurance that their just cause of equality would prevail…  his last words were of seeing and knowing the victory of Christ and living and acting in its hope…

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