Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Last Word On Praise and Worship is an Open Ended Invitation... (psalm 150, Revelations 4:1-11)

We’ve been looking at the last five psalms in a the series called the last word on praise and worship’ and today we come to that last psalm, Psalm 150, and maybe you’d expect that this great book of prayers and songs would finish with some deeply profound statement about God, ‘To Attempt to say something final about God would inevitably be anticlimactic’. Psalm 150 rather continues to summons and call us to worship. It builds into a crescendo of invites , like wave after wave crashing on the shore, praise him praise him praise him and in that crescendo is an open invitation for all to come and hallelujah

And in the end Psalm 150 has to be open ended because how can we put a full stop to the worship and praise of God. To do justice to the mighty acts of God and his surpassing greatness,  is a never ending call on our lives, a never ending task a never ending joy. It’s going to take all of us, all we’ve got and all of time, all of eternity.  The Psalm acts, like the choir in the video we opened the service with, processes us out of the church into the world as they sung it… it opens the door for us to the ongoing life task and privilege of Praising God.

It opens the door by the way it is an open ending to the journey started in the opening psalm.   Psalm1 and psalm 150 are book ends to the five books which make up the collection. Psalm 1 starts us off by talking about how we should live in relationship to God’s word. It is a call to obedience, to put our roots deep and stay rooted in the word of God which is a water source that will not run dry. Psalm 150 finishes that by showing us that such a life is a joy, is a life of praise, of relationship, a spring that bubbles up within us and cannot be contained. Proverbs tells us that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom, but we often stay at that starting point, whereas the greatest commandment in scripture is that we ‘love the LORD with all our hearts and our minds and our strength’.  The journey through psalms can be seen as a journey from simple obedience and fear through times of orientation, disorientation and reorientation; through the calm seas and storms of life to trust in and love of God: To drinking deeply and immerse ourselves in the river. Perhaps that is why music is such a large part of this open call to worship because it engages both hemispheres of our brain, the creative and the analytical, our intellect and our emotions,  and with dance our body as well as our minds all of us caught up in the love and worship of God. Our Presbyterian forbears summed this up in the opening question of the shorter Westminster confession… what is the chief end of humanity? To which the answer is to know God and enjoy him always and psalm 150 acts a resounding amen.

Psalm 150 also opens up a life of worship for us by providing some answers to some open ended questions. Open ended questions are those designed to get conversations going, not be cut off with simple one word answers… the Psalm opens us up to the where, why, how, who and when of praising God.

Where should we praise God?…Verse one invites us to see that we should praise God in his sanctuary.  The Jews once understood the sky to be like that TV show under the dome, they believed that the sky, the firmament,  was a dome over us.  You get the idea that the place to praise God is both in his heavenly court; above the dome.  As we saw in our reading from revelations this morning; heaven is full of the praise of the LORD. But also the earthly sanctuary as well, here on earth under the dome… Of course for those returning from exile that was gathering in the temple in Jerusalem, but for us from beyond the cross and resurrection, it is in the body of Christ that we are called to gather. As 1st peter says we are the living stones being built into the temple of God. There is a move today to place gathering for worship low on the list of priorities, to simply say I can do it on my own, but Psalm 150 tells us that praise is polyphonic, symphonic and it starts in gathering together.

But it does not stop there it is open ended everything that has breath is called to praise the Lord. The dome is to vibrate and resound not with people wanting to get out but with people acknowledging the renowned of the LORD.  It goes beyond the gates of the sanctuary… out into the whole of life.

Verse two gives us the why we should praise God? it gathers up all the reasons that had gone before  in the psalms, God’s creation, God’s promises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God’s bringing his people out of Egypt, settling them in the promised land, his provision, his goodness to individual and to the community, his answers to prayer, his presence in times of lament and trouble, his keeping his word even when it meant taking them into exile and his bring them back from exile and re-establishing them in the land… It sums that all up in “his saving acts of power”. But it does not stop there it leaves the door open for that continuing story, the coming of Jesus Christ, his life death and resurrection, the sending of the Holy Spirit, how the gospel has been passed on and worked out in the lives of individuals and communities, amidst the churn and blur of history, our stories joining the story, our voices joining the choir, as we have come  to know and experience God’s saving acts of power  and as we saw last week in Psalm 149 on to the ultimate victory of the justice of God. All those great acts of power, reflecting the very character and greatness of God, the surpassing greatness of God shown in his love and grace.

Then in verse 3-5 we have a list of how we are to worship the LORD. This is a song for human singers but the focus is on what accompanies those voices. Some people have tried to use this passage to quantify what is in and what is out when it comes to worshipping God. But we need to realise that in these verses is a comprehensive list of musical instruments, the whole orchestra is here. In the ancient near east you only had stringed instruments, wind instruments and percussion. The list is wider now and maybe more wired than stringed but the call is still open, all should praise the LORD.

At the beginning of this series we talked about the worship wars, about what was appropriate music for worship and Psalm 150’s answer to that is simple, bring it all, bring it on. When I was preparing the service this week I went looking for musical expressions of Psalm 150.. I googled it and I was amazed at the depth and variety of hits I got. The Hits just kept coming…  Gregorian chants by Romanian orthodox monks, the Episcopalian choir from New York, various hymns, Hillsong and Vineyard churches, soulful black gospel choirs, rocky upbeat bands, even Hip Hop complete with amazing choreography (We are going to play that one foryou after the service).

But this is not a Cacophony of competing sounds; each instrument plays a part in the worship of God. This is an open ended summons but it is both structured to give it solemnity and gravitas and also bubbling with joy and spontaneity.  The trumpet that is mentioned in verse three is a Ram’s horn, used to summons people to worship. The lyre and harp were instrument used by the Levites and professional musicians to accompany choirs. The tumbrel and dance and strings and pipe are the instruments of the congregation in response to that. There is place for both the formal and informal, the great performance pieces and the sing-a-longs. The happy clappy tap your feet move about and the soaring stilling reflective artistry. And I am sorry James the two lines about the cymbals is not that percussion takes precedence that it is all with a driving beat. Cymbals were used in two ways in worship. To let people know that they needed to listen this next part was important, kind of like the gong at a dinner party or polite clinking of glasses to get everyone’s attention. So they could hear what’s coming next, in this case the word of God. But also to let people know when it was time to respond with a festive shout, which the second cymbal does in the psalm coming right before the call for everything that has breath to praise the Lord.

It echoes our reformed tradition, of gathering confessing and worshipping to prepare us to hear the word then hearing the word read and preached, then responding to the word with praise and mission.

Everything that has breath leads nicely into looking at the who of worship?  We may simply see instruments here and I’ve often heard this called the musicians psalm. But that is not the case, behind the instruments it is a summons to all people to come and worship. The ram’s horn was blown by the priests they are to come and to lead and direct, the lyre and harp were used by the Levites, so yes the musicians were called to come and worship. But the other instruments are the everyday instruments of the people, all of us are called to come and join our joy and creativity in worship.  The timbrel and dance were used by women in festivals and times of celebration. So it is inclusive of men and women to bring who we are to add to the worship. Music and Dance are also an expression of culture and it is an invitation to bring that as well to worship.  In Thailand the church has flourished away from western influences in many of the tribal areas because the main theologians and bible teachers in those areas are choreographers who use traditional dance to teach and preach. The Tokelauan’s similarly have dances that tell bible stories. Sadly they won’t use them in church because the western missionaries said it wasn’t appropriate to dance in church. In the end it is an invitation to all people all that has breath to come and join us in prasing the God who they have come to know... It's a missional call.

Finally it opens up the question of the when of a life of worship?

Maybe for some of us that might be a closed question and the answer is 9:30am on a Sunday morning, for an hour or at least 9:45am for a bit longer when Howard goes on.

But more than that I hope that this morning what you will take away from this is both the importance of gathering and worshiping together and structuring worship into our lives but also that you might be open to the worship of God in the whole of life.

May accept this open invitation to a life of worship, may you step through the open door of psalm 150.
May you be attentive to the rams horn, above the blaring traffic horns, inviting you to see and to know and to acknowledge God’s saving acts and his surprising greatness as you experience them. Now I happened to be day dreaming at the lights the other day and I needed a horn blast from the car behind me to wake me up to the fact that the lights had changed. I did resist returning the traditional hand signal… but we often need the horn blast to wake us up to seeing God’s great saving acts and surpassing goodness. On facebook recently people have been doing a challenge… they are asked to post five things they are thankful for for five days in a row. It is designed to change a person’s outlook… Can I invite you this week to do the same thing… not on facebook (unless you want to) but to take some time each day to actually write down somewhere five things you want to praise God for.

That you may find your feet dancing in tune to the praise of God as you are aware of god guiding your steps as you weave your way through daily life.

That you may hear the cymbals calling you to be quite this is important and to listen as God speaks. That you may hear the cymbals of the spirit call you to proclaim God’s goodness. 

That you may find your life being a psalm a song to God, as Adrian Aldrich says in lifestyle evangelism, our words be the gospel and our love be the wonderful tune that makes it catchy. An open ended invitation for everything that has breath to come know and praise the Lord.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Using1 Corinthians 16;23-24 As A Blessing for the End of Public Worship

Over the past month we've been using Paul's blessing at the end of 1 Corinthians to end our services.

It's interesting but I haven't really seen or heard it used before as a blessing in public worship, but as I thought about it,  I actually like the sentiment and theology that it has.

It picks up the hope and prayer that we have for each other.. that we may know the grace of the Lord Jesus with us in our lives as we go from public worship to serving God through the week. God's prevenient grace shown in his provision and creation, and his redeeming grace in Jesus life death and resurrection, God's continuing grace as we know his presence through the Holy Spirit's indwelling, Grace that looks to a future fulfilment...'having confidence that he who has begun a good work in us can be trusted to bring it to fruition on the day of Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 1:6)

While the second verse is Paul speaking, or writing, it does sum up our hope as Christians, that people may know the love of the Lord Jesus in their lives because of the love that they experience from us. Our love of the Lord is outworked in our love for one another. A love in Christ which is also missional, which is (I think) wonderfully picked up in the image I have been using with the blessing... an open hand offering Christ to others.

It took people a couple of weeks to get used to saying it to one another... I think for me as well as others you actually had to step out from behind liturgical words and step into the picture yourself... yes it can still be saying words... but It actually calls us to voice our blessing and our commitment to one another in Christ, and we are not used to doing that.

AS a church our vision is that we are called 'to be a authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us on that journey" and this blessing picks up the elements of this vision very well.

... and yes we do use the three fold sung amen...

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…

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Calling the Whole Of Creation To Join Us In Worship Of the Sovereign Savior. (Psalm 148, Romans 8:18-25)

You know sometimes you can get discouraged by numbers in Church… or the lack of them.

You can become aware of the empty seats about you rather than full lives and full hearts.

You can feel like a remnant, the last few

Out of step and out of time,

Out of kilter with a world that has other Gods that seem so much more powerful and persuasive.

It’s easy to wonder if it is all worthwhile.

In the end does it make a difference… what good does it do…

If you’ve ever felt like that then Psalm 148 is for you

Psalm 148 was written to encourage a group who felt just like that. The remnant who had come back to Jerusalem ‘The politically insignificant people of Israel simply a vassal state under Persian rule.’ In the book of Ezra it tells us when they were called to give a festive shout a Hallelujah as they celebrated the reestablishment of the altar of the temple, they wept instead because it seemed so small, so unlike it was back in the day… they were aware of the rubble and the empty places.


This series is called ‘the last word on Praise and Worship’… not because we are about to close it all down, box it all up and bury it in some dusty archive… or that we arrogantly have the definitive word on Worshipping God, but because we are looking at the last five songs and prayers in the book of Psalms that start and finish ‘Hallelujah’.. Five Songs that round off the soundtrack for the journey of the people of Israel from its high point under the reign of David, through times of trial and trouble, defeat and exile and finally to the restoration of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of temple worship.  Not to an end point but the place where the Hebrew Scriptures rest and turn and wait for fulfilment with the coming of the messiah: A soundtrack that acts as a wonderful overture to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Psalm 148 is a hymn of praise. While it follows the usual pattern of such songs with a summons to praise leading to reasons to praise, there is something unusual about it. It’s long on summons and short on reasons. It seems a bit out of place, this long call to worship would be better suited to the front of the book not the back. But as I said before it is there to provide encouragement for a small worshipping community, the remnant that had come back to Jerusalem and it does it two ways. In the long exhaustive roll call, and the surprising reason that is given for this universal call to praise.


Let’s have a look at what the roll call has to say to us.

Isaac and I are off to the second Bledisloe cup match at Eden Park next week, we booked our tickets about a month ago and even then we had a limited range of seats available. So we are sitting up the top of the exposed west stand… but we got tickets. It’s going to be a sell out.

This Psalm speaks to the remnant in Jerusalem and says that when it comes to worshipping God, there are no empty seats it’s a sell out from the nose bleed seats at the top of the stand to those buried at the back on the lowest level. When we gather to worship God it’s a sell-out. From the highest of heights to the depth of the sea. From spiritual beings and vast celestial bodies to the creepy-crawlies all are summons to give praise to their maker.

The Psalm breaks this universal call into two groupings to express this universality of praise. The first six verse focus on the heavens and the second focus on the earth below. I tried to pick that up in the image we used for our service this morning. One of the places I feel closest to God is the wild west coast beaches, I don’t often get out there as much as I’d like, but when I was younger i used to go out in the evenings two or three times a week during summer. You could walk under the stars, and in summer your feet on the wet sand would set off a series of sparks and the crashing waves would glow
with the florescence of the
Phytoplankton that came down from the tropics in the warm sea currents. Both the vast distant gas bodies and the small single celled plants radiating and showing glory to God; In the heavens above and the earth below from greatest to smallest.

We are not alone, when we worship God we are joined as John Goldingay puts it by ‘the music of the stars and the swish  of the water, the bellowing of the sea creature and the howl of the wind, the laughter of Children and the gossiping of old people (which he mean in a good warm hearted companion way  not malicious rumors)” all praising God as they do the things they were created to do. When we join together to worship God and give him praise we are not alone, our praise is joined by the whole of creation. In fact we are at the center of what the whole of creation is called to do.

This roll call of worshippers also acts as a polemic a theological statement about power. Science may have helped us understand the universe but In the ancient near east the sun and the moon and the stars were worshipped as deities; it was they who were seen to control the movements and the fate of humanity, here as in Genesis they are simply seen as objects that give God glory as they go about the rolls and tasks they were created for. To use the words of Rudolph Bultmann they are demythologised, stripped of their narrative power and become simply well-crafted creatures that reflect the power of their maker. Likewise with the spiritual realm, angels are mentioned by their roles in creation, simply as God’s messengers and host or army, the means by which God achieves God’s purposes. It’s interesting that the scientific amongst us might be concerned at the mention of the waters above because it reflects the false understanding of Ancient near eastern cosmology that there was a fresh water sea above the sky where the rain came from, But even in that we can see that our understanding of the universe is also called to give God glory and as we understand more and more of how it works we understand the craftsmanship and glory of the creator. The song of praise is more wonderful and complex than we had imagined.

This process continues in the second section as well down here on earth. We may have charted the depth but for the Hebrews the sea and the depth and the sea monsters were seen as powers of chaos. But again they are demythologized and simply called to worship the creator. The wild wind and winter storms as we saw in Psalm 147 last week come and go at God’s command, here they are seen to join the choir as well. Even the powerful rulers and kings of the world are called to come and to worship God. To recognize God’s sovereignty, they are not allowed to do their own thing in the corporate boxes in the arena of worship but to join all people, from children to the old, in worshipping God for his great power.

In a lot of conversations I have with people at the moment there is a lot of disquiet and worry about what is going on in the world: Concern over conflicts in far off places, worry about the wild and unpredictable weather, climate change. We need to hear the words of this psalm about God’s sovereign power that these things to are called to worship their creator. When it comes to the way we treat creation seeing it all as a fellow worshipper, sitting in the pews and singing in the choir with us may actually change the way we treat it. Worshipping and acknowledging God’s sovereignty is a prophetic act that speaks to the powers in this world reminding them of a greater power, a just and righteous God.

The roll call starts in verse one in the highest of heights and finishes in verse 13 by saying that God’s splendor is above the earth and the heavens. The whole of the universe is seen as joining us in worship. Then the psalm takes a surprising direction its second encouragement comes from the reason it gives for all creation to praise God in its final verse. That is God’s goodness in saving and restoring his people. 


Israel may feel alone may feel small weak vulnerable, but the whole of creation is called to give God glory for the way he has bought them back from exile to worship him.  The high point of God’s sovereignty and power in creation is not the vastness of the universe, or the snowcapped mountain vista, or the rolling waves but God’s saving grace. All the powers that Israel may have seen arrayed against them are called to worship God for the fact that despite them God has restored his people.


To raise up a horn was a way of talking about strengthen them. But in other places it also has the idea of raising up a savior for them as well. The NIV uses this wonderful phrase ‘the people close to his heart’ to finish talking about Israel. What a wonderful image for us…This picks up the Hebrew which can be interpreted in two ways…either the people who draw near to God, refereeing to the special relationship that Israel has with God, that they are invited to lead and to call the whole of creation to worship the God who loves them, but equally it can mean the people that God draws close to and talks of the act of God coming near, God coming down to save and to restore. The thing that is to leave Israel and the whole of creation open mouthed  and awestruck is that the mighty sovereign of all creation would draw near to do such a thing, to use that power to save his people.

 Paul picks this up in the passage we had read in Romans 8, and sees it fulfilled in what Jesus Christ has done for us. He tells us that the whole of creation waits holding its breath or panting in anticipation at God revealing his beloved children. The completion of God’s saving work shown to us in Jesus Christ. That the whole of creation joins us in worship and waits to give a special hallelujah because in Christ for us also God has drawn near and invites us to draw near to his heart.

On Friday I went to lunch with the Maungarei Ministers Association,  the gathering of the ministers and pastors from Churches from the area around Mt Wellington, and I heard the story of one of the pastors who had been saved out of a gang background, Battered and bruised fearing for his life he had called out in a hotel room bathroom ‘God if you are real help me’, and his life had turned round. Everyone was amazed and our hearts filled with praise for God. Yesterday I went for a walk … It wasn’t a walk along the iron sands of the west coast but rather down through the hustle and bustle of Newmarket and into the city, then up Queen Street and down again and back home on the train. Not alone in creation but walking amongst the amazing array of people in our city. People that God made, people that God loves, people God wants to come and experience and know his saving grace. In these two events I saw the reason that Psalm 148 gives to our worship and praise of God. It does have a purpose and a reason, not only because God is worthy, but in proclaiming the power of the creator shown in what Jesus has done for us. There is the hope that the empty seats around us maybe filled as people hear of God’s goodness and power and come to know it for themselves. Israel’s story was missional, inspiring creation to praise God, our story is missional as our vision statement puts it  “inspiring others” to join us.. in knowing following and worshipping Jesus. To use a very New Zealand metaphor we act called to act like the pointers those two bright stars in our southern sky that point to the cross.
So beloved let us not be discouraged let’s join our voices with all of creation to hallelujah.

Hallelujah to sovereign king of all creation

Hallelujah to the one who in Christ draws near to save

Hallelujah Christ is at work in the world to strengthen his people

Hallelujah…Christ is bringing people to know and worship him,  

Hallelujah?... hallelujah

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Learning to Trust God's Creative Power to Provide and Restore (Psalm 147, Luke 12:2-34)

In our world today the doctrine of creation has become a battleground. The frontline for many of our young people are their schools and learning institutions. Christians have been forced to expend so much energy to confront the idea that creation is not just a myth, that we can just miss the comfort that God being creator brings. “Talking about creation,” Says John Goldingay, “is not a statement about what God once did back at the beginning but about our utter dependence on God for life now.” God’s creative power shows us we can depend on God to restore, renew and recreate.

This is a series of messages I have called ‘The last word on Praise and worship’… It’s not an arrogant attempt to provide the definitive understanding of “praise and worship”. Rather it is a humble and hopefully helpful exploration of the five hymns of praise that form the conclusion to the book of Psalms. They are the last word in Psalms on praise and worship. They start and finish Hallelujah. They are Psalms that draw together threads and motifs and themes that have been running through the whole book calling God’s people to Hallelujah… to ‘Praise the LORD.’ Amidst all the issues and struggles and conflicts round our faith, in life and practise, they summons us to worship trusting in God’s power and goodness.

Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise, in fact it may very well be three separate hymns of praise bought together to form something new. Unlike modern songs they are not bought together because all three share a common rhythm, rhyme or tune, but because their reflections on a particular theme meld beautifully and powerfully together to bring hope and inspire praise.

Each of these three sections, hymns, starts with a summons to Praise and worship God. We read those out together when we had our bible reading this morning. Then they each give reasons to praise God. Reasons that pull together Gods work in creation and God’s work at restoring Jerusalem after the exile. It almost like the psalmist calls us to go back to school not to battle it out about creation but to learn again about God’s creative power at work here and now.

The first hymn focuses on God’s numeracy. It’s applied maths…

Maths is a big part of my life…Around our dinner table on any given night you will hear conversations about quadratics and derivation, statistical analysis, computer programming, quantum physics, matrixes, complex engineering calculations, trigonometry…with the occasional bad joke and pun thrown in… just so I don’t feel left out and left behind.  It’s one of the joys of having five people studying mathematics and or its applications at various levels in your family. I’m not sure if you’d find that conversation comforting or confusing, I have both reactions…

The psalmist points to the numerical superiority shown by God in creation as cause for hope. The exiles had started coming back to Jerusalem from all over the now defunct Babylonian empire and building again. They would have seen themselves as a small remnant, many would be wondering and worrying about family members who were not with them, there were others still unable to make the migration back home, longing to return and feeling forgotten. But the Psalm says that God’s people can trust that no one will be lost, no one is outside God’s ability to restore and return and to bring to wholeness. The return may seem like an impossible task but look up particularly in the darkest night and see that God has set the numbers of the stars and knows them all by name, something that is beyond even the best and brightest of our day. If God can do that then drawing his people back together again is well within his grasp.

My mum shared a vision with me she had in church one day… She saw a man standing in a vast field of wild flowers. She said ‘she just knew it was Jesus’, and he turned to her and smiled and said “ I know each of these by name”. We might think that we are small and insignificant, like flowers and grass, here today and gone tomorrow that our lives, our troubles, our small stuttering steps on the journey as followers of Jesus are too small for God, or hidden from God’s sight. That we don’t count. But The Psalmist uses God’s creative power to show us it is far from the truth. God Is active God is able to bring his people together, to bring all of us to wholeness.

This first section finishes by reaffirming not only God’s power and might but also God’s goodness and justice. Just like in Psalm 146 we can trust God because God is just…God’s great power and wisdom displayed in the heavens is manifest on earth in that God sustains the humble and brings down the wicked.

The second hymn brings hope using the science and geography of creation. It talks of God’s provision through the metaphor of the water cycle.

 I grew up and went to school in Titirangi, out in west Auckland, and we were very aware of the water cycle. The windblown clouds would come ashore from the Tasman Sea laden with water vapour, they would hit the up draft of the Waitakere rangers and that water vapour would come together and form rain and it would fall on us… Or when the wind blew from the east the clouds would sweep over the Auckland isthmus and carry their load of moister from the pacific until they hit the Waitakere’s and it would rain on us. When I was growing up there were times when it felt like it might not rain anywhere else in the city but it would rain on us. It had to be a very severe drought for the hills round us to start browning off.

Jerusalem on the other hand is on the edge of desert land, rain is not such a constant and dependable event. The book of Psalms starts by expressing the life of dependence on God like being in the privileged position of a tree planted by a river that does not run dry.  We know from the book of Haggai that in the first few years in the restoration of Jerusalem that there were droughts. With those droughts came doubts could they survive could they thrive again. The Psalmist picks up the return of the rain clouds and the growth of the grass to provide food for cattle after the drought as a way of showing God is able to provide and restore.  

More than that it is a big picture metaphor for God’s ability to bring his people back…Just as the rains and provision come through the water cycle that God has created, God is able to restore his people. God is able even when they were surrounded by the swirling uncertainty of the rise and fall of empire. God is able even when there were those who opposed the reestablishment of Judah as a nation. It does not have to do with military power and the stomp, stomp, stomp of marching boots but Gods provision and creative ability… as Walter Brueggemann puts it “victory does not always go to the strong and the swift.”

But it was also a reminder to Jerusalem themselves as Brueggemann goes on to says “armed power was a constant temptation for Jerusalem’s reestablishment”. All through the history of Israel and Judah there has been a struggle between radical reliance on God and trusting in military alliances and strength.  Maybe in the fall out from the horrific shadow of the holocaust in World War 2 it is hard for modern day Israel to hear this, but the words of this psalm echo round the streets of Gaza and Jerusalem today with challenge and hope just as they did to their first hearers. Just as he brings the rains…God is able… God can be trusted.

The last section again invites us to study the weather: its meteorology. God’s ability to command both winters storm and springs thaw are presented as proof that God can sustain Jeruslame in all areas of life.

One of my most memorable experiences in my university education, was walking through a blizzard in Dunedin to sit my first exam as an adult student at Otago University…Trudging down the hill through the snow, and then coping with roads covered with sheets of ice as I got to the bottom. Clawing my way up a holly hedge to get up a frozen road and then slipping and sliding from one parked car to another to get down again. Getting to my exam room and stripping off layer after layer, after layer of clothes to be comfortable enough to write. Then tiring three hours repeating the process wrapping up and trudging back up the hill in near white out conditions to get home…Yet in Dunedin, my faith and my academic ability flourished and our family did as well.

The third hymn, talks of winter storms coming and going at God’s command, they would have been rare occasions in the city and like in Dunedin hard to endure, but as the Psalmist point out they both come and go at God’s command and leave life giving water. God took the people into exile and God can restore them. The psalmist uses this metaphor to address three pressing issues for Jerusalem. Security, Population growth and provision and says that just like with through adverse weather so he is able to provide those things even in adverse situations. During Nehemiah’s time they would have watched the wall round them being built brick by brick, but it was a wall that had been breached before and they are assured that it is God who is their ultimate protection.

Isn’t interesting that again Jerusalem’s safety is being said to depend on a wall to keep people out? Concrete and barbwire won’t do it, only trusting in God and his justice. Borders are drawn politically and in the fluidity of the ancient Middle East moved at the whim of far off kings and empires. Israel is assured that God is able to bring peace in their borders. We miss the play on words in English but the word for bar, as in strengthen the bars of your gate... and son sound alike, and  the psalmist tells the remnant that God can be trusted to bless the sons and children within the walls…to be able to provide for their needs.

Lastly, as a way of pulling these three hymns together, the psalmist points to the fact that not only do Israel know God’s creative work they also know God’s special revelation as well. God not only speaks through the cold of winter and the number of stars and rain and pasture, but he has given Israel his laws and commands. God is able to physically restore Jerusalem and also restore their spiritual life as well. It is because of the unique relationship that God has with them that they are restored after their exile. It is this unique relationship they are being called back to. It’s not as explicit as it was in Psalm 146 that we looked at last week, but hallelujah is a call to a the life of worship and praise and that is a life of trust and justice.

In our New Testament reading this morning Jesus calls us to learn the same leasson. He invites us to look at God’s power and provision in creation. The Raven, or as we are more used to in Matthew account, the sparrow,  mentioned in the Psalm that does not sow or reap but God provides, the wild flower, arrayed in a splendour no design collection catwalk show can compete with.  Why worry he says about what you will eat or what you will wear, God is able to provide those things, so we to are called to worship God with a life of worship by trusting in God to provide and restore and living our God’s justice… Put first the Kingdom of God’ say Jesus and all these things will be added to you.

On the first day… in the garden’ are words that we have been encountering a lot in our worship life over the past two years. They keep coming up… they keep echoing in our midst…they are words from John’s version of Jesus resurrection, the words that come in the gospel that starts in the beginnings with God and the creation. Words that speak of new creation, the behold I make all things new made possible in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The ongoing work of restoration and renewal that God is doing in our lives and our world…Creation not just way back when but here and now…We are summons to praise God for his work in creation and his work in our history, to have hope that the power of God we see in creation displayed again in the resurrection is at work in us. We need to school our souls to know we don’t get lost amidst the numbers, refreshing rain and growth come after drought, and the storms of winter and the thaw of spring come and go at God’s command. He can be trusted to bind up and make whole to strengthen and provide to restore and renew… So Hallelujah, praise the Lord.