Sunday, April 15, 2007

Praise! Psalm 150

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

I grew up in one of those Methodist churches that holds services on Sunday morning, again on Sunday evening, and then on Wednesday night, while the children were in Kids Club and the teens were in youth group, a few brave adults met in the church library for prayer meeting. My dad said you could always tell how popular a church was by who showed up on Sunday morning, how popular a preacher was by who showed up on Sunday nights (Dad soon deduced he was not a very popular preacher by this standard), but you could always tell how popular God was by who showed up to Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

In the church’s calendar, this Sunday after Easter is, in many ways, the equivalent of the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Last Sunday, there were lilies all over the front of the church, a huge choir that sang an impressive anthem with timpani, children everywhere you could see, trumpets announcing the resurrection, and a healthy crowd at both services. Today, the choir is off, the brass is gone, and the preaching duty falls into the lap of the lowly associate pastor. In many ways, this might feel like a letdown after such fanfare last week.

Then, the text for this morning is read, and we find God calling in a voice loud and clear. God is calling, inviting, each of us into a life of praise. We quickly realize that today is also Easter. Easter is technically a great 50-day celebration that will last until Pentecost, but for Christians, Easter is everyday we declare God’s victory over the powers of sin and death. Easter is every day we claim this power to transform our lives. In light of this wonderful news, we have one option: praise! May we pray.

Wired to worship
It seems that, as a pastor, people tend to bring to me their big questions. They are questions that humanity has wrestled with for centuries, and obviously failed to provide satisfactory answers to. There was a time in my life when I thought that serious Christian faith meant having a set of answers to these questions. I gradually came to realize that my faith needed to be than a set of stock answers, and I’m at a point where I am comfortable living in the midst of unanswered and seemingly unanswerable questions. In my Bible studies, classes, and other small groups, I encourage everyone to ask questions, no matter how trivial, difficult, controversial, or impossible to answer.

Several months ago, I received a letter from an ASU student who wanted an answer to one of these questions. He simply asked, “What is the meaning of life?” I sat down and began to write out a response, and six pages in, realized I hadn’t even begun to answer his question. I was still clarifying the issue, laying out the territory from which this question is typically answered, and probably muddying the waters more than this young man probably cared for.

“What is the meaning of life?” The answer to this question will depend on our perspective, our background, our education, our goals, and our dreams. The answer to this question will depend on what dominant narrative we subscribe to.

So, as Christians, what is the meaning of life? Even different churches with different theological perspectives will answer this question differently. Yet, these perspectives focus so closely on the details that they tend to lose sight of the big picture. They focus so much on method that they lose the message, and worse yet, allow the method to become the message.

So, as Christians, what is the big thing? What is our purpose? What is our meaning? What are we here to do?

Fortunately, we don’t have to answer this question alone. There is a great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us – brothers and sisters who have left us with their collective knowledge and experience, with whom we are united, and from whom we can benefit. St. Augustine wrote that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” By this he means we were created with a natural inclination to praise. We worship through our time, our talent, and where we place our treasure. We devote these resources to a variety of things, but we find the greatest peace when they are devoted to their true aim – God. Why is this? God is our creator, our designer, so to speak. Who knows the creation better than its creator? God created us with a natural magnetism back to God. The Westminster Catechism, a document used in Christian formation for centuries, sums it up nicely: “The chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.”

That’s the big thing! God hardwired us to be creatures who worship, and when we have found ourselves in such rich praise, the result is continual enjoyment of God’s presence. Another word for this continual enjoyment is communion – God’s intent in creation was perpetual communion, and when we surrender ourselves in true worship, we restore that communion which God intended us to enjoy. That’s the big thing! The rest is simply details.

Not seeing the forest for the trees
But have you ever heard that the devil is in the details? I believe this to be incredibly true in the ways in which we worship. The main thing is supposed to be continually praising God, but we’ve often focused so much on the way we praise that we soon lose sight of who we’re supposed to be praising in the first place. We find ourselves talking about the right and wrong ways to worship, and end up praising a form of praise instead of God. Uh oh! That young associate pastor has left off preaching and taken to meddling. If you’ll indulge me just a little more, I need to meddle a bit more before I bring some clarity out of this issue.

Let me put it in the context of today’s text. It reads “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him upon the earth! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with the trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” Yet, the way we often interpret this psalm reads more like this: “Praise his sanctuary. Praise his mighty deeds. Praise his surpassing greatness. Praise the trumpet. Praise the lute. Praise the harp. Praise the tambourine. Praise the dance. Praise the strings. Praise the pipe. Praise the cymbals.

Do you hear the difference? We easily move from using these things to praise God to praising the very same things. Paul encountered a similar problem in the New Testament when he confronted the disciples of various teachers, all of whom placed greater value in their particular school of thought than in the Gospel those schools were supposed to teach.

To be sure, worship is a deeply personal experience. People need to be given opportunities to praise in authentic and genuine ways, yet we must always remember that the object of our worship is greater than the manner in which we worship. Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees, and let’s not spend our time majoring in minors.

Some time ago, a man who had been stranded on a deserted island was finally rescued. His rescuers noticed three structures on the island, and asked the man about them. He explained that the first was his house. The third was his church. Puzzled, they asked him about the second building. He scoffed, “That’s where I used to go to church!”

Worship—true, authentic worship—is a unifying experience, not a divisive one. The text this morning gives us the powerful image of all creation being absolutely swept up in praising God. Though each provides something different, notice how well these things work together. No one is standing around asking “Are my needs being met in this worship experience?” “Will this worship gathering optimally reach our target demographic?”

Such an attitude about worship is evidence of a mature faith. It is somewhere beyond Burger King spirituality, where a bunch of self-absorbed individuals are each trying to have it their way. When we make worship about ourselves – about our likes, our preferences, our taste – we have essentially made ourselves the object of worship. When our own desires are the most important factor in the decision, we are saying that we are the most important party in the relationship. And so worship, something ultimately designed to connect us to something greater than ourselves, becomes simply another indulgent exercise of self-gratification. And when your opinions are different than mine, an argument is likely to ensue.

Rather than getting caught up in the details, of arguing over the music, over the format, over the time, or the architecture, or the color of the carpeting – instead of focusing on all these horribly minor issues, why don’t we focus primarily on a God whose name is Love, a God who is Light, a God who is Life, a God who transforms our brokenness into his wonderful wholeness. God did not send his Son into the world, allow him to die a death on a cross, and raise him to glorious new life in order for you and me to split His church over trivial issues. Some people like to rock and roll in church. Some like to meditate in silence. Some like to come to worship early. Some like to come late. Some people love to hear the organ; some people hate it. But who is wrong? Better yet, who is right? What if, instead of using that energy to tear each other down, we used that same energy to build each other up in love? What if we left the complaints, the grumbling, the arguments, the pettiness, and the divisions behind? What if we stopped trying to prove ourselves right by proving everybody else wrong? The moment we stop arguing against each other, and start worshipping with each other, I think we will see transformation happen.

And that’s the goal – to allow worship to change and transform us. May God have mercy on us if we leave here just exactly the same as when we came in. Worship is supposed to change us. Rather than asking if a worship experience was able to generate a certain emotion or response, I think we would do a lot better to ask ourselves if we are now better equipped to live as Christ’s disciples in the world.

Well – are we? Have our songs and prayers changed us? Have we been transformed a little bit more into the image of the One whom we profess? When it’s all been said and done, have our activities in an hour in this place equipped us to live as Christ’s disciples in the world? That, I believe, is the real test for good worship.

And I think you will find – as you focus more and more on Christ, as you allow yourself to be molded ever more into his image – I think you will find that transformation isn’t so bad. In fact, you will find that living as a Christian is, in the words of my good friend Bill Roy, “such a joyful thing.” I think you will find there is really no hiding the joy that wells up from deep within you when your heart rests in the One for whom you were created, when you glorify God and enjoy God forever. It is a joy that will light up your face for the rest of the world to see.

The text tells us this morning quite simply: “Praise the Lord!” Praise the Lord with everything you’ve got. Join with all creation, people from all walks of life, people from across the centuries, people greatly similar and greatly dissimilar to yourself. But there is a promise behind these instructions; God says when you praise, I will transform you. I will transform you from selfish to generous, from a solitary individual to a member of a community, from a life of despair to one filled with hope, from death into life.

And when it all comes down to it, that’s the business God is in. Though we gather here, on a “low” Sunday, the fanfare from the week before gone and all but forgotten, we find that we have much to praise God for. Yes, it is still Easter, and every encounter with a living Savior transforms hearts. And being transformed, we have all the more reason to praise!

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