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Posts Tagged ‘worship’

Along the west shore of the Susquehanna River, tucked between the Juniata and Sherman’s Creek, almost hidden in the shadow of Cove Mountain, lays the borough of Duncannon. This is where you will find me on the first day of the week. There I gather with others of a similar mind about what has taken place on this day.

Genesis starts off from the beginning telling us how eventful the first day was. We go from “darkness was over the surface of the waters” to “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Needless to say, this move from darkness to light is a significant one.

Perhaps no day has ever been more eventful than one described by the Gospel. John takes us from “they saw that He was already dead” to “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” to “on that day, the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood in their midst.” At the risk of understatement, it is quite a move from death to life.

We are reminded again of the unpredictability of the first day when Acts reports that people “from every nation” began to “hear in our own language.” Again, just to highlight the obvious. It is quite a move from isolation and division to community.

So we gather on this day and in this place with expectation. We realize that surprise is always a possibility. We believe the miraculous can occur on any day, we are simply acknowledging a serious precedent for unpredictability on this day, the first day of the week. A day the Trinity has already been extremely active. When I think of what has already taken place on this day all I can say is “wow.”

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Here is how N. T. Wright describes the common view of sin in The Day the Revolution Began “A killjoy, finger-wagging, holier than thou moralism” that focuses on “small personal misdemeanors” and ignores “major injustice and oppression.”  Such a definition eventually arrives at “A severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire.”

The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark.” It is a picture of shooting for a target and failing to hit it. Wright suggests this is far different than receiving a long list of things you must and must not do. He proposes it was wrongdoers who used to worry about sin, but no more. Now “The people banging on about sin are those who think it’s someone else’s problem.” Some of us still try to cling to the old rules. Others have become trendier and thump the pulpit “against fossil fuels rather than fornication.”

What I like most about Revolution is N. T. Wright’s attempt to be faithful to the biblical storyline. His attempt to talk about sin in context of the biblical story results in stimulating discussion. He is convinced we have tended to talk about sin in ways that the bible does not. Wright suggests our conversation about wrong behavior usually sounds like failure to keep a moral contract. He goes to great length to tell readers that sin is more serious than breaking a moral code.

Wright tells us we have willingly “handed over control to forces that will destroy us and thwart our original purpose.” We have rejected our God given vocation to be “image bearers” and have given our authority to other powers and forces within creation. These forces have taken that authority and “run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.”

Wright labels this “Idolatry” which he explains “covers a lot more than simply the manufacture and adoration of actual physical images.” This happens when we place anything above the Creator. When humans worship parts of the created order or forces in creation, they give away power to those forces which will then rule over them. Sin then, is not simply the breaking of a moral code but is missing the mark of genuine humanness by worshipping idols rather than the one true God.

Sin is bad. But Wright wants us to know that it is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is addressed by the biblical storyline. “The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected.” And “This rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols.” And “This results in giving life to the idols – ‘forces’ within the creation – a power over humans and the world…”

When humans fail in their image bearing vocation, the powers seize control. And the Creator’s plan for creation does not proceed as intended. The problem is not that humans have misbehaved and need punishing. The problem is that we have refused to play our part in God’s creation. It may be a moral failure but is also a vocational failure. To worship creature rather than God is to choose death. Genesis 3 is deeply etched in the biblical storyline and the pages of history. Obey the serpent’s voice and you forfeit the right to the tree of life. Just as the prophets insisted, exile is the result of sin. Leaving the land is as leaving the garden.

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What are we to do when we gather as followers of Jesus? Can we begin with a meager “Hosanna!” or “Blessed is the King!” Does the text not tell us the stones will cry out if we do not? Virginia Stem Owens is a writer who enjoys playing with the sciences. I am fascinated by her contribution to this conversation. She suggests faith is always present in creation and that creation has always been more faithful than you and I.

Stem Owens tells us it is our place, our niche, “To give voice to the cry.” The stones are prepared and waiting to sing their praise song if we do not. She goes on “This is our big chance… Still the mute mountains, the dumb desert, the dying stars wait for us to provide a throat for their thanksgiving. There must be a great logjam in the cosmos. One can almost hear it groaning and creaking some summer nights, threatening to give way under the pressure of pent up praise.

What would happen if we stepped into our place? If we fulfilled our niche and gave voice to the cry? Stem Owens asks “Would morning stars sing together as they did when the cornerstone of creation was laid… Would the hidden sea creatures, full of a barbarous beauty, echo from the salted depths, and the innards of earth have themselves in roiling, molten music?”

She goes on “They are waiting – the mammoths metamorphosed into oil among the ferns, the ozone layer hovering like an eggshell over us, the alpine meadows sighing down mountainsides, the grizzlies and mosquitoes licking blood from their snouts – they are waiting to be sprung from their bondage to decay, to lift up and up and up their hearts. They are waiting for us to get our act together. To find out the answer to our interminable question of who we are.”

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The patriarchal clan migrations may have been the beginnings of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. However, it becomes much more than that. While we are most familiar with Joshua’s account of a sudden, bloody, and complete conquest (Joshua 1-12), the text also suggests it was a long and complicated affair (Joshua 13. 2-6; 15.13-19,63; 23.7-13; Judges 1).

The complications become evident when we find the following among the people of God; alongside descendants of Jacob there are Egyptians (Leviticus 24.10), Midianites (Numbers 10.29-32), Amorites (Joshua 6), Kenizzites (Joshua 14.6) and other fugitives. The list could be made longer but this short list is enough to demonstrate Israel was growing even while in the wilderness. Even some who did not experience the exodus were becoming converts. The text does not always tell how but does reveal God has always been interested in bringing new people into the gathering He calls His own.

John Bright tells us many of those who were grafted into the people of God had long been settled in Palestine and joined the Hebrews when they arrived from the desert. Some who were without a place in established society would have gladly joined the Hebrews. That the God who had delivered slaves from the Egyptians would include them in an inheritance of promised land would have been appealing. In such a company one could find an identity and connection they had never experienced before. Numerous conversions were likely taking place. Bright says “Clans and villages by the dozen must have been converted to Yahwism.” While this likely benefitted in military ways, it does suggest a mixed people as suggested in Exodus 12.38 “Many other people went up with them” or by Numbers 11.4 “The rabble among them.”

The fact remains that for those who resisted, conquest was bloody and brutal. This is likely part of the reason numerous towns and villages were ready to join the Hebrews. After hearing the stories, who would want to resist? Sometimes this occurred willingly, sometimes out of fear (Joshua 9). Others were likely conquered without military action but from uprisings within. Although enclaves of other peoples remained and tension continued for many years, Israel was in possession of the land they would occupy for centuries to come. Not long after this representatives gathered (Joshua 24) and made a covenant to be the people of Yahweh and to worship Him alone. It is evident this is no longer just a clan religion.

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Christian worship is an interesting thing isn’t it?  That we would get together every week to sing our songs, pray our prayers, give our gifts, and open up an old book to read words that were written long ago and considered irrelevant by many.  Yet, we keep getting together and we keep opening the book.

And then on some days we open the book and we read about evil.  We have pictures that come to mind when we think of evil.  I can’t help but think of one from Dr. Seuss.  Evil is big and green.  He’s a mean one, as cuddly as a cactus, has all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.  He comes to take stuff just to make others unhappy.

Yet when Seuss’s people lose their stuff, they are not unhappy.  Instead – they sing.  “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores.”  We may not understand the words, but we understand what is going on.  Makes me think I should read Seuss differently.

Revelation addresses evil.  But perhaps even more it addresses worship.  In the midst of all the evil we find in chapter 6-7, we find ourselves in a context of worship.  Worshippers are active before, during and after.  It is saturated with song and the constant opening and reopening of the book.  These chapters are surrounded by prayers.  Here we are in worship.

We may not naturally see evil as a context for worship.  But Revelation does.  Here we find worship taking place.  This starts back in chapter four and does not stop when evil arrives in chapter six.  In chapter four, we found four living creatures singing “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  And then twenty-four elders fall down and sing “worthy…”

In chapter five, the creatures and elders join together to sing a new song.  And then are joined by thousands and thousands of angels.  And they all sing “worthy…”  They are then joined by all of creation.  The living creatures say “amen.”  The elders fall down and worship.  Chapter six sees repetitive opening and reopening of the book.  The four living creatures participate in an apocalyptic responsive reading.

In chapter seven, a great multitude is called forth “which no one could count.”  And they sing with all the angels, the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures.  They sing “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever, Amen.”  And this all takes place in the presence of the One sitting on the throne and the Lamb.

Revelation presents a growing choir.  In fact, Revelation keeps responding to adversity, tribulation and evil by adding to the choir.  With the four horsemen of the apocalypse enter conquest, war, famine and pestilence.  The following chapter brings tribulation.  And the growing choir sings.  Four living creatures, twenty-four elders, the voice of many angels, and all of creation.  Chapter seven adds a great multitude, which no one could count.  And they sing!

Revelation talks about the prayers of the saints.  Both before our passage (5.8) and following (8.3) the prayers of the saints are related to “incense.”  Before the evil of our passage is introduced and afterward – prayer.  I can’t help but think of how unusual this response to evil is.  The saints sing.  The saints pray.  Offer incense.  You may have prayed for someone this morning.  Someone may have prayed for you.  Revelation says prayers are like incense.  Mark Buchanan calls praying people perfume makers.

This is an interesting picture of prayer.  This “incense.”  But we are not looking for prayer that sends sweet fragrance to the supernatural.  We want prayer to eliminate evil.  Instead, Revelation places us in the midst of evil and portrays prayer as “incense.”

In Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan tells a story that he learned from William Willimon.  The story is about a gentleman who was sent as a delegate from the World Council of Churches to check the status of the church in Russia during an atheist regime.

The man was not impressed.  “The church” he said, “is just a bunch of little old ladies praying.”  Buchanan calls them “just a bunch of perfume makers.”  Willimon told the story in the nineties.  After atheistic Russia was no more.  This is an important story.  Not because we wanted to win the cold war.  Not because we are opposed to atheists.  But because we need to be reminded of what happens when a bunch of little old ladies pray.  “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores.”

We need Revelation.  We need reminded that though evil is present, it has no real power.  Evil – beware.  Beware of the prayers of saints.  Beware of revolutionary perfume makers  disguised as old ladies.  Beware of elders falling down, living creatures who sing, and the multitude that joins in singing “salvation belongs to our God.”

Evil beware.  Ride out on your power horses spreading death and famine.  This is not fighting on your terms.  This is not methodology that you might use.  This is not the expected response to evil.  This is the response from another reality.  One that recognizes who is in charge.  One that knows who wins.  The response from Revelation insists that worship is the only way to see reality.  In the face of evil, we continue to open the book, to give, to pray, and we sing.

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