Friday, February 13, 2009

B, Epiphany 6 - 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 "The Flying Ant"

Ants are fascinating little creatures. They can remind us a lot of ourselves; the things we do as individuals and as a community.
A little flying ant pushes its way through the steamy environment. She can't see where she's going or from where she's come. But she uses her senses to the best of her ability to work out where she is going. She cannot fly as the steam from the room weighs heavy on her wings. So she clings upside down to roof of the bathroom.
Where is this ant going? From where has it come? Watch the ant to see what will happen next, as it tries to figure out where it is, and how to get somewhere else.
But it goes nowhere. The steam from the shower melts its only means of knowing where to go. The steam however reveals from where it has come since the room has steamed up. The best the poor little flying critter can do is to walk upside down in circles on the ceiling in the dampness. See its lost circle in the moisture on the bathroom ceiling!
We humans have a tendency to do the same thing; we walk in confused lost circles; habitually, mentally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically. History has a tendency to repeat itself too; going in circles humanity finds themselves in the same situation, generation after generation. It's as if we're like the little ant unable to fly away or walk out of the circle of repetition in which we find ourselves.
Some might think humanity should be getting stronger and stronger as we grow and develop because of our problems. It's logical to think this way; but in reality it doesn't happen. History proves and reveals our repeated mistakes time and time again.
You'd think in generations and generations of ant culture, they would have superseded the problems that arise when their scent path is lost. After all flying ants have the freedom of wings. But in this case its freedom doesn't help it get out of its lost circle.
Similarly with us, we have freedom too. But to where does it get us? An example of our autonomy to demonstrate the problems of freedom, is, human transport.
When people first roamed the earth on foot, there was a desire to have more freedom. Instead of lumping one's load on one's back, wheels were stuck on carts to give people more freedom.
Then horses were put in front to make life easier again. After that horsepower was put into the front of the cart to go faster, to be freer. This horsepower was put on rails and into boats so massive loads of what we once had to carry on our back could be taken all over the world.
However, we looked at birds and desired their freedom and so we built flying machines to hold us, our loads, and to carry the horsepower to move the aircraft through the sky. But the freedom we sought throughout the ages came at a price.
When we walked we could nearly walk any direction we liked. But when we walked with wheels we had to find a path on which to walk, limiting our freedom. When horses came along we had to feed them so they could continue pulling the cart, we had to spend time breaking-in the animal, limiting its freedom, so it would submit to our freedom.
When we put the horsepower under the bonnet, we had to send others out to toil for iron ore, coal, and oil to build and fuel our freedom, so we can get stuck in gridlock on the freeways.
And in our freedom we fly, but only when the weather is favourable, bridled by air traffic control and other strict safety regulations.
So having been grounded and gridlocked in our freedom, we return to where we started, and walk. But not realising the freedom our feet give us, once again we wonder how we might have more freedom.
Aren't we doing what the flying ant did upside down on the ceiling of the bathroom? Walking in lost circles! It appears the more we seek freedom, the less freedom we actually have. Perhaps, the more something changes, the more it stays the same.
At a recent elders meeting, after I announce the acceptance of the call to Western Australia, one of the elders reflected, "It seems like we have to reinvent the wheel, every five years or so because our pastor always leaves."
Yes! You will have to go through the process once again of calling a minister, getting to know a minister, placing yourselves under his authority as a called and ordained servant of God and his Word. There will be repetition as this process once again begins.
However, know that as you wait for the next minister to come, you have been instructed in the things of God. You have been encouraged in his word to believe and receive the forgiveness of your sins. You have been encouraged to forgive each other as God has forgiven you. That together in Christ we have grown through our joys and sorrows together. Know that you have been encouraged to train yourselves in the straight paths of Christ.
As the wheel seems to be reinvented, as we circle on ground over which we've marched before, see that Christ is walking with you, calling you together as one people to follow him. So it is good for you and me to conform our ways to Christ! Saint Paul explains to his congregation at Corinth why...
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
When a person trains to win a prize they change little in their routine. They make themselves slaves to a cycle. Not in a cycle that is lost or without direction, but one that results in them winning a prize.
So too with you; remain in what you know, in what you have been taught. Let Christ continually reinvent you through his death and resurrection as you circle in repetition of life. In the mistakes you make, in the blessings you receive, allow Christ's correction and forgiveness to mature you in him. As the next pastor comes place yourselves under him, encourage him to preach the law and the gospel, to expose your sin and to grant the grace of God, that forgives your folly and feeds the faith given to you at baptism.
Don't look for change, but look for consistency. Train yourselves to win the prize. Christ is the same; yesterday, today, and forever. The greatest change is happening in you when you remain in he who is the same. Disciple yourselves in the discipline of hearing God's word preached and receiving the mysteries of Jesus in the way he ordained. Believe it is the only way to win the prize - the salvation of your souls.
History repeats itself in all of you because of your sin. Generation after generation circles in the steaminess of its sinful nature. Like the flying ant that dropped from the ceiling and died, we too will circle in life to death. But unlike the flying ant, we have One who circles with us, Jesus Christ our Lord.
As your weariness wears you down, let Christ carry you. He is carrying you towards a crown that will last forever. So use your freedom in the faith with purpose, to fight the good fight of faith, to remain in Christ, his Word, his way - to forgive, to be forgiven, and to be feed on the food of faith, forever, Amen.

Friday, February 06, 2009

B, Epiphany 5 - Psalms 147:1, 11, 20c "God Pleasing Praise"

Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. Praise the Lord. (Ps 147:1, 11, 20c)
When we praise God we do it in either of two ways. We praise him in prayer - thanksgiving prayer. Or we praise him in song or hymnody. But why do we praise God? What is the purpose of praise? What does singing songs or hymns of praise do? Do we need to praise God? And how do we praise God in prayer and song - is there a way of wisdom, a proper process for praising our Lord?
In the Psalms God gives us his words of praise and lament. So if God gives us praises and laments in his Word, then it is right to give him thanks and praise, and also to lament and express our grief before him too. But why; what purpose does it serve?
In many of the praise Psalms the opening line reads "Praise the Lord", or "Hallelujah". These openings are the same thing, one is in English and the other is the original Hebrew. It's interesting to note that Hallelujah is a contraction of two words, Hallelu and Yah, short for Yahweh. Hallelu means to shine or radiate, and even to boast or brag. And so to Praise the Lord, hallelujah, we are called to shine or radiate God, to boast or brag of the Lord. But the question still remains, "Why; what purpose does it serve?"
One must also be specifically clear when discussing praise; that we are not just speaking about singing praises. Praises are sung in song and hymnody, but, in the context of praise's meaning "to shine", praises can happen just as easily through being spoken. In fact the praise of God goes right back through the history of humanity's response to God, but singing of praises became a regular response only in the days of King David.
Psalm 147 falls in amongst the last of the Psalms, of which are all praise Psalms. The book of Psalms finishes with a crescendo of praise for God. In Psalm 144 we hear God is praised for being King David's rock in battle. In Psalm 145 David goes on to lift up the name of the Lord in praise. Then in Psalm 146 the repetition of praise hallelujahs becomes common right to the end in Psalm 150.
In verse one of Psalm 147 the psalmist begins, Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! Why is it good, and pleasant, and fitting to praise God? It all depends on the source and content of the praise!
One of the most astounding things to occur in the bible is that in God's calling us to response to his Word, he also gives us his Word as response. The Psalms are a book of responses written by men, inspired by God himself, for us to respond to him. And even more amazing than the Psalms of praise are the Psalms of lament. God gives humanity a vent to spew out our anger, grief, and even out hatred towards those who refuse to submit to the authority of his Word.
First, it's fitting, pleasant, and good to praise God, because he gives us praises in his Word to do just that - praise him. We obey him and honour him, and his Word, when we praise him with his Word.
But then notice in many of the Psalms the community context of praise. When King David introduced the use of Psalms in the temple worship, the Psalms functioned as responses to the reading of the Law. So it was David's job as king to lead the congregation in response to the priest's reading of the Torah - the Law. This is why the 150 Psalms are broken into five books (Ps 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150) so they parallel the five books of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy).
God calls us to praise him in this community context for a very important reason. When we praise God we declare who God is and what he has done for us. The praising of God with his word not only radiates and shines glory back to God, but in the community we radiate his glory upon each other. And so the second reason we sing praises in worship response is to teach each other about God's work and mercy, and to admonish, or warn, each other with the Word of God.
This is best explained by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians where he says...
[E]verything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:13-21)
So when we sing praises we submit to each other out of respect for Christ. We allow ourselves to be vessels through whom God works to wake each other up. Christ shines on those to whom we sing praises.
Also Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit rather than to get drunk on wine or other types of spirits. Singing praises from God's Word, especially in declaration of the gospel, promises sober, orderly, and wise worship and it makes the most of every opportunity for us to holding each other up before Christ.
Praising God does not make us delirious to the realities around us. It doesn't encourage us to become debauched in the things of the world. And nor is its function to build up God for God's own sake. God's divinity does not depend on how much we build him up. However, people's salvation is dependant on them hearing God's Word in all its truth and purity.
Therefore, all of us must be careful not to stray from the truth of God's Word to sing praises that only serve to make us feel good. Who then is the praise for? When praises are reduced to a feel good mantra God is not glorified or taught, but rather the praise singer is glorified as they teach others about what they swear they will do for God.
After all, the psalmist declares...
[God's] pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. (Ps 147:10-11)
Paul also says to the Colossians...
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Col 3:9-10)
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col 3:13)
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:15-17)
In the church today, the saddest sight amongst the priesthood of believers is when people sing songs deemed as praise songs where they promise to God what they are going to do and then fail to do it once they return to the normality of life. Whipped into a frenzy they hide their sin and swear oaths before God, but on Monday having realised they cannot keep their oaths they're crushed by their unfaithfulness and unforgiven sin.
However, praising God is meant to shine God's light of mercy and forgiveness, to dismiss the darkness, rather than creating by-polar Christians, who are high one day and depressed the next.
Rather the praises Paul and all others in Scripture encourage us to sing builds up Jesus Christ in others, exposing the necessity of grace over sin, increasing faith, and giving a real sense of God's peace.
True Christ-centred praise unifies all of us as one in Christ enabling us to do God's will on earth and forgive each other as the Lord has forgiven us.
Praising God then is not only something we sing, say, or pray on Sunday, but it becomes deed as we reflect and shine the mercy of Almighty God on those we meet in the street. Amen.