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. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Gaurdians of the Galaxy: A Humble Review and Reflection.


Recently I found my self a subject of a couple of threads on redditt: .  I had posted a joke about planking, which if I am honest was far from my best work graphically and deserved the criticism it received. But one comment was that it was typical of pastors trying to be cool and hip and with it... I do not believe I deserved that criticism. I happen to like Marvel movies which makes me a bit nerdy rather than a wannabe. I like to reflect on the media I see and my theologian friends will tell you that when it comes to such things I'm probably a light weight as well... So with all that said... here is a humble review and reflection on the latest movie I have watched... Guardians of the Galaxy.

I had a chance to go and see an advance screening of the latest MARVEL Studios film "Guardians of the Galaxy". It was my youngest 12th birthday so my two oldest (21 and 17 both studying engineering at Uni.) shouted him along and invite me to join them.

I hadn't really heard of the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' before this movie came out.
I'd seen cameo's of Rocket and Groot on Avengers: Earths greatest Heroes' the animated TV series but was surprised that MARVEL were going to invest such a large amount of resource into this not so well known ensemble of characters. To a certain extent that was helpful as I went to this movie without any pre-existing expectations... except those that have been building as Marvel have produced more and more great movies from their studio and the fact that there are certain conventions for origin movies in the super hero genre... and Guardians of the Galaxy didn't disappoint.

Visually Guardians gave the MARVEL production team the opportunity to step out of the ordinary and everyday, which forms the back ground to most of their super hero movies so far, into what was totally a sci-fi, beyond the realms of this earth, filmscape.  Just like with the young Peter Quill we were whisked away from our world by a beam of light and found ourselves on other planets amongst an array of alien people. Yet there was something vaguely familiar about it, Marvel had managed to recreate the classic dark comic book Sci-fi aesthetic on scene. What made it even more familiar was that as Quill, now grown up did battle with Gamora, Rocket and Groot on the crowded walkways of the planet Xandar you catch glimpses of London architecture obviously seen as far out enough to be left in the CGI'ed background, and amidst that landscape the ubiquitous cameo by Stan Lee.

 In fact the whole movie was visually spectacular. From the stark clinical white of the hospital room, so much out of kilter with the rest of the movie that my kids thought it was a trailer for another movie. Through the inhospitable Morag, the bustling cityscape of Xandar, , the desolation and brokenness of arch-villain Thanos' throne room, the amazing giant space artefact, a head which was known as nowhere and back to the skies above  Xandar. The prison of Kyln where the various members of the Gaurdian's start to form an alliance bought back memories of my Visual Culture classes at Otago University. It is a futuristic representation of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the building and  the theory, at the heart of much of our surveillance society: that being under the ever vigilant gaze of authorities is enough to modify behaviour. In this case as I fear in real life it does not work out hat way.

The characters in the movie are also well presented and put together. In classical Super Hero form they are all broken and damaged people with exceptional abilities and talents. We are let into Quills back story as it forms the opening sequence of the movie, and the other characters let us into their story as the plot unwind. Gamora tells us that she has live amongst here enemies all her life. Drax wears his heart on his sleeve and we know from our first encounter with him that he is being driven by revenge having seen his family killed by Ronan the accuser, himself driven by hatred and a desire for revenge against a whole race of people. Rocky in a moment of drunken self pity or maybe letting the caustic and sarcastic exterior down talks of being "genetically modified and experimented upon and being all alone as he is the only one of what ever he is". Groot is an enigma but apart from his devotion to Rocky there is the sense that he himself is aware of his solitude. When they meet the collector, he affirms the rarity of Groot by saying he "never thought he would met a Groot and wanting his body when he was dead of course."

In the midst of this the five characters form an alliance of necessity and by the end of the movie a bond of friendship and a sense of family and belonging.

The film has an endearing mix of action and humour, a great 1980's sound track, linking Quill to his mother and earth origins... I have to admit I found myself singing along to the opening lines of 10cc's "I'm not in love" much to the  consternation of my twelve year old. Vin Diesel did a great voice performance managing to extract so much meaning and different emotions from three words " I am Groot". Chris Pratt was well cast as Peter Quill/Starlord and Bradley Cooper stole the show without even appearing with the great lines that Rocket had.

The plot dovetailed nicely with the rest of the Marvel universe setting up many possibilities. The collector having Cameroed at the end of Thor:The Dark World movie, and being intent on collecting all the infinity stones. And (spoiler alert) Thanos having  been cast for the Avengers 2 movie. I'm not sure how Howard the Duck fits into the whole picture... could it be that Marvel are going to do a remake of the really bad b-grade 1986 movie!!!

The plot follows all the conventions of a super hero origin movie. The back stories the gathering together, moments of defeat and pathos followed by a combining together to over come the enemy. we know it has to be this way but Guardians does it well. Guardians is captivating and once again understands that it is the reality of the people or persona behind the action that gives a film depth and warmth and makes it memorable and ultimately enjoyable.

On a Theological basis, I couldn't help but think about the debate people have these days about how people come to faith and become part of the people of God. Do you have to believe before you belong, or do you belong before you believe, and how do these things impact on how you behave.  In the past it has been about believing before you belong, but as we have moved into a post modern world of community, people talk more and more of belonging before you believe, and in that matter Guardians is a post modern text. It is the narrative of a group of broken people coming together and finding that they are more together than they were singularly. They know that the belong together and that grows and effects how they behave till finally they believe in who they are. There is much discussion in Christian circles around discipleship and faith development coming out of community spiritual practises and in Guardians their belief in themselves as more than a group of misfits comes as they make decisions to act in a certain way. They choose to confront evil and to make sacrifices to over come it. The belief does not come till close to the end of the narrative. It shows the power of belonging in a universe full of broken and isolated people, hurt and damaged and displaced. That being welcomed in and made to feel part of the family is healing and empowering. In the gospel Jesus calls his disciples to "come follow me" and invites them to participate in his mission and message before he asks them that pivotal question "And who do you say that I am?" We by the way as the start of the climax to this movie are introduced to the Guardians of the Galaxy as a coherent entity. Its at that point that Jesus invites his disciples to walk the cross road of sacrifice and suffering and service with him.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Amidst the worship wars a call to a lifestyle of trust and justice (Psalm 146)


I’m not sure if you are aware of it but there is a war going on…not just in the far off places of our news headlines…but right here… and by coming to public worship you can find yourself at the front lines. You can find yourself entrenched on one side or the other, hunkering in the bunker and lobbing grenades at the opposition… Marooned in no-man’s land and vulnerable to attack from both sides... Cut off from your own people and surrounded. It’s not a very comfortable place to be…there are casualties, displaced peoples, refugees,  wounded in need of care and healing and some places lie in ruins, obliterated by the conflict.

I’m taking about worship wars… the clash of styles and philosophy and theology when it comes to worship in our churches. A conflict which has flared up in recent times because of the development of electronic music, mass media, new technology, a culture of choice, globalisation … what Leonard sweet calls a cultural tsunami; A wave that has broken over and through the church.

It’s a clash between those who treasure the traditional and those who value the new. Those who view worship and church music as being associated with high culture; classical music and soaring choral splendour, those who relate it to folk culture; singing those shared songs and tunes of our past and our people, and those who express it in pop culture; with bands and beats seamless with what is on their personal playlists in a myriad of electronic devices.

It’s happened before in history. Even in scripture King David and his wife Micah’s marriage is fouled by a clash over worship styles. We sang one of Isaac Watt’s metric psalms this morning… but when he sought the freedom to write his own words of praise to popular tunes they were mocked as his whims rather than real hymns. Down in the deep south of our country, in the heart land of Presbyterianism, hearing people complain about the devils instrument in church is still a living memory… they were referring to the organ by the way.

Throw in those who desire deep well thought out well-crafted prayers and liturgy and those who …well…just…want to…well…express themselves to God. Formality verse informality questions of clothes and clerical cloth or lack of it. Participation verse performance, peaceful contemplation verses jubilant celebration. It’s sad but often the choice that people make about where to worship has to do with these things…with style. And, yes, these things matter. They have to do with culture…With who we are as people. They are part of our spiritual make-up, John Westerhoff says that different ways of worship actually connect with different personality types.

It might seem a bit arrogant but in the face of that conflict, over the next five Sundays, we are going to have the final word on praise and worship. No! not my final word, No! Not yours, not a voicing of our preferences in the worship wars. We are going to look at the final five psalms. Five hymns of praise which start and finish with “Hallelujah” or “praise the LORD” that are the last words in the book of Psalms. Five hymns without introduction or ascribed to anyone that sum up and draw together threads that have been running through the whole collection. Five Songs that call us beyond style and preference…to Hallelujah… to praise the Lord. Each of them gives us reason to worship and give thanks, each of them speaks not only to the people of their day but to us today. And perhaps in an election year it’s appropriate that we should start with a psalm that warns against trusting in human leaders and calls us to worship the God who can be trusted, who is from beginning to end all about justice…psalm 146.

Psalm 146, starts by being a personal individual hymn of praise, an encouragement to be a lifelong worshipper of God. At the end of the book of Psalms which encapsulate so much of the life experiences of God’s people it is appropriate for the psalmist to call themselves and their listeners to worship God with and throughout all of life. We’ve had Psalms from throughout David’s life from his songs as a shepherd in his youth right up through life’s ups and downs, his coronation and ascendancy his having to flee because of the revolt led by his son Absalom, right through to sickness and the challenges of his old age. We’ve had the laments of Individuals and the whole community of God’s people as they have wrestled with exile, illness, suffering. We’ve heard God praised for the splendour of the night sky and in the midst of storms sweeping up from the Mediterranean Sea. There are pilgrim’s song, the songs of those established and at peace and those far away and feeling cut off. In the midst of that this Psalm is able to confirm and affirm God’s help and God’s faithfulness…From beginning to end. God is a lifelong help to be praised all life long.

The Psalmist calls others to come and to worship as well… couching his invitation to praise and to trust God firstly by using a negative comparison. He compares God to the rulers and princes of this world. Ultimately they cannot be trusted to bring about justice and wholeness and peace. Not because they are corrupt or evil but rather because they like us are human, their life span is so limited. I guess in a democracy it could even be said the ability to have effect is shorter still Just simply the time between elections.  If this Psalm comes from the post exilic period as many scholars seem to think, then Jerusalem would have been re-established by the goodwill of a succession of Mede and Persian kings. If you look at Nehemiah and Ezra you see them named. But the Palmist is aware that just as in the past in the future the reigns and goodness of such rulers and leaders is fickle and short lived.

He then turns and gives a positive affirmation of why God can be trusted. Israel’s hope is in the long term rule and reign of Yhwh. God is eternal, God does not change. God is not fickle. God’s plans are never thwarted. The Psalmist uses the book ends of eternity to express this. God was the maker of heaven and earth in verse 6 and the LORD will reign for ever in verse 10. At the back of the other book, the book of revelations picks this up by using the metaphor of the Greek alphabet to affirming that Jesus is that expression of God reigns, he is the alpha and omega.

Not only is God faithful through all of life and all of time but the psalmist calls us to praise and trust God because God’s good character is expressed in his activity. From beginning to end God manifesto and manifestations are about justice. The core of this psalm is a list of that activity… of that justice. It starts and finishes with two lines each about the God caring for the oppressed and the hungry, the orphans and the widows and frustrating the ways of the wicked; Protecting the innocent. In the middle of that the name of the LORD is invoked five times as it says the LORD sets free the prisoner, those held captive, the Lord gives sight to the blind, The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous and the LORD watches over the stranger. This is the justice of God… caring for the misfortunate, misplaced and marginalised. Last month we looked at Jesus use of Isaiah 61 as his mission statement and we can see that it parallels this list. Jesus ministry and mission are about God’s justice. In Luke chapter 7 John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask if Jesus is the messiah or should they expect someone else” and Jesus tells them to go back and tell him what they have seen and gives a list that expresses the help talked about in this Psalm. We can praise and trust God because God is about justice for his people.

The psalm finishes with a universal call to praise the Lord… Your God O Zion… The psalmist has experienced the help and justice of God and invites everyone else to give him praise. So we step into the scene, we step into the picture and are invited to join our story of God’s goodness of God’s justice to the psalmists… It is a call amidst our war torn worship to two things trust and justice.

 Firstly our story of trust, Walter Brueggemann has  discerned a pattern in the psalms: Psalms of orientation; songs when everything seems as it should be of blessing and plain sailing, Psalms of disorientation; when the storms of life strike and we are picked up and tossed to and fro, we don’t know which way is up and we can question what we believe and hold true, then there are Psalms of reorientation; not that there are no longer any storms or conflict but that we have come to realise that in the midst of this the important thing is the abiding presence and goodness of God. Were we have learned to unfurl the sails and allow the wind of God to blow us where it will, in gentle breeze or howling gale. Psalm 146 is a Psalm of reorientation… It says at the centre of a life of worship is a life of trust. The use of personal pronouns in the Psalm tells us it’s a call to a lifelong relationship trusting God. To praise and worship is to voice as this psalmist does that you have trusted God and found God to be trustworthy. As Whitney Kunholm says “The source of hope is not the absence of problems, as the people of God have discovered throughout the ages. Rather, it is knowing that God is there and in control no matter what happens.” The heart of worship is trust. I has a women in my office a few weeks ago the very day I read that quote as part of my daily devotions and she was telling me about her concerns for her family. As she was doing that her head went down her eyes clenched close. AS I read her that quote her head came up and her eyes opened and her demeanour changed, it lightened.

Secondly, our story of Justice that the seeds of God’s justice are in our hands…To be lifelong worshipper is also to be about justice. The prophet Amos had seen the great praise parties the people in Jerusalem were holding, but he looked beyond the glitz and the glamour and saw that it was hollow and fake.  He saw through the prosperity Israel was giving thanks for it and saw it based on the oppression of the poor not on obeying their covenant relationship with God. A rural man and farmer he uses earthy language to express God’s displeasure. It makes God want to spew, what God wants is not a decorative fountain or water feature, like God was tame and could be contained and domesticated in our backyard, but that God called for Justice flow like a mighty river and mercy like a never ending stream. God is about justice and to worship God is also to be people who are about Justice. Jesus is our prime example if the activity of God is justice then the agent of God is about justice. It is a good Psalm to have in the lead up to an election because it reminds us of the limitations and frailties of human leaders, but it also expounds the manifesto of the kingdom of God and gives us something to consider as exercise the great privilege we have in a democracy of choosing who will govern us, of assessing which vision of the future for our nation we will buy into.

Psalm 146 finish with an affirmation that God reigns through all generations. one of the reasons that we have worship wars in the church is that this cultural tsunami we are facing has caused a split between generations. The generation gap of the 1960’s still gapingly obvious like an isle amidst the pews: Even more so these days the Guttenberg or print generation, and the Google or screen generation. Each with its senses and sensibilities, each called to worship as who they are. Each invited to be lifelong worshippers, from birth to death a hallelujah people, each bringing the best of their generation and culture…beyond a clash of styles they live with, each being called to a lifestyle of worship a lifestyle of trust and justice…