Monday, 20 July 2009

Why Praise?

“Mission exists in the earth because praise doesn’t”. So says John Piper. I agree. Mission is about bringing creation back into line with God’s purpose; God’s original intent. There is something more fundamental than Salvation. As important as this truth is, we were not made to be saved! Rather in salvation we move towards restoration for why we were made – to worship. I realise that worship covers the totality of our life; how we reflect the glory of God day to day. I’ll say more on this later. For now I want to focus on how we express our worship when we come together as the people of God. Consider these facts: the word salvation appears over 164 times in scripture, but praise appears 248 times, 150 of those are in the Psalms. Worship appears 108 times and to sing 119 times. Clearly praise and worship is central to our understanding of Biblical truth.

And the issue is not about being Charismatic, it’s about being scriptural. Is 43.21 says, “This people I have formed for myself; they shall declare My praise”. God’s purpose in creating is that all things should in some way reflect His greatness – for that is the heart of praise. It is appreciation, declaration and adoration for who God is and what He has done. Peter holds a similar understanding in 1Pet 2.9. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light”. God has acted on our behalf and we proclaim His acts of greatness.

Heb 13.15 says, “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of our lips, giving thanks (literally: confessing) to His name". Notice that through Jesus we can continually make this sacrifice. It’s actually called a sacrifice of praise. We are left in no doubt as to what this means. It is what we speak or confess back to Him. When we put this to music we call it singing praise.

I want to explore with you five reasons why we worship. This is not meant to be an exclusive or complete list. We could speak of more. But these reasons have inspired me over the years and I want them to inspire and challenge you too.

1. God is great! That’s it! Ps 96.4-9 “For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols. But the Lord made the heavens. Honour and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Give to the Lord O families of the peoples; give to the Lord glory and strength. Give to the Lord the glory due His name; Bring an offering and come into His courts. Oh worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness! Tremble before Him all the earth".

The contrast in this Psalm is between the Lord who is the creator and all the other gods that are simply idols – images created by us, for us. Think of that. He is the creator. Everything is made by Him. This makes Him great and worthy of praise. When we complement a talented singer or cheer a brilliant football player we are drawing attention to their talent. Their gift is worthy of being noticed and praised. This is especially true of God who is the creator of all things. Not only that, the talents we often praise people for are also part of His gift to them. But God is unique and rightly deserves all the attention we can give Him in praise. Who He is always lives up to the expectation of what we ascribe to Him.

Ps 145.3 says, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable (literally: beyond our understanding)”. In every attribute we could name of God, He is great. Great in Mercy; great in Power; great in Majesty; great in Love and all these attributes go beyond our full comprehension. At times we touch their depth when we experience them for ourselves but then life teaches us – there is more; more to know; more to understand; more to experience. The only posture that seems appropriate is that of awe – “Tremble before Him all the earth”, Ps 96.9.

2. Praise is beautiful. We worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness. Ps 147.1 tells us, “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant and praise is beautiful”. When we sing praises to God it is pleasant and beautiful. That’s how God sees it. It delights His heart. Think about that for a moment. Heartfelt praise is pleasant and beautiful because praise, more than any other Christian practice, is meant to engage head, heart and hands. In other words, our entire being in involved. Not only that, most of the exhortations to praise in the Bible are corporate – we do it together. And God says it is beautiful.

I believe this beauty in praise is also a testimony to those who are pre-Christians looking on. Corporate praise is one of the most awesome sights and sounds to experience. The garments that Aaron the High priest wore were for “glory and for beauty”, Ex 28.2. The priests in the OT had two basic responsibilities. The first was to minister to the people on behalf of the Lord. The second was to minister to the Lord on behalf of the people. It was this ministry to the Lord that David organised into 24 divisions – enough for 24 hour praise and worship to be continually offered to the Lord. It looked and sounded awesome!

3. This leads into my third point. God inhabits the praises of Israel, Ps 22.3. We know that God inhabits Heaven – that’s where His throne is. But God also inhabits the praises of His people. The NKJV says he is “enthroned in the praises of Israel”. I like that word enthroned because is speaks of God’s authority. Thrones are for Kings and when Kings are on their thrones it is either to judge or issue decrees. Their words go forth with special force when they speak from their throne. So it is with God. Praise brings a sense of His numinous – His tangible presence; for God the Holy Spirit comes where He is welcomed.

It was this tangible presence that Luke refers to when he says “the power of the Lord was present to heal”, Luke 5.17. Jesus was anointed with the Spirit. He declared this in the opening of His ministry at the synagogue of Nazareth, Luke 4.16-19. The Spirit was with Him. But Luke records a special presence of the Spirit – a presence that was there to heal. These visitations are frequent in scripture. My question is simple: “Is there anything we can do to make such visitations more like to happen?” I believe praise and worship is a key; for at such times God is said to be ‘enthroned’.

When Elisha wanted to move in the prophetic he called for a musician, 2Kings 3.15 and then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. When Jehoshaphat went out against his enemies he sent the musicians and singers in front. Read how scripture records this moment; “When they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated”. God’s presence came because in each case they made a decision to focus on the greatness of God and not the size of their problem. In 2Chron 5 we have a record of the Ark being brought into Solomon’s temple. In verses 13-14 we see what happened when the musicians and singers praised the Lord. The house of God was filled with a cloud. The glory of God came and they could no longer minister! The place was filled with His presence.

4. This naturally leads into my next point. Praise silences the enemy. Psalm 8.2 is quoted by Jesus in Matt 21.16. “Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have ordained strength/praise, to silence the enemy and the avenger”. The OT reading has the word strength while Jesus elects for the alternative translation in His quote. You see the Hebrew word can be translated both ways, as strength or praise. The ambiguity is intentional; for God’s strength is revealed in praise and praise makes room for God to display His strength.

The devil is called the accuser of the brethren, Rev 12.10. He continues this activity day and night. God wants him silenced. I have found that there are times when no matter how many times I rebuke, claim by faith or confess some things don’t shift. There is nothing wrong with doing these things. They are Biblical. But at times we can get quite worked up and think it all depends on us, so we try harder. At such times I take a step back and simply praise God. James tells us, “Therefore submit to God, resist the devil and he will flee from you”, James 4.7. Notice the order. We submit to God first. What better way to do this than by coming into His presence with praise and thanksgiving.

You see the process of praising re-orientates our hearts to see and have confidence in the greatness of God. David understood this. In Psalm 34.1-4 he declared, “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall makes it boast in the Lord......Oh magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt His name together. I sought the Lord and He heard me and delivered me from all my fears”. Notice how David’s deliverance came because he set his heart to praise God. First he submitted then he was delivered.

In Psalm 32.7 David also wrote, “You are my hiding place, You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah (This is a word with a disputed meaning but most consider it to mean ‘take a pause and think about this’). David understood the power that a song could bring. He had experienced it first hand with King Saul. David’s songs became songs of deliverance for Saul and David expected God to do the same thing for him. The song of deliverance pushes back the enemy; it silences him; it defeats him, because it releases the activity of God on our behalf. He fights for us.

Paul and Silas knew this truth. Beaten and left in stocks in the inner most part of a prison they began to pray and praise God. The whole prison could hear them. They weren’t discreet about this, Acts 16.25. Then there was an earthquake and their chains fell off. How dramatic is that? Out of this episode in their ministry the church of Philippi was established; a church birthed in joyful praise, despite sever opposition. No wonder this is the church were when Paul writes to them he says more about Joy and rejoicing than in any other letter he pens. He insists, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” Phil 4.4.

5. My final point is that praise is part of a divine exchange. Is 61.3 promises to, “comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified". In these verses God promises to exchange three things:

1. To “give them beauty for ashes.”
2. To give them the “oil of joy for mourning.”
3. To give them “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

Notice the connection between beauty, joy and praise. Job knew what it meant to lose everything. It all seemed to go up in smoke and he ended up on an Ash heap. But he chose to hold on to the one thing the enemy could not take away – his integrity of heart and the worship of God that flowed from it. “Naked came I from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return there...... Blessed be the name of the Lord”, Job 1.21 Eventually God turned things around.

My conviction is that we need to see praise as a garment that we put on. Regardless of how we feel and the circumstances that life throws at us, God is still the same and worthy of our praise. It is this garment of praise that beautifies worship. Further it releases the oil of joy. Habakkuk engaged with God is dialogue until he came to this understanding. The closing words of his book are telling.

“Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; the though the flock may be cut off from the fold and there is no heard in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation”, Hab 3.17-18. Habakkuk made a choice to praise God. He records six negative things. Everything around him has failed. It is not a picture of prosperity. This is a picture a man praising God in the midst of adversity. He has put on the garment of praise and his joy is in God. Don’t allow heaviness to rob of your priestly ministry. Put on the garments made for beauty and glory and praise God. And watch how things begin to change.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Let us Rise up and Build

At first glance Nehemiah Chapter 3 is hard work to read. It’s a list. Not a shopping list, but a list of all the heads of the families who helped to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The whole project had started almost sixty years earlier with the first return of the Babylonian exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel. The Israelite’s had been in captivity for 70 years. Now the Persian King Cyrus had made a decree allowing the people of God to return. About 1% responded. It was a small remnant.

Later another group returned under the leadership of Ezra. These two men saw the rebuilding of the temple and the re-establishment of worship in Jerusalem. But as great as these events were the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins and its gates burned with fire. Nehemiah heard of this and was deeply moved. He prayed. He fasted. He confessed. He carried this burden for days.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer. He served the King his drinks. Under Persian law he was required to ‘look good’. Both his dress and countenance were to reflect his calling. To flout this requirement could lead to death. One day, in the presence of King Xerxes he did not have on his usual smile. The burden of the state of Jerusalem was at the forefront of his thinking and it showed on his face. The king asked what was wrong and Nehemiah became afraid, very afraid, Neh 2.2. This was to be a crucial point in the story. Instead of giving a feeble excuse Nehemiah boldly proclaims the real reason why he is sad.

The King responds with a simple question, “What do you request?” Neh 2.4. We then have one of the shortest prayers recorded in the Bible. Nehemiah is in the middle of a conversation with the King. The unexpected has happened. He has been challenged in a way, “What do you want?” Here is how scripture records the exchange, “So I prayed to the God of Heaven, and I said to the King....” In mid conversation Nehemiah prays. We are not told what the content of the prayer was. Was it for wisdom to know how to answer the King, like James 1.5 encourages us to do? Was to for boldness to speak what was in his heart, like the disciples prayed in Acts 4.29? Was it for a blueprint of things to ask for, like Moses who built the tabernacle ‘according to the pattern shown him on the mount’, Ex 25.40? We don’t know.

In a way it’s not important. The point is this. Prayer was such an integral part of Nehemiah’s life that he could do it anywhere, in any context, with anyone, even mid-way through a crucial conversation. And he got what he asked for – a passport to travel freely through all the provinces, authorisation to get wood from the forests and an armed guard for the journey. When the leaders in Jerusalem heard of the favour that was on Nehemiah’s life they got excited. Something in them stirred. They said, “Let us rise up and build”, Neh 2.18.

And so we come to Nehemiah chapter 3, the list of people who rose up to build. If we are patient to read this list some astonishing things emerge. Over 28 times in this chapter the little phrase ‘next to’ or ‘after him’ appears. You see each group of people took responsibility to rebuild part of the wall. They focused on one section and another group built the next section. So this huge task was broken down into manageable portions. Often they worked with those in their family or from the town where they came from. There was a keen sense of ‘togetherness’ in this enterprise.

This level of unity is crucial. It’s possible to be with someone and yet not be together. Proximity is no substitute for unity. On the underground trains in London people are crammed together but they are not really ‘together’ in the sense I am speaking about. Togetherness comes from a common vision and a common set of values. Nehemiah managed to inspire all these people to set aside personal agenda’s to serve God’s purpose in rebuilding the walls. And they all operated within the sphere of responsibility they had been given.

Yet each section needed to be joined. This would necessitate collaboration so that wall appeared as a whole. The only breaks came where the gates were restored; otherwise it appeared as a continuous whole. In Neh 3.13 we see that a typical section of wall that they worked on was 1000 cubits, (approx 500 yards). These walls were vital. In Bible times walls offered cities protection. They kept what was in safe and kept intruders at bay. They gave time for armies to muster should there be an attack. It often took months to break through a good sized wall, which is what makes the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho so miraculous. They came down in a day!

But walls also have other significance. They were the thing most visible about a city from a distance and so speak of testimony. At this time Jerusalem was a reproach, a byword, despised by those who looked on. Nehemiah wanted to change this. And he did. But throughout the process he faced many challenges for from those who opposed this work. It required him to stay focused.

Three words stand out throughout this process. They are ‘built’ chap 1.1; ‘made repairs’ chap 1.4; and ‘restored’ chap 1.8. A New Testament word that captures this idea is ‘Katartizo’. It is translated ‘equip’ in Eph 4.11, ‘restore’ in Gal 6.1 and ‘mend’ in Matt 4:21; Mark 1:19. The first two relate to people. But the third reference to fishing nets is a great metaphor. The purpose for fishing nets is obviously to catch fish. If the nets are torn, the fish will just swim out through the holes. They need to be mended.

And Jesus said we are here to become fishers of men! Nets in this context speak of the relationships we have that can become stressed and torn – for all kinds of reasons. They need mending. Without people being restored, the testimony of the church is weak, broken down, mocked. I believe like the time of Nehemiah we have an opportunity to rebuild the testimony of the church in Europe. But let's start right where we are. Nehemiah used many of the same stones that were in the original wall. They were rebuilt, reconnected to others stones. And all could see the progress daily.

What is also interesting is that as they started to rebuild they consecrated each section. We see this in chap 3.1. The first to build were the priests and consecration was a natural part of their daily life. Solomon waited until the temple was complete before he dedicated it, but these priests did so as they went along. Each section finished was a small victory and brought them one step closer to completion, so they praised, thanked and consecrated it to the Lord.

Many people are listed in this chapter – over 70 by name including their family decent. Each one who committed themselves to this task is recorded, but five things stand out to me.

1. There were a group of people who refused to get involved. They were the nobles who belonged to the Tekoites, Neh 3.5. We are not told why but the fact that they were the nobles implies that they thought this work was beneath them. They would have been of royal birth but they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They stand as a warning to us of human pride. Pride is subtle and has the power to deceive us, Obadiah vs3. It is an arrogant disposition that gives people an inflated sense of their own importance. Pride puffs up, 1Tim 3.6. The way of the Kingdom always involves the path of humility. This is a choice. Jesus made this clear when he instructed people to choose the lowest seat when they were invited to a wedding feast, Luke 14.7-11. From there the only way is up! When God calls His people to a task, all need to get involved!

2. The Tekoites appear again in Neh 3.27 because they repaired another section. Perhaps the lack of involvement of the nobles provoked them. Perhaps they were spurred on by the example of Meremoth who also repaired two sections, Neh 3.21. At any event they wanted a testimony that showed they did two sections not just one – a double portion if you will. They wanted to do something that would wipe out the shame of their nobles who did not join them in the work. It is an amazing testimony to the resolve of ordinary people and scripture records the double effort of Meremoth and the Tekoites. Some people have the will and the capacity to do more than others. Don’t simply stop at doing what others do. If you have the grace to do more, then do it. God is our rewarder, Heb 11.6. He sees. He will make it good in the end.

3. Neh 3.12 tells us the story of Shallum, leader of half the district of Jerusalem. What is fascinating is that he got all his daughters involved. Imagine that. Building a wall can be heavy work. In the heat of the day you get sweaty - not very dignified for women. They forsook the refinements of their status to do God’s work. Nobody would have blamed them if they did nothing. And later they would need to build holding a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, because of their enemies. Yet they willingly gave themselves to this task and Nehemiah let them. Consider also the indictment the Tekoite nobles would have felt every time they walked by that section of the wall - women doing men’s work. Really? What a great testimony to these pioneering women.

4. In the entire list of people named in this chapter not one professional builder is recorded. Instead we read of priests Neh 3.1,22,28; goldsmiths and perfumers Neh 3.8,31-32; Leaders of districts (administrators) and women Neh 3.9,12,14-18; gatekeepers Neh 3.29 and finally merchants Neh 3.32. I find this amazing. Ordinary people from every walk of life decided to re-skill in order to do the work of God. It is a testament to Nehemiah’s faith, not only in God but in the people of God. And this is my point. God can use anyone, anywhere, at any time if they are prepared to say yes to Him. All these people were skilled in their own area of competence – but necessity meant learning a new skill. And they did it.

5. Five verses record that some of the people repaired the wall ‘in front of their house’, Neh 3.10, 23, 28-30. Think about it. When enemies attacked they always looked for the weakest point to break through. If the wall is being repaired you would want to make sure that the section right in front of your house was well built! Your life depended on it. What better way to make sure that it was built well than to take personal ownership of that section? Some may argue that they were selfish. Perhaps we can see some mixed motivation here. But the truth is the wall got built and that was the task. We see something of this in the book of Philippians. Paul speaks of those who preach Christ out of sincerity and those who do it with wrong motives, envy and selfish ambition being chief among them, Phil 1.15-18. He doesn’t care. Christ is preached and so he rejoices. God will deal with people’s hearts. Paul is there to finish the task of preaching the gospel to all nations and regardless of motives it was happening. Notice how Jesus took a group of men to be His disciples who had very mixed motives at times. John and James harboured a lot of secret ambition that finally surfaced. Yet Jesus did not disqualify them from service. Rather He challenged them to be different. It’s called discipleship.

Whatever task God has called your church to do, let me encourage you to get involved. Don’t allow pride or the expectation of others about what your role in life is hold you back. God’s work is open to all. Isaiah heard God say, “Who will go for us?” Good question. How would answer? What will you do? It’s your choice.