Monday, 10 August 2009

Giving Thanks - Responding to God's Checed

Psalm 107 is an exhortation to give thanks to God, for who He is and what He has done. It begins; “Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good!” Whatever happens in life – God is good. And every good and perfect gift is from above, James 1.17; from a good God. This is who He is – good. His essential nature is good and His desire for His creation is to do good things. Redemption is part of God’s goodness toward a broken world. The pain and suffering of the cross is also the triumph of God’s goodness over evil. But then we are told why, “For His mercy endures forever”. This word mercy is the Hebrew word Checed. It is translated as mercy 149 times, Kindness 40 times, loving-kindness 30 times, goodness 12 times and kindly 5 times. God’s mercy, kindness and goodness endures forever – because it’s an expression of who He is.

But here’s the crunch; “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy....” vs2. The redeemed, you and me, are meant to speak out thanks to God for His goodness – who He is, and His acts of power that save and deliver us – what He has done. The Psalmist calls these acts of power, “His wonderful works to the children of men”, in vs. 8, 15, 21 and 31. Four times in these same verses he expresses his desire that the redeemed would give thanks to the Lord – “Oh that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” Remember the ‘men’ at the beginning of the verse are the redeemed of verse 2, you and me. We are the ones here being encouraged to give thanks. God’s acts of deliverance are worth celebrating and speaking out.

Ex 15 gives us a great model for doing this. The first 20 verses of this chapter are the Song of Moses. It is a song sung after the children of Israel were delivered from Pharaoh’s armies. They did so with exuberant praise and thanksgiving. It is a song that exalts the greatness of God in triumphing over His enemies. And Miriam and the other maidens danced and played tambourines as part of the celebration. The whole community took time to tell God how great He is. Imagine the scene. Right by the Red Sea they sang, they danced, they joyfully celebrated God’s deliverance. It was a prophetic song that will also be sung again according to Rev 15.3, along with the song of the Lamb. They took time to say thank you in praise to God – right in the wilderness where God was the only audience who could appreciate it.

Verse 22 stands at the hearts of the psalm. “Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving and declare His works with rejoicing (literally, ‘joyful singing’ in the Hebrew)”. Thanksgiving is a sacrifice that is accepted by God because it is at the heart of all appreciation. When Jesus healed ten lepers only one returned to give thanks, Luke 17.11-19. Jesus was astonished. “Where there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Where there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Jesus expected more! All ten experienced healing but only one made the sacrifice of thanksgiving by returning to Jesus. Notice that he did this with a ‘loud voice’, Luke 17.15. And Jesus didn’t stop him. We are to declare His works with rejoicing – with joyful singing. How loud are you prepared to be in your appreciation for what God has done? The Psalmist tells us: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so”!

Four sections make up these encouragements to offer thanksgiving; vs. 4-9; 10-16; 17-22; 23-32. Each section begins with a dilemma or distressing situation, then the people cry to God for deliverance and this is followed by an exhortation to give thanks for answered prayer. Four typical life situations are mentioned, they wandered – vs4; they rebelled – vs11; they transgressed – vs17; they were at their wits’ end – vs27. Sound familiar? Most of us have experienced all those things and the distress it brings. Sometimes we wander from the truth, sometimes we rebel against what we know, sometimes we transgress (or cross boundaries we should be honouring) and sometimes we are simply at our wits’ end. But what is important to understand is that God is still ready to move on our behalf when we cry out to Him. “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses”. This phrase is repeated in verses 6, 13, 19 and 28. Four times no less! Whatever the reason for the anguish they were in, they cried out and God heard and responded. Verse 28 is written in the present tense just to emphasise that God can do now what He did then.

And each time God responds to their cry He sends an answer that is appropriate for their need. For those wandering, He led them forth by the right way, vs. 7. For those in rebellion to God’s word who found themselves bound in affliction and irons, He broke their chains in pieces, vs14. For those who transgressed and came near to death He sent His word and healed them, vs20. Finally for those at their wits’ end, He guides them to their desired haven, vs30. And so we come to the Psalmists ongoing exhortation; “Oh that men (the redeemed) would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men”.

So why is it that we are so good at calling out to God when we have a desperate need but less committed to expressing our gratitude to His deliverance through heartfelt praise and thanksgiving? Here are my top three reasons. It’s a very personal list but experience leads me to believe that it has universal application.

1. Self-centredness. It’s a strange thing how self-centred the human heart is. Having raised six children I can remember how often we would teach our kids to say please and thank you. Somehow those simple disciplines help to deliver us from a preoccupation with our own wants and needs. Thanksgiving recognises that someone else has made an effort on our behalf; an effort that usually involves a combination of time, energy, money and sacrifice. Thanksgiving delivers a death blow to self-centredness because it places someone else in the centre. Often those who are overindulged develop an attitude where they expect things to be done for them. They are spoilt. Only a regular dose of thankfulness for those around them will deliver these people from their self-centred focus.

2. Pride. This is a biggy. Some people carry on in life with a feeling of being invincible. They see themselves as better than others. Then things go wrong and they call on God for help. He delivers them and then they quickly forget how vulnerable they were in those moments of need. Like Psalm 106.21 says; “They forgot God their Saviour who had done great things in Egypt”. Rom 1.21 says, “....although they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful....” Knowing God is one thing, but choosing to glorify Him is another. Notice how close the refusal to be thankful is to those who refuse to glorify God. The Psalmist says, "He who offers praise glorifies Me”, Ps 50.23. Thanksgiving is ultimately an act of humility. It acknowledges we can’t do it alone. Paul was in danger of pride in his life, so God gave him a thorn in the flesh. It is not important to know what it was. What is important is that it created a new dependence on God in Paul – and for this he was thankful, 2Cor 12.7-10. He even boasted in this new found dependency on God.

3. Emotionally driven. These are the folk who often say ‘I don’t feel like praising God today’. They have no problem worshipping but they are emotionally driven. When they feel good they do it but when troubled times come, they wear their emotions on their sleeve. You only have to look at them to know exactly how they feel. The concept of the ‘sacrifice’ of praise is foreign to them. Emotionally driven believers are immature believers. Like young children they respond quickly to how they feel. There is a higher way. It involves acknowledging how you feel but then making a decision to thank and praise God, pushing past one’s feelings. As Paul teaches us, “ everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”, 1Thess 5.17. God’s will is that we give thanks in every situation, not necessarily for every situation. And there is a difference. In times of trouble we connect with God. This is what Joseph was able to do. And despite the hardships he endured he came into his destiny. At the end of it all he could see that what his brothers intended as evil, God meant it for good – to save many people, Gen 50.20.

Here’s a challenge to help you cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving. Take a day this week where you set apart the whole day to do nothing but express thanksgiving; to God and to those around you. Refrain from complaining or gripping for a whole day. If someone cuts you up in the car on the way to work – bless them and let it go. If someone lets you down choose to believe it was circumstances beyond their control and thank God for the opportunity to develop patience. Make a list of all the good things in your life at this time, health, friends, a job, whatever. And consciously thank God for each one. Then make a list of all the things God has done for you this year. Read over it and lavish appreciation on the Lord for His goodness to you in all these areas. Try doing it at the top of your voice!

And when you walk into church on Sunday it won’t be so hard to recall all His goodness to you. You will have prepared your heart and worship will flow, heartfelt, enthusiastic, loud and carefree. As Psalm 107.32 says, “Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, and praise Him in the company of the elders”. The Psalm closes with a wonderful thought. “Whoever is wise will observe these things and they will understand the loving-kindness (checed) of the Lord”, Psalm 107.43. Are you wise? Do you want to be? Do you want to grow in understanding of God’s unfailing mercy, kindness and goodness? Not just being a recipient of checed but understanding this aspect of God’s character? Then give yourself to this challenge I’ve laid down and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Friday, 7 August 2009

Positioning your Heart to Hear - Today

Praise and worship is able to position us to hear from God. For in opening our hearts to God in worship we open our hearts to Him to hear Him speak. This is brought out beautifully in Psalm 95. Like Psalm 127 it changes course half way through. It’s like driving along on a straight road to suddenly find you are facing a junction which turns hard to the left or right. It wasn’t expected.

But what appears as a discontinuity is in fact revealing a great truth. Hearing what God is speaking is contingent on how we position ourselves in worship. More of that later. Psalm 95 begins with a call to praise. Six times the phrase ‘Let us’ is used. Each time we are called to express our worship of God in a particular way. The Psalmist has no compunction telling the congregation what to do – worship is not a free for all, do as you please time of expression. In Israel it was co-ordinated, unified and united.

Twice the phrase, ‘Oh come, let us...’ is used; the first to introduce the call to exuberant praise, the second to introduce the call to reverend worship. Notice we are the ones to ‘come’ close to God. Like James tells us; ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you’, James 4.8. Three times a year Israel made pilgrim journey’s to Jerusalem. They came to worship – together. In worship we take the initiative. As we do God draws close. His presence becomes tangible. In the OT this was pictured by the cloud turning up and appearing outside the tabernacle. Everyone new God was in the house!

Each ‘let us’ calls us to action. They all answer the who and what of worship. And between these phrases is an explanation of the why.

1. Let us sing to the Lord, vs1
2. Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation, vs1
3. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, vs2
4. Let us shout joyfully to Him with Psalms, vs2
5. Let us worship and bow down, vs6
6. Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, Vs7

Notice how prescriptive the Psalmist is. He tells us exactly what to do. This is worship leading built into the song! Jehoshaphat and the people were told where to position themselves and what to sing. By submitting to this direction God released a great deliverance on their behalf, 2Chron 20.18-21 It wasn’t everyman doing what was right in his own eyes when it came to worship!

Notice too how we move from singing and shouting to bowing and kneeling. The first sounds very Pentecostal the second sounds very Anglo-Catholic. The issue is not being denominational but being biblical. We need both expressions of worship. There is an order here also. We come before His presence with thanksgiving. There we sing and shout, joyfully. I have shouted many times in my life. When my children were in danger – it was the shout of anxiety to warn them. Sometimes it was the shout of anger when things didn’t go as I expected – a car cuts me up and I ventilate! But in God’s presence we come with a shout of joy – it contains excitement, no less enthralling than when your favourite football team scores a match winning goal. This is what should characterise praise.

The psalmist tells us to shout the psalms. Imagine declaring out loud, “The Lord is my shepherd”, at the top of your voice, excited by the truth and reality that is in those words. This is how we get into praise. Twice we are told to shout. But why all this enthusiasm? Psalm 95 gives us the answer. God is the Rock of our salvation. He is a great King above all other gods. He rules supreme. Church is the place where we celebrate this reality. And it is meant to be a celebration – loud, exciting and joyful. The Psalmist reminds us that we worship the creator; the one in whose hands are the deep places of the earth; the one who formed all things.

There are four expressions of ‘let us’ in the praise part of this Psalm and two in the worship section. Twice as many exhortations to praise as there are to worship! Praise is all about appreciation for who God is and what He has done. It positions us to see how big God is. We are filled with a sense of His awe. From that place we can bow in reverence and worship. In that place we can see that God is not simply the great King, He is also a shepherd, “and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand”, vs7. Bowing and kneeling is virtually lost to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches as a posture in worship. It has a long history in Anglican and Catholic churches. Perhaps it’s our reaction to what appears religious, formal and dead. But there is a place for this. Our posture often expresses the attitude of our heart.

In the OT they often bowed or knelt. Abraham did this when he met the Lord in Gen 18.2 as did Joshua in Josh 5.14. It was of course part of their culture to show reverence to any dignitary in this way, how much more the creator of heaven and earth. And this is the psalmist’s point. We honour earthly kings. Of how much more honour is the great King worth. But this great King is also our shepherd; a shepherd who wants to speak to our hearts. And so we reach what appears as a discontinuity in the psalm.

Today if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.....It is a people who go astray in their hearts and they do not know My ways. vs7b-10. Obedience is ultimately a heart issue and the condition of our hearts will determine the obedience we walk in. Israel tested God in the wilderness. They did not believe what He spoke. Their heart was hardened. But why? They did not give themselves to worshipping Him. They quickly moved into idolatry – probably the worst sin in the Bible. Something replaces God as the object of our affection.

But when God is kept at the centre; when we take time to thank, praise and worship our creator King, who shepherds and guides us; then our hearts stay tender. It is only a soft heart that has the capacity to hear in faith. Joshua and Caleb had this. God’s word became their inner reality and they said yes to His will.

Think back over your life for a moment. The times when you were closest to God and heard Him speak would have been times when thanksgiving, praise and worship were central to your lifestyle. Sin’s power lies in its ability to harden the heart so that worship seems disconnected to life and reality. We may sing but it is not heartfelt. It is not as the psalmist described it; full of shouting, joy and thanksgiving. This is why I believe we must be intentional about the way we worship. Let us....let us....let us.... What great reminders these are to put God in the centre of all things.

I like this phrase, “Today, if you will hear His voice...” It is somewhat open ended. Will we hear? Are we content to live in what God said in the past or do we want to live in what He is saying “Today”. And by today I don’t mean the next 24 hours. A “Today” word is a word that is relevant for this generation at this time in this place. It is above all things a prophetic word, a now word. The gospel of Luke is full of these kinds of occurrences. You could even argue that in Luke Jesus appears as ‘Today’s man’.

In Luke 4 we have the story of how Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah 61.1-2 at the synagogue in His home town of Nazareth, Luke 4.16-21. After reading the scripture He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Every eye was now fixed on Jesus. How we He exegete this text? What insight will He bring? The atmosphere was pregnant with anticipation for what He would say. And then He drops the bombshell; “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, Luke 4.21. Imagine all the times these people had gone to synagogue and heard this text. Then Jesus turns up and says “Today.....

They were of course incredulous. They knew Him. They knew His parents. They had watched Him grow up in their midst. Who does He think He is? And eventually they tried to throw Him over a cliff having driven Him out of the city. They couldn’t hear what God was speaking that day. Their heart was hardened. In the very place where worship was offered to God they had grown familiar with the routine of worship. Their hearts had gone astray. They could not perceive what God was up to. And so they rejected God’s word. They rejected Jesus.

In Luke 19 we have the story of Zacchaeus; a tax collector. One of the most despised people within Jewish culture at that time. He was a collaborator. He collected money on behalf of the Romans often taking an extra amount for himself. When Jesus sees him up the tree He invites Himself to dinner, “for today I must stay at your house”, Luke 19.5. This was going to be a ‘Today’ moment for Zacchaeus. He immediately responds by promising to give away half his goods and restoring fourfold of all that he has taken unjustly. And then Jesus says it. “Today salvation has come to this house.....” Luke 19.9. Zacchaeus was able to ‘hear’ what God was saying, ‘Today’. It changed his world and the lives of all those he was connected to in some way. This was real salvation at work.

In Luke 23.39-43 we have the final hours of Jesus on the cross. Two men are also experiencing the same fate. One is mocking while the other understands the significance of Jesus and how unjust His death is. He is bold enough to ask Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. Whatever else we may infer from that request, it is certain that the thief did not believe the cross was the end of things for Jesus. He expected Him to come into His Kingdom. And now we have Jesus reply, “ you will be with me in paradise”, Luke 13.43. One thief hardened his heart and mocked. The other feared God and made a humble petition. He heard and was heard.

It is vital we keep our hearts soft. Prov 4.23 says we must guard our heart with all diligence. For from here spring the issues of life. A tender heart is a worshipping heart. And a worshipping heart is a hearing heart; hearing what God is saying ‘Today’. So many times the church gets caught up fighting yesterday’s battles. The battle for the truth of justification by faith was won nearly 500 years ago. Today’s battles are different. By hearing what God is saying ‘Today’ we can fight effectively. Praise and worship positions us to do this – to hear.

I believe God is speaking about restoring the generations. Malachi ends with a promise to send the spirit of Elijah who will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers”, Mal 4.5-6. This is part of our vision as a church; to be intergenerational; to make room for all the generations. So who must make the first move? The fathers. I take this to mean that it is the older generation that must intentionally turn their hearts toward the younger generation. Life teaches us that this is the way.

When our first daughter was born it turned our world upside down; in a good way! It was no good me telling her what our routine for sleep and eating was. All of that went out of the window. She was the child and her needs demanded we change – not her. I think we sometimes forget this in church life. New believers don’t fit well into some of our church structures. We try to force them to fit but we are in danger of killing the life that they have. It is us who need to change, to adapt and be more flexible. It’s not comfortable or convenient. It often brings stress, but in time we begin to see maturity, response and growth. There is a pay off!

I pray that as a church we live with this kind of attitude towards those who are new to the faith; that we are the ones who go the extra mile and serve a younger generation by making room for them. For the promise of scripture is that their hearts will then turn too. Are you mature enough to make the first move? Can you embrace a generation that wants loud music and messages that speak to the issues of their hearts? Can you spend time with them without judging them? Do you see that God can use them to touch their generation? If not, then perhaps you need to get back to some heartfelt praise and worship that will open your heart to hear – Today!