Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dynamic Worship

Psalm 19, Nehemiah 8:1-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21



At the end of the Exile in Babylon the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem underwent a religious revival. There had been a similar revival before the Exodus, during the reign of the young king Josiah, when the Book of Deuteronomy was suddenly 'discovered', hidden away and neglected in the Temple. The reform in Josiah's reign had prompted the closure of all the hill shrines in Judah and the centralisation of worship in the Temple. The new religious revival expanded the Law of Moses to include new books which seem to have been gathered together from earlier traditions during and immediately after the Exile, when scholars were striving to protect and preserve what was important in the Jewish heritage.

The people who returned from exile certainly took Bible study seriously. They spent six hours listening attentively to the reading of the Law, that is from sunrise to midday. When Ezra blessed the Torah they stood up respectfully, then they raised their hands in worship, saying 'Amen, Amen!' at the end of the blessing, and prostrated themselves on the ground. It isn't clear whether they remained prostrate throughout the reading of the Scriptures, or stood up again, or were allowed to sit. Whatever they did, however, listening attentively for that length of time was a remarkable feat.

Notice how the words of scripture had to be interpreted to the people. They didn't immediately understand what the Law meant for their own situation. Someone who already understood had to make sense of it for them. And so preaching was born. And, of course, with preaching comes the tendency to over-interpret instead of letting the words speak for themselves. Complicated explanations, and the quest for additional meaning, are not just a feature of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures. They have always featured in Christianity, too, not to mention Islam.

So the Parable of the Good Samaritan was once reinterpreted as a story about the salvation of the world, rather than a challenge for us to take care of one another in more practical ways. In this reinterpretation, the man fallen among thieves became the average sinner, the Good Samaritan was identified with Jesus himself, the inn to which the Samaritan was taken became the Church and the two coins which the Good Samaritan gives to the inn-keeper became the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And that's just one example of a celebrated ancient preacher over egging the pudding!

But the Bible does need to be interpreted, to help us understand what it meant for its first readers and what - by extension - it might therefore be capable of meaning for our own situation too. If we don't interpret it, then it cannot speak to many of the issues we face which the original writers could not have foreseen - issues such as the huge expansion of science and technology, the changing roles of men and women, the modern global economy, new medical understanding and so on.

Notice how - after all this attentive listening and solemn interpretation - the people did at last get to have some fun. It was the Lord's Day, but it was also a day for celebration, not a day for mourning and weeping. With their earnest exhortations to spend Sunday sitting quietly reading the Bible or sewing samplers of The Lord's Prayer, Christians in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries too easily forgot this. Even when I was a child we weren't allowed to play football in the garden or watch TV, lest Sunday should get too exciting. And a generation before, of course, everyone had to go to church three times on a Sunday. If only Christians had remembered that joy in the Lord was their true strength, perhaps the secular backlash against Sunday would not have turned it into just another day like all the rest.

Psalm 19 says that there's so much to celebrate and praise God for that the whole of creation is vibrant with praise. This praise is not expressed in words, of course. Just by being and doing their thing, the universe, the sun and the earth all celebrate God's power and creativity. The sheer joy of their very existence is praise enough. And the Law of Moses, far from being dreary, or dry as dust, or stern and impenetrable, is cause for celebration too - sweeter than honey or sugar candy - because it contains the distilled wisdom and will of God.

Apparently, one of the things that attracts people to the Qu'ran is the beauty of the Arabic poetry in which it is written. I say 'apparently', because the poetry suffers badly in translation. And perhaps that's true of the Law of Moses, too. But notice that, unlike Muslim claims for the Qur'an, no where do either of these Old Testament passages suggest that these scriptures are the Word of God. They are words, decrees, precepts and ordinances - they contain the wisdom of God, but they are not the Word of God. The Word of God, his wisdom in action, cannot be contained within the pages of any book, however well written. And that, of course, is a fundamental point of difference between the Jewish and Christian faiths and Islam. But more of that in a few minutes.

Paul, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, reminds his readers of another dimension to Christian celebration - it's dynamic. That is to say, it's spirit-filled. It's not just an exercise in listening. It's about receiving. We all get to drink in God's Spirit. That's a heady image, isn't it? Like drinking sparkling wine - a fizzy concoction, likely to get up our noses if we don't do it right, but capable of adding an amazing buzz to our lives. Drinking in the Spirit is what transforms some people into apostles, prophets or teachers - that is people commissioned to proclaim, or explain the Gospel, or to tease out its implications. And, says Paul, that's not to forget the gifts of power which the Spirit can bestow. This is a drink with a real kick, real vavoom! Some people will be inspired by the Spirit to become healers, or helpers, or leaders, or to speak in ecstatic tongues.

There are two things to note about what Paul says here. First, he makes no distinction between the more glamorous gifts - such as healing and leadership, and a more mundane gift like helping or assisting other people. Both would appear to be equally important in the eyes of God.

Paul illustrates this by talking about body image. Even when we feel concerned about our body image, if we think our bottom or our stomach is too large for example, we don't usually do a Gok Wan and let it all hang out or try to look good naked. Instead, we go to special lengths - like Trinny and Susannah - to dress in a way which will flatter our whole body and make us feel better about ourselves. So, perversely, it's the bits of ourselves that we feel most comfortable with that get the least attention, while when it comes to the bits that bother us - our flabby stomach or our big bottom - we will happily spend a fortune trying to conceal or camouflage them.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, in a strange way, the whole of our body ends up being treated as equally important. The bits that give us the most pride are allowed to speak for themselves, while the bits that trouble us are cleverly under-stated beneath flattering and sometimes expensive suits of clothes, and in this way we are able to give the impression that we're fit and good looking.

That brings us to Paul's second point, that drinking in the Spirit is all about team work, all about different people coming together to make their own unique contribution to the out-working of the Spirit's power in whatever way God has called them. And if that's true, drinking in God's Spirit can only be done to best advantage if we are part of a team and belong to a worshipping community.

It's no accident, of course, that Paul talks about drinking the Spirit straight after his instructions for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is when the Christian community gathers to break bread together and pass around the cup of wine which recalls Jesus' death that the Spirit's power becomes available to them in this way.

And so to our Gospel reading, which is also about worship. Just like the returning exiles in Nehemiah's time, Jesus leads the congregation in the study of the Scriptures; not the Law of Moses this time but the Prophecy of Isaiah. However, the impact on the congregation when Jesus explains the meaning of the passage for the present time is just as electrifying. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him as he told them, 'Today in your hearing this text has come true!'

Not only is this passage about reading and interpreting the Scripture. It's also a dynamic encounter with the power of the Spirit. Jesus comes to the synagogue filled with the Holy Spirit and he tells the congregation, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me', so that they can be in doubt God is working and speaking through him.

This is where God's Word comes back into the picture. As we have seen, people often associate the Word of God with the written word. We even say, sometimes, after the reading of the Scriptures in our own services, 'This is the Word of the Lord' . But, in fact, the Word of the Lord is Jesus himself.

For Muslims, God is revealed supremely through the poetic words of the Qur'an. For Christians he is revealed supremely not in a book, but in a person. For Muslims, as for orthodox Jews in the case of the Torah, Scripture is a divine creation handed down to human beings who are merely its curators - in the case of the Qur'an to Muhammad, and in the case of the Torah to Moses. But for Christians, the Scriptures are an inspired work of human minds as the faithful followers of God attempt to record and make sense of the revelation they have received in Jesus. It is the Cross that is the central revelation of God's Word, his wisdom at work in the world. And the New Testament contains only the divinely inspired attempts of Jesus' followers to tell the good news of that event and to explain what it means for us today. In order words, like the preaching of Esra in the time of Nehemiah, the Bible is above all an attempt to explain what God is doing. And, like the worship of Paul's day, the dynamic result is teaching that is inspired by God's Spirit.

Do you remember the old days of vinyl recordings? Each one conveyed a record of the original performance of words and music, but - no matter how good the record player - there was always some background hiss. The Bible is the divinely inspired record of God's Word at work in the world, but always in the background of the text - and its explanation of what God's Word has been doing - there is the hiss which comes from the writers' own assumptions and preoccupations. And, no matter how much we may be guided by the Spirit today, in our own dynamic preaching and teaching and listening, there is always the background hiss of our own assumptions and culture too. Only when we see God's Word face to face, as the congregation did in Nazareth, will we get the digital version of the recording and be certain that today the text is being interpreted perfectly in our hearing.

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