This may seem a long way from our usual approach. A very long way. But it challenges me in two ways. Firstly, it makes me ask myself how I measure up in the praise department. Psalm 149 tells me clearly that ‘… the Lord takes delight in his people’, but exactly how delightful to him is my praise when I compare it to the images in these two short psalms? When I praise God am I radiating the kind of fulsome and unabashed joy and wonder that these Psalms describe? Would someone alongside me know for sure that God is really the greatest and most wonderful thing in my life? Would it make someone want to share in the joy that faith brings? And secondly, have I been generous in my heart to those who do praise in this way (probably not, to be honest). Of course, it is easy enough to point to other passages in search of justifying a quieter approach to praise, but it remains that dance was an integral part of worship for Israel and as such should we be setting it aside?
So, do I think we should all now start dancing down the aisles? Well, let us ask ourselves a different question first: is our heart so full of praise for God we at least feel like we want to? When we consider what God has done for us, and will do for us, are we not astonished, filled with wonder, filled with joy? I hope so. And no, I do not think that we all HAVE to dance before the Lord, I am sure that we can express our praise in different ways and God will delight in us if we are indeed filled with the joy of knowing him and what that means for us. But if there are those who want to dance before our God, then let us make room for them as they delight in the Lord, let us see them as God’s ‘faithful people (who) rejoice in this honour and sing for joy on their beds’ (Psalm 149), and if you feel you want to join them, then do so, go ahead and ‘praise his name with dancing’.
Over the last few months we have been out walking in places I have known since my childhood. You can imagine my astonishment at coming across two harbours which I didn’t know had ever existed yet both within twenty miles of Edinburgh and on a very familiar route.
One was in Aberlady Bay. All that can be seen now are wide mud flats of the nature reserve. When the tide is out the sea cannot even be seen. But unlikely as it now appears, in the 16th century there was a harbour and it was important, serving the county town of Haddington. Only the customs and stores building remains. The pier has long gone – invisible and forgotten. Looking now at the miles of sea marsh and mud, who would have thought ships could ever have sailed from there?
The second was near Musselburgh, substantial and built in stone. Dating from 1526 and first built by monks, the port became busy during the industrial revolution and was used for exporting bricks, pottery, glass and coal from the adjacent mine. Over the centuries ships from France, Portugal and even America visited. But not now. It is buried in the Cockenzie landfill and is only just visible breaking the surface of the new ground level. The last ship to visit, the Topaz, was abandoned when it became stranded on the silted harbour bed. No funds were found to dredge the harbour and it never left - all that productive endeavour, skill and engineering standing against the stormy sea, all gone. So, another example of the seemingly permanent and invincible – but now invisible, barely recognisable and forgotten. All things do indeed pass.
What about us? It’s uncomfortable to consider feeling forgotten or being unrecognisable to friend or even foe. It makes us feel isolated, adrift and valueless, discarded, futile. Jesus used some strong words in Matthew 7:21-23 of false disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Their style was to prioritise human ideas instead of God’s, following a compromised lifestyle and indulging in selfishness and self-exaltation. They were not recognised when they knocked on the door. There is discomfort here for us. We can recognise ourselves in their failings.
When Jesus spoke of not being recognised he knew the force of it and what it felt like despite his being the very best. But he did not and does not want that for anyone. He promised to be with us always and in the bread and wine he asks us to remember him – why? Because he makes all things new, even us. Paul reflected on this in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Yes, we do compromise ourselves, we do let God down. But, through looking to Jesus we are a new creation now, in his grace, and even as in verse 21, the righteousness of God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
And yes, this is timeless.
So, as you can tell, the pandemic has done wonders for the state of mind. When Pete emailed to say you might appreciate some words from me for today, I rang him to clarify.
“Oh no, we don’t need your thoughts, just a few words leading us up to the emblems.” So, leaving aside thoughts on boosting one another’s self-esteem for a later date, some words leading up to the emblems.
Furlough has been a welcome break for many, a strange extended holiday to be paid for by this generation and the one to come. It has, though, come with more than just a financial cost. Those of us furloughed increasingly wonder whether there will be a job to return to at any stage. Further, we look at colleagues who have been brought back in to work and wonder if they are somehow higher up the pecking order now, even if purely by dint of place and circumstance, despite assurances from senior leadership. The whole question of identity, certainly in relation to work, but also stigmatisation by postcode vis a vis the virus, has become an issue.
So consider the Lord Jesus. How could it be that the identity of the Son of the Most High could be inextricably linked with the role of divinely ordained human sacrifice? Could the mighty king, the Son of Psalm 2 really be the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53? The Lord Jesus’ own mind played tricks on him around this theme – “If you’re the Son of God...”
No furlough for the Son of God. Times of rest and recuperation only serving to allow for prayer and communing with the Father, seeking after strength to continue, and guidance as to the way to go. Exhausted to the point of sleeping through the storm that threatened to sink the boat full of terrified but seasoned sailors, only to rise and quell the storm. “Peace, be still.”
Until at last, on the cross, the cruel jibes rang in his ears to echo his own thoughts: “If you’re the Son of God...”
Jesus’ unspoken response to the disciples in the boat was effectively,“Yes, of course I care that you’re perishing, I will give my life to save you, but storms will still come. Don’t let go of your trust in me and the Father.”
The anchor rope may feel like it’s slipping through our hands at times, but blessed is the one who holds fast to the end.
Readings for the Day – I Kings 3, Jeremiah 30, Mark 4
1 Thessalonians 5v17 – ‘Pray without ceasing’ – When we look at Scripture Enoch/Noah/David/Jesus/Paul all put their trust in God through prayer.
Before the Battle of Bannockburn (23 June 1314) King Edward II rode out to survey the enemy, some 15,000 Scots, having some 25,000 English troops. When they came near the Scottish lines, he was amazed to see how few were ready to resist the initial onslaught. Then he saw bowed on one knee the main army of men ‘praying’. The general with him said “Yon men will either win or die”.
Some years later (1542-1587), Mary Queen of Scots was said to have feared John Knox in prayer more than 10,000 soldiers.
It is a common mistake to miss the fact that God’s presence is always with his people.
Jesus said “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” Matthew 18v20.
2. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.
6. Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8. Only with thine eyes shalt though behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation.
10. There shall be no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in thy ways.
So Psalm 91 speaks about destruction and fear of the ‘pestilence’, but Moses, the writer of this Psalm, knew the power of God through his angels. Psalm 34v7-8 speaks about the angel of the Lord encamping around them that fear him.
Moses knew this through experience Exodus 23v20-21
The Lord said to Moses:
20. Behold I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.
21. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him.
The angelic power being with Moses.
Just as the Lord God was with Elisha II Kings 6v15-17. Verse 16 ‘Fear not’ Elisha prays for his servants eyes to be opened: ‘They that be with us are more than that be with them’.
So God is always at the side of the believers Hebrews 13v5 the Lord God says ‘I will never leave nor forsake you’.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, said in Matthew 26v53 he could call twelve legions of angels to his help through prayer and communication with God.
In Mark 4v38, we find Jesus asleep in the rear of a ship resting on a pillow. Jesus trusted completely in God, his father. Philippians 4v7 speaks about “the peace of God which passes all understanding”.
So the hardened fishermen wake Jesus up, totally afraid. They say “carest thou not that we perish”.
John 17v9 Jesus “I pray for them”.
John 17v21 ‘That they all may be one; as thou Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’.
This is the one who cared more than they knew for he gave himself for them and us!!
A couple of weeks ago Christina and I stayed up in Dundee for a short break. On a less than warm Sunday afternoon we went to Carnoustie for a wander and after sheltering from the rain under cover on the station platform we headed down to the beach. The tide was in so there wasn't too much sand on show but we could see that on a nice day it would be great for the grandchildren with plenty of rock pools, ideal for a paddle and "everyone loves a paddle", don't they? That particular day, there was a cold wind blowing and we didn't have a towel tucked away so it was just a very brief notion but perhaps another day.
What's so enjoyable about a paddle though? Rolled up trousers, sand between the toes, that initial excitement that makes you get straight back out the water when it first hits your feet then straight back in just waiting on that searing ankle pain until your body gets accustomed to the cold water. After that it's all good, the freedom to explore those rock pools and feel the waves lapping on your legs. You're in the sea but it's nice and safe, no danger of being swept away, the water's not even up to your knees.
We like nice and safe in all parts of our life even in our life in Christ. Too often we are happy to stay in the shallows, not get too involved.
In 1 Thessalonians 1 we read about the great example of the Brothers and Sisters there. Paul remembers their work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus, they received the Word with joy even amid much affliction. They became an example to all the believers in Macedonia, their faith in God going forth everywhere. Sounds like the Ecclesia in Thessalonica were doing pretty good, living a truly Christian life.
As we go through the letter we see Paul praying for them, praying that the Lord will make their love increase and strengthen their hearts, basically telling them they're doing a good job but they need to do better still, they need to go deeper in their life of service to the Lord.
Isn't that true for us too? Do we too need to go deeper, to leave those comfortable shallows, to challenge our comfort zone and do more? We are all different, we have different abilities, different amounts of confidence, what can we do, what do we need to do?
Paul tells us frequently to live our lives to please God, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God. Why should we do this? Hopefully because we love the Lord God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
We are also called to be Holy, different from the World, to become more like the Lord Jesus. Our lives should be a song of praise to the Lord. Yes we may well make mistakes, get a word or two wrong along the way or even in some cases a whole verse. Too often we dwell on the negative side of our lives, refer to ourselves as sinners, which we are, but instead let us focus on the positive, we are chosen, friends of God and the Lord Jesus, that's something to rejoice about. We do need to strive to do better in all aspects of our lives in Christ, to go deeper, to leave those comfortable shallows where we can simply and safely paddle around.
If we remain in the shallows too, there is much more chance of being pulled back in to the world around us and all its attractions, maybe less so at the moment though! It might be a bit scary heading out into the deeper water, our faith may be tested but remember what it was like when we were learning to swim, clinging to the side, staying where our feet could still reach the bottom then as time went by and our confidence gradually increased we were soon doing "cannonballs". This is what the Lord wants, a full life in the Lord not just a safe paddle. I've said before, the Lord wants us to thrive not just survive, to be lifesavers not just someone who knows just about enough not to drown.
That's our challenge then, to stop holding back from the Lord, have the faith to step out into deeper waters or if we feel we are not confident enough to dive deeper into God's Word.
"ALL Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”