Expanding your horizons (Job 31, 38)

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In this session we’re focusing on Job 31:35-37; 38:1-11

But let’s recap. Job is righteous, religious and rich- the very epitome of a success story- but that effortless prosperity raises the Satan’s hackles and he sets out to discover whether or not Job’s piety is offered freely to God or for some reward. In a horrendous test, Job is reduced to total loss, total poverty, and complete spiritual confusion. His friends arrive to comfort him but stay to confront. They assume some guilty secret has come home to roost because -as they insist- those who do evil deeds always receive their just rewards from God.

Far from acquiescing to his fate, Job begins to question its justice. The friends may have expected a quick and dismissive death, but instead they receive the torrential fury of a man convinced that God is not what they (and he, and we) think.

Something is definitely amiss in this neat world of reward and punishment, and Job refuses to be silent in the face of such obvious injustice.

At Job 9:22-23, Job is constrained to shout, “God destroys both righteous and wicked,” and even “mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” He concludes (Job 9:24) by announcing, “The earth has been handed over to the wicked; God covers the faces of the judges: if it is not God, then who is it?

By this reading, God is both tyrant and sadist, mismanaging a chaotic universe.
The friends are shocked, and attempt to belittle, accuse, and obliterate Job. Underneath is the subtext that if their theology is astray, with what can it be replaced?

Ever thought that about your own neat little package of beliefs?

The “friends” symbolise the long ongoing story of fellow-believers who claim much and know little, failing in both their theological depth and in their counselling breadth. Think of the religious leaders who confronted Jesus on an issue where theology and ethical practice connected. He answered:  “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29) The same critique is going on here.

But here’s the thing: if they are indeed wrong about their claims, and their final disappearance from the drama suggests that, then is Job proved right? What sort of theology can we glean from his fury? How can this tirade come to a conclusion? In Chapter 31, Job makes an astonishing plea:

Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
    I sign now my defence—let the Almighty answer me;
    let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
36 Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
    I would put it on like a crown.
37 I would give him an account of my every step;
    I would present it to him as to a ruler.” (Job 31:35-37)

And we come – by chapter 38- to God’s response, and to what must be the “point” of the whole book.  But that point is not immediately obvious. Job wants answers about the universe’s justice, or lack of it, and God talks on (and on) about creation: the sea, the dawn, the earth, etc. As the speech progresses, God speaks of the wild creatures of the world, even the ostrich, whose foolishness knows no bounds, but whose speed is wondrous.

What are we to make of all this? Job wants justice, and God says, “Have a look at the stupid but fast ostrich!” The incongruity seems to add confusion rather than clarity.

But eventually, as you read, over time, something very important begins to dawn.

It is that both Job and his friends were wrong about God. God is simply not in the business of rewarding and punishing human beings in some quantitative arithmetic. God’s revelation to Job (and to us) is that the universe is far bigger, far stranger, and far more mysterious than we can imagine. A longer look at the ostrich and the sea and the eagle would help us to begin to see that.

We would also learn that we are not in creation’s centre either. The world is not our oyster, but it is God’s oyster, the God who “brings rain on a land where no one lives, on a desert, empty of human life” (Job 38:26). Why would God do this?

Because God is God, and we humans do not determine how God will act, nor are we always the reason for God’s actions. In the end, God is holy and other and the world is God’s, not ours. Job needed that revelation, and so do we.

So God reveals himself in that whirlwind tour of the cosmos, displaying creation in all its wildness and beauty.

And we have to acknowledge that humanity is hardly mentioned in these passages, that there’s more to consider (Job 38:25-27; 40:15)! God seems to take delight in exactly those creatures and places over which humanity has no control. The Sea, the wild animals, Leviathan — these all have an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with their usefulness for humanity.

This vision, of course, has major implications in our ecologically-minded age.

Also, God gives a place in creation to forces of wildness, including the Sea (the ancient symbol of chaos), but God also places boundaries on them (Job 38:8-11). The world is not allowed to descend into chaos, but neither is it rigidly controlled by its Creator. God gives his creatures the freedom to be who they were created to be, and that freedom is a great gift to human and animal alike. In this vision of creation, the world is not an entirely safe place for human beings, but it is a world of order and of beauty, and its Creator delights in it.

Even, -and this is the mystery that needs a lot more analysis than is possible here- the Problem of Evil itself, personified in Leviathan (Job 41). There are powers that are unleashed on the earth that are simply beyond our control. Our attempts to control those forces are as ludicrous as catching a crocodile with a fish hook.

So where do you fit into all this, Job?

God does not address Job’s suffering directly, but in this vision of creation, Job’s vision is expanded. He is invited to take his eyes off himself and his suffering, and to see the world around him.

As Augustine out it: “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.”

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Job: Through a glass darkly (Job 19)

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In this third sketch of the book of Job, let’s look first at the following passages: Job 14:7-15; 19:23-27. In these passages, something strange begins to emerge – it’s the seed of a doctrine of resurrection which we find barely mentioned at all in the Old Testament. And here too, it is scarcely more than mentioned, or seen out of the corner of your eye, as “through a glass darkly,” but it is precious, and significant, as is the rousing finale of this section:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25-26).

A “redeemer” is the Hebrew word Goe-el– a champion, a defence attorney who stands with you on your behalf and pleads your case. It’s intriguingly close to the Greek word parakletos, the word given for the Holy Spirit in John 14-16. One who comes alongside to help.

He lives. He will take his stand on the earth. And even if I perish entirely, through him, I will nevertheless see God for myself, “in my flesh.”

Once again, we have to acknowledge the obscurity of some of the Hebrew phraseology, and to look carefully at alternative possibilities of translation. And to be candid, my own hermeneutic derives from years of teaching poetry at High School, as well as studying Hebrew and Biblical literature. So consider the poet’s total intent -theological and poetical- and decide how each phrase works towards that intent.

Let’s do that here. To put it simply, Job is a powerful story of a man reaching for God. Everything has been stripped away from him, humanly speaking, and he is tempted to turn his back on God, but he can’t quite do it. Instead he reaches forward, like someone lost in a terrible fog, attempting to find something solid to hold on to.

In Chapter 14 he attempts to reason out a common-sense analysis of our human condition:

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal[b] to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.”

The implication is that it’s all different for human beings. They can’t anticipate the “resurrection” that trees can. Or can they? Is there a way I can “wait for my renewal to come“?

In the process of such pondering, Job comes to make one of the most remarkable statements of faith in the whole Bible. It’s a statement made many centuries before Jesus walked the earth, of course, and so he lacks, you might say, our “advantages.”

But he knew God, and the Bible describes his lifestyle as “blameless.” That word must denote some kind of living, journeying relationship, that they were on speaking terms, and that Job had confidence and a deep-seated belief that the Most High God cared for him, conversed with him and was concerned about his life and lifestyle.

And he knew life too, in its seasons of winter and spring, death and renewal; he knew about the passage of night and day and the cycle of change that is an integral part of our world. And in these two “books” – the physical and the spiritual – he discerned the same Author’s hand at work. And from his assessment of the character of God, he extrapolated two powerful points: the justice of the Creator and the destiny of the created.

If God created, then God will sustain. He is on my side. He is MY redeemer, my champion. He cares about what He has made. How can it be otherwise? If He made me then he will see His creation through. And what does that mean? It means that the day will come when He stands upon the earth and sets things to rights. Justice will be done. And I will see it done.

“I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.”

So in these depths of serious despair, Job experiences these tiny flurries of inexplicable hope, or moments at least of hopeful longing. God will hear him. God will answer. Such longing is based on Job’s faith and his experience of God’s care in the past (Job 10:9-12). His most fundamental hope is this: that he will see God (Job 19:26-27). That hope will be fulfilled at the end of the book (Job 42:5).

It is the witness of Job and the psalmists (see Ps. 22)–indeed, of the whole Bible–that God hears, God sees, and God will answer. Even in the depths of despair, Jesus knew (and we can know) that God is our God (“My God, my God…”). Because God is in relationship with us, we can speak to God, trusting that God hears us. Such faith leads to the capacity for hope, even when our outward circumstances may remain unchanged. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” cries Job in his suffering.

Knowing this Redeemer in Christ, we have all the more reason to hope.

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Job: Coming to the End of Yourself (Job 3-7)

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“Then Job broke the silence. He spoke up and cursed his fate…”

We’re reading from Job 3:1-10; 4:1-9; 7:11-21

The Job full of patience in the first two chapters has given way to a Job full of anguish, who wishes for nothing so much as his own demise. Quite simply, he’s had it.

“I despise my life; I would not live forever.
    Let me alone; my days have no meaning.”

And his pals, who started out so well, offering him their comforting presence in silence for a full week (Job 2:13), now offer him a bunch of well-meaning platitudes instead, with all the insight and subtlety of a fortune-cookie.

“Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?
    Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end?
It’s my observation that those who plow evil
    and sow trouble reap evil and trouble.
One breath from God and they fall apart,
    one blast of his anger and there’s nothing left of them.”

They claim that the innocent don’t perish, but Job’s experience (and -it has to be said- ours) says otherwise. They claim that suffering is the result of sin, that Job must have done something wrong to deserve such suffering. Do you remember the Julie Andrew’s line from The Sound of Music?

“Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good…”

Apart from your surprise that a devout Roman Catholic nun could come up with such stuff, most of us live that way, thinking, more or less, that the nice things that happen to us are what we deserve, and that good things means I’ve done something good, and bad things ergo must mean the opposite.

It is to expose such trivialised theology and phoney world-views that this whole book – all forty two chapters of it- was written.  For this – this is something that we must get right. Even if we can’t come up with a fully articulated answer, we have to say: “This is a mystery and I don’t understand it.”

But when you’re in the middle of it, your response might be more like Job’s:

“I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

He tells it how it is. He holds on to his integrity, knowing that he has done nothing to “deserve” his suffering. He speaks directly to God about his suffering and holds God accountable to God’s promises. In this, he echoes the psalmists.

Job’s friends are useless theologians; they talk endlessly about God without ever speaking to God on behalf of their friend. Job is more direct. He begins by speaking about God, but then moves more and more to speaking to God, beginning in ch. 7. (For this, he will be commended by God at the end of the book.)

How do we react to suffering, ourselves or someone else’s? Are we honest or do we say only what we think we should say? Job’s laments give us permission to lament, to bring our deepest hurts, fears and anger to God in prayer and to know that God hears.

It’s a powerful and ultimately helpful thought that there are all those laments in the book of Psalms, that there’s even a whole book called Lamentations, that Jesus sweat blood and begged the cup of suffering to be taken from him, that it is permissible – even reasonable- to express “a violent and passionate outburst of sorrow and regret.” It’s part of being human.

And this is something that the book of Job brings to us: the right to mourn.

Second, it gives us the right to address God. Job is eloquent:

“If I have sinned, what have I done to you,
    you who see everything we do?
Why have you made me your target?
    Have I become a burden to you? 
Why do you not pardon my offences
    and forgive my sins?”

The wonder of this passage is that Job knows that the consequence of conversation is the development of relationship. And that means forgiveness – the restoration of the estranged. He reaches out for God’s voice, God’s answer.

He senses what Jesus declared in John 10: 27: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…” It’s what Paul saw too, in Roman 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Your faith – your confident trust- rises at the mere sound of his voice!  It’s the speaking word of God (according to Heb 4:12) that discerns “the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” So “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jer 33)

It all hinges on that conversation. You have a right to speak. Even if all that you say is filled with confusion and anger. He waits to respond.

But there’s a third point – a theological perspective. It’s tough to say this, but the thread of the text -leaving all the detail to one side- indicates that a good man, and because he is good, may yet receive at the hand of the God he loves and serves the hardest of hard times;  and however morally upright you are, you’re not totally clean. There’s always more to travel.

This third point is to discover the centrality of the cross.

Now, there is no doubt that Job was a good man, a man of prayer with a close walk with God. But was he really looking into his own heart accurately? Why is it necessary for a good man to say, “I have sinned”?  First, because it is true; and second, because it places him in a right relation to God. And this is when Jesus Christ takes centre-stage. The Cross is the centre of God’s universe. Everything revolves around the Cross. Everything must minister to the Cross. And in his own way, Job was yet to learn that.

 

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When God is all you have left ( Job 1,2 )

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There’s an epic narrative quality to the opening of the book of Job. It’s like the scrolling text that opens Star Wars: “Long, long ago…” This suggests strongly that what is to follow is more parabolic than historic. For one thing, the story of “Righteous Job” seems to have been familiar territory, according to Ezekiel 14:14-20, and so possibly a well-known historical character is being used to frame a poetic substance – which is – to put it simply- a long meditation on why bad things happen to good people. 

The first two chapters form the set-up. We are introduced to this righteous man and to the wager between God and the Satan. (“The Satan” in the book of Job is a title rather than a name. In chs. 1-2, the word always occurs with the definite article. The Satan’s job is to investigate human beings and report on their activities. The word “satan” is probably best translated “accuser.”)

There was a man in the land of Uz.” (No one knows where Uz was.) As noted, the historical aspect is clearly not primary, but  nevertheless, the text considers some important questions, including the Satan’s: Do we love God for what we get out of the relationship, or do we love God for who God is?

In some ways, however, the opening two chapters are more than an introduction to everything that follows. They are a thesis statement, a summary of what the writer is going to explore in detail.

And here’s the thing: What happens when you choose faith in the middle of suffering?

Paul went through a life of considerable hardship, and his response was exactly this: to choose faith when every instinct summoned him into bitterness and confusion. He said: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) I have to maintain a spiritual perspective, and consider the present through the lens of the future. It’s going to be ok.

Second, Paul maintained a positive attitude, not because of the sufferings themselves, but because of what they produced: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

And third, he claimed the workings of God in every situation, even (and especially) when he couldn’t understand those circumstances: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

But all this, of course, was the mature understanding of one who had seen the risen Christ. How could Job reach such understanding?

It is the wonder of the book of Job that the future faith of Paul is here in seed form. For this is what Job came to.  When I choose faith in the midst of suffering, Job saw, it doesn’t:

  • eliminate the pain
  • stop the questions
  • create a logical reason for my suffering.

I am still in pain. I still doubt, and worry and fret about what is happening. All those things are still churning around inside me like dirty washing in a laundromat. But “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20-21) Repentance, grief, humility, self-abasement, devotion and trust. And “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” What does that mean?

It means that Job had chosen to trust God despite everything. We are called to do the same.  And choosing faith in the midst of suffering will:

 

  1. remind you that God is in control
  2. be a offering to God
  3. bring you closer to God.

Though he didn’t know it yet, Job was on his way to the most intimate encounter with God that he’d ever have in his lifetime. Through the season of suffering that had fallen upon him, he was starting a journey that would lead to his greatest understanding of who God was. The road of suffering was the only road that would lead him to a more intimate encounter with God.

Unfortunately, not every person comes closer to God on the road of suffering. Some use the road to go in the opposite direction, going further away from God than ever before. Pharaoh, for instance, destroyed his entire country when he refused to acknowledge God in the midst of the pre-exodus suffering. Most of the kings that would rule the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah couldn’t find faith in the midst of various hardships, and both kingdoms fell as a direct result of their faithlessness. A rich man, afraid to suffer the loss of his material wealth, missed walking with the Messiah. Judas was overwhelmed by his own, self-inflicted heartache, and he missed the resurrection.

But for every lost opportunity, the Bible provides plenty of success stories.

All of the patriarchs – Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses – suffered for decades before seeing how faithful God could be, to those who simply would not let go of the rope of faith. David became more than a king. He became the most beloved song-writer in the history of faith, and most of his great psalms came straight out of his seasons of suffering.

After the heady days of popularity disappeared, the disciples knew suffering. Thankfully, they also found a life-changing resurrection at the end of the worst weekend of their lives. To say that they learned more about God through that weekend would be the understatement of history! They found that the Jesus they’d followed was the confirmed Christ, the Son of God . . . a Messiah who faced great suffering with great courage.

Ever since, those who have suffered and looked for God have been finding hope in the Savior who died for them.

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“But who is my neighbor?”

 

‘“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

How we love to play the “Return Match”!  The phrase reminds me of the situation where a town has two football teams. They play once and then a “return match” is called for. It’s like a kind of sublimated revenge. The papers may even call it a “Revenge Match” or a “Grudge Match.” They use clichés such as “Revenge is sweet!” or “Honour is satisfied!”

At the worst level, this stuff only deepens divides into an “us and them” mentality, into gangs and factions and petty retaliations.

It’s interesting, therefore, to notice that phrase “among your [own] people.” The original context of “love your neighbour as yourself” is a section on how to live a godly life with a specific bunch of ideas about being nice to your neighbour. The verse’s full force is demonstrated only when paired with its preceding verse:

“You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbour, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord.”

The words should be translated in a much more concrete way, more as an injunction to be useful, be helpful to the neighbour, take care of them, rather than to develop a particular kind of warm feeling. In English a closer translation than ‘love’, which has now got to be a word for an emotion, would be ‘cherish’, which implies taking care, nurturing and providing for a beloved object.

Somehow it’s easier to see how people nurture their gardens or their pets than they do their relationships.

I think that the phrase “among your people” is crucial.  This is your own family that you are poisoning with your ongoing grudge match.

Anne Lamott said “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Jesus quoted this Scripture, of course, but then went on to tell the familiar story of “the Good Samaritan” in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”  The answer given was that if under God, everyone is in the family, then everyone can be your neighbour.

But you have to see it. And then do it.

If not, then, as Victor Hugo said “Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one wounds himself with the other.”

I remember reading somewhere: “If you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to your heart, then you’re allowing them to hurt you a second time in your mind.”

But what about that word “cherish”? Such a delicate verb. Maybe God is calling us to look after the people around us the way we would polish and pamper a new car. We allow no build-up of litter, no bird-poo on the glass. Every time we walk past it, we study it with a critical eye, running our fingers over the slightest smudge.

What if we considered our relationships in the same way? 

I think this is exactly how Jesus acted. He looked carefully at those about him, seeing them as God’s especial creations, created whole, endowed with innate intelligence, with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect.  When he saw them ostracised because of sin (like Zaccheus) or sickness (like all those lepers), his immediate instinct was to touch and to draw close.

He recognised his neighbours as those here to learn their own song, and each entitled to love, to dream and belong to a loving “village.” And to pursue a life of purpose.

And when he stood up for that “woman taken in the act of adultery,” he was angry for the treatment she had received, but also sad for the woman’s position. “Go and sin no more.” He offered mercy, forgiveness, but also summoned her to a lifestyle change. He was cherishing her, loving her and valuing her position before God as much as he recognised his own.

He stood among the lost and broken, seeing them as “sheep without a shepherd.” He looked carefully at the crowds coming, and told his disciples: “You give them somethng to eat.” 

Maybe -among other meanings- he was saying: “This is your family. Shouldn’t you be taking care of them?”

When he called himself “Son of Man,” he was insisting on the duty of being human, and recognising the call to nourish and nurture the vulnerable as the heart of being human. His word to the crowd about Zaccheus is his summons to us.  They saw Zaccheus as an outsider, but Jesus said, “This man too is a son of Abraham.”

Lord, help me to see the people around me as my own family, my own people, and to act accordingly, in love and trust and forgiveness. We commit ourselves to peaceful ways and vow to keep from harm or neglect these, our neighbours.

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Prophetic worship

Screenshot 2020-06-02 at 20.53.50What Is Prophetic Worship?

Prophets prophesy. They look at a situation and they deliver God’s heart. They speak the mind of God. They are in tune with what the Holy Spirit is saying. Jeremiah criticised those who didn’t understand this point. In 23:18, he writes: “But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?”

That’s much more necessary than your guitar being in tune. It’s a question of learning to listen to the Holy Spirit.

1. Ask the Right Questions

When you are preparing yourself for leading worship, don’t just ask questions related to the music. Ask like this:

  • What theme is on God’s heart?
  • What is God saying to His people?
  • What do the people of God need to declare?
  • Who is a part of my congregation?

Realize that you’re not just picking out songs. You are leading people to encounter God, hear his voice, and be transformed.

2. Practice the Spontaneous

While spontaneity doesn’t necessarily equal prophetic, it can play a huge role. A worship leader who is sensitive to the Holy Spirit can’t just perform a worship set because they are meeting with God in the moment.

They are helping people encounter the risen Christ. Whether or not they nail their guitar solo or strum with perfect precision isn’t what they’re thinking about.

Being spontaneous can be scary. It can also be done very poorly if you haven’t practiced it. I would recommend you practice every day, off the stage. While you’re in the shower, in your car, or in your quiet time, listen to the Holy Spirit. Make declarations. Sing your own phrases and melodies.

Don’t leave it to chance. Practice your spontaneous leadership.

3. Know Your Authority in Christ

It’s crucial that you know the power of the Gospel. Inside and out. Backwards and forwards. If the Gospel is “old news” to you, you have no business leading worship. Because the authority we have in Christ is essential to worship.

That is what you are reminding your people of. That is what the Holy Spirit is awakening in God’s people. They don’t need to stay buried in depression, anxiety, and disappointment. They are children of King and need to declare that truth.

Knowing your authority as a believer will bring a fresh energy and intensity to how you lead worship.

4. Trust the Holy Spirit

Prepare like it all depends on you, but lead like it all depends on the Holy Spirit. Too often we leave out the Holy Spirit. We pay homage to him in our prayers but we trust more in our ability to lead than we do His ability to awaken the dead.

What if you implicitly trusted the Holy Spirit this weekend? What if you were relaxed, following His leadership? What if you knew beyond a shadow of doubt that He was moving? How would that influence your worship leading? Paul wrote: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 12:1). We have to address our ignorance by developing a personal relationship, a theological grounding, and a Spirit-led boldness.

5. Engage Fully

Forget about any external issue and pour your entire being into worship. The more vulnerable you can be the better worship leader you’ll become.

Don’t be afraid to cry when you’re overcome by the love of God. Don’t be afraid to kneel. Dance without shame. The best worship leaders put their private life of worship on display. They are authentic worshipers in front of people. No farce. No filter. Nothing is fake.

Don’t rely on your incredible vocals. Forget about your ability to arrange great songs. Forget about your songwriting skills. When it’s time to worship, forget everything but worship. Pour out your heart and engage yourself fully.

It’s worth considering the church at Corinth to which we just referred. By all accounts, the Corinthians had a full measure of the Spirit’s power. Prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, knowledge: the Corinthians had them all and more. Yet they also had conflict, immorality, and thoughtless disregard for one another. How could they know something was a gift of the Spirit and not merely self-indulgence? Over two or three full chapters, Paul develops the crucial topic that we have to learn: How do you discern God’s work in the activation of various gifts and how do we maintain a sense of value one’s brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety?

Let’s return to those questions:

  • What theme is on God’s heart?
  • What is God saying to His people?
  • What do the people of God need to declare?
  • Who is a part of my congregation?

When you operate in a local church, these questions quickly assume central importance. They form the matrix of your prophetic insight and enable prophetic worship. You’re asking:  “What is God doing in this place?” What is God doing in the church, in the neighbourhood, in the lives of people within the fold of the congregation and the lives of those beyond it? What’s happening?

You have to have spent time in prayer and the Word, and with the people, and with the community to begin to get it. Sometimes these questions never get asked, and the pattern of worship becomes stale and repetitive. In 1 Cor 12, Paul offers three criteria for making critical judgments of the state of play.

What is God up to?

Through God’s Spirit, God is first of all bearing witness to Jesus as Lord. “No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat is sharply critical of various Christian heresies popular in America today, from the extreme prosperity gospel, to preoccupation with “the God within” from Oprah Winfrey and others, to Glenn Beck’s understanding of God as chiefly concerned to spread democracy throughout the world by means of American military might and foreign policy. One of the things all of these voices have in common is silence about that which Paul told the Corinthians was all he decided to know among them: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

So here’s the criterion for prophetic worship: I have to discern whether or not the flow of gifts in operation is led by the Spirit of God by listening to its claims about Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes Jesus known to us in the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), the supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-34), and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). By the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus—not money, security, self esteem, paranoia, power, or anything else—is Lord.

The operation of gifts for everyone

Gifts from God’s Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. They also serve the common good.

Paul’s second criterion for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit points to the Spirit’s interest in the common life of those it draws together. Just as the Spirit is all about talking up Jesus as Lord, so the Spirit is all about building up the group rather than enriching individuals. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Remember, as a worship leader, that you are a servant, listening, watching, alert for your master’s voice, and attentive to the whole flow of ministry.

Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift cannot be shared, and shared for the good of others, it is not from the Spirit. It also implies that any attempt to rank individuals according to their possession of “better” gifts would be at odds with each gift’s common purpose for the good of all.

Let all things be done!

The third clue Paul offers to us as we try to answer what God is up to in a particular place is a sort of negative criterion. Whatever God’s Spirit is doing, it will probably not be characterised by tidiness. When you are looking for the Spirit’s gifts, look for a bit of a mess. This means, among other things, that the fact that you did not think of something—whether “you” are a long-time member, or a pastor, or the church council, or the apostle Paul—is not enough to say it is a bad idea. True, Paul urges that Corinthians to do everything “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), but this requirement does not preclude a varied collection of activities.

The Corinthians were the original enthusiasts, giving every evidence of having swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. Many of them seem enthralled by the more dramatic external manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). Sadly, at the same time, they ignored the quieter work of the Spirit to draw them into a community that respects all its members. They could not, for instance, share the Lord’s Supper together equitably (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-34).

When Paul tries to redirect the Corinthians’ attraction for spiritual gifts, it is not because he likes tradition more than innovation or because he is trying to erase difference. Paul directs the Corinthians to the “still more excellent way” of faith, hope, and love (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:13) because that way will bring them back to valuing one another more than their own knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, miracles, tongues, and all the rest. The person sitting beside you in the pew or kneeling alongside you at the altar rail: that brother or sister in Christ matters more than all the spiritual gifts in the congregation.

Paul’s goal is not a tidy community life but a loving one.

Prophetic worship identifies and enables the work of the Holy Spirit among us? The Spirit proclaims Jesus as Lord, offers its gifts to the church for the common good, and activates love for one another. This is the starting point of our worship. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 12 puts it very well, as a description of how servant-leadership in the Spirit operates:

If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face. Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.”

If we can only manage to be real, then whatever we do will carry the badge of that authenticity and we may just learn to step aside and allow the Spirit to do his work.

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“A People of Praise…”

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It’s a line from an old chorus: “For I’m building a people of power, and I’m making a people of praise…” What we sometimes fail to realise is that praise has ever been a distinguishing mark of the People of God. 

As the Bible indicates, their music was public and private, secular and sacred, liturgically formal and crazily informal. One has only to read the book of Psalms with its constant references to shouting for joy and dancing, or to consider poor Michal looking askance as her husband stripped off to boogie before the Ark coming into Jerusalem…. Yes, crazily informal. 2 Samuel 6:5: “And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.”

The Bible gives its origin story, in Genesis 4:21, where we are introduced to “Jubal was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” And its terminus ad quem is in Revelation 5:8-9, where a glorious array of worshippers “each holding a harp… sang a new song, saying...” The Bible’s journey begins, that is to say, with the creation of music and concludes with that music finding its rightful place, in worship of the risen Christ.

In this session, we’re going to consider various angles of this “people of praise” taken from a wide swathe of Biblical texts, before asking once more: how does this praxis inform our own?

First, of course, there are negative examples, when the “people of praise” had been suckered into compromise. Think of Baal’s prophets performing before Elijah took the stage. Or the scene that Daniel recounts: “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15)

When compromise finally led Israel into sin, the ceasing of music became a metaphor for national loss and failure. Isaiah 24:8: “The mirth of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased, the mirth of the lyre is stilled.”

Isaiah 16:10: “And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field, and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no cheers are raised; no treader treads out wine in the presses; I have put an end to the shouting.”

The prophets also roundly condemned any fakeness in musical worship. Look at Amos 5:23: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” Or Isaiah 5:12 : “They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands.”  This takes us into a slightly different area, with an interesting insight into social music.  But the point is the same: is this music godly, in the broadest sense? Are you “regarding the deeds of the Lord” in your normal everyday life?

Amos 6:5 takes it a little further, rebuking those “Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music.”

1 Samuel 16:23 mentions a curious middle ground here, where David’s musical ability countered a satanic opposition in Saul: “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.”

But on the positive side, the Bible has many more examples of how it should be done. Let’s look at how the “people of praise”  step into action, responding to the powerful presence of God.

In Exodus 15:1: “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” And don’t miss the mazing moment in Exodus 15:20: “Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.”

2 Chronicles 7:6: “The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the Lord that King David had made for giving thanks to the Lord—for his steadfast love endures forever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood.”

1 Chronicles 23:5: “And four thousand shall offer praises to the Lord with the instruments that I have made for praise.”

1 Chronicles 15:16:David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.”

2 Chronicles 29:25-28:  “And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished.”

Ezra 3:10: “And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel.”

Nehemiah 12:27:  “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.” And in the event, the two massive orchestras circling the walls, one clock-wise, the other anti-clockwise, must have created quite the spectacle, symbolically girding the city with praise.

By contrast, the New Testament has a number of quiet scenes of musical devotion. Matthew 26:30: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

James 5:13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”

Even Acts 16:25 can be understood this way: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…”

And Hebrews 2:12 too : “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

Paul  mentions music in worship only briefly in the context of a guide to the conduct of meetings. But consider 1 Corinthians 14:15 : I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.”  Here again we find the people of praise, rejoicing in their Lord both intellectually and spiritually.

And, finally, the glorious moment of Revelation 14: “And they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (Revelation 14:3) 

No one could learn that song except…!

 

 

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