Let The Trees Sing
Psalm 96:8, 12
In early June, 1940, the British had managed to save over 300,000 of their soldiers in the evacuation at Dunkirk, but the fall of France to Hitler's government was assured. On June 17, French General marshal Petain asked for an armistice with Germany, and Britain could feel the cold shadow of totalitarian terror lengthening across the channel toward its small island. Then it was, on June 18, 1940, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke into a radio microphone from 10 Downing Street to boost the hope of the British people, entering a new phrase into the lexicon of the English language: "The battle of France is over; the battle of Britain is about to begin. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour."'
It may seem to be a stretch of the imagination to you, but I think it is appropriate to apply this phrase to the hour of worship engaged in by Christians, mostly on Sunday mornings, for this is the Christian community's "finest hour." Karl Barth was saying the same thing when, in his Church Dogmatic, he wrote: "In divine service there takes place that which does not take place anywhere else in the (Christian) community . . . Divine service is shown to be the community's centre because here. . it exists and acts prophetically in relation to the world. . . (in) divine service--and here alone directly--there is a serious discharge of its commission to be a provisional representation of humanity as it is sanctified in Jesus Christ."
Let's think about that a moment. During the week, this congregation is dispersed throughout the city of Los Angeles and its environs, working as lawyers, teachers, administrators, housewives, custodians, secretaries, students, laborers, and workers at an infinite variety of jobs in an infinite variety of places. Most of the time, our commitment to Christ and his way is anonymous, submerged in the secular environment in which we work and live. If we are kind and generous to persons around us, they do not necessarily assume that our compassion is rooted in our Christian belief unless we make a point to tell them so--and we usually don't do that because it would seem pretentious or embarrassing. If we are honest and give a full day's work for a full day's pay, our employers and colleagues do not necessarily assume that we are trying to live according to the teachings of the Bible unless we make a point to tell them so--and again, we usually don't do that. We are living out our faith, but its character is manifested only occasionally and haphazardly. Those who observe us would not necessarily conclude that we are, in the words of the first letter of Peter, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people . . . called out of darkness into his marvelous light." (I Peter 2:5)
But on Sunday morning, each of us comes from our own individual human and Christian place to this building and this room, gathering in one location at one time so that we way visibly act out our appointment as the community of the saints in a specific, definite way. Here in this worship service we become that community. We witness to a skeptical or indifferent world that a community of saints does indeed exist, and we demonstrate what the character of such a community is.
For consider that our worship actually is an acting-out of the essential character of the life in Christ as we remember or recreate communally the birth and growth of God's grace within us. Our first acts are of praise and thanksgiving as we begin our festival of worship. Then, the vision of God's great glory drives us to our knees in confession, as we realize how we as a community have fallen short of the glory of God. Renewed by God's promise Of forgiveness, we then freely approach his throne of grace to share with him our thoughts in prayer, perhaps going on with the words of today's psalter lesson: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. "
Prayer opens the two-way street of grace. It is like taking down the barriers with blinking lights that prohibit movement, and the thoroughfare opens again, along which our thoughts travel to God and along which his word and will move toward us. So, after prayer and a brief celebration of our newness as a community--my euphemism for the item in our order of worship labeled "announcements"--we hear the word of God in several ways: we hear it sung by the choir or a soloist, we hear it read by the liturgist, we focus our spirits on it by singing a hymn, and we hear it preached in the sermon.
Finally, we respond to hearing God's word by obeying his will. We dedicate ourselves by offering what we have earned by the sweat of our labor--in the 1980's, our money--as a sign that the will of God is written on our hearts, and we lift our voices in musical praise as a sign that we rejoice in obeying God's will.
So, we come as a community to celebrate our belief that God has bestowed his grace on our lives as individuals and as a congregation through the gift of his son, Jesus the Christ; and we reenact that process in our worship by praising God, talking to God and listening to God, and overtly dedicating ourselves as individuals and as a community to serving God by obeying his will. In this service of worship, we are most specifically and most visibly the "holy remnant"; the representation of humanity at its very best, sanctified in Jesus Christ; the community of the saints. Surely, both God and men can say of us each Sunday morning, "This is their finest hour."
But hold on a minute. A tiny voice in the back of our minds is saying that something is wrong, something isn't quite complete. And the loud voice of the prophet Amos shouts God's words of condemnation: "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your offerings, I will not accept them."
What has happened to our finest hour? How can God reject the worship of his people?
To begin to understand, we must have a picture of the society to which Amos spoke. He lived during the reigns of Uzziah, King of Judah, and Jeroboam II, King of Samaria (called Israel in the book of Amos) and preached to the Israelites of the 8th century B.C. Jeroboam II had managed to build a lucrative trade economy for Israel during his reign, which had created a powerful and wealthy merchant class. Unfortunately, though the people of this class maintained strong traditions of worship, they did not maintain a sense of justice for all people. The merchant-princes spent their new-found riches on improving their own living standards and completely neglected the people of the peasant class who had previously been the backbone of the Israelite economy. The symptoms of a morally impoverished society became evident in Israel. Oppression of the poor was common, and the wealthy were heartlessly indifferent toward the affliction of those persons who were desperately hungry. The rulings of the courts went to the highest bidder, and the poor went deeper in debt by having to mortgage their land and enter into a slave-like bondage. Finally, the rich ceremonial trappings and costly sacrifices of worship were offered at the expense of the poor. (Amos 2)
Thus it is that God expresses his disdain for the solemn assemblies, rich offerings, and music of the worship of Israel. And he tells the people what they must do in order that the efficacy of worship may be restored: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."
Worship and acting justly toward all other people they are two sides of the same coin obedience to the will of God. This is why, in New Testament Greek, the word for "worship" also is the word for "service," meaning the work a servant would do in obedience to a command by the servant's master or mistress. Without both worship and service, the coin is invalid, incomplete. Worship in the community without acts of justice by the community is unacceptable to God. And, as we learned at the beginning of this sermon, acts of justice without accounting for God's role in those acts fail to give attribution to the source of justice--God.
And what is justice? Amos and Micah already make it clear that the offense is the lack of compassion for persons in need, and the elevation of oneself at the expense of others. The New Testament letter of Jams expresses quite tersely the justice God expects of his people: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
When we look to the teachings of the gospels about worship, it is clear that Jesus believes that worship is an outer manifestation of the inner spirit. Obedience must come from within, and no amount of external acts of worship can replace that inner humbling of the self. He tells the Samarian woman at the well that ". . .the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." And he leaves no doubt as to the practical implications of what he mans by worshipping, or perhaps better, "serving" God in spirit and in truth. He is not referring to some mystical, out-of-body experience. He is recalling the words of Amos and Micah, and he is setting the stage for James.
What is Jesus' most specific teaching about worship? "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5)
There it is. There is the other side of the coin of worship. There is service; there is justice and righteousness. If you are ready to worship and you remember that there is some enmity between you and another person, go and reconcile your relationship, and then come and offer your worship.
Last Christmas, a friend of mine who is a choir director was putting the final touches on the Christmas Eve service that included a good deal of music by the church choir. Unfortunately, there was some division over which one of two possible singers would have a particularly lovely solo in one of the carol arrangements. My friend announced the solo to the choir without first talking it over thoroughly with the person whom he had not chosen to sing. The service went well, my friend had made a good choice and the solo was sung beautifully. Indeed, the choir and congregation left the church with a feeling of happiness and joy after a blessed Christmas Eve worship experience--all except the person who had not been assigned the solo and the choir director. Neither slept well for the next several days, and at the next choir rehearsal they could not look each other in the eye or even greet each other personally at the end of the rehearsal.
The complete choir normally sang both services in my friend's church, and so the choir worshipped with the congregation at the first service on the Sunday after Christmas. The minister preached on God's great gift of reconciliation in Christ, and my friend felt his heart become heavier and heavier. As the choir lined up before the second service, my friend could stand it no longer. He went to the soloist and put his arms around the singer. Quietly, so only the singer could hear, he said, "I'm sorry. I didn't handle that solo situation very well. I know I should have spoken with you first. Please forgive me." Immediately the barriers between the two musicians melted, and my friend felt a warmth from the soloist that permeated his entire body and spirit. He told me that the next hour of worship was among the most meaningful services of his life, and that he never had felt more satisfied about his musical offering than about the music he and the choir performed at that service. Later, he and the soloist finished their conversation of reconciliation, and each had a blessed week-after-Christmas.
Carlo Maria Giulini, the former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and one of those rare conductors who not only was respected by his orchestra musicians but also was loved by them, said, "The great mystery of music-making requires real friendship among those who work together." The great mystery of worship also requires at the least real friendship among those who worship together, and it requires a willingness to humble oneself in service to others. Perhaps we could paraphrase the psalmist: "If there is enmity between me and another, or if I have acted unjustly toward another, you have no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a humbled spirit; a humbled and repentant heart you will not despise. If I rebuild my relationship with another person, then you will delight in right sacrifices."
This time of worship together can be our finest hour, the time when the obedience of our actions of compassion and servanthood is clearly and specifically attributed to God for all to see. Then it truly will be possible for us to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; and when we come into his courts with our offerings, all the trees of the wood will sing for joy.
Dr. Thomas Somerville