One of the standard rules of preaching is that you never start with an apology. But, as we all know, rules are made to be broken - so right at the outset, I would like to apologise to those of you who were expecting a carefully-crafted line-by line exposition of the passage.
The truth is, I can't even attempt to do justice to the subject of 'Joyful Worship' in the time available without doing violence to the text. One of the standard tricks that preachers employ is to take a passage like this one, and draw from it general lessons and applications to our Christian lives.
I'm sure some of you are saying - isn't this exactly what we should be doing? Taking the text of the Bible and applying it to our lives? Well - yes, in a general way. But you have to be careful that you are taking passages that were intended for general application when you do this.
For example, I have heard sermons on the nature of our relationship with God and our daily walk with Him, and they have been based on the text of Isaiah 6: "In the year that King Uzziah died, I say the Lord, and He was high and lifted up and His train filled the Temple…" Now, of course there are general truths to be drawn from this passage, but it is wrong to suggest to people that the relationship they enjoy with God on a Monday morning should be based on something that the poet and prophet Isaiah experienced just once in his life. Saint John experienced something similar in the New Testament, but two accounts in the entire Bible should not lead us to expect something similar to happen to us every week.
This passage today is about a one-off celebration. Thee are a few other similar events in the Bible: David bringing the ark into Jerusalem and the dedication of the Temple by Solomon. But three events in 500 years is not sufficient basis for determining how we worship God individually and corporately every day and every week.
Instead, I would like to offer you a part of my personal testimony. I started going to Sunday School at the age of 4, and church services at the age of 8. At 14 I became a Christian, and started to go to both an Anglican and a Free Church service every week. I read the Bible and lots of Christian books, both biographies and theology. I prayed and did a lot of evangelism.
Then at 18, I went to university, and my Christian life was turned upside-down. I became part of a bunch of people who were experiencing God in a new way - for us, at least. We discovered the gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders, spiritual warfare. We saw God answering prayer in a wonderful way, healing people, transforming broken lives, restoring broken relationships. We learned to be honest with and committed to each other.
I could spend all morning describing what God did, what he taught us, and the thrill of being a part of that movement of God's Spirit. But at the centre of it, at the very core of everything that was happening, we were discovering intimacy with God through worship.
At the start of this time, in October 1975, we went away for a weekend with Gerald Coates, and he taught us about worship. He taught us to worship. And that event formed a foundation in my life, and for many of the people who came together for that weekend. It may sound corny, but we had encountered God, we had learned how to relate to Him, and our lives would never be the same again.
We could be open and honest with each other because we had discovered how to be open and honest with God in our worship. We could forgive each other when people let us down and hurt us because we discovered not the fact that God has forgiven us, but the experience of knowing that we were forgiven - forgiven by a God Who knew the very worst about us, and still received us as His beloved children.
Please understand why I'm telling you all this. I don't want to entertain you by remembering stories about the good old days. God did something very special in that place and time, and worship was at the very heart of the life that began flowing there. But the truth is that worship is at the heart of every movement of God. Worship is at the heart of the Christian life. The more we understand this truth and the more we live it, the more we find ourselves in tune with the God whom we are worshipping.
So, worship is a key issue for Christians. Strangely, it also seems to be an important issue for non-Christians. On various occasions, when I have been talking with people about Jesus, they have raised a question about worship.
It generally goes something like this: Why does your God tell you to worship Him? Is He so insecure that He needs your worship? Tell me again how great I am.
God doesn't need to be told how great He is, but we need to tell Him how great He is. We need to worship someone or something. The desire to worship is natural, built into us deep down. If we don't worship God, we will worship something much less.
You can see what a person's god is by seeing what they worship - what they devote their time and energy to. For some people, it is their home, their family, or their career. Sadly, some Christians also worship these things, and many others. For some, it is success, for others it is comfort. Whatever their god, we need to tell people, these gods will fail you, they will let you down. There is only one God in the whole universe who will not let you down: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God Who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.
All worship is transforming. You become like the god you worship. You can see in Islamic culture, the effect of worshipping a god who does not forgive. That's probably not much of a danger for most of us. You may start worshipping money for the things it can give you, but sooner or later, you discover that the other things don't matter, and the only driving force in your life is the desire for financial success.
You can only have one central, over-riding desire in your life, and everybody has one, whether you recognise it or not. That central desire will determine the course of your life, and will shape the person you become. So choose carefully the God you worship, as you will have to live with that choice for a long time.
We worship because we are made to worship. We choose to worship a god we want to become like. And, I hope, we choose a God Who is worthy of our worship, Who is worthy of our praise and adoration.
I hardly need to say it, but Jesus is worthy of our worship. He alone. He alone chose to become human. He chose to be born as a baby - weak, vulnerable and helpless, unable to avoid pain, or to satisfy His own needs and desires. He chose to grow, to learn, to change. He chose to teach people about the character of God through His words and His life. And in the end, He chose to suffer and die in our place so that we can receive eternal life and forgiveness. He alone is worthy of our worship.
We have been talking about worship, but what is worship? We often use the word to mean 'singing', but not all singing is worship, and not all worship is singing. The angels worship God, but for some reason I don't yet understand, they don't sing.
A few years ago, I took part in a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The words were all from the Bible and the music was superb, but it was not worship. It was a performance. I was not personally engaged, expressing myself to God, making use of the opportunity to encounter Him in a new and fresh way.
I would imagine we all recognise the difference between engaging in worship and putting on a performance. If you are in doubt, please talk with someone at the end of the service. I don't think it's worth attempting to define worship, but here are a few characteristics you can probably use to recognise it.
Firstly, true worship is personal. It is an expression of a love relationship between us and God; between the created and the Creator; between the children and the loving Heavenly Father.
It is a personal encounter with God, a personal opening up to God. It is an opportunity to express how we feel to Him, and it provides a context in which He can communicate how He feels to us.
And this leads on to the second point. True worship is honest. It is an encounter between you and God. There is no point in pretending. Any pretence, any play-acting in worship can only get in the way.
For many people, this is a real problem. We don't set out to be dishonest in our worship, but we are inevitably affected by group pressure. If everyone else is waving their arms around, it is sometimes difficult to avoid just joining in.
But the Father seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and in truth. Honesty is essential. Only say what you mean. Be real. If you are singing a song and the words are not right for you, don't sing them. Sing what you do want to say, sing in tongues, or just listen for a bit. But whatever you do, don't tell God things you don't mean.
You cannot encounter God in a casual way. True worship touches the deepest parts of our being
The subject for this morning is 'joyful worship', and worship is essentially joyful. We have a lot to be joyful about. But 'joyful' does not have to mean 'fast' or 'loud', and certainly does not mean 'superficial'.
The joy is based on Who God is, and what He has done. It is not a blind joy that pretends I have no problems, but a solid and reliable joy that recognises whatever problems I have, I also have a God Who is bigger than the problems, a God Who will never abandon me to despair.
True worship cannot be something that happens every now and then, once a week on a Sunday morning. Everything we do as Christians is to be done as an act of love and worship. If we are not worshipping God during the week, we cannot worship Him in our services. Worship is not something you can turn on and off like a tap.
Our Heavenly Father does not go into hibernation when we walk out of this door at the end of the service. He is with us every step of the way, in everything we do during the week. We may worship Him when we come together as the church body, but we learn to worship Him as we are doing the dishes and preparing meals and eating together and fixing the car and stopping the children fighting. That's real life, and real worship.
We don't have time this morning for a study on the relationship between worship and sacrifice, but I'm sure you can see they are deeply connected. The point of a sacrifice is that it costs you something, and true worship is always costly.
True worship always involves laying down your life, putting aside your hopes and plans and desires so that God's will may be done in your life, and through you, in the world. True worship reminds us that He is God and we belong to Him, and he has the right to use us any way He chooses. We have no rights, no safety net, no opt-out clause if the going gets difficult.
We simply have the knowledge that whatever the cost of following Him, the price He paid to win us back was infinitely greater. Whatever the suffering, He shares it with us. Whatever the feeling of insecurity, He will never let us go. He Who began a good work in you will complete it.
As we come to worship God, let us be open to Him. Allow Him to speak to your questions, needs and fears. Perhaps the right thing is for you to allow Him to speak to you through one of your brothers or sisters here. Feel free to wave at someone, or pull on their sleeve and ask for them to pray for you. And be open to the possibility that He may wish to speak through you, to an individual or to the congregation. Allow yourself to respond to His love this morning.