Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Looking Redeemed

2 Sam 6:1-19; Ps 24; Eph 1:3-14[1]

Every year Fortune magazine publishes a list of the best companies to work for—places where people actually like their working environment and actually enjoy what they do. This year, Methodist Hospital is the highest-ranking company in Houston on the list. What a concept—spending your life at something you really like and enjoy! As we look at scripture from the perspective of learning ways to help our church find new vitality, I wonder if we ought not look at the enjoyment factor. Having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about the quality of life that is present among us.

Unfortunately, most churches would not be characterized as “joyful.” I think Friedrich Nietzsche said it best when he mocked that for him to learn to have faith in Jesus, his disciples would have to look “more redeemed”![2] From a less cynical perspective, Paul Tillich asks whether the lack of joy that is conspicuous in many churches is due to the fact that we are not “sufficiently Christian”![3]

By contrast, our Psalm for today portrays a festival celebrating Yahweh’s reign over Israel—indeed, over all creation[4]—that is nothing if not joyful! After confidently declaring that Yahweh rules over the whole cosmos, the Psalmist characterizes those who seek God as the “pure in heart” who “see God” (cf. Matt. 5:8) and are overcome with joy.[5] And they express their joy with an antiphonal shout welcoming Yahweh as the “King of Glory.” I don’t know that we can be sure, but many Bible scholars think that this Psalm was composed for just such an occasion as the one described in 2 Samuel. As David brings the Ark of the Covenant into his new capitol, Jerusalem, he is clearly overcome with joy. Whether or not David’s motives in this were completely pure, it would seem that “joyful celebration” is a pretty good description of what he was doing. [6] David gave full expression to his joy over God’s covenant faithfulness and God’s continual presence with Israel.

As I think about this story, it occurs to me that we don’t see much of that kind of thing in church. It seems that most churches would be less accepting of David and more like his wife Michal who thought he was making a royal fool out of himself! Now, I’m not too interested in shouting and leaping in church, but it seems to me that a good dose of laughter is very appropriate. And dance can convey a wonderful sense of joy in worship.[7] Of course, different people express joy differently—some more externally, others more internally. But either way, joy is something that I think should be a natural part of our Christian lives. We’re meant to “look redeemed”!

If we want to see our church thrive, I think we should make cultivating joy a priority—joy in life, joy in service, and joy in worship. Christian worship is intended to be a celebration of the resurrection, a celebration of new life. [8] At one time or another, most of us have probably experienced the level of joy in our faith that David displayed. But the question is how we maintain a sense of joy—not necessarily a “dancing in the streets” kind of joy, but joy that lasts.

How do we cultivate that kind of sustained joy in our congregation? I think it begins with our relationship with God. The church is the place where Jesus Christ “is present and alive”![9] It is the place to celebrate God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[10] Sustained joy also comes from recognizing our blessings—as Paul enumerates them in his letter to the Ephesians: freedom, pardon, hope, and assurance—and all an expression of God’s great pleasure in us (cf. Eph. 1:5, The Message)! Sustained joy can also come from our mission. We are called to be the church that is out there striving for the justice of God that makes all life holy, striving for the universal peace of God that embraces everyone in God’s love and that sets all creation free from the chains of death. [11] When we cultivate these aspects of our faith, our very life becomes infused with the joy that comes from God’s grace and mercy. Then we cannot help but be joyful. Then, perhaps, we can look more redeemed.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/12/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 79.

[3] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 142

[4] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 314; cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 120: “To see the world is to behold the evidence of the reign of the lord. To live in the world is to be dependent on the reign of the lord.”

[5] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 314; Mays, Psalms, 121

[6] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 248-50 on the mixture of political maneuvering and authentic devotion that may have characterized David’s action. Cf. also Michael Goulder, “David and Yahweh in Psalms 23 and 24” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2006):463-73 for a more detailed account of the challenges David faced in turning Jerusalem into the seat of Government and of the shrine of Yahweh.

[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74: worship should begin with the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated.”

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”

[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750-762. Cf. also Moltmann, Passion for Life, 19: “Where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life, vigorous life, loved life, and eternal life.”

[10] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 205; cf. similarly Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 279.

[11] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 340-361; see also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 54, 123, 141, 143, 154, 271-72.

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