January 26, 2014

The Lord is My Light and My Salvation

Passage: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Service Type:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

In 1717, King Louis XIV of France died. Preferring to be called "Louis the Great," he was the monarch who declared, "I am the State!" His court was the most magnificent in Europe, and his funeral was the most spectacular. In the church where the ceremony was performed, his body lay in a golden coffin. To dramatize his greatness, orders had been given that the cathedral would be very dimly lit with only one special candle that was to be set above the coffin. The thousands of people in attendance waited in silence. Then Bishop Massillon began to speak. Slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle and said, "Only God is great."

1. “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The Psalmist’s confession is a confession borne by the gift of faith and as such it becomes the motivation for our worship. N.T Wright wrote that “it is through Jesus that we are summoned to become more truly human, to reflect the image of God into the world.” (Simply Christian, p.140) The last section of his book is titled “reflecting the image;” it is about how we as believers live in the world. It is here that he discusses “what it looks like to follow this Jesus, to be energized by this Spirit, and above all to advance the plan of this creator God.” (Simply, p. x)

The first subject Wright explores in “reflecting the image” is worship. I think he is correct to begin the discussion of our life as believers with the subject of worship. Worship, in many respects, is the answer to the question, who gets to say what the nature of the world really is? Who (or what for some people) gets to name what is important? Who will we accept direction from on setting the course for our life and our actioning and our deciding? Who gets to name the categories of life for us in matters of right and wrong or important and secondary? Or, in the words of this Psalm, who is my light and my salvation?

Of Jesus the Apostle John wrote: “3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ... 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:3-5, 9) It would be rather significant for us that this “true light” be “my light and my salvation.” Everything about life and living is at stake in this matter of worship.

We live in an era that is suspicious of ultimate claims and so the idea that the human’s right response to God is to worship him seems like overreaching. The idea seems like the order of a dictator whose subjects may not like him but have learned to fear him. He wants a hundred thousand people to line the route for his birthday parade? Very well, he shall have them, and they will all be cheering and waving as if their lives depended on it—because, in fact, they do. Projecting our images of those who demand worship or deference from others on to God, we wonder what sort of person God must be to have created creatures just to worship him. God, in this conception, is seen as a self-centred leader who likes to see people bow as he walks by or loves the sound of his own voice. (This is our projection of our own desires for popularity and prestige on to God.)

N. T. Wright gives us a good illustration of Biblical worship that gets us closer to the scriptural picture. “I have been to many concerts of music,” Wright says, “ranging from major symphonic works to big-band jazz. I have been in the audience for some great performances that have moved me and fed me and satisfied me richly. But only two or three times in my life have I been in an audience which, the moment the conductor’s baton came down for the last time, leaped to its feet in electrified excitement, unable to contain its enthusiastic delight and wonder at what it just experienced. … That sort of response is pretty close to genuine worship. …This is what, when we come to the worship of the living God, we are being invited to join in.”

We have trouble conceiving of—and for that matter trusting—a great person who does not, in some measure, love their own greatness. Surely, though, to stand at the foot of the cross dispels all such notions of God. Jesus suffered there the evils of this world for our sake; his humility stands in stark contrast to all our striving to be something, to be someone. It is the corruption of our own hearts from which we need delivering; not from the God whose greatness and love and power rightly calls from us the thunderous ovation of our praise.

I had a conversation with a man once about his battle with alcoholism. He told me of how he had found great help through the twelve step programme for recovery offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. (By the way, I asked his permission and received it to share this part of his story). The second step in the programme is an acknowledgement by the participant that he/she “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” A common experience for many alcoholics at step two is a struggle acknowledging that there is a power greater than themselves (by the way it isn’t just alcoholics who suffer with this issue). My friend told me of his struggle with this second step and that his sponsor in the programme had sized him up pretty well. His sponsor said to him, “you may not be able to believe in a greater power, but could you at least begin by acknowledging that there might be another power besides yourself?”

That sponsor was a very perceptive man. Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. We need to start somewhere—can you at least imagine a power besides yourself—it is as good a beginning point as any. In a world where truth is individualized people are wary of the idea of that there is a God to be worshipped above all else. But can we begin by acknowledging the possibility? Those of us who have learned to trust the Saviour and know the joy of worship—our worship bears witness to the reality that many can only consider a possibility. Let us be joyous in our worship and patient in our love for those who are exploring possibility.

2. The late Michael Crichton was a writer and filmmaker, best known as the author of Jurassic Park and the creator of ER. In his book Timeline (Ballentine Books, p.443) he wrote, “Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time…. Everyone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society [today]. In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But [now] they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom.”

He made an interesting observation about our era that, I am loathe to admit, hit rather close to home. During the power blackout that we recently experienced following the December 2013 ice storm I became keenly aware about how routinely I turn on television or radio or music device. During that first evening of loss of power, Valerie and I were sitting in our living room with the warmth of a gas fire place amidst the soft hues of candle light enjoying conversation with one another. It sounds very romantic doesn’t it? Now, let me be clear, the conversation was lovely, but we were sort of forced into it. I became painfully aware of how instinctive it was to pick up the remote; well, honey I guess were going to make the best of things and talk to one another. Why does it take the loss of power to show me what is of real importance?

But I am not sure that Crichton’s point, that we expect to be entertained because of boredom, gets to the heart of our appetite for entertainment. I think it hinges on this business of worship. Everybody worships in the sense that we all accord to someone, something—even if it is to ourselves—the power to call the shots in our lives. I think that what happens for many people is we find ultimately that the thing we are currently according such place is dissatisfying. It will not bear the load of our attention, so we move on to another, to something else. As Crichton observed we are always switching; we “switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, and switch loyalties.” At one time in our life it was education that had our attention, at another it was the joy of getting married, at another career development, at another family life—all good things but all incapable of satisfying ultimately the longing of the heart.

Biblically speaking, anything that takes the place God should have in our lives is an idol. In July of 2013 Pope Francis’s first encyclical The Light Of Faith was released. About the idolatry of our era he wrote, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.”

The gospel that calls us to worship God offers a wonderful liberation from this idolatry that leads nowhere, aimlessly passing us from one lord to another. It is so very easy to dismiss the significance of our worshipping together for integrating life and living. It sets the course of eternity. “Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond (if at all), far removed our everyday relationships,” continued Pope Francis. “Christians… profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love, which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.”

3. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) The scriptures bear witness over and over that the human’s heart is crucial for determining and shaping life. A mentor of mine put this law of life this way: “What you are in the concealed corners of your mind you will be in the revealed character of your experience. What you are without you are within. "You are not what you think you are, but what you think - you are"!” (Dr. J. G. Wetherall.) We might call this a spiritual principle for life.

Drawing on this truth N. T. Wright points out what he calls two golden rules at the heart of worship. The first is “you become like what you worship.” When you gaze with admiration, awe, and wonder at something or on someone you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Setting genetics aside for a moment, my two-year old grandson adores his father and he is like him. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.

So what happens when you worship the God who created you; the God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb that was slain? The answer is in the second golden rule of worship: because you were made in God’s image, worship of our Saviour Jesus Christ make us more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You become more of what you are; you discover more of what it means to be fully alive.

Conversely, when you give the same total worship too anything or anyone else, you shrink as a human being. It doesn`t, of course, feel like it at the time. When you worship part of the creation as though it were the Creator himself—in other words, when you worship an idol—you may feel a brief “high.” But that worship achieves its effect at a cost: when the effect is over, you are less of a human being that you were to begin with. That is the price of idolatry.” (Simply Christian, p. 148) Think about when you try to emulate some other human being—you were not created in their image. You may be able to mimic them but in the process you are lost. Only God is worthy of this place in our lives.

“To come and worship the true God, the creator, the redeemer, and to become more truly human by doing so” is the summons, the invitation of worship.” N.T Wright continued: “Worship is at the very centre of all Christian living. One of the main reasons that theology (trying to think straight about who God is) matters is that we are called to love God with all our hearts, minds soul, and strength. It matters that we learn more of who God is so that we can praise him more appropriately”. Wright then offers this sobering thought. “Perhaps one of the reasons why so much worship, in some churches at least, appears unattractive to so many people is that we have forgotten, or covered up, the truth about the one we are worshipping.” (Simply, p. 149)

The December 2013 issue of GQ magazine had two quotes that present two starkly different worldviews and paths for your life. In the first quote, the actor Matthew McConaughey, named GQ's "Man of the Year," argues, "I'm a fan of the word selfish. Self. Ish. When I say I have gotten a lot more self-ish, I mean I am less concerned with what people think of me … Selfish has gotten a bad rap. You should do for you."

A few pages later GQ quotes an award-winner fiction writer named George Saunders, the man they've named "Life Coach of the Year." Saunders says, "The big kahuna of all moral questions, as far as I'm concerned, is ego. How do you correct the fundamental misperception that we are all born with—[namely, the idea that] I am central? All of the nasty stuff in this life comes out of that misunderstanding."

McConaughey: You should do for you. Saunders: You should get over yourself.

Repeat with me, if you would, the opening line of Psalm 27 (sermon title) The Lord is my light and my salvation.