I surprised myself last Sunday by sitting down and watching the last hour of the Ariane Grande concert from Manchester. Although I knew few of the artists or their songs, it was clear that the audience did. And so, despite that this great musical event as the result of the evil atrocity of a few weeks earlier, you could see there was healing in the music. Indeed, the global superstar Justin Bieber spoke not just movingly of the power of love but also brought up the subject of faith. The incorruptible faith that is of a good God yearning for his creatures to treasure their own individual lives by treasuring our common life. To be frank, he did a better job in front of those young people, than many a preacher.
And it is this joy – joy of worship – joy in music – joy in coming together even in adversity that is the heart of our psalm of this morning. For Psalm 100 gives voices to an unalloyed joy at being the people of God against the odds.
Yet it must be said, few people beyond our doors would think it a joyful treat to come to church. Moreover, they would not consciously take part in an act of worship. At best, they may offer the odd prayer in times of trouble or thanks in moments of sublime peace.
And why is that?
Well we could spend hours beating ourselves up about offering new hymns, differing forms of worship or even services at all sorts of hours and days. And don’t get me wrong the result of our deliberations would be useful. But ultimately, there is much resistance to worshipping because it is neither a spectator sport nor a couch potato pastime. Because the unvarnished truth is good solid worship is hard work. Many, therefore, are not up for the effort.
But why must worship take mental, spiritual and even physical exertion?
Well, to achieve the joy of worship, we need to do the hard work that is quietly hinted at in the psalm. We need to strive to put our buzzing brains full of concerns and cares aside so that we can be surprised by joy. We need to press the pause button on all our interests and desires to find contentment in being with the one who made us. We need to put our whole self on hold to see the bigger picture and then be overawed by it.
Moreover, it is not only that. For, as it is often said – the things that give us greatest satisfaction are the things we must work hardest to get. And so, if we do the hard graft of worship we are rewarded by a sense of joy that is beyond our understanding. We also get a sense of why we should be thankful for our own uniqueness and potential inner beauty. More to the point we get a sense of communion not with a distant and uncaring maker but an attentive father. And it is in that moment of unconsciousness to self, we win the medal of consciousness of God’s unbounded love.
Put then maybe a tad simplistically, the joy of worship is not of the adult who has achieved adulthood but an adult who has achieved their renewed childhood.
And who would not work for that?
Who would not want to sell this health tonic to others?
Who here can doubt that if we enjoy the wellbeing of strenuous worship that we should get our friends and family to sign up as well?
A famous preacher recounted his visit to the home of Leo Tolstoy in Moscow during 1971.
Here is his account.
There, tied in bundles and stacked against the wall, were Tolstoy’s handwritten manuscripts for all of his great novels – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. For an hour, I leafed through the mountain of paper, seeing the man’s handwriting, his strikeovers, and even the doodles he made in the margins.
An elderly Russian woman, the curator of the museum, noticed my deep interest and began to talk to me. “He was a friend of the people, Leo Tolstoy was,” she said. “Would you like to see his desk where he wrote?”
She didn’t have to ask me twice! And the next thing I knew she had me seated in Tolstoy’s chair leaning over his desk and holding his writing pen in my hand! I tell you, it was an awesome moment for me!
Our clergyman goes on to say that often during the rest of his college days, his mind would wander back to that study in Moscow. He’d see himself sitting at that same desk, holding that same pen as the bearded Tolstoy himself opened the door and strode in. “Stephen,” he’d say, “I’m working on a new novel and I need your help! Let’s get down to work!” And our narrator would then sit up straight, look him in the eye, and say, “Yes, Leo, I’ll work with you.”
Well if that was one worship leader’s great commission, how much more so is it our commission to preach the joy of worship. For yes, we can try new ideas and offer a wide-open welcome. But, ultimately, we will achieve our task by talking about joy. The joy of finding the true answers to important questions in life. The joy of knowing that this is not a universe indifferent to our existence but a temple to one who is our shepherd, our pastor and our friend. The joy indeed of working with him, even in times of trial, on the greatest and truest story ever told.
May then there be the song of joy in in your hearts in the week ahead.