Sunday, May 31, 2015

Momentum: God Owns It All

We don’t often take the time to recognize that the songs we sing have stories behind them. One of the stories that is better known centers on the song, "It Is Well with My Soul". The 19th century American, Horatio Spafford, wrote this song. He wrote it after a series of tragic events in his life. His only son died, then the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed his law practice. To get his mind of that tragic loss, Spafford booked a trip for his family to Europe. At the last minute, business detained him. So, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead, he would meet them in a few days. A tragic shipwreck occurred. His wife sent him a telegram with just two words: “Safe Alone.” All four of his daughters were killed in a shipwreck. As he traveled across the sea, shortly after their deaths, he wrote the words:
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say
It is well with my soul
All songs have stories.
Take this song, for example:
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,
    the world and its inhabitants too.
Because God is the one who established it on the seas;
    God set it firmly on the waters.
Who can ascend the Lord’s mountain?
    Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?
Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart;
    the one who hasn’t made false promises,
    the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly.
That kind of person receives blessings from theLord    and righteousness from the God who saves.
And that’s how things are
    with the generation that seeks him—
    that seeks the face of Jacob’s God.    Selah
Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
    Ancient doors: rise up high!
        So the glorious king can enter!
Who is this glorious king?
    The Lord—strong and powerful!
    The Lord—powerful in battle!
Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
    Ancient doors: rise up high!
        So the glorious king can enter!
Who is this glorious king?
    The Lord of heavenly forces—
        he is the glorious king!    Selah (Psalm 24 CEB)
All songs have stories. You know this Old Testament book of Psalms was really the ancient hymnbook for Israel. It is filled with songs that were sung at different times in the life of the community. There are songs that were sung during times of festival. Psalm 114 was sung every year around the time of Passover.

When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion…

Do you hear it? The emphasis upon remembering God’s gracious acts to Israel during the Exodus? Other psalms were read when the community was experiencing a time of distress. Consider Psalm 27:
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?
When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
My adversaries and my foes—
    They shall stumble and fall.
You can see, can’t you, how words like these would bring comfort to those experiencing distress in their lives? Other psalms were recited together by the community when special events took place. Our psalm for this morning, Psalm 24, was sung during a great procession. Picture the scene, the people of Israel have just returned from battle. Maybe they won the battle; maybe they lost, it didn’t matter. This song was sung regardless. A long parade being led by the Ark of the Covenant, moving deliberately up the hill toward the Temple, bringing God back to His throne! And as they marched together, they sang:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    The world, and those who live in it;
For He has founded it on the seas,
    And established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
What a procession that must have been! We still have processions in our time, you know. When someone dies, the headlights of cars mark the procession that leads from the church to the gravesite. At the front of the procession is the hearse carrying the person of honor. When you see the funeral procession, you know immediately who is being honored. A very different kind of procession is the one that take place inside the church building. Nervous man with a tuxedo waits up front while the procession makes its way toward him and that procession culminates once again with the person of honor, sorry, guys, it’s not you! Everyone knows that the bride is the person of honor in the wedding procession.

Other processions don’t have anything to do with a church. I spent most of my childhood in southern Louisiana. And every year in the spring, the large, elaborate processions marked the season of Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a season of time filled with large parades, processions. And what you may not know about these processions is that each one has a “King.” He is on the most elaborate float. He is honored both during the parade and also following the parade at a banquet held in his honor. But ancient Rome may have had the most amazing processions. These processions were called “Roman Triumphs,” a long parade celebrating a victorious general. All of the parades began on the western bank of the Tiber River. The “vir triumphalis,” the victorious general, entered the city in his chariot. He entered through a special city gate, which was only used during Roman Triumphs. As he entered the city he was met by senators and magistrates. He travelled along a special road that led past the Forum and then to Capital Hill, where the Temple of Jupiter was. He was honored and celebrated by the entire Empire. My point is this: processions come in many forms, but they all have one thing, at least, in common. Processions declare to the world who is in charge! Processions always declare to onlookers in the present and historians in the future: “This person is worthy of honor.” This procession that precipitated the reading of Psalm 24, this was Israel’s declaration to each other and to the world:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    The world, and those who live in it;
For He has founded it on the seas,
    And established it on the rivers.
In this procession, the LORD sat in the place of honor. God was the vir triumphalis of that parade.

One of the most popular metaphors for the Christian life has always been that of a journey. I have used that metaphor many times to talk about the path that we travel toward God. Each of us is on a journey to God, and as we move together toward God, we walk, as it were, along the path together. A beautiful picture if you think about it, a community of God’s people, traveling together, toward the “hill of the LORD”, our own procession, moving toward our final destination.

Have you ever thought of life like that? One long procession that leads toward the throne room of God! And our procession, like any other procession, by necessity, places someone or something in the seat of honor. We may not place our hero in his own chariot. The hero of our parade may not get their own elaborate float or a banquet in their honor. But we have ways to honor persons or things in our procession. Interestingly enough, sometimes the vir triumphalis of our procession stares back at us in the mirror each morning. Sometimes every decision you make in your life is made to honor you. Sometimes the hero of our procession is our family, our job, an idea, a political party, or, a Christian denomination. Sometimes the hero of our procession is our money, our savings accounts, retirement funds, credit cards, or, our possessions. And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not, but I’ve noticed that when I place someone or something else on the seat of honor in my procession, I suddenly find myself headed off course. I have to imagine that I am not the only one who has noticed that about life. I am naïve enough to believe that even those Israelites who made their way to the “hill of the Lord” with the Ark of the Covenant noticed that about life. In fact, I think that was the very purpose for their parade. As they travelled together toward the Temple they reminded each other with their words the outcome of the war didn’t matter! No matter their circumstances they said to each other as they moved in step with God:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    The world, and those who live in it;
For He has founded it on the seas,
    And established it on the rivers.
God does not miraculously appear at the head of our procession. We have to place Him there. And that takes Courage, faith and constant reminders from those who travel with you on your journey.

There is an exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. that is quite interesting. Just inside the door, in an alcove, is an arrangement called "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly." There are 180 pieces in the arrangement, tables, chairs, and even small decorative items. They were all pulled together by James Hampton, a quiet, virtually unknown janitor from the D.C. area. Hampton simply wanted to depict God's throne room. This extraordinary collection was found in his garage after he died in 1964. No one knew he had been working on it for some 20 years. All these pieces were made from cast-off items, old furniture, gold and aluminum foil from store displays, bottles, rolls of kitchen foil, used light bulbs, cardboard, insulation board; all held together with glue, tape, tacks, and pins. On his lifelong procession, James Hampton kept his eyes on the hill of the Lord. Where someone else saw a used and useless bottle, he saw God. Where someone else saw an old piece of furniture, he saw God. You see, that’s what it means to place God in the seat of honor in our procession. Everything that we see, every person that we encounter, every dollar that we spend, we see God, and we honor God.
Lift up your head, O gates!
    And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
    That the King of glory may come in.
As we say these words, may our voices become one with our brothers and sisters who came before us. And may the story behind their song, may it become our own.

No comments:

Post a Comment