With All That I Am
How many of you have ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City? Maybe you’ve visited the museum before—but you’ve never visited it like this. Right now, the Met is experimenting with a “Museum Workout,” defined as “part performance, part workout, part art tour.” Here’s how it works: A small group comes together at the museum before it opens, then “line[s] up behind two tour guide dancers—both wearing sparkly cocktail dresses and sneakers. A guy with a portable speaker stands nearby.” One man describes his museum workout experience like this: “[W]ith disco propelling us forward, we power walk, we punch the air, we daintily jog through the otherwise empty Met at nine in the morning.”
According to Monica Bill Barnes, one of the workout leaders, her dance company was “approached by the Metropolitan Museum to make a dance … .We counteroffered, and asked to make a led tour that’s a workout.” The Met took more than two years to persuade—but now the tours are selling out. The idea of power-walking and doing squats through one of the world’s most famous museums may be an odd one—but as one participant explains, “[A] little music and movement really can make you see things differently.”[i] As we think about the way we “see” things in our own lives—especially when it comes to our spiritual lives and disciplines—how might we be able to approach them with a little music, a little movement, a little change of pace?
Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 149, the second to last Psalm. Look at V. 1. This summer we’ve been looking at the last 5 Psalms in the book of Psalms, 146-150. They’re called the “Hallelujah Psalms” because all five of them begin and end with the phrase “Praise the LORD!” In Hebrew, that is “hallelu jah.” Praise the LORD or Praise Yahweh. And they all begin with a call to worship, a call, an encouragement, maybe even a mandate, to come into the presence of God in worship.
Psalm 146:1. “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul!”
Psalm 147:1. “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.”
Psalm 148:1. “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”
And today: Psalm 149:1. “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!”
You know, the number of people claiming to be Christians, claiming to follow Christ, has decreased a little bit here in America in recent years, but not that much. But the numbers of people attending worship regularly has plummeted. Attending every other week is now considered full-time participation in worship. That’s pathetic. What would happen if an employee at your business said, “I know I’m supposed to work 40 hours a week. But I’m only going to put 20 in. That’ll be good enough.” They’d be fired. Or maybe more realistically, what if your significant other came to you and said, “I’m going to spend about half the time with you that I used to. That’s good enough.” If you’re thinking, “Wow, that would be great,” I do have a pretty good track record with marriage counseling. Let me give you my card. Good enough. How did we ever become convinced that good enough is good enough? Most of us would never think that in our jobs. Or in our marriages. Why do we think that way in our relationship with God. And large and small churches alike have noticed this trend. One pastor of one of the larger, more popular churches in our area confided a few years ago that his church was at best stagnant, if not declining a little. And that church was and still is one of the churches most people look at and say “That’s a successful church.” The number of people claiming to follow Christ hasn’t declined much, but the number of people attending worship regularly has. “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!”
One of Satan’s most subtle ploys has been to convince us, as a people, that we can follow Jesus just fine on our own. We don’t need church. We’re better off on our own, and doing just fine. Friends, that’s a lie. “Praise the LORD … in the assembly of the godly.” Rich Mullins was a great Christian songwriter and singer, best known as the author of the song “Awesome God.” Now, most people choose a church based on the quality of its service, but for Rich, the most important ingredient was not the dynamism of the leaders, but the devotion of the people. Eric Hauck (a close friend of Mullins) recalls being with Rich in a worship service only a few days before Rich died in a car accident. Some friends wanted to have a gathering for praising God. They encouraged everyone who had an instrument to bring it and play. Eric recalls that the music sounded awful. Even those who led the singing sang out of tune.
Someone asked Eric and Rich to lead the group for the rest of the evening. Rich went up to the microphone and said, “I love to be in the church. I love to listen to people sing and play with their hearts. In my profession (contemporary Christian music) we worry about being in tune and sounding good. But this music is the music that is the most pleasing to God, because it is so real, and it comes from the hearts of the children of God.”
Eric concludes, “As he said this, he got choked up. It was the last time I saw Rich cry.” Church was an emotional experience for Rich, not because of how exciting the worship was, but because he felt he was communing with the saints. Jimmy Abegg, a member of Rich’s Ragamuffin band, said, “For Rich, even an hour in a bad church was better than not going at all.”[ii]
Something powerful happens when we gather together to worship God. The discouraged are encouraged. The weak are strengthened. When you come and participate and sing, your voice becomes part of a larger chorus lifting praise to God. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” It doesn’t have to be a large gathering. Two or three. Does that mean that God isn’t with those who are by themselves? Of course not. Another Psalm, Psalm 139 makes that very clear. It’s a very personal Psalm, with very individual language, painting a picture of a very private, intimate, personal encounter with God. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” It’s a rhetorical question. The answer, given by the Psalmist David in the following verses, is nowhere. God is present with you in a powerful way whether you are alone or with other followers of Jesus. But there is something powerful about those who are gathered together, almost a special presence of God. Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” whether we are separated or gathered together, but he went out of his way to point out that he is with us when we are gathered together. God finds our worship irresistible.
And gathered together, we are to “sing a new song” to the LORD. Why the emphasis on new? Does this mean that we aren’t supposed to sing old songs? Of course not. This Psalm is an old song. It does mean that as God is moving in our midst, we are free to be creative and find new expressions of worship. We are free to write new songs that celebrate what God is doing among us now. Every song, even the oldest of hymns, was once a brand new song. Now, some churches have gone so far overboard in singing a new song that they never sing an old one. Some sing brand new music every week. That isn’t what this Psalm is telling us to do. It is simply a reminder to not be afraid to get creative. Personally, I think the best worship that we can offer to God is a mix of the old and the new. The old hymns tend to have a much stronger theology than much of the music being written today. Many of the writers were trained theologians as well as musicians. Today’s worship music is much more sentimental, like most of our secular pop music. But the repetition of lines and choruses has a meditative quality to it that allows us to cycle more deeply into worship as we sing.
Now, look at Vv. 2-5. Worship is an expressive act. Look at the words used to describe the act of worship here. Rejoice. Dance. Make melody with tambourine and lyre. Exult. Sing for joy. In the Old Testament, worship was an active, engaging thing. When the people gathered for corporate worship at the tabernacle or temple for the great feasts and festivals, they were actually re-enacting God’s saving acts. If you’ve ever participated in a Jewish Seder meal, you’ve experienced that. And you do participate. Every part of the meal is symbolic of some part of the Passover, of God’s acting to save his people from slavery in Egypt. The people sharing in the meal become actors in the play. But even individual worship was very active. In the pages of scripture we find people falling prostate before the LORD, kneeling, looking upward, looking downward, raising their hands, clapping, dancing, singing. Worship involves the whole person: the mind, the heart or emotions, and the body. It is the giving of ourselves to God in praise and adoration.
Now, look at Vv. 6-9. The rest of this Psalm creates issues for some people because of the warlike, militant language used. But the truth is, God moves when we worship. Now in Jesus’ day there was a sect of Jews called the Zealots. At least one, Simon the Zealot, became one of the twelve apostles. They were known for their zeal for God and God’s people, and for their willingness to take up arms to bring about the kingdom of God. On the surface, this Psalm seemed to be right up their alley. The “praises of God in their throats” sounds almost like a war cry. And then we have two-edged swords, executing vengeance, punishment on the enemies of God, binding kings in chains, executing judgment. Sadly, human wars launched in the name of God have often met with cruel and disastrous results. Caspar Scloppius used this psalm to inflame the rage of the Roman Catholic princes and lead them into the 30 years religious war. Thomas Muntzer used it to stir up the War of the Peasants. Many attempts at uprising and conquest have been made in the name of God, and the results have most often been disastrous with the cost of many human lives.
Even Peter, in the Garden of Gethsemane, who was not himself a Zealot but came from a territory with Zealot leanings, thought that the time of violent uprising would come. And so when the Roman guards came with the Jewish religious leaders to arrest Jesus under cover of darkness, Peter drew his sword (meaning he was armed and ready) and quickly removed the ear of one of the high priest’s servants(meaning he had been practicing his swordsmanship). He had drawn first blood in the uprising Jesus was leading! Surely he would be rewarded with a position of honor. Instead, he heard these words: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mat. 26:52). Jesus was indeed leading an uprising and establishing a new kingdom, but not in the way the Zealots and others like them thought. “For the weapons of our warfare” Saint Paul wrote, “are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4), and “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
There is a battle going on and we are soldiers in the army of God, as the great hymn portrays us, but the battle is not fought against flesh and blood. The flesh and blood that we seem to want to fight are victims in the spiritual battle happening all around us. And the weapons at our disposal? When we know how to pray well, and praise well, and wield the Sword of the Spirit well, the sword which Paul tells us is “the Word of God” and which the writer of Hebrews says is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” we will be armed for this battle and we will see God move in us, through us, and among us in powerful ways. You see, prayer, praise, and the Word of God take our attention off of ourselves, our problems, and our ideas of solutions and focus our attention on God, who fights for us.
You see, this Psalm is filled to the brim with two emotions, joy and hope. Joy because we have a God who “takes pleasure in his people and adorns the humble with salvation.” And hope because the ultimate outcome of this battle is not in doubt. God will carry the day. He has won, is winning, and will win this cosmic battle. His day of judgment will come. Of that we can be sure. And so we refuse to be overcome with despair and fear. We worship in joy today and with hope for tomorrow.
Pastor Bryan Wilkerson tells this story of a couple that he met. “Charlie and Agnes are some of the meekest people I’ve ever known. Charlie is a bright, energetic, hard-working man who could have been successful at just about anything he set out to do. What he set out to do was mission work. He spent his entire career working with some of the lowliest people on earth—alcoholics on skid row. For many years he was director of Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and then in his retirement years he went to work for the McCauley Water Street Mission in New York. At a time in life when most people his age were playing golf or taking cruises, Charlie would commute every day to minister to homeless men on the streets of New York.
You don’t get rich doing mission work your whole life, but every once in a while, Charlie and his wife, Agnes, would get to do something special. One year they invited me and my wife, Karen, to join them for a night on the town. Someone had given them tickets to hear Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall—velvet-covered seats in a private booth. It was a great night, and we all enjoyed it. As they drove us home that night, Karen and I were sitting in the back seat, and I was admiring Charlie and Agnes. They were all dressed up for their big night out. She was sitting close to him, like they were high school sweethearts. They struck me in that moment as two of the happiest people on earth. Just then I noticed a little plaque they had stuck to the dashboard of their old Chevy. It explained everything: “God always gives what’s best to those who leave the choice to him.” Charlie and Agnes had long ago given up striving, fretting, and demanding things from God and from life. Instead they had surrendered to God their talents, their careers, their safety, their material needs, and even their retirement. Instead of chasing the abundant life, they waited for God bring it to them.[iii]
To worship God with all that you are is to give up striving, and fretting, and demanding things from God and from life like spoiled children, and to surrender our talents, our careers, our safety, our material needs, even our retirements, chasing the abundant life that only God can bring. We are engaged in a battle for the lives of the people around us, and although that battle often sloshes over into the physical realm, it is not a physical, human battle. It is a spiritual battle, and this battle will not be won with guns, ships, and planes. No, our weapons are the active worship of the people of God as we pray, praise, and wield the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. God moves when we pray. And God moves when we praise. May we no longer be satisfied with good enough worship and good enough prayer. May we give the best that we have to the battle before us.
[i] “Raise Your (He)art Rate With A Workout At the Met” NPR (2-08-17)
[ii] James Bryan Smith, Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (Broadman and Holman, 2000);
[iii] Bryan Wilkerson, in his sermon “In God We Trust (Though We’d Rather Pay Cash),”