Wednesday 18 March 2020

Worship - connecting us to the river of life

On Saturday Roger, Helen and a team from CMM led a Worship Works day at Lickey Parish Church.  This will have been our last event for a while in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, so we thought it would be good to share with you the text of Helen's opening talk.

This week I spotted an article on the BBC called ‘Routine Hacks from successful people’. It features ‘high-achieving people’ and what their daily routine looks like. There was Cathryn Lavery, co-founder of 'BestSelf' - a personal development company to make your life more productive and successful. Her daily schedule is to wake at 06:30, meditate for 10 minutes, read for 20, exercise and drink a glass of water before sitting down to plan how she will “win the day”. And there was tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. For him it is all about the sleep and focused meals. Breakfast is between 07:00 and 08:00, dinner at noon, followed by no more meals – roughly a 19 hour fast and bed at 19:45 in a blacked-out room with carefully moderated temperature. 

So the question is not whether any of these ideas are good or bad, but why did I click on that article at all? Why did the BBC think this was something people would be interested in? 

Modern life can be dry and barren. As Bilbo Baggins puts it, we feel like "butter spread over too much bread."  The culture around us is to strive to produce more, and to make things as efficient as possible. But when we save time by making things more efficient, we fill the time we have saved with yet more productivity. We expect our primary school age children to do hours of homework rather than to play. And all the time our phones and televisions scream for our attention – our greater connectivity to the world around us, or even the world-not-around-us through the internet brings anxiety, stress and emotional fatigue. 

We feel busier than ever, and we rush from one thing to the next without caring about the assault on our hearts and souls. In my life, I sometimes go from a phone call with a struggling friend to a surreal conversation with our toddler, to making work decisions without pausing for breath or to allow for transitions. Peace eludes us. 

The things that we enjoy, that bring us life, seem to be permanently off the menu; things like music, enjoying a good book, spending time in the garden other than to mow the lawn because the grass is up to your elbows. Or when did you last spend time enjoying cooking a special meal, then lingering over that meal with loved ones? This is something we have to diarise nowadays – it has become a special event! Instead of these healthy things God has given that bring life, we seek short-term comfort in other places. Binge-watching television, comfort-eating chocolate, takeaways, or scrolling endlessly and blindly through social media on our phones. 

Right now it is a brutal time to be a human being, and even more to be a Christian. We are hard-pressed on every side. The world we live in is rapidly becoming a desert, a wilderness. The nature of modern technology means we are more easily distracted, and our concentration spans are shorter – making prayer and intimacy with God a struggle. Our perceived busyness makes us withdraw from friends and family who can bring us life. We are too busy, anxious or depressed to care for our hearts properly. And the battle with the enemy is tougher than ever – many churches don’t teach at all on spiritual warfare, leaving us ill-equipped. The free-for-all of social media, even if you do not regularly use it, has had a huge impact on society. Everyone is able to share and say whatever they want. There is much good, but there is also a massive amount of hatred and unhelpful opinions, readily-available lies that ‘say what our itching ears want to hear’ and creep their way into our hearts.  And in the midst of it all, God is calling to us: seek my face. God is looking for sons and daughters who are actively seeking him; people who are thirsty for the water of life. 

Jesus lived life at a slower pace than us. In the passage we’re going to focus on this morning from John 4, he is on his way to Galilee from Jerusalem. On foot. At least three days of walking, thinking, talking with his disciples. Evenings round the campfire. The journey involved a decision – to travel the road past Jericho that involved a long detour, a physical wilderness and potential bandits, or to walk through the spiritual wilderness which was Samaria. The people who lived there were distant relatives of the Jews, possibly from the northern kingdom of Israel that broke away after Solomon’s rule, or at least the people that came to live in the land when its inhabitants were exiled. They had come up with their own way of worshipping God, and the Jews did not like them at all – they were unclean impostors. But it is here that Jesus has one of the most illuminating and fascinating conversations in all of scripture, and not just with a Samaritan, but shockingly, a Samaritan woman. 

Reading – John 4:1-26 

Living Water 

The first thing I want to pick out is the conversation about water – about living water. Jesus tells the woman that if she were to drink the water he provides, she would never thirst again. The water would become like a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Why is Jesus saying this? He is a rabbi, and knows the scriptures inside out. And the river, particularly the river of life is a hugely important recurring theme. 

There are many I could pull out, but here’s just a few. 

In Psalm 1 we are told that in order to be blessed we need to meditate on the law of the Lord. If we do this, we will be like a tree planted beside the river. Not just a wild tree that grew wherever the seed fell, but a tree deliberately planted by the water. If we don’t, we become like chaff that is blown away by the wind. 

Then the book of Isaiah is filled with references to water. It begins with the water being removed from Israel and them becoming like a garden with no water, but then later on when Isaiah is speaking directly into the exile-wilderness years of the people, there are many references to water returning to the land: 

Isaiah 44 – I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 

Isaiah 55 – [later quoted by Jesus] Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; 

Ezekiel 47 – I think this is the passage Jesus had in the front of his mind. From the very heart of the temple, the Most Holy Place – the place of worship and intimacy with God – from there flows a river.  And this river, getting ever deeper, supports life. It makes the salt water of the Dead Sea fresh, and there are trees planted by the river whose leaves bring healing to the nations. 

This same theme is echoed in Revelation 22 where the river flows from the very throne of God and the Lamb, also supporting trees that bear fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. 

So here we have Jesus with the Samaritan woman, telling her that this water – this living water from the throne of God himself, can well up inside to eternal life. Paul was later to say (1 Corinthians 6) that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and if the water flows from the place of intimacy in the temple, then the living water Jesus speaks of can indeed flow from the place of intimacy with God in our own hearts. And when you think about this some more, it becomes so exciting, as the river of life supports trees that bear leaves for the healing of the nations. If the river of life flows through our being we can find healing, and bring healing to others. 

Do you want this water? Do you want to be planted by the river of life? Even better, do you want the river to be flowing through you and impacting those around you? I do. I’m desperate for it. Life has made me so thirsty that I need this connection in order to function at all. 

God has been challenging me in recent months with a steady stream of events for which I needed to be close to him. I have needed to take deliberate steps to make sure my life is full of things that bring me closer to God, rather than things that numb me or create a foggy haze. I needed to be able to hear his voice and move in the gifts of the Spirit. To be able to survive I have had to cut the distractions and the false comforts, and make sure I include in my day things that bring me life. I have needed to actively choose to spend time with my journal, or to make music, or to spend time with life-giving friends. 

But of all of these things, the biggest life-giver for me has been worship. Sometimes in the past I have sung worship songs and played piano or guitar, but it has been a musical exercise – practice, if you like. But recently God has been teaching me to drink deeply from his life-giving stream, to move it from a mind exercise to a heart activity. 

Interestingly, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman turns to worship. At first glance, it seems as if this turn is unconnected. But I would like to put to you that worship is the means by which we reach the water – and particularly worship that is filled with the Spirit and steeped in the truth of Scripture. If the living water flowing in our hearts flows from a place of intimacy, from the Holy of Holies, from the throne of God and the Lamb itself, then this river of life is all about encounter with God himself. 

How, then, does worship open us up to the living water, and overcome the modern desert we find ourselves in? 

It changes our perspective 

Very near here is a special tree. It isn’t by a river though, unless you mean a river of mud, which is partly why I haven’t visited it recently. This time last year I applied for a job as worship pastor at a church, to sit alongside my work here at CMM. I loved the church, and really felt that the gifts I had to offer fitted in perfectly with the vision of the people and leadership. The interview went really well, and I was invited to lead worship one Sunday morning as the final stage of the discernment process. As far as I knew, it went well. But then I heard nothing. It was weird, because I was 99% certain I was the only candidate left. But then on the Friday morning after the Sunday I had a call from the curate. While I had been waiting, the church had been thrown into confusion and turmoil by the sudden announcement of the departure of the vicar, so they were now not able to employ anyone. I was bitterly disappointed and angry – the vicar knew it was coming but still made me go through with the interview process. 

I remember parking the car and walking in the woods to clear my head and wrestle it out with God a bit. And then I came to it – the tree. It was enormous, far bigger than any of the others around it, yet was tucked away on the edge of the wood near the road and in some way was kind of unassuming. I remember, in my grief, standing at the bottom of the tree and staring into its branches. And as I looked in amazement at its size and shape, I sensed the Holy Spirit whispering to me. This tree just is.  All it does is grow. And through it, God is glorified. My heart rose in worship, and my perspective was changed. Yes, something I hoped for had been taken away, but God is always faithful. All I need to do is drink deeply from him, and grow. 

It brings about personal transformation 

I love these famous words from Romans 12: 

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” 

In these verses I love how worship is both cerebral and physical. All is done ‘in view of God’s mercy’ – we remind ourselves of his mercy, and that’s where music in worship is so good. It’s far easier to memorise words when they are accompanied by music than just words on the page. And we can sing of all he has done for us, to remind ourselves of God’s mercy. And then worship is physical. Singing and playing is physical. Kneeling is physical. Partaking in bread and wine is physical. Giving is physical. Flower-arranging is physical. Dancing is physical. 

You know, I’m not someone who dances really. I was part of a dance group when I was growing up at one of the churches my dad was minister at. I get the impression I wasn’t very good. But there have been a couple of occasions in my life where I felt God wanted me to express my worship to him through dance. I had to go and find somewhere where no one I knew could see me, but there was something special about making movements with my whole body to declare and adore that profoundly affected me. And there was also something important about obeying that nudge from God. It brought about a kind of freedom – a sort of giving over responsibility to him. Choosing to worship, rather than just carrying on with what the world sees as life, is initially a sacrifice. But with it comes the renewing of your mind. He reveals his mercies to us, and we respond in worship. And as we respond he reveals yet more; as we drink the living water he comes, increasing our understanding, our peace, our security in him, our love, our life. We are transformed. 

And on the theme of dancing, while we were praying for today, I was reminded of an old song – when the Spirit of the Lord is within my heart I will dance as David danced. I feel the Lord wants to bring new freedom in worship to some people today – to dance, sing and clap as he leads. 

Praise overcomes strongholds 

We live in a world at war. From out and out horror and violence, to insidious lies, Satan and his demons rampage their way across the world. And we are called to stand firm. There’s loads more on this is Spirit works, and chapter 14 of worship works. 

Worship, as seen in Psalm 8:2 can establish a stronghold for us: “Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” – by speaking out truth about God even children and infants can claim the ground for him in the face of the enemy onslaught. 

But we can also tear down enemy strongholds. In 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul says that “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish stongholds.” And then in Ephesians 6 there is one weapon listed among the armour – “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Spirit and Truth. And true worshippers worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. 

I’ve been to a number of conferences where lots of time is given to sung worship. And to my shame, in the past it has sometimes taken me a couple of days to get ‘into it’. But as I sing out truth and gradually become saturated with the praises of God, the strongholds of pride or selfishness that had been developing in my heart are gradually broken down. 

And I remember once when we were touring with the musical Wildfire, we had a wonderful prayer warrior with us, Viv. Her job was to pray around the theatres before we went on stage, and in one place she was really struggling with the evil that was present in that place that she gathered our whole team, and we worshipped together. As we worshipped the feeling in the place changed, and Viv said she saw flames of fire dancing around the room. 

It ushers us into the presence of God 

This is last on the list, but most important. 

One of the Hebrew words that is translated as praise is ‘Tehillah’. There is a sense to this word of God inhabiting, or dwelling in our praises. One translation of Psalm 22:3 is “You are enthroned on the praises of Israel.” Of course, God is always present, but there is something about worship that makes it tangible to us, that opens our eyes to it, that brings us before his throne. I’ve sometimes felt as though the Spirit was dancing during our worship, or had a sense of the glory of God filling a place. 

At CMM we have recently reissued the musical ‘Torn Curtain’, and been specifically thinking about how worship – thanksgiving, praise, and then the blood of Jesus enables us to come into the Holy of Holies itself – into an encounter with God. And in that encounter we meet the one who wants to bring healing and life, to bring light in the darkness, to calm our fears and comfort our sorrows. 

And this is why worship, and being a worshipper is so important. 

One final thought to finish with. Here there are a mixture of people. Some stand at the front each Sunday, and others sit in the congregation. But regardless of where we sit or stand, we are all worship leaders. How do we make a person hungry? We eat in front of them. How do we make a person thirsty for the living water? We drink in front of them. 

Let’s be thirsty for him, and let’s come to him, the source, so that our hearts can well up to eternal life.

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