We aren’t really done with praise yet!
In the last part of “On Worship” I talked about the way that God responds to our request to “cleanse our hearts” or prepare us to enter into worship by leading us into praise as a beginning place. We sing the “Gloria” or some other “song of praise” but that isn’t the end of it. No indeed. We have begun to allow the reality of Who God Is to change our perceptions of the world, to strip away some of our false assumptions about who we are, but this process requires some time. For those of you who start looking at your watches as soon as the service hits 61 minutes, I’m going to be very frustrating! Worship is the best “waste” of time there ever was, and preparation for it can’t be rushed, either.
So, what’s next?
Scripture. Specifically, in the Episcopal Church’s weekly Eucharist, a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, or the “Old Testament.”
Sometimes that passage may actually include a bit of praise, as in the Song of Miriam from Exodus. But, more often than not, it doesn’t. What it does include, regardless of the passage, is the record of God’s decision to be in relationship to a rebellious bunch of human beings in spite of their disobedience. What it contains is the pain of the separation (to God and to us) and God’s fervent desire to restore us to Himself. What it does include is something for which God is worthy to be praised!
Not everything in the Hebrew Scriptures sounds, at first hearing, like something for which I want to praise God, though. Of course, there are many stories of God reaching into history to save His unruly folk, but there are a lot of other stories, too. Unfortunately, the creators of our lectionary have decided that we don’t need to hear the more “objectionable” parts of the Bible on Sunday mornings, and so a lot of the stuff that would make us squirm is skipped over or avoided completely. This encourages the impression that there are parts of the Old Testament that aren’t really a gift from God, and that just isn’t true.
This is where we require the New Testament to make sense of it for us. The Bible itself gives us the guidelines by which to make sense of all of the Old Testament, even if some of it makes us uncomfortable.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (II Corinthians 3:12-18)
What Paul says here is that we cannot read the “old covenant” correctly unless we let Jesus guide our reading of it. The Spirit, in whose presence there is “freedom,” will help us understand how it is that God is pursuing us, even in the most repugnant passages. I have come to understand that what is revealed when the “veil” is taken away is the two-fold nature of revelation in the Bible. Not only does God reveal Himself to us, but God also reveals us to ourselves, in all our brokenness. He is revealed most perfectly when He is revealed as Lover of the broken, and so Scripture shows us God, but also ourselves as we distort God and refashion Him in our image. (And still He pursues us!)
Many times we see God speaking or acting in ways that are very much at odds with the Spirit revealed in Christ Jesus. Rather than omit those passages (which we usually do now) or write them off as something God didn’t intend for us (which is a horrible mistake) we are enabled, by the Christ who takes away the veil from our eyes to differentiate between those times when God reveals Himself as the compassionate Savior of a disobedient people and when we show our disobedience by making Him into the god whose wrath we can use for our own purposes.
I may be less inclined to “praise” when I’ve been revealed in this way, but I am sure that this is no less an act of mercy than any other in Scripture. And when I am enabled, by Jesus Christ, to gaze into these pages “with unveiled face,” then He begins to transform me, “from one degree of glory to another.”
Given the fact that we simply cannot read the Old Testament correctly without knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ, you might think that we should have the Gospel as our first reading! I’ve been known to think that from time to time, but in the end, I like things the way they are.
We don’t read the Gospel first because this is a “worship” time, and not an “education” time. It is assumed that we are all gathered for worship because we’ve already learned something of the way God has saved us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can begin with the Old Testament reading because worship is done by those who already know something of the Gospel. And so we enter into the story of our redemption from its earliest phases, and allow it to climax with the story of Jesus, so as to lead us into that place of worship where we finally stand face to face with our Redeemer.
The Old Testament reading is the first “occasion” for praise in the service. We read it and respond with more “praise.” (It would make more sense to me if we didn’t do the sit-down-stand-up business over and over, and just remained standing as the text was read out, in part because the sitting/standing seems to break down the rhythm of praise that the sequence might otherwise create.) God has responded to our cry for help in worshiping Him by leading us into praise and then giving us reason to praise Him through His Word to us. We’ll talk more about the response to the first reading next week!