Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The message of Hosea (2)

The message of Hosea: the promise of hope

Last week we were left in a dark place.

We saw that sin is infidelity to God, disobedience and idolatry. Hosea speaks of the devastating consequences of sin: for the land and for the people of Israel. Because the people persist in their sin, God will have no mercy on them and they are no longer his people.

Please do not take sin lightly:

Hebrews 6:4-8 states, ‘It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.’

I’m going to say something very strange. I hope that you have had an uncomfortable week. I hope that something of what I said last week has lived with you. I hope that we have been shaken as we have thought back to those words from Hosea 1. Someone said to me, ‘It’s OK, I know the ending’. Well actually it is not OK. When we think it is OK we have not begun to glimpse the seriousness of sin.

Sin has consequences.
When we sin we feel guilty. And that guilt is real. Hosea speaks about a right guilt which has to born. Hosea 13:16, ‘The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God’;
And there is a punishment for sin. Hosea 2:13, ‘I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals’

Because God loves us, he gets angry when we reject him: ‘My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of purity?’ (8:5) ‘In my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away’ (13:11). God even goes as far as to speak of his hatred for the people: ‘Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there’ (9:15).

And in Hosea 13:14, God declares, ‘I will have no compassion’.

So is there no hope?

Is there no hope for Israel? And if there is no hope for Israel, can there be any hope for us – especially when there have been times that we have fallen away?

Hosea is a messenger of God’s terrifying judgement, but he is also a messenger of the love of God.

1. He uses the language of a love which overcomes guilt, his anger and his hatred.
We speak much about God’s love. But talk is often shallow.

We say ‘God loves you’, so you can do what you want (provided it is not too bad)
We say ‘God loves you’ so you must never feel bad about yourself.
We say ‘God loves you’ so you can expect to be wealthy and healthy in this world.
We say ‘God loves you’ so when you die it will be OK

God does love you, but none of those things are true. We cannot separate the love of God from the anger and hatred of God. It is in the shadow of the anger and hatred of God that the love of God shines even more brilliantly.

The love that God has for us is a love which both includes anger and hatred but also overcomes anger and hatred.

That might sound paradoxical, but I suspect most of us know something of a love like that.

Yancey writes, in ‘Amazed by Grace’ of a friend who told him about their teenage daughter. She was taking drugs, abusing her body and destroying those who loved her. His friend said how, one night, when he was waiting up at 2 or 3 in the morning for his daughter to return home – he prayed to God that he might feel as the father of the prodigal son felt for his lost child: that he would know the same longing for his child. But he didn’t. All he felt was a rage against his daughter for what she was doing to herself and what she was doing to his wife and himself. And yet, and yet .. he was still waiting up for her.

Hosea is called to live out this love that includes anger and rage but which overcomes anger and rage. He loved Gomer. He married her, and they have children. But she rejected him and abandoned him. She went after another lover, possibly multiple other lovers.  She enters into a series of abusive relationships and ends up at rock bottom. Everything is stripped away from her. She even forfeits her life, and we find her about to be sold as a slave. 

But God commands Hosea to go to the slave market and buy Gomer. He says to him, ‘Go show your love to your wife again’ (Hosea 3:1).

So there is a message of hope. Even though Gomer was at the bottom of the pit, as good as dead, a commodity to be sold, Hosea loves her and pays the price for her. The price for a slave was 30 shekels of silver. It seems that Hosea gives half of that in money and half of that in goods in kind. She lives in his home, not initially as his wife. No doubt it was all rather strained and tense. But over time the relationship of love is restored.

Hosea’s experience is the experience of God. God’s love – and here we must remember that we are using human language to describe a reality that is far greater than anything we can know or experience – overcomes his anger and hatred.

The love that God has for Israel, his delight in who she was and what she can become, the fact that he has bound himself to her and his desire for intimate union with her, cannot be frustrated by her sin or infidelity.

After he has rejected her and punished her, yet he woos her again (2:14). And then we read, ‘I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord’ (2:19f)

This all conquering love is described in Hosea 11

It is a quite remarkable chapter. God speaks first of his love for Israel (vv1-4): it is powerful language; he speaks of the people’s refusal to repent and the consequences of their sin (vv5-7); and then come these astonishing verses (vv8ff):

‘How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man –
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.

My brothers and sisters, we are – rightly and deservedly – objects of God’s anger and hatred. We have sinned. We are guilty of infidelity, disobedience and idolatry. There is a price to be paid. We have walked away from the one who loves us, and who would lavish blessings on us. Those of us who are believers are without excuse, because – despite knowing the love of God - we continue to sin. And yet – somehow - God’s love for us overcomes our unfaithfulness and idolatry.

That ‘somehow’ leads me to my second point.

2. Hosea uses the language of death and resurrection to explain how God’s love can overcome his anger.

Hosea 6:1-2 are key verses in the book.

“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.”

It speaks of the coming judgement – the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrian army – as something that has already happened. That was one of the ways that the prophets spoke. God, says Hosea, has already torn them to pieces.

But, it also speaks of how God, on the second day will revive the people and on the third day restore them.

We are told in the New Testament that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day because that was what the Old Testament says will happen. And if we wish to find a place in the OT which speaks of a resurrection on the third day, there are two places we can go. The first is to the story of Jonah, who was in the belly of the large fish for 3 days and 3 nights (Jonah 1:17); the second are these verses.

And in Hosea 13:14, God says – and this is even more clear: ‘I will deliver them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?’

In other words, how does God reconcile his unconquerable love for his people with the fact that sin has the ultimate consequence – death? What happens when an unstoppable force (God’s love) meets an immovable object (our rejection of God)? It is very simple. God puts his people to death, and then he brings them back to life again.

Jesus, in absolute love, identified himself with us. He took onto himself the sin of the people. He took onto himself our sin. He died. He paid the penalty. But God raised him again to life on the third day.

You and I have sinned. God, in his love, hates our sin. God, in his love, is angry with us. God, in his love, will punish our sin. We deserve to die, to die eternally. But God in his love sent his own son. He died for us. And if I trust in the love of God, and in the Lord Jesus Christ – if I respond to his love (his desire to be united with me, to embrace me, by holding on to him and embracing him) then his death becomes my death, and his resurrection becomes my future resurrection.

That is why a Christian is a completely new person. We have, when Jesus was crucified on the cross, been torn apart by God. The lion has devoured us. But we have also, when Jesus rose from the dead, been given new life, with a new heart and a new Spirit.

What Hosea is saying is that the old Israel has rejected the source of love and life and will therefore die. But she will then be reborn as something that is completely new.

3. Hosea uses the language of a new creation
The lion that tore the people into pieces, becomes the lion who roars his people back into life

‘They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,’ declares the Lord.’ (Hosea 11:10)

But God is not re-creating the people of Israel as they were. He does a new thing.

If you were here last week you may remember how, in chapter 1, Hosea’s three children are given significant names: Jezreel  (God will put an end to Israel in Jezreel because of the violence that happened at Jezreel), Not loved and Not my people.

But in the very next verse God says, ‘Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, they will be called “children of the living God”. The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel. Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one.’ (Hosea 1:10ff cf Hosea 2:21-23)

So the new Israel will not be like the old Israel, divided from Judah. Instead they will be one people united under one king, one leader.

Hosea is speaking of the Church, the people of God. He is speaking of all those who come to Jesus (and that includes the old Northern Israelites and old Southern citizens of Judah – but also non-Jews, Gentiles like most of us), who die with Jesus and who come alive again with Jesus.  This will be a people who hear God’s call of love and who respond to God’s call of love (Hosea 2:15). They will have a new heart (Hosea 14:2-3).

And God speaks of the glory of this new people: ‘His splendour will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon .. people will dwell again in his shade; they will flourish like the grain, they will blossom like the vine – Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon’ (Hosea 14:6f)

So to summarise.
The message of Hosea is that:
Because of our sin there is no hope.
But because of the love of God there is abundant hope.

No hope ......................... abundant hope

But in order to get from there (no hope) to there (abundant hope), we have to die. 

Thanks be to God for his astonishing love in giving us Jesus to do it all for us.
The sentence of death on Jesus was the sentence of death for our sin. His death on the cross was my death. 
If we put our trust in the astonishing love of God, when Jesus died, we died.

By faith we can begin to live as people who have died, with Jesus. 
By faith we can begin to live as new people – with a new name and a new heart and a new spark of love for the God who first loved us.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The message of Hosea (1)

The message of Hosea: the nature and consequence of sin

This week and next, we are looking at the message of Hosea. For those who don’t know where Hosea is in the bible, it is two books before Obadiah!

It is a two part sermon.

Today is heavy – we are looking at the message of judgement  And so I do urge you to come back next week!

We know very little about Hosea’s background. He was the son of Beeri, and – basing this on the list of kings mentioned in verse 1, he prophesied for about 40 years.

If you remember Matthew’s talk about Amos, you will recall him saying that at this time the Jewish peoples were divided into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern – Judah.

Whereas Amos came from the South and prophesied God's judgement on the North, Hosea comes from the North, and he also prophesies God's judgement against the North. Although he also has a message for the South. 

And you will remember again that the North, at this time, completely overshadowed the South. The South was nobody. The North was everything: it had the wealth, the power and the empire. 

But if we know little about Hosea’s background, we do learn a bit about his personal life from chapter 1. He marries Gomer, and has at least three children. We know the names of his children - Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi. We know that Gomer is unfaithful to him and leaves him for someone else. The someone else abuses her, and we next find her abandoned in the slave market, about to be sold as a slave.

The reason that we know this is because Hosea is not only called to preach a message from God to the people. His personal life is to be an illustration of his message.

And his immediate message is pretty devastating.
God is going to abandon his people in Israel because of their sin, and devastation is about to come. 

And in this first chapter, we are given an insight into the sin of the people of Israel. 

Their sin is described in three ways
1. Unfaithfulness
2. Violence
3. Idolatry

1. Sin is unfaithfulness

This is the big message of Hosea. God loves the people of Israel, but the people of Israel have been unfaithful to him. 
Hosea 9:1, 'You have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing-floor'.

As you probably are aware, last summer did some reading and thinking about love: what precisely is love? And I came up with a working definition of love - strongly based on the book of the Song of Solomon and also this book.

Love begins with a right vision. It is to 'see' someone or something as created by God and it is to delight in them - both in who they are, but also in what they can become. And love is to desire them - to desire a union with them IN AN APPROPRIATE WAY to who they are. 

So husband and wife delight in one another, and they desire one another - physically, emotionally and spiritually. Two friends can delight in each other, and the right desire is for union with each other - not that deep physical union of husband and wife - but an emotional and spiritual union. The New Testament speaks quite a bit about the shape of this sort of soul-union, soul-friendship. Or a parent loves their child. They delight in their child, but they know that before they can completely love their child fully, their child has to become a fully grown adult. So part of their love for their child is to grow the child and to release that child, in order that one day - maybe not till eternity - they will be able to have full soul-union with the person who was once their son and daughter, but who is now - like them - a full and equal child of God. 

The language that God uses in Hosea for his love for the people of Israel is the language of the most profound illustration of love - marriage love. 

God loves the people as a loving husband loves his wife. And he had lavished blessing on her: grain, new wine, wool and linen, celebrations, vines and fig trees, rings and jewellery (2:9-13)

But despite his love and his blessing, the people of Israel have been unfaithful to him. 

Hosea is commanded by God to ‘Go; marry an unfaithful woman and have children by her – for the people of Israel are like an adulterous wife’ (1:2). He marries Gomer, and she then deserts him. 

'Hosea', says God, 'I don't want you to only preach this message. I want you to feel this message. I want - when you preach - for you to know my pain and hurt and jealousy when the people who I love turn from delighting in me, from trusting me, from living with me, to delighting in the other gods, and in the things that I gave them in my love.'

I don't know whether you realise this, but when we do not delight in God, when we walk away from God, when we do not trust him, when we forget him because we think we have more important things to do, when we ignore his promises, and turn our backs on him - it is as if we are walking out on our partner: because we have either become bored with them or because we think that we have found someone who we think will make us feel better. 

I am aware that my talking about this may bring up some very painful memories. Some of you will have walked out on relationships - maybe for justifiable reasons, maybe not. Others will have had people who walked out on them. I'm not asking you to revisit the arguments. What has happened happened and God is the God of the new start. We'll see that next week. But we are being asked to remember a little of what we felt: the confusion, the anger, the sense of betrayal, but most of all the pain - either the pain you felt, or the pain that you know you caused someone else.  

That pain, says God, is like my pain when you turn away from me. 

He is actually here speaking to people who already are believers; who are within the covenant; to whom he has shown his love and to whom he has given his promises and his blessings. He is speaking to people who have made a commitment, prayed the prayer, been born again, tasted of the Spirit, but who have now - for whatever reason - turned their back on him. Maybe it was just too much hard work; maybe we were being mocked, maybe other seemingly more attractive things came in and we drifted away; maybe what was once a relationship of love and intimacy is in danger of drifting into a relationship of formality. 

The greatest command in the bible is not the command to worship God, or to obey and serve God. The greatest command is the command to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. 

So sin, says Hosea, is unfaithfulness to God. 

2. Sin is disobedience

We are on more familiar territory here. Sin is when we don't do what God commands us to do. James writes, 'anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins' (James 4:17).

Hosea is called to name his first child, 'Jezreel - because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel' (v4)

Jezreel was a royal city in Israel that had become synonymous with violence - and particularly the violence of rulers. It was the place where Ahab and Jezebel had murdered Naboth. It was the place where Jehu had carried out his rebellion against them, and slaughtered not only them but also their family and friends. 

So Jezreel had become a symbol for everything that the people of Israel did which broke the commands of God. 

Hosea 4:1-2 state the charge of God: 'There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed'. Or in 12:1, 'Ephraim .. multiplies lies and violence'.
And Hosea 4:6 indicts them: 'you have ignored the law of your God'

When people reject the idea that God loves them, they ignore his commands. They think that his commands are there to stop them from having a good time. They twist his laws to their own advantage. They either turn them into heavy burdens which they place on others, or they ignore them and live for themselves. If the king wants a vineyard and someone stands in his way, then that someone is to be eliminated.

Again, please remember that Hosea is speaking to people who God had chosen and called. He is speaking to people who were part of the community of believers. And these verses fundamentally do not speak to the people 'out there'. They are speaking to you and me. 

We are guilty of disobedience, because we know what God would have us do - love him with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourself - and yet we do not live that way, or do not even seek to live that way. 

Hebrews 6:4-6 gives a stark warning, 'It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace'. 

3. Sin is idolatry

The name of Hosea's second child is Lo-Ruhamah, which means 'Not Loved'. And God says 'I will save Judah (but not Israel) - not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but by the Lord their God' (1:7)
The implication is that Israel had been looking to their military might as their saviour. They had turned it into their god. 'You have', says God, 'depended on your own strength and on your many warriors' (10:13).

And elsewhere in this short book, we are told that the people have become proud and complacent (10:1-2). And as a result they have rejected the living God and put their trust in literal idols - in idols of silver and gold (8:4), particularly the calf idol of Beth-Aven (10:5). And we are told that they 'offer human sacrifice and kiss the calf-idols' (13:2). But they also put their trust in non-physical idols: in rulers (8:4), in foreign alliances (8:9), even in religious rituals (8:11-14). 

And when we put our ultimate trust in things that are not God, that is idolatry. It is about worshipping something or someone who is not God. 

Woe to the church when we put out trust in individuals: popes, archbishops, church leaders and speakers; woe to us when we put our trust in structures or courses or strategies or particular ways of preaching the bible; woe to us when we put our trust in buildings, in celebrity believers or numbers. I've been around the block enough times to be rightly sceptical when people say, 'This is the thing that will save the church'. There is no-thing that will save the church. The only one who can save the church is God, and he will save the church as people in the church hunger and see after him. 

What is the most important thing for you? The key words here are 'the most'. What is the compulsion which drives you? Is it the desire to make more money, to have a quiet life, to have a family or partner, to gain respect, to do what you enjoy and to satisfy your physical desires, to do something that will bring you glory? Those things are your idols, and they need to be brought under the rule of Jesus Christ. 

Do not allow yourself to settle, do not even begin to think about becoming comfortable - until you are driven first and foremost by love for God, and love for neighbour, and by your desire to see the Kingdom of God established in your life and in the place where God has put you. 

So sin in Hosea is:

The consequence of sin is devastating. 

It is devastating for the land. 
Hosea is one of the most environmentally aware prophets. He sees the connection between the sin of the people and the destruction of the land. 
In very relevant words, Hosea 4:3 states: 'Because of all this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying'. Or in Hosea 8:7, 'They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour'. 

It is devastating because of what is going to happen to Israel.
God is going to be to them like a ravaging lion. He will tear them in pieces (5:14; 13:7). Politically Israel is going to be overwhelmed and utterly destroyed by the Assyrians: 'The roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated - as Shalmon devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children. Thus will it happen to you, O Bethel, because your wickedness is great'.

And within Hosea's lifetime the people will be taken away from the land: 'They will not remain in the Lord's land; Ephraim will return to Egypt and eat unclean food in Assyria'. (9:3)

It was devastating: 
But we need to realise that the devastation coming on Israel was not God having a hissy fit because people are walking out on him. It is not the scorned lover screwing his ex for as much as he can get out of her as an act of revenge. Although if that was God's motive, who of us could blame him? 

But that is not God's motive. God's anger against his people is - in fact - an expression of his love for them. He has bound himself to them; he is jealous - not only for himself, but also for them. Because he loves them, he cannot bear to see them go with someone else who actually intends to harm them and destroy them. 

And in the end, because they persist in rejecting him, do you notice the names of the last two children: Lo-Ruhamah (not loved) and Lo-Ammi (not my people)? God is saying to the people of Israel, even though I love you, even though I have bound myself to you - because you have chosen to reject my love, I will let you go.  'You are not my people and I am not your God' (Hosea 1:9)

I said at the beginning that this is the first of two sermons on Hosea. This really does need to be continued. There is much more to be said, and God-willing, it will be said next week. But I want to leave us today with this thought.

Sin is not a game. It has consequences: natural and eternal. These words, 'You are not my people and I am not your God' are the final dreadful consequence of continued sin. They should shake us to the very core of our being. We are separated from the God who loves us. We file for divorce from God, and eventually God agrees. They are the acknowledgement of our created freedom but they are also the final terrifying declaration of our eternal destruction. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Why should we sing?

A significant part of the inspiration for this talk comes from Bob Kauflin’s reflections, Why do we Sing? (Sovereign Grace Ministries).

There are over 500 favourable references in the bible to singing.

The longest book of the bible is a book of poems which were set to music.
After Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, Moses doesn’t preach a sermon but he sings a song (Exodus 15)
In Numbers 21:14, the people sing to make a spring give water
In Deuteronomy 31, Moses is commanded to give the people a song to remind them of how God has saved them.
After the defeat of the Canaanites by Deborah, the people sing a song (Judges 5)
When David is delivered from Saul, he sings a song (2 Samuel 22)
The people assigned Levite musicians to sing God’s praises day and night at the Temple as part of Temple worship (1 Chr 9:33; 15:19-22)

In the NT there are more than 20 references to music:
Jesus and his disciples sing a hymn after the last supper
Paul and Silas sing when they are in prison in Philippi – even though they have been stripped and beaten (Acts 16)
And the book of Revelation speaks of a song ‘with such power, such persuasive beauty, that it is eventually taken up by all creation’ (Rev 5)

So why should we sing in worship?

1. We sing as an act of obedience to God.
There are over 50 direct commands to sing to God.
Psalm 47:6 is pretty emphatic: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises’.

You don’t like singing!
Other people don’t like you singing!

The command is to sing. It is not to simply always listen to others when they sing – the command is that there are times when you need to join in with the song. So when we join together to worship, there is time to listen to music, but the command is to make the song that the church is singing your own song.

One of the consistent grumbles that I get about St Mary’s is that people say the choir is great, but the congregation don’t sing.
You might say, ‘It is embarrassing. Everybody turns round and looks at me’. Or you might say, ‘I can’t sing’.

Forgive me for saying this, but if you are able to open your mouth and speak, then if you don’t sing to God, you are being disobedient. Or to put it another way, if you find singing difficult – or maybe you don’t like the particular tune to the hymn – still sing, but sing as a sacrifice of obedience.

Whenever we start to sing, ‘And can it be’, my heart sinks. It is such a long hymn. Sometimes I sulk and refuse to sing – it is funny how childish I become when it gets to music: I don’t like it – so I’m not going to sing, or I don’t like it so I’m going to throw the rattle out of the pram. But when I do eventually start to sing – the song becomes part of me, and takes over. The song that is out there, becomes the song that is in here.

2. We sing to proclaim the praises and the works of God
We have just heard that amazing anthem from Martin Shaw: ‘With a voice of singing declare this and let it be heard – Alleluia’

With a voice of singing
Declare ye this, and let it be heard, Alleluia.
Utter it even unto the ends of the earth.
The Lord hath delivered his people, Alleluia.
O be joyful in God, all ye lands,
O sing praises to the honour of his name,
Make his praise to be glorious.

For Christians, our song is of a God who is the creator, sustainer and lover of all things. He is all holy, all beautiful, all powerful, all just and merciful, and all loving. 

Christian singing is a declaring of the praises of God. It is also a declaring of the great things that God has done.

And again, Shaw gets this.
‘Utter it to the ends of earth – the Lord hath delivered his people – Alleluia.’

We were looking at St Peter’s this morning at Psalm 98. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him’.

The Psalmist is probably thinking about the great acts of deliverance in the Old Testament: the exodus, and the return from exile. But as Christians, we particularly remember and declare the greatest act of deliverance that God has done for us: his act of saving us from sin and from death – through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

So we sing to proclaim the glory of God and we sing to declare what he has done.

The big question is not whether you have a voice, but whether you have a song. 

3. We sing to God, if we have the Spirit of God, because we want to

God sings. All three members of the Trinity sing:
The Father:  Zephaniah 3:17.. ‘He will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing’
Hebrews 2:12 quotes Psalm 22 where the SG sings the Father’s praise in the midst of the congregation
Eph 5:18-19 – being filled with the Spirit inspires songs in the heart of each believer.

And we have been created in the image of God – so we have been made to sing.
So we are told in Psalm 135:5, ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant’ (Ps 135:3)

But more than that:

There is a connection between the Holy Spirit and singing.
Ephesians 5:18f ‘Instead be filled with the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord’
Colossians 3:16 speaks of ‘through psalms, hymns and songs in the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts’.

When a person, through the Spirit, begins to become alive to God, we begin to realise what God has done for us:

He has delivered us. He has given us forgiveness, a purpose and direction for living, peace in our heart, strength to carry on, an unshakeable hope for the future. He has, in the words of Psalm 40:3, ‘put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God’.

When we sing, we bring out the breath that is deep within us. It comes out through the mouth and, I am told, the deeper the origin of the breath, the richer the singing. But it is not just the singing that needs to come from down here. It is also the song:  so that what comes out of our mouth in our singing – reflects the true song that is deep within us.

4. We sing because singing helps us to remember

You will remember the words of songs long after you have forgotten most things. Those of you in the choir will forget my words within even a few minutes – but you will remember Shaw’s words because you have sung them - possibly even to your dying day.

Martin Luther was the man who reintroduced congregational singing into the churches. Before him, the singing had been left exclusively to choirs.

He brought it back as an act of obedience to the Word of God. He also brought it back as a way of teaching the truths of God to his congregations. As people sung the hymns, so some of the deep truths of the Christian faith sunk deep into their lives.
One of his opponents said that his followers were ‘singing themselves into his doctrines’. John and Charles Wesley followed exactly the same principal.

Can I urge you, in your own quiet times, when you put aside time daily to be with God – sing. Sing the anthem, use a hymn book or a song book. If you really can’t sing, sing along with an iPod or mp3.

5. We sing because it helps us to reflect on the words – especially if the mood of the music echoes the mood of the words.

Just try this when you get home. Say to yourself the words of ‘Amazing Grace’. Then sing it. My guess is that you will find that you think much deeper about the words when you sing them.

When we sing it gives us time to think it over.
It is why the Psalms were set to music.

6. We sing because it helps us to discover, express and move on our emotions.
I find it fascinating that in the film The Kings Speech, Bertie could not speak the words, but he could sing the words. It was as if the music and the rhythm was releasing him and going deeper than the surface emotions which were causing him to stammer.

The bible knows many different kinds of songs which speak to us when we are in different places – no doubt set to many different kinds of music. There are the songs of lament and grief, of anger, of despair and hope, of thanksgiving and praise, of love: the whole range of emotions is there in the Psalms.

John Piper wrote, ‘The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotions that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms, or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry and some demand that poetry be stretched into son.’

Songs can take us emotionally from one place to a different place. They allow us to grow. One of my tutors used to say that authentically Christian music was music which recognised the reality of chaos, disorder and harmony – but also the reality of God’s final order and harmony. Ultimately singing in worship should take us from sorrow and brokenness to joy in God.

7. We sing in anticipation of heaven
The song of Revelation 5 is a song that the whole of creation will join in with.

So we sing now, and glimpse joy now, in anticipation of the song of heaven and the eternal joy of heaven.

Randy Alcorn in his Edge of Eternity tries to imagine a little of what heaven might be like, taking the bible as his source book. So I finish with some of his words.  

We rejoined our comrades in the great camp of [heaven], embracing and shedding tears and slapping each other on the back. Then warriors around me turned toward the masses of untold millions gathered in [heaven]. The army began to sing, perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million.

I added my voice to theirs and sang the unchained praises of the King. Only for a moment did I hear my own voice, amazed to detect the increased intensity of the whole. One voice, even mine, made a measurable difference. But from then on I was lost in the choir, hardly hearing my voice and not needing to.

As we sang to the gathered throngs of [heaven], the sheer power of their voices, our voices, overwhelmed me.

Then suddenly the multitudes before us sang back to us, and our voices were drowned by theirs. We who a moment earlier seemed the largest choir ever assembled now proved to be only the small worship ensemble that led the full choir of untold millions, now lost to themselves. We sang together in full voice, “To him who made the galaxies, who became the Lamb, who stretched out on the tree, who crossed the chasm, who returned the Lion! Forever!”

The song’s harmonies reached out and grabbed my body and my soul. I became the music’s willing captive.

The galaxies and nebulae sang with us the royal song. It echoed off a trillion planets and reverberated in a quadrillion places in every nook and cranny of the universe. The song generated the light of a billion burning supernovae. It blotted out all lesser lights and brought a startling clarity to the way things really were. It didn’t blind, it illuminated, and I saw as never before.

Our voices broke into thirty-two distinct parts, and instinctively I knew which of them I was made to sing. “We sing for joy at the work of your hands…we stand in awe of you.” It felt indescribably wonderful to be lost in something so much greater than myself.

There was no audience, I thought for a moment, for audience and orchestra and choir all blended into one great symphony, one grand cantata of rhapsodic melodies and powerful sustaining harmonies.

No, wait, there was an audience. An audience so vast and all-encompassing that
for a moment I’d been no more aware of it than a fish is aware of water.

I looked at the great throne, and upon it sat the King…the Audience of One.

When we completed our song, the One on the throne stood and raised his great arms and clapped his scarred hands together in thunderous applause, shaking ground and sky, jarring every corner of the cosmos. His applause went on and on, unstopping and unstoppable.

Sing for joy

Psalm 98

Psalm 98 commands us to ‘shout for joy’ to the Lord (v4,6)

But that is odd.

How can you command anyone to do anything with joy.

It is one of the great unobeyable commands of the bible - like the command to love or to be at peace.
You may think that you have a chance of willing obedience, or of willing service, but you cannot will yourself to love, or be at peace or to have joy.

Joy is something that is bigger than us.
We can induce temporary happiness:
We can do that chemically. What is it that they say: ‘reality is an illusion created by lack of alcohol’?  
We can do things that we enjoy.
But we cannot create joy.

Joy is a gift.
We glimpse it in human events.
-      Great sporting moments (yes, Murray winning Wimbledon)
-      The birth of a child
-      Announcement of a long awaited engagement, or a great achievement

And we are also given glimpses of a deeper kind of joy:
Peter writes, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8)
There can be moments when the eternal touches our soul, and we are filled with joy.

But joy cannot be created.
Joy, like love and like peace, is a gift. But oddly, it is a commanded gift.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament command us to rejoice.

Psalm 98 can help us with this.

It gives us a threefold reason for joy

1. Because of God’s salvation

Verses 1 – 3 are all about God’s salvation.

It is a salvation that God himself has accomplished.
‘His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him’ (Psalm 98:1)

The Psalmist is probably not thinking of a specific event. There are many acts of God’s salvation that the Jewish people witnessed.

In our first reading we heard some of the song that was sung after the defeat of the Canaanites at the hands of Deborah (Judges 5). The people had been crushed, and suddenly, unexpectedly, deliverance had come.
But equally we could think of the Exodus, of Hezekiah when Jerusalem was surrounded by the forces of Sennacherib, of the return from exile.

And I trust that as Christians we can look back at times when God has intervened in our own church story or life story and rescued us – when we were out of our depth and God stepped in. But as Christians we do look back to a single significant saving act. We look back to those 33 years in history, when God rescued us from the power of sin and death, when Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became a human being, lived among us, died on the cross for us and rose again.

And because of that one act, we are forgiven, we are set free from the power of sin, we do not need to be paralysed by the fear of death, we can have intimacy with God now and we have an eternal destiny.

It is what God alone has accomplished. It was all his work: ‘his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him’.

When we were his enemies, God showed his love for us in this: he sent his Son to die for us – so that we, who were his enemies, might become his friends.

So we have grounds for rejoicing. Your salvation does not depend on you. It is not about how good you are, or how religious you are, or how sincere you are. If it depended on you, you would either be insufferably arrogant thinking that you deserved salvation, or you would be unbearably crushed realising you could never do enough. No. It is all about him and what he has done.

We were like spiders in the bath. We could not escape and our destiny was to be washed down the plughole. But the divine merciful hand reached down, scooped us up, and threw us out the window!

And not only has God accomplished this.

God has also – says the psalmist - made it known.
 ‘The Lord has made his salvation known’ (2)
And v3: ‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God’

We would not assume that a man dying on a cross was the way that God intervened to save us. But because of the prophets of the Old Testament, who taught about the cross, and because of the message of the New Testament writers who look back at the cross, we look at Jesus on the cross and we realise that through his death he has brought about God’s amazing act of salvation.

Jesus spoke about how that message, the story of his death and resurrection, the story of forgiveness and new life, would be taken to the ends of the earth by his messengers – that is you and me - before he returns.

2. Because of God’s righteousness
‘The Lord has revealed his righteousness to the nations.’ (v2)

God’s righteousness, his right-ness, his right-way of being and his right way of doing – on other words, his nature - is revealed in his works of salvation. As we look at the cross, we see

- his love (‘He has remembered his love’ v3)
In the OT he demonstrated his love by choosing a slave people to make them his people – to be a people in whom he delighted, for whom he had a destiny, and to whom he longed to be united.
And we celebrate the steadfast love of the Lord, in choosing us, who were and are nobodies. He chose us and he died for us. He delights in us; he has a destiny for us – to transform us into the likeness of Jesus. And he longs that we are one with Him.

- his faithfulness (also v3)
His faithfulness to his promises in the Bible; promises given to Abraham and Moses and David
And Jesus really is the fulfilment of all of those promises. He is the fulfilment of the justice of God and the mercy of God. ‘Righteousness and peace kiss each other’ (Psalm 85:10)

- his kingship
‘God’ says the Psalmist ‘is King’ (v6).
‘Jesus’, says the New Testament, is the Messiah, ‘God’s King reigning with God’s authority’
And we can rejoice because it is Jesus Christ who died for us, who is the Son of God, who loves us, who is faithful to his word, and who is the ultimate ruler of creation.

So whatever happens in our lives - even if we find ourselves under extreme pressure, or in the darkest deepest pit – nothing is outside his control or his ability to save.

3. In anticipation of God’s judgement
It might sound odd to say that we rejoice in God’s judgement.

But the Psalm speaks of how creation itself rejoices in anticipation of God’s judgement
‘Let them [it is speaking of the rivers and mountains] sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth’. (v9)

I wonder whether you have ever thought of the sounds of creation as being a song anticipating the divine judgement on this earth.

When you lie in bed in the morning and listen to the birds singing; or when you are out walking and hear the wind blowing through the leaves, or the rain falling or water bubbling in a brook, or even if you hear the scream of pain
- hear it as a song: there are many kinds of song – a lament, a cry of longing or a song of joy in anticipation of divine justice when everything will be put right, made fair and brought together in harmony.

And we rejoice with creation in anticipation of judgement, because it will be a judgement that is on the basis of God’s righteousness.

And that means that God’s judgement will be based on his love, on his desire that we – who were his enemies – might become his friends, his lovers. His judgement will be based on how we have responded to that invitation

And his judgement will be based on faithfulness. Not our faithfulness to him, but his faithfulness to us. So we will be judged on our dependence on him who is utterly faithful.
Are we living our lives trusting in his promises that, because of Jesus, we are forgiven, we do have the Holy Spirit, we are citizens of his kingdom and we do have an eternal hope?

And his judgement will be based on our willingness to serve him, the one who is King.

And one day this creation will be put right. That is why creation itself sings with joy.

I said at the beginning that we are unable to will ‘joy’.
It is a gift, something that comes to us from beyond.
The New Testament speaks of ‘love, joy and peace’ as fruits of the Holy Spirit – and as we walk with Jesus so those fruits will grow.

But there is something that we can do. And it is very simple.

We can be obedient to the command to sing.

‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ (v1)
‘burst into jubilant song with music’ (v4)
‘the rivers and mountains sing together for joy’ (v8)
And there is also a little bit of shouting for joy!

Can I urge you to become people who sing? Not just in church, but even more so at home.

We’ve lost the art of singing. In the past, if you had a party, people would gather round and sing. Now we rarely do that - although karaoke has made a bit of a difference. I think, if we have parties, we’re going to try and get people singing.

We certainly don’t sing on our own.

But the command here is to sing, to sing a new song.

You may not have a voice, but if you are a Christian, you do have a song.  

I’ve been urging people to put aside at least 15 minutes each day to spend with God. Could I suggest that as part of that time, you might sing a hymn or a song? It is much easier now that we have iPods or spotify or MP3’s: you can join in. For those of you who use WordLive, you will know that they offer a couple of songs for each day.

But don’t just listen to the songs. Join in yourself. Buy a copy of a song book. Become a people who sing – who sing of our God who saves, who is righteous and who will come in judgement.

I’ve tried doing it this week, and I think that it does help. I feel rotten or tired, there is so much to do (this week I have had three big talks to produce), may be you feel a million miles away from God. You certainly do not experience any joy. And then you start to sing of God and to God. And it does something.
So I simply finish where the Psalmist starts: Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.

One of St Augustine’s great prayers was the prayer, ‘O God, you command what you will. Give what you command’.
God commands us to have joy – so we pray, ‘Give the joy that you command’.

And for those who live in him, trusting and obeying him (and that includes singing), he will give us now glimpses of joy, and on that final day, he will give us eternal joy.