Carlos Wilton, October 28, 2012 – Non-Lectionary sermon; Psalm 63; Matthew 28:1-10
“So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”
– Psalm 63:2
So, what have you got on your pre-hurricane to-do list? Put away the lawn furniture? Stock up on bottled water and toilet paper? Fill the car with gas? Load the flashlight with fresh batteries?
Excellent suggestions, one and all. Yet what if your hurricane to-do list contained this item: Come and worship God?
The fact that you’re here this morning suggests that worshiping God is indeed on your to-do list. But you won’t find that one on any of the lists published in the newspaper, or splashed across your TV screen as you watch The Weather Channel.
Can you imagine? There’s Jim Cantore, standing on a beach in South Carolina: Weather Channel microphone in hand, rain-soaked windbreaker on his back, surf sloshing around his ankles. He’s giving advice to people living up the coast a bit, up our way – where Hurricane Sandy is headed next. “Now is the time for those pre-hurricane preparations,” he’s saying. Groceries, gas, batteries and all the rest — and then he adds to his list: “And one other thing: it’s Sunday, so don’t forget to go to church!”
If you ever heard such words come out of a TV reporter’s mouth, I’ll bet you’d fall out of your La-Z-Boy!
Truth be told, worship doesn’t enjoy a very high reputation in post-modern secular society. A pretty large percentage of our neighbors just don’t get it. They don’t get it at all: “Why waste a perfectly good Sunday morning hunting for a parking place, then sitting in a pew, singing songs that haven’t been in the Top 40 for a century or two, and after that listening to some guy wearing a dress tell you how you ought to live your life?”
Quite apart from the church, the word “worship” often carries a connotation that’s not exactly positive. If, for example, you were to say of a certain teenaged girl, with respect to a certain teenaged boy who sits in front of her during Chemistry class, “She worships the ground he walks on,” that doesn’t exactly speak well of her state of mind, does it? To worship, in that sense, is to be just a little unbalanced – not to mention swiftly heading for a fall, if in fact it happens — as is all too often the case in teenage romances — that said teenaged boy has not the slightest idea of what abject veneration is emanating from the seat behind him.
No, the very word “worship” appears to threaten the sense of rugged, self-reliant individualism that’s one of our national myths, here in the U.S. of A. It’s like John Wayne said, in one of his classic Westerns (I can’t recall which one): “I don’t like God much once I get him under a roof.”
So, here we all are: under a roof — one we hope the hurricane’s not going to carry off — hoping for a mystical encounter with the divine. We’ve got some vague expectation that — if not this particular Sunday, then one Sunday very soon — we just may be lucky enough to end up like William Butler Yeats, in those famous lines of poetry he wrote, about a spiritual epiphany he had in a London coffee house:
“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”
[William Butler Yeats, “Vacillation,” in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933).]
Experienced worshipers know it’s not quite so simple as that. It’s not every day you plunk your posterior down in a church pew, and actually fulfill the hopeful motto you see on some church signboards: “Come as you are, leave as you want to be.” There are plenty of occasions when worship is perfectly ordinary, even humdrum.
Such are the times the character Shug talks about, in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple:
“She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
[Alice Walker, The Color Purple, Women’s Press (1983), p. 165.]
Such post-modern, highbrow literary skepticism is not exactly the perspective of the writer of Psalm 63 — the one we heard this morning. This poet begins with a mental picture any desert-dwelling Jew could easily call to mind:
“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
If you’ve ever been outside on a hot summer’s day, the sun blazing remorselessly overhead, your last water bottle drained of its last drop an hour ago, the inside of your mouth feeling like you’d just tried to gargle with talcum powder, then you know the sort of image the psalm-writer’s trying to evoke. It’s an image of yearning, an image whose intensity goes far beyond that line of Shug’s in The Color Purple, the line about all those people sitting around in church pews, waiting for God to show. Those people in the novel are more or less resigned to their fate. Most of them have reached some accommodation with the practical observation that, on any given Sunday, not a whole lot out of the ordinary is likely to happen in church.
Yet, when it does — oh, yes! That’s the ticket. That’s what they’ve been waiting for, as the psalm-writer goes on to say, in verse 2: “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”
That line calls to mind the famous verses from the book of Isaiah, that have come to be known as the Call of Isaiah. They relate a powerful mystical experience the prophet had as a young man — an experience he had (of all places) in the Temple:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’”
The entire place is filled with smoke: some of it the predictable smoke arising from the incense, but the rest of it evidently coming from some supernatural source.
Flying in and out of the billowing smoke are multi-winged angels. One of them hears the young Isaiah’s cry of dereliction before this awe-inspiring sight:
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Hearing this, one of the angels flies over to a burning brazier, and with a set of tongs plucks a burning coal out of the fire. The angel flies it over to Isaiah, and touches it, ever so lightly, to those “unclean lips” of his. Rather than burning him, the white heat of the fire sears all unrighteousness away. From that moment on, the prophet knows not only that he is called to be God’s spokesperson on earth, but that he is also in league with believers like the writer of Psalm 63. Both are members of the club of those who have felt the presence of God in church.
Back to Psalm 63, though, because I’d like to draw your attention to a little word that’s hiding there in verse 2. The word is “behold.” The psalmist relates how, as he was privileged to glimpse the Lord Almighty in the Temple, just as Isaiah had, he “beholds” God’s power and glory.
Most of the times you hear the word “behold” in the Bible, it’s a dead giveaway that something extraordinary is about to happen. You see the word far more often in the old King James Version than in more recent translations. I don’t know what that means — maybe that we twenty-first century types have mostly given up on believing God still has the capacity to surprise us? But that’s neither here nor there.
The very first time you see the word “behold” in the King James Version is in the creation story in Genesis 1. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth.” And, just a few lines later: “Behold, it was very good.”
In Genesis 37, verse 7, there’s a double behold, as Joseph (of the coat of many colors) tells his dream to his brothers — the dream that do enrages them that they will beat him up, throw him down a well, and then eventually sell him into slavery:
“For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.”
Later on, in Exodus 14, when the people of Israel are starving in the wilderness, the Lord says to Moses: “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you.”
The passage from Ezekiel 37, that famous poetic discourse on the valley of dry bones, is positively littered with “beholds”:
“…behold, there were very many [bones] in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.”
“Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live…”
“So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.”
Jumping to the New Testament — still in the King James Version — there’s that famous message of the angel Gabriel to Mary, who tells her:
“Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.” [Luke 1:31]
The word “behold” is sort of like a referee blowing a whistle, to stop all action on the field of play — although, in this case, the whistleblowing is not taking place because the ref has just seen something, but because he knows somehow that something’s about to happen that everyone on that field ought to have a good look at.
Perhaps the most momentous “behold” of all is found in the Gospel reading for today, that joyous discovery by the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection. Our New Revised Standard Version strips the “behold” from the text — as it does with so many other “beholds” throughout the Bible — but I’ll re-insert it for you here.
Just after the angel who meets the women at the tomb instructs them, saying “Go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead,” Matthew goes on to say: “And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshiped him.”
In a great many occurrences of the word “behold” in the Bible, the inevitable response is awe and wonder. Here in Matthew 28:9, it flows over from awe into worship: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshiped him.”
Not long ago, in a little article entitled “Why I Go to Church,” a man named Richard Kauffman speaks of some of the things he beholds in church — on his best days:
“I can’t speak for others, but here is why I go to church. I go first of all to meet God, to be in God’s presence. I go also to make connection with other people who share many of my foundational convictions and commitments. I go to find meaning in life, to make sense of my life and to search for guidance on how I should live out my life.
In other words, I go to church to be part of something bigger than myself, to join my storyline with one that started long before I made my appearance in this life and will continue beyond my earthly existence.”
Kauffman goes on to describe another feature of church that keeps him coming back, again and again. It’s the music. “Often,” he says, describing the artistry of two instrumental musicians who often play in his church, “after one of them has played I don’t need to hear a sermon — no offence to my pastors — because I’ve already received the inspiration I need.”
The music in church is more than just something to sit and listen to. There’s a participatory dynamic as well:
“I also go to church to sing. As John Bell has pointed out, the church is about the only place where people gather to sing anymore….
Joining our verses together in praise resounds deep within my being. It is then that I sense most assuredly that I am in the presence of God with my people, the ones with whom I am pledged to live out my baptismal vows.”
Kauffman wraps it all up by saying this:
“There are two necessary things in life, James Luther Adams said: a sense of ultimacy and a sense of intimacy. I may not find ultimacy or intimacy every Sunday at church, but that’s what keeps me coming back week after week. That and the singing.”
[Richard A. Kauffman, “Why I Go to Church,” Christian Century Blogs, November 11, 2010.]
“A sense of ultimacy.” The great theologian Paul Tillich famously described faith as our encounter with what he describes as “ultimate reality.” The scriptural heads-up, advising us that something of ultimate import is about to come up, is that archaic little word, “behold.”
The thing that keeps most of us coming back to church, again and again, is our expectation that one day soon we will discover here something to behold. It’s not something I can supply for you in my sermons, nor is it something the choir (however skilled they may be) can deliver in their songs. In and amongst the words and the music of the worship service, you and I are sometimes glimpse — or, should I say, “behold” — the transforming power of the Spirit of God. Whether it is more like the roaring wind of an approaching hurricane, or the “still, small voice” of our most intuitive imaginings, it is a power that disturbs one day and comforts the next — but always it points us to the divine.
So, I encourage you this day to make a personal commitment to come here, or to some other church as you may be traveling, to place yourself in the way of the Spirit: so you may be rewarded, by God’s grace, with something to behold!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.