Saturday, October 13, 2012

October 7, 2012 - In the Beauty of Holiness


The Fourth Window - the Altar Window
Psalm 96; Galatians 5.16-26

            Have you heard about something called, “Immersion experiences”? According to Wikipedia.com:
*Immersion* is the state of consciousness where the awareness of physical self is transformed by being surrounded in an engrossing environment; often artificial, creating a perception of Presence in a non-physical world.

According to Ernest W. Adams, author of *Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion*, immersion can be separated into three main categories. Bjork and Holopainen add a fourth:
1.Tactical Immersion is experienced when we are performing tactile or physical operations that involve skill. Athletes experience such immersion when they are so focused on the game that they lose contact with everything else; they call it being “in the zone.”
2. Cognitive Immersion is more cerebral, and is associated with mental challenge and decision making. Chess players experience strategic immersion when choosing a correct solution among a broad array of possibilities.Kids lost in a video game have the same experience.
3.Narrative (or Emotional) Immersion is realized when we become emotionally invested in a story or experience.
4.Spatial Immersion occurs when we feel the simulated world so convincing that it feels we are really “there” and the simulated world looks and feels “real” (1).

Immersion for athletes or video game players is very desirable for us; it is a kind of “high” that makes the game or the story more present and real, while everything else fades away. Now, consider the possibility that Sunday worship might be the same immersion experience for us.
            This month, we have been focused on the stained glass windows at Church Street United Methodist Church. Each window brings Biblical stories and characters to life in color and pictures. Many of them offer sermons and interpretations of the stories they picture. The overall effect of the windows and the architecture on us when we step into the nave at Church Street is immersion. Coming in from the street, the darkness of the narthex reminds us of the darkness of the world; then we pass into the rich light of the nave. There, surrounded by the light pouring through windows, the soaring ceiling, the distant altar, and the music, we are immersed in a world where God’s presence is overwhelmingly real.
            The window we consider this morning is the largest one in the church; it rises above the altar, lifting our eyes toward heaven. It combines a quotation from Psalm 96 and images of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. At the point where these scriptures meet is the sermon for today.

[ABOUT PSALM 96]
            A. At the turning of the New Year, Israel would gather in the Temple to celebrate and announce the enthronement of God. It is an inspiring thought: instead of spending the first day of each New Year on a date, or watching ballgames, or writing New Year’s Resolutions, they would use the coming of the New Year to remember and announce the reign of God as our God.
Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Their announcement called the entire earth to honor God’s enthronement. Because God rules the world, it is not sufficient to gather a congregation less than “all the earth.” So, it called for a new song and a renewing of our conviction that God is the God who reigns over us.
            B. The psalm calls on those who worship to declare God’s glory among the nations. It goes furtherand declares God’s greatness over all the other gods of all other nations. Those gods are only idols, while our God created the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

            C. Now, the psalm calls all the families of every nation to declare all that is glorious and strong in this world comes only from the Lord
Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

In Psalm 29, where a similar call was made, the psalm called “the sons of the gods” to do all these things. But, this psalm points out that the new social reality beginning here happens on earth, not just in heaven As Walter Brueggemann pointed out, we are not spectators of heavenly worship (as in Psalm 29) which remains unreachable but now participants (2).

            The psalm moves easily between those who have come to worship and the peoples of all the nations of the earth. Maybe those who are present are representative of all the peoples of the nations; maybe those who are present are being called to proclaim God’s greatness to all the people of the nations. It appears that both meanings are intended.
            D. Now in verse 9, the psalm calls on all who are present and indeed on all the nations of the earth:

            “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.”

To come in fear and trembling, in  joy and hope, in confidence and assurance that this God, now enthroned, is the God who will lead us lovingly into the future.
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”
    The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.

            E. The great call from the Psalm to worship this glorious God has now been given, and the psalm calls all heaven and earth to rejoice. Not just the people of Israel, but all the nations. The call is not limited to human beings, but all creation should rejoice at the enthronement of our God.
            It is a great Psalm with a message which should be shouted across the earth.

II. I want to return to the 9th verse of the Psalm which read: “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” I searched through many translations to find one which spoke the message of the Psalm most clearly. You see, the first translation I found in the window was not as clear as I needed it to be. This verse from the window above the altar says: Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” It is taken from the King James translation of the Bible, which was the most commonly used translation at the time the window was installed. But, the more I reflected on the translation from the window, the more uncertain I became about its meaning. So, I checked other translations of this verse:
·         Two translations said: “Bow down to Jehovah in holy attire” – reminding those who worship to come in our Sunday best.
·         LXX says: “Bow down to Jehovah in his holy courtyard” – pointing to some new location for our worship.
·         NRSV: “Worship the LORD in holy splendor” – continues my confusion. Are we somehow bringing “the holy splendor” or is splendor a quality belonging only to the Lord?
·         KJV: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” What exactly is the “beauty of holiness”? It sounds good to the ear, but the meaning is not obvious.  
As I studied the passage and its message, I realized that the translation we have read today carries the message best: “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his[a] holiness.” The splendor is a characteristic of God and belongs only to God. Translations which speak of our attire take the attention away from God, but God is clearly the overwhelming presence in this psalm.Israel believed that God created the heavens and the earth; thus, God has always been surrounded by the splendor of his holiness.
            Further, God is not made different because of our worship. Instead, we are made different by our worship. For us to worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness is for us…
+to recognize what all creation has known from the beginning,
+to raise our voices in songs of praise – now joining the joyous task,
+to add our voices in witness to the greatness and justice of God.
            Now, the overall effect of the windows and the architecture on us when we step into the nave at Church Street is immersion. The darkness of the narthex reminds us of the darkness of the world; then we pass into the rich light of the nave. THERE, surrounded by the light pouring through windows, the soaring ceiling, the distant altar, and the music, we are immersed in a world where God’s presence is overwhelmingly real. Here the altar window calls everyone who enters this place, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” To look upward through this window toward the blue of the sky as God made it is to see the sky, indeed to catch a glimpse of heaven and earth as God will one day restore it.

III. So, the Psalm and the window lead us into an immersion experience of God’s holiness and thus to worship. Now, what impact does such worship of this God have upon us? Or, what do we take into the world because we have come to this place in faith and in worship? Is worship just a veneer that we smooth over our bumps and rough places? Or does worship somehow transform us and make us different?
            The larger part of the window now points us toward the conviction that worship transforms us and makes us new persons in the image of Christ.[SHOW WINDOW] You can find the sermon in the pictures of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians:
·         [Top Row:]
o   Love is symbolized by Christ blessing little children;
o   Joy is symbolized by the Song of the Angels, announcing the birth of the Christ Child to the shepherds;
o   Peace by Christ stilling the winds and the waves. 
·         [Middle Row:]
o   Long-suffering as Christ mourns over Jerusalem;
o   Gentleness in the raising of Jairus’ daughter; and
o   Goodness in Nathanael wondering if any good can come from Nazareth. 
·         [The lower tier is devoted to:]
o   Faith in the calling of Peter and Andrew;
o   Meekness in the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and
o   Temperance as John proclaims a new way in the wilderness.  [RETURN FROM WINDOW]

[Gal 5:22-25] I’d like to read the full passage from Galatians 5, beginning with v. 19:
            22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
            24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
            In Galatians, Paul has already made his central point that salvation is by faith only; there is no salvation in the keeping of the Law. But, suddenly anxiety begins. How can the community receive moral guidance if there is no place for the Law? We all see a place for the Law in keeping people and communities in good order and peaceful. What sort of radical gospel is Paul offering?
            In this passage, Paul first addresses the problem of identifying the works of the flesh: his list names the moral failings of human beings down through the centuries. The point is that everyone knows these “works of the flesh”, these failings, we do not need the law to help us identify them. Paul sums up his point by saying, “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21).
            In contrast to these obvious works of the flesh, the Spirit produces fruit in persons and in the Christian community. Note that this is a singular “fruit,” which manifests itself in all of these many ways. Note also, that the fruit of the Spirit is not doled out to individuals one by one; it is given to the faithful community. And, because it is given to the faithful community, Paul is not exhorting the Galatians to cultivate the qualities complete in themselves. Instead, he is painting a picture of the harvest the Spirit produces.
            Imagine sitting each Sunday in the light of this window which illustrates the fruit of the Spirit which God is producing in the community which worships here. This is what God, through worship, would make of us. The window stands as a daily reminder of the spiritual riches that God willingly bestows on all who come in faith

            Is Paul right? Can we trust the Spirit to guide the community, or is Paul’s vision of the church an ideal that cannot stand up to the burden of human experience? Is it, therefore – as Paul's adversaries charged – a prescription for disaster? Everyone knows that there are dangers, as Paul himself saw in the Corinthian church, for communities that throw away rules and traditions and seek to live in pure, spiritual spontaneity. It is all too easy for talk about the Spirit to grow careless and to serve as a cover for sexual misconduct, financial irresponsibility, and manipulative abuses by the community’s leaders. In the absence of Israel’s law as a guide to life, then, must the Spirit-led church inevitably settle for a new law of some sort?
            Our answer to these questions will depend on whether we believe in the real presence and activity of the Sprit among us. Paul is not making an appeal tovague theory. Neither is he choosing the most radical solution that he can imagine – just to shock the more establishment among us. Rather, he is thinking of the Spirit as the active presence of God that does mightydeeds in the believing community and speaksthrough the church’s worship. Only a church that knows the presence of the Spirit in this way can regard Paul’s counsel as credible.

Notes:
1. Immersion (virtual reality), an article on Wikipedia.org
2. Brueggeman, Walter. The Message of the Psalms, pp. 144ff.

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