The psalm we have read this morning is linked to a series of pilgrim psalms beginning at 120 and ending at 134. I used Psalm 122 not because I am going to talk about it or explain it, but because it expresses the gladness and excitement of travelling with fellow believers to worship and enjoy the presence of God in the temple. It is not about an individualistic experience, but the company of believers worshipping together.
As the term ‘pilgrim’ suggests, psalms 120-134 are about community experience, because the people would have travelled together from their village or town to Jerusalem, so that together they could worship at the temple. Lone pilgrimages are of course possible, but foundational to the concept of pilgrimage is that it is done in the worshipping community of believers. This makes sense because the concept of being in the worshipping community was established in OT as God called a special people to himself to live in a worshipping relationship with him. Also, the psalms are community songs drawn from the struggle of faith of the people of Israel.
If you read through Psalms 120-134 you will find that it feels a bit like a roller coaster as the community of God passes through various emotions in living out faith in YHWH: they pass through disorientation to orientation and then back. But this is the reality of life as we seek to be true disciples. The pilgrims bound for Jerusalem were travelling to experience the presence of YHWH in the temple. Our focus is God in Christ and our goal is to receive the ‘well done good and faithful servant’. Paul puts it like this:
I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:14
But we don’t travel alone.
John Bunyan in his book ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ describes a journey to the heavenly city, with all its ups and downs. Paul describes it as a race. However we describe it, the Christian life is one of experiencing change and growth within, bringing about change without. It is a way of life to which we committed. It is a way of life that has a goal and the journey we take is an act of worship. If we have committed to following Christ, everything should be part of our act of worship to God and our pilgrimage to the full presence of God. Paul sums this up when he says:
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. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
As we journey our aim is to be conformed to the Lord Jesus Christ which involves the transformation of our hearts and minds. Everything we do is part of that journey to be complete in Christ. Some of the things we do will enhance and others will distract. Sometimes we will be completely focussed and properly oriented in our faith. At others we will experience the disorientation expressed in the Psalms – but we press on with the support and encouragement of the body of Christ.
This totality of worship is expressed in the monastic life – but I am not advocating we move into a monastery. However everything in the life of the monastic community is an act of worship: prayer, work, eating, rest, recreation. Life is an act of worship to God. The challenge we have as Christians is not to separate ourselves from society, as appealing as that might be at times; but to live out this act of worship where we find ourselves each day. Again we are not alone but have been into the body of the church.
The journey of the psalms is an act of worship because they desire God. We begin with living in the turmoil and conflict of life. We face challenges and compromises and feel square pegs in round holes. You could call this a holy unsettling: the world is not as it should be and to seek lives oriented towards to God brings a clash with culture. This is why we need the worshipping community around us. We are travelling to the heavenly city, the full presence of God. We need that worshipping community to help us arrive. It is not a call of escape and abandoning the world, not least because we journey through it. I believe that God wants that journey to have impact.
That God wants the journey to have impact is represented by the pilgrim people Israel, which began with the call of Abraham. As Moses established the people of Israel and passed on the laws of God, the purpose of this nation was to be a light to the gentile nations around. They were to dedicate themselves to God in covenant and the law was not designed to be a constraint but a way of life that pointed to the living God they worshipped and enabled them to face the challenges of life in a conflicted world.
There is a goal: the city of God, the new Jerusalem where the full presence of God will be experienced. But the pilgrim journey is not all about pie in the sky or writing off this world. The focus of gaining the crown of life, as Paul expresses it, is centred in Jesus Christ and is our driving force. The teaching and example of Jesus clearly showed that this should not just be about escaping this planet. The teaching of the sermon on the mount clearly shows this.
If we are living a life of worship, dedicated to following Christ, then it will change us and affect the world we live in. The song ‘When the music fades’ points us to this fact:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship
and it’s all about you, all about you Jesus.
The heart of worship is Jesus Christ and because of that it has to be more than words and music. It has to be centred on a life actively following him.
Being a worshipping community is one of the core values of being a Baptist Church. The others are to be prophetic, inclusive, sacrificial, missional. Our Sunday sermons and the follow up on Tuesdays, is considering the outworking of being a worshipping community, which encompasses all these values.
We have been broadening our outlook in different ways over the past year, seeking to connect for more than just the service time on a Sunday. Developing Tuesday Bible Studies has been one way, but also having regular meals together, introducing shared refreshment time and even going out into the town for the nativity scene are all ways of being a worshipping community together. Including the choir who came and sang carols on that Saturday, we had a significant number of people publicly identifying as Christians, in the town centre at Christmas. There is a lot that goes on in addition: the bootfair, Make Lunch, unseen pastoral work, those involved in Street and Schools Pastors, as well as Sanctuary. It would also be great if more people from Emmanuel were part of leading the Friday night youth club. I am praying that thinking about being community focussed over the next few weeks will help more of us to become involved in the things to which we are already committed.
I see the idea of being a worshipping community as the hub of the wheel for us at Emmanuel. Taking the word ‘worship’ in its narrowest sense to mean our meeting on a Sunday, it is the place where we come together as the body of Christ, we pray, praise, declare scripture and learn from scripture together. It should also be a time when we get to know each other a little better and begin to extend relationships beyond the brief time we are together on a Sunday. It is the hub that supports the wheel and enables us to be the worshipping community beyond Sunday in the various places we find ourselves during the week. It is not for nothing that the writer to the Hebrews encouraged those Christians with these words:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25.
Too many times people start to drop out of worship on a Sunday and then replace it with other activities which make it harder to return, and then sometimes blame the church as an excuse. If we don’t remain connected we can easily go off on our own tangents and lose our way. If we don’t remain connected, relationships lapse and inevitably people completely stop coming. If we don’t remain connected we are not likely to grow in our Christian faith and understanding, and we will weaken as followers of Jesus Christ. This also means that each person here has a responsibility to look out for others in the fellowship and contact them if they are missing. A worshipping community cares for each other and doesn’t leave it to one person or a few people to do. With each of us taking on this pastoral role, not only will people know they are not forgotten, but also we will grow stronger as the body of Christ.
People often wistfully talk about being like the church in Acts. Well we can’t; we don’t live in the First Century. However, we can follow the example of commitment to each other in worship and fellowship demonstrated in Acts, realising that we have a part to play and each person is important. We also need to realise that a worshipping community sometimes faces difficulties, challenge or change. It is our commitment to the body of Christ that will take us through those times, not our willingness to take the moral high ground or go to a ‘better church’.
The concept of a community in worship is central to the biblical story. Whilst God may have called individuals, they were to develop and grow into a worshipping body to serve God the one who had called them into being; they were to be the worshipping community who drew others to God their creator; they were to be the worshipping community who lived as an example. That of course is true for the Christian church. Whilst Jesus focussed on the twelve disciples, there was always a broader group of followers around him, because the message was not to be limited to the elite, but shared abroad. The early church in Jerusalem scattered through persecution, but also through the conscious commissioning of people, sent out to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ. Wherever people went, new fellowships were established.
So as we think ‘Worshipping Community’ let’s get beyond how the music went and the songs we sing – although these are an important part of our gathering together, as well as our encouragement in the week. Let’s think
Building up, Spurring on
Encouraging one another, Challenging each other
Learning from one another, Carrying each other, Caring for each other
Being the community of God’s people is rooted in our story.
Rebecca Long Bailey announced her candidacy for the Labour leadership last week, saying that there was a need for a passionate commitment to a socialist democracy. In the public arena there are plenty of people prepared to declare and demonstrate their passionate commitment to what they believe in. As followers of Jesus Christ let’s allow a passionate commitment to following him take over our lives, working that out through commitment to the body of Christ in the local worshipping community.