What is probably the longest-running weekly TV programme anywhere in the world? First aired in October 1961, it is the quintessentially BBC programme synonymous with Sundays. In the early 1990s, the weekly viewership of the show was about twenty-five percent of the British population, perhaps five times as many as attending church that day. The programme staged its largest event at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on the first Sunday of 2000. A live audience of over 60,000 people came to sing, with a 6,000 piece choir, an orchestra of 100 harps, the band of the Welsh Guards and an anthem specially written by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is of course… Songs of Praise.
But is nothing sacred anymore? Last week’s broadcast, 16 August 2015, was filmed at a ramshackle Ethiopian Orthodox church in the Calais jungle, the nickname given to a series of ramshackle camps near Calais, where migrants live while they attempt to enter the United Kingdom illegally by stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling through the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel Calais Terminal. The migrants are a mix of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other troubled areas of the world. The BBC received criticism from tabloids including the Daily Express, who lambasted the BBC as “out of touch” and the show as “political propaganda”.
What has Songs of praise got to do with politics, poverty, migrants and refugees? Worship is probably the most controversial and divisive religious subject in church or indeed out of it. Roll back four hundred years to a building very near to what became the headquarters of the BBC – Westminster. The centre of the political establishment saw no incongruity with defining our Christian responsibility and worship in particular.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is considered to be the grandest doctrinal statement to come out of the Reformation. Composed of 107 questions and answers, the first and most famous of which asks: Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. A rather more contemporary, simplified and popular version of the Catechism was written by Rick Warren in, The Purpose Driven Life. He writes, “If you want to know the purpose of life, you have to either talk to the creator who made you, or look in the owner’s manual.
You were made by God and you were made for God. And until you understand that, life isn’t going to make sense.” In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says God has five purposes for your life:
- Worship – We were planned for God’s pleasure
2. Fellowship – We were formed for God’s family
3. Discipleship – We were created to become like Christ
4. Ministry – We were shaped for serving God
5. Evangelism – We were made for a mission
Today, we’re going to look at the first of God’s purposes and explore this theme of worship. In particular, how God’s people discovered their purpose in Nehemiah’s day. The chapter before us today describes the dedication service for the newly constructed walls. The Levites were brought,
“to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres… I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks.” (Nehemiah 12:27-31).
Three words in verse 27 summarise our primary purposes in worship: Celebration, thanksgiving and dedication. These three words take us to the heart of what worship is all about.
- The Heart of Worship is CelebrationThe heart of worship is celebration of who God is. They celebrated “joyfully” (12:27). Notice the superlatives in verses 31 and 43:
“I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks… And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.” (Nehemiah 12:31, 43).
Not just choirs but “large choirs”. Not just joy but “great” joy. Celebration is at the heart of worship. It is not about me, or about how I feel. Its about but who God is and what he has done and what he is doing – the Lord God almighty, King of the universe, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Saviour and Lord. Worship is focusing my heart and my soul and my mind on who God is.
You know why God wants your undistracted attention? God wants your attention because He is focused on you. Look at what the Bible has to say to us in Psalm 139.
“You have looked deep into my heart, Lord, and You know all about me. You know when I am resting or when I am working. You notice everything I do and everywhere I go.” (Psalm 139:1-3)
God has focused his attention on you. The reason He made you is to love you. He made you to give you this attention. Sometimes someone will say to me “my wife, my kids, they say I don’t love them. But I work long hours every day for them. How can they say I don’t love them?” Because they want your attention. Attention is an incredible expression of love. And God puts His attention constantly on us.
Remember the first time you fell in love? You just couldn’t get that person out of your mind? You thought about them when you woke up in the morning. You thought about them all day long? Then what happened? Did it wear off? Infatuation has to give way to real love. The Bible tells us how to rekindle our first love.“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
God’s love for us is eternal. He is always focused on us, and He wants to teach us to focus our heart and our attention on Him. And that’s difficult sometimes. It is difficult sometimes to focus on God even when the music and singing is angelic. We’re not like one of those auto-focus cameras, you press the button and it focuses automatically. We have to decide to focus manually. That is why the first commandment sums up all the rest.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)
When we do focus on God there are some incredible benefits. Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)
Another translation says, “whose thoughts are fixed on You!” (Isaiah 26:3). When you focus on yourself, or your circumstances, or your worries, the inevitable result is fear, insecurity, anxiety, guilt, discouragement. But when you fix your thoughts on God, you begin to sense gratitude and hope and confidence and love. And this is infectious.
What do you do when you meet someone smiling? When you are surrounded by smiling energised people? Worship that is celebration is also evangelistic. Verses 31-39 tell us that the leaders went up on the top of the wall. Two large choirs walked on top of the wall, one to the right, and the other one went to the left. Ezra was one of the worship leaders and Nehemiah led the other choir.
This worship service could easily have taken place in the temple area, but instead Nehemiah wanted it to take place on the walls themselves. Why? They were bearing witness to the watching world that the one true God alone should be glorified. The enemy had said in 4:3 that the walls were so weak that a fox could knock them down, but here the people are marching on top of the walls!
In Nehemiah 6:16: their enemies realised “…this work had been done with the help of our God.” As they marched on top of the walls, everyone could see what was happening, and for miles around unbelievers heard the sound of praise. Look at verse 43: “The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” The heart of worship is celebration. A celebration of who God is.
If the heart of worship is celebration,
- The Grounds for Worship is Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving for What God has Done. Verse 31 tells us that the choirs were appointed “to give thanks.” That was their role. That was their purpose. To give thanks for what God had provided. And this is your purpose too. Worship is expressing my appreciation and affection, my heartfelt thankfulness for what God has done, supremely in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in my place.
Jesus says our purpose in life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3). That is why we are commanded to give thanks all the time, because God is good all the time. Paul writes to the Ephesians,
“always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20)
This is loving God with your heart and soul. And for some of you, this is kind of difficult because you grew up in families that weren’t very affectionate, weren’t very expressive,
Perhaps didn’t say “I love you” a lot,
Or didn’t say “thank you” very often. Maybe you’re the silent type. It’s not real easy for you to express affection to God without feeling weird about it. Do you remember the first time you ever said “I love you” to somebody? Probably scared to you death. I had sweaty palms, my stomach was in a knot. I was all nervous…are they going to accept me or are they going to reject me – are they going to say it back to me? But the neat thing about God is He’s taken away the risk. He said it first. God said it first to you.
God said, “I love you.” God has said it in a thousand ways. He created you. He’s taken care of you. Even when you didn’t know it, He was showing love to you. God has said over and over and over to you, “I love you.” So you don’t have to worry about who is going to say it first. Remember the verse we just looked at from 1 John? “We love Him, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). The Bible says God wants to be loved. He wants to be loved. Have you ever said, “I love you” to God? In Hosea 6:6, God says,
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Another paraphrase translates the verse,
“I don’t want your sacrifices — I want your love! I don’t want your offerings — I want you to know me!” (Hosea 6:7)
This is the first purpose of our life — to know and love God.
If you get that done, you have accomplished the most important thing in life. Rick Warren says,
The most important thing you can know in life is that God loves you. And the most important thing you can do in life is to love Him back. So when you get up every morning before you get out of bed, sit on the edge of your bed and say something like this, a little prayer. “God, if I don’t get anything else done today, at the end of this day, I want to know You better and I want to love You more.” Because if you do that, at the end of your day, no matter how bad the day has gone, and no matter how many plans fell apart – if at the end of the day, you know God a little better and you love Him a little more, that day was a great success.
That’s why your heart is still beating. The purpose of your life is to know and love God, before anything else to celebrate him and to live in constant thanks of him. If you are a married man, imagine coming home and saying, “Honey, here are some flowers. And I am giving you these flowers for three reasons: No. 1, I am your husband. No. 2, it is our anniversary. No. 3, Stephen says husbands should give their wives flowers on their anniversary.” Wouldn’t she be thrilled? I don’t think so.
God doesn’t want your duty either. He wants your desire. God doesn’t want – “Oh, okay, its Sunday. I better go worship.” God doesn’t want ritual. He wants a relationship.
Now this may be hard for some of you because you’re not naturally expressive. So how can I express my affection to God? Well, if you have never done it before, let me tell you how to get started. Just start by saying “thank you.”
Start looking around at everything and start thanking God. “God, thank you for a beautiful sky today. That’s gorgeous.” “God, thank you for green leaves.” “Thank you for clean air.” “Thank you that I’m still breathing.” “Thank you that I have something to eat.” You could go on and on. The more you get into the habit of thanking God, the more and more things you’ll see to thank God for. Because, the heart of worship is celebration. The grounds for worship is thanksgiving.
- The Consequence of Worship is Dedication
The consequence of worship is the dedication of my time, my talents, my assets and abilities to God. It is turning worship into service. In Romans 12:1 we are commanded,
“to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
This is what happened in Nehemiah 12. Verse 27 tells us they dedicated the walls to God.
“they celebrated joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving…” (Nehemiah 12:27).
Celebration and thanksgiving led to dedication. Worship is giving back to God. He had enabled them to build the walls so they dedicated them to him. He gives to us, and we give back to Him. And whenever you give back to God, whenever you offer anything to God, that’s called worship. And that brings pleasure to God. It brings enjoyment to God.
If you are a parent, when your children express their gratefulness to you, that brings you pleasure . When we’re grateful to our Heavenly Father, that brings him pleasure. By offering themselves in dedication, they were surrendering themselves to God. Colossians 3:23, says:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people.” (Col. 3:23)
You see, you don’t have to join a monastery to worship God more or have to have a five hour quiet time with God every day.
No, you don’t need to do that. You just need to change who you’re working for. And when you change who you’re working for, your work becomes worship. Now, you may be a carpet cleaner, you may be an lawyer, you may be a nurse, you may be a working mother at-home raising children, you may be an executive or a manager or sales person, or a truck driver. It really doesn’t matter what you do. It’s about who you do it for. Who are you living for today? The concluding verses of Nehemiah 12 show us having dedicated the walls, they dedicated themselves to sharing with those who served them. After the exciting service of dedication was over, provision was made for the continuing worship of God’s people. Verse 47 says,
“all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.” (Nehemiah 12:47)
It was organized, it was regular, it was the norm for everyone. Thomas Adams, the Puritan, said this: “Let us do good with our goods while we live…to part with what we cannot keep, that we may get what we cannot lose.” As the Apostle Paul said “So we make it our goal to please Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:9). There’s not a better goal in life to have than that one right there. This morning we have considered three elements of worship – celebration, thanksgiving and dedication. When we celebrate, we engage our hearts in acknowledging who God is. When we give thanks, we express our heartfelt gratitude for what God has done. And, in dedication we surrender our wills to serve and please him.
Then perhaps our Songs of Praise will gladly embrace the Ethiopian refugees presently in Calais just as much as the English royalty of Kensington. Let’s pray.
Dear God, I realise wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for you and your love. Forgive me for all the times I think and act like You don’t matter. Today I’ve realized the first purpose of my life is to know and love You back. I’m amazed that You long for a relationship with me and I’m amazed You’re interested in the details of my life. But most of all, I’m amazed You would come to earth to die in my place. I want to learn how to focus my attention on You throughout my day. I want to turn my work into worship. I want to learn to love you with a love that You deserve, thoughtfully with my mind, passionately with my heart and soul and practically with my abilities. From today I’m working for You, doing my job as if You are the boss. In Your name I pray, Amen.”
With grateful thanks to Brian Bill for a sermon entitled, “Taking Time to Give Thanks” which blessed my socks off in preparing this sermon. It also draws on a sermon by Rick Warren in the 40 Days of Purpose series.