Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 26 May 2013 : Year C, Trinity Sunday
Why worship God anyway?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘Know your place!’ is a terrible thing to say to someone. Because it’s always that the person who’s saying it assumes that their place is somewhere higher and better than the person they are speaking to. Even if it isn’t said, still we wince when people imply that we ought to know our place. It could be a bullying boss, a faceless bureaucrat, or the person who signed that arrogant and unhelpful letter you got back when you complained about something- those folk who give the impression that they think you should know your place.
Knowing your place suggests that society is a hierarchy, in which we all have a station which we ought not to rise from. In Britain there is a bit of obsession with hierarchies. Someone- whom we shall call Smith- told me once how, following his war service, he went to work with a government agency. Soon after starting, he got a new boss, who was also just out of the army, a slightly pompous chap with a moustache, At the end of their first meeting, Mr Smith said ‘Very well, Mr Forbisher’. But the moustache bristled, and said, ‘It’s Colonel Forbisher, Smith’. ‘Oh, all right’, said my friend, ‘I will certainly call you that, Colonel Forbisher, just so long as you call me “Lance Corporal (Second Class) Smith’. They agreed to drop the titles after that!
A visit to the General Assembly reminds of how the Church of Scotland is often awed by rank and position. On the opening day, the business does not get under way until the Lord High Commissioner- who represents the Queen at the Assembly- enters the hall. We hear a fanfare of trumpets from outside, and various folks in fancy dress accompany him as he enters. It’s a reminder of how the Kirk, during its history, has often valued a link to the monarchy. Yet in our internal life, the Kirk can be brutal in bringing people down to earth. At the beginning of each year’s Assembly, the previous year’s Moderator’s year of office comes to an end. Albert Bogle has now returned to being an ordinary parish minister in Bo’ness, his place taken by Lorna Hood from Renfrew North. Albert’s been reduced to the ranks!
Yet there are critics of religion who would argue that the Church Yearbook is betraying something about Christianity, or any indeed any monotheistic religion- any religion which has one god at the heart- or at the head- of it. For they argue that religion always seems to be infer hierarchy. It says that the world is a pyramid, with ordinary folks at the bottom, the powerful nearer to the top, and at the apex, an almighty and all-powerful god. And, yes, very often the powerful people in the world have inferred that they are there by right, and that their power is somehow god-given. Even today, our coins have on them the head of the Queen, with letter indicating her various Latin titles: DG REGINA: by the grace of God, Queen. Much worse rulers than our own dear Queen have used god of various kinds to claim power of the rest of us, and they have often had priests and clergy who were happy not to argue with that. And so religion seems, to many folks, just another way of making sure that people ‘know their place’.
But does the Bible imply all this? There is an interesting struggle about monarchy which you can follow in the pages of the Old Testament. When the people of Israel first settle in Canaan they have no king. Instead, leaders called the judges emerge as when needed- folk like Joshua and Deborah. Finally Samuel becomes Judge of Israel, but when he gets old the people say, ‘Appoint a king to rule over us, so that we will have a king, as other countries have’ (1 Samuel 8.5). Samuel is not pleased with this request, but he prays about it, and God only reluctantly agrees to the peoples’ request, for, as God says to Samuel, ‘I am the one they have rejected as their king’ (1 Samuel 8.7). God instructs Samuel to warn the people of what having a king will entail: ‘He will make soldiers of their sons… [they] will have to plough his fields and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his officials… He will take your servants and your best cattle and donkeys, and make them work for him… And you yourselves will become his slaves. When that time comes, you will complain bitterly because of your king, whom you yourselves chose, but the Lord will not listen to your complaints’ (1 Samuel 8.11-18). But the people won’t listen to Samuel: ‘No, we want a king, so that we will be like other nations’ (1 Samuel 8.19). And so it is with reluctance that God allows them to have king.
And the kings which follow are a very mixed bag. They may owe their place to God, but they don’t all do as God requires of them. It’s obvious that the people who wrote those Old Testament histories had mixed feelings about the monarchy. Even the greatest of Israel’s kings, King David, has the story of Bathsheba blotting his reputation- he is supposed to have sent her husband into the front line of a battle, so he would be killed and the King could have Bathsheba! Recall, again, what God said to Samuel as the prophet prayed- God said, ‘I am the one whom the people have rejected as king’. Earthly kings are a second-best alternative, and even when they claim to rule on behalf of God, that is no guarantee that they will be any good.
But what of Psalm 8, which we read earlier? Does it not suggest a hierarchy? It begins with a ringing affirmation of the glory of God, the Creator:
O Lord, our Lord,
your greatness is seen in all the world!
Your praise reaches up to the heavens;
it is sung by children and babies.
You are safe and secure from all your enemies;
you stop anyone who opposes you.
And then, having worshipped the creator God, the Psalmist turns to humanity. And at first it sounds as though we humans are being put in our place:
When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places—
what are human beings, that you think of them;
mere mortals, that you care for them?
This begins to sound like a hierarchy in the making. The maker of heaven and earth surely is above and beyond mere humans. And, if God’s kinship was like human forms of kingship, you would expect that the maker of the mighty heavens wouldn’t have much time for we mere mortals- God would not think of us or care for us. But God’s kingship is not like that. The Psalmist is a person of faith, someone who has seen not only God’s glory in the heavens. He has also felt God’s grace in his heart:
Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;
you crowned them with glory and honour.
You appointed them rulers over everything you made;
you placed them over all creation:
sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too;
the birds and the fish
and the creatures in the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
your greatness is seen in all the world!
God is not an unimaginably distant monarch, detached from human life and concerns. It is true that we cannot begin to imagine the glory of God. But we also know that God has given us a place in his scheme of things: we have been ‘crowned them with glory and honour’. My Old Testament teacher, Robert Davidson, writes that in this Psalm: ‘… the people of Israel acknowledge… the awesome majesty and mystery of the God whom they know to be their God’ (Davidson, The Vitality of Worship, p40; my italics). For that is the mystery of faith: that the almighty God is also the one whom we know as our protector and friend.
The Christian mystery of the Trinity deepens our awareness of this. For in Jesus Christ we encounter a human being, a person like us, of whom it is nevertheless true that God is fully involved in his life. He is full of God’s Spirit, as our Gospel reading indicates, and he offers to share that Spirit with those who believe in him. And so opens up the possibility of an even closer relationship with this mighty God of ours- a relationship which Paul calls being ‘put right with God’ and having peace ‘with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5.1). God the Creator, through his Son Jesus Christ, ‘has poured out his love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us’ (Roman 5.5). Now we know for sure that God really does care for us.
And we really do know our place. We are not stuck at the bottom of some cosmic heap. No- the Psalmist says that we are ‘crowned’ by God. We are told that God gives us the gift of his Spirit. Our place in the universe is that we know intimately the God who created the stars in the sky. He does not forget us, or give us the brush off. He is so close to us that we can refer to him as parent: he is ‘Our Father’, as Christ’s great prayer put it.
Our hierarchy, our pyramid, has been flattened. For all human beings can know this relationship with God. Jesus said that to really understand his Kingdom you had to come to it like a child. And, indeed, the Psalmist notes that perhaps those who are best at praising God are children: ‘Your praise reaches up to the heavens; it is sung by children and babies’ (Psalm 8.1,2). ‘The least of these’, those whom we often think are at the bottom of the pyramid, those often ignored or overlooked by the powerful who think they are near the top of the heap, they are the ones to whom Christ particularly gave his attention. We may create human hierarchies, and even in the Church we might think some are more equal than others, but in the universe there is only one difference which really matters. We may occupy a special place in God’s creation, but that is because God has put us there. And there we are, with all humanity together, creatures of God, but loved by God.
When we know we are loved by God, then we really do know our place, and it is a special place, an honoured place. In fact, our place is at this Table, worshipping the gracious God who has called us his own.
Ascription of Praise
O Lord, our Lord,
your greatness is seen in all the world! Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo