First New Testament reading: Acts 1: 1-11
Epistle Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The late Canadian musician Leonard Cohen is famous for what is, in many ways, a very strange song. It uses a famous religious word which we would generally associate with praising God. But Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a subdued song, written in a minor key:
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken
Some people find it a hard song to understand. Can we really praise God in a minor key? The song deals with King David’s adultery- how can we sing Hallelujah about a story like that? How do we sing Hallelujah in a world of broken, sinful people, a world where all is not right, a world which is full sadness and despair?
Hallelujah in Hebrew means, ‘Let us praise the Lord’. And in our second reading this morning, St Paul says a Hallelujah for the Ephesian Christians:
… ever since I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks to God for you.
Yet if you read the Letter to the Ephesians, you find that, as is mostly the case with the New Testament letters, he’s had to write because of controversies and problems in the Church.
Paul has to remind the two parties in the Ephesus- those born Gentiles, and those born Jews- that they have more in common than they have to divide them:
Christ came and preached the Good News of peace to all- to you Gentiles, who were far away from God, and to the Jews, who were near to him. It is through Christ that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are able to come in the one Spirit into the presence of the Father.
He has to remind the Ephesians to live as Christians should:
…live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle, and patient.
He has to remind them to be tolerant and to live in unity with one another:
Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together.
He even admonishes them for using vulgar language:
[It is not] fitting for you to use language which is obscene, profane, or vulgar.
Yes, Paul starts by praising the Ephesians. But he has to write to them because they are divided into two different camps, and because they forget to be humble, gentle and tolerant with one another, because they swear at each other and argue with one another. And he says he’s writing to them from prison, where he has been put because of his faith. In many ways, there is not much to say Hallelujah about the Ephesians. Paul’s Hallelujahs for the Ephesians are Hallelujahs in a minor key. But it is not the Ephesians he is praising. It is God whom he praises.
Often, at concerts of Handel’s Messiah, the audience stands during the Hallelujah Chorus. It is said that the tradition goes back to an early performance, when King George was in the audience, and was so moved by the music that he stood to show his appreciation. And since it is not done to stay seated when the Monarch is standing, everyone else had to stand as well. But Hallelujahs are for Kings, or choirs, or composer. Hallelujahs are for God.
Likewise, St Paul does not praise the Ephesians for their faith, but rather, he give thanks to God for the faith. In the passage we read, Paul calls God ‘the glorious Father’. And he speaks of Christ ruling all creation with God the Father:
Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next. God put all things under Christ’s feet and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things. The church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere.
When we sing Hallelujah, we praise and thank God. For the One we are praising is the One who rules over all. However beautiful the music in church is, it is to the glory of God. However lovely the words of the prayers, they are there to lift our thoughts to God. However eloquent the preacher might be, her or his only task is to help you hear the Word of God which became flesh in Jesus Christ.
It is easy to give thanks and praise if the Church is celebrating. Yet we sing songs of praise at funerals. Some people find they can praise God best in a megachurch with a great band, or a fantastic cathedral with a heavenly choir. But even in shanty towns, in refugee camps, in struggling city centre churches or half empty village churches, Hallelujahs are still sung with conviction, and God is praised even where there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for .
Sometimes the Hallelujahs seem to stick in our throat. Yet today we recall the truth that the Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. However difficult the times might be, however thankless our struggles might be, even when the flame of faith seems to burn low, nevertheless Christ reigns as Lord of the Church and ruler of the Universe.
In the Acts story, there are some clues to how we are to live as people who believe that Christ reigns. Before his ascension, the risen Christ commands the disciples:
“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Perhaps there is a town or some place where you wouldn’t like to go back to. Maybe a town you lived in and weren’t very happy in, a holiday resort where the holiday was a disaster, a house full of unhappy memories? I think Jerusalem must have been like that for the disciples of Jesus. Jerusalem was where it all went wrong. Jerusalem was where Jesus encountered real resistance, the place where the arguments with his opponents were at their most heated. The people of Jerusalem hailed Jesus as a King one day, but a few days later urged the Roman governor to put him to death. Jerusalem was the place where he was betrayed, arrested, condemned and crucified, the place the disciples had watched their leader, and all their hopes, die. Why would they want to go back to Jerusalem, that city of many unhappy memories for the disciples? And yet Jesus sends them back to the city.
Cities are places where there are all kinds of possibilities. They are centres of the arts and entertainment, centres of commerce and industry. For young people in particular, the city can be a place of seemingly endless possibilities, multicultural melting pots, places where you can be yourself without the small town gossips watching your every move.
However, for many, the city is a place of despair and disappointment, the place where hopes turn sour. There are plenty of Scots who move to London and thrive, yet it is thought that ‘more than 12% of the UK homeless population in London is Scottish’. So for many years the Church of Scotland has supported a charity for homeless Scots in London called Borderline. Their website says this about the experience of some young Scots in London:
Far too often the difficulties they face in London are much greater than those they leave behind. Having nowhere to live, encountering repeated failure then trying to find work, and being stigmatised be the general population can swiftly force people into devaluing themselves.
As a result, Borderline says that ‘homeless Scots [are] considered to be the most entrenched rough sleepers in London’. Together with the Scottish congregations in London, and other secular and ecumenical partners, Borderline tries to prevent homelessness in the first place, and try to help those Scots who find themselves without a roof over their head in the big city. For the Spirit is at work in the city.
‘Do not leave Jerusalem’, said Jesus to his disciples. For it is in the city, where despair and vice and poverty might well be rampant, that the first Christians were to “wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised”. John had baptised with water out in the wilderness, but, says Jesus says to this disciples now that, in the city they will be ‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’.
There is a tendency among many modern people to think that they might find God, or something like God, in the peaceful countryside, among magnificent natural scenery. We are tempted to leave the bustle and chaos of the city for simple rural pleasures. And, yes, often we do find the presence of God on top of a mountain or taking a quiet walk along the beach. But for the first disciples, back then, it was to big bad city that they had to go to experience the presence of God. For Jesus reigns in city and countryside, in peaceful places and in bustling places. There is no limiting where the Holy Spirit might be at work.
So I say Hallelujah for those people who go to the cities, with all their chaos and contradictions, and there find themselves experiencing the presence of Christ. For Christ is present even in the inner city housing estates, even in the pubs and coffee shops and tourist traps of our own small city centre here in Inverness, even in the great shanty town cities of the developing world, even in the refugee camps which are often as big as any city. A few years ago, they built a temporary church in the refugee camp in Calais. Hallelujahs rise from unexpected places.
As it happens, this week many in the Church of Scotland are taking part in a global season of prayer which has been labelled Thy Kingdom Come. We are all invited to pray for people we know, that they might come to faith in Jesus Christ. We all know folk who seem too cynical for faith, or people who have had very bad experience of religion, of folk who know nothing about faith. Well, those are the sort of people you are asked to pray for. For Jesus Christ reigns, although they do not know it yet.
Today, the risen Christ commands us, as he did the first disciples, to be his witnesses wherever we go. He says we will be filled with the Spirit to be witnesses to him everywhere:
“in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And so today, in villages and crofts, in suburbs and city centres, among skyscrapers and slums, Christians are meeting to praise the God who reigns in all these places. For the Lord and Head of the Church is still Jesus Christ, and we worship a God beyond imagining. So even if we sing our Hallelujahs in a minor key sometimes, let us nevertheless worship and praise and rejoice, for the Lord is King over all! Christ is risen and ascended on high- Hallelujah!
Ascription of Praise
How very great is Christ’s power at work in us who believe.
For Christ rules in heaven above all other rulers:
to him be power and glory forever. Amen.
from Ephesians 1.19,21
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Ephesians 2.17-18
 Ephesians 4.2-3
 Ephesians 5.4
 Ephesians 3.1, 6.20