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October 15, 2017

"Joys R Us"

Psalm 100;  Isaiah 35:8-10

 How many of us grew up in church?  To those of you who raised your hands, the cynical side of me is tempted to say, “You have my sympathy.”  When I was a little guy, I was dragged (some-times literally) to church; Sunday after Sunday; month after month; year after year.  My dad was the Junior Department Superintendant while my mother was a Sunday School teacher; I don’t remember what grade.  So not only did I have to go to big church, I had to go to Sunday School for thirty-nine straight weeks.  If I had a choice between sleeping in, or sitting between Marsha Neely who always had gum in her braces and Rex Weber who was always threatening to beat me up after church, guess which I would have picked? 

                 Well unlike today’s church kids, I had no choice, as some of you as children perhaps had no choice.  Sunday after Sunday, Ms. Ethel Faunce would present the Bible lesson like she was  from a youngster’s point of view delivering a funeral liturgy at midnight.  I never saw any but her bottom teeth as she didn’t even come close to cracking a smile as I remember.  No sooner did I get through Ms. Faunce’s Sunday School class that we were literally herded into the children’s area of the sanctuary where we remained until we were released, without the benefit of a children’s message.  It so happened the children’s section of pews was adjacent to the ten foot high pulpit (or so it seemed to me).  Rev. Dr. Robert Carson must have gone to the same University of Joy as Ms. Faunce.  Add to his bottom teeth a pair of penetrating dark eyes which would pierce four inch armor plate.  I couldn’t wait to be set free back into the care of Ms. Faunce, who usually led children’s church while the adults did their thing in big church. 

                 By the time noon rolled around, I had had about all the Christian joy I could handle.  The only saving grace was that Sunday was homemade spaghetti and meatball day at my grandma’s.  And she posed the same question every Sunday when we got to her house:  “Did you learn anything good at church today?”  And every Sunday, I would offer the response I knew she wanted to hear:“Oh yeah, it was great grandma!” while thinking to myself, “I’d rather take a beating.”      

                 Psalm 100 which we just read is a favorite of many.  It actually serves as a doxology or final praise note for a series of what we call “Kingship” or “Royal Psalms.”  Psalms 93 and 95-99 concern themselves with the divine reign and rule of God in Israel.  It is likely these prayers were composed specifically to be sung at festal celebrations, such as the harvest Feast of Tabernacles during which God’s kingship over all creation was celebrated.  Psalm 100 adds an exclamation point to the tone of joy which is dominant in all these Kingship Psalms.  This short doxology begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” Without reservation, this Psalm opens with a call, not only to God’s gathered people, but to the entire earth to recognize as God and King the One who creates and cares for every member of the human family.  And as we come before the Lord, we “worship the Lord with gladness.” Many translations render the Hebrew word avodah “serve”: “serve the Lord with gladness. In ancient Hebraic thought, worship and serve were synonymous.

                 How many of us can honestly say that we “worship” or “serve the Lord with gladness”?  I would hope that it’s each and every one of us.  Yet I sense that some bring service before the Lord with such a burden of obligation and fulfillment of responsibility that there is more begrudging than joy.  It is true that we have an obligation to offer our best worship and best service to God if we declare God King and Lord of our lives.  And yes, we have a duty, a responsibility, to worship and serve in whatever ways God has equipped us.  That’s fundamentally an expression of stewardship.  But if we are acting out of love for God, willingly obedient to God’s rule in our lives, we should bring all our worship and service with a smile on our faces.  And, as the second part of verse two suggests, with a song on our lips. Is there someone, or a bunch of someone’s, in your life you love so much that doing things for them, however difficult the task or demanding the need – you do both willingly, and joyfully? 

                A few years ago, I had the privilege of ministering to a family in which the wife and mother was in the lengthy process of passing away from a degenerative disease.  As the members of that family went through all the trials and tribulations as caretakers of a terminally ill loved one, the husband and two daughters did so in an amazingly upbeat manner.  Of course, there was a deep sadness of the impending goodbye. But underpinning that was a deeper joy, knowing their wife’s and mother’s destination when this part of her journey was over.  They served her in her final days with love, devotion and reverence that was best communicated by smiles rather than frowns.  A question for us is, does such a deep love of, devotion to, reverence toward the Lord motivate our service to God -- which is our worship; so much so that we serve with gladness; with a smile on our faces and a song on our lips, however difficult and challenging the call to service may be?

                Along with our love for God, there is much basis for our joyful service and worship.  The Psalmist establishes that basis when he writes: “Know that the Lord is God.  It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  Don’t you know that God isn’t a King who sits high up in the heavens, far removed from the people God rules.  Contrary to what many believe, God did not simply create us, set us upon this earth, switch us to auto pilot, and let us fend for ourselves.  No. The truth is, God is involved in our day-to-day lives.  We may not see the face of God, but we see the work of God in our lives, and in the lives of others – God’s intimate involvement with us – if we have eyes to see.  And we see this best when we look at the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, where God meets us as face-to-face as we can presently comprehend and endure.  We remember Jesus saying of Himself as recorded in John’s Gospel:  “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  So for one thing, we “worship/serve the Lord with gladness” and “come into his presence with singing,” because as David wrote in the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

                 How then can we do anything less than “Enter (God’s) gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, Giv(ing) thanks to (God), bless(ing) (God’s) name.” We are profoundly grateful for God’s involvement in our lives.  We are profoundly grateful for God’s provision of family and home; work and leisure; health and healing; the promise of eternal life in a Kingdom where there is nothing but joy.  We are profoundly grateful to God who made everyone and everything, then stooped down from God’s Kingly throne to be with us the in the person of Jesus – leading us; feeding us; shepherding us.  If we know and believe all this, how inappropriate it would be to make a doleful noise to the Lord, to worship and serve the Lord with sadness, to come into his presence with dirges. 

                 I don’t know what may have been on old Ms. Faunce’s or Rev. Dr. Carson’s hearts.  But if it was joy, gladness and singing, as a kid, I somehow missed it.  I wonder how all the kids around Central Presbyterian perceive things.  As we worship the Lord as a community; as we serve the Lord in our various capacities, do our children see joy in us?  When they get to their grandma’s house and she asks them, “Did you learn anything good at church today?”, would their answer be:  “Yes, we learned that it’s a happy thing to worship and serve the Lord!” 

                The Psalmist ends this doxology by assuring us that it is not a fleeting joy we have in worshipping and serving the Lord.  So much of our happiness is short-lived; so often contingent on changing circumstances and conditions – wealth, health, emotions, relationships, the weather.  We get up.  We get down.  Well as far as our joy and gladness where our relationship with God is concerned, expressed in our praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist writes, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”  Upon God, we can always depend.  Amidst all the variables of life, God alone remains the same.  God’s goodness is never compromised.  God’s love never ends.  God’s faithfulness is to all generations, in all lands. Knowing this, how can we not make a joyful noise?  Knowing this, how can we show our little ones anything less than “Worship(ping)/serv(ing) the Lord with gladness”

                  I have one of those smile-a-day calendars called “Sanctuary Smiles” which features a different cartoon for each of the year’s 365 days.  I’d like to close by sharing one of those funnies which was inspired by the name of a children’s department store, and I also suspect was inspired by the words of the 100th Psalm.  It features a guy with a smile beaming across his face pulling his jacket open to reveal the front of his tee shirt which reads: “First Church – Joys R Us.”  May our tee shirts read:  “Central Presbyterian – Joys R Us.”