Toorak Uniting Church

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Finding a home in fire and light

Psalm 84   Revelation 4: 1 – 8
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
Virginia Davey Music Fund, Special music service,
27 June 2010

When you heard the reading from Revelation just now, you may have wondered what this man was on? And if you could get it at the corner shop? Or would it be an idea to hand, whatever it was, out in Church to attract a wider audience? We wouldn’t expect any biblical writer to be into any illegal substances of course, but the imagery used in the text seems to point in a direction that goes very near to it.

The writer himself has another explanation: according to him what he sees is a rare glimpse of heaven, entering through a door that is left ajar by accident and invited by a voice sounding like a trumpet to come see what worship up there looks like.
At once he is moved into another state of mind, something he calls the Spirit and seems to be familiar and comfortable with. A state of mind where words and imagery take on a different shine and communicate concepts that are on a level well removed from the earthly day to day. Everything shines and shimmers, thrones, gemstones, white garments, a crystal sea and strangely shaped creatures with eyes inside and out.

Have you ever been there? It’s called ecstasy. And no, chemical substances have nothing whatsoever to do with it. But worship does.

The same worship the author of Psalm 84 describes in other, much more familiar terminology. A place of joy for the heart and soul, a place to come home to and sing God’s praises, a place to celebrate and remember, a place of nurture and prayer. A place where even the tiniest of birds find a place to build their nests and find comfort.

When I grew up Psalm 84 was one of the favourite psalms to be sung on a Sunday and the image of the sparrow and the swallow building their nests is one that is deeply embedded in my subconscious as an image of what worship should be like. What the Church should be like, on a Sunday, when we gather around the table, but also at other times when we pray and sing and open our hearts to the divine presence of God. A place of safety, where one can find comfort and be nurtured. A place of peace, where one can find shelter from the storms raging outside. A place of joy where music and silence create a piece of heaven not to be found anywhere else.

And often the Church, Worship has been exactly that, a place of nurture and comfort, of peace and shelter, of joyful noise and silent homecoming. And possibly as often it has not. Because of the words that were said, because of the people that were there, because of the music that didn’t quite manage to lift my spirits as I’d hoped and any other reason under the sun. Or just because I didn’t open the door to my heart wide enough for the Spirit to be able to enter it.

There have been times I have been ready to give up on worship altogether. Spend time at the beach on Sunday morning, hear the birds sing in the woods somewhere, sit beside a quiet stream or play my favourite cd at home to let myself be nurtured and find some peace and quiet. Invite some friends over for morning tea and share the joy of companionship with them, rather then bother to go somewhere that might not meet the longings of my soul sufficiently and adequately. If only there could be a brass quartet every Sunday and every sermon spot on and all my favourite hymns sung all the time, then it would be so much easier to go!

But somehow I have kept coming anyhow. Because I think, of texts like the one we read from Revelation this morning, however bizarre that may sound. And the words of my liturgy professor who taught us that worship is not, ever, about us. Not about how we feel, or are comfortable with, or enjoy, or would like to see happen. Worship is about God. An offering where we present God with a gift. The gift of a door left ajar, an openness to his Spirit, the best we can manage in music, word, and practice offered to create a place where God might feel at home. A place shining and shimmering with the light of gemstones and stained glass, resounding with the sound of trumpets and voices joined in the singing of hymns, old and new, of carefully prepared words to give expression to prayers and sermons, of a community that at least tries to create a place of peace and joy where the swallow and the sparrow would feel safe enough to build their nest and raise their young.

A place where we are invited to see, with eyes inside and out, around us and inside us, forward and behind us, and let every particle of our being get involved in something out of this world for just a little while. Coming to worship we present God with the gift of ourselves, open and ready to receive, as well as practice preparing and being in a place that befits heaven, so our lives may grow more an more into the likeness of it. So after the service we can come back to earth with a heart that has caught a glimpse through a door left ajar of what the glory and magnificence of the divine presence is like when we would dare to enter into its Spirit completely.

Not many of us will, like the author of Revelations risk being drawn into that realm of ecstasy completely. That prospect is too alien and intimidating for most of us, people of a time where rationality comes first. But perhaps we can let his witness about what happens if we would, together with the more homely words of Psalm 84, fill us with longing and motivation for our place and practice of worship to be touched by their imagery and ideals for it.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2010

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