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The Instruments of Worship

 

Psalm 150

 

TAMBOURINE/TIMBREL   God’s deliverance of Israel from soul-destroying slavery in innermost Egypt; God’s rescue of Israel from Pharaoh’s cruelty at the shores of the Red Sea; no event would ever root itself more deeply or fix itself more securely in Israel’s consciousness. To this day Passover is a festival in Jewish homes, a day of rejoicing, frolicking, and even fun-and-games for children.

Miriam, a prophet in Israel, was one of the first to magnify Passover celebrations. She grabbed a tambourine and began to dance. In no time scores of others followed suit. The book of Exodus tells us that “Miriam … took a timbrel in hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them, `Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.'”

In Israel of old the tambourine provided the rhythm for dancing. People danced whenever they beheld something magnificent at the hand of God.

When David came home after a major victory over the Philistines people turned out for a ticker-tape parade; as their hero passed before them they danced unselfconsciously.

The unselfconscious dancing of David’s admirers, however, was nothing compared to the unrestrained dancing of David himself a few months later. After their initial defeat, the Philistines regrouped, raided Israel, and carried off the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark being the sign of God’s presence among his people. When David’s men managed to wrest the Ark away from the Philistines and bring it back, David’s elation soared. He danced. The English text says, “He danced.” The Hebrew text, however, says, “He whirled about.” He leapt, he cavorted with greater agility than an acrobat. (David wasn’t into ballroom “gliding”; he had passion!)

Michal, his wife, on the other hand, had none. Michal was Saul’s daughter, a blue-blood, aristocratic. Compared to her David was a vulgar oaf who came from a social class 16 levels below hers. Then why had she married him? He was everybody’s hero. Once she was married, however, she found out that David loved to dance, while she couldn’t dance at all. Michal couldn’t dance for two reasons. One, she had no passion in her; two, the Ark of the Covenant meant nothing to her. (If the Ark had meant something to her, she would have had passion in her.) To be sure, the Ark of the Covenant was only the sign of God’s presence; it was God’s presence that mattered unspeakably. Yet because God mattered supremely to David, the Ark mattered too. But not for Michal. It didn’t matter simply because David’s God mattered less to her. She could never have written, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… for God’s goodness and mercy will drive my life for as long as I have breath”; she didn’t have it in her. When David wept his heart out over his misadventure with Bathsheba and wrote through his tears, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”, Michal didn’t weep one tear. She didn’t have any in her.

Michal never knew David’s God. For this reason she was deaf to the song in her husband’s heart. Those who are deaf always despise those who dance, don’t they? When David danced and his kilt flew up and the servant-girls snickered at his knickers Michal sneered, “You jerk!” David replied, “What’s your problem? I was dancing before the Lord. Nothing else matters.”

One thousand years later Jesus told a story about a young man who became sick of home; in a few months — poor now, degraded, humiliated — he was homesick; then he was home again. Sick of home, homesick, home. His father threw the biggest party the village had ever seen: a feast, music, dancing.

Shouldn’t we dance when someone dear to us finally bows to God and is restored to the Father and admitted to his household and family? Shouldn’t we dance when we ourselves are the person who is home at last, and home forever?

 

TRUMPET   I want with all my heart to be a pacifist (believe it or not). I am almost “there”, almost a pacifist by conviction, when I happen to see again a film clip of little children huddled on a railway platform anywhere in Europe. Distraught parents are trying to comfort the children, trying so very hard not to let their dread betray the false hope with which they can ease their children for a day or two. As soon as I see once more a film clip of this scene, my pacifism vanishes.

Recently I was discussing the U.S. Civil War with a parishioner. We were talking about the never-before-seen horrors that emerged in the civil war. The new horror was threefold.

One, the machine gun. It cut men down like a scythe. No soldier could escape a weapon that fired hundreds of bullets per minute.

Two, the pre-set artillery fuse. Prior to the civil war artillery shells exploded upon impact with the ground. When the shell exploded, the shrapnel flew upwards and outwards. The safest place to be was flat on the ground. The smart soldier lay down during an artillery barrage and didn’t lift his head so much as one inch. Then the new shell was invented. The shell’s fuse was pre-set to detonate the shell in mid-air, 200 feet above the ground. Now shrapnel hurled down on the soldier. He couldn’t hide. Lying down was no protection at all. And in the civil war, he had no protection for his head. During the fiercest fighting there were 25,000 casualties per day.

Three, the phenomenal increase in psychiatric breakdown. This horror was the result of the first two. In previous wars relatively few soldiers had collapsed psychiatrically. Now they were collapsing in droves. During the civil war psychiatric casualties outnumbered physical casualties three-to-one. Hundreds of thousands of 20 year-old fellows would be deranged for life.

The parishioner with whom I was discussing all of this remarked, “Then there was no justification for the civil war!” Whereupon I told her a story about Abraham Lincoln. One day Lincoln stood with the crowd at a slave-auction in New Orleans. Male slaves were auctioned off at a good price. Then a female slave was led up onto the platform. She was young and healthy and strong; would be useful in the cotton fields. She had a six month-old baby in her arms. A plantation owner said to the auctioneer, “I’ll take the woman — but get rid of the child. The child will only distract the mother from her work.” And so mother and child were separated, never to see each other again. Lincoln returned home and swore he would stop at nothing to overturn this iniquitous practice.

Twenty-five thousand casualties per day; hundreds of thousands of young men deranged for life. Was it worth it? Should we prefer to see a slave-auction with a baby ripped away from its frantic mother?

St.Paul writes in I Corinthians 14, “If the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” I know, the conflicts he had in mind didn’t concern Jewish children in Eastern Europe or black children in North America. Nevertheless, there does come a time when the sound of the trumpet must be distinct lest someone think he has an excuse for not showing up when he should.

The conflict Paul refers to immediately is that spiritual conflict which rages in the heart of every believer. For believers would never agree with Oscar Wilde that the best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. (Yield to it, and the temptation is over!) Jesus sweat in Gethsemane until the sweat poured off him like blood from a forehead gash. Jesus wrestled with the evil one for 40 days in a contest to see who was going to face down whom.

We are called to do as much ourselves. The trumpet must sound a distinctive note — or else the sleepyheads among us might forget there’s a battle to be fought!

In fact there are countless battles to be fought in the name of Christ. Some of them all Christians are called to fight. Other battles only a few Christians are called to fight. (For instance, the few who are extraordinarily gifted intellectually are to meet the intellectual challenges of a world that thinks its self-understanding to be the only understanding possible.) And then there is that one battle that the individual Christian is to fight: the battle against that one besetting sin that the individual alone knows about, surrender to which is unthinkable.

“If the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” The trumpet-note must be as unmistakable as it is undeniable.

 

HARP   Israel was — and is — unreservedly grateful for its release from Egypt. Yet Israel was not so disgusted at Pharaoh as to disdain everything Egyptian. Israel left Egypt with Egypt’s favourite musical instrument, the harp.

Throughout scripture the harp is the instrument of comfort and consolation. When King Saul was overcome by what is spoken of as an “evil spirit”, David helped Saul by playing on his harp. Now the evil spirit that overcame Saul was no small matter: Saul would become suspicious, then agitated, then paranoid, finally murderous. The harp defused his explosiveness and suffused peace throughout him.

Last October, when we honoured Isaac Watts, we learned that Watts wrote not only hundreds of hymns but also many different kinds or classifications of hymns. One classification he referred to as “Hymns of Consolation”. These “Hymns of Consolation” sing not so much about God in his glory as they do about us in our need, us in the comfort God lends us. Two of Watts’s better-known “consolation” hymns are “When I survey the wondrous cross” and “O God, our help in ages past”.

Did Watts write these hymns merely because he thought other people needed them? I think not. I am sure he wrote them also for himself. Watts, we learned last October, was mentally ill episodically. There were long periods when he had to be absent from his pulpit because he was in “different space”; very different space. Plainly he didn’t write hymns when he was ill. When healthier, however, he penned words that will comfort people until the day of our Lord’s appearing relieves them definitively.

I have been a pastor for 25 years. As I am rendered speechless at the “clobbering” life hands people, I am not at all amazed that some people break down; I am amazed that many do not.

The harp has its place. Hymns of consolation have their place. They aren’t the only hymns we should sing; they aren’t the chief hymns we should sing. But we should never be without them.

Think of some of the better-known consolation hymns. For instance, “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts” — with its fourth stanza, “Our restless spirits yearn for thee, where’er our changeful lot is cast.” And then there is Charles Wesley’s fine hymn, “Jesus, lover of my soul”, with a poignant second stanza:

Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on thee.
Leave, ah! Leave me not alone;
Still support and comfort me.

 

And perhaps the most haunting of all, because written out of palpable anguish,

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish.
Come to, the mercy-seat, fervently kneel.
Here, bring your wounded hearts; here, tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.

 

The harp has its place.

 

FLUTE/OBOE/”PIPE”   Flute-like instruments (i.e., woodwinds) were used at weddings and funerals, events where people are most touched, most moved.

Let’s think for a minute about weddings. In ancient Israel a wedding was regarded as the most significant human event anyone could share in or witness, as well as the most joyful event. Because a wedding was the most joyful event in Israel, the prophets used the absence of wedding-joy as a vivid picture of national disasters. Whenever the prophets had to wake up the people to the bad times God’s judgement was bringing upon the nation, the prophets horrified the people not by saying that the interest rate was going to rise or the stock market was going to fall; they said, “There shall no more be heard in the land the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.”

Israel of old knew that there is nothing like a wedding, just because there is nothing like marriage. Marriage is the most significant human undertaking anyone can enter upon; it is also the most joyful. A rabbi’s instruction was deemed so important that nothing was allowed to interrupt it; nothing, that is, except a wedding. If a wedding procession wound through the village the rabbi and his students suspended their exploration of the word of God and fell in with the procession. They magnified the wedding-celebration and soaked up the joy surrounding it.

Scripture speaks profoundly of marriage. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife; the two shall be come one, one flesh.” Marriage entails radical exposure to each other, radical vulnerability before each other, radical commitment to each other, radical penetration of each other.

In the Hebrew bible marriage is the commonest metaphor for faith. If marriage is the commonest metaphor for faith, then faith means that God and I, God and you, are radically exposed to each other, radically vulnerable before each other, radically committed to each other; it means we radically penetrate each other, right to the other’s innermost heart.

To be aware of this can only mean that we must consecrate ourselves to God anew.

 

                                                                                             Victor A. Shepherd                                                

April 1995