Sunday, June 1, 2014

Phil Kniss: Why praise matters to God

Easter 7: Alleluia! Praise the God of Glory
John 17:1-11

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Praise the Lord! Glory to God!
    Hallelujah! Let’s worship and magnify the name of our God!

Words and phrases like this just roll off the tongues of many Christians.
    With raised hands and joyful hearts, they say,
        “We love you, Lord,
            because you are good and holy and worthy of our praise!”
    Intimate expressions of love and devotion to the Lord
        come easily and often, and spontaneously, for many Christians.
    And probably just as many Christians get a little tongue-tied
        when it comes to these effusive expressions
        of love and adoration and worship of God.

Why is that?
    Why are some drawn to these heartfelt declarations of love for God,
        and some not?
    Why do some Christians openly gush about their love for God—
        much like a group of teenage girls might gush over
            their latest love interests, within earshot of everyone—
    while other Christians mumble, or are mute about their feelings—
        much like a teenage boy might whisper his secret
            to one trusted friend,
            who then carries the message to the girl, on his behalf.

One explanation for why some people openly express to others
    their praise of God and love for God,
        while others do not,
    is that the gushy ones . . . love God more.
    They are more spiritual.
    They are willing to voice their feelings,
        because their relationship with God is deeper and more genuine.
    The silent ones just need to be more dedicated about their faith,
        to grow their love for God through a deeper devotional life.
    In the meantime,
        the gushy ones will pray for revival among the silent ones.

There could be some truth to that.
    But I’m not sure I like that explanation.
    I’ve known lots of deep, and dedicated, and mostly silent, Christians.
    And I’ve known some gushy Christians,
        whose lives didn’t match their words.

Another explanation
    is that people have different personalities, emotionally.
    Those who easily voice their love and praise for God
        are emotionally expressive by nature.
        Because they are more emotional and less rational,
            they therefore tend to be more religious,
                more mystical,
                more prone to religious expression.
    The silent ones experience their faith more rationally,
        and are therefore quieter about it.
        But they are no less sincere or devoted.

There could be some truth to that,
    and that explanation is certainly more accepting of difference,
        which is good.
    But I’m not sure I like that explanation, either.
    I’ve known some people who are very rational
        and mostly quiet about their faith,
        but who are anything but rational and reserved in other arenas,
            who shout and prance about at sporting events
            and weep at symphony concerts.
    And I’ve seen people shy and reserved and rational in most things
        become very animated and open about their faith
        in one-on-one situations.

I think there’s something else at work here.
    I think a more honest explanation,
        is that there are genuine differences in how we view God,
            and therefore,
            different understandings of the purpose of worship, and
            different opinions about what it means to praise God.

    It’s still not necessarily a matter of being right or wrong,
        we still need to be accepting of difference.
    But I think this third explanation is more likely
        to get us to honestly engage each other,
            and learn from each other,
            and appreciate each other.
    And we will be less likely to write off someone else,
        as being, on the one hand,
            an over-the-top religious kook,
        or on other hand,
            a faithless secular rationalist.
    And we will be less likely just to dismiss the difference,
        as irrelevant personality or style preferences.

I think actually, the difference is very relevant.
    And it’s important for us to ponder the difference, carefully.
    Scripture makes it abundantly clear
        that God desires our praise and worship.
    So it behooves us to figure out why that is,
        and how we might most faithfully give honor and glory to God.
    Why does praise matter to God?

I recently heard a stand-up comedian do a whole riff
    on what a strange God we have,
        always asking for our praise.
    “What?” the comedian asked.
        “He’s the creator of the whole universe,
            and he’s still so emotionally needy
            that he needs to hear us tell him we love him all the time.
        Is God that insecure,
            that he gets jealous and throws a tantrum
            if we’re not paying him enough attention?”

Of course, it got plenty of laughs,
    because most people, at one time or another,
    have probably entertained that same question:
        why does God need our praise?

The trouble with that line of thinking,
    is that it trivializes God.
    Makes God in our image,
        imagines that God has to work at self-identity the way we do,
        diminishes God to our level of emotional immaturity.
    Yes, the God of the Bible is a God who feels.
        Jews and Christians would say,
            that God is not dispassionate and uncaring.
        God feels. God cares. God loves. God suffers.
    But that doesn’t translate to saying,
        God functions out of the same emotional needs we have.

    God isn’t jealous of our love,
        because God has a personal, emotional, need to feel loved.

    The reason God needs our praise is much grander,
        and more noble, than that.

Yes, there is a deep, divine longing that comes from God,
    which courses through our veins, and through all creation.
    And this love and longing is directly tied to God’s mission.
    It’s directly connected to God’s good purposes for all creation.

We praise God not to satisfy God’s petty emotional needs.
We praise God to help fulfill God’s universal purposes for creation.

Why do I say that?
I say that, in part, because of what we heard Jesus himself articulate
    in today’s Gospel reading from John.

The reading was the first part of Jesus’ long prayer for his disciples
    in John 17.
    The later part of this prayer we know best,
        where Jesus prays repeatedly to his Father
            for the unity of his disciples,
        “that they may be one, as we are one.”

This first part we don’t read quite as often.
    It only shows up in the lectionary on this Sunday before Pentecost,
        once every three years.
    Jesus opens up this prayer, John 17:1-11,
        by talking about glory.
    The first words of his prayer are,
        “Father, the hour has come;
            glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you . . .
        I glorified you on earth
            by finishing the work that you gave me to do . . .
        Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence
            with the glory that I had in your presence
            before the world existed.”

That’s a lot of glory going back and forth,
    between God the Father and God the Son.
    But what does this prayer really say about God, and Christ?
    If we operate from this silly notion that God is emotionally needy,
        then this prayer sounds a lot like
        some petty, playground, bargaining for favors.
    “I stuck up for you. Now you stick up for me.
        I said good things about you.
        Now you owe to me to say good things about me.”

It is, of course, absurd to imagine two members of the Holy Trinity
    having a back-and-forth conversation,
    to ensure they meet each other’s personal, emotional need for praise.

Here’s what I see happening in this prayer.
    Jesus is reporting in to his Father
        that he’s finished the task he was given.
        We know what that task was by reading the rest of the Gospels.
        Jesus came to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom,
            and to teach and demonstrate how we should live
            under the rule and reign of God.
        Jesus came to declare and to demonstrate God’s saving mission,
            to make clear God’s intentions,
            and to invite people into a new covenant community
                which would embody those divine intentions.
        Now, he’s reporting back, as it were.

So Jesus is here praying to God, saying,
    I’ve done what I could
        to make your intentions known to your people,
        and to make your will clear, and winsome, and life-giving.
    Now I’m leaving it in the hands of my disciples.
        Protect them, Father.
        Let them continue the work you gave me.
        Let them remain true to your mission.
        May they also give me glory, and you glory,
            in the way they live in the world.

Jesus is saying the glory he was given by the Father,
    and the glory he gave back to the Father,
    is the same glory that his disciples now are called to receive,
        and give back to Christ and the Father.

But now we need to dig a little deeper into the word glory,
    to understand what it means in this context.

The Greek word used here, “doxa” is quite broad in its meaning.
    It’s the same root that shows up in our word, “doxology.”
    To give glory is to honor, to show esteem, to praise.
    It can also refer to beauty, or to a regal majesty.
    But at the heart of the word is more basic and simple meaning.
        The root “doxa” has to do with
            cultivating a “good opinion” of another.
        To put it simply, to shed good light on another.
            To make another look good.

So Jesus’s task, in essence,
    was to cultivate in others a “good opinion” of God.
    Because he was there to proclaim and invite people into,
        the rule of God.
    He was there to make obedience to the will of God a winsome thing.
    He was there to invite people to join God’s covenant community
        and walk the way of the kingdom.
    He was there to usher in
        God’s saving, redeeming, reconciling kingdom.
    So his purpose in glorifying God,
        his purpose in cultivating good opinions of God,
        was not to make God feel validated.
        It was a strategic initiative
            to bring about the cosmic purposes and will of God.
        It was for the good of all creation,
            that Jesus sought to glorify God.

If people could be won over by Jesus’ words and way of life,
    and if he made it clear he was acting as a representative of God
        and the kingdom,
    then people would be more likely to join the movement,
    more likely to say,
        “Oh . . . if that’s what God is like,
            if this is what comes from a life in God, count me in!”

I see no reason to believe that our call is any different today.
    We are also called to praise and worship God.
    We are called to give glory to God.
    We are called to cultivate in the world, a good opinion of God.

It’s not about God’s personal need for praise.
It’s also not about our own emotional feelings toward God,
    and how well we express them.
    it’s about God’s longing for the salvation of all creation.
    it’s about making obedience to the ruler of the universe,
        a winsome thing for the world,
    it’s about promoting kingdom ethics, here and now,
        as well as then and there.

It’s actually a lot like the prophet Isaiah’s image
    of the mountain of the Lord.
Isaiah 2:2-3 . . . And all the nations will stream to it.
    And many peoples will come and say,
    “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
        to the house of the God of Jacob;
        that He may teach us concerning His ways
        and that we may walk in His paths.”

The kingdom of God is a life-giving Kingdom,
    and it should be winsome,
        even if difficult.
    It should draw people to it,
        because people become convinced,
        that’s where the life is!

So, when we the church, the body of Christ,
    live in such a way that gives people a good opinion
        of the God we are openly claiming to worship,
    we give glory to God.
In the same way,
    when we claim to worship God and be devoted to God’s purposes,
    yet live in such a way that turns people away,
        that gives a bad taste in their mouths,
        that gives God a bad name . . .
    then it matters not how loudly or often we shout “Praise the Lord!”
    We are failing at this most basic Christian calling,
        to praise and glorify God.

Giving glory to God is giving people a “good opinion” of God.
    For glory to be given to God,
        there must be both words and deeds that together
        call attention to God’s character and God’s work.
    We fail to give glory
        either by making good claims about God in our words of praise,
            and then undermining the message
            by living unsavory lives . . .
        or by living good, honest, and compassionate lives,
            and failing to give credit where credit is due,
                not pointing people toward the One
                we seek to follow in life.

So, as Jesus prayed, so may we pray . . .
    “Lord, whether in suffering or in glory,
        may our lives and words give the world—
            give our neighbors . . . strangers . . . enemies . . .
                even the nations—
            a good opinion of your character and deeds.
        May our words and lives draw people
            into the full and joyful life of your kingdom.
            Now, and in the age to come.

--Phil Kniss, June 1, 2014

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