Heavenly Praise

Reading: Revelation 7.9-17
A few years ago I read a Reader's Digest article by a professional woman. She was reflecting on her relationship with her son. For years she had given what she called "quality time" to her son. But now she realised she had been short-changing him. She hoped it wasn't too late.

Quality time with children - reality or excuse? That's a big issue, and we're not pursuing it today. We're thinking more about the praise and worship of God. What I am wondering is whether we are spending a bare minimum time with God and justifying it as "quality time". And is that really enough? Have we been "short-changing" God?

There may have been times when the instruments and musical selection were "just right", when the prayers touched us deeply, when the message got right to the heart of some issue of the week… We have gone away blessed and encouraged. We feel great! Does God feel great too? I hope so! Have we risen above ourselves and the satisfaction of our needs… to worship God?

Priority of Praise

The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is "What is the chief end of man?" (the sense is inclusive of both women and men), and the answer, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever".

In this life we have many things to do. Do we agree that our relationship with God is our "chief end" - our top priority? How do we show that in practice? It is just so easy to have other people and activities as "top priority", but then to give God some "quality time"!

The Hebrew language has a rich variety of words which have similar meanings. Their poetry (in Psalms) uses such words in parallel to achieve great cumulative force. "Praise", "worship", "exalt", "magnify", "glorify"… - all of them acknowledge the greatness of God and place us, the worshippers, "under" God and submissive to his Lordship.

The translators had trouble finding enough different English words. They had to invent some new ones - like "worship" which expresses our "worth-ship" of God, according him the highest place.

Today's reading clearly reveals "praise" of God as the main activity of heaven. Charles Wesley put it this way in his hymn, "Love divine" -

In Revelation 4 the twenty-four elders who surround the Throne in heaven are described as "dressed in white" with "crowns of gold on their heads" (v. 4). Four living creatures are there. "Day and night they never stop saying: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.' Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 'You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being'." (vv. 8-11)

How precious are our crowns - our achievements spiritual or secular! Our evaluation becomes very different when we are faced with the reality and majesty of God. All we can do is "cast our crowns before [him], lost in wonder, love, and praise".

If praise is the main activity of heaven, it should be central to the Christian life down here too. It's not the issue of whether we should sing more Scripture choruses or hymns. Both can be a very deep expression of worship - or simply a cultural delight and preference. Whether or not what we "do" on Sunday morning is true worship will be evident in how we live from Monday to Saturday - whether our lives and attitudes and relationships reflect the centrality of God.

When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, she raised the issue of the proper place to worship - Mount Gerizim in Samaria or the Temple in Jerusalem. Today we might add questions of words and forms, dress and posture. Jesus said to her, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4.21,23-24).

So it isn't a matter of being in the right place or even using the correct words, but having an attitude of heart and life that makes God the top priority in our lives - an attitude that worships him in spirit and in truth.

The Context of Praise

In today's reading from Revelation 7, we see "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands" (v. 9). They are described as those "who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (v. 14).

They cry out in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (v. 10). They aren't there by the blood of their own martyrdom, but by "the blood of the Lamb". "Salvation belongs to God". They owe him their all and now "serve him day and night in his temple". Their "tribulation" is over. No more hunger or thirst. They are led to "springs of living water". "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (vv. 15-17).

This gives the context of our praise. We aren't yet in the multitude of worshippers in heaven, though some of our loved ones and friends are there already. We aren't going through the "great tribulation" here in Australia, though I believe Christians under persecution in Ambon and other places right now will see great personal significance and comfort in these verses. Yet all of us - whether in Australia or Ambon, earth or heaven - come in praise to God, not simply on the basis of our humanity, but on the basis of redemption. That is our cry, "Salvation belongs to our God!" When we pray "in Jesus' name" or "for Jesus' sake", it's not because that's the right formula to "clinch" our prayers, but because it is truly the only basis on which we can come -"washed in the blood of the Lamb".

Heavenly Praise

Within the context of this great multitude worshipping the God of their salvation, we hear the worship of the angels falling down on their faces before the throne of God and worshipping him, "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!" (v. 12).

"Praise" - literally "speaking well" of God, "blessing" him, acknowledging who he is and what he has done. "Glory" - God's magnificnce and splendour are largely hidden from us in our humanity this side of eternity. "Wisdom" - seen in creation and the world, revealed in the salvation made possible in Jesus, vindicated in all eternity. "Thanks" - our grateful response of both life and word for all that God has done. "Honour" - our reverence and respect for the one who is Lord over all. "Power" - God's capacity to do all that he wills. "Strength" - God's ability and might seen in all his works of creation and redemption.

As we hear the angelic song in chapter 5, "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise" (v. 12). And the praise of all creatures, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!" (v. 13).

Praise and worship… With great authority some people want to measure out so much of this and so much of that to give us "balanced worship". Some want it all neatly packaged in one hour, while others prefer "worship" to go for an hour-and-a-half or two or even longer. But isn't that short-changing God?

In the early 1600s George Herbert wrote it this way in the hymn "King of glory, King of peace" -

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 2 May 2004
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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