Sunday 28 June 2015

Confessions of a church musician (Psalm 73)

What is the biggest challenge playing on the music team?

Is it playing new and unfamiliar songs? Or playing the same songs again and again?

Or maybe it’s playing in front of other people (especially at combined services with the aunties and uncles from the Chinese congregation)?

For me, the biggest adjustment was playing in a group, playing with other musicians who were real pros. That was stressful!

What about you? What has been the biggest challenge since joining the church music team? Keep that question in mind as we turn to Psalm 73, which is a song written by a musician named Asaph.

In fact, we know from 1 Chronicles 16, that Asaph was appointed by King David to be in charge of all the musicians. He was the the worship leader, in charge of all the priests, to worship God before the ark of the covenant (built during the time of Moses). And you will notice that Psalm 73, together with Psalm 74, 75… all the way to Psalm 83 was written by Asaph, meaning, he was a songwriter, too.

Here, in Psalm 73, he says.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped,
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

I call Psalm 73 “Confessions of a Church Musician.” Why? Because, in verse 2, he confesses, “My feet had almost slipped.” He’s not talking about playing the wrong chord or reading the wrong verse. No, he is confessing - honestly admitting - that he doesn’t feel like worshipping God today.

How can you say that Asaph? You are the worship leader!


Notice, verse 1: “Surely, God is good to Israel.” And that expression - Surely - happens three times in the passage. It’s like “Crikey!” (if you British) or “Wah!” (if you are Chinese) or “Aigoo” (if you are Korean).

Asaph says, “Surely!” three times (in verses 1, 13 and 18) to give us three honest confessions; he gives us three honest reflections as a church musician. He tells us (1) what he knows, (2) what he feels and (3) what is true. That’s what we are looking at today. What he knows, what he feels and what is true.

1. What he knows

Firstly, what he knows. Right from the beginning, Asaph knows that God is good. Asaph knows that God deserves our worshipped. But when he looks at this world, what Asaph knows and what Asaph sees are two different things.

I know that God blesses his people. But when I look at the world (verse 4), “they have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.”

I know that God loves the pure in heart. But (verse 7) “from their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.”

I know that God will judge on the wicked, but (verse 8) “They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression.”

What Asaph knows doesn’t line up with what Asaph sees. But here’s the confession: Asaph is tempted to worship what he sees, not what he knows about God. Even though it’s wrong, Asaph is tempted to follow wicked men rather than worship a good God.

Verse 2: “But as for me, my feet at almost slipped… for I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” You might say, “How can you let such a person be the worship leader?”

But friends, Asaph knows what worship means. Do you? Worship means giving to God what he is worth. Literally: “Worth-ship” - it’s talking about worth and value. It’s a price tag. There are some restaurants where you go in and the menu has no prices. Instead, you order the food and at the end you pay what you think that chicken or that salad was worth. Our worship to God is a direct reflection of what God is worth in our lives.

Meaning: Worship is not about singing or giving money. It’s much more than that. Christians believe that God is worth our whole lives and therefore our worship is 24/7. Paul says in Romans 12: “Offer up your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.” It means you can worship God in church and at work, while you are eating your breakfast or taking the bus to school. Your whole life belongs to God and therefore everything you do, say and think is about being thankful to God and giving him all the glory he is due. At least, that is what Christians are called to do in their worship.

But when Asaph looks at the world, they think they owe God nothing. They think God is worth nothing. Instead, they live to worship their wealth, their health and their status. Verse 4: Their bodies are healthy and strong (meaning they go to the gym). Verse 6: Pride is their necklace (They dress to impress).

And he confesses, honestly, “I was tempted.” Why? Because in verse 9, Asaph sees a different kind of worship leader - one who is popular - but one who leads people away from God.

Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
Verses 9-10

When it says, “their people turn to them,” it could be talking about how popular these worship leaders are in the world. It might also mean God’s people are turning to them. And that’s worrying, because in verse 11, they say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” Who cares about God? He’s not going to do anything about it.

Finally, Asaph concludes:

This is what the wicked are like -
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Verse 12

What was Asaph tempted to do? To do evil? No. To be wicked? No. But to be comfortable. To be popular. You see, the world offers us another way to worship, one that is attractive. One that really works. Friends, it’s saying that it’s possible to love worship but hate God. It is possible to do evil but look good.

When you turn on the TV. When you check Facebook. This world is worshipping 24/7. The question is whether we are worshipping God - with our lives, our time, our money. Or are we worshipping money, our time, our lives as our God. Asaph says, “Honestly, I was tempted to do the latter.”

That’s what he knows. But next, he tells us what he feels. And in verse 13, what he feels like doing is giving up.

2. What he feels

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
Verses 13-14

Have you ever had one of those bad days when all you want to do is stay at home, watch Netflix and eat junk food? Not a bad thing, in and of itself. But what if you are a worship leader and you are supposed get up and lead worship that morning? What if you are the pastor and you are supposed to preach?

Asaph doesn’t feel like going to church today. He feels guilty about it (“All day long, I’ve been plagued”). But most of all, he feels like giving up. “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure.”

But then he says, Verse 15:

If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
Verse 15

He’s saying, “When you step up to the mic, people are listening.” You need to be responsible as a worship leader. What you say reflects not just who you are but who God is.

Now I don’t think Asaph is saying you must be dishonest, otherwise, he wouldn’t have written Psalm 73, confessing all his struggles as a church musician. Psalm 73 is actually a song, meaning, they would have sung these words in church.

But he is saying that the times when you are depressed are tempted to say things that are hurtful and untrue about God. “I would have betrayed your children,” he says. Be extra careful about saying things on behalf of God that God isn’t saying in his Word. Eg. God isn’t good. God doesn’t care. That’s not true - and you know that it’s not true. And as leaders of God’s people, we must be careful about speaking words and singing words that go against the truth of God’s Word.

Yet at the same time, Asaph is conflicted. He is burdened with guilt. What does he do?

When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Verses 16-17

He tried figuring it out on his own - “I tried to understand all this” - but it just got worse! Has that ever happened to you? You are stressed out about playing on Sunday. You are stressed out about your presentation. So you stay up all night practising and working - which is a great thing to do, don’t get me wrong - but at the end of all that hard work, you end up getting more stressed!!

Serving God is not something you can do with your own strength. The more you try, the more stressed out, the more frustrated you will get. Even an experienced worship leader like Asaph forgot this. He tried to figure it out on his own when only one thing could ever change things.

“Until I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their final destiny.” It is so obvious, yet we forget this. Only God can help us when we have a problem with God. It is so obvious!

And yet, most of us, when you have a problem with God, stay away. When things get tough in a ministry, we stop serving. When things get tough in church, we stay at home, thinking, “I’ll try to figure this out on my own.” It always - always - gets worse. Why? Because when your problem is God, you can’t solve it without God.

Let me put this another way. There are times when you will not feel like worshipping God. What should you do? Worship God. There are times when you will not feel like being with God’s people, when you feel like taking a break from church. What should you do? Come to church?

And you say, “What? That’s crazy?” No, that’s what Asaph is saying to us. It won’t work trying to sort out a problem you have with God by being by yourself. You cannot fix a relationship by breaking a relationship. Asaph is saying, “It’s not just about you.” Your worship before God affects your relationship with others (especially if you are responsible for them as a leader). And, at the heart of it, your worship of God flows from your own relationship with God.

So, when you do don’t feel like worshipping God, worship God anyway. You can say to him, as Asaph does in this psalm, “My feet are slipping. It doesn’t make sense. I am tempted to follow the world, not your Word.” Come near to God and the promise is: He will come near to you (James 4:8).

Which brings us to the final point - the final “Surely” in verse 18.

3. What is true

Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
Verses 18-19

What is your favourite love song? (The guys will say, “I don’t listen to love songs!”)

For some, it’s Ed Sheeren’s “Thinking out loud” - “Darling, I’ll be loving you till we’re seventy.” For others, it’s a classic like Whitney Houston’s, “Eyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee will always lo-ove you.” Do you notice how so many love songs have words like “eternal” and “forever”? Everyone wants a love that lasts forever. That’s eternal. But here in this last section, Asaph says they are nothing but fantasies.

As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
Verse 20

These love songs are beautiful, yes, and they are wonderful. But they are untrue. You can sing them till you are blue in your face but they are nothing but fantasies.

But the songs we were singing today were all based on God’s truth. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” It’s talking about Jesus who was cleft - who was cut; who was killed - for me. And we’re saying, “Let me hide myself in you, Jesus.” His death opens up the way for me receive his life.

That is the kind of truth that speaks of eternity, not just wishful thinking. Therefore, when we long for the world’s fantasies, which will one day fade away, which God will one day judge and completely wipe away, we are being short-sighted. We are being foolish.

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Verses 21-22

Previously, Asaph was so focussed on the world - “They have no struggles; they are free from burdens; Their mouths lay claim to heaven.” Then he was focussed on himself - “I have been plagued, I tried to understand this, it was oppressive to me.” But it’s only when he started looking to God, that he realises: It’s not about me. It’s about you, Lord.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Verses 23-24

Here’s the thing: God allows us to go through this process to realise just how much he loves us. The difficulties, the doubts are part of God’s plan - to do what? To strip away everything else from our lives so that only He is left in our sight. The bad things as well as the good things, one by one, God allows them to be stripped away, until we realise that the only permanent thing we have is Him.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever.
Verses 25-26

It’s like fasting. Muslims all over the world began fasting this week as part of Ramadhan, abstaining from food and drink. But Christians fast not because of Ramadhan. And we do not fast because we are trying to cut down on carbs and chocolate.

Rather, when we fast as Christians, we are putting aside things which are good, food and water which we need to survive (we would die without food and water) and we are saying to God, “You are more important to me than food. You are more precious to me than my life.”

Asaph says to God, “Nothing in heaven and nothing on earth is more important to me than you.” How can he say that honestly and truly? Because his heart is failing him. Because his flesh is failing him. Verse 26 can and probably should be read in the present tense. “My flesh and my heart is failing.” Meaning: Right now, my body is breaking down. I am physically restrained. Right now, my depression is acting up.

“But God is the strength of my heart.” The only thing that’s keeping me going is You.

As a church musician, as a servant of God, that brings glory to God. When others look at you and they do not see your gifts, they do not praise you for playing so skillfully on the piano this morning, but they say to you, “I clearly see that God is working through you.” Our weakness makes God’s strength easier to see in our lives. By all means, worship God with your gifts. But never forget, you can also worship God with your grief. You can worship God with your weakness.

Conclusion: I will tell of all your deeds

Asaph knows that God is good. He has known this all his life - from Sunday School, from church. He knows this.

And yet, Asaph feels like giving up. “My feet had almost slipped. In vain, I have kept my heart pure.” His heart is failing him. He feels like giving up.

But in the end, God reminds Asaph of what is true and eternal. He holds him by his right hand. He guides him with his counsel. He strengthens him in his weakness.

Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
Verses 27-28

The only difference between the music team and the congregation; the only difference between the song leader and the song-led, is this: The privilege to tell of all His deeds. You are leading God’s people to praise God for who He is and for all that He has done.

He is the only true and eternal God. He is holy. He hates evil. And one day, He will judge the world in righteousness and truth through Jesus Christ, destroying all who are far from him and unfaithful to him.

He has sent his Son to die for your sins. Taking it upon himself, bearing our judgement on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day conquering sin, death and the Devil. All who trust in him receive full forgiveness and new life that is indestructible and conformed to the image of the Son of God.

These are truths about God that are eternal, that are revealed fully in his Word to us, that we as musicians, as song leaders, as Sunday School teachers, as pastors and bible study leaders have a great privilege to speak and teach and remind one another here in the Chinese Church.

Know this truth. Love this truth. And with all your heart, sing this truth with faithfulness and boldness to glory of our Saviour and God, Jesus Christ.

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