The Pleasure of God
The song by the late Lenard Cohen entitled Hallelujah is both popular and puzzling. It has stirring sounds but odd lyrics. But the opening stanza has something instructive and useful for us today. Michael our musical genius will help me with at least the cords, and then Paul the imprisoned pastor will help us with the lyrics.
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord.
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing "Hallelujah"
I learned something today: the major, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift. But there is a line that intrigues me: It pleased the Lord.
Cohen alludes to the biblical stories of David: how his spirit from an early age pleased the Lord; how his music later pleased King Saul; how his leadership of the nation pleased the people. A man after God’s own heart, the Bible says of David.
Another central person in the biblical narrative is said to have pleased God. You recall that Jesus, as he was coming up out of the baptismal water, heard the voice of God saying, This is my beloved son. In him I am well pleased.”
I am sure there are others, men and women, boys and girls, who pleased the Lord. And each of them may help us understand what the great apostle meant when he wrote to the Philippians and to us, that God has put within us both the desire and the ability to please God.
The desire to please is a good news-bad news pressure.
We want to please our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our supervisors. We want to please our spouse, our partner, our friends.
This is not bad because it helps us learn what they want us to learn, do what is good for our own selves, be all that we can be. To please the Lord may be the ultimate motivation. Isn’t that a good thing?
There is a down side to this desire to please.
I attended our Baptist meeting last week in Raleigh. I saw an old friend there, a pastor, and I asked, “How are you? You and your church seem to have faired well during the pandemic.”
He replied, “It has not been easy. You know me. I am a people pleaser. I tried to please everybody and too often in these contentious times I was able to please no one.” Different ideas about the pandemic and the mask and even public meetings themselves made it difficult to please everyone. And those who tried went crazy!
At other times, pleasing people will get you into trouble. Peers can put pressure on you to say things and do things that are not right. Adults as much as teenagers get into trouble when they do something just because the tribe or club or group is doing it.
Somebody this week spoke to me about the Enron affair when scores of people, religious people, Christian people, went along with a scheme to defraud.
That’s what happened the day Ahmaud Aubrey was murdered in Brunswick, Georgia; that is what happened on January 6 in Washington DC.
Knowing whom to please and how to please is part of growing up, growing true, growing wise.
David pleased his father, and the king, and the Lord; but later he got into trouble because he wanted to please himself and perhaps others!!
In fact, David started out right as a young boy and young man but later in life he fell away. He started strong and ended weak.
Moses was the opposite. Moses pleased no one early in life. He had to flee his family and friends. He took up herding on the far side of the mountain, and it was there God found him. But getting old helped Moses please the Lord. It was at the end of his life that Moses became the person that pleased God and freed the slaves. He started wrong but ended strong.
David pleased the lord when he was playing music; Moses pleased the Lord when he was leading a rebellion.
What do you do that pleases God?
It is common to answer this question by appealing to religious duties. You dot every i in religious and cross every t in church and you please God, right?
It is customary for those who run the religious business to interpret the pleasure of God in strictly religious terms.
When I was a kid, the church used a six point record system and each Sunday morning we checked the boxes on the offering envelop:
attend, check. On time. Check. Brought Bible. Check. Brought offering. Check. Staying for worship. Check. God is pleased with me. Check.
These six things are good. I hope you do them with some regularity. But they mainly functioned to develop organizational strength, to cultivate in a kid or an adult conformity to an organizational norm.
Yes, there are less organizational norms in the Christian business:
Jesus had six points of his own: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger.
And Paul had his list of expectations. In Romans chapter 12, beginning in verse 6, we read we should love others, honor each other, work hard, rejoice in hope, be patient in trouble, persist in prayer, help those in need, practice hospitality. That is God’s eight-point record system.
All those things are good. Doing them pleases God and pleases other people.
Moses brough his ten-point record system down from the mountain. We call it the Ten Commandments. Do these, the priests and prophets told the people, and God will be pleased.
Then they added other things: offerings, and festivals, and regulations for the sabbath; expectations about farming and harvesting and giving to the priests. The list of rules and what it meant to please God grew longer and more complicated and the list of those who failed to do those things also grew longer. Religion soon became a game of who is in and who is out, who is pleasing the priests and who is not.
This is the end result, always, of people dedicated to religion. Many of the world’s great religions today are full of rules and regulations. What to wear, what to say, where to go and when; how to work and where, what to pray and how often, when to kneel and when to stand, when to speak and when to be silent; what to believe and how to say it; what to condemn and how to condemn it.
Pleasing God gets complicated. Pleasing God gets distorted. Pleasing God collapses in upon itself.
Paul, the apostle, writes something for us today.
He is writing, you remember, from prison, facing an uncertain future. He writes to us, and to those first Christians in the city of Philippi.
He writes this: “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases God.”
God is working in you. God is working in you to make you more religious? More obedient? More compliant? More attentive to the religious establishment? I don’t think so.
That is where Paul was before he encountered the Risen Jesus. Paul was pursuing all those things back before his conversion, prior to his awakening, his prequal, we call it today, to emerging from the cocoon of conformity into the light of new life.
I once had a student who called me to tell me about his life, the new path he was on. Where did this come from, I asked him. “Remember that book you gave me to read”, and he named the book. “When I read that book, I discovered myself!”
I discovered my self! That is what he said. That is what happened to Paul. That is what conversion is. It is giving up pleasing somebody in the religious world and discovering in yourself a person with whom God is pleased.
That is what God the Almighty said to Jesus as the man from Galilee began his own journey. You are my child. I like you. I affirm you. I embrace you. I am happy with you. I am pleased with you. Keep on being yourself, the person I made you to be.
Jesus could have been another rabbi; or even worse, Jesus could have stayed in the carpenter shop of his father, making furniture and fancy trim in the building boom of nearby Sepporis. But Jesus discovered himself.
Remember Jesus the emerging teenager in the temple. He wowed the scribes and the rabbis; he worried his parents. But he was discovering himself, his gifts, his calling, his purpose in life. “I must be about my Father’s business,” is the way the old King James translates it. “I must find my own way,” he said. “I must know myself and be myself and follow the star as it appears to me convinced that God is working in me, that God has made me who I am, that God has filled my soul with ideas and gifts and ambitions and opportunities. I want to be me and thus fulfill the person God has made me to be.”
Do you remember the famous scene in the glorious movie Chariots of Fire? Eric Lydell is both a Christian and an athlete; he is called to be a missionary in China, but he is also gifted as a runner.
He resisted the pressure to abandon his sport and return to gospel work in China. He felt called to run; he sensed he was born to run.
In one particular scene in the movie, he says to his fiancé, “When I run, I feel the pleasure of God.” “When I run, I feel the pleasure of God.” Lydell had been converted from the merely religious to the deeply spiritual. He obeyed the voice that called him to reach down inside of himself, latch hold of that mystery, that voice that tells you, Yes! I can! I must! I will be the person I was born to be.
Lydell represented Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He raced the 100 meters and won the gold medal. He returned to China as a missionary. He died in 1945 in a Japanese internment camp. We remember him to day not as a missionary but as a runner. He felt the pleasure of God.
When do you feel the pleasure of God?
When you dig in the good earth?
When you cradle the newborn child?
When you lift your voice and sing to the universe?
When you teach a child the ABCs?
When you introduce a traveler to Victoria Falls or Tel Dan?
When you finish the designs of a new product?
When you pray with a neighbor who just lost their father, their job, their dog?
When do you feel the pleasure of God?
When you are doing what you are called to do, not when you are conforming to the religious rules of the day, not when you are pushing down your true self, your deepest aspirations, even your wildest dreams.
You be you, in all the glory and gladness of God; and I will be me, in all the craziness of life; and together we will fulfill all the things the God of the Universe has packed into our DNA, into our imagination, into the deepest recesses of our souls. That is where God is at work, giving you the desire and giving you the power to be and do what pleases God.
Ireaneas, the great Christian leader of the second century, said it well and said it a long time ago: The Glory of God is a person, a human, fully alive! The glory of God is the human race fully alive! Alive to the glory and grace that fills the universe, alive to the God who creates, sustains, and redeems all things, alive to the sounds and sights, the touch and smell of every single thing that God has crafted for the universe.
What pleases God is not one more trip to church, one more dollar in the offering, one more prayer in unison with others. These are not bad things; they are just not the best things.
The best thing is being the person God made you to be, full of the Spirit, both the human spirit and the holy spirit, embracing the world and loving your neighbor and releasing for the good of the world all that God has put in you.
That is what Moses did, after he got tired of herding sheep on the back side of the mountain. That is what Paul did, after he wearied of tracking down people who were thinking different, living different, singing different.
That is what Jesus did from an early age, breaking ranks with the norm, pushing back on family expectations, reaching inside of himself to discover himself and his own unique calling.
You are what you are, John Prine sang, and you aint what you aint. Discovering the difference is discovering the God who is at work in you,giving you the desire to please God and the power to do so.
It may take you to some crazy places.
Just ask the comedian and actor halfway around the world in Ukraine. His training to stand up and speak and entertain people was, unbeknownst to him and others, preparing him to be just what the world needs in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty two,
president of Ukraine, leader of the free world, defender of democracy, general of the armies of liberty. God is working in President Velenskyy because he did what he was born to do.
He followed the star overhead. You can also. It is never too late.
You just might save the nation! or You just might compose the perfect cord progression.