Word of the Week

Praise the Lord!

Our sermons by request series continued this week with Psalm 150. I wondered what I was going to do with this text when I first read it (as I've never been very good at my attempts to preach on the Psalms), but in the end I was glad for the challenge. And what a FUN service we had. Everytime the word "praise" or "blessed" was spoken in worship, the congregation was asked to play one of the percussion instruments they were given when they came into worship. It was a joyful day of living this passage together! Thanks for reading.

Let's Praise the Lord: Psalm 150

What we say or do last often has much to say about what is most important to us, doesn't it?

 Since our congregation hosts the community "Seven Last Words of Jesus" Good Friday service every year with several other local churches, I have found myself in the position of needing to wrap up the service, being one of the last speakers wrapping the afternoon up before the audience starts to growl back at us long-winded preachers.  As I've prepared these sermons the past four years, one thing I've noticed about these last words of Jesus is their deep significance to the larger bulk of his teaching-- teaching about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus' final words have a lot to say about who he was trying to show us to be all along, in surrender to the will of his Father in his words, "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

And the same is true for our lives, I believe too-- not just in our dying moments but in our every day "last" moments. We usually wait till the end of a conversation, till the end of a night, till the end of a service to get to those moments which speak to the identity of who we ultimately are. For example:

When we are having a conversation with a friend or family member, what is the one phrase that we usually end the conversation with if our relationship with them is strong? We say, "I love you." Three such words powerfully express what the foundation of our connection with the other is based upon.

When we are putting our young children to bed after turning out the lights and making sure they are tucked in, what is the thing we do before we leave the room to show our love? We give them a hug or a kiss. The sheer act of physical touch conveys to our young child-- even if we are not able to communicate in words to one another yet how it s we feel about them.

When we end our worship service together each Sunday before we go share coffee hour together, what is the one thing we always do together? We hold hands, form a circle and sing what? "Make Us One."  We sing with great gusto this contemporary chorus as a tangible symbol of the unifying community the church is in our lives.

In the same way, when we read our scripture lesson for today, the 150th Psalter-- or the LAST of the hymns in this great hymn book of the Hebrew scriptures, what we find, I believe is a statement about life that this book of prayers has been trying to tell us about all along.

And this is what we are told-- we are told that the highest activity we can offer in our life is that of praise.  Specifically in verses 1-5, there are countless ways suggested that we might offer our praise to God.

We may praise God in God's house. We may praise God for the goodness that we see around our lives-- simply lifting up our thanksgiving to God (as we just did in the service a few moments ago) with our words.

We may use our bodies in dance as an expression of praise.

We may gather around us instruments that help us express what words simply lack.

We may beat the tambourine or the cymbals-- in fact loud clashing of cymbals to simply say back to God, "I acknowledge you. I revere you. I want to know you."  

In the end, we are told that none of us is without excuse-- not even those of us who can't carry a tune or play the drums or move our body in worship without looking like we are doing the funky chicken.  "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!"

Aimee Simple McPherson, a female pastor in the 1920s and founder of the Four Square Gospel Movement was known to say this, " "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." Why, according to the Psalmist, the only excuse you have for not praising the Lord is being out of breath!"

So take a minute and take a deep breath to remind yourself if you are still breathing . . . and as you breathe out say with me, "Praise the Lord."

If you look closely with me at this Psalm, what you will notice is the ongoing use of a repetitive phrase at each stanza of this poem: "Praise the Lord!" In fact the word "praise" occurs 13 times in six verses which makes it important to pay attention to. . . Or better translated from Hebrew, "Hallelujah!"

If you've been around church for any given period of time, hallelujah is a word that you probably know. But, you might not actually know what it means. One commentator helps us out here: "To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel ("to praise"). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means "Y'all praise Yahweh!" It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community."

Praising Yahweh a big and bold and countercultural task. We are a lot better, aren't we, at telling those around us what wrong with our lives than what is right? Extending the virtue of praise over our entire lives is not exactly our first instinct. And because of this, praise is something, I believe that we cannot do alone.

How many of you have ever had an experience of coming to church on Sunday morning and by time you sit down, feeling like "What am I doing here? I'm really not in a mood to be spiritual this morning? I'm really not in a mood to worship God this morning? I'm really not a place to get anything out of the service?" (I promise I won't bite if you raise your hands in affirmation).

We've all be there, your pastor included. There are days when I wake up on Sunday morning and as excited as I was on Friday afternoon when I finished writing my sermon about what I have to say, I'm just not feeling it on Sunday morning. I just don't know if I can do it, to climb these stairs into the pulpit and say to you, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight and in this congregation . . ."

But, like me, I bet you've also had the experience of coming into the sanctuary, being surrounded by this loving community, being drawn into the rhythm of the music or the silence of the prayers and find yourself actually commuting with God, even when you didn't think you had it in you. God has met you in community.

You could call it happenstance, but I believe that this is the power of Holy Spirit. This is the power of the Body of Christ that draws us in and helps us praise the Lord when we simply don't have the strength to muster another word toward a God that we feel ambivalent towards. 

We end up, my friends in praise because we are not alone. We have brothers and sisters in Christ to help us, to stand with us, and to give our hearts reasons to sing when we simply do have any on our own.

Furthermore, we say "hallelujah" because we are we are asked in the imperative tense to simply do it.  And the purpose is simple: all of life is about praise. All of life will end in praise.

When I comprehend,  what I just shared with you: that all of life will end in praise, it's a completely overwhelming statement. This seems to start to merge into the territory of the great scriptural heresy  those tv preachers land in when they tell us to:"just smile through the pain" or "everything is fine" or "don't cry when bad things happen, don't worry and be happy."  And you know how I feel about tv preachers . . .

Yet, I don't think this is a place in scripture where we have to worry that God is asking us to praise him with plastic happiness on our face.

For remember some your favorite Psalms that came before this last chapter: Psalms of lament, Psalms of frustration, Psalms of grief-- places in scripture where ALL emotions are validated important to bring before God. In fact, it is the Psalms are is one of the deepest, darkest, most emotionally driven books of all scripture. Consider beloved Psalms like #13 which begins by saying, "How long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" When God feels distant to us, according to the book of Psalms we are allowed to say how we feel.

Our God is not one who ever tells us not to cry or pout or wail if we need to from time to time. Our God never says hide your truest feelings from me. No, but we are told no matter what that all of life will end in praise.

Eugene Peterson, pastor, and author of the Bible paraphrase, The Message writes this about the purpose of Psalm 150:

 This is not a 'word of praise' slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted  conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don't rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs....Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter     is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt   and believe, struggle and dance and then  struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on         our feet, applauding, "Encore! Encore!"[i]

Ultimately, in this way, I believe that Psalm 150 is a call for us remember the end of the story as we walk through whatever life brings us. It's a call for us to struggle-- through all the days of woe is me, and doubts and fears and questions-- with confidence that the end of the story is taken care of. Death may be all around us but resurrection is coming. New life is coming. New possibilities are coming. New dreams are coming. God is coming.

It's the assurance that no matter what heights we must climb and climb again and again, life's greatest message is about hope. Hope that makes us get out of our seats and sound cymbals every now and then just as an expression of thanksgiving for the love of our God who watches over us. Hope that helps us keep walking putting one step in front of the other. Hope that helps us see the best in some of the bleak of bleak situations-- resurrection always rises before our eyes. And,  all of life will end in praise of our Lord.

I don't know where your life ends up as you begin this new week-- in a place of pain, in a place of discouragement, or in joy-- but no matter if you are able to shout from the rafters or you are hanging low just trying to survive to the next day, God offer you the gift of praise today and your whole life through. It's good  news of grace.

So let's just continue this hour to praise the Lord as we keep singing and ringing and playing and saying with our bodies, our words and our lives, "God we love you."


[i] 1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.