Sermon prepared by Dr. Scott Hoezee, Professor of Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary
Dear People of God,
In Robert Duvall's film, The Apostle, we see a vignette of what could be described as a very "in your face" style of praise. The film is set in the Deep South where revival worship services in some fundamentalist churches tend to be high-decibel, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, gizzard-piercing spectacles that are most decidedly not for the faint of heart! Indeed, many of us would not be very comfortable being anywhere near charismatic worship services like these.
And yet, in their own way, the urgency of such services, the imperative-like demand that people participate with everything they've got, may make this style of worship an heir to the Old Testament tradition of the psalms. Because many of the psalms were designed to get in your face. The psalms often order you to join the cosmic chorus of praise to the one true God. The psalms demand participation. Psalm 113 is a good example. More than that, however, this brief psalm is an eloquent statement on not just the urgency of praise but also on one of the chief reasons God deserves to be praised. So let's reflect on the 113th psalm.
Like many psalms so also the opening and closing words of Psalm 113 have now been translated, "Praise the LORD." In the original Hebrew, this is the phrase hallelu yah, which we often translate literally as "hallelujah." These days, when we sing the word "hallelujah," we think it means something like, "I am praising you now, O God." "Hallelujah" is to us a statement, the equivalent of saying, "Way to go, God! Thank you!" Actually, however, that is rather different than how the word gets used in the Old Testament.
Because in the original Hebrew the phrase hallelu yah is in the imperative mood, this is a command. Thus, when you read the words "Praise the LORD" at the beginning and conclusion of Psalm 113, you should picture the psalmist as pointing his finger at you and saying, "You there! Yes, you! Get up on your feet, open your mouth, and start singing to God--that's an order!" There is a holy urgency to the psalms. The poets who composed these ancient songs were desperate to get as many voices into the choir as they could.
But why? Why should this order be issued with such intensity and why should anyone follow this command? In his book on the psalms, C.S. Lewis admits that before he became a Christian, he found the Bible's incessant demand that we praise God highly offensive. Why is God forever asking to be praised? Isn't that a bit conceited? After all, if you work with someone who is forever talking about himself or who is always asking you to compliment his work, sooner or later you grow weary of this self-centered narcissist.
So if the Bible's is God's own book, then isn't it odd that he is forever soliciting our praise? Doesn't that make God out to be, well, a bit vain? Taken in isolation you could read Psalm 113 that way, but seen in the context of a fallen world, this is not so odd.
After all, generally speaking we take note of and celebrate good things. When you hear an excellent concert, you applaud--a virtuoso performance may even lead you to start a standing ovation. Any other response seems unfitting. And so if you hear a glorious concert but then afterwards—while everyone else is applauding and crying out “Bravo”—if you see someone who is sitting on his hands and refusing to clap, you think there is something wrong with that person. That response is just not fitting.
Ordinarily goodness pulls us in--we're drawn to good things like iron filings to a magnet. And once we are drawn in, we express our praise. Indeed, sometimes we even try to widen the circle of praise by inviting others to join our appreciation. When a critic writes a glowing review of an outstanding film, she's widening the circle of appreciation. When an author writes a pre-publication comment to be printed onto the back cover of another author's new book, he hopes that his words will encourage others to savor the book too. When we see excellent or lovely things, we naturally express praise for them and invite others to join us.
The problem in this sinful world is that we are routinely blind to the goodness of God. Lots of people do sit on their hands in the face of glories that should lead to riotous applause. So when the Bible orders people to praise God, that’s not arrogance on God’s part—it’s merely calling for a fitting response.
John Stek once used this analogy: suppose a widowed young mother works herself to a frazzle to give her son, Charlie, the best possible life. Suppose she toils in some sweat-shop during the day and scrubs toilets in an officebuilding by night just to scrape together enough money to give Charlie decent clothing, education, food, and shelter. But suppose Charlie is an ignorant clod who little notices his mother's efforts and who even squanders a good bit of what his mother gives him. Suppose that instead of fulfilling any of his mother's hopes for him, Charlie spends his time with unsavory denizens of cheap bars and tawdry brothels.
So suppose one day, after having her son once again tell his old lady to get lost, suppose this mother finally says, "Charlie, I deserve better than this from you! I deserve more gratitude than you've ever given to me--in fact, out of sheer respect, you should try a lot harder to live a decent life for my sake." Now, would you conclude this woman was arrogant and vain, looking for praise out of a conceited desire to ratchet up her ego a few clicks? Hardly. It would be only fitting if such a son were to thank his mother--anything less is rude.
The message of the psalms is that if only we could see and understand God better, we would be naturally led to praise him. Unhappily, we don't see so well, and so the psalmists need to order us to do what should come naturally.
But, of course, writers like the poet of Psalm 113 don't leave the reasons for this praise in the abstract. In this case the psalmist mentions two specific things for which to give praise: one has to do with the sheer splendor of God, the other has to do with the attention God pays to us in the mundane details of our lives. Why praise God? Because he is exalted--he made everything there is. Not only that, however, this God's real splendor is that he takes care of the poor and is deeply concerned for the plight of childless women.
Yet it is precisely here that some of us feel like Psalm 113 trips us up. In rather absolute terms this psalm says that God enriches the poor and brings babies to those struggling to get pregnant. And so this may tempt us to stop here and spend some time just wondering why this psalm says this. Why does Psalm 113 make these claims when we all know that this does not always happen?
A lot of poor people never have their fortunes reversed. The poor do not always sit with princes and princesses--in fact, they rarely do. And we all know, some of us from painful personal experience, that even after years of begging to have children, it just does not always happen. So if this is supposed to be our motivation for praising God, we may question the wisdom of this psalmist's choosing these particular items. But maybe doing that would mean we would miss the larger point this psalmist is trying to make.
For one thing, Psalm 113 does not promise that this willalways happen. Instead it may well be that these words reflect the experience of this particular poet. Maybe he had experienced these blessings in his own life and, if so, then of course it is appropriate that he list them as reasons to give God praise. But for the rest of us this may be one of many psalms that you need to read as part of a larger collection of psalms. Because there are plenty of other psalms that admit and lament the fact that things don't always work out so sunny.
So perhaps we need to take the concluding words of Psalm 113 as this psalmist's experience. This was his particular way of illustrating the larger truth that God takes loving note of our earthly lives. After all, the Old Testament makes consistently clear that God stunned the imagination of the ancient Israelites not just because of his awesome power but even more so because of his tender care.
That's perhaps another reason why this psalmist picked out the poor and the childless--in ancient Israel you could not get much more marginalized than to fall into one of these two categories. A woman unable to have children was considered a social cipher in the ancient world. And the poor were likewise overlooked--as Hurricane Katrina showed us in 2005 and as that terrible earthquake in Haiti showed us in 2010; this is still too often the case today. The desperately poor exist at best on the fringes of our awareness. Because they lack power, glitz, influence, and social standing, the poor just don't capture the imagination the way Angelina Jolie or Leonardo DiCaprio or other big-name celebrities do.
In other words, the two groups of people mentioned in Psalm 113 were the invisible members of society, the ones so lowly in stature that they were overlooked by almost everyone. And yet these are precisely the ones whom God notices and cares about.
Somehow this facet of God's character was more striking to the Israelites than even his heavenly powers. Nearly all ancient societies believed in gods who were full of light and power and splendor. But most of those gods were also reputed to be aloof, to be so soaringly above it all as to treat human beings as, at best, pawns. In King Lear Shakespeare has a line that summarizes many ancient attitudes: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."
But not so the one true God as he revealed himself to Israel: this was a God who could spin quasars with one hand and lift up some nameless poor person with the other. This was a God who could make mountains smoke and who could at the same time tenderly smile on a childless woman. We serve a God who sees and is distressed about people whom even we overlook in our focus on the powerful and the successful. We focus on Lindsey Lohan and Mel Gibson and spend hours pondering the ins and outs of their lives. God knows about all the others whom we will never hear about. In other words, the God who is more powerful than anyone is less interested in power than we are! Our heavenly God is more earthly minded than we sometimes are!
And if we had any doubt about that, the gospel shows us the fullest extent of this part of God’s character and being. Because our faith centers on the ultimate stooping-low of God through the incarnation of Jesus. In Jewish circles Psalms 113-118 are known as the "Hallel Psalms." These are the psalms that get read at the start of Judaism's highest festivals of celebration, chief among being the Passover. Thus, it is very likely that Psalm 113 was the first psalm recited by Jesus in that upper room on the night he was betrayed.
And what a stellar new meaning these words gain when we hear them on the incarnate, flesh-and-blood lips of God's Son! How much more particular, how much more specific, how much more earthy and utterly mundane can God get than taking to himself a body of skin that contained kidneys and lungs and a spleen!? If Jesus is who we Christians have always said he is, then we can know for sure that the basic idea of Psalm 113 is true: namely, that the true wonder of God is his ability to transcend his own transcendence, to get out of himself and into us!
So when we praise God, then, as Walter Brueggemann has said, we bear witness to another world. We burst the narrow horizons and the shrunken boundary lines within which most people live in order to declare our belief in a larger world in which God is the King; and we invite others to enter that world too. In our act of praising God for his specific wonders we not only sing to God, we sing against the false gods of this world--the gods of self-sufficiency, of homemade salvation, of narrow human achievement in a world where everything is the result of good luck or hard work but never the result of God's work. Our praise shows people the real world.
No wonder worship services are the first thing the Communists and others in history have tried to outlaw. Praise is threatening to those focused only on their own worldly power! Praise is counter-cultural! After taking the Israelites captive, the Babylonians tried to mock them by having them sing their songs of praise inside the walls of the concentration camp. The Nazis did the same thing. These thugs wanted to mock those songs, wanted to make such praise look silly and hollow, because the Babylonians and the Nazis knew that if those songs were true, then their own self-contained programs of power were doomed.
But that's why the songs of God's people have never stopped and will never stop until one day every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord. And that's why it is equally right to invite the whole cosmos into the chorus. One day every tongue is going to praise Jesus anyway--the joy of the Christian life is that we get a head start.
Some while ago a writer related an incident that happened when he was visiting Muir Woods just north of the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco, California. Muir Woods is home to the last surviving California Redwoods, most of which are upwards of 700-900 years old and rise up from the forest floor to heights of nearly 300 feet. Even some secular tourist guidebooks call Muir Woods “a cathedral built by God.” According to this writer, he once overheard a woman say something very interesting just after she came back to the parking lot after her own trek through the forest. “This may sound funny,” she said to one of her friends, “but when I was walking in the middle of all those glorious trees, I just felt like singing!” Since this writer is a Christian, he said he was tempted to ask her, “And to whom would you direct your song?” Maybe she knew the answer. Thanks be to God we Christians do know the answer!
C.S. Lewis once wrote that for now we can only tune up our instruments in preparation for the heavenly symphony of praise. But if you've ever been to an orchestra concert, then you know that there is something lovely and exciting about even the tune-up time. When you hear that cacophony of sounds, you know you're getting close. And then, every once in a while in the midst of the jumbled sounds of percussion, woodwinds, strings, and brass, every once in a while someone plays a few measures of the Mozart piece that is coming up. And when you catch those few strains of the real music, your heart skips a beat in anticipation.
In this sinful world we can but tune our instruments, but tune them we must. And as we do so, we shout "Hallelujah" to everyone around us, inviting them to join us in our chorus of praise to the Creator, to the Savior, to the God of small things, to the Lord of our everyday lives. Hallelujah and praise him! Amen.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 150
Opening Song: “Let All Things Now Living” PsH #453
God’s Greeting: “Grace, mercy and peace be to us all in the name of the Father,
and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Song of Praise: “How Great Thou Art” PsH # 483
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7,8
God’s Law: Exodus 20: 1-17
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn of Preparation: “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” PsH # 429
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Psalm 113
Sermon: “God of Small Things”
Prayer of Application: “Father God, although we are so small, we praise you for seeing
us, caring for us, and calling each of us by name. Help our lives to be a never-ending
chorus of praise to you and help that praise to be so contagious, that others will want to
join their voices to our voices and to the voice of all creation in praising you, from
whom all blessings flow! Amen.”
Hymn of Response: “All Creatures of Our God and King” PsH # 431
WE DEPART TO SERVE
Benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the
fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “Praise God, from Whom all Blessings Flow” PsH # 638