by David Baer, June 14, 2015
Text: Psalm 113
A few years ago our family was walking through the neighborhood with our dog. My daughter was little enough that she was still riding in her stroller, and my wife and I were talking about something. All of a sudden, I hear a little sing-songy voice chanting, “January, February, March, and April. May, June, July, and August…” My daughter was all of 3 years old, and I had never heard the months of the year cross her lips before, but she had learned a song at school, and it stuck with her.
Songs stick with you. You hear a pop song on the radio, and you can’t get it out of your head. You probably remember advertising jingles from when you were a kid, even if it was decades ago. The music sticks with you. Somewhere I heard the term “earworm” used to describe the way a song wriggles its way into your brain and takes up residence. Music takes hold of us in a way that words by themselves just don’t.
Over the next few weeks this summer I’ll be preaching on the Psalms. This is the Bible’s songbook. There are other songs in the Bible too—from the victory song that Miriam sang when the Israelites had escaped the Egyptians, to the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary after she learned that she would become the mother of Jesus, to the songs of worship before God’s throne that John of Patmos experienced in his visions and recorded in the book of Revelation. The Bible is filled with songs. But if you open it up right at about the mid-point, you’ll find a whole book of the Bible that is a treasury of songs that God’s people have used to worship, pray, give thanks, complain, lament, and express hope and trust. These are songs that stick with you, and maybe that’s why over thousands of years people have come back to them again and again looking for a way to express themselves to God.
Now, although we don’t know exactly what they sounded like when people sang them all those thousands of years ago, we know that they were sung. We know that because in between the words we find little hints here and there about when stringed instruments are supposed to play, or instructions to a choirmaster. The words are meant to be sung, and that’s why I hope you’ll indulge me over the next few weeks as we try a sung setting from our new hymnals of each of the psalms we read. These psalms work their way into our bodies and minds most fully when we sing them!
One of the curious things about the psalms is that they seem to come from two places. On the one hand, they’re clearly the words of human beings reaching out to God in praise, in trust, in desperation, in guilt, and in hope. Just about every emotion you might experience is captured in these sung prayers. If people in every age love the psalms as much as they do, it’s in part because we recognize ourselves there as the ones who are singing, crying, and shouting. They are very human. At the same time, we find the psalms smack in the middle of our Bibles, where they are undeniably presented as sacred scripture, as “God’s Word” to us. What a puzzle this is—human songs and prayers that are the same time God’s Word. What entitles us to presume that our human prayers can become sacred? And what entitles God to presume to speak with our voice, out of our experience? For someone to really own the psalms, they would have to be both God and human at the same time… And in fact, in the story of Jesus we find the psalms absolutely everywhere, on his lips as he’s dying, and on the lips of his apostles as they struggle to explain his resurrection. Jesus owns the psalms, in a way that allows our prayers to become sacred, and that allows God to know what it is to be scared, joyful, sad, or hopeful as a human being. The psalms are incarnational music that brings God’s presence into the experience of living as a human being in this world.
There are many different kinds of psalms. We only have a few short hours of worship this summer, so there’s no hope of going through all of the psalms, but I hope you’ll learn to recognize some of the different types we encounter. Today’s psalm is a psalm of praise. Outside of church, we praise other people all the time. We praise children, recognizing their hard work or their kindness or their insight, to show them that we care about them and who they’re in the process of becoming. For the same reason, we might praise a colleague or a subordinate at work, to show our appreciation and to motivate them to keep up their efforts. On the other hand, we praise a significant other not so much to motivate them—although one woman who used positive-reinforcement based animal training methods on her husband found them highly effective! When we praise someone we love deeply and intimately, it’s a way of solidifying our relationship. I think highly of you, and here’s why. You are so much more precious and valuable to me than any other person in the world. This is one of the ways we renew and demonstrate our commitment to another person—we praise.
And this is the kind of praise the psalm offers to God. It begins with a Hebrew word that most of us know: “Hallelujah!”, which means “Praise the Lord!” This word begins an invitation to praise God, and although the English translation doesn’t reflect this, the pronouns are plural: “praise the Lord, y’all!” And what are we being invited to praise? The “name” of God, of YHWH. There is so much about God we don’t know and can never know, but in the scripture God revealed this name, YHWH, that God’s people use to address their prayers. We are invited to praise a God who has made God’s self accessible to us, who wants to be named, who wants to be in relationship with us.
The psalm continues to praise God for being exalted. These words paint a picture of a God who looks down over everything. There is nothing that is outside of God’s gaze and God’s care. God is praiseworthy, God is valuable, in part because of where God sits: “Who is like YHWH our God, who is seated on high…?” Remember that word “sit,” because it comes up again in this same psalm…
The psalm switches from praising who God is to praising what God has done. YHWH doesn’t just sit there, high above the heavens. This is a God who lifts up those who are needy. And the psalm gives us two examples of people God lifts up—a man and a woman. The man is looked down on because he is economically disadvantaged. He is poor. And yet God raises him from the dust and makes him sit (there’s that word) with princes. The woman is looked down on because she has no children. But God gives her a home, or, translating literally, makes her sit in a home as the joyous mother of children. This is a God who holds the highest seat at the table, so to speak, but delights in moving the least and the lowest up to sit in a place of honor. What is praiseworthy about God is not only God’s greatness, but the eagerness of God to bestow some of that greatness on those who don’t feel so great.
I said earlier that the psalms are incarnational. They bring God’s presence right into the heart of our day-to-day joys and struggles. You see that happening right here in this psalm. Praise isn’t something that is purely formulaic or ritualized. We don’t praise God only with words that are given to us by someone else. We praise God out of our lived experiences of God’s goodness and grace.
Today’s psalm, with the way it speaks to the experience of wanting a child, hits close to home for so many of us—myself included. A lot of you know that, before my son was born last year, my wife and I thought that our family was going to be just the three of us. We had prayed about it, sought medical help for it, grieved over it, prayed some more… and then accepted it and moved on. And then, in a wonderful, astounding surprise, our son came crashing into our lives. I admit I have difficulty speaking about God acting in this. There are countless couples who long for a child every bit as much as we did. There’s no explanation I can give that would account for why we ultimately received what we prayed for and others haven’t. But I would be glossing over one of the deep truths of my life if I didn’t tell you that, in the light of what we’ve experienced, I regard both of my children as the astonishing, gracious gift of a good and merciful God.
I am telling you this today because, as the psalm tells us, the invitation to praise God comes to us as a community. We share our experiences of sadness and joy. I am telling you this because the God in whom we put our trust is known to us by name, is in relationship with us as the one to whom our prayers are addressed. I am telling you this because we praise God together not as a God who theoretically is good and gracious, but who has acted graciously with each and every one of us. Not in the same way, and not in all the ways that we might hope and pray for. Each and every one of us has unfulfilled longings and aching hurts—we’ll talk more about those next week. But each of us also can speak of the good God has done for us. And it’s this testimony, this aggregation of stories about God’s goodness and grace, that fuels our praise. Who is like our God, who has dealt bountifully with us? Who is like our God, who gave us life, who gives us breath in this very moment? Who is like our God, who calls us beloved children and welcomes us into a forever home?
We need your voice in this song. We need the voice of Allie Adamski, whom we’ll be welcoming as a member of this congregation in a few mintues. Allie, your voice is strong, it is beautiful, and it will bring so much to this congregation. We are so blessed to have you becoming a part of our fellowship! We need all kinds of voices in our church. We need to hear what God has done and is doing for each of you. Let us know at joys and concerns if you like: Nothing is too small or too distant for us to raise up in celebration or thanksgiving. And once the song works its way into us, who knows? We may just become so attuned to the goodness and providence of God that we learn to praise God for a grouchy colleague or a delayed flight. And, to borrow some words from another psalm, we will sing to the Lord a new song, seeing that God has done marvelous things. Amen.