Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Hungry Doxology

Psalm 148
Easter 5
April 23, 2016
William G. Carter

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; 
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, 
praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Of all the interesting invitations that have come my way, I’ll never forget the time I was invited to preach at the synagogue. Invitations like that don’t come very often, and I wanted to do a good job.

My thoughts turned to finding the right scripture text, something that provided common ground for Christians and Jews. At the time, I working through the gospel of Mark, but Jewish congregation wouldn’t be interested in the gospel of Mark. The rabbi said he had been teaching his way through the book of Leviticus, but I have read enough of Leviticus to think he should deal with that himself. So I picked one of the psalms.

It seemed like an appropriate choice. The psalms offer common soil for Jewish and Christian faith to grow. How about one of them? When I phoned the synagogue on Tuesday morning with my scripture text, a polite voice replied, "We have never had a sermon on a psalm before."

I said, "Well, what are you used to?"

"Usually the rabbi bases a sermon on a story, like the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Or he often deals with a scriptural teaching that begs for a new interpretation. But he never preaches on a psalm. Around here, we sing the psalms and pray them."

Well, it was already Tuesday morning and too late to scrap my plans for a Friday night Sabbath service. So I stuck with my psalm of praise and preached it to a congregation full of raised eyebrows.

Since then I've thought about the Jewish wisdom of avoiding psalms in the pulpit. A psalm is a song. It is a biblical prayer set to music. Songs are meant to be sung, not commented upon. No one opens up a cookbook and interprets the recipe on page 34. Instead they bake a soufflé. In the same way, nobody opens up the hymnal to begin a lecture. Either you read the psalm and get caught up in its music, or you leave it alone.

The psalm for today is a case in point. Psalm 148 is a resounding call to praise, a doxology that summons a multitude of voices to sing. All of creation is invited to praise the Lord, both the visible creation on earth and the invisible creation above the earth. The summons begins up there, in the heights, offered first to an army of angels. It moves to the sun and moon, and then to a choir of shining stars. Summoned are the furthest reaches of the galaxy, as well as the heavenly waters, which the ancient people regarded as the source of rain. "Praise the Lord," sings the psalmist, "for all of you have been created, established, and bounded by the Word of God."

Then all the whole earth down here is beckoned to join in the song. The melody begins with the bass notes, with the sea monsters and creatures of the deep. Then comes the primal forces of nature: fire, hail, snow, frost, wind and storm. Then the hills are alive with the sound of music, with all the apple trees and the cedars planted upon them.

The royalty on earth are called to bow before the Lord who rules over them. Finally there is the invitation for the rest of us: "Men and women alike, young and old together; let them praise the name of the Lord! God is great, and the Holy One has shown us the horn of his power." Nothing else needs to be said. No other reason is necessary.The heavens are summoned to sing the doxology and earth is invited to echo the tune.

I don't know if I can preach on such a song. All I can do is invite us to sing along.

But it’s difficult to do that if you can’t hear the music. Maybe you can to church today and there’s other noise drowning out that tune. As somebody observes, it is possible to sing God's praises too soon. Joyful songs can tempt us think all is right with the world . . . even when it isn't.  

Flip back a couple of psalms to 146, and there is mention of the oppressed, the hungry and blind, and those left out of the social well-being like the widows and the orphans. A happy song like 148 can direct our attention away from the real world of hurt, need, and injustice. If the only songs we sing are happy songs, it can anesthetize us to real pain, or create a community whose praise has been emptied of its passion. “The majesty of God has been cut off from the power of mercy.”[1]

I think this is a valid concern. A couple I know landed for a while in Texas. The only church they could find nearby was a huge church, a megachurch. The campus was a hundred acres with a theater-style worship center with comfortable seats. The people up front emphasized positive thinking, cheerful speech, and uncomplicated advise. The music was offered in major keys at victorious tempos, often accompanied by brass; if they didn’t actually have any trumpets that day, they would pipe them in.

The couple went there for a few months. They said it was entertaining. Every week there was some new spectacle often accompanied by a lot of hype. It was fun for a while, but after a while it got to taste like too much chocolate.

One of them said, “We realized it wasn’t real joy they were celebrating. It was something kind of plastic, something manufactured.” She added, “There wasn’t a lot of talk about God; God was simply the heavenly chaplain. Most of the talk was merely about ourselves: how big we are, how glorious we are, how awesome we are. It seemed pretty hollow.” So they stopped going. They stopped going anywhere.

Think about the soundtrack of our own lives, friends. What tunes play on your car radio? Do we surround ourselves only with the happy songs? And if we do, what are they drowning out?

So here is Psalm 148 – there is nothing manufactured about it. It is a call to praise, an invitation to joyful noise. But the music in the psalm is not our joyful noise, as if it’s our task to create it, crank it up, or pipe it in. The Psalmist says there is joyful music already around us.

He is motioning toward nature. We have a Creator that is so great that the sea roars with laughter, with us or without us. The waters break into applause. The thunderclaps smash the cymbals in a heavenly symphony. And if we were silent - what does Jesus say? – the stones would cry out.

It is an ancient insight with astonishing ecological overtones. Whenever anything really significant happens in the scriptures, the natural world takes part.

·      When Moses received the call to confront Pharoah, he saw a flaming bush that was not consumed.
·      When Israel was set free from slavery, the sea parted, and the people were led by a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke.
·      When God gave the Torah as a holy gift, there was thunder and lightning, and the mountain shook.
·      At Jesus' birth, an unusual star appeared in the sky.
·      At Jesus' death, the sky turned black, and the rocks were split (Mt. 27:51).
·      On the day of resurrection, there was a great earthquake on the way to the tomb (Mt. 28:2). 
·      When God’s Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost, there was wind and fire.

All creation is praising God. No wonder the Psalmist points us toward the creatures who share this world with us. Like Lewis Thomas, the biologist. He said the music is everywhere. The termite beats its head against the floor of its nest to make a dark, percussive sound like a tympani drum. The drumming of feet is employed by prairie hens, rabbits, and mice. Gorillas bang their chests, toads sing to each other, dogs serenade their friends.

Yesterday I sat in my sermon writing chair, cracked open the window to enjoy a spring breeze, and listened to the woodpecker play a snare drum solo on one of my trees. I responded by doing the only thing I could think of: I put on a Mozart flute concerto and cranked it up loud.

Lewis Thomas, the biologist, says the world is an unfolding symphony. “If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani of schools of mollusks, or ever the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”[2] If you are feeling sad, empty, or blue, get outside and take a walk. No need to manufacture any joyful noise. It’s already all around us.

Psalm 148 calls all of us, even the critics and the curmudgeons, to join in the joyful praise of God. The question is: Do we have anything to sing about?  Here it is, a month after Easter and our memories are slipping. The psalmist can speak about the beauty of creation, point us to the purple mountains, or invite us to hug a birch tree. But as beautiful as this world is, it's also a world full of fierce tornados, deadly floods, and mutating cancer cells. And the psalmist can speak about the greatness of God, exalted over heaven and earth. But a God like that seems a far distance from us. What would One so great have to do with people like us who are so small?

The best answer, and the deepest inspiration, is found in the moments when God's glory touches down on our greatest need. The poet of this Psalm celebrates how our exalted Creator draws near to the creation. There is healing, there is restoration, there is the long, slow march toward justice. In the Psalm this is called “the raising of a horn." That’s a Bible phrase for a display of power.

Israel and Church both have long memories when it comes to God’s power.with might. Just Thursday night, the Jews recited a 3000-year-old Passover creed: “When we were slaves in Egypt, God brought us out in freedom.” The memories continue: when we were homeless in Babylon, God brought us home. When we were broken by forces beyond our control, God sent Jesus Christ who was broken for us; and in the power of that love, all the broken pieces of creation shall be put back together until they break out in song.

So confident is the Church of those memories that we also look to the final end of all things. Every tear shall be wiped away, and death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and God himself will be with them. That comes from the book of Revelation, the concluding book of live which praises God on every single page.

As far as I can tell, that's the purpose of this good life: to praise God. The Westminster Catechism said we are here for a really big reason: "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." To this, Psalm 148 invites us to join in the song of heaven and earth. There is a joy beyond us which surpasses all the whims of human moodiness. There is gratitude to be embraced beyond all the grasping for human achievements. The purpose and destination of human life is captured in that simple phrase, "Praise the Lord."

So we need to encourage one another with these words, lift one another’s spirits, and point to those moments when the illusions are unmasked and we see the truth. I think of Harry S. Truman, the former president, who retired to Kansas City. According to his biographer, Mr. Truman went on a walk every morning. Most days, he even paused to speak to a beautiful tree that stood along their route. He stood and said to the tree, “You’re doing a good job.”

Now, you might say he was a doddering old fool who talked to trees. But Mr. Truman was a Baptist, shaped by the biblical notion of all nature praising God. "You're doing a good job."[3] (Journal for Preachers, Lent 1995, p. 19)

There is praise in the person who affirms that suffering and pain will never have the last word on human life. Years ago, before they cleaned up the subways in New York, I accidentally got on the wrong train. It was confusing and frightening, and then I saw a curious piece of graffiti. There, somewhere in the desolation of the Bronx, somebody had scratched out the words that I have taken to sum up the Gospel:

    You can punch my lips so I can't blow my horn,
    but my fingers will find a piano.
    You can slam the piano lid on my fingers,
    but you can't stop my toes from tapping like a drum.
    You can stomp on my foot to keep my toes from tapping,
     but my heart will keep swinging in four-four time.
    You can even stop my heart from ticking,
     but the music of the saints shall never cease.

Do you hear it? There is a song from God that rings out beyond all human circumstances.

This is what God intends for all creation. This is where the conclusion of the book of Psalms is been headed. This is where everything in God’s entire universe is headed.

      Praise the Lord, from the heavens and the earth.
      Praise the Lord, in the heights and in the deeps.
      Praise the Lord, whoever you are, wherever you find yourself.
      If you can’t sing today, let the whole creation sing for you.

That's what God intends for us, ready or not. If we're ready, we can start singing today. And if not, well, beware! For the music of God's praises grow nearer and greater. This is one hungry doxology. It won't be long until it swallows us up.

In fact, did you hear that? There it is again. Even the sea monsters are singing!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1987) pp. 95-96.
[2] Lewis Thomas, “The Music of This Sphere” in The Lives of the Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978)
[3] Journal for Preachers, Lent 1995,  p. 19.

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