+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted Sept. 17, 1778)
This weekend, our nation pauses to commemorate the declaration of our independence from the British crown. It is a day for celebration, a day to give thanks for the opportunity to live and work and grow and play and seek our fortunes as citizens of these United States. It is common on this day for us to wax poetic about the greatness of our nation, to declare loudly for all to hear that we are proud to be Americans, to deck the halls with red, white, and blue and rejoice in the ideals upon which this Union was founded: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
So why, on the occasion of celebrating our independence, would I think it necessary to read from the preamble to the Constitution, which wasn’t adopted until twelve years after the Declaration? Well, in truth, I think the words I read above, the words that introduce and explain the reason for adopting our system of government, provide a necessary corrective for our expressions of patriotism and love of nation. The framers of the Constitution recognized that our founding was simply a first step, and that the continued formation of our nation would require diligence and hard work. In adopting the Constitution, they endeavored only to make our Union “more perfect,” not “perfect” once for all. There are scholarly disputes about the extent to which the framers were informed by Christian faith, but all of them – orthodox Christian or not – seemed to enter into their work with a profound realism about human nature, about our fallibility and short-sightedness and recklessness. That realism is shared by the psalmist, and it is perhaps the enduring image that we can take away from Psalm 146 this morning.
This psalm is, as the theme for today indicates, a psalm of praise, a song that invites us to declare the wonder and majesty of God. We’ve talked before about the importance of praising God, about the necessity of looking beyond ourselves to the one who created us and sustains us. Notice how quickly the psalm turns from praising God to issuing this stark warning about human beings and human institutions:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
(Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV)
The people of Israel had heard the warnings of their prophets; they knew all too well the failings of human authority. The psalmist is not content to allow his people to reflect on God’s power and presence without being absolutely certain that Israel understood the surpassing greatness and justice and righteousness of God. That God, of course, is a God who does not exercise authority and power merely for God’s own glory. No, the God revealed in Scripture, the God we have come to know more fully through Jesus Christ, is a God whose power is exercised precisely for the good of the other, for the good of the marginalized, for the good of the vulnerable and despised. In the psalmist’s day, that included people on a familiar and oft-repeated list: the oppressed, the hungry, and the captive; the blind and the lame; the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. In our own day, we might come up with our own list of people who find themselves on the outside looking in: the poor, the hungry, and the ex-convict; those suffering from mental illnesses, or addictions, or diseases like HIV/AIDS; the immigrant or the racial “minority”. The witness of the psalms – indeed, of all the Scriptures – is that our God is concerned with the plight of those who are deprived of their dignity and worth by human authorities and human institutions. As Christians, we too are called to be concerned with the ways in which our society – formally and informally – signals to these groups that they are less important, that their lives don’t matter as much as ours, that they somehow do not share in the image of God that all of us bear by virtue of our having been created by God. As Americans, we do well to remember the words of our founders, who understood that human government is always a work in progress, and that to be a government of, by, and for the people is to understand that, at best, we will forever be striving for a “more perfect Union”.
As we enter the 240th year of our Independence as a nation, our Christian faith and the legacy of our founders suggest that we must do more than celebrate. We must also recommit ourselves to the ideals upon which our faith and our nation are supposed to be built. In his moving eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who was killed along with eight fellow church members in a racially-motivated massacre last month, the president reflected on the grace that has been poured out upon our nation – in language very similar to that found in our closing hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”. He talked of the great gift of grace that has not failed us despite our history of not living up to our highest ideals. He shared his belief that we are now living in a moment in which we have been graced again with the opportunity for renewed understanding, for renewed commitment to our governing principles, for renewed attention to the problems of poverty and hunger and prejudice that continue to plague us as a people. I share that optimism and that belief, but I base it, not in the power of human authority or institutions, but in the power of God, who reigns forever, to transform us by grace, to strengthen what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and to call us once again to affirm that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable right of all people.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us lift our voices to praise our good and gracious God. Let us pray that God would, in the words of our closing hymn, “shed his grace on [us],” “refine our gold,” and “mend [our] every flaw,” both as God’s people and as citizens of these United States. Let us pray that God would continue to mold our hearts and minds into the image of Christ, so that we might be the kind of people God has called us to be through the Gospel. Finally, let us pray that we might marry our love of country with a fervent love of liberty and justice for all, and that we might be willing to do the work that is necessary to make that statement a reality for all of our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans. Amen and amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Two weeks ago, when we explored the psalms of lament, I mentioned that it is sometimes possible to look back on our experiences of hardship and recognize the hand of God working to bring deliverance and healing and comfort. Today, we turn to the psalms of thanksgiving, a group of psalms that is precisely about the discernment of God’s power and presence in our lives. In Psalm 40, our text for today, the psalmist calls to mind a time that he was in need of God’s rescue, in need of divine intervention to save him from the hands of his enemies. In response to that need, God stoops down to pick the psalmist up, drawing him out of the pit, freeing him from the deepest muck and mire, and setting his feet upon a sturdy rock. The psalm of thanksgiving is a response to that deliverance, a song that declares God’s goodness and care for those who call upon God in time of trouble, a song that invites others to reflect on the times that they, too, had experienced God’s salvation.
That last characteristic of thanksgiving, the language of invitation, is particularly important, because it speaks to something that we’ve likely all experienced at one time or another: the contagious nature of gratitude. Think, for instance, about the well-loved ritual of sitting around the table on the fourth Thursday in November and taking turns sharing about those people and things for which we’re grateful. Sure, in some cases the fact that everyone can bring something up is due to the social pressure of not wanting to seem ungrateful. But more often than not, I think that the act of hearing others express their gratitude unlocks something in us. It tunes our hearts and minds to see the gifts and blessings that, perhaps, we’ve taken for granted. The language of thanksgiving blossoms and flourishes when it is expressed, and gratitude follows gratitude in a way that is really something to behold.
I’m convinced that this is the reason the psalmist goes out of his way to tell God of his refusal to keep the story of his deliverance to himself. Look again at the last couple of verses of this morning’s reading:
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
(Psa 40:9-10 NRS)
The psalmist knows that keeping his gratitude to himself does very little. He understands that his story will inspire trust and gratitude in others, that it will draw the entire congregation together in remembering God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, that those who are experiencing hardship and struggle can take heart in knowing that others have been brought through their times of trouble.
Brothers and sisters, gratitude – especially gratitude that is rightly directed to God – is a powerful thing. As I reflected on the idea of thanksgiving, I was struck by the convergence between the power of gratitude and the history that accompanied the composition of today’s closing hymn, a hymn that Doug and I selected six weeks ago with no idea of the deep resonance that it would hold today. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by the poet James Weldon Johnson in 1899, and set to music and performed for the first time as a song in 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The poem is a poignant expression of thanksgiving for the end of slavery in the United States and the progress that had been made toward liberation and equality during the era of Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War. It is a text that looks back over the difficult history of slavery and oppression with frank realism. It is a text that surveys the present with gratitude for distance that the African-American community has come. It is a text that looks with hope to the future, recognizing that the work of liberation is far from done, while also trusting that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., would say in later years, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like Psalm 40, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a testament to the power of gratitude to inspire a community, to uplift a people who were experiencing hardship, to help people to see beyond their present circumstances by means of a persistent hope that better days were coming. Like Psalm 40, these words, once addressed to a particular community, now inspire others to give thanks for God’s provision of care in the past and of strength to meet the challenges of the present and future. Before we sing these words later in the service, I’d like to read them aloud, the way they were originally intended, as a way of helping us hear and appreciate them anew:
Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the list’ning skies,
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our parents sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.
(Hymn #841, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
In a similar way, many Lutheran Christians have drawn strength from the words of gratitude contained in perhaps our most famous and well-loved hymn: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46 is another song that speaks powerfully of gratitude for God’s deliverance, and it is a song that has sustained generations of the faithful – Lutheran and non-Lutheran alike:
A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious;|
he breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.
Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us,
we tremble not, unmoved we stand. They cannot overpower us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage!
His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
God’s word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it;
for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever!
(Hymn #504, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ©1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress)
Brothers and sisters, today we rejoice in God’s deliverance, and in those songs of thanksgiving and trust that allow us to remember how God has sustained us in times of trouble and brought us to a new day of hope. This week, may the language of gratitude blossom in our own hearts, that we might call to mind the bountiful gifts of grace and favor that are ours in Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.
In last week’s installment in our series on the Psalms, we encountered language that is all too often absent from our individual and corporate prayer and worship: the language of lament. The psalmist addresses God from the depths of his soul, and in so doing gives us words to proclaim our own longing for deliverance and help in the midst of hardship and struggle. This is a necessary part of the life of faith, and it is possible because of our trust in God – however weak it might be at any given moment – because we know that the relationship we share with God is strong enough to bear the fullness of our pain and groaning when suffering visits us.
Today, we sharpen our focus on that language of trust as we explore yet another type of psalm. In Psalm 27, we are given a glimpse into the mind of the psalmist as he declares his confidence in the God who has called him into relationship and promised to uphold him in the midst of struggle. These well-loved words have given strength to countless people of faith through the centuries:
The LORD is my light and my salvation
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –
my adversaries and foes –
they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
(Psalm 27:1-6, NRSV)
It’s curious that the lectionary calls us to stop at verse 6, because the rest of this psalm illustrates a profound truth about what it means to trust in God. Here’s the rest of the psalm:
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, LORD, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the LORD will take me up.
Teach me your way, O LORD,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
(Psalm 27:7-14, NRSV)
The psalm of trust does not occur in a vacuum. It is not an expression of trust that comes from a place of ease, but one that has been tested by the experience of hardship. The psalmist moves from his declaration of trust in God to calling out once again for help. In the end, he seems to be wavering, until he remembers the steadfast love of the Lord and finds the words to renew his commitment to God and God’s rescue. This is so important, because it shows us that lament and trust and praise are all part and parcel of the life of faith. We move between them as we journey through life in relationship with God, with one another, and with the broken and beautiful world in which we live.
To declare our trust in God is not to put on blinders and forget the experiences of brokenness that surround us, but to acknowledge them, to lift them to our creator and redeemer, and to stand in defiance of those enemies that would be too strong for us to overcome on our own.
To declare our trust in God is to recall the times in which God’s strength became our own, the times that we came through our struggles because we knew that Christ was with us in the midst of them, the times that the Spirit empowered us to move forward in faith, hope, and love toward the future that God was preparing for us.
To declare our trust in God is to bring our whole selves to God with the confidence that God will hear us and answer in accordance with God’s good and gracious will, a will that has been revealed throughout the generations of faithful people who have gone before us.
Brothers and sisters, today we declare that the Lord is our light and our salvation, and we refuse to give in to fear. Instead, we lift our voices, praying that the God who has promised to accompany us all our days will continue to make his presence known to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Lord, dear friends. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord! Amen.
When things are going well – when “life is good” – it’s not hard to come up with the language we need to describe the way we look at the world or the way we feel about God. The words of wisdom and praise that we’ve looked at over the past two weeks, epitomized by Psalm 1 and Psalm 113, come easily to our lips, and we find little difficulty lifting our voices to rejoice in the God who has created us to enjoy a world of beauty and joy and abundant life. We can talk with some confidence about how the righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed, about how great God is and how God is worthy to be praised.
When things fall apart, however, we often find it hard to speak. In part, that’s because the experience of trauma and pain and sadness deadens our minds. Even if we have something to say, it often takes more energy than we can muster to bring those words to the surface. There’s more to it than that, though, and it has something to do with a problem that I identified last week. We have a problem talking about suffering. We have a problem, in large part, because we’ve bought into a whole pack of half-truths that have left us paralyzed when the tough times come. Everything happens for a reason. God never gives us more than we can handle. He or she is in a better place. This must have been God’s will. I call these half-truths because each of them comes out of a place of sincere wrangling with the character and nature of God, and because in some circumstances they might be comforting to people. Perhaps you’ve found solace in one of these expressions during a time of trouble. If you’re anything like me, however, these well-meaning words have brought more harm than help when I’ve faced the reality of suffering and pain.
In the fall semester of my senior year of seminary, I was just getting up from my seat to enjoy a break in class, when I received a phone call from my father that shook me to the core. My cousin, Kenny, had been out jogging along the road near his house, training for his next weekend of duty with the US Army Reserve, when he unexpectedly collapsed and died on the spot. He was 21 years old and in peak physical condition, and yet in the blink of an eye he was gone. Katie and I packed our things and made the drive home to Michigan for his funeral service, which was going to be held on the following Monday morning. At the service, as I sat in the front row with the rest of my family, I was hoping to hear something – anything – that spoke to the unimaginable grief that we were experiencing, and I suspect that others may have heard what they needed, but I didn’t. Instead, the pastor’s sermon was filled with well-worn clichés about how it was Kenny’s time to go, about how God needed Kenny in heaven to play goalie, about how God’s will was unsearchable and unknowable. Maybe I’m just nit-picky. Maybe I was alone in being incensed at what I was hearing. But I don’t think so. I think I was dissatisfied with a message that failed to reckon with the pain, the anguish, the incomprehensibility of it all. I was missing the language of lament.
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3, NRSV)
Last week, I mentioned that the Hebrew name of this collection of songs that sits in the middle of our Bible is Sefer Tehillim, or “the Book of Praises”, and that this communicates a profound truth about the collection as a whole. Alongside that truth is a fact that you might find surprising, and that fact is this: at least one-third of the Psalms have been identified as psalms of lament, intended to express feelings of despair and longing, of anguish and pain. One-third of the psalms contain the words of individuals and communities struggling to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves, and crying out for deliverance from the God who has promised to be with them and see them through. Often, the language is stark: in various psalms the psalmist asserts his innocence, accuses God of being responsible for the pain and suffering that he is experiencing, and demands that God make things right today, if not yesterday. This is raw, honest, deep human emotion. These are words that take the promises of God seriously and don’t shy away from calling God to hold up God’s end of the deal.
We do ourselves a disservice, I think, when we tell ourselves that this kind of language isn’t appropriate for the believer. We have this idea that we are supposed to passively accept what happens to us, that God has a plan for all of us, and that if we can’t understand it we’re just supposed to grin and bear it. If that’s how we’re supposed to approach times of suffering – if that’s what Scripture is supposed to teach us about the relationship between God and the believer – then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with stuff like this:
O LORD God who delivers me!
By day I cry out
and at night I pray before you.
Listen to my prayer!
Pay attention to my cry for help!
For my life is filled with troubles
and I am ready to enter Sheol.
They treat me like those who descend into the grave.
I am like a helpless man,
adrift among the dead,
like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
and who are cut off from your power.
You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
in the dark places, in the watery depths.
Your anger bears down on me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)
You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
you make me an appalling sight to them.
I am trapped and cannot get free.
My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
I call out to you, O LORD, all day long;
I spread out my hands in prayer to you.
Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)
Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?
Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?
As for me, I cry out to you, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer confronts you.
O LORD, why do you reject me,
and pay no attention to me?
I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
Your anger overwhelms me;
your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
they join forces and encircle me.
You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
those who know me leave me alone in the darkness. (Psalm 88, NET)
God invites us to call out in our time of need, not with platitudes or half-truths, but with everything that we have and all that we are. That includes our questions and our doubts, our fears and our concerns, our anguish and our pain. It may be that we can look back on our experiences and discern the hand of God. It may be that we can look back and see, alongside the tragedy and the grief, something that has made us stronger. But in the moment, in the midst of the pain, we are not weak or faithless if we shout or scream or wail. If anything, in moments like that we are truly ourselves: people of God who trust that God can bear our pain and, in time, transform it.
Brothers and sisters, today we hear the unbridled language of lament. If you find yourself in a situation of pain or anguish, may these words free you to bring your whole selves before God and to know that God hears all of our prayers, draws us to Godself in the midst of our grief, and promises to bring us through the pain into a new day, a day in which the language of lament becomes the language of trust and hope. Amen.
Last week we began our six-week-long series on the Psalms by looking at how these songs help us to orient ourselves to a particular way of looking at the world. In Psalm 1 we were invited to see life as a choice between two paths – the path of the righteous, which leads to blessing, and the path of the wicked, which leads to destruction – and we reflected on some of the pitfalls of following that logic, specifically our tendency to equate suffering with unfaithfulness. We’ll see as our series continues that the psalmist will challenge that easy equation repeatedly throughout the collection.
This morning, we move from the so-called wisdom or instructional psalms – of which Psalm 1 is undoubtedly a part – to the psalms of praise, specifically focusing on Psalm 113. Expressions of praise were particularly important for the people of Israel who first composed these songs. In fact, the centrality of praise is reflected in the Hebrew name of this collection. The Hebrew language has a word – mizmor – which is roughly equivalent to our English word “psalm”. You might, then, expect this book to be called Sefer Mizmorim, which would literally mean “Book of Psalms”, in Hebrew, but you would be wrong. To this day, the collection of songs we call the Psalms is referred to in Hebrew as the Tehillim, or “Praises”.* What makes this fact significant is that it tells us something about the focus of these songs. There are many different kinds of Psalms, and yet this whole collection is unified by the fact that it says is addressed to and expresses deeply-held convictions about this God – the God who claimed Israel and promised to be with them (and us) – and that it encourages us to honor God for no other reason than that God is worthy of being honored and adored. In fact, that’s really what praise is all about: giving glory and honor to God simply for being God.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s not always a significant focus of my prayer life. I often find myself making requests of God, or thanking God for something that has happened to me or someone I love, but I don’t often find that my prayers are offered up simply because God is worthy of my praise. Psalm 113 then, helps us to recapture this important aspect of the life of prayer. Gratitude and petition are undoubtedly important, but they must always be balanced by prayer that expresses wonder or awe at simply being invited to share life with the creator of the heavens and the earth. So we turn to Psalm 113, which begins with this unabashed language of praise:
Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord! Praise the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.
From the rising of the son to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above the nations and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
(Psalm 113:1-6, NRSV)
It is only after these beautiful expressions of praise that the psalmist moves on to reflect on what kind of God we are being invited to praise, and in that move we find something that should still give us pause:
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.
to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 113:7-9, NRSV)
This is a truly remarkable claim, isn’t it? There’s something incredible, after all, about the assertion that the God who rules high over the nations, and whose name is praised from east to west, is also the God who cares intimately about the fate of the lowly, the marginalized, those who are pushed aside by the powerful and influential of this world. As Christians, of course, we can’t help but recognize in this psalm an echo of the life of Jesus, the one who literally embodied God’s care and concern for us and for the creation in his being born among us, suffering and dying for our sake, and rising again so that we might be raised up ourselves. It seems fitting, then, that there is a very tangible connection between Psalm 113 and one of the defining events of Jesus’ life. On the night of his betrayal, following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus and the Twelve sang a hymn as they left dinner and went toward the Mount of Olives to pray. The “hymns” that they were likely singing on the journey that would lead to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest were a selection of Psalms, known collectively as the “Hallel” or praise psalms, and the first of those Hallel psalms is, in fact, Psalm 113.
It might seem like a small thing, but I think there’s something powerful about hearing these words on the lips of Jesus and his disciples as they walked into a trap that would lead to his death. Knowing exactly what was going to happen to him, Jesus was still able to lift his voice to praise God and to express his conviction about God’s care and concern for those who are brought low by the world. We may not enjoy the intimacy with God that Jesus did, and yet we do well to recognize that these words of praise, these words that acknowledge God’s majesty and glory, can – and often do – transcend our circumstances. At the same time, these words aren’t spoken in a vacuum. So it is that the same Jesus who praised God as he approached the Mount of Olives would soon lift his voice in lament, using the kind of lament-filled language that we’ll look at more in depth next week.
For now, brothers and sisters, perhaps it is enough simply to acknowledge that the language of praise is an important part of the life of faith. As we honor God with our lips, we call to mind one of the vital truths of human existence – that for all of our creativity and power and strength and influence over the affairs of this world, we are not the creator. To be human is to be created in God’s image, and to acknowledge God as the one who has made our lives possible. This week, then, let us endeavor to praise God “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, confident that the one who hears our praise will also hear us in our time of need. Glory be to God! Amen.
*This insight appears, among other places, in the introduction to Robert Alter’s profound translation of The Book of Psalms, W.W. Norton and Co. (New York: 2007), xx.
Introduction to the Psalms – Psalm 1
When I was in college, I spent my summers working as a cabin counselor at Stony Lake Lutheran Camp in West Michigan. Every year, in late May, the staff would gather from all over the state (or in some years from across the country and around the world) to spend two weeks getting ourselves prepared for the task of carrying out that summer’s programming. One of the most important aspects of that preparation was immersing ourselves in that summer’s theme, the set of big ideas that would tie the week together and provide the structure for each day’s activities. One particular summer, I remember struggling mightily with the theme that had been selected for us by our leadership staff: Life Is Good!
On the one hand, it was a great theme for a summer camp, right? I mean, we were out in the woods of West Michigan, in a place that we as staff loved more than pretty much any other place on the planet, and we were working with people that we loved and respected and doing work that was meaningful and joy-filled and life-changing. Most days, when someone else on staff called out the question – How’s life? – it wasn’t difficult to give the standard response with enthusiasm: Life is good! On the other hand, of course, there were those days when the campers had kept me up late, or the weather had been particularly awful, or we staff people were getting on each others’ nerves after being together for seven weeks with very little break, or I’d gotten bad news from home, and it was really hard to hear that question – How’s life? – and even harder to respond, Life is good!
As we begin today’s six-week series on the Book of Psalms, I have some similar feelings. Psalm 1, which most commentators believe is placed at the head of the book of Psalms because it summarizes the outlook of the whole collection, is a sort of Life is good psalm, isn’t it?
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.
(Psalm 1, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
Psalm 1 represents the conviction that God has ordered the world well, and that God has given God’s people a great gift in Holy Scripture, specifically in the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. For the psalmist, those who heed the teaching of Scripture will be happy, fortunate, joyful, because they have committed themselves to a life of beauty and peace and wisdom and self-control, a life that accords with God’s desire for us and the whole creation. Conversely, those who refuse to adopt this way of thinking – the wicked – can expect to receive the logical consequence of their choice.
As with the whole life is good focus above, there are times when we can look at our lives and see in them the truth of this psalm: God presents a way of life that is good and pleasant and beautiful, and we can acknowledge God as the source of the happiness and joy that we are experiencing. We may indeed feel like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. But the opposite is also true. We have all experienced times in which we feel like trees planted in the middle of a desert, dried and withered, with leaves that rustle and crack in the wind, times in which nothing seems to go right, times in which the next person to ask you “How’s life?” is liable to get more than he or she bargained for.
So why start the book with this psalm? And why begin a series on the psalms with a passage whose truth might be perfectly clear one day and shadowed by pain and struggle and confusion the next? I think we start here because there’s something important in casting a vision of how the world should be. That’s precisely what’s happening here; the psalmist is encouraging those who sing these songs to orient themselves to a particular way of life, and to recognize that when things are going well, it is because of the gracious gift of instruction that aligns us and our lives with God’s purposes.* Alongside Psalm 1, of course, are the psalms of praise, songs that give us words to honor and glorify God for being holy and majestic, for creating a world of order and beauty, for choosing to dwell with us and bless us with the promise of grace. Next week, we’ll look more in depth at one of these psalms of praise, and consider how it helps us to see the world with eyes wide open to the power and presence of God being displayed throughout the earth.
Obviously, we can’t stop there, though many people would like to do so. I’ve mentioned many times before that we suffer from a spiritual malady in this country. We have a problem with how we look at (or refuse to look at) the reality of suffering. On the one hand, we have this tendency to take the logic of Psalm 1 and employ it in ways the psalmist never would. So, for example, when things go wrong for others, we assume that they haven’t been faithful, that there’s something about them that has brought God’s disfavor upon them. Similarly, when bad things happen to us, we are often overcome with guilt and shame, wondering what we’ve done to deserve it. If I had just had more faith… if I had just prayed more… if I hadn’t been so weak… none of this would have happened. When we do this to ourselves or others, we fail to recognize that we live in a world that is broken, and that good and faithful people often find themselves suffering just as much as the wicked. The psalms of lament give us language for expressing our despair, for bringing our lives in all their brokenness and pain and longing to the one who has promised to be with us. If Psalms 1 and 113 serve to orient us to a particular way of looking at the world, then the psalms of lament and trust – like Psalm 69 and 27 – serve to help us when we get thrown off balance, when suffering and pain disorient us and make us question whether or not God really has our backs.
After things fall apart, we also need handles to help us put our worlds back together. I feel confident in saying that all of us have come through suffering at one time or another and found ourselves drawn to new understandings of what it means to live with God. In some of the psalms of thanksgiving and praise – like Psalms 40 and 146 – we find language that speaks to a reoriented life of faith, a faith that knows the reality of suffering and loss and can speak with a new-found confidence in God’s power and presence in our lives.
These stages – orientation, disorientation, and new orientation – are not linear. We go through them in different times and places in our lives, and there’s no guarantee that we will move easily from one to another. But they do represent authentic expressions of what life with God looks like, and so the psalms help us to express our joys, our sorrows, our longings, and our gratitude amid all the peaks and valleys of our existence. Wherever you find yourself, it is my prayer that in the Psalms you will find language that speaks to you, that gives you comfort and hope, and that draws you into deeper relationship the God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Welcome to the journey. May we be nourished by the honesty of these songs as they echo through our lives in the days and weeks to come. Amen.
*This way of looking at the Psalms through the lenses of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation was treated at length in Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, part of the Augsburg Old Testament Studies series. I am indebted to Dr. Brueggemann for his insight into the psalms and their relevance to our lived experience of faith in God.