My purpose is not to convince you of how ignorant I am of world
and personal affairs: there’s no way anyone can keep up on
everything, always. What I want to talk about is where is God in
all of this? Is God out in the cosmos somewhere, detached from it
all; watching it all unfold from a distance? Or is God in control
of every move we make, with foreknowledge of every word we -- and
anyone else -- is going to say before it is even on our lips?
These are not simple questions, even for a preacher. Fortunately,
I have the witness of other witnesses to lean on, and my own convictions
to share with you. Our text is the entirety of Psalm 149. As you
have heard me say before -- and some of you may even remember --
this is one of the Hallel psalms. This is the group of psalms at
the very end of the entire collection of 150 psalms: psalms 146
through 150, each of which begins with the command Praise the Lord!
In Hebrew, the original language of the psalms, the imperative verb
for praise is “hallel” and the object of that verb is
the title “El,” or Lord. This command is written as
a single word: Halleluia! Which means: You -- all of you -- Praise
Psalm 149 is kind of the neglected child of the Hallel Psalms.
It’s sandwiched between the two most popular Hallel psalms.
I won’t read them in their entirety, but if you have a Bible,
I invite you to turn there. Psalm 148 does this great thing where
is goes through the Hebrew hierarchy of creation: the firmament,
the angels, the sun and moon, all the way down through sea monsters
and cedar to young women and how they’re all supposed to praise
the Lord. Everything, always.
Psalm 150 was written especially to put the exclamation point on
the collection of 149 worship songs, and it lists many of the instruments
which can be used to praise the Lord, including two kinds of cymbals:
clanging symbols, and loud clashing cymbals. Generations of musicians
have found validation in this psalm; if God loves loud clashing
cymbals, God is probably OK with guitars and congas and accordions
and zithers. Everything, always.
Psalm 149 is sandwiched between Psalm 148 and Psalm 150: what are
the odds, right? It’s more specific than the entire creation
of 148, but broader than that list of instruments in 150. Psalm
149 is almost exclusively about people, and it asserts something
important which is missing from Psalms 148 and 150. Psalm 149 says
that God loves us back. Verse 4 says, “God takes pleasure
in his people and adorns the humble with victory.” I think
this is clue to the question of where is God in all of this? God
did not simply set up creation and then walk away from it -- what
people do matters to God. It probably doesn’t affect the course
of the stars or the moon, but God takes pleasure in people.
Perhaps not all people. Stay with me here, because this is sensitive
ground we’re about to step on to. Verse 4 talks about God
taking pleasure his people, and then verse 6 says, “Let the
high praise of God be in their [that is, the people’s] throats
and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the
nations and punishment on the peoples.” How did high praise
and vengeance and punishment get put together in the same sentence?
When did two-edged swords get to be part of our praise? I think
this, too, speaks to God’s agency in the world, and it is
why I cannot subscribe to the narrative of a God who has pre-ordained
every move we make and every word we say. There is evil in the world
and innocent people are abused and murdered. I cannot believe that
God pre-ordains evil against the innocent. There are natural disasters
and there are devout and righteous people as well as unrepentant
sinners in the path of every wildfire, hurricane, and tornado which
threaten anyone. Sometimes, the innocent and the unrepentant are
the same people. None of us are entirely good or entirely evil;
and anyone who thinks those groups of people can be neatly sorted
is kidding themselves. Most of us have tried to do some good at
least some of the time, and still we have sinned and fallen short.
That’s why we need Jesus Christ. That’s a different
testament and a different sermon.
I believe the witness of this psalm is that people matter to God.
What we do matters to God: our praise, in which God takes pleasure,
and our sin, which corrupts nations and oppresses other people,
and brings vengeance on ourselves. I believe that we matter enough
to God that God allows us to make choices about how we will behave.
The witness of history is that we have made some terrible choices;
that is why we need Jesus Christ. That’s a different testament
and a different sermon.
Here is the choice which the psalms -- especially these final psalms
of the collection -- offer. You -- all of you -- praise the Lord!
Not praise the Lord or someone will smite you with divine wrath,
but praise the Lord because that is a tangible way that we present
a counter-narrative to evil and death and destruction. All those
woes which I listed at the beginning of this sermon -- they’re
all real things, but they are not the beginning and end of the story.
If we make them the beginning and end of the story, we come up with
a distorted image of God: a God who uses hurricanes to punish certain
people in specific places. I cannot praise a God who would do that,
and I will not listen to religious leaders who want to pick and
choose what kinds of sin God is unhappy about in other people, and
ignore the evil in their own hearts. Praise for everything, always,
is the antidote to the poison of making God a partner to my agenda.
There is a tangible sign of God’s faithfulness to us, and
God’s commitment to be at work in the world and to be in relationship
with people. Many of you, I hope, got a chance to see this rainbow
on Wednesday evening. I was driving east from South Bend to Elkhart,
and got to watch it develop -- in between glances at traffic on
the bypass. It was one of the brightest rainbows I have ever seen.
I drove to Creekside as quickly as I could; this is not the best
photo I’ve seen of last week’s rainbow, but it is one
of my favorite places. It reminded me of another rainbow that I
witnessed here with David and Ann, at the rehearsal dinner for our
children’s wedding, which was here at Creekside almost exactly
two years ago. God is good, all the time.
Now, as then, the rainbow reminded me of the beauty of God’s
creation -- I know about light diffraction and water droplets --
it’s still God’s creation. It reminded me that God has
promised to remain in relationship with humanity: God is not an
absentee parent; God is not a puppet-maker who is pulling the strings
which control our every move, but God is part of our lives and our
world: everything, always. God loved us so much, that God chose
to be part of our lives and part of our world as Jesus Christ. Another
testament, another sermon.
Our first response to that kind of glory and that kind of love
should be praise: praise for everything, always. Praise that rain
doesn’t last forever, praise that God has seen us through
with the help of others along the way. Praise for wonder of creation,
praise for tangible signs of God’s faithfulness and love.
Praise God from whom all blessing flow. Everything, always.