09 July 2017

Sermon – “An Alphabet of Praise” (Psalm 145)

 I will exalt you, my God the King;
     I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
     and extol your name for ever and ever.
So ran the opening verses of the psalm we read together a few moments ago this morning. And did you realize it? But as we walked through those first eleven verses, we walked through half the Hebrew alphabet as well? Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, waw, zayin… Psalm 145 is one of eight of what are known as acrostic psalms in the Old Testament, with the first word of each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The longest and most complex of them is Psalm 119, where each line of each succeeding set of eight verses begins with the same letter of the alphabet.
The psalms encompass a rich variety of poetic forms. More importantly, they cover the entire range of human emotions, from overflowing joy and praise to deep sorrow and lament.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord,
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept…
How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The psalms were at the core of the magnificent worship of the Temple. But they were also composed for more humble circumstances, to be used both within the context of the family home and also on an individual basis. Some of the most loved psalms are the most deeply personal ones: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
It is no wonder, then, that the psalms, which are so central to Jewish worship, should also have become essential to Christian worship from the very beginning. In the mediæval period this led to the incomparable music of plainsong and Gregorian chant. Sublime as that music is, it meant that for the vast majority of congregations the psalms became something to listen to rather than to be sung. And so one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the introduction of metrical psalms, psalms that could easily be sung to the popular tunes of the day.
The metrical psalms formed the backbone of Protestant hymnody for more than three centuries. In my mind’s eye I can picture great crowds of people gathering not only in churches, but in the marketplaces and public squares (maybe even in the taverns!) to join in singing the metrical psalms.
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie…
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him and rejoice…
Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ…
I can only believe that the church would be greatly strengthened today by a return to the psalms. How much would we be enriched if they were to take their rightful place both within our public worship and also in our private devotions! And so, with those thoughts in mind, I’d like us to turn for the next few moments to Psalm 145, which I have entitled “An Alphabet of Praise”. (Take heart, by the way. I don’t intend to preach through all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—but just to highlight three themes that I see more generally emerging from this psalm.)

Our Mighty Creator

As David opens, he acknowledges that he is standing in the presence of the King of all creation. Indeed, he is astounded by the sheer majesty and awesomeness of God. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise,” he sings. “His greatness no one can fathom.” “His greatness is unsearchable,” runs the old King James Version of the Bible. “God is magnificent,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation in The Message. “He can never be praised enough. There are no boundaries to his greatness.”
Whenever we begin to worship God, it is important to stop and to take time to recognize the one into whose presence we are coming. It is a temptation to rush into worship. Most of us lead busy lives. We have jobs. We have families. We have things to do. I remember before I retired, friends who had already retired warning me, “You’ll be so busy in retirement that you won’t know how you managed to do all the things you did before.” Frankly, I’m not sure I believed them. Well, I’ve been retired for a couple of years now—and they were right!
If we are truly going to offer God the worship he deserves, though, we need to take time to stop and to consider who he is—to be still, as another psalm instructs us, and know that he is God. We need to put behind us all the cares and busyness of life—the children that need attending to, the bills that need to be paid, the papers that are piling up on my desk at work, the emails that need to be answered, the lawn that needs to be mown and a thousand and one other preoccupations—and focus on him. To remember that we are entering the presence of the King of all creation, the Ruler of all that is. And I grant that that is not an easy exercise.
As David does this, he becomes aware that he is not alone in his praise—that his praise is just an echo of the praise of every generation and indeed of all creation. I know that I have had that sense as I have stood in some of the great cathedrals of Europe. As I gaze up at the ancient stained glass, as I see the places where the stone floor has been worn down by generations of worshippers, I become aware of the deep truth of what we say week by week in my own Anglican liturgy,
Therefore with angels and archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
we laud and magnify thy glorious name,
evermore praising thee and saying,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord most high!
David himself said this in his own words in Psalm 19 when he sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And do you remember that incident in the gospels when a crowd of Jesus’ followers began to burst forth with joyful praise to God for the miracles they had been witnessing? The Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:37-40).
So this morning here at St James’ Church in Truro, Nova Scotia, we recognize that our prayers and our songs of worship are an echo of the praise that rings down a thousand generations and throughout the world today, as we stand in the presence of the Maker of the universe, supreme over everything that exists.

Our Gracious Provider

From his contemplation of God as his mighty creator, David moves in the psalm to a more personal level. In verse 8 he declares, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” Now those words were not original to David. They are found a number of times in the Old Testament. We first meet with them in the book of Exodus, when Moses has climbed to the peak of mount Sinai to meet with the Lord. Moses has had the audacity to ask the Lord to show him his glory but God answers him no, for no one may see his face and live. However, not long afterwards he does pass in front of Moses, proclaiming these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
What David was doing was echoing the very words that God himself had used to describe himself. And the point is this: that our God is a god who reveals himself personally. And he wants each of us to know him on that level—not merely as the Creator of the starry skies, but as the one who loves and cares for each of his children, who calls us by name.
One of the things I didn’t take into account when we bought our house in Halifax a couple of years ago was how long it would take me to mow the lawn. It turns out that it takes more than two and a half hours. Rather than it being a nuisance, however, I’ve come to enjoy that time, as it gives me an opportunity, with the lawn mower buzzing and my ear protectors on, to shut out the rest of the world for a little while and to meditate and praise God. One song I found myself singing as I mowed this past week (and I can’t explain why, but that goes for a lot of things that pop into my head) was a hymn that I don’t think is in any of the hymnbooks any more—perhaps because it’s regarded as too sentimental. But maybe there are some of you who remember it from your childhood:
God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.
And then there’s the chorus:
He loves me too, he loves me, too,
I know he loves me too;
Because he loves the little things,
I know he loves me too.
So it is that David writes, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” One of the discoveries I was delighted to make this past week as I studied this psalm is that the word “compassion” here is used elsewhere to describe the tender love of a mother. In fact, it is related to the word for “womb”. And so we find that our heavenly Father watches over us and cares for us with a mother’s love.[1] We see this further in verses 15 and 16:
The eyes of all look to you,
     and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
     and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Our Faithful Protector

In this psalm, then, we look to God as our mighty creator, supreme over every being, and our gracious provider, who looks after our every need. There is one other thought that I would like us to focus on this morning, and it’s found in the final section of the psalm:
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
     and faithful in all he does.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
     to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfils the desires of those who fear him;
     he hears their cry and saves them.
King David himself could bear personal witness to God’s faithfulness in his life: in giving him victory over the giant Goliath, in protecting him from the jealous rage of King Saul, in forgiving him for his egregious affair with Bathsheba… No doubt if David were here this morning he could share numerous other evidences of God’s faithfulness in his life. And I’m sure that many of us would not have to think too hard to do the same.
Yet as we follow that path of God’s faithfulness from whatever direction, whether forwards from King David writing in 1000 bc or backwards from today in 2017 ad, it will inevitably lead us to a homeless couple in Bethlehem gazing in awe at a tiny child, to a preacher who reached out his hand to touch a leper, to a dying man hanging naked on a cross and gasping, “Father, forgive them…,” to a woman standing outside an empty tomb and stuttering in amazement to the man who stood in front of her (who she thought was the gardener), “Rabboni!” Years later the apostle Paul would reflect, “All God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Like so many of the psalms, this one will have done its work if it draws you and me into greater gratitude, into deeper amazement, and into closer fellowship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—our mighty Creator, our gracious Provider and our faithful Protector. In the final words of our psalm,
Let every creature praise his name for ever and ever!

[1]  See note on Psalm 103:13 in the New Bible Commentary Revised, page 515.

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