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Psalms of Praise 21 July

Psalm 96; Psalm 148; Matthew 4:1-11.

The third in a series of sermons on Psalms

Revd Tom Keates.

Why are Psalms important? Athanasius gave one reason back in the fourth century when he said that while most of scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. They put into song or at least poetry, what the nation of Israel wanted to say to God. Jan spoke to us about Psalms of lament, David Self talked last week about psalms of blessing. Later in the series Michael Vooght will be talking about psalms of waiting and Mick Spiller about psalms of pilgrimage. That leaves me to talk about psalms of praise.

When telling a story, the best place to start is at the very beginning. In looking at Psalms of praise it is best to look at the very end. Each of the last five Psalms 146-150 starts and ends with Alleluia. For this reason they are called the “Hallel Hymns”. The word itself is made up of a command Hallelu which means praise and yah which is a shortened version of God’s divine name Yahweh. There is no doubt that these are songs of praise. Every verse in Psalm 150 contains the word “praise”.  It is a sheer expression of joy in the Lord and to the Lord.

Psalms praising God characteristically have a simple threefold structure,

They open with a call to praise God, then say why he is worthy of praise and then there is a renewed exhortation to praise.

Look at the structure of psalm 148 which Diana read earlier. It starts off in the first four verses exhorting the heavenly host to praise God. Verses 5 and 6 say why – “at his command they were created” and “he gave them a law that shall not pass away”. The later verses return to the praise theme calling on all creation to praise God.

Psalm 96 which we sang this evening is also a song of praise. The first three verses tell of singing, blessing His wonderful Name, telling of his salvation and declaring His glory among the nations.

Verses 4-6 say why he should be praised, basically because he is above all gods and then the following verses say who and what should praise him similar to Psalm 148.

Notice in both psalms it is not just people and heavenly beings who praise the Lord, it is the whole of creation, so when we praise God we are joining with the whole company of earth and heaven.  How do things like the seas and the land and the mountains praise God?  

Remember when Jesus was riding into Jerusalem and the people were praising God and waving palms and scattering their coats. Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus to tell his disciples to keep quiet. He replied that if they kept silent, the stones would shout out.

I guess we don’t expect stones or trees or mountains to start singing and shouting but I think they praise God just by being there. I recall walking in the Brecon Beacons a couple of years ago. It was a lovely sunny day and as I looked around from the top of Pen-y-Fan, from the mountains that have been standing there for thousands of years my mind turned to the hymn which says; “When I look down form lofty mountain grandeur, then sings my soul, My God how great thou art”. If you can’t get out to the mountains, just look at the sky on a dark, clear night – it’s beautiful and awe inspiring. Just by being there creation is witnessing to and praising its creator. Just being what God wants us to be, what he made us to be, is a way of praising God.

I love waking up on the types of mornings we’ve been having recently when the sun is shining through the curtains and the birds are singing. I find it impossible NOT to praise God. One of the songs that often comes to mind goes

“Blessed be your name

When the sun's shining down on me

When the world's ‘all as it should be'

Blessed be your name”.

It’s easy to praise the Lord when it’s all going swimmingly but what about if I’ve just been told that a loved one is suffering from a terminal illness? What about if I wake up to find the land flooded for miles around and all the crops that I had grown to feed my cattle are underwater (think back to earlier in the year). What about if I am woken up in the night by the sound of gunfire and killing (think about Syria or Egypt). I could go on but many of you will all have your own examples of dark times when you have found it hard to see God in your situation or had the will to praise Him.

Job was in that situation where he had lost everything and his response in Job chapter 1 verse 21 was so say “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.”

When disasters occur, we often hear people asking “where is God in this?” After the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 the reply to that question from one of the Christian communities in Haiti was “We know exactly where God is in this situation – he is right here alongside us!”  If we have that sort of trust in God, like Job, like the people of Haiti, we too can sing the second part of that verse I quoted earlier:-

“Blessed be your name

On the road marked with suffering

Though there's pain in the offering

Blessed be your name”.

David explained to us last week how even the dark times come with blessings. We might not see what they are, we might not discover them until later, but that’s why we should praise him even through those times. When can do that, we are well on the way to true discipleship; trusting in God as Jesus did.

Praising God is important. Jesus was always doing it through prayer, through the way he behaved, through his obedience to God. Right at the start of his ministry, straight after his baptism, he goes off into the dessert, lead by the spirit, as we read in Matthew. He has gone there, as he often did in his ministry to talk to his Father. He is alone. Well almost alone! When he is at His weakest having fasted for forty days He is tempted by the devil. The responses he makes to those temptations tell us a lot about what should be on our hearts when we offer our praise to God.

When Jesus is invited to turn stones into bread, a sensible thing to do, if you can, when you are hungry, his reply shows that while bread is important, listening to God’s word is also important. To praise God properly we need to listen to His word – the Bible.

When Jesus is invited to test God by throwing himself off the temple he replies “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Our praise to God, as in the psalm, should reflect our thanks for, and tell of the great things he has done. He doesn’t need to prove himself to us by more wonders – He’s already done that.

Lastly when Satan invites Jesus to worship him by offering things that aren’t his to give, Jesus replies “It is written worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”.

That’s pretty much what verses 4 and 5 of Psalm 96 say.  “He is to be revered above all gods, for all the gods of the people are idols but the Lord made the heavens”. He is the only one worthy of our praise. So our praise should reflect what he has told us through His word, the faithfulness he has shown us throughout history and the fact that he is our creator and as such knows and loves what he has made.

What does this mean in practice in terms of how we praise God?

We might praise God in worship songs like the one I quoted earlier, which we often use at 4all; we might sings hymns and psalms to a traditional organ as we do here at Evensong, or praise on the lyre and trumpet as in the psalms or even on the harp as we are led to believe the angels do in heaven.

We might sing Cantate Domino as Psalm 96 is called in the Book of Common Prayer, we might prefer a traditional hymn like “O worship the Lord in the Beauty of holiness” from Hymns Ancient and Modern or a Kevin Mayhew song like “Blessed be your Name”.

We might like to move our bodies rhythmically as our friends in Bufumbo do, or lift our hands in praise or quietly kneel and offer our praise to God in silence and wonder.

All these things are worthy and acceptable to the Lord when they are offered in spirit and in truth. It is what is in our hearts that is important to God. So we praise God not only with hymns and psalms of praise but in the manner we live our lives and in the love we show for all of his creation.

It is all summed up in a prayer which appears at the end of Psalm 96 in Common Worship. It goes like this.

Lord you draw us by your beauty and transform us by your holiness;

Let our worship echo all creation’s praise and declare your glory to the nations;

through Jesus Christ out Lord.  Amen.