The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 6, 2018
Why is it so important to God that we, as today’s scripture commands, “break forth into joyous song and sing praises” to God? Does God need our expressions of appreciation? Is He insecure and seeking assurance?
Actress/writer Julia Sweeney – a self-identifying atheist – thinks the Bible, absurdly, suggests that very thing. Why else, she asks, would God keep pleading with us to praise Him? Mustn’t He be insecure to insist we tell Him each week He’s wonderful and number one with us?
In truth, God existed alone, in perfect happiness, long before anything else existed. It was only out of His loving generosity that He created what else exists; and He created, not because He sought creatures to allay His self-doubt or to stroke His ego, but because He thought existence too good to keep to Himself and wanted to share beyond Himself life in all its magnificence.
God, being the Father of all blessings, needs no blessing; but, because He is that Father, He wants to bless whenever He has opportunity.
When then God urges us to sing to Him “a new song” and to repeatedly revel in the “marvelous things” He has done, He is not thinking of doing Himself a favor, but of doing us one. Though, in order for it to do us a favor, worship has to be all about Him, worship is in its fundamental purpose all about us – about giving us full joy in the One who can bring us our biggest joy.
C.S. Lewis has observed, “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment…It is not out of flattery that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good the author is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur, and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in a ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with…Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In telling us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
This particular Psalm, the 98th, tells us to exult in God’s marvelous exploits, that in that exaltation of Him we might experience joyous exhilaration – an outburst of delight so strong it has to express itself exuberantly, by raising a racket, by making “a joyous noise”, by shouting and singing in holy revelry.
Worshipping ought to be as exciting as running into the arms of a lover from whom we’ve long been separated, as thrilling as being given a chance to meet the movie star or athlete we’ve always idolized, as rousing as joining a rally to celebrate the victory of the home team we’ve spent our life cheering for. Reveling in God’s marvelous exploits, through the repeated rehearsal of them in worship, ought to be as satisfying as watching our most-loved movie the umpteenth time, as exhilarating as listening over and over again to our favorite song, as stirring as lingering long before the panorama of a stunning rocky shoreline.
We revel again and again in what we adore so as to absorb its greatness more and more. Thus, the saints have built sanctuaries to provide a venue in which to revel in God’s greatness and absorb it more and more.
A sanctuary is a place where God always will be. Of course, God is present in every place and at every moment as well, but God is present in a unique and particularly potent way whenever people of faith draw together to celebrate Him and send up sparks of faith that warm God’s heart and set each other afire.
A sanctuary is also a place where God’s great exploits always will be rehearsed. Of course, we can think of them wherever we are and at whatever time we wish, but the memories are more reliable and rousing in the congregation of those who’ve experienced their ongoing reality first-hand and can celebrate them heartily.
But, if all that is so, how come we sometimes fall asleep in worship; how come we sometimes are bored instead of bug-eyed and breathless with excitement?
Part of the reason is that we are not yet completely capable of taking in much of God’s magnificence. Thus, as an accommodation to our limitations and weakness, God holds Himself back a bit lest His glory overwhelm us and burst our hearts with an overload they can’t handle. God has to love us as we have to love a small kitten. We want to hug it with all our might, but we restrain ourselves lest we crush the small and fragile creature in our ardor. We have to draw it to us gently, and not too tight to our chest; and we have to talk to it softly.
Another part of the reason is that we are not yet completely willing to take in much of God’s magnificence. We prefer to keep God in the cushioned box we’ve made for Him, that we might at the times of our own choosing pull Him out to play with and to pet. We are afraid of how the awesome wonder of Him might command something out of us that might overtake us, and cause us to lose control. We want a less disconcerting and untamable God who just helps us a little here, forgives us a little there, and mostly lets us manage our life on our own. We want God on our terms – just enough of Him to make us feel better but not so much as to turn our world upside down.
Encountering the living and holy God, however, cannot be anything but dicey, dangerous and downright scary. We gain the courage to deal with His majesty and His wild, earth-shaking exploits by approaching the holy, not alone, but in the company of an encouraging and supportive community. In such company we can dare to take in His formidable reality, His unsettling designs and His revolutionary victory – and allow it to move us to join the victory song lifted by His faithful ones and all the forces of nature.
By the courage we obtain in the bolstering and steadying company of the church, we come to enjoy God in all the dimensions of who He is and what He does, and to exult even in what before might have terrified us, such as His executing judgment – which this Psalm especially celebrates. Verse two praises God for His “vindication”: His confirming His good name in righteousness, His rewarding the upright, His giving the victimized justice and the oppressors their come-uppance, and His putting all creatures in proper alignment and into correct functioning. The Psalm concludes by rejoicing in God’s coming to “judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity”.
That coming judgment is a praiseworthy exploit of the future well worth exalting in the present. Because of it, we sing God a new song, for we believe He will surely fix this broken world shattered by injustice, violence and exploitation. We praise God because we believe He so hates what defaces, distorts or damages His beautiful creation, particularly that part bearing His image, that we just know that He will at last do something decisive about evil and set everything right.
Let us celebrate God’s exploits past, present and future, that we might exalt His name and exult in joy over there being such a marvelous God, so worthy of our heart-felt and exuberant worship. Let us pray.