Training Our Lips For Joy

Training Our Lips For Joy
Easter 2 2017
Rev. Doug Floyd
Psalm 111

This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it. We are standing, living, celebrating the joyous day of of the Lord. The day of resurrection. The first day of new creation. The beginning of all things afresh in the light of the Risen Son. During these fifty days of Eastertide, the church sings, rehearses, celebrates, and lives in light of this day, this new day of Resurrection. By doing so, we anticipate the day when all days open to The Day, the One Day, the Day of the Lord. The day of life and hope and the eternal life of Christ made manifest in us, through us, and in all things.

In the risen and ascended Jesus Christ, the Day of the Lord becomes a day of great rejoicing when all the saints in heaven and earth join together in song, in one voice, in one great shout, one great Alleluia, shaking the very foundations of all things with joy, joy, joy.

Living in the joy of the Lord does not always seem natural to us. We live in an age of critique, of sarcasm, of complaint. The voice of unbridled praise seems suspect and sometimes feels unnatural on our lips. We are aware of the problems, of the disappointments, of the way other have failed us. Complaint feels so natural on our lips.

“I can’t believe the way that server treated me!”

“No one has even thanked me for all the work I did.”

“It’s not fair.”

Rod Jellema speaks of our tendency to critique his poem, “Grading God’s Sunsets.” He speaks of…

The madcap mockery of grading God as though
He were a struggling student artist
(Cut loose, strip it down, study Matisse
and risk something, something unseen–
C-plus, keep trying–that sort of thing)[1]

Critique and complaint fall naturally from our lips while praise requires conscious effort.

GK Chesterton once said that our imaginations our weak, so we have difficulty delighting in monotony.[2] Whereas a child can repeat the same activity over and over with sheer delight. How do we live as people of the Resurrection, as the community of the joyful? How do we sustain our amazement and wonder and delight at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Or simply how do we sustain our amazement at the sheer wonder of being alive?

Age upon age, our world has struggled with this challenge of resting, trusting, and delighting in the faithfulness of God in the midst of the world, in the midst of struggles, in the midst of imperfect people and imperfect communities.

And yet, the people of God have always aspired to live in the reality of this continual song of praise, this prayer without ceasing, this thanksgiving that wells up like a river of living water from our hearts.

Our Psalm for today gives us a glimpse of God’s people seeking to walk in this way of joy, of song, of sheer delight in the goodness of God. Psalm 111 is a great Alleluia to the sheer goodness of our Creator and Redeemer. The psalmist recounts the “great works of the Lord” ‘sand declares that these works are to be “studied by all who delight in them.”

In verse 4, the Psalmist tells us that “He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;” (Ps 111:4). The creating and redeeming works of God are memorials of His goodness and grace. As we remember the works of God, we rehearse His goodness in the land of the living. As we’ve talked about in the past, the Jews don’t typically build physical memorials. They don’t typically build stone statues like we might. Their memorials are built in time, in memory, in meals, in rehearsing, retelling stories, singing. These are the memorials of God.

The Psalmist provides us with images linking to a series of events in God’s redeeming or covenantal action: he provides food for those who fear him; he gave them the inheritance of the nations; he sent redemption to his people. These images recall to mind the rescue from Egypt and the entrance into the Promised Land.

The entire Old Testament provides a record of His wondrous works that we are to remember and rehearse His saving action in Israel. At the same time, His saving action is at work through Israel to gather the nations. This saving action is brought to fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This short Psalm is an acrostic Psalm in that each line beings with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Typically an acrostic poem indicates that the Hebrew writer is making a comprehensive statement about the topic. So in this case, this short little Psalm is trying to help us see the big picture, the overall picture of God’s saving and redeeming action from beginning to end and it is calling upon us to join in this song of praise as well as to study and reflect deeply upon these works of God.

As we think of reorienting our voices from critique to praise, we might think of these two actions rehearsing the works of God in Israel’s history, the Gospel, in the history of the church, and even in our own lives while also rehearsing the work of God all around us in creation. We rehearse these mighty works in song, in study and even in participation.

With this in mind, I want to highlight a few details in verses 1 and 2.

The Psalmist begins in song,
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation. (Ps 111:1)

This phrase “Praise the Lord” is actually a word we are all familiar with, particularly during this season of Easter joy. It is Alleluia!

The word Alleluia rolls over our tongue with a smile. In fact, I think it may be difficult to say, Alleulia without any sense of delight. It is a fun word to say, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

There are actually two words inside this word: Halel and Yah. Yah is the short expression of our covenant God and Halel is an expression of delight. Proverbs 31, uses halal to praise the good wife and mother. It is a joyous explosion on the lips in fact, there is some sense of movement in the word Halel. Like a shout rising up from the depths of belly and exploding out from the lips.

Alleluia is truly the ringing song of joy echoing from the people of God across the ages. Like ancient Israel, our voices ring out this ancient eruption of praise to the God of the covenant. The Alleluia resonates inward and outward in praise to the faithfulness of the Lord.

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation. (Psalm 111:1b)

This second word for praise (yawdaw) is more nuanced than the Alleluia. It carries both the sense of confession and profession. I offer my confession of weakness and my profession of faith in the company of the upright and in the congregation. Through my tongue my whole person is offered in worship. It says my whole heart, my whole person, I offer who I am up to the Lord, which is actually something that we have to learn how to do because it’s not, it’s actually not easy to do. John Calvin said the psalmist is honest with God and expresses himself fully but he says John Calvin is not honest with God. I only express some of who I am to God. We have difficulty expressing fully who we are, the hidden places in our heart. We have to learn how to become a people that are whole-hearted, that offer the full confession of our brokenness and our joy.

The company of the upright has a sense of a smaller group and even a secret group of counselors or friends. There is a place to bring my fears and struggles and weaknesses in the small company of friends. There is even a time when I bring my frustrations and complaints to trusted friends. But this should not be a rehearsal to extend those complaints to the wider world. Instead, think of these soul friends as a people and place of safety where God can meet me in my brokenness.

In my own life, these times of intimate sharing have helped me to bring my needs and life into the light of God’s grace.There’s a sense where I’m cultivating this shared intimacy which is actually one of the great ways that I learn how to become a person of joy, is walking together with a few people. This is why I actually like the Canterbury Tales, the idea of the Canterbury Tales. You have a group of people on pilgrimage and not all their stories are sacred. The are just human stories. Some of them are sacred. Some of them are bawdy. They’re human stories, humans learning how to share but they’re on a holy journey. They’re on the journey toward the holy city.

There’s a sense where I’m cultivating this shared intimacy which is actually one of the great ways that I learn how to become a person of joy, is walking together with a few people. This is why I actually like the Canterbury Tales, the idea of the Canterbury Tales. You have a group of people on pilgrimage and not all their stories are sacred. The are just human stories. Some of them are sacred. Some of them are bawdy. They’re human stories, humans learning how to share but they’re on a holy journey. They’re on the journey toward the holy city.It has this, in a big sense, this image of God’s people on a journey. We see in the Old Testament, particularly as we move into the psalms of ascent, the children of Israel traveling to Jerusalem for a big festival. This particular psalm today is most likely a

It has this, in a big sense, this image of God’s people on a journey. We see in the Old Testament, particularly as we move into the psalms of ascent, the children of Israel traveling to Jerusalem for a big festival. This particular psalm today is most likely a passover psalm. A psalm that is sung as you’re going to the passover feast. You travel with this group of people and ther arestories as I travel toward the feast. It is in that exchange that I learn how to be human.Now the sad thing is sometimes in the Christian community one of two things might happen. One I might be fearful of actually learning how to be open hearted with a group of people. So as a result you have a group of Christians that are meeting to share and nobody’s actually being honest. Everyone is actually acting so much more spiritual than they really feel. I remember many years ago when I was in college … You know college always has these late night emotional times, people are sharing. I’m sitting on the floor in somebody’s house and people are talking about what the Lord’s done in their lives.

Now the sad thing is sometimes in the Christian community one of two things might happen. One I might be fearful of actually learning how to be open hearted with a group of people. So as a result you have a group of Christians that are meeting to share and nobody’s actually being honest. Everyone is actually acting so much more spiritual than they really feel. I remember many years ago when I was in college … You know college always has these late night emotional times, people are sharing. I’m sitting on the floor in somebody’s house and people are talking about what the Lord’s done in their lives.They came to me and I said, “Well I don’t feel so good right now. In fact I’m pretty bad. I’m aggravated about something.” I don’t remember what I said actually. Then right after I said it, somebody said, “Well now that you say that, I’m actually kind of struggling too.” Before you knew it, all these people that a moment ago were like experiencing all the good things of God suddenly got honest and said, “Yeah, I’m really, I really need God’s grace.” That’s hard for us to do.

They came to me and I said, “Well I don’t feel so good right now. In fact I’m pretty bad. I’m aggravated about something.” I don’t remember what I said actually. Then right after I said it, somebody said, “Well now that you say that, I’m actually kind of struggling too.” Before you knew it, all these people that a moment ago were like experiencing all the good things of God suddenly got honest and said, “Yeah, I’m really, I really need God’s grace.” That’s hard for us to do.

But on the other hand, I could get to the other extreme where every time we share with one another, all we do is complain, about how bad life is. That’s not exactly the idea either. Somehow it’s this place where we’re learning we are learning how to train our tongues and hearts to worship the Lord. We are learning how to be vulnerable. It often requires time together. Sometimes it’s just with one person. Someone I can be completely honest with and vulnerable with.

I have a friend that I’ve met every two weeks for well going on 17 years for breakfast. I had this great fear that I never knew how to express to anyone until we were eating together one day. The fear is actually almost silly but I didn’t have any way to express it. Somehow in the midst of our conversation, I told him I’m absolutely terrified of having a heart attack in a public place. He sat there a minute and said, “Why don’t you fall down right now and act like you’re having a heart attack and get it over with.”
I never had that fear again. Sometimes we need someone that we can walk alongside, that we can begin, the Spirit of God begins to heal us and bring us to the resurrected Christ.Then the psalmist brings the praise into the congregation. Now I come into the congregation. We offer our collective voice, one voice, up in praise to God, and on the one hand, this is speaking of the gathered community even today. Every time the people of God gather, we are lifting up our voices in praise and thanksgiving and joy.

Then the psalmist brings the praise into the congregation. Now I come into the congregation. We offer our collective voice, one voice, up in praise to God, and on the one hand, this is speaking of the gathered community even today. Every time the people of God gather, we are lifting up our voices in praise and thanksgiving and joy.Sometimes in lamentation, not enough actually in the modern church to gather in lament and cry out for the struggles of the world. It’s clear that’s a pattern in Scripture for the people of God to do. But we gather together and we cry out together and we pray together and we worship together, but there’s another sense in which when we gather, we’re anticipating another gathering. A community of God across the ages. So there’s one sense that when we shout the hallelujah we are saying the hallelujah with the great communion of saints. There is this, especially the way the Celts viewed it, there’s this sense we are glimpsing into the eternal marriage supper. We are actually entered into the pages of Revelation and offering our praises as one people of God across the ages, one voice celebrating the goodness of God.

Sometimes in lamentation, not enough actually in the modern church to gather in lament and cry out for the struggles of the world. It’s clear that’s a pattern in Scripture for the people of God to do. But we gather together and we cry out together and we pray together and we worship together, but there’s another sense in which when we gather, we’re anticipating another gathering. A community of God across the ages. So there’s one sense that when we shout the hallelujah we are saying the hallelujah with the great communion of saints. There is this, especially the way the Celts viewed it, there’s this sense we are glimpsing into the eternal marriage supper. We are actually entered into the pages of Revelation and offering our praises as one people of God across the ages, one voice celebrating the goodness of God.

Our worship anticipates the extension of God’s people into the eternal gathering of God’s people gathered and lifting up song to our great and generous Lord.

Verse 2
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.

We’ve already seen how these works of God are seen in creation and in the history of God’s people. These works of God are covenantal, are rooted in His faithful love for His people. He creates a world of glory where we can grow up into the fulness of His love. He also sustains His people in the midst of this world as we face our own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the nations.In one sense we can see Psalm 111 as a direct response to Psalm 1 because Psalm 1 is warning us not to walk into this company of cynics and complainers and doubters but be the person who feasts, who meditates upon the word of God all day long.

In one sense we can see Psalm 111 as a direct response to Psalm 1 because Psalm 1 is warning us not to walk into this company of cynics and complainers and doubters but be the person who feasts, who meditates upon the word of God all day long.

Now in psalm 111 he’s telling us what we’re meditating on, the works of God. The goodness of God in creating the world and sustaining the world and redeeming the world. That’s what we are meditating on. We’re rehearsing it. We’re literally studying it, which has to do with the idea of pondering it, seeking it out, meditating, pausing over it, waiting over it, listening over it.As I hear that, I think of some of the great poets across the ages like Gerard Manly Hopkins who, his poetry is a direct response to God’s creation but he’s also seeing the hand of God in the creation. He’s pausing and he’s looking at a flower and he uses one word, this notion of “inscape,” that as he pauses over this one thing in creation like this flower, he begins to behold the beauty of its unique characteristics that differentiate it from other things.

As I hear that, I think of some of the great poets across the ages like Gerard Manly Hopkins who, his poetry is a direct response to God’s creation but he’s also seeing the hand of God in the creation. He’s pausing and he’s looking at a flower and he uses one word, this notion of “inscape,” that as he pauses over this one thing in creation like this flower, he begins to behold the beauty of its unique characteristics that differentiate it from other things.[3]He’s seeing how the flower is a part of God’s overall glory but at the same time, that particular flower has a song of praise to God. That makes me think of the Celts because the Celtic poets would write a song of praise to the tree right outside their house. Everything they do is very specific. They praise the specific bird in their yard today. Every time they go to write a poem and when I say the Celts, I’m primarily meaning the Celts in the fifth to ninth century but when they go to do this, part of their training was to meditate on a psalm before they began to write a poem.

He’s seeing how the flower is a part of God’s overall glory but at the same time, that particular flower has a song of praise to God. That makes me think of the Celts because the Celtic poets would write a song of praise to the tree right outside their house. Everything they do is very specific. They praise the specific bird in their yard today. Every time they go to write a poem and when I say the Celts, I’m primarily meaning the Celts in the fifth to ninth century but when they go to do this, part of their training was to meditate on a psalm before they began to write a poem.In fact part of their training was also to memorize the psalms but then they read a psalm and they meditate on a psalm before they go out and write a poem about the glory of God in creation. They are tuning themselves, attuning their senses to the glory of God. It actually also makes me think of George Washington Carver who focuses on one single thing, the peanut, and the glory of God is opened up as he begins to pause and puzzle and study and ponder. Not only does it become a vehicle of praise but a vehicle of God’s blessing poured out.

In fact, part of their training was also to memorize the psalms but then they read a psalm and they meditate on a psalm before they go out and write a poem about the glory of God in creation. They are tuning themselves, attuning their senses to the glory of God. It actually also makes me think of George Washington Carver who focuses on one single thing, the peanut, and the glory of God is opened up as he begins to pause and puzzle and study and ponder. Not only does it become a vehicle of praise but a vehicle of God’s blessing poured out.You can see how this one little verse has implications for every human endeavor from science to creativity to art just by pausing and waiting and studying and meditating on the works of God. The Hebrews have all sorts of ways they think about this. One of the Hasidic Jews talked about the idea of one aspect of this meditation is learning how to focus my mind from all the distractions. They, this was one form of meditation, was to sit and unlike say an Eastern form of meditation, the Jewish/Christian way would be to focus on something, not to focus on nothing.

You can see how this one little verse has implications for every human endeavor from science to creativity to art just by pausing and waiting and studying and meditating on the works of God. The Hebrews have all sorts of ways they think about this. One of the Hasidic Jews talked about the idea of one aspect of this meditation is learning how to focus my mind from all the distractions. They, this was one form of meditation, was to sit and unlike say an Eastern form of meditation, the Jewish/Christian way would be to focus on something, not to focus on nothing.But they would try to focus on the beauty of the tree and they would try to let God learn how to focus them so they could actually not be distracted. Which actually is something we have to learn. Then that idea of spinning it around and letting God open it up to me, so that it becomes a vehicle of praise. Now we live in a world of critique and complaint as I said earlier. These little things are ways we are learning how to tune our voices, our senses, our bodies to praising the Lord, to a life of response, of worship and praise, to contemplation and study.

But they would try to focus on the beauty of the tree and they would try to let God learn how to focus them so they could actually not be distracted. Which actually is something we have to learn. Then that idea of spinning it around and letting God open it up to me, so that it becomes a vehicle of praise. Now we live in a world of critique and complaint as I said earlier. These little things are ways we are learning how to tune our voices, our senses, our bodies to praising the Lord, to a life of response, of worship and praise, to contemplation and study.Alexander Schliemann pointed out that this very act is a priestly act. He says, The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

Alexander Schliemann pointed out that this very act is a priestly act. He says, “The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.”[4]

So there’s some small way that as we begin to behold the works of God in the world around us, in the redemptive history of the people of God, it’s connected to our worship. The great thanksgiving is what we call it, the Eucharist, the communion of God. Christ takes what man has made, the bread and the wine, both things that human hands have made and he says, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.”

I return to Rod Jellema’s poem about Grading God’s Sunsets. For in this poem, he hints at our call to study and worship:

We Used to Grade God’s Sunsets
from Lost Valley Beach

Why we really watched we never said.
The play of spectral light, but maybe also
the coming dark, and the need to trust
that the fire dying down before us
into Lake Michigan’s cold waves
would rise again behind us.
Our arch and witty critiques
covered our failures to say what we saw.

The madcap mockery of grading God as though
He were a struggling student artist
(Cut loose, strip it down, study Matisse
and risk something, something unseen–
C-plus, keep trying–that sort of thing)
only hid our fear of His weather
howling through the galaxies. We humored
a terrible truth: that nature gives us hope
only in flashes, split seconds, one
at a time, fired in a blaze of beauty.

Picking apart those merely actual sunsets,
we stumbled into knowing the artist’s job:
to sort out, then to seize and work an insight
until it’s transformed into permanence.
And God, brushing in for us the business
of clouds and sky, really a hawker
of cliches, a sentimental hack as a painter.
He means to be. He leaves it us
to catch and revise, to find the forms
of how and who in this world we really are
and would be, to see how much promise there is
on a hurtling planet, swung from a thread
of light and saved by nothing but grace.[5]

Great are Your works, O Lord. As we study and reflect upon the works of Your hand, grant us eyes to see and ears to hear the wonder of your glory. Grant us a voice to proclaim your goodness in the splendor of your creating and saving acts, and to serve a living witnesses of your faithful love. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]  Rod Jellema. Incarnality: The Collected Poems, with audio CD (Kindle Location 805). Kindle Edition.
[2] 
The actual quote is found in Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” from Orthodoxy. It reads as follows: “A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg.”
[3] 
See Hopkins on “Inscape” and “Instress” at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hopkins/hopkins1.html
[4]  
Schmemann, Alexander (2010-04-01). For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 152-155). St Vladimirs Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.
[5] 
Rod Jellema. Incarnality: The Collected Poems, with audio CD (Kindle Location 805). Kindle Edition.

Image by Sandra Heska King (used by permission via Creative Commons). 

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