Song Across the Ages

Image by Philippe Leroyer (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Song Across the Ages
Pentecost 16A
Rev. Doug Floyd
(this is a transcript of audio)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Throughout the season of Pentecost, we have been meditating in various ways upon the role of discipleship. Last week, had brought a convicting word about forgiveness that I continued to meditate on throughout the week. Earlier we talked about the call of the disciples to love and pour out all our gifts. In fact, all our ethical behavior has to be an overflow of love from which we’ve encountered God’s love.

Earlier, Isaac talked to us about the disciple comes to the table and we are both humbled and exalted at the table of the Lord because we are receiving of his mercy and grace. We keep reflecting in this season, which we would call the shadow of Pentecost. We’re in ordinary time, but it takes place in the shadow of Pentecost because this is the season of the church.

We rehearse the stories of the church, and particularly over the next couple months, the focus begins to be on remembering the stories of church history. This is not particular to Christianity. Obviously, the stories of church history are but this is a time of the year, throughout history and multiple cultures, it’s always been a season of remembrance. The oldest two holidays in the world, are in the fall and the spring. They are both times of remembrance.

The spring festival is a festival of planting, and then the fall festival has always been a harvest festival. Many of our holidays actually that fall within the fall are some outgrowth of that ancient tribal custom. They are usually times of remembrance and times of celebrating the harvest. Oddly enough, both Halloween and Thanksgiving are both times of remembrance, in very different ways, but they both are looking back, and of course Halloween is anticipating All Saints Day. It is the eve of the Hallowed Day of All Saints Day, and so it is remembering the stories of the church.

What the church has entered into this. Israel did actually. If we look at Israel’s story, the Passover takes place in the spring. The Passover takes place around a planting festival, but at the same time, it’s directed to a historical act, God’s redemption of Israel. If we read the Old Testament, when the Passover is enacted, it’s the first day of the year. Now, that may seem odd.

I can’t remember if we’ve talked about this before. It may seem odd because actually the Jews now celebrate the first day of the year in the fall, on the Day of Atonement. It’s kind of puzzling. Why would it have moved to the fall. Well if we look at the rhythm, particularly in Ezra and Nehemiah, when the captives returned to Israel, they returned during the Day of Atonement, during that season. The Day of Atonement becomes the near year because it signifies the new event of God forgiving the sins of Israel.

The church, following that rhythm, has remembered this season of God’s deeds, mighty deeds in history. Now, as we think about the role of discipleship, I thought we might just meditate briefly upon today’s psalm, because it is a psalm of remembrance. It reveals on of the primary roles of the disciple, and one of the primary roles of the Jews, is to praise the Lord.

That is the primary calling of the disciple, is to offer praise to the Lord. I’m going to, if you want to look, I will refer to a few verses. You don’t have to, but if you want to look at the bulletin, where he printed the whole psalm. I also have brought some books at the back. It’s a book on being discipled by Rowan Williams. If anybody would like to read it over the next couple months, as we sort of, these next couple months we’re ending the year and then the new year starts in advent. It’s a wonderful little book on discipleship.

You think about discipleship in relation to praising the Lord, of offering our praise. Psalm 145 is an acrostic, and that means it contains every letter in the Hebrew alphabet, with the exception of one, which was inserted at some point by some of the Jewish scribes, so in the second half of verse 13, the Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. That completes the entire alphabet for the Jews. Each verse would begin with a different letter, and it was a way of saying this is the complete statement on praise.

Anytime the Jews offer an acrostic, it is the complete statement on a topic. This is the most comprehensive statement in scripture on praise. Psalm 119, the most comprehensive statement on the law. Lamentations, the most comprehensive statement on mourning and suffering, Lamentations.

I’m just going to look a little bit at some of the themes that we see in 145. It’s a psalm of David. It begins with one person singing. It says, “I will extol you my God and my king, and bless your name forever and ever.” It is one voice. One voice, lifted up in praise. I thought about it this morning, something about when you’re starting a church and a mission, the significance of one voice or a handful of voices.

Some weeks we might, we have been packed and we have lots of people, and some weeks, fewer people, but the significance here, and again and again it is the single voice or the small group being faithful to praise the Lord. What the church does in a sense, we gather and we lift up our voices in worship to the Lord as the priests of God.

The psalmist says, “I will praise you, my God and my king,” and I thought of a poem, which I had meant to bring. It was by a Welsh poet, Bobby Jones (see poem January song), and he describes a bird that he hears in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter. If you imagine, it’s the middle of winter. It’s stark, cold, dark, and he hears this bird singing. He suggests that the bird singing is a call of hope, that the night will not conquer, that the winter will not wound, that the day of resurrection is coming.

It’s in one sense, the lone voice, praising God in the midst of sometimes a very dark world. Sometimes the psalmist is in exile in Babylon, singing the lone voice of praise to God. Sometimes the psalmist is in the middle of the business world, which might also feel like Babylon, lifting up the song of praise. He praises my God and my king because this is a song of God’s kingship. God is, he is king. He’s Lord of all. In one sense it is a meditation on what it looks like to be a king because as we follow the psalm’s praise, we sing that a king is not a Pharaoh. He’s not one who enslaves his people. He’s not one who puts heavy burdens on his people for his own benefit. He’s actually just the opposite.

The true king, that the Father reveals, that we see manifest in Christ, provides for his people. He comes to care for them. He meets their needs. This is a Father king. This is a king who reveals the Father heart of God. He offers his praise to God. He says, “Every day I will bless your name, or I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.” The blessing of the name of the Lord, which we see again and again in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, it is a rehearsal of the trustworthiness of the Lord, his name. He is the … When his name is invoked, cried out to, he is the faithful God. He is the one who is absolutely trustworthy. His name bears his faithfulness.

He’s absolutely trustworthy, and he will offer the first fruits of his praise, every single day. In one sense, the church tradition of rising in the morning and praying, whether it’s the daily office or personal prayers, comes out of psalms like this, of rising in the morning I will lift my voice in praise. Sometimes, some psalms have the image of me rising before the sunrise, and singing praise as the sun is rising.

Every day I’m lifting my voice in praise. Now the difficulty is, what do I say. Often, sometimes I might actually have real things to say. I might find something, praise the Lord for some great thing that’s happened in my life, or I might praise the Lord because I like to sit on the porch. Some days I get to see the birds near me. I love to hear them sing so I might rejoice in that. I might have specifics, but honestly, day after day after day, we lose our creativity. Chesterton says we struggle with monotony because we’re old. He says sin has aged us and it’s made us unable to exalt in monotony, the same thing, day after day, so we don’t know what to say day after day after day.

This is where the psalm gives us the word to say. I frame my praise with words of the psalm. The psalms train my tongue how to praise the Lord. It says, “I will bless your name forever and ever,” and then he says, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised. His greatness is unsearchable.” Now this idea, his greatness is unsearchable shows up all through scripture. It may not be evident here, but he’s speaking of the greatness of God that extends beyond the heights. So I can go as high as I can, as possible, meaning I could go out into the universe. I can go as far as I could go.

We’ve learned how big our universe is. He says I can keep going and I can keep going and you’re always on the other side of every horizon. Your greatness is unlimited. I can go into the depths of earth or depths of my own heart. You’re on the other side of everything. The width and the breadth, I can go across history. I can go back before there is ever a single human. I can go back before there is any creation and your greatness is on the other side of that. I can go to the end of time and your greatness is on the other side of that.

Your greatness extends beyond the heights, the depths, the widths and the breadths. Now that kind of language might begin to sound familiar because Paul uses that exact kind of language when he speaks of the love of God. The greatness of God and the love of God are often bound together. He says he prays that we would know the heights, depths, widths, breadths of God’s love in Ephesians 3. The psalmist is praying for this God who is the Father God, and yet his greatness extends beyond any human imagination, any way I could contain it.

He lifts up his voice and sings. Now, 4 through 7, suddenly we hear more voices. We hear the generations singing. One generation shall commend your works to another. Shall declare your mighty acts. I’m going to actually read it from a slightly different translation. Hans Jocham Krauss, he says, it’s just simple change but it helps us hear some of what’s going on. He says, “One generation shall proclaim your works to another, your mighty deeds, they shall declare. Of the glorious splendor of your majesty, they shall speak. They shall sing about your wonders.”

The generations are proclaiming the wonders of God and they’re proclaiming it in a multitude of ways. They’re proclaiming it in song. They’re proclaiming it in ritual, which we see all through the Old Testament. The rituals of the church that we’ve picked up from the synagogue, the proclamation of the greatness of the Lord. They’re proclaiming it in art, in the painting, like the Book of Kells, which is proclaiming the glory of the Lord. They’re proclaiming it in a multitude of ways. When all forms of human creativity across the generation are submitted to the worship of the Lord and become a form of proclaiming the greatness of God from one generation to another.

The stories are told. We continue to tell the stories that the ancient Israelites told. We continue to the tell the stories of them being rescued from Egypt. We continue to tell these stories because they celebrate the greatness of God. You imagine this story, this song, this rejoicing, going from one generation to another. In fact, the very act of us gathering and praising is sending it forward to the next generation.

We continue to sing his praises, to rejoice in his praises, to meditate on his awesome deeds. We think about his awesome deeds, his wonders. We begin to look around us. I mean, the wonders of God are in the heavens above and the earth beneath. They’re also in the redemption of his people, all around us we see the wonders of God, and the people of God are always tuning themselves to his wonders, learning how to praise him. Praising him in the ocean and the sun, the stars.

Then, it says, if we continue to read, they will, let’s see, they shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness. They shall sing aloud of your righteousness, and eventually they begin to speak of God’s terrible deeds, which is puzzling. I’m trying to see how it’s translated here because what happens is God’s wondrous deeds are also … Oh here it says awesome deeds, of the might of your awesome deeds. Sometimes it’s terrible deeds. Some of his awesome deeds seem terrible in the sense he overthrows kingdoms. Israel always praised him for this because he overthrows oppressors.

There will not be any oppressor that will stand. His awesome deeds, his terrible deeds are overthrowing all powers. In a way, the song that Ryan had us sing this morning, all those that would oppress, so that the marginalized, those that are on the outside are brought in. It ends, when we get toward the end, it says the wicked he will destroy.

When it says that, it’s not saying the guy who accidentally steps out of line. The wicked are those destructive forces, those who have aligned themselves with destructive powers that are destroying God’s very creation. This is obviously why we need the gospel of Christ because he’s redeemed us from this destructive force. God is rescuing us, both with glory but also with terrible deeds. He’s revealing his goodness, his mercy, his grace.

As we get to 8 through 10, the psalm continues and now all the saints of God are blessing in verse 10. Not only the saints of God, but all creation. All that which is non-personal. The sun is praising God. The trees are praising God. The grass is praising God. This is in Celtic psalms they often call upon non-human things to praise the Lord because of verses like this. “All your works shall give thanks to you and all your saints shall bless you.”

It started out with one voice, began. This voice echoes from one generation to another, but now suddenly you have a whole chorus of all the saints of God praising God and all the creation is praising God. Everything is praising God. The world is echoing with the glory of his kingdom, his power, his mighty deeds, his glorious splendor, his everlasting kingdom, his dominion which endures to all generations.

Now as the psalm continues, we begin to see that this king, this God who is beyond, beyond capturing, beyond grasping, that’s bigger than anything we could imagine, is also gentle and kind enough to uphold all who are falling, to raise up all who are bowed down, to give all, look to him for their food in due season. He opens up his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing. We see this wonderful picture of God’s graciousness and kindness, of blessing, of pouring out his love on all things.

The psalm continues to echo, to grow as it celebrates all the good ways that God has blessed his world. By the time we get to the last verse of the psalm, we hear the voice that started it, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord.” Here’s the lone voice again. “And let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Now all flesh, all humanity has joined in the praise. Paul will say something like this in Philippians 2, “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”

All flesh will now join into the praise of this mighty, just, righteous king. Even those who rebelled against him will realize he’s good, faithful and just. They must. Every knee will bow and acknowledge the glory of his kingdom. I was meditating on this psalm and thinking of the beauty of this promise which is actually leading us, pointing us toward the New Jerusalem in the very end there, where all creation now is fully restored.

We have the image of the wicked being removed. No commandment breakers are allowed in the New Jerusalem, is what we’re told in Revelation. For some reason, as I was meditating on that, I began to think about family reunions. We lived in New Jersey when I was little, so we had a family reunion down here, because all my relatives were down here. My grandfather and his siblings started a reunion in ’63 I think or ’64. My family, we didn’t come every year, but from time to time, we would drive down here. We would meet in Crossville, at Cumberland Park.

There were all these people we didn’t know, and it was actually a lot of fun because my family laughed a lot. My grandfather would sing crazy songs that didn’t make any sense. They loved these kind of absurd songs. My dad did too, just crazy songs. He would be singing silly songs. Everybody’d be laughing. Of course I laughed loud. My grandma laughed loud. My cousins laughed loud, so we were, it’s a pretty boisterous crowd.

I also remember the older men, my grandfather included, standing around, smoking pipes and talking about the stories of the family. Stories that predated my existence. In fact, honestly, stories that have long since faded from our mind, because some of these memories go back before I can really remember so they’re just vague images, and over time they came into view.

Eventually we moved down here, and so we began to attend the reunion regularly, and it was sort of like a sacred time in my memory. It feels like a holy time when all these people gathered together once a year and ate. We played lots of games. When we were in Cumberland Park, we would go out on the boat and different people would get in canoes or paddle boats. It was an entire day of family celebration.

In fact we’ve continued that. All that generation’s gone. Strangely the people who are in charge of it now are me and my siblings, my cousins. We’re all the, we’re the older generation because the whole older generation is gone. There’s only one or two people left. We, it is now our responsibility to carry those memories. The memories we have, the stories we have, we tell of the family coming into the, moving into the state. We had one cousin who traced the whole history of the family and he tells the family story. We continue that, partly as a pledge of faithfulness to the gift they gave us as children but also as a gift to the children who are coming up now.

It’s changed a lot. Now we put a photo booth up and have props that people dress up, things that are very different from what we had when I was little, but ways that let the children participate. Then as I was reading this psalm and I was envisioning that experience of childhood, I thought, in some way, my memory, that sacred memory, for me at least, gives me some sense of the marriage supper of the lamb, the generations of God. Our family, that we have never met face to face are now gathered.

This feast, that’s the way it’s presented to us. It’s a feast. It’s an absolute celebration of singing. Now if you can imagine all these people, maybe cordoned off into little groups. I don’t know. When someone stands up and tells a story, maybe people are beginning to laugh in this story or people are feeling moved. At the end of this story, there’s a gentle sort of thankfulness to God’s blessing in that person’s life.

Then someone else stands up and sings a song. They offer their gift. Everyone rejoices. The whole family is just sort of sharing their gifts with one another, these generations that we have inherited now, but now they’ve come together. In some sense I think we look forward to this, this great homecoming and yet even now, we participate in it by simply singing or lifting a single voice up to praise the Lord. In that single voice, we are joining with voices that continue to echo across the ages. Voices that are echoing in thanksgiving to God, that are offering testimony to God’s faithfulness, that in some way are preparing the way for the future generations that will now be caught up into this praise, knowing that in the fullness of time, Christ will come and he will lead all things into perfection.

We will be brought into the glory of his beauty and it will be a wonderful time of celebration and praise. It’s a wonderful image. Thank you Lord for the psalmist who offers a faithful song to you and may we be a people who sing to you simply with, sometimes in our brokenness, and our pain, just the simple rhythm of lifting your psalms, your songs that you’ve given us, lifting them back to you. Letting them soak into our very bones, that we can be a people who actually become praise ourself. Our very life becomes praise. Whatever we touch becomes praise. Our interests become expressions of praise. Our talents become expressions of praise. That our very life becomes a, just a song of worship to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

 

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