Text: Psalm 40
Originally preached February 16, 2014 as part of the sermon series “40.” Below are excerpts from the sermon, followed by the audio in its entirety.
This Psalm has something very important to teach us about the praises we offer to God. The first thing is that, we should not simply praise God when we want God to do something for us. Our praise is not a bribe though that’s often sort of how we, whether we think about it consciously or not, that’s sometimes how we act. We’re sort of like this woman, a member of my church in Alexandria, as you know I don’t like to wear suits, and I wear them as few times as I can get away with, I’ll put it that way, but Helen she was so sweet and so funny, every time I showed up in a suit at church for a wedding or a funeral, she would always milk it. She would say, “Pastor, you look so good in that suit! Doesn’t he look good? I mean you look movie star good!” She actually said that one day, and I kept saying, “it’s not going to work. I am not going to start wearing suits more often”….and it doesn’t work with God either.
But what Psalm 40 also has to teach us is that our praise is not an inoculation. Even though I have certainly remembered times in my life when it has been presented to me in that way…if you’re praising God enough, if you’re worshipping Him the right way, you shouldn’t have any problems. And then if you do have problems, then it must be your fault. You must not in fact be worshipping God the right way, you must not be worshipping Him fully, because if you were, you wouldn’t be having this problem.
Yet in Psalm 40, the Psalmist praises God faithfully. It’s scripture for crying out loud. ..he does it all and yet, still finds himself in the midst of trouble, still surrounded by people who want to see him fall to ill. The praise in the first half does not prevent the lament in the second…
When I think about the people who have been most influential to me in my faith journey, they are they people who were not afraid to let their lament, their grief be known, to pour themselves out to God in this way. In fact my teacher, my professor, Dr. Ralph Wood, without whom I would not be here, not just in church as a pastor, I would not be in church at all. He had the profound impact on me because he was not afraid to give voice to his lament. The first Christian I ever met who was willing to do that, to not gloss it over. To basically say, “I am not a follower of Jesus because Jesus will make it all better and make it all easy. I’m a follower of Jesus because life is not easy. And Jesus is the one who helps me live that life with faith and strength and purpose.”
“I am not a follower of Jesus because Jesus will make it all better and make it all easy. I’m a follower of Jesus because life is not easy.”“
My other great teacher John Claypool talked openly and honestly about his struggles of faith when his nine year old daughter died of Leukemia. God did not stop that. God did not heal her even though he and other people prayed and praised. She still died, but out of that grief, out of that lament has come a powerful witness. Not just for me but for countless others of his students. And the same strength that he found working through that grief with God is the same strength that in the 1960s allowed him to take some very courageous stands as a white minister in the name of civil rights. Things that for now he is praised and celebrated, or was when he was till alive, but at the time, it got him death threats, it got him tapped by the FBI. It almost cost him his job on more than one occasion. He had the strength to face that and to deal with that and to stand up and do what is right because of the strength he found in working through his grief and his pain and his sorrow.
And this is why I like this Psalm so much, and why I think it’s important for us, not just to read the words, but to understand the process and the movement of this very short, but jam-packed piece of scripture. Our lives and our faith experience are not neat, and orderly and predictable. The patterns that we identify, that we want to see, don’t always pan out that way. There are exceptions to every rule, which I think may be why Jesus didn’t put too much stock in them. As one commentator put it in talking about this Psalm, “Psalm 40 is a reminder that amid joy, even the greatest joy, there is still human need. Including our own.”
But this cycle, this pattern of praise to lament and back again. This really is the pattern, it’s the process of what Dr. Brueggemann calls “re-orientation.” This is the process that people walking in the wilderness have to undergo to come out on the other side, to be formed and transformed by God into the new people He is calling them to be for the new place in which He is leading them. Because our praise of God, our thanksgiving to God, our celebration of God is not just for Him. It is also for us.
That doesn’t mean that we include ourselves as objects of that praise. It means that the act of praising God, when we engage in that in private and especially here as a congregation, as the Body of Christ, that act of praise and worship is a reminder to us of who God is. It reminds us of what God has done for us, and not just for us, for his people throughout history. The act of praise keeps our lives grounded in Him. And we need that because our hearts tend to be fickle, and our memories tend to be short.
So our praise of God keeps us grounded and oriented to God, but we also must give our hearts over toward laments, and our grief and our sorrow, and help others deal with theirs too…It is our lament, our grief, and our sorrow that keeps us grounded in reality. And keeps our praise and our worship from becoming something that lacks substance. A lament is not a gripe. Gripes, are shallow and they’re fleeting…A lament is something deeper and something that lingers with us. It’s grief, it’s sorrow, it’s loss. ..
“his balance between our praise and worship of God is what keeps us faithfully and firmly grounded in God and open to new possibilities. It keeps us open to the creative, the provocative, and transformative movement of the Holy Spirit.”
We need space within our community of faith. We need space within our theology to deal with that without passing judgment on one another about how faithful or unfaithful we are in those times. This balance between our praise and worship of God is what keeps us faithfully and firmly grounded in God and open to new possibilities. It keeps us open to the creative, the provocative, and transformative movement of the Holy Spirit. To raise us up and keep us firmly on that rock. To keep us from being stale like the water down in that cistern. This balance, this cycle is what helps us keep moving forward. Because if we only live in praise, we live in disconnect. If we only live in lament, we live in depression. We have to have this balance in order to move forward, and that is where God is leading us and has been leading His people throughout time. Forward, to the Promised Land, to a better place. Toward new and abundant life.
It changes the wilderness. It can be an unsettling place, it can be a scary place. But if we’re fully engaged with God and with one another we can be open to those possibilities and we can see things that might look to us as set backs, as tragedies, as opportunities for God to do wondrous things.
“if we’re fully engaged with God and with one another we can be open to those possibilities and we can see things that might look to us as set backs, as tragedies, as opportunities for God to do wondrous things.”
People who keep track of statistics will tell you and me that this year, 2014, some 4000 churches across the United States will close for good…but what they don’t often tell us along side of that is how many new churches are planted. Because God is doing new things. Sometimes not the things we want Him to do or as fast as we want Him to do them..but he is doing them.
I recently read a story about a tribe in southern Sudan…a new form of Christianity is popping up, a new expression of Christianity is popping up… They are embracing Jesus because Jesus is a God that goes with you when you move. Who’s not anchored and located in a specific place. And God has done that…things are changing, things will continue to change whether we want them to or not. In our praise or in our grief. God is in the midst of all of it. To create in us clean hearts, to create in us new life.
If we follow the Psalmist’s lead and embrace it all, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, including ourselves, I am confident that God will do amazing things here with us. Even if it doesn’t look anything like it used to. We have to let God teach us new songs, to put new songs in our mouths. Not only because any song is not appropriate for any and every situation, but because a new world, a new frontier needs new expressions of what God is doing there. ..
So let us praise God for what He has done, for what He continues to do. But let us not dismiss the pain, the tragedy , the grief that is in our world, that is in our community, that is in our very lives. And let’s cry out to God, let’s help each other do so, and let’s embrace one another in those times that we might be healed and reformed and transformed in the name of Jesus. Let us let God teach us to sing together some new songs for a new age and a new day.