August 24, 2014 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Introduction to the scripture reading: Revelation 5 is a scene of heaven with angels and living creatures gathered around the Lamb of God. There is a dilemma over who is worthy to open the scroll–to reveal God’s truth. It turns out it is the Lamb who is worthy.
Listen for similar tones and themes that you heard in the Psalm and see if you can envision this heavenly scene of worship and praise.
Read Revelation 5.8-14
So this morning is the seventh of eight sermons in our “Hum a sermon” series. And the starring hymn of today’s sermon is #519 “You are My Strength.”
I learned “You are My Strength” at a Montreat Youth Conference a number of years ago. Twice a day at Montreat, all the high school youth and their accompanying adults gather together in the auditorium and there is singing. Now the auditorium seats about 1200 people and to sing with 1200 young people is a glorious thing! This is not lip syncing to pop tunes or swaying to someone else belting out the lyrics with their band, this is lift up your hearts and sing–sing and bless God–sing and bring your whole being before God.
I remember as a high school student in youth group singing songs of praise to God–with my heart wide open and with as much love as I could muster. And I feel that in the auditorium at Montreat singing with young people.
“You are My Strength” is a song out of the praise and worsip tradition. It’s a genre of music we don’t sing much at Central and that’s one reason I wanted to introduce it in our sermon series. It’s also a song that’s still in the popular rotation at Montreat so it’s a song many of our high school students know. Plus, it’s a fun piece to sing because its got two parts that are sung in canon which sounds great especially here in the Chapel.
This morning I want to talk about praising God.
But more than that, given the past two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, I want to think with you about what place praising God has in a world where so much seems wrong. How does praising God have anything to do with making choices that say Black Lives Matter? How does praising God have anything to do with using our privilege and power to effect systemic change in a culture that privileges people with white skin over people with brown skin?
Psalm 96 directs us–and all the earth–to sing to God, to bless God’s name, to declare God’s glory. For God is great and greatly to be praised.
In Revelation, we hear the angels, the living creatures and the elders singing “with full voice,” “Worthy is the Lamb!” Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Every creature gives praise to God and to the Lamb.
And what we hear in the song of those who worship in Revelation 5 is almost exactly what is in our mouths when we sing #519: Jesus, Lamb of God, worthy is your name!
(And you might note that our opening hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” comes from a song sung in the heavenly scene in Revelation 4.)
Why do we sing praise? Our praise is grateful response to God’s overwhelming goodness. The organization of our hymnal itself reflects this. The first section of hymns sing of God’s mighty acts. The last section of hymns sing are response to God. Adoration and praise is what we do because of what God has already done in creation, Jesus Christ, in the church and the world. Worship is our grateful response to God’s love and faithfulness. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson says it this way:
“Christians worship with a conviction that they are in the presence of God. Worship is an act of attention to the living God who rules, speaks and reveals, creates and redeems, orders and blesses…Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren.”1
“The act of worship gathers into its centering rituals and harmonizing rhythms every aspect of creation. Worship does not divide the spiritual from the natural, it coordinates them. Nature and supernature, creation and covenant, elders and animals are all gathered”2 in this heavenly scene in Revelation 5. We sing in another song of praise, “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing, alleluia, alleluia!” Or in the words of Charles Wesley: “Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”3
But in a world in such trouble, can we stay lost in wonder, love and praise? Do we need to shake ourselves out of such reverie and do something, for God’s sake?!
One of the best books on prayer that I’ve read is Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence. (A group of us read it together back in 1998.) So I turned to her book to think some more about praise and the trouble of the world. “Prayer is thanksgiving,” Suchocki writes, “for no matter what specific thing or person may be the subject of our praying, the very fact that we can bring these matters to the one who is God bathes the praying in the overflowing gratitude that is praise.”4 So even when we pray in anger or despair or confusion, what underlies our prayer is praise that we can pray in such a way; that God hears us and is moved by our prayer.
Suchocki looks at the writings of Paul in the New Testament and the way he consistently gives thanks to God for the gifts that are present in the communities to which he writes. Now, in his letters Paul is typically writing to address problems within the community but he begins with praise to God for the gifts of God that exist in the community. The failings of the community never wipe out “the reality that the community is a community of faith, love, and hope, and for this, thanksgiving [and praise] to God is unfailingly appropriate.” In fact, Suchocki says, it is precisely because the community is fundamentally formed through these gifts of [God] that its reform is always possible.”5 She describes this as an “echo effect”: we praise “God for giving the gift, and the creature for its own graced response as it makes the gifts its own. The result is that the…act of [praising or] thanking God affects our way of living in the world, making us expectant of seeing God’s gifts actualized in those we meet and those we know. Continuous thanksgiving to God creates a continuous expectancy of encountering [the] gifts God has released into the world.”6
Another way to say this is praise and thanksgiving wakes us up “to the wonder of God’s faithfulness. In every moment of our lives God touches us with an impulse toward”7 what is good and holy, what is just and true. We don’t always follow that impulse and even when we do, it doesn’t mean our lives are without harm or trouble. But “God’s guidance can empower us to live lives of faith, hope, and love in and through”8 whatever harm or trouble we encounter or create.
Suchocki reminds us that God’s guidance and touch in our lives “pushes us toward deeper involvement in the world.”9 God’s “insistent whisper [is] that we [would] live responsibly and lovingly in the world.”10
We praise God for God’s faithfulness and love and desire for well-being for all of creation. And in that very act of praising, we receive those gifts of faithfulness and love and well-being and are given the opportunity to use them for good in the world. And in the act of recognizing God’s faithfulness and love and desire for the well-being of all people and all of creation, our lives are changed and we live with an expectation that those gifts will be made manifest in the world. And in that expectation, our lives are changed and we become more of that which we long for–not just for ourselves but for the whole world. Which might just be a way of being lost in wonder, love and praise.
It’s not a lostness which takes us away from the trouble of the world. It’s a lostness that puts us right in the middle of it with the gifts and the presence of God.
And so in our praise, we don’t turn our back on the world. We gather in the world where we stand next to Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell and John Crawford III and Eric Garner and the many other brown skinned men and women who have been killed and whose names most of us don’t know. And we offer the gifts of God we have been given to transform the world in God’s image. A world where Black Lives Matter. A world where everyone has enough. A world where no more parents have to grieve for their murdered children or children mourn their murdered parents. A world where no children go hungry. A world where every person’s life is cherished as a beloved child of God. Giving praise to God doesn’t magically make that happen but it’s part of how God transforms us to transform the world.
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1 Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper San Francisco, 1988), 59-60.
2 Ibid., 62.
3 Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
4 Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence – Theological Reflections on Prayer, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), 115-116.
5 Ibid., 117.
6 Ibid., 118-119.
7 Ibid., 120.
9 Ibid., 123.