September 3, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
PRAYER IS PRAISE
The third in a series of three.
Today we conclude our series on prayer. We might call it a “mini-series”
because it’s just three sermons. There is way more to say about prayer than can be said in three sermons, so I want to remind you that we have a longer series on prayer coming up. Bill Southworth will lead this 12-week series of classes. It starts on Wednesday, September 27 (one week later than previously announced).
Prayer is honest. That was the first sermon. We just talk to God like we would talk to a best friend. I hope you don’t lie to your best friend. I hope you don’t use “thee’s” and “thou’s” and language so formal it hasn’t been used for centuries. I hope you trust your best friend enough that you can cut the pretenses and just be real. That’s how you should talk to God when you pray.
Last week we said prayer is thankful. If our prayers to God, day after day, week after week, month after month, are nothing but a series of complaints, honest though those complaints might be, it’s a pretty good sign that there is something going on in your soul that needs some attention. Because no matter how hard things are for you in your life right now, God’s blessings still outnumber your problems. And seeing that and then saying that to God in prayer makes it so much easier to face our problems.
Today we conclude with “prayer is praise”. But before we go there, I just have a couple of quick things I want to toss into the mix that didn’t fit anywhere else. This first one I heard from Idaho District Judge Sergio Gutierrez as he spoke at the mayor’s prayer breakfast this year.
He said that we should all pray 30 minutes every day. Sometimes people wonder how long is long enough. Judge Gutierrez says it should be at least 30 minutes every day. That’s a long time. That might be longer than you have time for, so he did tell us there is an exception to this rule. If you are really busy, you don’t need to pray 30 minutes every day. If you are really busy, you need to pray 60 minutes every day.
I wanted to get that in!
Also, I wanted to make sure you know about a verse in scripture that I wasn’t planning to even mention. But it’s maybe the most important verse in the whole Bible about prayer. And it’s especially important for those of us who consider ourselves beginners when it comes to prayer. We think everyone else is better at it than we are. That’s a common assumption but it’s almost always false.
You may have no idea how to pray. And you aren’t alone. Because here’s that verse: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). In other words, when it comes to prayer, it’s OK to not know what we are doing. In fact it is when we start thinking of ourselves as expert pray-ers, the perfect words rolling effortlessly off our tongues, that we just might be dominating the conversation and leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to speak through us and to speak to us.
I wanted to get that in, too. Now that we have those two tidbits out of the way, we come to our topic for today. Prayer is praise.
We’ve been calling the Book of Psalms the Bible’s textbook of prayer. Does anybody remember how many Psalms there are? (150). One thing I’ve just learned is that these 150 Psalms are arranged into five books. Many of your Bible translations tell you where these books end. Book one ends with Psalm 41. Book two ends with Psalm 72. Book three ends with Psalm 89. Book four ends with Psalm 106. Book five ends with Psalm 150.
Why are the 150 Psalms subdivided in this way? We think it might be to make them correspond to the five book of the Law. The books of the Law are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also called the Torah. If you visit a Jewish synagogue you will find as the focal point of their worship probably more than one Torah. They are huge scrolls and they are treated with great reverence because they are God’s words to us.
There are five books in the Torah and there are five books in the Psalms. This is no accident. It tells us that for every word God speaks to us, there is an answering word that we speak to God. Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it:
No word of God can go unanswered. The word of God is not complete simply by being uttered; it must be answered. For the five books of God’s creating/saving word to us there are five books of our believing/obeying word to God. Five is matched by five, like the fingers of two clasped hands (Working the Angles, page 55).
The point is that in prayer, we are not the ones to break the silence. God has already broken the silence. God has already spoken to us. Prayer is our answer.
If Eugene Peterson is right about that, it makes me wonder if Psalms might be God’s favorite book of the Bible. Most of us have books in the Bible that are our favorites. Maybe God does, too. And maybe Psalms is God’s favorite because God gets tired of hearing himself talk. God delights in hearing our response.
And to take it one step further, if Psalms is God’s favorite book in the Bible maybe Psalm 150 is God’s favorite psalm. I like to think God was smiling as we read it. It’s hard to read it without feeling good.
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
Praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Just like last week, once again we have a psalm arranged to answer the who, what, where, why, and how questions. It begins with the what. “Praise the Lord!” Do you know how to say those three words in Hebrew? I’ll bet you do, even though you think you don’t. “Praise the Lord!” translated into Hebrew is “Hallelujah!” That’s the what: “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” This psalm not only tells us to do that. It does that. It’s a psalm of pure praise.
Then we have the where. “Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!” The sanctuary is the sacred place. This is a sanctuary. We praise God here. That’s what this place is for. But since all of God’s creation is a sacred place, we aren’t limited in where we can praise God. So what this verse is really saying is to praise God everywhere – on the earth, in the heavens, everywhere.
Why? “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his exceeding greatness!” In other words, we praise God for what God has done – “his mighty deeds” – and we praise God for who God is – “his exceeding greatness.” Both God’s works and God’s nature are worthy of praise.
Sometimes the question is asked: What is the difference between thanks and praise? Last week we talked about thanking God in prayer. This week we’re talking about praising God in prayer. So, what’s the difference? Aren’t we really talking about the same thing? Aren’t these two words, “thanks” and “praise” interchangeable?
The answer is: No, they are not. There is a difference, and the difference is captured right here in Psalm 150, verse 2. It’s the difference between what God does and who God is. We thank God for what God has done for us – “his mighty deeds”. These are the blessings we talked about last week. We are grateful for the many ways God has extended his favor to us.
But gratitude is not praise. We praise God not for what God has done but for who God is – “his exceeding greatness.” We praise God whether or not we think God has done anything for us lately (which of course, God has, whether we realize it or not) but we praise God because it is God’s very nature to be worthy of praise. God is great and God is good. Therefore, God is to be praised.
Verses 3-5 tell us how to praise God. It’s the same answer we got last week. We praise God just as we thank God – with music. And we find here a list of musical instruments used in the praise bands of Old Testament times.
In fact we have a piece of art in our sanctuary that shows us the instruments of Psalm 150. I wonder if you have noticed. It is right above one instrument not mentioned in Psalm 150, because it hadn’t been invented yet, our organ.
Here we see the Old Testament harp, sometimes called a lyre, a trumpet, and the Old Testament guitar that is called a lute.
When guitars started showing up in worship services back in the 1960’s, some people were greatly offended. And some of the preachers back then had great fun reading Psalm 150 and asking if anyone knows what a lute looked like.
There is movie that seems new to me but actually it came out in 1984. It was called “Footloose” and it had to do with this theme of what is and is not an appropriate way to praise God. It is set is an old traditional town where all the clergy are united in their conviction that dancing is a sin. Here is Kevin Bacon testifying at a City Council meeting that their law against dancing should be repealed.
(YouTube: “Footloose – Defending Dancing”)
They dance in Africa when they worship. When I was in Togo a few years ago I noticed that they didn’t pass the offering plate when they worshiped. The people brought their gifts to the altar. And as they moved, they didn’t walk. They danced. They moved to the rhythm of the music.
I did my best. I thought I was really getting into it. I thought I was blending right in with all the other dancing worshipers. Someone afterwards told me it looked like I could have used a little WD-40. And that was before I hurt my back!
One Psalm 150 instrument I cannot locate in the piece of art above the organ is the cymbal. Actually, in the scripture it’s plural. Cymbals. “Loud clashing cymbals.” But we have them right over here. It’s quite an ending to the Book of Psalms. It’s kind of like the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks show. Nothing held back. Nothing saved for next year. When you truly praise God, reserve and restraint are not the operative words.
The last question is who. “Let everything the breathes praise the Lord!” You talk about inclusive language. That’s pretty inclusive! It even includes animals. It includes birds, who you may have noticed are pretty good at singing their praise to God! Everything that breathes was given breath so we can use that breath to praise our God!
Then one final “Hallelujah!” and this psalm and the Book of Psalms have ended.
God’s favorite book. God’s favorite psalm in God’s favorite book. Because here God isn’t speaking to us. We are speaking to God, praying to God, praising God. And God likes that.
Why does God like that? Why does God like to be praised?
We know we like to be praised. At least I do. It feels good. But somehow to think that the reason we praise God is because God likes it seems to bring God down to our level. Is God really as vain as most of us are?
Again C.S. Lewis has something helpful to say. And again, I recommend his book, Reflections on the Psalms. He says God doesn’t need our praise any more than we need our dogs to bark their approval every time we do something good. Praise isn’t something we do for God’s benefit. God’s self-esteem is not so fragile that it’s up to us to make him feel good about himself. Praise is something we do for our benefit. We need it. And that’s why God commands it. Because God knows we need it. Because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.
To praise God is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to praise God is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all. The incomplete and crippled lives of those who are tone deaf, have never been in love, never known true friendship, never cared for a good book, never enjoyed the feel of the morning air on their cheeks, never enjoyed football, are faint images of it (page 92).
Praise comes naturally to those who appreciate and enjoy life. It’s a sign of inner health. And praise is more than just an expression of our joy. It also adds to our joy. It makes the joy complete.
In 1647 the Westminster Catechisms were written. They are still used in many Presbyterian churches today. The first question is this: “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We excuse the non-inclusive language. The point is clear. We were made to glorify God. And we were made to enjoy God. And the two are one and the same. To glorify God is to enjoy God. To enjoy God is to glorify God.
It’s been suggested that heaven is going to be perpetual praise of God. Some people might think that makes heaven sound pretty dull. Like sitting through a church service that never ends. Who would want that? But here’s the difference. We aren’t very good at worship. We do our best, and God is pleased. But God is pleased kind of like a parent is pleased to be given their three-year-old son or daughter’s best drawing.
Our worship services here on earth are our feeble attempts at praising God. In heaven we’ll get better at it. And we’ll learn that whether on earth or in heaven, our purpose is the same: To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
We do praise you, O God. And as we praise you we discover ever more fully that you are supremely worthy of our praise. We discover ever more fully who we might become by your grace. May our prayers be honest. May our prayers be grateful. And may our prayers be expressions of our deepest praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.