I don’t know about your house, but at mine we are obsessed with the Olympics. There is something magical going on. We have lost our breath when Michael Phelps didn’t make the podium in his first race – though he made up for it later – or when Jordan Wieber didn’t even make the women’s all-around gymnastics final. We have rejoiced when the men’s swimming relay team won – those events have been as exciting as anything for me thus far, as the women’s gymnastics team blew away the field. Sprinkle in some beach volleyball, diving, tennis, and a little basketball, and we are looking forward to another sleep-deprived week.
But in the Olympics something powerful emerges which is worth noticing, I think, something deep and true. Regardless of potential scandals, of geopolitics, of the strange sports we Americans don’t take the time to understand very well, there is something majestic about the power of competition, of these athletes – many of them quite young – with extraordinary focus, who commit to hours and hours and hours, and who give it their all. All of this work goes in – years of it – for that one moment, when the finish line is crossed or the wall is tapped, and then it’s….joy. You don’t have to care or know anything about swimming to get tears in your eyes when Missy Franklin, a 16 year old from Colorado, touches the wall, sees her name in first place, and bursts into tears, reaching to her parents far up in the seats. She won a race on Friday and they panned up to her coach, sitting down in a section where everyone else was standing and cheering, as he sat, overcome, weeping into his hands. And they always say the same thing: "All of the hard work is worth it for this moment." Where else does it make sense that we put in years of work for 38 seconds, for a minute ten, for 90 seconds on a balance beam? I have never heard anyone say, "All of that effort for this gold medal, all the sacrifices I made; it wasn’t worth it." There is something pure and elemental, something basic to our humanity, that happens in those moments. And you can’t take your eyes away.
There is a similar purity, I believe, in today’s psalms. They contain a clarity I have been craving. Throughout this summer we experienced the depth and breadth of this extraordinary literature. This collection, perhaps unlike anything else in scripture, is honest and real, filled with gut level emotion. We started out easy, with psalms 1 and 2 and their simplicity: God calls us to follow the Torah, but will not stand for wickedness. The psalmist quickly moved us towards the heart of the matter: psalm 7 – "Rise up, O Lord, in your anger, judge the peoples." Now we’re talking. This is stuff for real life, now. We have cried out, How Long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? Psalm 42 longs for God, to feel God’s presence near. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble (ps 46). Because God makes wars to cease WE WILL NOT FEAR. Betty preached 2 weeks ago on psalm 51, when we cry for God to Create in us a clean heart! Taylor fought last week with psalm 83, as the people cried out for judgment against their enemies.
Because we had walked through these psalms – I have learned a ton I didn’t know before – I think I was in a better position to notice it this week. These other psalms, while surely proclaiming God’s goodness and strength and covenantal promise making and keeping, are largely really about US. We got a glimpse when Betty preached psalm 24, "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it," an enthronement psalm, likely used as liturgy as the people entered the temple. But the rest of these psalms tend to, I must confess, resemble many of my prayers. They are directed towards God, but they are really about ME. Hi God, I love you and all, but can you help me out down here? I talk way too much, and tend to just hand God off a list. I need your strength. Feeling worn down. I am really, really scared. Sometimes I am kind enough to remember to thank God for a sunset, for a quiet evening of reading bedtime stories with the kids. But most of the time my prayers, though directed at God, are really about me. As I read psalm 98 and psalm 100 this week, I saw how they could help shift our focus back towards God: O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things. God’s right hand and holy arm have gotten victory. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
A lot of this is basic elementary school sentence diagramming. "O sing to the Lord [‘YOU sing to the Lord’ as subject] a new song. We are the one told to do the singing. To whom? To the LORD. Why? Because God has done marvelous things. The psalmist then gives us evidence, reminding us why we should be doing this singing: victory. The word here is better translated salvation – deliverance from beyond our power. Triumph in the sight of the nations. We are in the heart of book 4 of the Psalter which, as you know from the front of the insert and paying good attention throughout the summer, responds to the crisis of exile. That is the particular example the people had in mind as they first sung these words, as they walked out of the city of Babylon back towards Jerusalem. That is how they might proclaim that God has remembered God’s steadfast love and faithfulness – that God has kept God’s promises by returning them home is how all of the ends of the earth have seen God’s glory.
The middle section of ps. 98, verses 4-6, return to the verbs: make (literally ‘raise a shout’)1, break forth into song, sing, make. With trumpets and horns, raise that shout before the King. The verbs are simple and clear, with enthusiasm drawn from what God has done. The final section of psalm 98 moves beyond humanity. As wonderful as the human voice is, the whole created order rises. The seas and the floods, waters of chaos first shaped at creation, now rise to play their part in the symphony.2
Psalm 100 takes this praise to an entirely different level. Make a joyful noise ALL the earth. After the first couple of imperatives: make, worship, come, verse 3 presents us with something we are to KNOW. Know that the Lord is God, know something that lies underneath all of this action, never forget that God made us, that it is to God to whom we belong. Then the verbs jump back: enter, give thanks, bless. Why? Because God is good, God’s steadfast love endures forever, God’s faithfulness to every single generation. The lesson is remarkable simple yet deeply profound: God rules the world and, consequently, we belong to God.3
The beauty of these psalms for me comes in their simple purity, in their unabashed praise for God. Too often we reduce our lives, and our prayers, our faith, to a list. Help with the shelter meal, drop some money in for STOP Hunger now, TITHE, read the bible each day, well, most days, serve on this committee, and maybe another one, check, check, check. All of these things blend into all of the lists we have for everything else, for our kids and the house and details and things we volunteer for and the form we have to turn in, check, check, check. And I think is it a shame if our faith becomes something like that. I wonder what it would look like for us to be oriented in such a way that praise flowed out of us? That we might open our eyes just a little bit, and let God’s Spirit, at work all over the place, draw us into acts of unfettered joy, of ceaseless praise. What would it be like if we let this praise wash over us, let it transform us, so that our daily posture is that of gratitude, that we join the trees and the hills, the seas and the plains, in singing praise to God?
I put a long quote from Brueggemann on the inset. I had to read it 3 or 4 times before it sunk it. But he says something remarkable: that our capacity for praise is ultimately about trust – not in what God will do for us, but in who God IS. I love this part – classic Brueggemann – "Doxology is an irrational act that pushes beyond control, summons us beyond our cherished rationality, rescues us from anxiety, transcends despair, overrides arrogance, strips us of self-sufficiency, and leaves us unreservedly and entirely entrusted to this other one who cares for us more than we care for ourselves."4 And what better news can their be? That the God who created the universe and the world, who formed lush mountainsides and creeks, hydrangeas and hummingbirds, cares for us. For you. And in grateful response all there is to do is to praise, to sing, to breathe in deeply as much gratitude as you can muster.
So I have started doing that this week. When I walk outside and look at this amazing courtyard, blazing in the sunshine, I whisper a ‘praise God.’ I am not up to singing with lyre yet, but who knows? The other night before bed Heath took my head in his hand, and drew me in and kissed me on the forehead. ‘Praise God.’ Watching those darned Olympics, or continuing to read heart-wrenching stories from Aurora, Colorado. No matter what the world brings, God remains God, worthy of our gratitude and praise, and the strength of the psalmists word can buoy us: "For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, faithfulness to all generations."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The Tanakh, Second Edition (Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 2003), page 1534.
2. This insight comes from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1072.
3. NIB, 1079.
4. Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p 51.