Sermon for July 22nd, 2018
1 Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
2 For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!
Psummer of Psalms - The Shortest Psalm
In honor of our sermon today on Psalm 117, the shortest of all 150 Psalms AND the shortest chapter in the Bible, I've decided to share with you a list of the World's top 15 shortest books:
World's shortest books:
15. VIKING TABLE ETIQUETTE
14. OBEDIENCE TRAINING FOR CATS
13. THE ENGINEER'S GUIDE TO FASHION
12. AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR LAWYERS
11. CAREER OPPORTUNITIES FOR LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS
10. DIFFERENT WAYS TO SPELL BOB
9. EVERYTHING MEN KNOW ABOUT WOMEN
8. THE AMISH PHONE DIRECTORY
7. THE WALL I BUILT THAT MEXICO PAID FOR - by President Donald J. Trump
6. TO ALL THE MEN I'VE LOVED BEFORE - by Ellen DeGeneres
5. HOW TO SUSTAIN A MUSICAL CAREER - by Art Garfunkel
4. TASTY SPOTTED OWL RECIPES - by the EPA
3. ALL THE TIMES YOU WERE RIGHT - by your spouse.
2. A GREENER, CLEANER WORLD AND HOW TO GET THERE - by Exxon Mobile
1. NEW MEXICO'S BEST AND SAFEST DRIVERS
You'd think that since Psalm 117 is so short, there wouldn't be much to say about it. But the great reformer Martin Luther loved this psalm so much he wrote a 38 page long commentary on it. By contrast, John Calvin's commentary on Psalm 117 was just two pages. Luckily for you, I'm a Calvinist, not a Lutheran.
In Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Phoenician, Syriac and Arabic the fifth letter of the alphabet is the letter "he." In its most ancient form, it was written as a hieroglyph shaped like a person with arms uplifted in praise. The Hebrew word for praise is "Hallel" as in "Hallelujah" which literally means "Praise Jah (Yahweh)."
In Jewish tradition, Psalm 117 is part of a series of six consecutive psalms called the "Hallel" Psalms -- beginning with Psalm 113 and going through Psalm 118. All six Psalms are all songs of praise, and are recited on prominent Jewish holidays, like Passover. That means it's fairly likely that Jesus and the disciples recited this Psalm together on the night of the Last Supper.
There is some debate about which chapter or verse is in the very middle of the Bible. Ancient manuscripts actually don't have chapters and verses--those weren't added until sometime in the 16th century. So depending on what translation you use, and how you count, the middle chapter or middle verse could either be in Psalm 115, 117, or 118. It's pretty safe, however, to say that Psalms--and specifically the Hallel Psalms, or Psalms of Praise--are at the heart of the Bible.
And that's fitting, because the act of Praising God should be at the heart of all our prayers, our worship, and even our existence as God's people.
And if you grew up as a Presbyterian in the 1930s, 40s or 50s, you know this, because as a child you probably had to memorize something called the Westminster Shorter Catechism in order to be confirmed as a member of the church. The Westminster Catechism is still in our Book of Confessions, part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church, although we no longer require people to memorize it. But even if you never got through the whole thing, likely you would have the very first question drilled into your head. The first (and most famous) question from that Catechism is this:
What is the chief end of man? (In other words, what's the point of our existence, what's our chief purpose in life?)
The answer, according to the Westminster Catechism? "The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."
In other words, it's not just the Bible: According to several centuries of Presbyterian doctrine, we were made above all else, to praise God, and to take great enjoyment from doing so.
But why? Why is praising God so central to the Psalms, to the Bible, to Presbyterians...and, according to Psalm 117, to "all nations," and "all peoples" everywhere? If that seems a little strange to you, you're not alone. I want to read to you a somewhat lengthy quote from the writer and theologian C. S. Lewis (most famous as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia). In his book Reflections on the Psalms, he writes:
"When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand . . . The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way —‘Praise the Lord,’ ‘O praise the Lord with me,’ ‘Praise Him.’ . . .
But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise . . . The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . I had not noticed either that just as [people] spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all [people] do when they speak of what they care about . . .
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
If it were possible for a created soul fully . . . to ‘appreciate’, that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude. . . . To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God — drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scottish catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
If that was a little too dense, pastor and theologian John Piper puts it this way: "The reason God seeks our praise is not because he won't be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won't be happy until we give it."
Of course, you don't have to take the words of C.S. Lewis or John Piper. The Psalmist, in Psalm 117 gives his own reason why everyone should praise the Lord: "For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever."
In part, this is classic Hebrew poetry--say something, and then rephrase it in a slightly different way. Just like verse one, "Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples!"
God's steadfast love toward us and God's faithfulness to us are two sides of the same coin, essentially the same thing, repeated for emphasis. Praise God, love God, seek after God...because God first loved you, sought you, and called you into being from among the billions of particles and molecules in this wide universe to be perfectly and uniquely you...unlike any other before or since. Praise the Lord!
That kind of love doesn't grow tired and fade with passing years, it doesn't cut and run when things get difficult, it doesn't even end when you draw your last breath and take leave of this life...God's love and faithfulness to us endure forever. Praise the Lord!
That kind of love is not contingent upon your actions--whether you are good or bad, whether you are a success or a failure, whether you live up to the expectations of this world, or your family, or your boss, or your friends, or your neighbors. God's love and faithfulness to us are steadfast, when we deserve it most and when we deserve it least. Praise the Lord!
That kind of love is not even contingent on whether or not we praise the Lord, whether or not we "believe" in it, or whether or not we even accept or understand it. But I think that once we have contemplated, once we have perceived and experienced (even just a little) that kind of unconditional, unstoppable, unfathomable love...there's really only one way to respond. You know how. You know why. And I hope you leave here today knowing just how much God loves you. So everyone say it together with me now:
Praise the Lord! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!