Sermon for June 12th, 2022

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Psalm 47:1-9

To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.

1 Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
3 He subdued peoples under us
    and nations under our feet.
4 He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah

5 God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

8 God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 47

Psalm 47:5 speaks of "going up with a shout." I'm reminded of the story about an airplane that was preparing for takeoff with a full load of passengers when the pilot and copilot came on board--both wearing dark sunglasses and tapping walking sticks for guidance. The passengers are understandably uncomfortable, but assume it must be some sort of practical joke, so they say nothing. As the plane begins to accelerate, the passengers see the end of the runway rapidly approaching, with certain doom awaiting at the end if the pilots really can't see what they're doing. Just before the end of the runway, all the passengers scream together--right before the plane lifts off. They're a little upset, but relieved that the pilots aren't really blind. Meanwhile, in the cockpit, the pilot turned to his copilot and remarked: "you know, Lou, one of these days they're not going to scream in time, and then we're gonna be in big trouble!"

Today is our first sermon in our annual Psummer of Psalms series. Some of you may remember that I like to begin the series with whatever Psalm happens to correspond to my age. A few weeks ago, I turned 47, so today we'll be talking about Psalm 47. By the way--If you've ever wanted to study the psalms more deeply, or even study the Bible more deeply, I highly recommend this practice: Each year, as you turn another year older, find the psalm that matches your age. You won't run out of Psalms until you turn 151. Make that Psalm your personal prayer for the year--read it on your birthday, print it out and tape it to your mirror, keep coming back to it throughout the year, and let God speak to you through the words, the rhythm, the images in the psalm.

Granted, this is a very slow way to study the Bible, but I think too often we rush through the psalms or other scripture passages and miss a lot of the nuance, the poetry that can only be appreciated through repetition and slow digestion. I think sometimes we also make the mistake, when we read the Bible or the Psalms, of sticking to the verses we like, or the ones that resonate with us. But if you pick the Psalm that matches your age--you might get lucky and find that it's an uplifting, inspirational psalm that will carry you through the next 365 days. But then sometimes, you'll get something like I did a few years ago on my 41st birthday:

"My enemies wonder in malice when I will die and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me."

Be careful not to think of your Birthday Psalm as a self-fulfilling prophecy. My 41st year was actually not all that bad. But there are many days, many seasons in a year, and the Psalms are a reflection of the entire breadth of human experience. John Calvin called the Psalms an anatomy of the human soul. There are prayers of exuberant joy, prayers of grief and sadness, prayers of deep reverence and wisdom--if you start studying and learning the Psalms, even just one per year, you will in time build a repertoire of prayer that you can draw from in any of life's situations.

Now on to Psalm 47. For starters, the inscription at the beginning of a Psalm (if there is one) is always worth paying attention to. We read that Psalm 47 is addressed "to the leader." Some translations render this as to the "chief musician" or the "director of music" but those are essentially guesses. We know that many of the psalms were intended to be chanted or sung in the worship of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, so it makes sense that someone would be in charge of that.

We read further that this Psalm is "of the Korahites." The Korahites, or (literally) the sons of Korah were a musical family in ancient Israel. Twelve of the Psalms are attributed to them, compared with 75 which are attributed to King David. And the last inscription simply reads "A Psalm" or in Hebrew, מִזְמוֹר (mizmor) which means "a melody."

There is no question that Psalm 47 was meant to be sung, and in a lively, upbeat kind of way. The opening lines even sound like instructions for the congregation: "Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy."

This is an important reminder that music, and singing, is something that EVERYONE is supposed to do in worship. Psalm 47 doesn't say, clap your hands and shout to God with loud songs of joy, but only if you're in the praise band, or only if you're in the choir. No, it says "all you people." Raise your hand if you're a person. Ok, that settles it. You're the ones who are supposed to sing.

"But pastor, I'm not a singer. You don't want me to sing--I can't carry a tune in a bucket!" That would probably be true if we were gathered here today for a concert. But we're not. Worship is not a performance, it's a gift that we offer to God (not to each other). When your kids were little, and drew you stick figure pictures with crayons, you didn't say--"That really stinks! You're a lousy artist, kid, don't draw anything ever again!" No, of course not. Those pictures were beautiful to you, not because of the skill of the artist, but because of how much you loved the person who made it. Your heavenly father is exactly the same--he loves the sound of your voice raised with others in worship because he loves you. If anyone has a problem with your voice, they can take it up with your creator...your job, your responsibility, is simply to sing, to sing loudly, and to sing with joy.

Why? That's verse two: For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. Now, I suppose that sometimes when you show up here on a Sunday morning, after a difficult week, after paying attention to world events, or even the many challenges of work, relationships, and life in general--you may not feel like God is that awesome, a great king over all the earth. There are plenty of psalms that reflect that kind of anguish, and sometimes we sing those, too.

But I think there's actually something to be said for singing God's songs aspirationally. Sometimes we sing the things we want to believe, the things we need to believe as an act of defiance, as a way of painting a better picture and reminding ourselves of the possibilities we believe in. Precisely when the world seems like it's falling apart, I need to know there is a God who is in control, who has the power to make things right. And when the person on my right and the person on my left are singing about that, it has the power to lift my focus, to lift my thoughts...especially when I join them.

The next two verses (3 & 4) in the NRSV translation are in the past tense: "He subdued peoples under us and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. But in the NASB translation (and several others) the same verses are in the present tense: He subdues peoples under us and nations under our feet. And then in the New King James translation, the verses are in the future tense: "He will subdue the peoples under us and nations under our feet." So which one is right?

Well, all of them, sort of. There is no real future tense in the Hebrew language, but the verb in this passage is in the imperfect tense--and unfortunately, there's not really an imperfect tense in the English language, so it's hard to translate from one to the other. But the imperfect tense has the sense of incomplete or ongoing action. This is why it's a good idea to read different translations of the Bible--if you read just one, you would miss the subtle nuance of this verse, but if you read several, you'll get it.

God has always been bringing the world and its people closer to his designs and plans, God continues to do this today, and God will continue doing this tomorrow and the day after that as well. Past, present and future. God also chose a heritage for us in the past, continues to do that today, and will keep on doing that in the future. Our heritage is our history, the story of our relationship with God. It stretches back long into the past through the faith of our parents and grand-parents and great grand-parents. It lives in us today, and it is something we pass on to our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.

This statement is so profound, that at the end the Psalmist writes the mysterious word "Selah." I've talked to you in previous years about this word--no one really knows what it means. It could mean something like "Amen" or it could indicate a pause, a key change, a shift in the music of some kind. Whatever it means, at the very least it punctuates what has just been said, and prepares us for what comes next.

Verse 5: "God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet."

In ancient Judaism, the Ark of the Covenant (yes, the one from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark!) was a chest that contained the tablets of the ten commandments, and personified the presence of God with the Jewish people. They carried it with them at the front of their armies when going into battle. I think that's what this verse is referring to--with the shouting of the army and the blowing of the trumpet, God has gone up into the battle ahead of his people. It's a great metaphor for us, too. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when we plunge ourselves into the challenges and struggles of life...we know and we trust that God goes with us. Not only that, God goes before us, in front of us, preparing and making a way for us.

The next two verses (6-7) function like a refrain or a chorus: Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.

There is simplistic rhythm and repetition to this chorus that works just as well in English as it does in Hebrew (and probably any language). Psalms are poetry. Psalms are music.

The final two verses (8-9) paint a picture of wholeness and balance between heaven and earth:

"God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

The Hebrew word for sheild מָגֵן (maginah) has a triple meaning here. It can mean shield, which symbolizes the defense or protection of the nations, but the same word can also mean scales, which can represent both the marketplace and also justice. So whether it is the protection of the nations, the commerce of the nations, or the justice of the nations, the outcome is the same--no matter how much we fret over these things, they all belong to God alone in the end.

The other thing I love about the conclusion of this Psalm is the unity and inclusiveness of the image: All of the people of all the earth are gathered together--not fighting against each other, but instead recognizing their shared heritage, their shared connection--as people of the God of Abraham. In Jewish tradition, Abraham was known as the father of many nations, so this is poetic shorthand for the widest, most inclusive grouping of people possible.

So what is Psalm 47? Is it a reassuring vision of things yet to come? Is it a call to worship the living God? A reminder of our connection and heritage in faith? Is it a heartfelt prayer for peace? The Psalms, of course, are many things, this one included. What I love best about them, however, is that they are perhaps more than any other part of the Bible, bi-directional. Like all of the Bible, the Psalms are God's word given to us. But since the Book of Psalms are also prayers, songs, cries of the heart--that means that they can also be our words given up to God. Bi-directional. God's word to us, and ours to him.

May these ancient words, these very present words, these always and forever words, become part of your ongoing conversation with your creator.