Sermon for June 21st, 2020

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Psalm 96:1-13

1 O sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples.
4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be revered above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Honor and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering, and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
    tremble before him, all the earth.

10 Say among the nations, “The Lord is king!
    The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
    He will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12     let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13     before the Lord; for he is coming,
    for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with his truth.

Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 96

On September 11th, 2004 (the day my son Grady was born) I gained an incredible new superpower: The ability to tell Dad jokes. On December 16, 2007, when Abby was born, I leveled up. And on December 16th, 2011 when Jonah was born, I became a Jedi-Dad-Joke-Master. Since today is Father's day, I will now indulge in this ancient, sacred, art on behalf of Dads everywhere.

  • Why are elevator jokes so good? They work on many levels.
  • Why do eye doctors live so long? They dilate.
  • Why does a chicken coop have two doors? Because if it had four doors, it would be a chicken sedan.
  • What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator.
  • What do you call a broken can opener? A can’t opener.
  • What do you call a group of rabbits walking backwards? A receding hare-line.

Last Sunday we looked at Psalm 86, which can be used as a model for how to pray. This Sunday, we're going to look at Psalm 96, which functions as a model for how to worship. I'm going to be honest--while I often have people ask me to help them learn how to pray better, I rarely have anyone ask me "How can I worship God better?" It's not something we think about much, even though worship is pretty fundamental to who we are and what we do as people of faith.

But this question, "How should we worship" has been on MY mind a lot in the last four months. Four months ago, we thought we had the whole worship thing down: You come to church Sunday morning, sing a few songs, say a few prayers, stand up, sit down, shake hands, listen to the sermon, say a few more prayers, sing a few more songs, stand up, sit down, pass the offering plate, go home. I'm only exaggerating a little.

And then came Covid19, and suddenly you couldn't shake hands or pass the offering plate. Then you couldn't even come to church. How do you sing songs when everyone is in a different location and their internet connections are 3 seconds out of sync with each other? How do I preach a sermon when I can't look into the faces of my congregation and see the joys or the sorrows, the confusion or the understanding reflected in their eyes?

We struggled through it, doing our best, trying new things, making new mistakes and new discoveries every week. Churches started to re-open, ours included, but it wasn't as simple as just "going back to what we did before." In a world where it's still not safe for some people to come back to church, that won't work. And last week, I learned from some of our military families (we have several here in El Paso) that their employers don't consider it safe for them or their families to participate in social media or online worship services, for reasons of national security. So it's not enough to just do one or the other. We have to do both.

How do you hold together different communities, worshiping in different ways, with different rules and expectations? Add to that the problems we already had before Covid19, like different preferences in music, different political, generational and socio-economic backgrounds, and YES...I would absolutely LOVE to hear what the Bible has to say about how we should worship God in this crazy, frustrating, ever-changing world!

Psalm 96, verse 1: Sing to the Lord a NEW song; sing to the Lord ALL the earth.

There it is right there in the first verse. Rule number 1. It's okay to do something new, something different, something unfamiliar that doesn't look like the way your parents or grandparents worshiped God. The world changes, and our worship changes along with it. Sing to the Lord a NEW song.

And yet there are things that don't change, that cannot change. Like whom we worship. Sing to the LORD a new song. Or who is responsible for doing the worship: Sing to the Lord ALL the earth--not just those who can safely come to the building, or those with a fast enough internet connection--we ALL have to find ways to worship God that make sense for our context and situation. There is no break, no acceptable excuse to just sit things out until the situation gets better.

Another thing that doesn't change is HOW we are to worship God--it's repeated twice in verse one: SING to the Lord a new song; SING to the Lord all the earth. It's tempting for me as a preacher to think that the sermon is the most important part of worship, but over and over again in the Psalms, the most emphasized aspect of worship is communal singing.

That means not just the praise band, not just the people in the building, not just those who can carry a tune in a bucket. SING to the Lord ALL the earth. I'm going to say something some of you might not like to hear: If you didn't sing today, if all you did was listen to other people didn't worship.

God doesn't care whether you sing on pitch, or in rhythm, loudly or softly, the whole song or just part of it. God created you and your voice...and he loves to hear it, even if the person sitting next to you, or your family, or your neighbors, or your cats think you're weird (you probably ARE weird, but that's because you're Presbyterian, not because you can't sing).

Of course, there is more to worship than just singing. Verse 2 and 3: "BLESS his name; TELL of his salvation from day to day. DECLARE his glory among the nations." That's what we do when we pray, when we preach, when we share God's peace or read the scriptures together. It's also what we do when we tell someone, hey I think you would have liked the Psalm we talked about in church today--let me tell you about it, or let me send you the link.

In both of these things--singing to the Lord, and declaring his goodness, notice that the subject of our worship is still God...and not us. Often, people will tell me, "I come to church (or I watch the service online) because it fills me up, it makes me feel good about myself, or it prepares me for the week ahead." All those things are good, and I hope you feel that way after worship, but it's important to remember that they are secondary. Worship is not primarily something we do for ourselves; it's something we do for God, and for the world. If you're here today, in the building or online, you are not the audience, and I'm not a performer. We are, all of us together, the performers, and God is the audience. The job of those leading worship--me, the musicians, those doing the readings or videos, is to remind us of our lines, to remind us of the part we are all supposed to play.

Verses 4 and 5 talk about idols: [God] is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

Most of us don't typically think of ourselves as idol worshipers. That sounds like something people did long ago in foreign cultures. But here's the truth: All of us, when we gather for worship (in whatever place we gather), bring with us a thousand cares and worries and distractions--things that we unconsciously place above God in our hearts.

It has often been said that if you want to know what your idols are, look at where you spend most of your time, your money, and your energy. For some, your idol might be the pursuit of material possessions. Or money. Or food. Or status. Or your career. Or...your children, your family. None of those things are bad in themselves, and actually, I hope you devote time, energy and money to your family.

But all of those things are, ultimately, fleeting. When you lose all your money, or your job, or when your children grow up and move out--if you have centered your entire life around these things, you will be lost. All of these things can become idols.

But if you center yourself (and your time, your money, your energy) on the One who created all these things, the one who gives (and takes) all these will, at the very least, be able to put them all into the proper perspective, appreciate them, and ultimately (I think) be better at them.

Worshiping God means putting God first, above even the most important and urgent things in our lives.

Verses 7 and 8 speak of "ascribing" things to God. The original Hebrew word here is יָהַב (yahav) which simply means to "give." So what do we give to God in worship?

"Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength." Glory in Hebrew is כָּב֥וֹד (kavod) which is often translated as wealth or abundance--in other words, what you have above and beyond what you need. Your excess. And strength is עֹז (oz) which has the sense of authority or power. These are, incidentally, the two things most of us have the hardest time giving up to anyone, let alone God. Our stuff, and our control.

Please remember that control part when worship doesn't go the way you (or I) plan for it to go. Worship always goes exactly the way God intends for it to go, even if that looks a little chaotic or messy sometimes.

There's one more thing we're supposed to "ascribe" or give to God, in verse 9: "Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth." Only tremble is a pretty lousy translation of the Hebrew word חוּל (chool) which sometimes means to shake or writhe around; but most often in scripture it means to whirl around, to move, to dance.

If you thought singing to the Lord was awkward...believe me, I'm with you on the dancing part. But no one said worship would be easy, even for the pastor.

The final four verses of Psalm 96 speak of the kind of worship that goes beyond people, beyond prayers and sermons and buildings, and incorporates the entirety of heaven and earth:

"Let the heavens be glad . . . Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy."

These final words from Psalm 96 inspired a young Presbyterian pastor named Maltbie Babcock in the late 19th century, when he would take long walks in upstate New York near the Niagra Falls, telling his wife that he was "going out to see the Father's world." On one of these walks, he paraphrased Psalm 96 into a poem:

All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres
This is my Father's world:I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their maker's praise.
This is my Father's world, He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere.

Important caveat here: I don't think Rev. Babcock would have been okay with modern Americans who like to say "I worship God out in nature, so I don't have to belong to a church." But he would have agreed with the idea that God is to be found in the beauty of creation.

Worship of God BEGINS on Sunday morning when we gather together in our ancient and ever-changing rituals of song, sermon, and prayer. But it also continues throughout the week when we carry our praise of God out into the world God made, and when we recognize and appreciate the songs of the birds, the trees, the flowers and the fields...or the desert mountains, all of whom are worshiping their creator, too.

This is my Father's world, O let me never forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world: why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! God reigns; let the earth be glad!

Happy Father's day, First Presbyterian Church! May your worship, your songs of praise, and the songs of all creation bring joy to your Heavenly Father, this day, and all of your days upon the earth.