Psalm 98 – Sing a New Song

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly. (Common English Bible)

Please notice the point of today’s psalm: Sing to the Lord a new song. Yes, a “new” song. This means we have an obligation to bring fresh music to our worship of God. This is a summons to get an original voice. Rather than going down the same ruts in our speaking and living, we are to exercise some creativity.

It seems as if those who want to stick with the “tried and true hymns” of the church have forgotten those hymns are only a few hundred years old in a church which is two-thousand years old. Back in the nineteenth century, a bitter worship battle ensued between those who wanted to sing the new hymns and those who had been singing the psalter for the past few hundred years.

The reason we sing new songs is because God is continually performing wonderful deeds in every generation. God has not only worked in the past; the Lord is doing the miraculous in the present, as well. The psalmist is thinking in cosmic, not provincial, terms. Included in the praising of new songs are a variety of creatures, along with all of creation.

Rivers Will Clap and Mountains Shout by Itamar Raz

We sing because of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do for the future. Creative and fresh praise that remembers previous divine works, experiences the now of the Spirit, and anticipates the coming of the Lord is the sort of praise called for in the psalm.

Being attentive to God’s mighty deeds helps us breakout into new vistas of living. Considering God’s works through new songs can become so invigorating that everyone and everything on earth is encouraged to join into the imaginative expression of praise.

We are to praise the Lord in this present time because of what God has done in the past, with a continual eye to the future when Christ will come again. If we don’t make the effort to offer praise that is fresh, creative, and thoughtful for our present time, then we ought not be surprised when a watching world gives a shoulder-shrugging “meh” to our tepid singing. And if such vibrant praise seems foreign, then the time is past due for a renewed focus on the works of God because the Lord really has done miraculous things for us.

Let’s jump start your creativity a bit:

  • Do some prayer walking through your neighborhood. See the community through another’s eyes.
  • Write in a journal or collect photos of significant experiences. No one needs to read or see it unless you want them to. Although, it’s a good idea to share with others.
  • Sketch, paint, or sculpt. Make a visual depiction of your joy or experience. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a second grade art project. It’s the process of creating that matters.
  • Participate in a new activity, like taking an online class or developing a different routine.
  • Don’t just do what somebody else did. Reflect on what is important to you. Then, make something to remind you of its value.

You are already a creative artist. You just might not know it, yet. Since you carry within yourself the DNA of a creative God, the Lord’s image and likeness within wants a creative outlet. Open yourself to the possibility of smelling colors, talking to trees, and listening to what animals have to say to you. In doing so, you just might discover that the miraculous has been under your nose all along.

Mighty God, your holy arm of power has done incredible works in history. What’s more, you have done influential works in my life, especially through deliverance from evil and transformation of heart.  For this, and for all your miraculously good work, I praise the gracious and wonderful name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. Amen.

Psalm 95 – Worship and Whining

Psalm 95 verse 4, by Cecelia Nedlin

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
    as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(New International Version)

Revelation and Response

Praise and thanksgiving. Complaining and grumbling. These two sets of words are antithetical to each other. Yet, out of the same mouth can come both worship and whining. Maybe the psalmist was trying to teach us a thing or two by inviting us to sing and bow to the Lord, as well as hear God’s voice.

Worship and listening are meant to go hand in hand. Revelation and response are to be the spiritual rhythm of the believer. True worship is a divine conversation between us and God. The Lord speaks. We listen and answer. Back and forth we go together. God and God’s people are in dialogue.

When the worship rhythm is off, then our response will be off. And that is what happened to the ancient Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from their cruel bondage in Egypt. You can imagine the kind of praise and worship service the people had in the desert! After four-hundred years of slavery, freedom!

The Rhythm is Off

Before you know it, the thanksgiving turned sour into grumbling. At the first instance of adversity, when there was no water to drink, it was as if the people had some sort of collective dementia set in. Suddenly, hardness of heart. Talk about fickle! One minute hands are raised in praise, the next minute, those same hands clench into fists shaking at God.

The people forgot that this was an ongoing dialogue – not a one and done conversation of revelation and response. God acted by delivering the people. The people responded with praise and thanksgiving. And they didn’t want it to stop. Yet, all of life is a rhythm. What goes up, comes down. Good times eventually fade into tough times. The real muster of any person or group is the response when the hardship comes.

God knew exactly what he was doing. The Lord purposely brought the Israelites out into the desert to face a difficult circumstance. God was teaching them to trust. The Lord wanted a response of faith and prayer to the adverse situation. But the people weren’t looking for a dialogue. They were looking for water. And when they didn’t have it, their hearts hardened through murmuring, bellyaching, and dissatisfaction.

However, God was still in the conversation. The generation who saw the incredible deliverance from bondage would die in the desert, never setting eyes on the Promised Land. And it all began because of grumbling.

Complaining is Unhealthy

We need to take complaining seriously. Why? Because it rots the soul, like Mr. Grinch who incessantly complained every year about Christmas. Grumbling makes one into a Grinch-like creature, like the song says:

You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel…

You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Your heart’s an empty hole
You got garlic in your soul.

It was only when the Grinch forsook his isolation of complaining and began connecting in conversation with the folks in Whoville, that he had his rhythm restored.

The Need for Encouragement

When our rhythm is off kilter, what will it take to get it back? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews helps us here. After quoting our psalm lesson for today, the writer responded to the biblical revelation by saying:

Be careful, brothers and sisters, that none of you ever develop a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. After all, we will remain Christ’s partners only if we continue to hold on to our original confidence until the end. Scripture says, “If you hear God speak today, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be stubborn like those who rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:12-15, God’s Word Translation

Revelation and response are the rhythmic dynamism of the Christian community. Lone Ranger Christians are an oxymoron, as well as moronic. We are hard-wired by God for community. All of us need to encourage one another – every day. Without the communal connections of encouraging conversations, it will be difficult to sustain a divine dialogue of God speaking, with people listening and responding in obedient faith.

Celebration is wonderful. We need times and experiences of celebrating deliverance from bondage. Eventually, when Christ returns, there will be unending worship in the form of jubilation. That time is not yet here. This side of heaven, we must learn to engage God in ways which address our hardships and difficulties. Otherwise, our hearts will become stubborn and hard.

Let your heart become open enough to receive encouragement. And let it also be brave enough to encourage others.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused earthly pain to be holy. And you gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will. Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

Psalm 150 – Praising God

Psalm 150 by Hope G. Smith

Shout praises to the Lord!
    Praise God in his temple.
    Praise him in heaven,
    his mighty fortress.
Praise our God!
    His deeds are wonderful,
    too marvelous to describe.

Praise God with trumpets
    and all kinds of harps.
Praise him with tambourines
    and dancing,
    with stringed instruments
    and woodwinds.
Praise God with cymbals,
    with clashing cymbals.
Let every living creature
praise the Lord.
    Shout praises to the Lord! (CEV)

There is a time for quiet reflection and contemplation, and there is a time for jubilant shouts of praise. The biblical psalms mirror the full range of human emotion. Having moved through the ups and downs of doubt, curiosity, anger, lament, and trust, it is appropriate that the psalter ends with lots of joyful noise.

I grew up in a generation where children were expected to be quiet in church. Not surprisingly, as a child, I found the church worship service on Sunday to be the most boring hour of my week. After a Saturday of morning cartoons, sugary cereal, All-Star Wrestling, and playing outside in the dirt with my brother, Sunday morning was typically a big letdown.

All I have to say about that, and about cranky old women shushing kids in church, is that the adults somehow forgot to read Psalm 150. Maybe if us big people were better about encouraging our little people to dance in the aisles, blow a kazoo as loud as they can, and freely give a shout to the Lord, then perhaps there would be a lot fewer defections from church worship services.

“Praise is the rehearsal of our eternal song. By grace we learn to sing, and in glory we continue to sing. What will some of you do when you get to heaven, if you go on grumbling all the way? Do not hope to get to heaven in that style. But now begin to bless the name of the Lord.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

But don’t think I’m advocating going all out noise, all the time. Just as it is neither necessary nor appropriate to always shout everything you say, and skip everywhere you go, so the worship of God needs to encompass the broad scope of the human condition. Silence, meditation, and stillness have their important place. In a desire to make church fun, some Christians have created imbalanced experiences of only victory in Jesus.

One of the reasons I follow the Christian Year with its liturgical movements is that it holds and maintains the balance of worship and the theological tension of both crucifixion and resurrection. We need healthy rhythms of sorrow and joy, stillness and movement, quietness and shouting.

The Church is currently in the Christian season of Eastertide. It is a focused time of celebration – which is why we have biblical sections in this time of year like Psalm 150. This is the appropriate time to lift loud praise to God for the risen Christ and celebrate salvation and new life in Jesus.

I’m not really a numbers kind of guy, yet its easy to notice the word “praise” occurs 10 times in a psalm of just 6 verses. And 7 musical instruments are mentioned. Methinks we’re supposed to not miss something here.

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.”

hebrews 13:15, NIv

Praise is to happen in heaven and earth, in all creation, out in the world as well as inside the walls of the church building. It is to be done with voice, dance, drums, horns, woodwinds, and stringed instruments. Because God has done wonderful and marvelous acts throughout the earth, people are to respond with profuse gratitude expressed with lots of emotion.

Just so you know, that means sourpuss Christians who wrongheadedly believe human feelings ought to be stuffed and suppressed, need some remedial theological education about who God is and exactly what he expects from people. Somebody, please dispense the laxative of Psalm 150 to loosen their spiritual constipation!

God gave us our breath, and we are to use it for praise. If we see the entire book of Psalms as a life, then it is fitting the final psalm ends with sanguine praise. Indeed, when a person is at end of life, do they have reason to praise? A life of walking with God through thick and thin will inevitably end with recounting the ways in which the Lord has shown up and delivered. They want musical praise filling their last days and minutes.

That is exactly what Duke Ellington did in the twilight of his life. On January 19, 1968, Ellington performed a concert of sacred music at St. John the Divine cathedral in New York City. Among the original songs he performed and later recorded was his musical interpretation of Psalm 150. He called it “Praise God and Dance.”

Duke Ellington said that this praise music, and the two other albums of sacred music he recorded, were “the most important thing I have ever done.” When Ellington performed “Praise God and Dance” at the ancient Church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Spain, the congregation spontaneously burst into the aisles with dancing and singing.

The whole person is to be involved in praise – mind, body, emotions, and spirit – because God is Lord of all of us, not just the spiritual dimension.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. (Psalm 98:4-6, NRSV)

I will bless you every day. I will praise your name forever and always. The Lord is great and so worthy of praise! God’s greatness can’t be grasped. (Psalm 145:2-3, CEB)

Praise the Lord! My whole being, praise the Lord. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praises to my God as long as I live. (Psalm 146:1-2, NCV)

Shout praises to the Lord! Our God is kind, and it is right and good to sing praises to him. (Psalm 147:1, CEV)

Amen.

Psalm 84 – The Joy of Worship

Every now and then I like taking a psalm and doing my own loose contemporary translation of the text (just so you know, I’ve had training in the Hebrew language, so this isn’t weird for me, or for you!). I find this exercise to be exhilarating and helpful for my own soul. I hope you find this to be useful for you, as well. 

Today’s psalm talks about the temple. I have contemporized it for the Christian who enjoys fellowship with God in the many places where the Lord can be found. I encourage you to read it over once, then carefully read it again, prayerfully. Do it both times out loud. The psalms are meant to be prayed, and they are meant to be said aloud with flavor!

How lovely are all the places where you dwell,
    powerful and mighty God of the numerous heavenly forces!

The depths of my soul long, even yearn,
    for the intimate backyard gatherings where Yahweh dwells.
My heart and my body, my whole self
    shout out loud for joy to the living God!

Yes, the lowly insignificant mother sparrow has also found a home with God;
    the swallow has, too, found herself a homey nest
    where she can lay her young beside your divine activity.
    Immense Lord of the numerous heavenly forces, my king, my God,

    You are so big that the lowliest of creatures find shelter in you!
Those who live within your sacred space are genuinely happy;
    they can’t stop praising you constantly and incessantly!

Those who put their energy in you are truly content;
    a one-way road to you is in their hearts.
As they walk through all kinds of dry hard circumstances
    they end up making them like a spring of living water.
    Yes, even problems become like a gentle rain of blessing.
The biggest of dilemmas become manageable,
    as they see the supremacy of God in it all.
Mighty Lord God of the numerous heavenly forces,
    hear my prayer to you;
    listen closely, O ancient God of my spiritual ancestors!

You are our great protective shield, God;
    pay close attention to your chosen one!

Better is one single solitary day in your backyard gathering
    than a billion days anywhere else!
I would prefer to park cars out in the front yard of God’s house
    than live comfortably in the palatial hangouts of the ungodly!
The Lord is like the brightness of a warm summer day,

and even the suntan lotion protecting me; God is all that!
    God is full of crazy grace and unspeakable glory.
The Lord gives— and doesn’t withhold — good things
    to those who walk with integrity of heart beside him.
Powerful Lord of the numerous heavenly forces,
    those who trust in you are truly giddy with joy!

Divine presence makes all the difference in the world. To be with God, to sense the Lord’s company, and to enjoy Divine favor brings deep satisfaction and contentment within a world of great dissatisfaction and discontent.

True beauty is found with the Author of the beautiful. Love motivates the pilgrimage toward God. The non-judgmental presence of the Lord provides us with a place of security, peace, and rest. Indeed, the nearness of God changes everything. It transforms our present circumstances from drudgery and despondency to opportunities for God to show up and show off divine power.

God, the heavenly king, and commander of heavenly forces chooses to dwell among us. The Lord’s ear is attentive to each person. The connection between God and God’s people is inseparable. This, then, is the very place where trust is engendered. Placing faith in a God who cares, listens, and acts blesses everyone.

Today, God abides with us because of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. God’s presence has the effect of bringing people together and calming all fears. God’s eye is on the sparrow, which means the Lord is always watching with care and concern for all creation, especially humanity.

Almighty God, merciful heavenly Father, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness, kindness, and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love shown through the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Give us such an awareness of your divine presence, that with truly thankful hearts our lives might be an offering of praise in both speech and action. We trust you, gracious God, and give ourselves to your service. We choose to walk with you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow, sung by Selah