This sermon is from the study of Psalm 98.
The Church of England in their catechism teaches that the chief concern of the human is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. If our Anglican friends are right, this could be bad news for Lutherans, because we don’t do joy well. We are a little stiff when it comes to the ecstatic praise department. A firm smile, possibly with a few teeth showing is about as happy as we get on a Sunday morning. If the Church of England is telling me I need to be a cheerleader I have got real problems. I have no rhythm, can’t clap and honestly look kind of foolish jumping up and down.
Even outside of worship, fear tends to extinguish brush fires of joy that may appear. One of the biggest celebrations at Messiah since I have been here was the day we dedicated the new building out there. The place was packed. All sorts of special guests were here. Our musicians outdid themselves and gave us great worship. Our Fellowship leaders outdid themselves and served a great meal. Everyone was happy, laughing, enjoying this victory. We did it. We did it well. We did it smoothly, without fight, rancor or set back. We did it and it looked great. I should have been on cloud nine that day.
Driving home after we had cleaned up from the dinner, I kid you not; I nearly had a panic attack. Moments after the celebration, my mind was worrying about money to pay for the building, the extra work for our custodian to clean it up, and sustaining the enthusiasm of the congregation after such a big project. On a day when my head should have been in the clouds, I was hopelessly lost in the weeds.
Part of the problem of course is simply cultural. We can be an uptight bunch. Don’t believe me? Compare a Lutheran church service in Ohio to a Lutheran church service in Tanzania. Those Tanzanians look like they are having a lot more fun. Or just stay in town and compare Messiah’s worship to a rocking Pentecostal service. Watching a Lutheran uncomfortably enduring such a service is kind of funny. Child birth looks like it would be more fun.
Something more than cultural is going on, and not just with Lutherans, but all Christians. We don’t trust God enough to be joyful around Him. At the end of the building project, I didn’t envision God as a breathlessly proud parent, but rather a buzz kill boss who barely can get out, “Good job,” before moving on to the next project and problems for the week. In order to be joyful with God, we need to trust that God is pleased with us.
Psalm 98 is a song of praise that inspired Isaac Watts to write Joy to the World. What is interesting is what the Psalmist is so joyful about. The first three verses remind us just how great God has been. The references are to the exodus, that great event immortalized in a Disney cartoon where God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. Rabbis teach that God did that not just because of God’s special relationship with Israel, but because Egypt needed to know who was really in charge with the world. Thus verse three ends with the declaration that the ends of the earth have seen God’s power.
The middle verses are trying to get the party started. Like a DJ at a wedding, the psalm is calling people to the dance floor. Not just the Israelites, but everyone is invited to this rave. Get out the lyres, the trumpets, the horns and let’s start making some music. Even the sea is going to roar in approval, the rivers called floods here are going to clap their hands and the hills are going to sing their pretty songs. You know the party is rocking when Old Man River is keeping the beat and Mount Carmel is singing acapella.
Finally, the reason for the party is given in the last two verses. What is it? A heavy rain shower of gold coins on Jerusalem or a new river of wine running through the desert. Nope. God’s judgment is what has the Israelites rocking. The Psalmist knew that the God who had saved them from the Egyptians, made them a great nation under bad odds with David, and stayed faithful to them even when Israel and her kings were doing all sorts of evil things, this God could be trusted to judge them with compassion, fairness and love. God’s judgment will not just be for Israel, but for all humanity.
As Christians, we know this judge is Jesus. As Isaac Watts sang, there will be joy to the world because in Jesus the savior has come. The savior has come not to condemn the world, to shake a bony finger and say no, no, no, but the savior has come to embrace the world with a hearty hug. God will be just and fair with everyone as God has been with God’s chosen people. Therefore, we can all rock out for this end of time judgment, just like the Israelites.
Maybe our brothers and sisters in the Church of England have it right, there is a lot of joy to be found when we live close to God. In Jesus, God has chosen to love the world not condemn it. God has chosen to dance with creation, not destroy it. God has chosen to say yes to us not no. If we believe this, then trust it and smile. If we can trust this, maybe we can let ourselves go enough to clap our hands with the rivers and belt out a song with the hills. Joyful praise of God begins when we trust God to love us.
A book I looked at this week, by Walter Brueggemann, called Israel’s Praise described what such praise should look like. Praise of God should be a large act. It is a sweeping gesture, full of exaggeration, hyperbole and metaphors like clapping floods and singing hills. This is what makes praise fun. It is not a memo that gets down to the particulars. Praise just emotes and who cares if it sound silly. Our love for God is sweet like apple pie, with flaky crust and homemade ice cream on top.
Praise of God is audacious because it is our gift for God. I think it’s tough to figure out a present to buy for my retired father in law who watches Fox News all day, what about the guy upstairs. The good news is they both want the same thing, to hear me happy. We got something to give that God wants, joy. God is blessed, gratified, honored even made bigger by our praise. That’s right, I said made bigger, that’s the audacious part of praise. When we sing songs of praise, we make God known in the world. When we let the joy of God rule us, God’s creation takes notice.
Most importantly, praise is an act of trust. When I walk into a room where Keegan my grandson is sitting, he always smiles and reaches for me. He is always thrilled to see me. Why? Because he trusts that I am going to show him a good time. I am going to throw him up in the air even though his grandmother and mother don’t like it. I will throw him a ball, read him a book, bring him some milk and if I can’t find anyone else to do it, change his diaper. He smiles because he trusts me. He trusts me because he has experienced my deep love for him.
This is what I forgot after we dedicated the new building. I had already experienced God’s blessing in leading us through a great building project. If I would have trusted that God’s love would continue I would have left joyful that afternoon not panicked. We praise God because we remember God’s goodness from the past and the promise of that goodness to continue. We are full of joy because God’s goodness and love has filled us from the first day.
When I abandon myself to God in praise, in that moment I am exactly the hope that God had for me when He called me child in baptism. When our churches sing songs of praise full of joy, we are exactly the image of Christ that God hoped for when Jesus gathered his disciples. When this world joins together, seas, rivers and hills singing a great song of praise, we are exactly the intention of creation on the first day. The Anglicans got it right. The purpose of all humanity is to live forever in the joy of God. Amen