Read Psalm 147.
“I don’t think any of us get off this planet without suffering enormously” says author Mary Karr. “And one of the chief ways we suffer is by loving people who are incredibly limited by the fact that they’re human beings, and they’re going to disappoint us and break our hearts …. Your parents—no matter how great their marriage was, at some point it trembled in its foundation, and it was terrifying. [Or] you fell in love with someone who didn’t love you back. Or whatever. We are all heartbroken. It’s the human condition.[i]
One of my favorite secular authors is Brene Brown. Her two TED Talks “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame” are among the most watched since TED began in 1984. TED talks are brief, live talks that can be watched on-line, given by experts in the areas of education, business, science, tech, and creativity, and they have over 1 billion on-line views. Brene’s talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has been identified by the TED curators as one of 11 “must see” talks. She’s an academic social worker, and her research-based work has focused on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. What most people don’t realize is that during a dark time in her life, what she calls a breakdown, something she talks about in her TED talk, she returned to the church and to faith in Christ after many years away. I’ll let her tell her story.
“I went back to church thinking that it would be like an epidural, like it would take the pain away, like I would just replace research with church, you know, the church would make the pain go away. And then [I discovered that] faith and church was not like an epidural at all; it was like a midwife who just stood next to me and said, “Push! It’s supposed to hurt.” The church as a midwife. I like that image. And you know what? It’s biblical. In Galatians 4:19, Paul writes “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you …” The goal of the Christian life isn’t keeping a set of religious or cultural rules. It isn’t trying to be a good person. It isn’t being a good citizen. The goal of the Christian life is nothing less than Christ being formed in you. Not you becoming Christ, or equal to Christ, becoming divine, but Christ’s life being formed in you, lived in you. And Paul compares that process to childbirth. And the church is the midwife, standing next to you saying, “Push! It’s supposed to hurt.” Life hurts. We’re all heartbroken in some way. It’s the human condition. But healing can hurt too. So what does all of this have to do with worship?
This summer when I preach, we’ll be looking at the last five Psalms, Psalms 146-150. They’re known as the “Hallelujah Psalms” because each Psalm begins and ends with the Hebrew phrase “Hallelujah,” Praise the Lord! And together they form a kind of short course on worship. So that’s what I’m doing this summer. I’m teaching a short course on worship. Not singing. I’m not qualified to do that. Remember the radio show Aubrey came up for me? “Tone Deaf Jeff.” Singing is a part of worship. An important part. But I can’t teach that. We’re talking about what worship really is, which is giving our reverence to God for who God is, and thanks to God for what God has done, is doing, and is going to do. And the Psalm we’re looking at today centers on V. 3: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” But we have to understand the context to understand what the Psalmist is saying.
This Psalm was written long after David, who wrote many of the Psalms, was king, at about 1,000 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed by the conquering Babylonians, many of her people dragged off to live in Babylon, in 587 B.C. It was actually written after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, and to their homeland, after exile in Babylon. They began by rebuilding the temple, and in 444 B.C. Nehemiah led them in rebuilding the city walls around Jerusalem, and it ushered in a long period of relative peace. And this Psalm was written for that time period. The people were trickling back and rebuilding their homeland. And they found it in ruins. But God was working through them to rebuild.
I want you to do something. For some of you, this exercise will be imaginary. For others, it might hit pretty close to home. I want you to close your eyes and imagine that your house is on fire. Imagine the terror as you struggle to get your family members, your pets, and maybe a few salvageable precious things out of the burning house. Now imagine yourself returning to your now destroyed home a few days later. Things you loved and cherished have been reduced to dust and ashes. And you wonder how you will ever clean it up. Rebuild. Not just your home, but your life. Now look at Vv. 1-6. Those words have a slightly different ring to them now, don’t they? We read them and memorize them for encouragement when we’re having a bad day. And that’s fine. But they were written as words of celebration and hope for those who had been having not just a bad day or a string of bad days, but bad months. Bad years. A bad life. And the hope contained within those words is deeper than most of us could ever imagine.
It is good and pleasant to sing praises to our God. A song of praise is fitting.” Singing is a big part of offering our praise to God. It isn’t about singing well. It isn’t about listening to words being sung well. Real worship is about singing words of praise from the depths of our being with hearts filled with hope, because he does heal the brokenhearted, and bind up our wounds.” Steven Guthrie, who wrote the book “Creator Spirit,” tells this story about singing. “As a freshman at the University of Michigan I sang the Michigan fight song (it really pains me to tell this story) along with my fellow students – at football games, in the student lounge, at pep rallies on campus. Singing “Hail to the Victors! Hail to the conquering heroes!” I felt proud of my university and a sense of loyalty to it. I felt a proud camaraderie with my classmates, our institution, and its sports teams …. Singing was not the sole reason that I came to feel a part of my university, but singing was a moment when my growing sense of inclusion in the university was focused and concentrated. At the same time, “Hail to the Victors” served as a kind of embodiment of the University of Michigan community for me. When I first heard that song sung in a stadium full of Michigan supporters, I felt I was “meeting” that extended community and joining in its character and identity. When I hear it now, it carries with it still some flavor of that place, those people, and my experience among them. This is a trivial and in many ways [unique] example; it is a single song that is sung on occasions of a special sort and is explicitly designated to represent an institution. Nevertheless, it illustrates on a superficial level the sort of thing that happens much more profoundly among a group of people—such as a church—who gather together regularly and sing. Songs are one way that a community has its identity and one way that individuals find their identity within a community.” Maybe for you it’s “Victory for MSU.” For me, as an Ohio State fan, it’s “Buckeye Battle Cry” and the drums and opening notes of “Hang On Sloopy” thundering through Ohio Stadium.
You know, every college marching band in America does the exact same pre-game field entrance and show, and people would be beyond furious if they didn’t do it. Could you imagine the U of M band marching down the field in their Block M formation playing Hail to the Victors, or the MSU band not entering to the chant “Go State,” or the Ohio State band not doing Script Ohio every week? People would be up in arms. But at church, if we sing the same songs too often, or repeat anything one week to the next, people get irate! It’s gotten to the point where some modern churches play completely new music every week. You’d better repeat everything every Saturday in the football stadium. But never repeat anything on Sunday morning? It’s absurd. We should belt out the words to Holy, Holy, Holy and Shout to the Lord and Days of Elijah, and sing in reverence the words to Amazing Grace and Heart of Worship. It is our corpus of music that unites us and turns our attention to the greatness and goodness of God.
And we gather to praise not a god who kicks us when we are down, but one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up our wounds. He is a God who restores his people.
Look at all of the words used to describe the work of God. He heals, builds, binds up, counts, lifts up, gathers, names, covers, prepares, makes, provides for, takes pleasure in, makes peace, commands. And every one of these words or phrases is a present participle. Do you remember your Language Arts classes? Present participles denote ongoing actions. Always present. The constant and dynamic work of God on behalf of his people. No matter when this Psalm is read, or spoken, or sung, it speaks of the current, constant, dynamic work of God. It is always current. Always for today. These aren’t things God did in the past. They are things God is doing right here, right now, today. He heals the broken hearted and binds up our wounds.
God does this because, believe it or not, God actually cares about and cares for His creation. All of it. Look at Vv. 7-11. The ancients lives, psychologically, in a very small universe. From their perspective, everything centered around what they knew. How could they think otherwise, right? So the stars, the moon, the sun all revolved around the earth. Today we know that this planet we call home is just one small part of a vast universe. A universe so vast that even if we could travel at the speed of light, which we can’t, it would still take millions of years to travel from one end to the other. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and in the first movie, Han Solo says “I’ve traveled from one end of this galaxy to the other.” But the truth is, if you left earth on the day you were born and traveled at the speed of light, hyperspace in the Star Wars universe and warp speed for all of you Star Trek fans, and if you traveled at that speed, the speed of light, for every day of your life without stopping until you died, and if you lived to be 100, you would only make it one tenth of the way through our own galaxy, which is 100,000 light years from end to end. In other words, it would take you 100,000 years to travel from one end to the other traveling at the speed of light. For comparison, King David ruled in Israel slightly more than 2,000 years ago. And our galaxy is just one of one hundred billion galaxies that scientists have identified so far. This universe is so immense, and our little planet so small. And many of us have a view of God that is so small that we can’t imagine that he sees our woundedness, our broken hearts in a universe that is vast far beyond our comprehension. But who is the God who Jesus reveals? The words of Jesus in Matthew 10:29. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The words of Jesus are no less true now than they were then. Jesus would go on to say “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (V. 31). In the vastness of this universe, God sees you. Sees your broken heart, your wounds, and he heals and binds them.
God sees you. God restores and heals you. And God provides for you. Look at Vv. 12-20. Yes, he provides for his people physically through creation. And he invites us to be a part of his providing for those who, because this world is fallen and filled with sin, don’t have enough to survive. He also provides for us through his Word. He feeds us through his Word. My grandfather fought in the Pacific during World War II. Had the heel of his boot shot off on the Island of Biac as the Army and Navy island hopped north toward Japan. I can remember my grandpa going out every morning and raising the American flag on the pole he had installed in his yard. And every night he went out, lowered the flag, and carefully folded it, never letting it touch the ground. He marched at the front of parades carrying his gun as a part of the honor guard, and when he died five years ago he was buried with full military honors, and I thank God for his service, for his example, and for instilling in me a respect for and reverence for our country. Many of you have had similar experiences. Many of you served in our nation’s military, and we thank you. But it struck me as odd this past week that many of us give far more reverence to our nation’s flag and our constitution than we do the Word of God. We keep our flags in good repair, fold them up right, and dispose of them properly when they are damaged. At the same time we toss our Bibles carelessly on the back seats of our cars, on a shelf at home, don’t even bring them with us to church, and almost never read them. Most of us know the US Constitution and Bill of Rights much better than we do the word of God, and are far better at living as citizens of the United States than we are as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The written Word of God points us to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. God speaks his word, and sent THE WORD.
We are all heartbroken. It’s the human condition. And we gather to worship the God who sees you in your human condition. Sees your broken heart. Your wounds. And heals them. God sees you. God knows you. God cares for you in a way he doesn’t care for any other part of his creation. And he cares for all of it a great deal. And he provides. Through creation. Through the written word, and through sending THE WORD, Jesus Christ, God provides for his people. He sees, and knows, every sparrow, every homeless person, every hungry person, every grieving person, every refugee seeking peace. He sees every wound. And he heals. Praise the Lord!
[i] Mary Karr, interview, quoted in Wesley Hill, Writing in the Dust blog, (2-26-12)