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Why We Sing: Every Day

Every Day

Psalm 146


Last week during the Cherry Festival, Becky and the kids and I went down to the open space for the Cole Swindell country music concert on Thursday evening. It was a beautiful night and a great concert. People were laughing and dancing and clapping and singing at the tops of their lungs and having a great time. They were waving their hands in the air. I even noticed some people raising their hands, almost like some of us do here during worship. Now, don’t get worried. They weren’t worshipping Cole Swindell or the gods of country music. They were simply expressing the joy in their hearts in very obvious ways.


Go to a football game and you’ll find fans hooting and hollering, yelling, clapping, cheering. Go to a music concert and you’ll find people singing and dancing, clapping along and waving their hands. Walk into most churches and the same people are standing there with their hands in their pockets, stone-faced. A few are singing, but most aren’t.


This summer we’re going to be looking at the last five Psalms, Psalms 146-150. These Psalms, that together conclude the book of Psalms, are known as the “Hallelujah Psalms.” All five begin and end with the phrase “Praise the LORD.” “hallelu jah.” They were used during worship, and they focus our attention on praising God. Taken together, they form kind of a short course on worship. Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 146.


Now, there’s something I want us to see in the first verse that doesn’t show up in English translations. The first three words, “Praise the LORD!” are repeated immediately, but there’s a grammatical difference in the original language. The first phrase is plural. It’s addressed to the congregation gathered for the purpose of worshipping God. The focus of the second, adding the words “O my soul,” is singular. Worship is both a personal, internal and a communal, external experience. These days people love to say, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God. I worship God in the woods. Or on the water. Or in the mountains.” Wherever. And you know what? We should give thanks and glory to God for the beauty of this natural world.

Look at V. 6. He is Creator, and as Creator he has left evidence of himself all over his creation, and the Scriptures bear witness to that. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Vv. 1-2). In the New Testament, St. Paul wrote “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). A student of art history can learn to recognize artists by their work. They know the signs, the style, of an artist and can determine whether a piece of art is an authentic piece by a specific artist or not. In the same way, evidence of the beauty and majesty and power of God run through his creation, and we all have moments when we see or experience something and know that we’ve encountered something of God visible in his creation. God isn’t the same as creation. But creation, the natural world, the universe, points us to God. A God of purpose, intention, meaning, and incredible power.


But the idea that we can encounter God in creation in powerful ways takes up just one line of this Psalm. Worship is also a communal experience. Something we are supposed to gather together regularly to do. The Psalmist speaks in both personal and communal terms. We’re to gather to encourage one another, to pray for and with one another, and to praise God together. You see, your experience of God this week might just encourage someone who’s going through a real difficult time. That’s why we do “God moments” each week. It’s a time to encourage one another. I might be having a rough time. I might be having a hard time seeing God at work in my life. I might feel abandoned. But I come to church, and someone tells a quick story about God’s work in her life, or God speaking to him through a passage of Scripture, and I’m encouraged. It gives me strength to keep going, to press on, to keep seeking God. And suddenly, even though I didn’t really feel like praising God when I came, my heart opens up in worship. Because if God is at work in your life, God can be at work in my life too, even if I can’t see it right now. And I start to look for God’s work in my life.


Look at the second phrase of this Psalm. Real worship comes from the depths of my soul. It wells up from a heart grateful for all that God has done. But worship isn’t a feeling. “I will praise the LORD …” Worship is an act of the will, not a feeling. It is something I choose to do. We’re all about feeling these days, not so much about intention and will and following through when something gets hard. Worship comes from deep within me, but it doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes I have to simply decide, “Today, I’m going to be grateful and worship God, even though I don’t feel like it.” Why? Because I feel like it? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. No, not because I do or don’t feel like it, but because he is God. The writer of Hebrews said, “Through him (Christ) then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). The fruit of a heart turned toward Christ, “lips that acknowledge his name,” is a willingness to offer to God “a sacrifice of praise.” To offer a sacrifice is to give up something, to kill it in, to move on from it. A sacrifice of praise is a willingness to praise God whether I feel like it or not. It is worship that costs me something. For some in this world, it is a willingness to worship God even though they may be put in prison, even killed, for doing so. For us here in America, it is a much lighter sacrifice. It is simply to lay aside my own desires that change like the Michigan weather and worship God when I feel like it, and when I don’t. When it’s easy, and when I’d rather be somewhere else.


Now, look at V. 2. Worship is something I am intended to do for each of my days. Some days, I am grateful and worship God on my own, out on the trail on horseback. Or stopping to watch a glorious northern Michigan sunset. Or watching the birds eating the seed outside our living room window. Other days, and regularly, I am grateful and worship God with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes I encourage them, and other times they encourage me. And “I will SING praises …” There’s just something about music and poetry that communicate in ways that prose cannot. Singing is an active, dynamic expression of joy. The Psalms are songs, intended for use in worship. They’re intended to be read and sung by the gathered congregation. We begin almost every service by speaking a few verses of a Psalm together. But when we add music and poetry, which is what musical lyrics usually are, our thoughts and words come from a different place in our brains. Sometimes, through music, you can communicate something more deeply than you can simply with words. You join mind and heart, thought and feeling, when you sing.


So what holds us back? What keeps us from worshipping God without spiritual or emotional hindrance, the way we were created to worship? Look at Vv. 3-4. It really comes down to a focus on anything other than God. I have a human focus instead of a focus on God. That can show itself as a focus on self. I come to worship God, but all I’m really thinking about is myself. About what I think, about what I feel, about what I want. About what I like and don’t like. Oooo I like this song, I’ll sing this one. Nah, don’t like that one, I’m not going to sing. I feel like singing today. I don’t feel like singing today. I may have come to worship God, but my focus is solely on myself.


And many authors and psychologists wanting to make a buck have learned this. Psychology is one of my main fields of interest, and it’s a legitimate field of study and is helpful to millions, but an article in New York magazine reports that the self-help movement has mushroomed into an “$11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives.” The article observed: Today, there are at least 45,000 [books] in print of the optimize-everything cult we now call “self-help” …. Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one … bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies [from self-help books] …. [Self-help books] replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, senators, and teachers) with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions. The article offered titles and brief descriptions for some of today’s most popular self-help books:


How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less. How to make a lasting good impression, from teeth to breath to handshake to small talk.


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  Business and science-tested strategies for bending others to your will.


59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. Provides behavioral tweaks … in an amount of time anyone can spare.


The 4-Hour Workweek. Self-help’s current version of get rich or get good at anything quick.


The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life 


How to Think More About Sex . Do we really need that one?[i]


Now, there isn’t anything wrong with many of these books, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to get better in some areas of life, but the self-help movement can lead to the belief that we should and that we can save ourselves through our own efforts. But the good news of Jesus Christ ends this type of self-help and the proclaims the beginning of God’s redemption to save those who cannot save themselves.


A focus on something other than God can also show itself as a mind focused on finding human solutions to our problems. If we can just elect the right person, if I can just find the right mate, if we can just choose the perfect pastor, if we can just come up with the right set of laws. If we can just find the right social program. If we can just find the right medicine.  I look more to human beings than to God to solve problems. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of the time, God works through people. So we should pray for wisdom and strength for our leaders and those who protect us from ourselves and others. But humans rise and fall. Even great leaders die and their plans and initiatives die with them. When we place all of our hope and trust in human leaders, even godly ones, we are placing our hope and trust in finite, limited, imperfect people who will not last forever. And this verse isn’t just talking about political leaders. It’s talking about people of means and influence in whatever realm they may be found. Political leaders, community leaders, business leaders, scientific leaders … even church leaders.


When we focus on ourselves and our problems, we’re easily overwhelmed. Look at Vv. 6-9. They’re all there. Oppression. Hunger. Crime. Imprisonment. Illness and injury. Refugees and aliens. Orphans and those who grieve. Those who weigh heavily on our social safety net and drain resources. Evil and wickedness. How are we supposed to find solutions to all of these problems? How are we supposed to deal with all of this? How are we supposed to worship with joy when it seems like the world is going to hell in a handbasket? When our focus is on self, human solutions to our problems, and the problems themselves, we are easily overcome with hopelessness and despair and our desire to worship is wiped out. But look at what the Psalmist says. It is the LORD who cares for each of these people, each of these issues. If he knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground, how much more does he care about the issues we face in our society today?


Does this mean we aren’t supposed to care about these things, not do anything? Of course not! God works through his people. We should care more about these things and do more about them than anyone else in the world. Why? Because we are the people of God, and he works through us. But it all seems so overwhelming. Yes, but we are the people of God, and HE is at work in and through us. Here at Christ Church, we are busy meeting the needs of the hungry and the lonely. And there’s lots of them. All around us. We don’t each have to have the solution to every problem. God has called us to work together. Margianne and Lenda can’t feed even the people we feed here without help from you and I. And we as a single church can’t address every need ourselves. But we can pray for and support those who are doing other things. And so I pray for my college friends Andy and Andrea who work with prostitutes and human trafficking victims in the red-light district in La Paz, Bolivia. As we grow, we’ll be able to do more as a church, but there are others doing great things around the world, and we need to be praying for and supporting them, even if we don’t know how to do what they are doing. We simply must each allow God to do HIS thing through US.


But all of this, a focus on self, a focus on human solutions to our problems, and being overwhelmed by the problems we face, grow out of an inadequate view of God. Look at V. 10. When we worship, we must set aside our own agendas, our own perspectives, our own insecurities, our pride and arrogance, and bring our attention to God. And we must do so with a Biblical view of God, not a cultural one. We must allow Jesus to reveal God to us as he is, not as we would have him to be. What does the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus say about who God is? Creation says that God is a God of great power and might and holiness and majesty. The life of Jesus says that this powerful, holy God is also a God of love who cares for every part of his creation, who sees us, and who acts. In Christ, he has done what he must to save us. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, he is using us to bring his hope and healing to a world desperately in need. But we must grow in our experience and understanding of who God is, what God is like.


Some of you have heard this before. Others of you have not. It is a small portion of a sermon preached by the great African-American preacher S.M. Lockridge called “That’s my king!” Lockridge had a way of turning a prose sermon into poetry, joining mind and heart, thought and emotion, in a way that I cannot, as he reminded his congregation of the greatness of the God we gather to worship, so we’ll conclude not with my words, but with his.

[i] Boris Kachka, “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” New York magazine (1-6-13)