"PRAISE" - Philippians 4:8-9; Psalm 104
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Texts: Philippians 4:8-9; Psalm 104
Early on Monday morning of this past week, I found myself sitting in the meeting room at the offices for Habitat for Humanity. I have served on the Board of Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for the last 5 years or so. But this was an unusual and challenging meeting. The staff of Habitat had called me over the previous weekend to let me know that one of the 15 staff members at Habitat was in a crisis: her husband had committed suicide in the home. The Habitat leadership team had asked me to come over, to meet with the full staff – to share and listen, to be present and supportive, to assist them all - at the start of the workday on Monday. So we gathered to talk about suicide, to talk about caring for their office colleague, to help them move forward in light of the crisis. As you might imagine, it was very sad, . . . very solemn, . . . and yet also a beautiful picture of compassionate people trying to deal with a very tragic situation.
On Tuesday of this week, as some of you know, Ginger and I drove to SC - to gather with my mother, my siblings and cousins, to celebrate the life of my last uncle, who lived a full, wonderful life and died at the age of 91. We had a wonderful time together, a rich celebration of worship at the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, where my uncle was a devoted and engaged member every year of his 91 years. As you know, funeral gatherings like this provide memorable occasions to celebrate faith and life, and also provide a great opportunity for a family to deepen the ties that bind. We enjoyed that so much.
Also, as the past week continued to unfold, all of us were bombarded with the chaos of the nation . . . and the world. We keep hearing about the government shutdown – now going past 3 weeks. We keep hearing the chatter about the need for a border wall and how much it costs. We keep watching and hearing about many other topics – including refugees, Syria, Yemen, and more - that make us question the crazy, confused state of the world.
All of these circumstances can quickly shrink the focus of our lives. All of these challenges can curtail the perspective with which we view life and the world. It is easy to feel discouraged and dismayed. It is easy to lose hope and buoyancy.
As Christians, as people of faith, our constant calling is to live life aware of God’s presence, live life in the fullness of God’s promises, live life in the constant hope that God will “make his face to shine upon us, and be gracious to us.” We have been claimed in the waters of baptism, covered with God’s love and care forever. Whether we live of whether we die, we belong to God. So these truths intend to shape our lives.
But when the crises of life become so real for us, when the circumstances of life get so challenging, whether personal situations or national discouragement, it can feel like a kind of “eclipse” of life lived before God.
Do you sense what I mean here? An “eclipse” is when the light from one celestial object gets blocked out. When we have an “eclipse” of life lived before God, the wonderful truths of God’s love and presence, the sustaining promises of God abiding care, get blocked out and we are left – it seems - with just the crisis, or the discouragement, or the chaos. (see G. Stroup, Before God, p. 1)
We have a passage of Scripture today that wants to help us with what might be the eclipse of life lived before God. We have a passage of Scripture – Psalm 104 – that absolutely wants to re-frame our thinking and our living. It is a long psalm and I will read various parts of it. I invite you to read along – page 483 in the pew Bible. Listen:
1Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty, 2wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, 3you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, 4you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
5You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. 6You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. 8They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.
9You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth. 10You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, 11giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.
12By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. 13From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, 15and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We are so inclined to get focused on the crises, the challenges, the circumstances of our lives. And the psalmist is singing a different tune, a much broader and helpful and faithful tune. “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” . . . . God is very real, and very present, and very great. The psalmist reminds us that God stretches out the heavens and earth and the waters – and nothing is beyond God’s care and power. The psalmist affirms God reigns over all – setting the mountains and valleys, allowing the birds to feed, the grass to grow, and even wine to gladden the human heart, and bread to strengthen human life. Amazing!
The psalm continues –
16The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. 19You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. 20You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. 21The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. 22When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. 2
3People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.
24O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
This is a psalm of immense PRAISE for God. PRAISE is what God’s people intend to be about. We sing PRAISE to God who reigns. This is an important affirmation as we deal with whatever comes our way.
This Psalm reminds us: we keep focused on God, especially when life becomes challenging, because we know whether we live or whether we die we belong to God. We keep wanting to see and celebrate God’s boundless mercy – in the mountains, in the streams, in the rhythms of nature, in the cycles of life – “O Lord, how manifold are your works.” We keep affirming God’s abiding care – because God loves us and will never let us go.
This is what theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann says: “In a frightened and lonely culture of alienation like ours,” we need to hear afresh the power and promises of God found in these words. These words “insist that the God that the church worships is an awesome sovereign to whom willing yielding is appropriate.” (see W Brueggemann, “Creation Sings to the Trinity,” Christian Century, Dec 19, 2018, p. 28)
The God that the church worships is an awesome sovereign to Whom willing yielding is appropriate.
That is a powerful point for me – and all of us - in these days!
We want to be reminded to yield our lives to God’s awesome care, especially when we might feel that God’s presence and promises have been eclipsed. Indeed, the psalm reminds us of God’s immense power and purposes, God’s amazing arrangement of all things beautiful, and God’s insistence that no matter what happens, we – and all things - are always in God’s care. God is the awesome sovereign to WHOM willing yielding is appropriate.
Can we willingly yield our lives to God in these days?
This is what faithful people continue to do. We sing PRAISE to God who reigns above – regardless of what is happening in and around us. We seek to trust God with all things – because God is trustworthy – no matter how we might feel life pinching in around us, or the discouragement that surrounds us.
Here is more from Psalm 104:
25Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
26There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it. 27These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
28when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
31May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works— 32who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
“I will sing to the Lord, . . . I will sing PRAISE to my God while I have being.” This is what God’s people are called to do, always. We have such an awesome God to whom willing yielding is appropriate. The psalmist reminds us that any sense of an eclipse from the presence and promises of God – the sense that God’s love or purposes have been blocked – is really our problem. We seek to sing to the Lord as long as we live. We seek to PRAISE God always – because God is real, and God is present, and God is always at work. God is deserving of our PRAISE.
You may be familiar with the name, Victor Havel. He was a writer and playwright in Czechoslovakia who became a leading dissident against the Communist oppression in that country, mostly in the late 1970’s and ‘80’s. Because of his leadership in the democratic causes in Czechoslovakia, he spent multiple stints in prison, once for as long as four years. But Havel’s persistence paid off. He played a major role in the Velvet Revolution, the toppling of Communism in his country. He also became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic.
In an interview deep in the struggle, and prior to his becoming president, Havel said this: “I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to do good works, and the only true source of the breath-taking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.”
For years, Havel and his fellow dissidents had been circulating petitions, drafting manifestos, staging protest plays, smuggling news to the outside world, with very little to show for it, aside from their prison records. What kept them struggling? Not a belief that their cause would prevail, but a belief that their cause was right. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” Havel would say. “Hope is not prognostication. Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizons.”
Havel was saying that our hope comes from “elsewhere,” and it intends to shape the living of our days, and the good works that emerge from our lives. It is an orientation of the heart and spirit that moves us to live life with and for God. (see Scott R. Sanders, Hunting for Hope, p. 27) And it is the whole point of Psalm 104!
As we move through the myriad circumstances of our lives, as we deal with the joys and celebrations, the discouragement and dismay, the Scriptures always seek to encourage us, to remind us, to re-frame the truth for us. The apostle Paul says: “Think on these things. . . .Keep on doing the things you have received from me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And the psalmist says: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. . . . May the glory of the Lord endure forever. . . .I will sing to the Lord. I will sing PRAISE to my God while I have being.”
These are good words for me in these days. These are important words as we move into 2019. May our lives be centered in PRAISE. May our lives be centered in God as we willingly yield our lives to God’s steadfast faithfulness and abiding care today, tomorrow, forever. AMEN.
Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And move us to sincere praise, deeper love, and increased commitment, following Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on January 13, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.