Both of our scriptures for today are perfect for the recognition and celebration of a brand New Year. How great is it that? It’s a New Year…whoo-hoo! New Year is a human construct after all, but it’s also a marvelous feeling of starting fresh all over again. I don’t know about you, but I really like that opportunity, to start over. Though a little different than our celebrations on New Year’s Eve, today
we celebrate God by paying attention to the Focus Scripture of the day, Psalm 148, which is basically all about how to Praise God.
Now, I know there is a little bit of tension about the act of “Praise Worship” here at Greendale People’s Church. Most of us are not big “praisers” when it comes to worship and that includes yours truly. Ever wonder why that is? We praise each other. We praise our church. We even praise Worcester. But when it comes to the practice of outwardly praising God, well…we’re Swedish, or we’re New Englanders, or we’re Puritans and we’re reserved. We don’t “do praise,” though maybe we can rethink that tradition, just for today and then tomorrow we can go back to the way we’ve always done it. Every church, just like every person, has its own way, its own culture and ways of doing things based on its history.
Praise in Worship has a venerable tradition going way back before Biblical times. I imagine as long as there have been God’s people on the earth, somebody was sitting around a campfire in a cave praising our Creator, giving thanks for surviving another grueling cave-person day. In the book Generations of Praise: The History of Worship by Bruce E. Shields and David Butzu, you can read that:
“The construction of Solomon’s temple (also known as the First Temple) completed the work of cultic centralization started by (King) David. Until its destruction in 587 BCE, the First Temple remained the symbol of the reign of Yahweh (God) and the rallying place (for worship) of all Israelites. This gave the temple priests and Levites great influence over life on all levels of society.”
Worship and praise were at the very core of life for ancient Israelites. In 353 BCE, exactly seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews began building again. The Second Temple was completed in 349 BCE under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. During the Second Temple period, worships were worked out in great detail and animal sacrifice as a form of praise was a common practice. Later, Synagogues formed which were much more focused on scriptural readings and lessons of morality than on sacrifice and took precedence over the temples. Synagogue worship was comprised of holy prayers, readings translated into the local language, the Shema “(Which is the) fundamental confession of faith of all observant Jews, found in Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (which goes like this) “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and finally worship ended with a Benediction. Sound familiar? All of this was directed to the glory and praise of the One God, Yahweh. Racing forward in a time machine, in the 20C between 1946-1956 The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a series of eleven caves around the site known as Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea in the West Bank (of the Jordan River) by Bedouin shepherds and a team of archeologists. The Qumran scrolls date from approximately 250 B.C. to about 65 A.D., and at some other locations to about 135 A.D.
The Dead Sea Scrolls give us a peek into the world of early worship, not referred to as Christianity at the time they were written. They originated with a small sect of Jews who practiced a belief in the teachings of Jesus and who left in the caves the well worn scriptures and worships. For thousands of years, worship has been humans’ way of acknowledging the presence of God and attributes all of Creation and the power of the universe to God. In the words of the authors of Generations of Praise: The History of Worship “..worship was designed to bring people into a covenant relationship with God or to maintain them in that relationship so that their lives, both individual and communal, would show forth the praises of their God.”
The point is, even though we 21C post-modern faithful may be somewhat uncomfortable here in Worcester with the word, praise has a time-tested place in the history of the Church to which we are aligned. The Merriam Webster definition of praise is: a transitive verb
1: to express a favorable judgment of: (in other words) commend
2: to glorify (a god or saint) especially by the attribution of perfections.
I suppose since the advent of the 60’s and 70’s folk rock Praise Bands, we have thought of praise as belonging to a particular genre or style of more Conservative/Fundamentalist religion. But that is not necessarily the only place praise lives. There are a number of Progressive Christian Denominations and Non-Denominations like ours, who are perfectly capable of praising God and doing it in style. Praise does not belong only to Evangelicals who preach about a punishing God. We can and should claim it for ourselves as well!
Today, I’d like to challenge us to stretch our comfort level just a little bit by doing a simple praise exercise. Here’s how we’re going to begin; I will read a few verses from Psalm 148 (which really is a fabulous song of praise) and then individually, you throw a line out there in praise for God. If you can be so bold as to stand and throw your arms up in a sign of praise, all the more wonderful. If not, you may certainly choose to sit and praise God in your seat. For example, I’ll read from the focus text;
1 Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise God in the heights!2 Praise God all God’s angels; praise her, all his host!3 Praise her, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! And then when I pause, someone can stand up and say, “praise the lord, my car still runs!” Or “praise be to God that I still have a job!”
Okay, you got the picture? Here we go, don’t be shy - just shout out your praise! If you want to stand and throw your hands up, that’s fine, do it.
4 Praise her, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
(pause for praise)
6 She established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling her command!
(pause for praise)
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! 11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
(pause for praise)
And just one more…
12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; her glory is above earth and heaven.
(pause for praise) 14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all her faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!
Wasn’t that fun? It does indeed feel so good to praise our God for all the wondrous things and activities in our lives.
One of my prayers for this new year of 2017 is that we, as a church, grow ever closer to God, recognizing God’s ever-abundant presence. We come to church to be with each other in community, of course. But first and foremost we come to worship and PRAISE God for our existence and for the beauty of God’s universe. As it says in Romans 12, attributed to Paul,
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers (and sisters) in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God -- this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – God’s good pleasing and perfect will.”
Praise be to God. Amen!