Praise the Lord
15/08/2004 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by David Holloway
This evening we begin a new series of studies in the Psalms. Tonight we are looking at a very short Psalm, Psalm 134.
The Old Testament part of the Bible that contains the Psalms is so important. Listen to Paul in his epistle to the Romans. Chapter 15 verse 4 says:
Now Paul here is being very practical. He is teaching how Christians should be tolerant of other Christians when they disagree over secondary issues. He mentions disagreements about what you should eat or drink or whether you should keep Christian special days. So in verse 2 of chapter 15 he says:
And to underline that he reminds his readers in verse 3 of chapter 15:
Paul is saying, "Put others first - not yourself, and especially in these secondary issues."
Recently there has been a celebration for the 50th Anniversary of Billy Graham's Harringay Crusade, as it was then called. This first mission of the American Evangelist in London in 1954 had a profound affect on the religious life of the UK. Now, when Billy Graham (and his team) and their wives first arrived in the UK, there was a reception organised by UK evangelical leaders in a London hotel.
Things, however, were a bit frosty at the start. The Americans were a little shocked because sherry was offered on arrival, when almost to a man and a woman they were tee-total. On the other hand the British were a little shocked at the American women who arrived with lots of brilliant red-lipstick, looking not unlike a bunch of Dolly Partons. In those days a number of Christian women were against such make-up. But following Paul's teaching they realized that these were secondary things. And they worked together for the mission and thousands were converted to Christ. They were taking verse 2 of chapter 15 seriously:
But do you see what Paul is doing in this very practical bit of teaching? He backs up his teaching by citing the example of Jesus and by quoting Psalm 69 verse 9 which says:
Paul saw that in that Psalm what was true of King David was even more true of Jesus. So Paul sees the Old Testament as helping you to understand Jesus Christ - God the Son, and not only helping you to understand the reality of God the Father and his character. Well, that is the context of Paul saying in verse 4 of chapter 15:
Notice Paul doesn't say the Old Testament is there to answer all the questions that it is possible to ask about God and the world. Here he wants you to know it has a practical purpose. It is to teach you to have hope as you look ahead to God's future and that future was and is only in Jesus Christ - in his first coming and his second coming. But practically in the present you are to keep going whatever the difficulties and obstacles. And the Old Testament helps you do that. nd the Psalms, in so many different ways, are wonderful examples of how it can do that.
So much by way of introduction.
My headings tonight are first, THE COMMAND; secondly, THE MANNER; and, thirdly, THE PRAYER. And I want to spend most of my time on that first heading.
First, THE COMMAND
Look at verse 1:
I have three questions on that verse - who, when and what?
First, who is this Psalm addressed to? Obviously - "the servants of the Lord". But who were they? Not all agree but many scholars think that originally the reference is to the Levites - the assistant clergy in the Temple. 1 Chronicles 23. 28 tells us that they were ...
But whatever ancient priestly tasks those Levites then had, the New Testament makes it crystal clear that after Christ and his sacrifice on the Cross that old Temple order has changed. There is now a "priesthood of all believers". So, if you trust Christ, you can take this Psalm as applying to you personally as a "servant of God". You too are to praise the Lord.
Our second question is "when"? When were these Levites to be ministering and praising God? One answer is again obvious - "by night". But that is not the complete answer. If you look in your Bibles under the words "Psalm 134", you will see that this Psalm is called "A song of ascents." And if you turn back, you will see that every Psalm since Psalm 120 has also been called "A song of ascents". Many think that these Psalms were especially used, somehow, at the annual religious festivals in Jerusalem. They were probably sung as people made their way in from the countryside. Then they were sung at the festivals. And this one, the last one, was sung as people were preparing to go home or on their way home.
As a 15 year old I went up to Harringay in that first Billy Graham mission in 1954. In the tube trains people going home after the meetings were singing Christian hymns and songs in the trains in large numbers. Nor was it just a few odd balls doing that. Many think that this Psalm is a bit like that. It was a psalm, therefore, for when the party is over.
Perhaps some of you have just come back from a camp. If you were a camper, it all now feels a bit flat. If you were a helper or leader, you know the feeling when you've said "Good-bye" to the last person to leave, and there is all the mess that you've then got to sort out, before you go home. Or perhaps, you've just had a great holiday, and you've come back to a mass of work, lots of letters on the mat and one that is particularly nasty. And you now feel a bit down after such a good break. Well, imagine these Levites feeling like that. Either they have to get on with the services that need to be conducted that night after the pilgrims have left the Temple. Or the last pilgrims have left in the late afternoon and that night the Levites have got to get every thing ready for the following morning. Whatever the details, you've got the general picture. So this is probably for one of those times when you feel "flat" or "sad" or "exhausted". And when you are in such a situation you are, this psalm says, to "Praise the Lord."
That brings us to the third and big question, "what" is it to praise God? Praise and worship are, indeed, big subjects. In one sense Christians must be always praising God. Ephesians 5.20 says, you are ...
You say, "How on earth can I do that - practically - when I have to give a lecture or teach a class or interview a client or examine a patient? I can't be forever saying, 'Hallelujah'!" No! But you can be aware of God's greatness and goodness all the time you are doing those things - in the background of your consciousness, so to speak.
I saw recently on TV a BBC Promenade Concert when someone was playing, I think, Rachmaninoff's Rapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra. It was virtuosi playing of the first order. Now the pianist, I'm sure, was not concentrating on the audience for whom he was performing while he was actually playing. No! He was concentrating on his playing and the conductor. But he was undoubtedly aware of the audience all the time.
Similarly the Christian can be aware of God and his goodness and greatness all the time in that background sense. But our Psalm is talking about an occasion of conscious and focused praise. How you need those times - like Sunday Services and daily Quiet Times. They, if you like, feed your subconscious.
Now, this Psalm makes it clear that this sort of praise is not automatic. For this is a command. It is an imperative. It was perfectly possible for these Levites just to go through their routines without genuinely praising the Lord. And because this is a command, it is clear that true praise can't be equated with a mere feeling. Some people think that praising God equates with feeling all woozy in some religious service. Depending on your taste that can be a service with brilliant traditional choral music or a service with brilliant electronic music.
A friend of mine calls it the "liver shiver". Nor is there anything wrong in that. Let's have more brilliant choral music and brilliant electronic music in our churches and services. But let's not identify that feeling with Christian praise. You can't order people to have "liver shivers"! Some people never feel much but they can be truly praising God.
There are a number of words associated with the "praise" of God in the Bible - for example "worship", "glorify", "adore", "magnify" and "give thanks". All have different nuances. But fundamentally they all stand in the Bible for the natural human response of a person when they understand who God is and what he has done - his person and his work.
I saw the Italian get the gold medal in the cycling road race in the Athens' Olympics yesterday. Instinctively the Italians all praised him for his achievement. You see, praise completes your enjoyment. When Johnny Wilkinson dropped that goal in the rugby World Cup (that England won) last Autumn, people in this country erupted with praise. Praise is natural, when there is the right stimulus.
And the right stimulus for the praise of God is not a feeling but a right understanding. It is understanding his greatness and goodness. That is why Bible reading and Bible teaching are so important for praise. The Bible is where you now learn about the true God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So the sermon - this sermon - doesn't come "after" the praise or worship, which you express by words or by psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (to use Paul's categories). No! It is all part of the praise and worship, or at least it is essential to praise and worship. Jesus says that God's ...
So you then ask, "how do you truly understand God's greatness?" The Psalms encourage you to see God's greatness in his creation and sovereignty over nature. And remember that all the persons of the Godhead - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were and are involved in the created order. As we will see in our next Psalm, 135, God is great because (verse 6) ...
And the Psalms encourage you to see God's goodness in his salvation history and his redemption of the world which the New Testament tells us climaxed in Jesus Christ when he lived, died and rose again with sin and death defeated. That is why Christians now celebrate Holy Communion which is a "praise service" for the Cross, where Christ died in your place and mine bearing the judgment that you and I deserve. But that redemption and salvation began in Old Testament times with the Jews - see verses 3-4 of our next Psalm (135):
So for true praise and worship focus on both God's greatness and creation and his goodness and redemption. Think about those things - and especially when you are feeling flat - like those Levites in the Temple. You then realize that God has a purpose and a plan that includes those plateau periods. Nothing happens without his control - he is the sovereign Lord of creation and history and of your history. And when you realize that, you can think creatively about what to do when life seems empty or difficult in other ways. You don't just waste time grumbling or moping or feeling sorry for yourself. It is amazing what happens when you praise God and think about his greatness and goodness and the fact that he knows all about you and cares for you and wants the best for you and has the power to do something about it.
Well, that brings us to my second heading. I want now to be brief.
Secondly, THE MANNER
Look at verse 2:
Lifting up hands was a posture for prayer in the ancient world. Praise, of course, is one aspect of praying. In the Lord's Prayer praise was the first thing Jesus taught us to do in prayer. He taught us to say, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name". That is praise. There doesn't seem to be any magic in a particular posture. We know that Jesus knelt down, rather than lifting up his hands, to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. But posture certainly helps concentration. That is one reason why in churches you alternately sit and stand.
The second thing to note about this verse is the phrase "in the sanctuary". This can also be translated "in holiness". Scholars are divided over this. But if that is correct, the Psalmist is saying that your worship must be genuine and you must be right with God. There is a lot of hypocrisy according to the Bible that goes on in religious gatherings. Psalm 24 verse 4 says that the true worshipper is one ...
That is why it is good to begin services with times for confession.
And thirdly, and finally, THE PRAYER.
This is a prayer that could be applied both to the Levites in the Temple and the pilgrims going home from the Temple. It can be applied to you and me. It is a final blessing. It is simply a prayer for God to give you all you need. It reminds you, however, of two things.
First, of the greatness of God that we have spoken about. He is the "maker of heaven and earth" - our almighty creator.
Secondly, it reminds you that God's blessings come from Zion (or Jerusalem). Jerusalem, of course, was sacked by the Romans in 70 AD and the Jewish city destroyed. So now God's blessings don't come from Jerusalem in the State of Israel. But in Christ (and through Christ) for those who trust in him there is now a new Jerusalem. As you heard in our New Testament reading tonight, Hebrews 12.22-24 says:
Who is wanting God's blessing tonight? It still comes from Zion but the new Zion, the true Church, where Christ is king and the mediator of a new covenant. And God may well use members of the church to be the means of that blessing.
I must conclude
Perhaps there is someone here tonight who has not yet received God's greatest blessing - new life in Jesus Christ. That is the secret of all the other blessings. But to receive these first you need to be right with God - the holy God who is "a consuming fire". Your sins need to be forgiven through Christ and his death for you on the cross. Then as a member of the true church of Christ - that new Zion or new Jerusalem - that fellowship of believers "whose names are written in heaven" - you will receive new life by his Holy Spirit.
So if you praise and thank God for what he has done for you in Christ, he - the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth - will "bless you from Zion", where Christ, the risen Saviour reigns and rules.
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