Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2019
Psalm 66:1-9 Commentary
A bit cheeky. A goodly dose of chutzpah. A tad forward. You have to admire the psalmists who on many occasions are not the least bit adverse to ordering the whole world to praise the God of Israel. Make no mistake: all those “Praise the Lord” lines in so many of the psalms are in the imperative mood. These are direct orders, commands. And these ancient poets do not seem to care if the people they are addressing are Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, or Hittites, the command is the same for one and for all: Praise Yahweh, praise the God of Israel.
Psalm 66 even goes one step further. Not only does the psalmist order all peoples to praise Israel’s God, he even provides a script for the prayer. “Praise God and when you do, say this: ‘How awesome are your deeds! All nations bow before you!’” It’s sort of like a choir director handing out the sheet music for an anthem and then saying, “OK, everybody, all together now: One, Two, Three . . .”
It ought to go without saying this would cause no small measure of offense to many people in the ancient world just as much as would happen today if someone from a given religion told adherents of other faiths not only WHOM they should praise but also HOW they should do it. In our era of tolerance and pluralism, this would not go over big. But it surely was not that different 2,500 years ago or so. Few of us like to be ordered around and even fewer of us like to be told what or whom to worship. “Mind your own business” and all that.
Still, there is something contagious about this poet’s enthusiasm for his God. As he surveys this creation, he is excited about what he sees. God’s works are tremendous, awe-inspiring. It’s not that he really wants to become some spiritual drill sergeant and start ordering the cosmos around but he can’t help it. He’s like a child who cannot get the words out fast enough when describing to someone what his day at Disney World was like. It just all comes out in a gush.
But the awesome deeds in Psalm 66 are not restricted to the works of God in creation. In fact, mostly the psalmist wants to testify to God’s great works of deliverance and salvation in history, especially for his people Israel. Now here again: if you are NOT a member of Israel, then how enthused are you likely to become when hearing a recital of the Exodus from Egypt or the crossing of the Red Sea? This would be someone else’s story, not yours, and so how would that motivate you to rise up and praise Israel’s God the way the psalmist is directing all people to do?
But you have to start somewhere and for most of us, personal testimony is properly a powerful way to bring people into a larger narrative that we hope they will join. It is as though the psalmist is saying, “I know this is not your story but . . . it could become your story if you start to worship and follow this wonderful God I am singing to and talking about!” The psalmist’s instincts here are right. After all, who of us can fail to be impressed when we hear the stories of people who have kicked bad habits, who were delivered from terrible circumstances?
Some years ago I heard screenwriting instructor (and creative consultant for Pixar movies) Bobette Buster note that when you survey the best movies in the whole history of Hollywood, you discover that most movies boil down to one of two themes: Redemption and Reinvention. Whether it’s Working Girl or Rocky, The Shawshank Redemption or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Sixth Sense or Groundhog Day, Schindler’s List or Pretty Woman, we are inspired to watch people get saved, transformed, made new. So if that is your story to tell, then tell it. Others will listen. And if in your case you can trace that salvation and redemption all the way back to God, then tell that too!
Ironically, in most of life we don’t find it cheeky or imperious when we listen to people share their testimonies (nor are we turned off by movies that tell such stories. Quite the contrary.) So although some people may get a bit prickly when being told they really should become followers of the God who did great things for someone (we try to treat religion as a solely private affair), there is a compelling aspect to such a witness and who knows? It may well become a turning point for some who hear the story.
Maybe today Psalm 66 challenges us that we are too often too timid to share our story. Will everyone listen or follow the praise imperatives in Psalm 66? Of course not. But it’s a sure thing that no one will listen or be motivated to praise God if they never hear your testimony in the first place.
Some years ago my wife and I were in the San Francisco area and so were able to spend a part of a day walking amidst the ancient and gargantuan sequoia trees in a nearby national forest. If you have ever seen these mammoth arboreal splendors, then you know of their majesty. And it’s not just one such tree but a whole forest of them. The space is hushed most of the time. It’s almost worshipful.
Speaking of which, after the hours we spent walking among these trees, we went to the national park’s coffee shop for some refreshments. A woman at a nearby table was talking to her companion and at one point she said, “I know this might seem strange to say but while I was out there, well . . . I just felt like singing!” I was tempted to turn to her and say “To whom would you sing?”
Believers in God know to whom they sing and where to direct their awe over God’s works. And when you know that—as the poet of Psalm 66 did—well, you just want to share it with others!
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