This sermon is part of the sermon series "Remember Who We Are (Part 1)". See series.
A few years ago I read a story in the Chicago Tribune with the headline, "City Tries to Pump Up Its Crews Down Under." There was a new guy in charge of the Chicago Sewer Department, and he wanted to boost morale, so he organized a pep rally at the Plumbers Union Hall. Eight hundred people showed up. There was a big banner on the wall behind him that said in huge letters, "Bringing Sewers Above Ground." The new boss shouted, "Winning is not a sometimes thing. It's an all-the-time thing!" And people cheered. I suppose it's a challenge sometimes for sewer workers to feel pumped about their work.
You folks come to church each Sunday from all sorts of difficult places. Some offices, of course, are filthier than sewers. Some schools are darker than the underground tunnels. Some family situations reek to high heaven. A lot of you spend your week trying to keep the gunk off your hearts, trying to keep your souls from smelling like a cesspool. Many of you come from places where Christians get no respect, from families or companies or classes where your faith isn't well-received, where you are the outsider, where you make people uncomfortable.
I think of Sunday mornings as a time when God's people get to come up from the sewers and put on their white robes for awhile; they get to do priestly things together in the presence of the Lord—offering sacrifices of praise, saying prayers as fragrant as incense, dining at a sacred table.
The writer of Chronicles wanted to pump up God's beleaguered people who had returned to their devastated land from 70 years of exile. So he focused their attention on their nation's glory days with God, 500 years earlier when David was king. He spent a lot of ink telling them about how David brought God's ark of the covenant into Jerusalem for the first time. It was the day Jerusalem became the Holy City. He tells how David arranged a great parade of musician priests.
The psalm given to us here is not actually sung to God. It is a song to the worshipers of God. It tells us as God's people how and why we are to worship the Lord. We need help with that. Some of us love to worship and never miss an opportunity. Others can take it or leave it. And there are some believers who never seem to really enter into worship. For some of us, worship means closing our eyes and raising hands. For others, worship is quieter, more contemplative.
Whatever we look like when we worship, it is critically important that we worship well—that we know what we're doing and why. This psalm shaped David's people, the chronicler's people, and us for worship. Our worship of the Lord together is what makes us a great people in this dark world.
We worship together to celebrate what the Lord has done.
See it there in verse 8: "Make known among the nations what he has done"; verse 9: "Tell of all his wonderful acts"; verse 12: "Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced." The Hebrew word behind "wonders" means things that amaze, things that make you think, How'd he do that? Take creation out of nothing, for example, or parting the Red Sea, or making the sun stand still! In worship we celebrate the things God has done that leave us gape-jawed and bug-eyed.
The word behind "miracles" implies miracles that mean something, or signs, like the night in Egypt when the angel of death passed the houses with lamb's blood on the doorposts, or when Elijah called down God's fire on a water-drenched sacrifice. Those are miracles with a message.
The word for "judgments" can mean verdicts that God has rendered, like when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin. God's judgments are what set things right! But the same word can also mean God's plans—his blueprints for his people, his rules of life, his decisions. There is a beautiful genius in God's Word. It's why we say, "O, how I love your Law!"
When we gather for worship we praise God for wonders, miracles, and judgments only hinted at in the Old Testament. We worship the God who took on flesh, who lived among us and died for us. We celebrate Christ risen from the grave. We have seen those blind to God receive their sight, death's prisoners set free, and orphans find a Father and a home. We celebrate God's Holy Spirit coming into lives and churches, making them each as holy as the Old Testament temple. We have seen God fulfill promises to send the gospel into all the world and to exalt the name of Christ on every continent. That's why we worship. That's why we sing. That's why we offer him our everything.
There's another idea here. We are people who have decided to live Godward lives, thanks to Jesus Christ. We are people who seek and search for God. We worship because worship draws us closer to God; worship helps us seek God and hear him and inquire of him. That's why verses 10 and 11 are here:
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
We worship because we are welcome at God's throne. We're welcome to bring our requests and needs to God. We're always welcome to seek God's wisdom for whatever confronts us. "Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!"
Notice all the expressive commands: Give thanks; sing; glory; rejoice. One of my friends is reading through Calvin's Institutes these days. John Calvin's ability to describe the rich doctrines of Scripture is a blessing to my friend. Many of us have found that reading theology or hearing theology taught is a rich spiritual experience. But worship is often the best way to express truth about God. Worship does something theology lectures or books cannot. Worship is truth wedded to praise; theology fused with thanks. And truth like this is incomplete without worship. There's a kind of trail here. Our thinking on God's ways and wonders leads to worship, and worship draws us closer to God, and when we are closer to God, we are more tuned to obedience, we have greater faith in our prayers, and more discernment in our decision making. People who praise God well will be wise and godly and grateful.
We worship together to remember God's covenant of love with us.
These verses emphasize the covenant, the binding contract of love, that God made with his people:
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
"To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit."
They celebrated the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, especially the promise to give them the land of Canaan. At the root of that covenant was God's choosing of them out of all the people on earth, simply because he loved them. This is why God listens to us when we seek him.
We have God's New Covenant, signed in Jesus' own blood, as our pledge of his everlasting love for us. It is a marriage made in heaven. When we worship, we celebrate that covenant. We sing often of God's love for us. We come to the Lord's Table often to celebrate the New Covenant and to wait for our wedding feast with Jesus. We remind each other, too, to love, honor, and obey him because he loved us first, and to be faithful to our Beloved Lord.
Look at verses 19-22:
When they were but few in number,
few indeed, and strangers in it,
they wandered from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another.
He allowed no one to oppress them;
for their sake he rebuked kings:
"Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm."
The chronicler reminded his people at their low ebb that there were other times in Israel's history when they'd been outcasts, when they'd been weak or small in number, but God had always cared for them. That is the same thing we do together now when we worship. Here is where we remember that, though the world pays us little attention or respect, we are a people called by God's name; we are children of the heavenly Father; our home is found in him. We worship together to remember God's covenant of love with us.
We worship together for the world's sake.
"The nations" are prominent in this psalm. Verse 8 says: "Make known among the nations what he has done." Here are the Jews standing before the chronicler, with the years exiled from home still very much on their minds. They have no political power. They have no king. They are vassals of the faraway Persia. Yet God reminds them that they have something to say to the world's nations, that they are the most significant people on earth because they represent God to the world.
That is still part of our worship, too. We celebrate the fact that God is worshiped in hundreds of languages, in every nation on the face of the earth. Worship constantly kindles our desire to make God known among those who do not know him. We want God to be worshiped more widely. We sing, "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise." So we go out as evangelists, intending to set other tongues singing of our great and loving God.
The psalm emphasizes two things that we set before the world. First, the God of Israel, the God of Scripture, the Lord Almighty is the only true God. "He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens" (Psalm 96:4). He possesses a glory and power that no other gods have or even pretend to have. There is a nobility and grace in our God, a beauty and holiness that no other religions even imagine for their gods. And our God has made himself visible and present through Christ Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God.
Second, nature itself resounds with the glory of God. Verses 31-33 say,
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let them say among the nations, "The Lord reigns!"
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
Let the trees of the forest sing,
let them sing for joy before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
Wherever people live, they can see the glory of God's creation, and that creation always points to the God who is powerful and personal. God's creation is our helper in sharing our faith in Christ. Nature sings of God in every language.
Sofia Cavalletti wrote a book entitled The Religious Potential of the Child, in which she relates a three-year-old's experience. This child was growing up in an atheistic home in which no one ever spoke of God. One day she asked her father, "Where does the world come from?" Her father explained what he believed, but then he added: "However, there are those who say that all this comes from a very powerful being, and they call him God." "At this point the little girl began to run like a whirlwind around the room in a burst of joy and exclaimed: 'I knew what you told me wasn't true; it is Him, it is Him!'" Children aren't the only ones that know, deep within, that this world only makes sense with God at the center. And our worship equips us to tell them that. People who do not worship will not evangelize. Worshipers love God out loud, not just in church but wherever we go. So we worship together for the world's sake.
We worship together for our security.
Now we come to the last verses, a kind of summary:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Cry out, "Save us, God our Savior;
gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise."
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Worshiping together reminds us again and again of God's goodness and love. Think of all the songs we sing that say so! Worship is the temple from which we cry out for God's salvation of us as a people in the midst of a dark world.
Worship is also where we lock on our spiritual GPS systems to the coordinates of heaven. Did you notice the phrase at the end of verse 33: "for he comes to judge the earth"? J. Barton Payne wrote, "These words—'he comes'—may be the first in all of written Scripture to set forth the doctrine of the glorious second coming of Jesus Christ." When we gather here, as it says in verse 35, we cry out to God our Savior to "gather us and deliver us from among the nations." "Some bright morning, when this day is o'er, I'll fly away!"
Without worship we forget who we are in the world. Haven't you found that as the week grinds on sometimes, God grows dimmer, that his beauty goes to grayscale, that our faith shrinks little by little? We worship together not only because God deserves our worship, but because we live in the sewers and darkness and the stink of the world. Worship is when we put on the priests' white robes, when we remember the wonders God does and find our faith freshened and rejuvenated. In worship we remember that the Lord Jesus loves us as a bridegroom loves his bride. We remember that God deserves the praise of all the earth and that nature itself sings of his greatness.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.