On a Sunday morning in 2013, two Muslim suicide bombers entered All Saints' Church in Peshawar, Pakistan and detonated the explosives, killing 127 men, women, and children. 250 were wounded. Because it's a Muslim state, those who were Christians in that church were the oppressed minority of that particular area. There were no jobs for them apart from the jobs that nobody else wanted; most of the people in the church were garbage collectors. There was no safety net for their wounds, for their funerals. There were no social services: there was no one in the society to help them along.
So on Monday, the day after the bombing, the people at the church came back and gathered the Sunday School papers that had been spread by the bomb, and they gathered the shoes of the children murdered and wounded so they could be used by others who needed them. Then they washed the walls of the blood of their families and friends. As they did so, even the secular report said their wails of agony pierced the silence of the indifferent neighborhood around them. Then, when the walls were clean, they arranged the pews and sat and began to sing songs of praise to God.
Why? Because they remembered their charter. The church, established over 100 years before, had said from its outset, "This church is to be a witness for Christ in a major Islamic city." They believed they truly would do what the psalmist had said so long ago: that they would enthrone Christ in the praises of his people. They would be a witness to the greatness and the goodness of their God—particularly in the face of tragedy—if they would continue to praise him in the midst of agony and oppression, so that all the world could see our God is not going to be stopped by this. Our praises will not be stopped by this, because our God and his love and purposes are eternal. How could we keep from singing, because we know the purpose of our praises: to enthrone the glory of our Savior.
This is what Psalm 117 is all about: talking so clearly about what our calling is. We are to praise our God. It's right there at the beginning in the first verse: "Praise the Lord, all you nations; / extol him, all you peoples."
(Read Psalm 117)
All nations, all peoples
What we may not see is the emphasis with which the psalmist is writing. In our English Bibles, it's "praise the Lord." It's a word you know: "hallelujah." In this particular place, however—and in only three other places in the Bible—this "hallelujah" is in the long form. "Hallelujah, Yahweh." It's as though the psalmist is saying with peculiar emphasis and force, "Praise the Lord. Don't miss this focus." You get the emphasis in the expanse of the praise: "Praise the Lord, all nations."
Again, it just goes by in our worship tradition, but we don't understand how strange it must have been for the Jews to say, "Praise Yahweh, our God, all nations," because that word for nations seems to be talking about the geo-political states—the way people draw the line of a country and designate nations on the maps. But for Israel, the word "nation" didn't only mean a political entity: it meant their enemies. These were the goyim, the Gentiles, the non-elect, the non-treasured people. The Israelites were the chosen people. Yet here they are, being told right in their own prayer book that they are to urge all nations to praise their God.
It's not only nations: "extol him, all you peoples." This would be the Hebrew word not just for nation states, but for people of different ethnicities, tribes, races, and backgrounds. For Israel, that meant those who were unclean, those who were not part of their people. Yet the expression of what the psalmist is doing is saying, "I will remind my people that from the very beginning, it was God's plan to use their blessing to be a blessing to the nations." The reason he is saying we are to praise God with such expanse is that there is to be an expectation that the God of Israel will one day be praised by the whole world.
It is, after all, what the Apostle Paul would do later when the church gathered in Rome, and Gentiles began to believe in Jesus Christ—those from other nations and ethnicities. They began to join Jews in worship at Rome, and the Jews began to get so upset: "What are these other people doing coming into our church?" Paul actually quotes this psalm to say it was the purpose of God from the beginning to have all nations give him praise.
This psalm is a foretaste of what we know is to happen at the end of the ages. There will be that time when all nations gather together before the throne of Christ, and they will say, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, because by your blood you purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9, 12). It's your goal, God, to get all peoples together, so that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
We want to be a church that is recognizing the new age: not just out there somewhere, but bringing it into effect by the commitment and the compassion of our own hearts. When we welcome others who are not the dominant ethnicity that is here, we are joining with the Christians of the ages and of the world to be a part of the praise of God for something that's bigger than we are. When those Christians in Peshawar were singing praise to God, you recognized they wanted their voices to touch their neighborhood: the very neighborhood that had bred the hatred that resulted in the murder of their children. They are still saying this praise is to touch every tribe, every language, every people, every nation. Friend or foe, we want all to know the wonder of our Savior because that was the plan of God, and we want to be in the purposes of God.
A steadfast love and wondrous faithfulness
Why would we sing such praises? Verse two simply gives the cause of the praise: "For great is his love toward us, / and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." It's the Hebrew word chesed, which means covenant love. It's not just affection or romantic love, but love that is based upon the prior commitment of another. It's not going to be conditional, it's not contractual, it's not "I'll love you if you love me." It is the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases.
God is saying, "I am to be praised for a love that's not based upon your praising me well enough. It's not by your life's action, not by your performance, not by your doing, but upon my love for you that's based totally upon my mercy." That's why the psalmist continues.
Not only do we praise God for his steadfast love, but for his faithfulness. Now, I recognize in some of your translations, it says "the truth of the Lord." The word "truth" there is not about what's true or false; it's not about what's accurate. The word "truth" means something that's true to its word. When God is identifying himself as truthful here, you have to say, "How is he being true to his word?" By having a plan for the nations and all peoples.
After all, how did God establish the nation of Israel? Did he pick them because they were the best and the nicest people? No. He said, "You're the most stiff-necked, awful people, so I'm going to choose you so it's obvious how great my mercy is." It's that faithfulness to his word that God is identifying. He's reminding the Jews that when they were established as a people, what, after all, did God say to their forefather Abraham? "You will be the father of many …" What? "You will be the father of many nations" (Gen. 17:4). Then he says to Abraham, "[T]hrough your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed" (Gen. 22:18).
If God is to be true to his word, then his faithfulness is going to extend far beyond the Jews. His faithfulness will touch many, and it will not be based upon anybody's qualifying: not upon their performance, not upon their goodness, not upon their merit, but entirely upon his steadfast love and his wondrous faithfulness.
We recognize there would be every reason in our lives for God to turn his back and walk away. But as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love toward us. Why? Because of his steadfast love and his faithfulness. He's been true to his word, and that is the message of the church that is supposed to ignite praise in us.
Just so that it will, the psalmist actually puts words in front of those. He says, "For great is his love toward us." The word "great" there is not talking about big; it's talking about powerful. Mighty is the Lord's covenant love. It's overcoming barriers, it's moving past people's sin, it's moving past their prejudice, and it's moving past their bias. It is a mighty covenant love.
The psalmist says, in addition, "[A]nd the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." It's unstoppable, it's endless, and it's this understanding that makes our hearts want to sing. "I recognize there are all kinds of barriers in my sin, in the hatreds and antipathies of others, in the hardness of others' hearts, in the differences among nations. But we believe that God has a promise that is, in essence, a prophecy that will come true: that he has said he would be true to his word, and his word was that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations." Therefore, as we are praising God, we are adding our voices and our song to the means by which God is going to reach the world for his Son in love and mercy, for the sake of those who deserve it not at all.
Can we believe?
I recognize that everything in us fights the truth of this. In our hearts, we say, "But if the people around me knew this about me, or if God himself ever holds me accountable for this, there is no way that his love will apply to me or that his grace will help me." That is why the psalmist is so definite in saying the steadfast love of God is great, mighty, and powerful. His faithfulness is without end, so we will not base his love upon our affection. We will not base his purposes upon our performance. But we will simply say, "Praise God, for great and marvelous and majestic is his mercy."
If we begin to recognize what that is about, I will say again: everything around us fights its truth. Is it really true? Could we say in our age that we believe that God is faithful to his people, that his purposes don't end? After all, you must recognize the horrors of the church in the age in which we live.
Next month will also mark the one-year anniversary of what has now become a famous speech by a cardinal in New York. In that time (November, 2013), Cardinal Timothy Dolan simply said that we have reached a new age of Christian martyrdom. He cited over a million Christians that could be identified as having been slain in this last decade, since this century began. We have entered a new age of Christian martyrdom.
Is God's steadfast love enduring? Is his faithfulness continuing? That was said before the events of this last year (2014). For many of you in this room, you were raised at a time that I was. We simply took for granted that the greatest challenges to Christianity were going to be communist countries and the communist philosophy. I must tell you, that is now passé. The two communist nations that are the greatest threat to Christianity right now are North Korea and Vietnam—small nations. The threat to Christianity is not coming out of formerly communist nations: the greatest threat to Christianity is coming out of the Muslim world, and as hard and politically incorrect as that is to say, we have to say, "How can we say that as believers and still have the praise of God and the purposes of God in our hearts?"
You take a place right now like South Sudan. Some of you know that South Sudan recently become its own nation (2011). The economy and lifeline of Christians there are still controlled by an Islamic government in northern Sudan, who is currently orchestrating a famine in Southern Sudan. Those who study it say there will be 50,000 Christian children who will die by Christmas (2014). It is genocide of starvation. And of course, we don't hear about that so much because Sudan is not particularly critical to the U.S. interest or economy. But where there is great interest, you recognize that even the news should tell us how difficult it would be to affirm "the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever."
British historian Tom Holland simply writes these words: "What is happening in the Middle East is the virtual extinction of Christianity from its birth place." You hear bits and pieces, but we hardly ever put it all together. What's happening in Iraq, for instance? Some of you may remember that just a couple of weeks ago, ISIS moved out the Yazidi (August, 2014). Now, the Yazidi is a cult group, and they were driven to the Sinjar Mountains, and you read the terrible accounts of what was happening there as people were being starved and parched to death. Ultimately, there were supplies sent by the United States, but prior to that time, the conditions were so horrible that some of the people who were on the mountain knew their children would die in hours. Some of them knew if their children got into the hands of the ISIS soldiers, terrible things would happen. They threw their own children from the mountain rather than let them be taken.
We read about the Yazidi, but what we did not read was there were dozens and dozens of Christian families there too. That's just a piece of the story. What is happening in Iraq? Some of you, of course, recognize that what is happening in Iraq is that ISIS is there in force. A third of Iraq now is controlled by ISIS. They moved into Mosul (June, 2014): you'd hear it on the news, and you'd think, Where in the world is that? Think the land of Jonah and Nahum, those biblical people and biblical lands. What has happened is that as ISIS has moved into Mosul, the soldiers have come with clear orders. We have them in our own intelligence. Burn all businesses selling cigarettes or liquor, burn all churches, take all money and food. Behead all Christian men, take their women, they are yours. If you back away from the incidents and take the big picture, the reality is that when the United States entered Iraq, now more than a decade ago, there were 1.2 million Christians in Iraq. Now there are less than 200,000, and most of them are refugees in dire circumstances: our brothers and sisters in Christ. And that's just Iraq. Some of you know that in Syria, ISIS is having strong influence, but there's also a civil war that's going on. Before the civil war, 10 percent of Syria was Christian; now very few Christians remain at all. They basically all have been driven out into the refugee camps into the surrounding nations.
Palestine makes our news, particularly as the rocket attacks from Hamas happened. What do you know about Palestine? Did you know that 1.2 million Palestinians are Christians? Basically, they've been spread throughout the world, and because of the conflict with Israel, because of Hamas, because of what's happened there for the last two decades, very few Christians remain in Palestine. There are some.
This world is not the full picture. Our God is about eternal purposes, and we exist through the persecution and through the oppression and through the difficulty, that God may be known.
Some of you may be aware of Egypt and what's happening there, as the different Muslim forces have moved back and forth. Christians themselves have been caught in the crossfire. Many churches have burned, many Christians are in hiding now. Some of you may have visited Saint Catherine's Church on some Holy Land tour. The church is at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses was with the people of Israel. Saint Catherine's Church now is being threatened with bulldozing by an Egyptian general (April, 2014), who says it is a threat to national security. Do you know why? Because in Saint Catherine's Church has the oldest copy of the Bible that we have in the language of Jesus. A threat to the national security of Egypt, so let's bulldoze it down.
What we understand over and over again is there are hard things that Christians are facing. How in the world could we say this psalm? "[G]reat is his love toward us, / and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." Can we believe that?
Our end is not in the present
Some of you may know the name Mindy Belz, who is a war correspondent and a Christian. She wrote an article on what is happening in northern Nigeria. Some of you know that northern Africa is primarily Muslim as well. That is where that other strange name, Boko Haram, enters our news reports, which even Al Qaeda fighters are terrified of. Why? Because they are not only filled with religious zeal, but the more they have slaughtered, the more the blood lust has filled them, and the atrocities are so numerous and so common that we can't even talk about them in a church setting.
Mindy was recently visiting a town where all the churches had been burned. As she was visiting to give a report on what has happened to the Christians in northern Nigeria, she said that as she neared one of the burned-out churches, she actually heard a strange noise coming from behind the building. Going around behind the building, which was a fencepost and a corrugated roof, she saw the pastors of the town gathered together with open Bibles in their laps, singing songs of praise.
We will enthrone our God among the peoples, and the way we do that is to extol him, to praise him: not for our circumstances, but for a grace that is eternal, for a plan that is beyond us. What you recognize, when people face such persecution and such hardship and they praise God, is just what the classic hymn says: "the church of Christ shall never perish, her dear Lord to defend." There will be opposition; there will be hardship and difficulty. But kings and kingdoms may come and go, and Jesus Christ shall prevail.
When we recognize that, we don't write off Christians in other countries. We recognize we have tremendous privileges, and one of those tremendous privileges is the ability to praise God without fear of reprisal. We recognize that as we gather together, we can be supporting—in mission, prayer, and purpose—believers from across the world and across the generations.
Our end is not in the present. We are about an eternal purpose for God's sake, and when we see persecuted Christians who continue to praise God—not only for their own sake, but for the sake of enemy and neighbor—then we recognize this is something more powerful than we can imagine. After all, one of the greatest gifts of the persecuted church is its continuing praise. As the church praises God in the midst of difficulty, the world has to stand up and say, "How could they possibly do that?" The answer is, "Because they are not bound to the realities and the promises of this world, but they are bound to the eternity and promises of God."
He has said what would happen. There will come the day when the knowledge of God covers the earth as water covers the sea. Every other false thing will fall away. Jesus Christ will reign. When I know that and you know that, it means our lives have purpose. It says why the psalmist ends the psalm as he does, saying, "Praise the Lord." There is a compulsion to praise among those people who understand how great the purposes and the love of God are.
The song "How Can I Keep From Singing" came out of the Civil War agony and angst of this nation. Yet what people said was that if the horror is so great, then the message of salvation in Jesus Christ—his deliverance from the evil and the darkness and the blackness of the earth—appears even greater. In the midst of the agony, how could I keep from singing, if what God is promising is that his steadfast love toward us is great and his faithfulness will endure forever? It's that knowledge that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We ultimately are in a cause that has not only eternity in view, but the triumph of the best things this life can offer: mercy and love and faithfulness beyond the trials that we experience.
I couldn't help but think of this psalm because I was working on it when I heard the messages of the suicide death of Robin Williams (August, 2014). For appropriate grief and a desire to honor his life, the Internet exploded with people trying to find the most poignant film clip of his life that would somehow give meaning and significance to what he had stood for. Apparently what was most riveted upon was that little period in Dead Poets Society, where he's trying to encourage the boys that he's teaching. He says, "Carpe diem, boys. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary." For all the wonder and the inspiration of those words, and all the extraordinariness of his own life, you recognize it was not enough. Ultimately, he knew emptiness. But what we recognize is not the story of one who took his life, but one who gave his life.
Beyond circumstances and explanation
Psalm 117 is one of the psalms the Israelites repeated annually in their Passover service. The psalm that ended the service was this one, which means on that Last Supper night—when Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples, before he walked to Gethsemane to sweat blood of agony in prayer for his people, and before he went to Calvary to shed his blood for the sins of his people—it was Jesus himself who would say, "Praise the Lord, all you nations; / extol him, all you peoples. / For great is his love toward us, / and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. / Praise the Lord." Then the soldiers arrested him.
It seems senseless; it seems wrong. It doesn't seem like it's faithfulness at all. But Jesus knew that the most faithful act of God since the creation of the world was about to happen. He was praising God for a faithfulness beyond circumstances, a love beyond human explanation that was actually in divine provision. It's what motivates us to say we have to enthrone our God in our praises: not because we don't face darkness, but because we know darkness does not triumph. We know this is not the final chapter, and we know his faithfulness endures and his steadfast love is powerful.
I could not help but think of it in a more recent report by Mindy Belz, when she was writing of what has happened in northern Iraq as the Christians have been forced into refugee camps. But it's not Christians alone. Some of you know enough about the political, religious world to know that ISIS is primarily made up of Sunni Muslims, which means they have also driven out Shiite Muslims from Mosul and the surrounding areas: all of which have flooded into the refugee camps. But the Christians, even in the refugee camps, have set up churches and shared what little food and water and medical supplies they have. Mindy wrote of churches filled up with Muslim women, in coverings from head to foot, listening to Bible stories, and Iraqi soldiers standing at the windows and listening in.
The steadfast love of the Lord is mighty, and his faithfulness endures forever. Kings and kingdoms may come and go, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is like a steel locomotive going through history. It will not be stopped. We know it sometimes in its power because it faces resistance. How could you recognize that a bulldozer was powerful if it never faced any resistance? It has to push through the difficulty and the dictators and the famines and the floods and the hardship that God's people face. When they say, "But our praises are still to our God who has eternal faithfulness," then we enthrone Christ above all the world and say, "This is the God that we worship."
Does it apply to you at all? I've spent so much time talking about world events, but I hope you recognize that 70 million people live in this area of the country that is ours—the Midwest. Those who study religion across our world say that right now, the moral center of Christianity is not on our coasts, and it's not in England. The moral center of Christianity is in the Christian states of Africa and in the American Midwest. This is where the values are maintained: the sense of mission and the holiness of God and the greatness of his grace. It's here, and we have a responsibility.
Among these 70 million, you must recognize the influx of people. We have those from Burundi and Sudan. They're here. We have those from Pakistan, India, and China. They are here. To your amazement, I'm going to guess the largest grouping of Arabs outside the Middle East is in Middle America.
Do we have a job to do? How do we do it? Our God is enthroned on the praises of his people. In difficulty, in hardship with people sometimes laughing at us and ridiculing us, we say we have a purpose. If I'm a businessman, I recognize in my work associations—maybe in my international associations—that there is a purpose in the eternal plan of God. If I'm a young person, I say the extraordinary life that God is calling me to live is not just for myself: it's to participate in an eternal purpose that's far beyond me. If I'm a mom, I say I have eternal souls in my care. I know it's dishes and diapers, but at the same time, there are eternal things being done that God will make sure he knows: through the praises of moms and business leaders and bricklayers and farmers and parents and students.
What will we know? "[G]reat is his love toward us, / and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." It's not an isolated story; it's the same story repeated over and over again through history.
I couldn't help but think of it this last week, when one of the sweet people in this church mailed me a photograph of a memorial plaque from Hopedale, Illinois. I had to look up the population: 868 people. In 1894, in the little red brick schoolhouse, under the guidance of the wife of the Methodist pastor, was the first vacation Bible school in the world. Thirty-seven students attended that first summer. From that isolated, nondescript, insignificant, nobody-will-know-about-it effort, what has happened? Across all denominations, across all borders, across all nations, across all prejudices, literally millions of young people have come to know the Lord because of what was done in that place.
Our God is enthroned on the praises of his people. As we are faithful to him, we take the gospel past boundaries, enemies, prejudices, and our own sin. We recognize that what he will do is he will use us: because if you have breath, you can give praise, and praise is the plan. Our God will enthrone himself on the praises of his people. Praise the Lord. Don't you want to do it? Let's enthrone him.
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.