For many years at JPC in the last half of this mid-summer period, we have been looking together at the book of Psalms. We have been going through them one by one. Well, tonight, if you are visiting, you've come on a very special Sunday. At last we have reached the end of the book of Psalms and Psalm 150. It is like Newcastle United winning silverware or England winning the world cup. It doesn't happen very frequently!
Our subject is THE PRAISE OF GOD. And after some words of introduction, I just want to ask three questions about praising God, first, WHY? secondly, HOW? and, thirdly, WHO [who is to praise him]?
So by way of introduction let's look at verse 1 and how it starts:
"Praise the LORD."
And this command is repeated thirteen times in this Psalm. The Psalmist sees praising God as so important. He also sees it as something not just for church on Sundays, but for everywhere and always. Look at how this verse goes on:
"Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens."
"Praise God in his sanctuary" may well mean "praise God where his people gather". That today includes in church on Sundays. However, "his mighty heavens" seem to refer to the totality of the created universe of space and time. So the Psalmist is saying "praise is for everywhere and always, not just for in church on Sundays." And that, of course, is the message of the New Testament as well as of the book of Psalms. Life in Christ's new kingdom is to be marked by praise and joy. After Pentecost, we are told in Acts 2:46-47 that the early Christians ...
"... broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people."
And the believer's life is to help non-believers come to praise God. Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5.16:
"let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."
So much by way of introduction.
Let us now ask the first of our three questions, WHY? Why praise God?
There are many answers to that question - we can only deal with three tonight related to verse 2. So look at verse 2 and that next repeat, "Praise him ... "
The first reason, I want to suggest, for praising God is that praising God is the fundamental goal of human existence. One of the Reformation Catechisms summarizes the Bible's teaching on the goal of human existence as, I quote, "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." Let me explain in one way how the Bible's understanding of "praising God" leads you to that conclusion. After those three exhortations to "praise God" in verse 1, when you come to the fourth exhortation to "praise him" here in verse 2, perhaps you have a slight worry about a "God who so wants to be praised". C.S.Lewis puts it bluntly: "We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness." Lewis admitted that he once had that worry about God. But he then thought about praising things not people. For example, you can praise a painting and say it is "admirable". You simply mean it deserves or demands admiration. That is to say. to admire it is a right or correct response to the painting. So if someone doesn't admire it, they are rather stupid and certainly great losers and are missing out on something good. With regard to almighty God, encouraging people to praise him, says Lewis, ...
"... is simply [encouraging them] to be awake, to have entered the real world. And not to appreciate [him] is to have lost the greatest experience and in the end to have lost all. The incomplete and crippled lives of those who are tone-deaf, have never been in love, never known true friendship, never cared for a good book, never enjoyed the feel of the morning air on their cheeks, never (and Lewis confesses to being one of these ... never) enjoyed football, are faint images of it."
Peter supports the belief that praising God is certainly a fundamental object of human existence. In his epistle he says that the people of God ...
" ... are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pet 2.9).
Well, if the first reason for praising God is that it is the true or "chief end of mankind", the second reason is more explicit. The Psalmist says clearly in verse 2, "praise him for his acts of power". What are these acts of power? Answer - at least, God's work in the creation of this universe of space and time; then its preservation; then all the blessings that he gives us through his providential ordering of all things and his sovereignty over all; but supremely his acts in the redemption of the world which has turned away from the God who made it and all that is in it. And that redemption is the story of the Bible that climaxes in the coming of Jesus Christ for salvation, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the return one day of Jesus - but for judgment. There is so much to praise God for.
There are the scientific wonders of this physical universe. There is God's work through Christ in preserving that creation. Colossians 1:17 says that "He [Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Then there are the blessings of God in so many ways through his providential ordering of everything. That is beyond the human imagination. But never, never, never - and I have to say this often - never confuse the unimaginable with the unbelievable.
If 30 years ago, when I first came to Jesmond, you had told someone that in 2006 there would be people who now have bionic arms, they would have said, "nonsense". For it was then quite unimaginable. But there are now artificial arms, as some will have seen on TV this past week, that are controlled exactly like a natural arm - controlled by the body's nervous system and simple human decisions or learned behaviours. 30 years ago it was not believable. If almighty God is the creator of this amazing universe of space and time, his total control together with his granting of human freedoms and responsibility, may be unimaginable. But that doesn't mean it is unbelievable. I am here tonight because of key circumstances and key people and key ideas and key opportunities and key failures and key successes at exactly the right time. Nor are these things, according to the Bible, matters of chance. They are all under God's providential ordering. This is the mystery of divine providence and human freedom. But you need to praise God for his providence and the blessings that come through that. Romans 8.28 says:
"we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Then praise God for his acts of power in blessings of a more straightforward kind - for his power in bringing seed time and harvest. This morning we had the Harvest Thanksgiving Family Service. I sometimes here people say, "Why do we need Harvest Thanksgiving Services" in the middle of a big city like Newcastle. Answer: because we are in the middle of a big city like Newcastle and we must remember to thank God even though our food doesn't come directly from the farmer but from Tesco's. So you praise God for his acts not only of creation, preservation but also (as the famous General Thanksgiving prayer of the Church of England says) "all the blessings of this life". But that prayer then goes on, praise him "above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory."
Holy Communion is a praise or thanksgiving for the redemption through Christ's death at Calvary. So tonight thank God for your salvation - for the fact that you do not have to fear an eternity without hope because without God. That is the state of the world without Jesus Christ. That is why it is vital that you and I, courteously, politely, but firmly and without apology - and of course with no force or violence or manipulation - witness to that truth as it is in Jesus. We must do that to Western secularists and to people of other religions including Muslims (and also Jews). And when people do believe in Christ there is praise and joy in heaven as we heard in our Gospel reading. Who tonight needs to believe in Jesus Christ - or to think more about him?
Well, please take a copy of "Why Jesus?" or join one of our Christianity Explored groups - these are for anybody. In Christianity Explored nothing is assumed; no questions are barred. There are people who doubt; people who half-believe; people who do believe but want a refresher course. All that is necessary is that you are seriously wanting to explore Christianity.
Thirdly, praise God not only for his acts of power but also for his surpassing greatness. The God of the bible is not only great. But his greatness surpasses everything else that mortal man thinks is ultimate - the gods that are worshipped or the idols that are created. And those can be ancient - or modern idols, like money, cars, careers, sport, sex, families - anything you put in the place of God. Isaiah 42.8 says:
"I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols."
The God of the Bible who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit alone is living and true. Jesus Christ the divine Son is God's unique and final revelation. Jesus is the only way - not Mohammed nor any other religious leader or secular thinker. It is Jesus only. So - to recap, why praise God? Because one, it fits in with the world, life and what we are made for; two, God our creator has been so good and loving; and three, God is so great.
Secondly, HOW should you praise God?
Answer, first of all, in truth - that follows from praising God for his acts of power that are characterized by goodness and love and also for his surpassing greatness. It is possible to praise God in wrong ways. Or your praises are wrong because what you believe about God is wrong. Jesus had to tell one person that she and her fellow worshippers had got it all wrong. He said, John 4.22:
"You Samaritans worship what you do not know."
Jesus then went on to say, in John 4: "the kind of worshippers the Father seeks" are "true worshippers [who] ... worship the Father in spirit and truth." One of the early heresies of the Christian church after the New Testament period was that of Arius. He, in effect, denied the true deity of Christ. But he spread his heresies through choruses or the equivalent that he wrote and people were singing in Egypt where he was a clergyman.
True worship also suggests our praise needs to be intelligent. If it is not, you can't tell whether what you are doing is right or wrong. It worried me to find on the web last night someone who just loved the song - which has appeared in a well known Song Book - that goes like this: "I will dance, I will sing, To be mad for my King. Nothing Lord, is hindering The passion in my soul." Then the chorus goes: "And I'll become even more undignified than this.(Some would say it's foolishness but) I'll become even more undignified than this. Na, na, na, na, na! Hey! Na, na, na, na, na! Hey!"
It also worries me at the other extreme when you get wonderfully orthodox traditional choral music in a church or cathedral. But then the sermon totally contradicts all that has been sung. Jesus said, (Mark 7:6):
"Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'"
So the content of your praises, whether in word or music, need to be in line with the Bible and its truth. That is why it is so important to recite regularly the Creed (as we have done tonight) - to remind yourself of the basic truths of the Bible. But then beware of "dead orthodoxy". Your heart needs to be right with God.
And true praise needs not only to have the God of the Bible as its true object. It also needs to be through Jesus Christ. You can only come to God through Christ. Jesus said,
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14.6).
God is a God of love but also of holiness and righteousness and purity. That is why we need to come to him with sins forgiven through Christ and his death. So at Anglican churches like this one, we pray a prayer of confession at the start of our time together on Sundays. How then do you praise? First of all, in truth and with a spirit filled heart.
Secondly praise must be joyful and, yes, even loud (not always but often) - look at verses 3-5
"Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals."
Sadly there is another opposite extreme to singing "Na na na na na. hey" and that is not to sing at all. Some churches in the history of the church have virtually excluded instruments and treated music as optional. They have seen the abuse of music and instruments but failed to see the right use. I do not understand how such people can then keep Psalm 150 in their Bibles. Joy and singing with musical instruments just go together. It is human to sing. It is also heavenly. The book of Revelation is full of singing. God himself, we are told in Rev 15.2, gave out harps. Jesus sang - he and the disciples sang at the last supper. Were they accompanied with a lyre or some other stringed instruments? We are not told. But in Matthew 11.17 Jesus spoke of children who played flutes. Why should not one of the disciples have had a flute? Paul tells us in Colossians and Ephesians to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Probably psalms meant the book of Psalms (so we sing quite a number of paraphrases of the Psalms as songs at JPC). Hymns probably are Christian songs that have stood the test of time. So what we understand by hymns is probably right. And spiritual songs come and go. If they are like "na na na na na hey" they go quickly. If they are good they stay and become the hymns for the next generation. So at this church we have all three types of music - psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and all sorts of instruments.
Thirdly, our praise should be corporate as well as individual. Our psalmist envisages a great orchestra of people and everyone singing. In heaven there is and is going to be corporate praise. So we ought to prepare for it now. Revelation 5.11-14:
"Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: 'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!' Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!' The four living creatures said, 'Amen,' and the elders fell down and worshipped."
So how should we praise God - in truth and intelligently but also from a true heart. Then joyfully, and also corporately.
That brings us to our third and final question WHO is to praise God? The answer is everyone - verse 6:
"Let everything that has breath praise the LORD."
God wants there to be a great host of all nationalities praising him. There is that picture in Revelation 7.9:
"After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb ... And they cried out in a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'"
Praising God is a command for everyone both because it is so easy to forget to praise and thank God, but also because it is good for everyone. If it is possible, just imagine things from God's side, by thinking how you respond to an absence of praise or thanks. How do you respond when you give a child a present and they just grab it and don't say "thank you." You feel cross. Nor is this usually, as they say, "self regarding". It is not cross on your own behalf. But you feel something is wrong with the world and wrong with that child. If the child is in your own family, I am sure you teach it to say, "thank you". That may be something of how we should think of the command to praise God. God is teaching us to say "thank you" because it is good for everyone. And it is also good for you individually.
One, praising God stops you drifting away from God. Two, it stops you murmuring against God and fellow Christians. Three, it stops you despairing as you thank God that he is in control when life is very hard or the world is collapsing around you. Four, it increases your faith. And, five, you become a much more positive person, not grumbling, but being joyful. You are then good to have around. You build people up in the church and the world. And you give encouragement.
My prayer is that we continue to have "praising and joyful Christians" at JPC. I thank God for most people being like that and not being grumbling and miserable Christians. But we are all tempted. So in the last words of our Psalm - the second half of verse 6: "Praise the LORD."