Saturday, November 20, 2010

Psalm 117: It maybe small but it's anything but trivial (sermon text)

Psalm 117

1 Praise the LORD, all you nations;

extol him, all you peoples.

2 For great is his love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

Praise the LORD.

Psalm 117 maybe small but it’s anything but trivial as the great preacher Charles Spurgeon says

”This psalm, which is short in its word, is exceedingly large in its spirit; for, bursting beyond all bounds of race or nationality, it calls upon all humanity to praise the name of the Lord.”

Having said that Psalm 117 is anything but trivial it is good to remember for bible trivia quizzes or trivial pursuit evenings, It is the answer to questions like; what is the shortest of the psalms? and what is the shortest chapter in the bible? In fact it is so short that scholars have wondered if it isn’t simply a miss placed end to Psalm 116. But it stands as an integral unit in its own right. In it’s one short sentence is the basis of what is called a imperatival Psalm. A summons to Praise God linked to a reason to do so.

Not only that, it is good to remember because it is the answer to the question what is the middle chapter in the bible? There are 589 chapters before it and 589 after it. Most importantly it’s good to remember this psalm, because of its message, because of its invitation to us.. Psalm 117 is not only the central chapter of the bible it is one that captures in a nutshell what is at the heart of the scripture: Because of God’s great love and faithfulness shown to all, we are called from every nation and people group to praise the LORD. Hallelujah!

Psalm 117 is seen as being a multi-purpose call to worship, good for any situation. It is part of the five psalms, 113-118, called the Hallel Psalms, that are sung during Jewish Passover meals. Scholars don’t know when it was written or for what purpose however its language and theme have lead scholars to say that it comes from the post-exilic time.

In 532 BC the Babylonians had come and destroyed Jerusalem, killing many and taking others off to Babylon in captivity. After 70 years the Babylonian empire had fallen to the Medes and Persians, and a remnant came back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city, re-established the temple and worshipped God there. For the Jews the whole exile and restoration were part of God’s covenant faithfulness and strong love for them. They were God’s people, at Sinai God has made a covenant with them. After generations of failing to kept their side of the covenant, and being warned by God through the prophets, God had sent them into exile.

Then God had graciously bought them back to Jerusalem. The Hebrew word which the Good News Bible translates ‘Strong’ as an adjective for God’s love means ‘to overcome ones enemies’ able to win a war or conflict and you get the picture here that amidst the fall and rise of empires and sweeping changes on the political landscape and great swings in the military balance of power that God’s purposes and God’s plans and his covenant love for his people has won out in the end.

In light of this the Psalm invites the nations and peoples to come and give praise to God for what he has done for Israel. You kind of get the idea that they are being called to have a supporting role in this, they are invited to be the backup singers to Israel, or a supporting act. If you were thinking in legal terms maybe they are invited along to give supporting evidence to the facts of what God has done. To acknowledge God’s love and covenant faithfulness to his people. Some have even gone as far as seeing Psalm 117 as a call to worship for those who had converted to Judaism. But the exceedingly large spirit of this little psalm grows and become even grander in light of Jesus Christ. Its scope is greater, the breadth of the summons and the depth of the invite to come and worship is deeper. The strength of the love is vastly fiercer, the faithfulness of God broader across the whole of time and space.

Paul uses Psalm 117 in  Romans 15:11. It is a significant part of his concluding argument; that in Christ, God’s salvation, inclusion into the kingdom and people of God, was for the gentiles as well as for the Jews. And that this had been God’s plan all along.  ‘Unwittingly’ says commentator Leslie Allen ‘this psalm let loose an invitation that later facilitated gentiles sharing God’s covenant grace.’ This summons to know and to praise God was not just for the nations outside Israel to have a supporting role rather to have full partnership in Christ. Not just to praise for God’s faithful love for Israel, but give praise because of God’s faithful love for all of us.

It encompasses the whole of God’s saving activity throughout history. Let me give you an over view of what I mean. God starts by creating everything, creating humanity for relationship; ‘to know and enjoy God always’ as the shorter Westminster cataclysm puts it. By our sinning we break that relationship and God works to restore that relationship and creation. In genesis twelve he starts by choosing a people for himself, he will bless them and make them a blessing for the nations. In Exodus he saves them out of slavery in Egypt, and gives them his law.  We see them in the land that God had promised them trying to live in a way that reflects God’s nature. With the exile God chooses to start with a remnant. Then like the cross roads of history God’s saving activity zeroes in to one person. He sends his Son Jesus Christ into the world. Through Jesus life and death and resurrection, his love overcomes not the military power of Rome restoring Israel as a nation, but the power of sin and death, liberating all who will believe to be a new people of God.

Then as we read the New Testament story we see this new creation this new people grow. From a group of twelve disciples, through a church empowered by the spirit in Acts chapter 2 and  as we work through Luke’s history of the missionary growth of the church across the social boundaries of Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, across continental boundaries from Asia Minor to Europe, we know from other history that it spread to Africa and Asia. Across socio-economic boundaries, slave and free, even the gender imbalance of first century, male and female. On through History. To today where we see people from every nation and people group coming to Christ and coming together to praise God. I recently hear someone say that the church is the first really global business. It has offices and agencies, agents and outposts in every nation, nearly every city, and even in way off the map villages and rural areas. It’s Manuel is a best seller translated into so many different languages and dialects, and its message brings hope to all people everywhere.

 Then we go on into the future, we know from reading the back of the book in revelation there is a time when all people and all creation will be restored and made new in Christ. This is the big picture; this is the grandeur of God’s great love and God’s faithfulness. We should indeed praise God. Hallelujah

That’s the big picture but I think this psalm has some real practical hands on things to say.

The first is that we need each other. What a great and wonderful task we have been called to perform to praise God for God’s great love and covenant faithfulness. It is a task that cannot be accomplished by one group, one language, one culture, one set of traditions. it’s going to take all of us, with all we have to give God the Glory great things he has done. As a royal priesthood to declare the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Chase Jarvis is a well known photographer and innovator, recently he has been talking about the new frontier of creativity being in what he calls social art. Bringing a diverse group of people together from different disciplines and backgrounds round a common theme or purpose and allowing their unique gifting and perspectives to intermingle and flow, and out of that comes beauty and art and creativity. When I watched his keynote address on YouTube ( from the Photo Plus Expo I couldn’t help but think of the metaphor Paul uses for the church as the body of Christ working together to embody God’s love. We need each other.

Secondly, For us to come and praise God together there is a need for us to love one another, To be in harmony not discord. In October German chancellor Merkle was quoted as saying that the multi-cultural experiment was dead. Those in Germany’s different cultural groups were not mixing. For the church being multi-cultural is not an experiment that can fail, it is an expression of God’s love and faithfulness that will not fail. It’s something we can offer a world that is fracturing, but it does mean we do need to love one another. It why in the story of the first expansion of the church so much has to be said from its early leaders like Paul on that very topic. How can we be a new people in Christ?

 “"The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love"- Henri Nouwen

Sadly the church down through the ages hasn’t been good at this. We’ve been and are still guilty of cultural imperialism, wanting the way we do things being the chief way we as a diverse group do things. Unity is not a call for uniformity. Henri Nouwen says that people often resort to the use and even the abuse or misuse of power because they lack the skills for intimacy. That power is often used as a poor substitute for love.

Church growth experts also talk about churches growing because they are homogeneous groups. They are groups of similar people, we see that in ethnic congregations as well as congregations based round various worship styles, traditional or contemporary or alternative. We stay separate I sense that the summons in this Psalm calls us to yes keep our culture and traditions but somehow come together in love and share what we have. That while homogeneous units may work as a principle and model we are called to model a different kingdom principle to the world, loving one another across the barriers of this world, because He has broken down the diving wall and made us one people. Hey we better get used to it because that’s what heaven will be like. Right.

It calls us to show love to people round the world as well. If they are to give praise to God then in time of difficulty and want they need to know God love through us.

Finally, this psalm is not only in the middle of the scriptures but its right there at the core of God’s call on us as a church. It’s right there as an invite from the heart of God. Its about Mission. Psalm 117 issues a summons to all nations and all people groups, and Jesus gives us a commission, to take that summons that invitation out with us. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father son and holy spirit and teaching them to obey all the commands I have given you.

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