Sunday, July 31, 2005

Psalm 136:1-9,23-26 - “One Blessing, All Give Praise”

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, July 28, and Sunday, July 31, 2005

On the insert in your bulletin you have Psalm 136. Will you please read it responsively with me?

P: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the God of gods,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who alone does great wonders,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.


OK, stop right there. How many of you are feeling like your part is a little repetitive? Maybe it would help if you knew why this psalm repeats itself a lot. Maybe it would help us if you could picture how this psalm was originally used.

Psalm 136 was written for temple worship as a congregational song and prayer. The congregation repeated the same line in response to what the leader said, because it was the era before printed bulletins. With a repeated line like “for his steadfast love endures forever,” everyone could quickly know the words they were supposed to say.

So imagine the people all gathered in the temple in Jerusalem, a large crowd standing in the courts of this incredible building of beauty dedicated to the Lord. As the leader chanted his lines, his voice echoing among the pillars, the crowd would respond in full voice, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” And because that crowd continued to repeat that same line, they could simply concentrate on praising God. Sort of like when you are singing a song you really know, you don’t have to think about it so much. You can lose yourself in the song. You have the joy of singing. So as the people joined in Psalm 136, their voices could grow stronger and stronger, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

So we’re going to read Psalm 136 again, this time I want you to imagine standing in that big temple. I don’t want you to read the psalm. Your line is always the same—for his steadfast love endures forever—so just follow my lead. Make this a heartfelt prayer to God, praising Him for His love, all of His loving actions. So please stand. Don’t look at your bulletin. Let’s praise God with Psalm 136.

P: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the God of gods,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who alone does great wonders,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who by understanding made the heavens,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.


OK, no, have a seat, I don’t want to try reading all of the verses yet, because while I think you’re getting the hang of your line, now we’ve got to realize what’s going on with the other lines.

Look at the bottom of your insert where it says, “The Mini Worship Service.” This psalm is like a mini worship service. Hopefully some of my confirmation students will remember how to fill in the blanks here. Worship is like a conversation between God and us. God blanks and we blank. Anyone here know how I usually fill in those blanks? God blanks and we blank OK, for the sake of feeling like I’ve taught someone something, I’ll just assume that I can’t hear you saying the answer. God gives and we respond.

You see, throughout the worship service, God gives us His gifts—His gifts of salvation, forgiveness, and love, as they come through the absolution (forgiveness of sins), His Word, the Lord’s Supper. And we respond with our hymns, prayers, and praises. God gives and we respond. Worship isn’t just our action. Worship is our action in response to God’s incredible actions. We love God in worship, because God first loved us.

Look at Psalm 136 again. Each of the lines that the leader says is something that God has done, an action of God, the gifts of God. God is good. He is above all gods. He is above all lords. He is the only one who does great wonders. Every line that the leader speaks in Psalm 136 is the God gives part of worship. And for each of those gifts, the people respond with praise. That’s why Psalm 136 is like a mini worship service.

The leader says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” and if we freeze the scene, pause the video right after the leader says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” we’d see you thinking, “Man, God is good. He’s done so much for me. He’s always wants the best for me. He is the definition of good. I want to praise Him for how good He is.” Roll the frame, and you say, “For his steadfast love endures forever.”

Every line is one blessing, and then all give praise. The leader names one blessing that God gives us, and then all the people give praise to God. Every line that the leader says is an example of God’s love, another proof of God’s love lasting forever, God’s love being more loyal and strong than we can know.

So putting all of this together, we’re going to try Psalm 136 again. You don’t have to read the psalm, because you’ve got your line ready to go—for his steadfast love endures forever. You’re free to just raise your voice in praise. And now you know why you’re saying that line; you’re saying it in response to all of these actions of God, actions of love. Each time it’s like saying, “Yeah, God is good. That’s who our God is. For His steadfast love endures forever.” So stand with the congregation in this temple, this beautiful building dedicated to God.

If you normally talk with your hands, let your hands do the talking. If you normally talk loudly, raise your voice. If you normally smile for something good, be all smiles, because God is definitely good. If you normally are quiet or reserved, be quiet or reserved, but let your heart race to realize what you are hearing—God is good—and what you are saying—His love will always be there.

P: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the God of gods,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who alone does great wonders,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who by understanding made the heavens,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: to him who made the great lights,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: the sun to rule over the day,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: the moon and stars to rule over the night,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.

P: It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: and rescued us from our foes,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: he who gives food to all flesh,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.
P: Give thanks to the God of heaven,
C: for his steadfast love endures forever.


Praise God! You can be seated.

Maybe, though, you’re thinking that just reading lines back and forth doesn’t match what you’d expect for something that’s supposed to be a joyous celebration. That’s why people have used the psalms in many different styles. On the back side of the insert, you’ve got some blank lines under the heading, “Psalm 136 in Many Styles.”

The first style is the one we just did: speak. We often say read responsively, but maybe saying speak responsively is better. It’s more than just reading, mumbling the words. You’re speaking, you’re using inflection, you’re emphasizing words, you’re speaking to other people, you’re speaking to God. So the first style we might use is Speak.

The second style is Chant. Chanting uses a short line of notes that can be repeated for each line of the psalm. It’s a way for a group of people to say the psalm together. Plus, chanting also often helps you to memorize portions of the psalms, because there’s notes to go with the words. There are chant tones given for Psalm 136 in the front of the hymnal. (Chant three lines)

But maybe you’re still thinking that if Psalm 136 is supposed to be this big cheer than speaking it or chanting it doesn’t seem right. They’re not the kind of celebrations you’re used to. Well, the third style might be for you: Cheer. I’ll admit that I haven’t really seen anyone do this, but Psalm 136 would make a good cheer. Like at some baseball game or in some large stadium where the cheers are the crowd’s way of showing their excitement, showing their response to what is happening in the game, so I think Psalm 136 could be a cheer, our response to what God is doing.

Give thanks (clap), give thanks (clap), give thanks to the (clap) God of gods (clap),
for his love (clap), for his love (clap), for his love endures forever. (clap)
Give thanks (clap), give thanks (clap), give thanks to the (clap) Lord of Lords (clap),
for his love (clap), for his love (clap), for his love endures forever. (clap)


The fourth style is one we’re more familiar with—the contemporary praise song. It takes the form of a rock song, the kind of verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs we hear on the radio, but uses them to praise God. Chris Tomlin took Psalm 136, changed the words a little bit, but then put them into a contemporary praise song. You’ve got the lyrics on the insert. I want you to hear a little bit of the song, and listen for how he kept the back and forth between leader and the congregation, how there’s still the idea of God gives and we respond.

Give thanks to the Lord, our God and King
His love endures forever
For He is good, He is above all things
His love endures forever
Sing praise, sing praise

With a mighty hand and outstretched arm
His love endures forever
For the life that’s been reborn
His love endures forever
Sing praise, sing praise
Sing praise, sing praise

CHORUS:
Forever God is faithful
Forever God is strong
Forever God is with us
Forever, forever (2X)

© 2001 worshiptogether.com songs/Six Steps Music (admin. By EMI Christian Music Publishing, Inc.)/ASCAP. Used by permission.


Twice this summer I’ve been able to see Fusebox, a Christian band, who played at the Statewide Youth Gathering in June and at the National Youth Workers Conference just last week. They play an rocking version of this song with more distortion in the guitars, more danceability. So even if you don’t like the style of the song you just heard, you could use the same song in a different style—more mellow, or more ROCKIN’. Either way, though, the song keeps the idea of responding to God’s gifts with those words, “His love endures forever.”

And we could probably think of other ways to use Psalm 136, other styles, but it still goes back to the basic idea of worship: God gives and we respond. God gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior, and we respond with our thanks and praise.

Yet, there’s one other thing that sometimes makes the psalms and worship difficult: what if you aren’t experiencing the blessings mentioned in the psalm? Psalm 136 goes onto to praise God for “remembering us in our low estate,” in other words, remembering us when we’re poor or depressed or feel like second-class citizens. Psalm 136 praises God for “giving food to all flesh.” Well, what if you’re not experiencing those blessings from God? What if you are in some low place and you’re feeling pretty alone? What if you’re having trouble keeping food on the table? What if the things we’re praising God for today are blessings that you can’t see in your life right now?

Well, that’s the other interesting thing about going back to see how the psalms were used originally. They weren’t always written to talk about what had happened to all of the people. Sometimes they were written by individuals who had experienced God’s salvation, God’s rescuing hand, and so that one individual asks everyone to give praise to God. One blessing, all give praise. One person is blessed, but the whole community responds with praise.

That’s a reminder to us that we’re not gathered as individuals who praise God by checking only the items that apply. God has been good to me. Check. For his steadfast love endures forever. God gives food to all flesh. Not happening for me right now, so I’ll sit that one out.

It doesn’t work like that. We give praise to God for all of His blessings—whether they come to us individually or not—because we praise Him as a community. What happens to one person in this room happens to all of us. If one person here has experienced God’s help in defeating an addiction, than all of us praise God for the strength of the Holy Spirit in our lives. One blessing, all give praise.

So again after each line that the leader says, freeze the fame. In that moment, you can look around and remember the ways God has blessed the people around you. So the psalm says, “God is good,” and you look around and you think, “Yeah, God has been so good to so-and-so, getting them through that surgery. God has been so good to that other family, providing for them, blessing them with talents to help the church. I want to praise God for the blessings He’s given to the people around me.” Roll the frame, and you say, “For his steadfast love endures forever.”

And now you’re praising God as a community, as a people together, realizing that when one person is blessed, all of us are blessed. When God works in one person’s life, it is a reminder of how God’s love works in all of our lives.

Now, remembering all of these things, we’re going to use Psalm 136, our mini worship service one more time. Remember that this comes from the ancient temple, the people stood and raised their voices, filling the space with their praises. Remember that worship is a conversation, God gives and we respond. Our praises are in response to the examples of God’s love. Remember that this could come in many different styles. We’re going to try the speaking style one more time, because then you can use that same line over and over again, letting yourself speak with your voices, your hands, your eyes, your hearts. Remember that even though you might not be experiencing all of these blessings, someone in here is. We’re praising God for what He has done in all of our lives. This is a community at worship. So let’s stand and speak Psalm 136.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Romans 7:15-25a - “Protect Me From What I Want”

7th Sunday After Pentecost (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, June 30, and Sunday, July 3, 2005

Romans 7 is a rather confusing little passage. Perhaps you got a little lost when you were listening to me read these words, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Paul goes round and round with what he does and what he doesn’t want to do. It can make your head spin. Paul says, “I do not understand what I do,” but maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t understand Paul.” So in case you’re like me and find that you don’t understand what Paul is saying, I took a look at a bunch of different translations and put together those versions to maybe make verses 15-19 a bit easier to understand. See if the version that is on the insert helps.

“I don’t understand myself at all, for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, but I agree that God’s standards are good. So I am no longer the one who is doing the things I hate, but sin that lives in me is doing them. I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. I don’t do the good I want to do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

Paul is describing the inner conflict that Christians have. On the one hand, because we know Christ, we have a desire to serve Christ, to follow His ways. That’s what Paul says he’d like to do. On the other hand, though, we still have a sinful nature that wants to go against God, that is selfish, wants to do its own thing. That’s where Paul admits that he’s rotten through and through. The struggle between the Christ-like nature and the sinful nature, that’s the struggle we all face as believers in Christ.


I think one of the best ways of describing this struggle comes from an artist named Jenny Holzer. Holzer wrote a bunch of statements, what she calls “truisms,” which are rather pointed thoughts directed towards our true motives and values. In 1986, she was able to place these truisms on the electronic sign at Times Square in New York and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. You’ve got a picture there of her truism on the board at Caesar’s Palace. That’s not an altered picture; Holzer’s phrase, “Protect me from what I want,” really flashed at night on the Las Vegas strip. As people went to casinos to gamble and indulgence in other vices, there was Holzer’s phrase to get people to stop and think—Are these things I want really the best for me? Will my desire to get rich or get high or whatever, will those things end up being bad for me?

Holzer’s truisms aren’t necessarily Christian, but I think that statement, “Protect me from what I want,” comes awfully close to putting this passage from Romans 7 into one sentence. It’s the prayer of a Christian struggling with sin. Lord, protect me from what I want. Protect me from the sin I want to do. Protect me from my sinful desires—my lusts, my addictions, my need for revenge. Protect me from the things that my sinful nature wants to do.

I actually first ran across this phrase as the title of a song by the band Placebo. They sing “protect me what I want” as the chorus of a song about the end of a relationship, where the speaker knows that it is better that the relationship is over but there’s still this desire to get back together. Protect me from what I want, indeed. The speaker knows that the relationship is leading no place good, but still he thinks about continuing to be with this person. In that same way, we know that our relationship with sin and the devil is leading no place good, but still we think about continuing to follow sin, to follow the devil’s ways.

So really I can imagine Paul being on the Las Vegas strip, looking up at the Caesar’s Palace signboard, seeing Holzer’s truism, and thinking, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

I don’t know what sins Paul struggled with, but he’s extremely honest here in saying that there’s a constant battle going on in him between good and evil, between God’s will and sin, between the new nature and the sinful nature. Paul is admitting that he needs protection from those sinful desires, and that protection is only going to come from Christ.

Remember, even as Paul admits his struggle with sin, this passage leads to Paul declaring that Christ has saved him and all of us from this struggle, this wretched body of death. Christ has not promised to one day give us victory over sin, to give us life forever where there will not be the sinful nature anymore. So even as Paul talks about these sins that fight for his attention, his action, his life, he also knows that Christ forgives and conquers all sin.

Now, go on the back side of your insert. As Paul describes this inner conflict between God and sin, really he’s also saying that his actions sometimes contradict his beliefs or his words. Paul says that he believes in Jesus, but he doesn’t always live like it. Paul preaches about following Christ, but he doesn’t always follow Christ with his actions, his words, or his thoughts. Paul contradicts himself; he acts contrary to what he believes and says.

I see that other people have this problem—and I know you see it, too. We see the contradictory actions of our fellow Christians. I know you see it, because some of you have told me about it. You come to me concerned that so-and-so is at church but you know what they’re like during the week. You ask me how I could be welcoming someone to church, because even though they might talk about believing in Jesus, you know that they are not good people. You tell me, “Pastor, if you only knew. . . .”

Yet, for one thing, I do know. I don’t know all of the specifics, I don’t know much of what you do in your weekly life, but I know a lot of different struggles that people have with sin. It’s not that I’m na├»vely welcoming people to church, thinking that they are perfect. I welcome people to church, so that we can offer them the love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

That’s one part of it. However, when people tell me that they can see that contradictory actions in their fellow church members, an even more important realization is that Paul isn’t bringing this up to condemn those people. Paul’s not saying, “Oh, I can’t believe these people who talk about Jesus on Sunday but then go out sinning during the week.” Sometimes people have implied to me that others don’t have a right to be here in church if they’re going to be such sinners during the week. Yet, that’s not what Paul is saying at all. In fact, Paul says, “I am doing the very things I hate. I am rotten. I don’t do the good I want to do.” Paul is talking about himself. Paul is saying that he is no different, he shares in this common struggle that Christians face.

So really this passage in Romans 7 isn’t meant to be used by us to condemn others, to point to people and say, “Your actions contradict your faith. You were in church on Sunday and now you’re making racist jokes at work.” While it might be helpful to gently tell a fellow Christian that their actions don’t match their faith, that’s not what this passage is about. This passage is about each of us admitting ourselves that we are like this, that we don’t do what our new nature tells us to do, that we do the evil that we hate, that we struggle against sin even though we believe in Jesus. This passage is about all of us looking at that Caesar’s Palace signboard and realizing that Jenny Holzer’s phrase applies to us, “Protect me from what I want.”

So this passage isn’t so that we can look at each other. It’s a look in the mirror. Paul talks about this inner conflict, because he wanted his readers to understand that their struggle isn’t unique. Maybe that’s why we’re quick to see the contradictions in our fellow Christians, but not always so quick to see it in ourselves, maybe we don’t like to see that contradiction in ourselves, because we’re afraid that we’re the only ones, we’re the only Christian in the room who still has some big struggles with sin.

So this passage is a look in the mirror. It’s a way for each of us to see that “I am doing the very things I hate. I am rotten. I don’t do the good I want to do.” Yet, Paul talks about his own struggle with this, so that we can know that we’re not alone. If we’re afraid of being the only one, this passage in Romans helps us to know that the greatest Christian missionary, the writer of 13 books of the New Testament, Paul himself had this same struggle. We might still be afraid to admit it, but there’s not a Christian around who doesn’t have to say, “Lord, protect me from what I want.”

And this isn’t a crisis of faith. Perhaps it would seem like if we admit that we struggle back and forth between God and sin, if we admit that sinful desires still are raging in our mind and body, perhaps it would seem like if we admit this that we’re somehow admitting that we’ve lost faith in Christ.

Again, though, that’s not what this passage is about. This isn’t a crisis of faith. In fact, it’s actually a crisis for sin. Sure, we’re admitting that we still have sinful desires, but we’re also saying that because of Christ, there’s victory over sin. It’s a crisis for sin, because sin will be defeated. We’re admitting that we don’t always do what God wants us to do, but we’re also saying that because of Christ, we know His will, we have a desire to serve Him, we have a new life. It’s a crisis for sin, because we have a new nature that recognizes sin, we have a new nature that wants to do away with the old, do away with the sinful nature. It’s a crisis for sin, because sin’s days are numbered. Christ will give us victory over sin.

Since Christ has conquered sin, since Christ forgives us instead of condemning us, since we are not alone in this struggle, since this isn’t a crisis of faith, then when we hear Paul talk about this inner conflict between God and sin, when we see Jenny Holzer’s truism, “Protect me from what I want,” it’s not a panic situation. It’s not a time when we have to panic and try to rid ourselves of all of this sin in order to still be a Christian. Paul brought this up so that we could know that we are able to bring these things before God, bring our sins and struggles before Him, and ask for His strength, guidance, and support as we learn to choose good over evil.

So, then, without panicking, we can list before God the things our sinful nature wants, the things that we have trouble ignoring or getting rid of. Holzer says, “Protect me from what I want.” What do you need God to protect you from? What needs to be fenced off? What sinful desires do you need God’s protection from?

Maybe not right now, maybe you don’t feel comfortable writing them down right now, but I’ve left you space on that bulletin insert to write down the sinful desires that you need God to fence off. Each of us have different addictions, vices, habits, sins we’re lazy about, sins that are easier to keep around. Those are the things that we need protection from. We need God to put up a fence in our minds and bodies against those things. We need God to put up a huge, barbed-wire topped fence, separate those things from our lives. We need God to stop us when we cut through the fence, when we climb over the fence. We need God’s Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, in our lives, to keep us from those sins.

Sometimes, by the grace and power of God, we’ll be able to leave those sins on the other side of the fence. Sometimes we won’t. Either way, remember this is a crisis for sin not a crisis of faith. It is a crisis for sin, because Christ has given us the eyes to see sin. We are starting to recognize sin for what it is. Sin is a dead end road, a road that leads to death. We want some sins so bad, but they won’t do us any good. We now know that those sins belong on the other side of the fence.

Remember this is a crisis for sin not a crisis of faith. You haven’t lost faith when you struggle against your sinful desires, and your salvation isn’t defeated when you climb over that fence. The victory of Christ conquers all of our sins—our actions, words, thoughts, and even the times when we sin by not doing something. Forgiveness for our sins applies to all of our sins.

When you pray, “Lord, protect me from what I want,” please know that Christ has given you the ultimate protection. What we wanted in our sinful natures was to follow our own road, to wind up on that dead end, but Christ came to put up the fence. Christ came to save us from that dead end. Christ has come to give us eternal protection from sin, death, and the devil. There is no shame in admitting to your fellow Christians that you have struggles with sin, that you have things that still need to be fenced off. There’s no shame in this, because in admitting it, you are admitting that you need the salvation of Christ, the forgiveness of Christ, and the eternal protection of Christ. Who will save us from our bodies of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! God be praised that He sent Jesus to protect us from the sin we want.