Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Lenten Midweek: “Psalms for Worship, Psalms for Lent”
Psalm 136 - “Prayers of the Church”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I spend so much time talking about popular culture and how the Gospel connects with today’s world that perhaps it looks like I don’t have a sense of history or tradition or how the past connects with us.

But the truth is, I love when I hear the ancients singing with us, the ancestors of our faith speaking words with us. The Prayers of the Church are just one such moment when we join our voices in a way that echoes how God’s people have come together in prayer for generations.

Our focus tonight is on Psalm 136 as we explore the Prayers of the Church in worship, and I selected Psalm 136 because of its pattern, written for use in worship, written with the priest or leader calling out each line and then the congregation responding with the refrain.

On page 7 of the bulletin, and on the screen (click on the picture to the right to see entire bulletin insert), we’ll look at three different translations of this refrain. The first, the New International Version, is perhaps what we’re most familiar with these days: “His love endures forever.” After each portion of the psalm, after each part of the prayer, the people respond saying that God’s love will last forever, go on for eternity, and so whatever God has done in the past, however He has shown His love in history, we can trust that He continues that same love, that He will always love His people.

The second translation comes from the poet Gordon Jackson who beautifully translates and paraphrases each psalm in his book, The Lincoln Psalter, which I’ve used in various places for our liturgy on these Wednesday nights. His version of the Psalm 136 refrain is: “For His love goes on forever.” I like that, and we’ve been using his version in our Prayers of the Church just because it helps us remember what it means that God’s love “endures.” His love goes on and on and on and on.

The third version comes from the poet John Milton—a paraphrased version that puts it into English metrical poetry. Milton lived from 1608-1674 and wrote this psalm when he was 15 years old. Since the poem is nearly 400 years old, I suppose it makes sense that his version takes a moment for us to understand. Milton’s refrain says: “For his mercies aye [“ā”] endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.” “Aye” [“ā”] means “forever, always.” In other words, Milton’s refrain says, “For his mercies always endure, they’re always faithful, always sure.”

Now I wanted you to see these different version of the refrain, because I believe the beauty of Psalm 136, the history and tradition of Psalm 136 are in the refrain, because there are different places in the Old Testament that a psalm, song, or prayer was written for use in worship, but many times they used this same refrain—which meant that the people we’re freed up to simply respond, to concentrate on what was being said about God and to God, to let the priest lead them in worship and prayer, and to always have their response on their lips, always ready to respond with a heartfelt refrain: “For His love goes on forever.”

And that pattern of prayer and refrain, psalm and refrain, is very similar to our Prayers of the Church. The pastor calls out in prayer, speaking the prayers of the people, and then when he says, “Lord, in Your mercy,” it signals all of us to join in the refrain, “Hear our prayer.” It’s a call and response pattern, it’s a pattern that’s similar to Psalm 136, it’s a way to free us up in worship so that we can simply concentrate on the prayers, on what we’re saying to God, about God, what we’re asking for, what we’re taking to God in prayer. We’re free to concentrate on the prayer, and the refrain, the response is already on our lips: “Hear our prayer.” The pastor reminds us that God hears and answers our prayers because of His mercy, a love that we don’t deserve, a love that flows freely from His heart, and so when the pastor says, “Lord, in Your mercy,” the response flows freely from our mouths: “Hear our prayer.”

There’s plenty to be said about innovation, creativity, and variety in worship, and we certainly don’t shy away from that. However, when you think about Psalm 136, when you think about the refrain, when you think about how we all can join in the Prayers of the Church, it’s a great reminder that there’s a place for history, tradition, and repetition.

If you don’t think we get excited about repetition, listen to this (10 second sound clip).

Camp Randall stadium, before the fourth quarter, they play House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and the place goes nuts. They’ve been doing this since 1998, repeating it every game for 10 seasons, and no one seems bored.

Why? Why is that kind of repetition okay? Because we like a certain amount of repetition. We like it when there are little cue ins, little signals to us that something is about to happen that has happened before, signals like “Jump Around” that we know, that we call us to participate. “Lord, in Your mercy,” is that kind of signal, something we repeat to call us to pray, to get you to jump around in your heart, focused on praying and seeking the Lord. “Lord, in Your mercy,/hear our prayer.”

That’s what the refrain of Psalm 136 is—a cue-in, a signal, a “Jump Around” for the people of Israel. When they heard the priest say, “O give thanks to the Lord for His goodness,” they knew right away that their response was: “His love goes on forever.” They knew, because it was an ancient tradition, a refrain went way back in history.

And you’ve already seen echoes of that history in tonight’s worship. We started with the hymn “Oh, that I Had a Thousand Voices” which was inspired by the psalm David wrote which is recorded in 1 Chronicles chapter 16—our Old Testament reading tonight. David’s psalm is a song he wrote for the people to sing as the Ark of the Covenant was being brought into the Tent of Meeting, the place of worship in Jerusalem. The psalm celebrates what God has done, and the people respond with the refrain: “His love endures forever.”

Years later when David’s son, Solomon, completed the Temple, the people again joined in song as the Lord’s glory filled the Temple. They pulled out the old, traditional refrain, their liturgical, worshipful version of “Jump Around,” and they sang, “His love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7)

That was around 950 BC. Flash-forward 300 years when Jeremiah is prophet, and he is calling on the people to repent or face the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet, Jeremiah also carries a promise from the Lord, a promise to save a remnant, a faithful portion of His people, and in painting the picture of the restoration and salvation to come in future days, in helping the people see that picture of what God would eventually do, Jeremiah pulls out the traditional song and says, “there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD, saying, “Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good; his love endures forever” (33:10b-11).

And then perhaps 100 years after that, when the second Temple was completed in 516, according to Ezra chapter 3, the people took their places as was directed by David—500 years earlier—and they sang the age-old refrain, the ageless refrain: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And that’s probably when Psalm 136 was written and used.

Now when we read Psalm 136, now when we use Psalm 136 in worship, now when we hear those words, “His love goes on forever,” or when we join in that similar pattern and refrain in our Prayers, “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer,” now we know that we’re standing with the ancestors, standing on the shoulders of giants, hearing the same cue-in, signal, the call to sing and pray, hearing an ancient “Jump Around” that turns our attention to calling on the Lord, seeking the Lord, crying out for God, pleading with Him, thanking Him, praising Him, waiting for His answer to our prayers. “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.” “O give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, for His love goes on forever.” “Jump around, because the Lord hears your prayers.”

Of course, if Psalm 136 is 2500 years old, and if it is mainly praising God for the things He had done in the past, perhaps it’s still hard to see how this psalm has much to do with us. Sure, the refrain comes up in our hymns, it has that same pattern we use in our prayers, but Psalm 136 itself—does it really have much to do with us today?

Well, on your insert, I broke down Psalm 136 into five sections. And the theme or focus of each section shows up in our Prayers of the Church, so Psalm 136 has everything to do with us today.

Let’s just take a brief look at the five sections, and I’ll show you what I mean. You can take this home and study it more in-depth, use it for your prayers at home, but just take a quick look with me right now. I’ll put it on the screen, too.

The first section praises God for who He is, for His qualities, His characteristics. I titled this section, “He is I AM,” meaning that God is “I AM”—that’s His personal Name, Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM. He is our God, our incredible God, and our Prayers often praise and thank God for who He is, for His love, forgiveness, faithfulness, or as our refrain says, “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.” We seek God in prayer, because of who He is. He is I AM.

The second section is titled “He made what is,” because it focuses on praising God for everything that He has made—the world, the sun, moon, and stars. And really, when we go to God asking Him to heal people, to watch over newborn babies, to give food to the poor, to protect people as they travel, when we pray for these things, we are acknowledging that God is the only One who can help us with these things. He’s the only One, because He made the world, He is over the world, He is in control of the world, He has the power to grant these prayers, because He made what is.

The third section focuses on what God did to free the people from Egypt, and now we might even more feel like Psalm 136 is history and doesn’t have as much to do with us—unless we see what this section tells us about God. The people of Israel didn’t keep bringing up being freed from Egypt because they all felt connected to that event that happened 1000 years earlier. They brought it up, they remembered it, because it reminded them who their God is. “He destroys the powers that be.” In history, the powers that be were Pharaoh and Egypt. At the time of Psalm 136, the powers were the Babylonians who took the people into exile. And now in our day and age, now the powers that be that threaten to destroy God’s people are sin, death, and the devil, false teaching, and anything that would threaten the Church and our faith. So as we pray for missionaries, as we pray for help in temptation, as we pray that God would give us courage to speak His Word, now we’re remembering that He destroys the powers that be, that He can answer our prayers because He can defeat the powers of this world—all the way to defeating the power of death and giving us the promise of the resurrection through Jesus.

The fourth section, and now we’re on page 8 of the bulletin, the fourth section is titled: “He leads the leaderless and landless.” It’s a section that again goes back to a very specific time in history as God led the people in the desert as they wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt. He led them when they didn’t know where to go; He led them when they didn’t have a land to call their own. Again, it may seem like it doesn’t have much to do with us today, but this section of Psalm 136 is similar to when we pray for the leaders in our Church, in our congregation, those who are guiding us in our mission. It’s similar to when we pray for building projects and long-range planning. It’s similar to when we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we wander this world. If God was the leader of the leaderless and landless back in the desert, then we can trust that He will hear our prayers and be our leader today.

Finally, it seems like the psalm just continues to talk about history when it says, “He kept us in mind when we were oppressed,” talking about past slavery or recent exile, but I think there’s a shift here at the end of the psalm. That’s why I titled the section: “He remembers.” No matter what kind of oppression, no matter what kind of exile, no matter where you find yourself struggling and feeling separated from God, he remembers you. He hears your prayers. His love goes on forever.

We go to God with the Prayers of the Church precisely because of this section of Psalm 136. We go to God, because we know that He keeps us in mind when we are oppressed by sin, death, and the devil, and the world around us. We go to God, because He saved us from these enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We go to God, because He gives food to all His creatures, because He cares for our daily needs. We go to God, and we give thanks from the heart to the God of heaven, and His love goes on forever.

As you might have noticed, I gave you some quotes from Milton’s version and showed you with arrows how they match up with Psalm 136. As a way of bringing all of this history together, bringing this ancient psalm that echoes the even more ancient refrain of the people of Israel, as a way of calling us to celebrate the Lord with a refrain as we pray to Him, we’re now going to sing Milton’s version as it was put to song. You’ve got the hymn at the bottom of page 8; it’ll be on the screens, too.

As we sing, I want you to think about how these words come from long, long ago, but still carry what is on our hearts. We pray to God and trust Him to hear us, because He is I AM, He made what is, He destroys the powers that be, He leads the leaderless and landless, and He remembers.

Let’s sing now, and make this hymn your prayer. Please stand.