Psalm 19 - Risking Praise - Message from January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Psalm 19
Message: Risking Praise
Have you ever wondered about the prayer we just prayed? Where did it come from? Why do we say it each week before the message? Perhaps you’ve been in other churches and heard either the preacher, or the preacher and congregation as is the case with Epworth, pray this prayer before the preaching. If you were listening closely to the scripture reading this morning you heard these same words as the scripture closed, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.” The weekly prayer we offer as we prepare to listen for God through the words, interpretations, and inspirations of the sermon is from Psalm 19.
The collection of Psalms we have in our Bible derive from the 9th to the 5th century before the common era. Though many of the Psalms are said to have been written by or about King David, their full authorship is unknown. The Book of Psalms in our Bible contains 150 different Psalms, which fall into four categories: hymns, laments, royal Psalms, and Psalms of thanksgivings. Psalm 19, our Psalm for today, falls into the hymn category.
The Psalms are essentially poetry, and Psalm 19 is one of the finest examples of Hebrew poetic parallel structure. We see this as the Psalm begins in verse 1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands” in which “heavens” in the first line parallels “skies” in the second, followed by “declare” which parallels “proclaim” and so forth. The structure matters not only in the way it causes a lyrical effect making these hymns pleasant and rhythmic to listen to, but also in the way that it makes clear out of which tradition this hymn comes.
This particular Psalm is a hymn of praise for the Creator, and communicates a vision of creation’s praise for the Creator. At the time of the writing of this Psalm in the Ancient Near East where it was written, dominant cultures worshipped the sun. We see an acknowledgement of the place the sun had in the consciousness of the people of the day in verse 6:
[the sun] rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth
This indicates that the sun, much more than the moon, was regarded as the sovereign celestial body, ruler of the day by the people of the Ancient Near East. Heaven, the sun's natural place of authority, is entirely subject to its dominion. "Nothing is deprived of its warmth" refers not only to the sun's absolute dominion over the sky, but is probably also a reference to the widespread belief in the ancient Near East of the sun as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-revealing god of justice, from whom nothing nefarious is successfully concealed. This Psalm puts forth a different theological understanding—that there is something beyond mere creation to be praised, and that even creation praises this entity beyond itself.
Then the Psalmist moves away from the focus on the common recipient of praise at that time and pivots back toward God:
The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
This was a counter-cultural claim, that though the sun has dominion in the skies, God has dominion over the heavens. And that God’s dominion surpasses our understanding. To proclaim an authority other than the one others say is in charge is to take a risk.
We typically think of praise as a light and enjoyable activity. The phrase “praise music” comes to mind, a style of contemporary worship music that is peppy, upbeat, joyful. But to offer praise, particularly in a mixed theological setting, takes risk and a kind of gravity we would do well not to overlook. When we offer praise, we are taking a risk in three ways: first, we are articulating a distinct reality and distinct authority; second, to express praise we must make ourselves vulnerable, and third, to offer praise is to express a commitment to the one who is being praised. We risk by naming reality and authority, being vulnerable, and expressing commitment. And it is these risks in praise that gives praise its power.
When we offer praise, we are expressing a vertical relationship with a higher power in and over our lives. We are telling the world what we love, enjoy, appreciate, and honor. What we rely on. In an era, both then and now, many authorities and entities compete for our loyalty, and in some settings adherence to the dominant authority is an assurance of safety. The ancient Hebrews were aware of the risk they were taking by saying God alone is God and worthy of praise, but still found a way to proclaim who their God is, and what difference that makes for the reality they experience. Consider verses 2-4:
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
The psalmist takes considerable pains to construct an elaborate image of vocality, only to insist that the celestial communication which breaks into human perception does so without the necessity of speech. This might seem paradoxical—there’s praise for speech then praise for communication without words-- but in ancient Israel, the Israelites had distinguished themselves theologically from traditions that gave consciousness to elements of creation such as the sun by saying that only the creator had ultimate knowledge of the divine. To offer praise, they had to describe the ultimate reality they were praising. To describe, just like to name, is a way of having power over that which is being named or described, so to maintain the rightful place of God is worthy to be praised, and beyond human comprehension, this poetic paradox is constructed.
Second, to really praise God, we can also see how we are required to risk being vulnerable. Just like love defies a perfect explanation and description, so too does our creator. In opening our mouths to offer praise, we know before we even begin that our praise will be imperfect. And yet we accept that imperfection, opening our hearts to the attempt, because the attempt is what matters.
Think for a minute about someone you love. Hold the image of that person, and feel the warmth of love you have for that person in your heart. Would it be possible not to express this feeling? Is it ever possible to express it fully? And yet we try. We must try. Poets and playwrights, sages and songstresses have attempted this expression through the ages. How much more then must we express our delight and joy in the one of our ultimate love, our God, even though it makes us vulnerable to do so, to expose our hearts and to know that our expression will never fully capture the reality.
And finally, in offering praise, we risk in making clear who and whose we are. When we lift a psalm of praise, we communicate where we stand, which is in the goodness, grace, and mercy of God. And yet to fully receive these good gifts, our commitment to our relationship with God is necessary. We express this commitment in praise. The beautiful thing about this is that this commitment is less about achieving some bar of fidelity and much more about just opening ourselves to God’s presence and reality. Opening ourselves to the love of the Creator.
In praise we acknowledge God’s power, and in acknowledging power, we are freed to just be human. To be human is to live, and grow and learn. It is also to make mistakes, to forgive and be forgiven, to struggle, but also to find in God a release from these things. You may have heard the phrase, “We are human beings, not human-doings.” When we offer praise, acknowledging the doing of our Creator in all of their complexity, unknowingness and goodness, then we see that the ultimate responsibility for “doing,” for bringing about this or that or making this or that happen, does not rest with us. It rests with God. Now please don’t misunderstand me. We all are called to act in the world, but in praise of the One God, we are reminded that are actions, too, are offerings. We can act and release, and we can also just be.
The movement of Psalm 19 goes from the cosmic to the intimately personal. And this is what takes place in worship. We enter into a space of the ineffable and holy, then hear a word that is expressly for us. We experience a presence of divine goodness, then feel the care in the passing of the peace or a prayer offered for our need. Our God makes all of this possible, and we participate in this relationship and reality through praise. Then this peace and presence, this Good News follows us out of the worship space and orders and fills our lives. The last verse of Psalm 19 reflects our desire to be in this praise-filled relationship with God. It reflects our commitment to naming who and whose we are, and it names and confirms our reality of a God who is strength and salavation. Praise frees us. Praise frees us to be. Praise frees us to be God’s people. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Order of Worship
The Community Gathers... Prelude: "Jesu, Joy of our Desiring" - Rev. Jerry Asheim Welcome - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Opening Hymn: "God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale" UM Hymnal #122 - Chris Poston Prayer for Illumination - Ethan Toven-Lindsey To Hear the Word... Scripture Reading: Psalm 19 - Ethan Toven-Lindsey Children's Message - Susan Jardin Anthem: "Let It Be" - Elsa Message - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking To Respond and Renew Commitment... Hymn of Response: "For the Beauty of the Earth" - UM Hymnal #92 - Margot Hanson Prayers of the People - Huston
If you have a prayer request or are interested in longer-term spiritual accompaniment from a Stephen Minister, please email email@example.com The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) Our Creator (Father/Mother), who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom (kin-dom) come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom (kin-dom), and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. Offering Our Resources and our Energy Give online at www.epworthberkeley.org/donate or, send a text message with the dollar amount you wish to give to +1-833-276-7680. Offertory - Emory Prayer of Dedication - Ethan Toven-Lindsey To Go Forth with Love and Compassion *Closing Hymn: “How Great Thou Art” UM Hymnal #77 - Chris Poston Sending Forth - Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Postlude: "The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To: Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking Worship Leaders: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Susan Jardin, Margot Hanson, Judy Kriege, Alexander Naar, Chris Poston, Ethan Toven-Lindsey Guest Musicians: Elsa, Emory, & Huston Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Director of Communications: Merrie Bunt Credits: Liturgy by enfleshed. Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.