Keith’s reflection for July 4th – National Thank you Day

“Praise the Lord, my soul!  I will praise him as long as I live; I will sing to my God all my life” – Psalm 146; 1-2

This week we have all witnessed on our screens thousands shouting for joy, and roaring songs of victory at Wembley – we may even have joined in at home!  Or we may have watched the crowds at Wimbledon on Monday give a standing ovation, not just to Andy Murray but to the pioneer of the Oxford vaccine, showing the nation’s gratitude.  Coming together to worship gives us the opportunity to break into spontaneous praise and give our all-providing God a standing ovation!  That was the reaction of the people of old, as they sang this Psalm.

Psalm 146 is the first of the final “Hallelujah” Psalms.  They all start – and finish – by encouraging everyone to “Praise the Lord!”.  These last five psalms summon up everything in creation, “all earth’s thousand voices to swell the sound of praise”.  Today’s Psalm in particular celebrates the good news that in the face of our human frailty and mortality God remains trustworthy. What is more, God dedicates his sovereignty from creation to eternity to focusing on those in deepest need, and helping those in worst circumstances. That’s the reason why we praise God throughout our lives.

In these opening verses we each pledge ourselves to praise the LORD “as long as I live” and to sing God’s praises “all my life long”.  “All my life” is clearly ample time for expressing God’s goodness. It echoes Psalm 103: “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let all that is within me praise his holy name”.

And notice, it can also mean that our life as human beings is not just the timeframe but is also the means through which to praise God: “I will sing God’s praises through being alive”. We are going to sing in this song of events that illustrate God’s faithfulness. And it also implies that the way we live our lives is itself an act of praise. By living out God’s truth, justice, and responsiveness to those in the sort of need listed in verses 7, 8 and 9 is how we acknowledge God’s goodness.

Suddenly the psalm compares and contrasts God vividly and pointedly to human leaders. Even the best politicians, government officials, teachers, and business leaders are limited in their efforts to help those in trouble, not because they are evil but because they are disappointing. Those who glibly promise assistance are themselves mortal. Even the greatest of Israel and Judah’s leaders, such as Moses and David, “die and return to the earth” (verse 4), and on that day their plans fail.  We have only to think of national and local leaders and all those in power today!  Their promises just don’t match results!  It’s obvious!

The rest of Psalm 146 just contrasts that with the eternity of God’s reign. It shows God as our supreme sovereign, unfailingly attentive and reliable. First, verse 5 highlights the good fortune of the person who trusts in the God of Jacob. The ideology behind ancient near eastern kingship was about ensuring justice and protecting the vulnerable.  This lies behind the portrait of God as our helper in time of need. But, in contrast to other kings in the long history of their nation, this “King of Kings” always keeps his promises (v.6)!

We then listened to a vivid list of the reasons why we should always praise our God.  He creates everything: heaven, earth and sea, and everything in them.  All creation is undergirded by God’s eternal truth (verse 6).

And he is especially concerned with the vulnerable.  Unlike fallible police forces and unjust judges over us, our God judges in favour of the oppressed and marginalised, not the powerful and influential.  He gives top priority to people who are exploited, or are experiencing hunger (verse 7).  We see food justice in our country as an ongoing issue, with “food poverty” affecting children in some of our neighbourhoods as an ongoing scandal.  God’s will is to provide enough food for them. He brings justice to those who have been economically, socially, or sexually abused for another’s advantage.  The help God provides is not abstract, but real.

And then God singles out for his care prisoners, whom he releases. We immediately think of our huge prison population.  He wants us to find a better way, and praising him will give us that same desire.

Next, he heals illnesses of body and mind, and this reminds us how Jesus ministry embodies God’s reign by giving sight to the blind and deaf, those who are crippled or troubled by a legion of inner voices.  Naturally this links with God’s love of the righteous, because the righteous commit themselves like their God to the work of reconciliation, and to restoration of relationships.

The final groups of people in our psalm for whom God is Advocate are the marginalized and powerless. All those recent immigrants into our land, widows, all orphans and endangered children, are vulnerable people whom God protects and expects his Chosen People, and everyone who reads or sings this psalm, to protect.

The psalm’s final emphasis is the eternal rule of Zion’s God, from generation to generation. All these vivid descriptions of God’s steadfast lovingkindness and power show the reasons for praising God.  They are clear and compelling!  

So, our psalm this morning portrays an amazing vision of healing, restoration, and wholeness. We are living in a broken world where disappointment, anger, and injustice remain all too common, but we are assured that God’s kingdom is different. We are emboldened to hope and to pray that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven, and to “fill our lives in every part with praise”.  Praise throughout our lives means praising God in trouble as well as in joy.

This morning is going to be our first chance since lockdown to re-enact together Jesus’ Last Supper with his followers.  We will remember that Jesus, on his last evening on earth, took bread in token of his body about to be broken and pierced and torn, and he took the cup which symbolised his life-blood which was going to be spilt, and both times he gave thanks.  And when they went from that upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was about to face a dreadful struggle in sweat and agony of spirit, he got them singing a hymn as they went and giving God thanks.  Jesus lived a life that was “praise in every part – in times of joy AND in times of sorrow.  It’s the reason for the hope that is in us.  Jesus’ instinct was always to give God thanks and praise, whatever times he was going through, and that is the example we follow. Praise of this kind and quality is not something to do just when we feel the whim, when everything in the garden is lovely.  It’s our simple duty; and we have to do our duty even when we don’t feel inclined to. 

So, whatever experiences we are going through, we live with hope, a hope based on Jesus Christ – that he lives and we shall live also.  Just as he has saved us through lockdown, so he has freed us from the trap of the past and healed us from the wounds that have festered away below the surface where we could not diagnose them, and were powerless to deal with them.  We have been made whole and wholesome – and that’s why I say we can do no other than Praise the Lord!

Amen

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