“Free to Praise”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 17, 2021
Reading: Psalm 150
The religion of his day was described as old and cold. It was old and cold because the churches had lost their passion and their way. Worship itself had become moribund, that there was no fire in it anymore. In the reformed tradition, it was essentially the singing of some psalms and listening to a few sermons that may or may not inspire. The outreach to the poor had become almost non-existent. The mainline church, the state church, the Church of England, had essentially become, again, moribund and ordinary and lacking conviction.
Into all of this, on May 21, 1738, entered Charles Wesley, who was diagnosed with pleurisy, and it was believed at that time, that if you contracted pleurisy, you would probably die. It was not a good prognosis. Now, this was on top of all the other problems that Charles Wesley had. He and his famous brother, John had gone to the United States to try to bring about renewal in evangelism within the American church, only to essentially be rejected and their mission to fail. They returned to Britain with hardly any confidence – they were depressed. They were also concerned that with many of the wonderful features of his life; for example, he’d been a very good scholar at Oxford, and a magnificent musician who had created wonderful music – but he was now, essentially, a failure.
Charles Wesley was a failure, he was sick, and potentially dying. The religion of his day was moribund, the churches were in decay, people were not attending anymore. There was an absence of passion in the land. On top of that, there were social conditions of people abusing alcohol, drinking Gin, living on the streets, unable to function properly. It was a mess. He turned to a man called Peter, who was a Moravian preacher, pastor, and theologian. Peter convinced him to renew his own passion through prayer rather than assigning his fate to the gods and believing that everything would unfold, and he would probably die. Charles Wesley agreed to have people come and pray with him.
He prayed, and they prayed with him. Twelve months later Charles Wesley was well and not only was he well, he decided to write a hymn to celebrate the praise and the glory of God. He wrote a hymn that has gone down in the annals of church history as one of the old time greats, billboard’s top ten of great music in the church, and it goes:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer's praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of God’s grace.
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread through all the earth abroad
the honours of Your name.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease;
'tis music in the sinner's ears,
'tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.
To God all glory, praise, and love
be now, and ever given
by saints below and saints above,
the Church in earth and heaven.
To write that was a profound expression of faith, and so influential was Charles Wesley to the eventual renewal of the church, particularly in the United Kingdom, that his hymns were the hymns of the ordinary person. They were the hymns on the lips of Christians who went to church. O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing influenced generations of believers with passion and with hope.
His passion was so great, his love of God so overwhelming, that in later generations it touched the likes of William Wilberforce, who would often sing O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing when trying to put an end to slavery. It was Wilberforce – just thought I'd mention this – who created the first bible society. There was a passion, you see, there was a faith that emerged, even after the darkest days of Charles Wesley’s life, and it was one that would influence generations.
As I look at the story of Charles Wesley, I cannot help but realise that one of the psalms that had a huge impact on him and his writing, was the psalm that was sung and read for us this morning. It’s one of the shortest psalms in the Bible and, in our tradition, the last psalm, Psalm 150, the end of Book Five of the psalms. While the Orthodox Church has a few more, for most of us Psalm 150 ends the psalms. It ends it as a doxology, with a word of praise; the language used is uplifting, inspiring, encouraging. It tells us how, it tells us where, it tells us why, and it tells us who should praise God.
I must admit, my friends, I can't think of anything that we need more within our own lives and in our own faith than this reality. I have loved, and I do love receiving your comments and your personal letters and cards, and I deeply appreciate them. Every now and again I get one that hits a soft spot. My soft spot was hit last week in a card from Cape Breton with the beautiful leaves that are changing in Nova Scotia, particularly around the town of Englishtown, Cape Breton. As I read the letter and the sense of joy and praise, the thing that came across in it and in the subsequent Facebook photos of that area, was this overwhelming sense that we need praise in our lives. It should well from deep within us and come out in the way that we live.
Psalm 150 is a great indicator, a great encourager, and it talks about where the Lord should be praised. The psalmist starts off, “The Lord is to be praised in His sanctuary” and by sanctuary he of course means the temple, an actual place where you worship. That’s where it begins, but sanctuary also means a holy place, a place where it was believed heaven and earth actually met, the coming together of the things of heaven with the things of earth; believers get caught, in that relationship between heaven and earth. As I have mentioned before, it was Jesus’ custom to go into the synagogue, the temples and pray.
So too the psalmist says that we worship God in the firmament, in the heavens, in the greater places, in the outdoors. We worship God in both the high places and the low places, the places of the sanctuary and the places of the heavens.
I don’t know how many times over the years – and I'm sure every minister and pastor and priest has heard this from people – they will tell you, “You know, you can actually worship God anywhere. I can worship God in a field, or I can worship God by a lake or in a mountain or by the oceans.” People tell me that all the time.
My answer to that always is kind of a contradictory one. I say, “Yes, that is absolutely true but no, it is incomplete.” I say yes, because as the psalmist says, we worship God in the firmament, we worship God in the broad things, and of course you can worship God amongst the trees, and in the beauty of holiness. You can worship God anywhere and at any time because God is sovereign, and we are never far from Him. So, yes, it’s true, but it’s an incomplete statement because the worship of God is not just about you as an individual affirming the presence of God in your life; it is a collective thing. It is about the singing of hymns, and Lordy, I'm sure you're all itching to be able to sing hymns in this place. It is about the hearing of the public reading of Scripture, something that unfortunately is getting lost; it’s about the public nature of prayer; it’s about the combined efforts of people of God to do the things of justice and righteousness in society; it is about the particular, as well as the general, it’s about the specific as well as the ordinary.
I say, “Yes, you can worship God anywhere, but you also need to worship God somewhere, and with others.” It’s true, I think, of all the main Abraham-derived religions, whether it is Muslims going to a mosque, or Jews going to a synagogue or a temple, or Christians going to a church, you need the collective worship of God. For the psalmist it was clear, you worship God in the sanctuary, but you worship God in the firmament. You worship God beyond, but you worship God with praise. You can do it anywhere, but you can do it in the house of the Lord as well. But not only that, why do we praise God? Why is the praise of God important, and what’s missing? What’s missing in your life if there is not the praise of God?
The great Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann, has a wonderful way of putting it, and I must say, I never conceived of the praise of God in this way before I read this but it makes immense sense. He says: “Praise is a key marking of Israel’s discernment of humanness. To be human means to be willing and able to praise. We have seen that the drama of rehabilitation consists in complaint, petition, and then thanks as an act of shrill self-assertion. Now –” and he’s talking about in this psalm – “we see the counter-move in Israel; praise as a glad act of self-abandonment, the active gesture of accepting that life is ceded beyond self, that wellbeing is rooted in the other, and that without any claim for self, the human agent is glad to defer to, and rely fully on God, who can only be expressed in lyrical language.” In other words, he’s saying, it is an ability of humans to praise, and a great freedom of humanity to be able to praise God. It’s not about our own self-assertion, rather, it takes us out of ourselves to praise and to glorify the holy Other.
I digress for a moment, but as some of you know, I now have a black Labrador, and he is becoming a really big guy. I have never had a dog with a long tail before, and trust me, you rearrange your entire life around that big tail. You do not put coffee on the coffee table anymore, because it goes swooping into the next room. Whenever he’s happy, which is 99.9 percent of the time, the tail is wagging, and you get slapped with it and clobbered with it, and it moves everything around in the entire place. He is happy, and his tail is the expression of his happiness. This is what dogs do, and you see the happiness and joy with tail-wagging.
Well, for us to be human, to show our joy, is to praise the One who made us, to express with deep gratitude, who it is that we believe in, and why that faith is so important. To be able to praise God, and to praise God in a meaningful way, is a powerful thing. When we wonder why we do this, we do this because we’re human beings made in the image of God. And being made in the image of God, we praise, and we adore the Lord.
This is what Wesley captured in his hymns; that sense of our humanness, and that is what was lost in the moribund church of his time. The passion had gone out of the church because people did not connect their existence as human beings with the adoration and the glorification of their God. He also tells us that why we praise God is because of “His surpassing greatness and his deeds.” We praise God based on what God has done, not just for his actual being, and this is critical. For every Jew, there’s no question that the liberation of the people of Israel in the Exodus was the defining moment in their life as a people. It was God’s great act to set the people free, and their response to that freedom was praise. The might acts, the surpassing greatness to which the psalmist refers, are of course the acts and the deeds of God in liberating, the people.
The New Testament is fascinating; there’s a different tone, rooted and centred in the person of Jesus. It tends to be more personal, that the great acts of God are seen in the healings of Jesus, in the words of Jesus, in the resurrection of Jesus. No less powerful, but just more personal. We see it in the form of his Son. As Christians, when we read Psalm 150 and we think of the mighty deeds, we do not only think of the Exodus, we think of the life and the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
So how do we praise God? Here the psalmist gets lyrical. He recommends that we worship God with nine instruments. I like what St Augustine said of these instruments. He said, “When you look at them and how they're played, it reveals how all human faculties are used in these instruments, the whole of the person, the whole of the community praises God. It’s glorious. When you look at it in the terms of the psalms and the time of the writing, these instruments represent two great groups of people, who were responsible for the worship and the praise of God: the priests and the Levites. Each of these instruments aligns with the tradition with one or the other of those movements. It’s like the coming together of the whole people of God, to praise.
Today, we would include many other instruments, from violins to pipe organs, to electric guitars. We could put in all kinds of things, but here the recommendation is that these instruments reflect the whole of what was known and played at that time, and it was powerful. It caught the imagination of composers and writers. The great Stravinsky did a symphony on the psalms, and this Laudate Dominum is one of those. It is an integral part of Stravinsky’s work, to give praise to God through Psalm 150.
The great Duke Ellington – and this something many people don’t know – at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, put on a concert entitled Praise with Song and Dance, basing it on Psalm 150. Even Duke Ellington caught the magic of Psalm 150, knew that this instrumental praise of God was a powerful thing. And of course, Charles Wesley, God bless him knew that for the church to be invigorated, it also needed to have that outward expression of hymns and music of praise. The Word and music, and even dance, go together in praise of the Almighty.
But who should praise? Here the psalmist gets theological with us: “All that have breath.” Which means all living creatures. It goes back to Genesis 2:17, And the breath of God that was poured out onto the people, and the breath of God that was let loose on creation. All living creatures that have breath should praise the Lord. When you look, for example, at the story of Noah and the flood, and the animals being saved two-by-two, it is an example in very ancient literature of the Old Testament, of all creatures being saved in order to praise the Lord God Almighty.
Now, I'm not sure that I'm having a lot of luck with getting my black Lab to have a moment of prayer and downtime with the Almighty. I don’t think he’s waking up in the morning going, “First thing I’ve got to do is praise the Lord.” First thing he does is go to his food bowl. Nevertheless, I believe that all the world and all that has breath should praise the Lord.
For those of us who are made in the image of God, those that have what is known as the imago dei, how much more should we, and how much more should we in a time of social confusion and disintegration of the world, be the leaders, the exemplars of people of praise.
This is what Charles Wesley wanted in his time. He believed that the renewal of the church and of society, the care for the wellbeing of everyone, actually begins with: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace.”
May we make our lives a statement of that praise. Amen.