HOW DOES THE CREATURE SAY "PRAISE"?
You would think I would have learned by now that there is no such thing as a "simple" sermon. Topics that I figure should be a piece of cake rarely are, and this week is no exception. It seemed only natural to do a sermon on praise. What could be more central to the worship life of a congregation? We do it every week, and it seems built into the DNA of Scripture...especially the Psalms. What could be so hard about that?
Well, for starters, what exactly is praise anyway? It didn't make sense to me that praise was only saying or singing nice things about God. Of course words and songs can be empty, but even if our hearts are in it, I felt there had to be more to it. Especially given passages like Isaiah 43, which say that we were created to proclaim God's praise. It may be that I am simply a product of a psychological culture, but I'm a bit concerned about a God who makes human beings just to satisfy a huge need for ego gratification. That seemed too shallow to me.
As some of you know, the Bible was not written in English but rather in the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek, with Hebrew being the primary language for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New. When I really want to find out what a Biblical concept means, I go back to the original languages and words, which are often much more full and rich than our English word would indicate. So I looked up the word "praise."
The Bible has at least nine different Hebrew and Greek words for praise that I could find. One specifically means praise that is sung or played on an instrument. Others mean to bless, to kneel, to throw or shoot like an arrow, to give thanks, to confess, to laud, to adore, and then my favorite one. My favorite word for praise is the Hebrew word "Halal," which is the root for the word "Hallelujah." It means, "to shine, to flash forth light." All of those meanings are simply translated into English as "praise."
As I looked at all of that, the topic of praise began to spread out and make more sense. The word for "praise" in the Isaiah passage is "tehillah." It is a noun that means a specific act of praise. It also means "fame." Praise, it seems, is as much about content as it is about action. The content of our praise is the fame of God, what we say and what we sing about are the acts that make God famous, and it is our job to shoot that information out into the world like an arrow, like fireworks that flash out in the night.
As I thought about it more, it seemed that when God said in Isaiah that human beings had been formed to proclaim God's praise, that was simply God's way of reminding us about the Creation story in Genesis. What is distinctive about human beings in Creation is that we were made in the image of God. While all of creation tells us something about God, we are the ones that are supposed to sum it up...to be the mirror image of all of it together. It is human beings who have the ability to show forth all that we can know about God, and to be able to articulate that in ways that others cannot.
Praise is what we do when we truly reflect the image of God in our lives. That is why the Isaiah passage looks like it does. That is why talk of people being created to proclaim God's praise is stuck in the middle of this comparison between God's mercy, giving, and abundance, and Israel's unfaithfulness and selfishness. God is upset that the people are not truly praising, and that their lives do not reflect the glory of God. The way that knowledge of God gets passed from one person to another and from one generation to another is through praise...through people themselves being a mirror of God in the world.
Now this, too, gets tricky because the church word for what we are talking about here is "evangelism." Being the image of God and praising God is the way we pass the news about who God is to those who do not know and have not heard. I say it gets tricky because evangelism has been a tricky thing over the millennia. Both churches and individuals tend to take issue with how evangelism is done. We have done it in the church very badly. But even setting aside the more atrocious examples, there are differences of opinion over how it ought to be done.
The more liberal groups tend to focus on being a mirror of God in the world...that is, acting with justice and mercy. They rightly point out that we had darn well be practicing what we preach. To go to people who are dying of starvation and simply tell them that God loves them without providing for their physical needs is to distort the image of God. God's love is evidenced in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing for the widow and orphan.
The lack of justice in the world makes God madder than just about anything...and if you doubt me, read the prophets...or the passage we read from Matthew where Jesus affirms the worth of children, just after he has turned over tables and driven the moneychangers from the temple grounds. We need to think about how our lives reflect the nature of God...or don't. If we go to work each day to a company or profession that defrauds others and puts money before the needs of people, it will be impossible to praise God at work, unless you are throwing the injustice back in their faces and shining a light in the dark corners. If praise is to announce the things for which God is famous, we cannot do that while ignoring injustice.
Our praise is our evangelism...the way we announce the nature of God, and the liberal end of the spectrum is absolutely right to point out that our lives need to reflect the message. They need to hear from the conservative side, however, that to live God's praise without ever telling people that's what we're doing doesn't cut it either. When we live good, upright lives without ever making a public connection of that to our faith, who gets the praise? We do. Praise gets diverted from God to us. Instead of showing the world the greatness of God, we end up showing how great we are. Even if we don't believe that ourselves, if we never say why we try to work for justice, live with compassion, or love our neighbor, then that is the message that goes out to a world that doesn't know any better. It's up to us to reflect that fame back to the one who truly owns the praise.
So while praise is not merely speech, it does include speech. Praise is what happens when our words and our lives are integrated enough with our faith that it all points beyond ourselves to God. Praise is meant to be public and social because we are created as public and social creatures. Human beings were made for love, not isolation, because we were made in the image of the God whose nature is love. We need to be people of love, but our love does not become praise until we make clear to others why we love. We need to explain that we behave the way we do because of the God who first loved us, but we also need to be careful that our behavior reflects the God we say we serve. We need to say it and we need to live it at the same time.
That disconnect is why some people are disgusted when they come into a church on a Sunday morning and listen to the words and songs of praise. If you have just nearly run them off the road trying to get a parking space for church; if they know you from work or community and know your dealings to be less than kind; if they have walked through the door for the first time and no one has smiled and said hello...any words of praise will sound hollow and hypocritical...no matter how eloquent the speech or beautiful the music.
Praise is not what we show up to do in a worship service. Praise is who we were created to be. Praise is the way that the people of God are to live in the world...reflecting the image of God back to the world...shooting it out like an arrow, lighting it up like a torch, confessing in word, song, and paper the nature of the God who directs us to live the lives that we do.
That is why the rest of creation was not enough. The rocks, the trees, the water, the sky...all of them praise God to some degree as they reflect aspects of their Creator. But they could not articulate their praise in a way that is completely clear. The earth religions have shown this plainly across time. Part of the message got through. People looked at nature and said, "There is more here than meets the eye. There is divinity here...holiness...something sacred." But the message blew by on the wind and could only be heard in fragments. When we have only listened to the praise of nature, we have gotten mixed up. We have thought nature itself was God, or we have thought that there were many gods instead of one.
Human beings were given the gift of complex language, so that we might give voice to the praise of all of Creation together. To be sure we got the message right, God gave us both the words to be spoken and the life to be lived. God supplied the interpretation in the words of Scripture through the law and the prophets. Then God showed us how to connect those words with life by coming to us in the flesh and living it out in the person of Jesus.
If we could get praise right, we could get everything right. Praise is simply to both talk the talk and walk the walk. It is connecting mind and heart and life...loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength. If we all did that, we wouldn't need great evangelists to go out into the world...because each one of us would be the evangelist that showed the nature of God to every person we met. That was God's original design...not elaborate organizations and structures, but just one-on-one relationships where to be human was to reflect the image of God and to articulate that to each new generation.
Have you ever really praised God? Does what you express about God in your words match what you express about God with your life? That's what true praise is, and most of us fall short in one way or another. The good news is that we can offer some praise even before our lives have become perfect praise. Part of the nature of God is mercy and forgiveness. When we acknowledge that our lives and our words often do not match...when we confess our sin...we are giving an accurate picture of God to the world. We are saying that God loves us, is willing to forgive us when we are sorry, and is willing to help us when we can't seem to act any better on our own. When someone comes into a church where confession and repentance takes place, there is rarely the charge of hypocrisy. That is why one of the Hebrew words for "praise," towdah, also means "confession." Even in sin we can praise God when we acknowledge our shortcomings, accept God's forgiveness, and ask for God's help to do better.
Praising God is not just something that makes God feel good, but is what makes our lives together as human beings work. When our lives reflect the nature of God, we are fair and kind...people of courage and character who stand up to injustice and reach out in compassion. When we reflect God's image we forgive each other when we fail, and we fail less because we never leave someone hanging out there to do it all alone. And all the while we are explaining that what we do is only a dim shadow of the bright light of love that we call God.
If everybody did that, how could life not work for everybody? That was the whole purpose from the beginning, when human beings were made in God's image, and forgiveness was provided so that even sin could not erase the praise that we were created to be. It's pretty simple, really. Live it and tell the world why. Praise God.
©2002 Anne Robertson
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