A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on June 16, 2019
Towards the end of first Avenger’s movie during the major fight scene, Thor’s brother Loci is in a battle with the Hulk when Loci says, “Stop! You can’t touch me, I’m a god!” At this point, the Hulk grabs him by the foot and begins to just throw him around everywhere, pounding him into the ground like a rag doll. After the last throw down as Loci lay there utterly destroyed, the Hulk walks away and says, “Puny god!”
I laugh every time I watch the scene and sometimes when I simply think about it. It is the utter mockery of a false god. Brothers and sisters, the God we worship is not puny. The God we worship is not false. In fact, as Psalm 113 reminds us, the God we worship is worthy of praise.
Now in the original Hebrew the phrase halleluyah is in the imperative mood — in other words it is a command — meaning: Praise God. Thus, when we read the words “Praise the LORD” at the beginning and conclusion of Psalm 113 it shouldn’t be read as a suggestion. Rather, we should picture the psalmist pointing his finger at us and saying, “You there! Yeah, you! Get up on your feet, open your mouth, and start singing to God — that’s an order!” Psalm 113 is a psalm of holy urgency.
But why? Why should this order be issued with such intensity and why should anyone follow this command? In his book on the psalms, C.S. Lewis admits that before he became a Christian, he found the Bible’s incessant demand that we praise God highly offensive. Why is God forever asking to be praised? Isn’t that a bit conceited? After all, if you work with someone who is forever talking about himself or who is always asking you to compliment his work, sooner or later you grow weary of this self-centered narcissist.
So if the Bible is God’s own book, then isn’t it odd that God is forever soliciting our praise? Doesn’t that make God out to be, well, a bit vain? Taken in isolation you could certainly read Psalm 113 that way, but seen in the context of a fallen world, this is not so odd.
After all, generally speaking we take note of and celebrate good things. When we hear an excellent concert or see an amazing showing, we applaud. An absolutely amazing performance might even compel us to our feet to offer a standing ovation. Any other response seems unfitting. Which is why when you see a glorious show but then afterwards — while you and everyone else is applauding — you see someone who is sitting down and refusing to clap, you think there is something wrong with that person. Because their response doesn’t fit.
The problem in this sinful world is that we are routinely blind to the goodness of God. Far too often our response doesn’t fit. We are the ones sitting on our hands in the face of glories that should have us leaping to our feet in applause. So when the Bible orders people to praise God, that’s not arrogance on God’s part — it’s merely calling us to a fitting response.
The psalms simply seek to move us toward a faithful response. The message of the psalms is that if only we could see and understand God better, we would be naturally led to praise. Unfortunately, we don’t see so well, and so the psalmists need to order us to do what should come naturally.
Thankfully the writer of Psalm 113, doesn’t leave the reasons for this praise in the abstract. In this case the psalmist mentions two specific things for which to give praise: one has to do with the sheer splendor of God, while the other has to do with the attention God pays to us in the mundane details of our lives.
Why praise God? Because God is exalted — God made everything there is. And beyond that, this God’s real splendor is that God takes care of the poor and is deeply concerned for the plight of childless women.
Of course as I say this my own mind goes to the man on the side of the road with his cardboard sign. Where is God’s care in that? I think of several couples who deeply desire to be parents, but continue to find roadblocks in their path. How is God making them joyous parents when there is no child? To say in rather absolute terms that God enriches the poor and brings babies to those struggling to get pregnant feels like a stretch. In fact, doing so may trip us up and tempt us to stop and wonder why this psalm would say something that doesn’t match our experience. But if we do we may miss out on the larger point this psalmist is trying to make.
For one thing, Psalm 113 makes no promise that this will always happen. Instead, what we may be reading, are words that reflect the experience of this particular poet. Maybe he experienced these blessings in his own life and, if so, then of course it is appropriate that he list them as reasons to give God praise. What we may need to do is read this psalm as a part of the larger collection of psalms. After all, there are plenty of others that admit and lament the fact that a person doesn’t always get what they need or desire.
So perhaps through the psalmist’s experience what we see is an illustration of the larger truth that God takes loving note of our earthly lives. For if there is one thing the Old Testament makes consistently clear, it is that God showed up for the Israelites not just in awesome power, but even more so because of God’s tender care for those on the outside.
And perhaps that’s the reason why this psalmist picked out the poor and the childless. In ancient Israel you could not get much more marginalized than these two folks. A woman unable to have children had no value in the ancient world. And the feeling and fear can sure seem like it still lingers today. The poor were likewise overlooked. Also something that hasn’t really changed — we need only think back to Hurricane Katrina, the terrible earthquake in Haiti and the migrant families being separated at the border. The desperately poor exist at best on the fringes of our awareness, because they lack the power, glitz, and social standing to capture our imagination the way big-name celebrities do. Can you imagine the poor gracing the cover of People Magazine? Yet they are precisely the ones whom God notices and cares for.
Think about that for a moment. This God of ours creates the universe with one hand, while the other lifts up some nameless poor person. This God who moves the seas and makes dry land appear and at the same time tenderly smiles on a childless woman. We offer praise to a God who sees and is distressed about people whom even we overlook in our focus on the powerful and the successful. We focus on the tabloids and spend hours pondering the ins and outs of celebrity lives. While God knows about all the others whom we will never hear about.
Perhaps simply said, the God who is more powerful than we can imagine is less interested in power than we are. In fact, our heavenly God would seem to be more earthly minded than us.
And if we had any doubt about that, the gospel shows us the ultimate stooping-low of God through the incarnation of Jesus. How much more particular, how much more specific, how much more earthy and utterly mundane can God get than slipping into a body that contained heart, lungs and kidneys. If Jesus is who we Christians have always said he is, then we can know for sure that the basic idea of Psalm 113 is true: namely, that the true wonder of God is “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
So when we praise God, as Walter Brueggemann has said, we bear witness to another world. We burst the narrow horizons and the shrunken boundary lines within which most people live in order to declare our belief in a larger world in which God is the King; and we invite others to enter that world too.
For in our act of praising God for the wonders God does we not only sing to God, we sing against the false and puny gods of this world — the gods of self-sufficiency… the gods of homemade salvation… the gods of narrow human achievement in a world where everything is said to be the result of good luck or hard work but never the result of God’s work.
Brothers and sisters our praise shows people a world in which God does not abandon or forsake God’s people, but instead loves and cares for each one of us.
So let us proclaim boldly: Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Amen.