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Praise God in the Sanctuary

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Psalm 150

Our prayer response song this week was probably familiar to some of you and new to many of you. It says, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary.” For the next few weeks I will be preaching on the concept of sanctuary: where we find it, how we become God’s sanctuary, and how we offer sanctuary to others. But today, on this Homecoming Sunday, I wanted to preach on perhaps the most obvious meaning of the term for us as a worshiping community: this sanctuary, this temple, this sacred space.

For this meaning I turned to Psalm 150. Listen with me.

Praise the Lord! Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the mighty firmament! Praise God for God’s mighty deeds; praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

The word translated “praise God” occurs thirteen times in just six verses of this brief psalm. The Hebrew word for praise is “hallel,” and what we see in the original Hebrew of Psalm 150 is the plural imperative form of the verb, “hallelu.” One of the names for God, Yahweh, is shorted to “yah,” which is how we get “Hallelujah.” So praise God is literally “Hallelujah.” To be even more specific, remember that I said it’s the plural imperative form of the verb? An imperative in grammar is a command, entreaty, or exhortation; and plural, of course, means it’s not to an individual, but to a group. Therefore one scholar suggests that the best translation of “Hallelujah” could be “Praise God, y’all!”[1] (Remember that next Easter when we sing the Hallelujah Chorus!)

If you followed along when I read the scripture, you may have noticed that Psalm 150 is the last psalm, the last chapter in one of the longest books of the Bible. It is also one of the psalms that is assigned in the lectionary to the Sunday after Easter. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course, the Sunday after Easter, we would want nothing but praise!

“Yet take Psalm 150 out of the Easter liturgy, and it can be more difficult. After all, there are moments and days and times and seasons when praise of an all-powerful creator or the world God made does not come easy — nor does it feel natural or, perhaps, even right. In the face of disaster, next to the bedside of a cancer patient, by a grieving parent — the imperative to praise can ring hollow, no matter how big or grand or amazing the creator’s deeds might be.”[2]

But that only happens when we take this psalm out of the context of the rest of the psalms. The Book of Psalms is right up there with the Book of Lamentations when it comes to honest expressions of pain. “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?” “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These all originate in the psalms. So when we come to the end of the book, and we get to this chapter with all its exhortations to praise God, we are hearing these words through the lens of the pain, through the experience of the trauma. “The praise does not negate or ignore the lament. If anything, the praise is made more real, more robust, by passing through the lament.”[3]

Writer and theologian Eugene Peterson wrote about the last five psalms. He wrote: “This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs…. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, ‘Encore! Encore!’”[4]

So what does all this have to do with sanctuary, and our theme for the next couple of weeks? This psalm does not tell us why to praise. It tells us how to praise God, and where. Praise God with increasingly loud instruments. We start with trumpet and then add others, and we might think we were done in verse five with “clanging cymbals,” but then we have to praise God with “loud clashing cymbals!”

“Finally, at the end, ‘hallelujah’ is all that remains.” Schifferdecker

[1] Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. “Commentary on Psalm 150.” www.workingpreacher.org.

[2] Murphy, Kelly J. “Commentary on Psalm 150.” www.workingpreacher.org

[3] Schifferdecker.

[4] Peterson, Eugene, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, p. 127.

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