Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-8, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Dearly beloved, this is the sixth sermon in my series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” This week’s feature of geography is the River, from Isaiah 66. For the most part, until my final paragraph, I shall be using the image otherwise than Isaiah did. I am lifting the image out of Isaiah and applying it to our Psalm today, Psalm 66, with its verse after verse of praise to God.
I’m calling the prayer of praise a River (allow me an epic simile): like the mountain stream which is its source, to the length of the river as it bends through the landscape, as it defines the valleys it flows through, and cuts its way through canyons, as it gathers its tributaries and develops its current and increases its power as it goes, and then widens in its lower length and meanders through its plain until it forms its delta in the sea, like the Mississippi, or, like the Hudson, it widens into a great long channel and an inland sea and then into its greater bay. The river is life-giving to every thing along it and destructive to whatever stands against it, peaceful in its reaches and raging when resisted, forceful in fluidity, inexorable, inexhaustible, ancient, primeval, eternal, the prayer of praise to God.
What is praise? What do we mean by Praise? It’s when we call God “Holy, Majestic, Great, Wise, Beautiful,” and other attributes. Praise is close to Thanksgiving and of course they overlap, but we can distinguish Thanksgiving as what we offer God for what God has done for us, and Praise is what we offer God simply for who God is, irrespective of what God does for us. Of course, we believe that we can only know who God is by what God has done for us. So Thanksgiving comes quicker to us than praise does. But I think the ultimate is Praise, for it is the least self-interested form of prayer and the least regarding of ourselves. I don’t mean we lose ourselves. We still maintain our minds and skills and our abilities, we fully use our arts and crafts, the fullest efforts of our speech and song and dance. The point is that the pay back is irrelevant, and you could call it, as one writer has, a “royal waste of time.” That’s the point.
There is legitimate self-interest and self-regard in prayer. That’s usually where we start in prayer, with our petitions for ourselves. Let me remind you that for Christians there are six kinds of prayer, in three pairs: Petition and Intercession, then Confession and Lamentation, and then Thanksgiving and Praise. From Petition to Praise you move from the most self-interested to the least.
You can think of it as a continuum, but Jesus remarkably bends the line around into a circle, from Praise back to Petition. He does it in the Lord’s Prayer. The way he teaches us to pray is to make our first petition all about, not ourselves, but God’s self: “Hallowed be thy Name.” You are asking God to be honored as “the Lord” in the world, and that implies that the desire for God is in your deep self-interest. Then you petition that “Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done,” which must include the business of your life, and then you petition, “Give us this Day our daily bread,” when your self-interest is obvious and legitimate and as basic as a little child’s. And then you move to legitimate self-regard, when you pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Implied in this Petition is also Confession, and also Lamentation. And because you make your petitions in the first person plural, using “our” and “us” instead “mine” and “me,” these also are Intercessions. This prayer comprises so much in such small compass, it is a wonder and a sign. It is a very good thing that everybody knows it, out of everything else in the Christian faith.
But there is so much more to prayer, and there are so many prayers the people used to know but now we don’t, especially the prayers of praise. I’m not saying that Christians are not giving praise. I’m saying that in our freedom of invention and our desire to be relevant we have lost the disciplines of prayer and the rich traditions of doxology. Our contemporary praise is strong when it’s immediate, like a thunderstorm upon the grass, and the weather changes and we dry up. I’m speaking of knowing how to sing the Te Deum. Or the Gloria in Excelsis. I’m speaking of knowing the Psalms from memory. These are almost lost to us today, and we are the less for it.
So here’s a take-home: The secret to the prayer of Praise is to not depend on generating praise from within yourself, and with our own ideas, but on stepping into praise, the praise which is around us and has been before us and extends beyond us, which does not depend on us, and which carries us in its current. You step into this stream when you praise God, and you give yourself to it. It offers you a force and motion greater than your own. You say things you did not come up with, but what you heard was said before and what you repeat. You don’t lose yourself — you gain a world. Psalm 66:3, “All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your name.”
Praise wants company. Even when you praise God privately, in your closet or your room, you know that you are praying along with millions of other people round the world. That’s why I like to pray from a prayer book which is being used by many other Christians at the very same time that I am using it. No matter how far away they are from me I know that I am praying in their company.
So yes, you can praise God in the woods. The other creatures do. You should. But the prayer of praise is richer and fuller when it follows on the other forms of prayer. As it does within our Sunday morning liturgy. After the sermon we pray the prayer of Confession. After that we pray our prayers of Petition and Intercession, and sometimes Lamentation. Then we gather round the Table for the great Prayer of Thanksgiving. We render thanks to God for our creation and our redemption. And then we rise to the climax of the service every week, pure exalted praise of God for who God is, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We sing it together with angels and archangels and with Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants and Jews. God is worthy to be praised.
Maybe you’ve heard the criticism that God must be a narcissist to have set up the world in such a way as to be getting all this praise. Well, who can presume that God’s experience of praise is like our own? Who of us know how our praise engages God? I do think we can say that God deserves our praise, but does not need our praise. We say that God requires our praise in the Aristotelian sense that a knife requires to be sharp, or good food needs to be eaten, or music requires to be heard. I think it entirely appropriate that God requires our praise. And it is appropriate for us, and good for us.
I love that in my life, that I can give such praise, I like what it brings out of me and where it takes me. I for myself would be less of a person if I did not praise God. That’s the conviction of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, when it asks, in other words, “What are people for?” The answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” That is what it is to be a truly human being.
I love this river. I like to get into it and then get out of it and camp along it as I live my ordinary life and do my business in the world. If I were not a Christian I would miss it very much. It’s one of the chief reasons I believe in God. I have close friends who do not. They raise the very credible arguments that there is no God, especially not the barbarian god of the Bible stories. I find myself inadequate to answer all those arguments, though other brilliant writers have (Marilynne Robinson comes to mind, for one.) But apart from all the arguments, I know for myself that I want to believe in God, I want what I get from this belief, and not least is the entry into praise.
And it is God I want to praise. Yes, there are others in my life to whom my praise is due: my wife, my children, my seminary students, so many of you within the congregation. But my praise for you all cannot help but be conditional. There is only One whom I praise without condition and without second thought, and who is free from needing anything back from me. The praise of God is pure.
Now I come back to Isaiah’s meaning of the River. It comes from God. Yes, the praise of God begins with God, it flows from God, and out into the world, including us, and back to God. Just like God’s love. I think you could call praise and love the same thing but in different states of matter: praise is liquid (the River) and love is vapor (the Wind, the Breath). God’s love embraces you and so does praise, and so, of course, you praise the one you love, and you love the one you praise. God invites you into this great stream because God loves you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.