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Monday, September 19, 2016

Who is Like our God (Psalm 113)

Psalm 113
Psalms 113-118 were ordained by the prophets and Torah scholars to be recited as a unit on special holy days. These are ‘Hallel’ Psalms.  According to tradition, as the reader reads the Psalm, when he or she comes to a command to praise the Lord, the gathered worshipers respond “Hallelujah!”  We will read the first of these Hallel Psalms with the congregation responding “Hallelujah!  Amen!”  This will be the primary text for today’s sermon.

Leader: Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
    praise the name of the Lord.

Congregation: Hallelujah!  Amen!

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to its setting
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.

Congregation: Hallelujah!  Amen!

The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?

Congregation: Hallelujah!  Amen!

He raises the poor from the dust,
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.

Congregation: Hallelujah!  Amen!

He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Congregation: Hallelujah!  Amen!

Who is Like Our God?  (Psalm 113)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, September 18, 2016

            Last week, we remembered the terrorist attacks of 9-11-2001, looking at them from the perspective of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah saw God through it all.  Take the emotions, the intensity, the horror of that day; take all of it and imagine it as a still photograph. 
Now, fast forward to 2016.  Maybe the still photograph is of police cars and ambulances outside an Orlando night club.  Maybe it is of Syrian refugees standing waste deep in the surf as they desperately try to get their children onto the impossibly overcrowded boat headed to Greece.  Maybe the photo is of people protesting by taking a knee during the playing of our national anthem.  Others around them glare and gesture angrily. 
            Any of these images could serve as testimony of the pain, the chaos, and the fracturing of society today, September 18th, 2016.  When Jeremiah sees that picture, he sees something else in the background.  Whatever photo you would choose, Jeremiah looks at your photo and sees someone; God is over the entire picture.  Beyond our picture, there is God.  There is far more going than we can see.  God is in the middle of it alongside those who are angry, those who hurt, and those who suffer.  God is with them. 
            The singer in Psalm 113 asks the question.  “Who is like our God?”  If Jeremiah is right and if we see what he sees, then God is in the middle of everything that happens.  God is never absent.  God is in the thick of it in the worst of places.  God does not cause agony, despair, and madness.  God comforts and helps people who suffer because of the chaos caused by other people - those who have rejected God. 
Who is the God who stays with us no matter what we do?
Who is our God who comforts us when all has gone wrong?
Who is our God who delivers us life everlasting?  Psalm 113 is a Hallel Psalm, a Hallelujah Psalm.  This Psalm shows us this God who is like no other. 

Together, we read the Psalm and raised our own “Hallelujah’s.” God is worthy of ours praise. 
As we went through the Psalm, did you notice the connection?  “Who is like our Lord, seated on high?”  “He raises the poor from the dust; and lifts the needed from the ash heap to make them sit with princes.  … He gives the barren woman a home” and gives her joy.”  How do we get from the Lord of entire universe sitting on high to the poor who are in the dust?[i]
Independence Day was a movie with awesome visuals.  An alien race came to earth in ships that were as massive as our planets’ largest cities.  These ships hovered over New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London.  The most important people on the planet – presidents, generals, prime ministers scrambled to respond to the arrival of aliens.  Clearly these aliens were more advanced than us, so the most powerful among humans must be the first of us to respond to their arrival.
That’s a Hollywood movie that cashes in on our thirst for spectacular special effects and our tolerance for bad acting.  But what if God – the only God – showed up in an over-the-top visual fashion so that everyone on earth truly was shocked and awed?  If we were to meet that God, wouldn’t it be the president of the United States or the leaders of the nations on the UN Security Council at the front of the line to shake God’s hand?
Not in Psalm 113.  Unnoticed God moves past the white house, past the Pentagon, past where millionaires live.  God keeps stepping, past middle class neighborhoods, past working class communities, past farm houses, past the decent apartment complexes.  God finally stops where the poorest of people are – those barely surviving, wallowing in the dust. 
We sing Hallelujah because we think we can at least see how mighty, big, and awesome God is.  We praise God because God is so impressive.  But as Psalm 113 moves from stanza to stanza, we see the impressive God sitting down beside people who are stuck at the bottom.  Who is this God we worship?
Walter Bruggemann sees this God as he tracks the journey of the ancient Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land.[ii]  Israel had been enslaved in brutal conditions, doing the hard labor in the construction of the pyramids in Egypt.  They baked in the desert sun and collapsed under the whip of the Egyptian taskmaster.  Then Moses, under the power of God, led the people into the Sinai wilderness.
There they were an entire nation on foot moving through wastelands.  In their thirst and hunger, they despaired.  They longed to go back to Egypt, back to slavery. At least in slavery, they were fed. 
Who is our God? 
God responded by giving manna – bread from heaven.  God poured out water from the rock.  God heard their hungry cries and broad birds to eat – quail.  They had plenty; never too much, never not enough.  They thought the Egyptians were the source of food.  If they could settle down and build cities and plant gardens and pasture herds and flocks then the land would be the source of food and stability. 
We think America’s military and our local police department and fire department and hospital  is our source of security and safety and freedom.  Our soldiers and marines and sailors and airmen, members of the coast guard, our officer and firefighters – they are all courageous, worthy our respect and our support.  The should receive our appreciation and our love.  But they are not the source that gives what we need.  That’s God.  In Israel’s history, the wilderness was where they were closest to God.  All their needs were met by God’s touch.  They lived in completel reliance upon God. 
From a human standpoint, could any situation be more desperate?  Five hundred thousand people in the desert with no food and water: we call that a humanitarian crisis.  For God, it was an answer to a question.  Who is this God we worship?  He is Provider.  Who is like our God?  No one. 
Who is our source?  Who meets our needs?  Our employer?  Our parents?  Our government? 
Do you remember the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21?  Abraham was told by God he would be the father of a great nation.  But when the promise came, Abraham was a very old man, his wife Sarah was very old, past childbearing years, and they had no children.  He had no children, but God said he would be the patriarch of a great nation.  Abraham did not trust that God was his source.  He thought natural procreation and childbearing, in other words the natural biological process, was his source.  So he and Sarah came up with a plan.  Their slave, Hagar, would be the surrogate mother. 
Abraham went into Hagar and she had a son, Ishmael.  That wasn’t God’s plan.  God was not the source of that plan.  All that did was bring tension between Abraham and Sarah, Sarah and Hagar, and between Ishmael and Isaac.  Despite what Abraham thought, God is the source and when he said barren Sarah have a son, she did. When we ignore God and try to work things out with our wits and power, we interfere with the picture God is painting.  We should contribute to the flourishing of the people around us, but in concert with what God’s doing and in recognition that we need God.  Abraham and Sarah ended up sending Hagar and her child out to the wilds of the desert.  Relying on themselves, the plan backfired.
God is the source of every blessing, of fulfillment, and of every good thing.  And this God was with Hagar when she was cast out.
Abraham and Sarah’s action of rejecting her robbed her of her humanity.  Hagar, you and your child are nothing, and nothing is easily discarded.  No, God responds.  As Hagar gave in to a wilderness death – death by heatstroke, starvation, and dehydration, God declared no to the forces that would rob her of her humanity.  Psalm 113, in showing why God is worthy of our ‘Hallelujah’s,’ says that God gives the barren woman a home.
Hagar had a son, but she turned away from him, too heartbroken to watch her child die (Gen. 21:16).  Barren?  No, she wasn’t barren, but she had accepted labels affixed to her.  You are nothing.  She accepted that.  You are a lost cause.  She accepted that.  How many people in our society are so broken, they accept that all they will ever be is broken?  How many here accept labels like mediocre, failure, worthless, or stupid, or something worse?  We have asked, ‘Who is our source?’  Here is a second question.  Who shapes our lives?
God heard Ishmael’s cry and said, “Do not be afraid, Hagar.”  She is alone in the wilderness forced to watch her child die.  Do not be afraid (Gen. 21:17).  She accepted the label ‘nothing,’ but God calls her by name.  God promises her a future.  Abraham and Sarah imposed an identity on her, but now God comes and Hagar finds that the most blessed place she can be is in the desert with nothing.  It is there that God comes to her.  Who is this one we call our God?  Hagar calls Him El-Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13). 
Who shapes my life?  The voices of society?  A man my age, with education, should be earning so much money by now, I am told.  Advertising tells me I should be driving a certain type of car by this stage in my life.  A friend from college makes 1000’s of dollars more than me and cannot understand why I won’t travel with him on a vacation he knows I cannot afford.  Salary; professional success; comparisons; are these the things that determine who I am?  
What if I am right where I need to be because God had called me here and in answer to God’s call, I am forced to depend on God?  We should all strive to be responsible with finances.  We should be grateful for what we have (and I try to be grateful).  I recognize how good I have it.  But what if the reason you or I have it good our accomplishments, but rather our need?  In place of deepest need and greatest weakness, we meet God.  Nothing compares to walking hand-in-hand with God?  This is true whether today is the best of the best days or the worst of the worst. 
Who shapes my life?
Who is my source?
Who is this God that we worship? 

We move from “seated on high” in Psalm 113:5-6 to “raises the poor,” “lifts the needy,” and “gives the woman a home,” in verses 7-9.  Rich, filled, and secure, we can’t see our need for God and our praise may be heartfelt, but it falls short.  We meet God when we align with the needy by seeing and acknowledging our own need.  Aligning with the poor is recognition that we are just as poot.  Unless go to the wilderness and wander with Israel, unless we see how small and dependent we are, we can’t know God. 
Who is our God – the God who is bigger than history, the God who hovers over us, the God whose shadow makes insignificant institutions of power – who is this God?  This is the God who sees, the God who is our source, and the God who shapes our lives.  No one else tells us who we are.  Only God.
As we prepare to sing, I invite you to respond to the God who is our source and who shapes our lives.  Pray in silence.  Ask God to reveal your need.  Maybe you have a good job and are financially OK.  Still, in your life as in the life of all people there is poverty.  There is deep, deep need.  It could be relational.  It could be emotional.  It could be spiritual.  Maybe for some it is material.  Ask God to show you your deepest need. 
In silence we all pray and ask God to show us our deep need for Him.  You may come and kneel at the steps as you pray.  We’ll have people at the front and back if you’d like someone to pray with you.  After a few moments, we’ll sing, but you may keep praying as long as you need to.  Don’t let the moment pass. Whether you kneel at the steps, pray in your seat, or come to pray with one of us, turn to God.  Ask God to lead you to the desert, to wander to with Israel, to sit with Hagar, to sing the Hallel Psalm with the community.  Ask God to bring to that place, because that is where you will meet God.

[i] Elmer Martens (1981).  God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, Baker House Books (Grand Rapids), p.163.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann (1977).  The Land.  Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.25, 31, 33, 34.

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