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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What Is God's Hope?

Psalm 147:1-11, 20
What Is God’s Hope?
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
Sunday, February 5, 2006

What is God’s hope?

The Psalms are songs, and in their original Hebrew, they have a lot more rhythm and rhyme. In English, they look like poetry, sort of. But they’re also scripture. So even if they look like poetry, since they’re in the Bible, we often try to take them at their literal word. We try to figure out precisely where “the valley of the shadow of death” really is. Or if the Psalm tells us, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills,” someone’s going to try to figure out exactly which hill, and which direction we have to face to see it. Or if the scripture says, “Israel,” it means Israel, and not Lakemoor Hills or Louisville or Wartburg. And yes, there are passages in the Bible that I think God intends for us to take as word-for-word literal truth. “Thou shalt not steal.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbor as yourself.” These are pretty straightforward. You could think God meant “don’t steal” and “love” in a strictly metaphorical sense. You could say God really meant thou shalt not steal big stuff, like cars, or pension funds. You could say God meant to love the nice neighbors, not the one who fires up the leaf blower every Sunday morning. But these are plain words, spoken as commands, and I think God meant them to be read exactly as they’re written.

The Psalms are poetry, and they tend to mean more than their literal words. If the Psalm says God is my rock, as in Psalm 62, it’s a safe bet the Bible doesn’t intend for us to go around worshipping rocks. The lyrics of the songs tell the truth, without being overly literal. They’re a jumping off point. Psalms help us apply the truth of God to our own lives, but they don’t do the work for us. Psalms give us permission to improvise new songs to God’s age-old Word. They’re special that way. And perhaps that’s one reason why you find the Psalms at the very center of the Bible.

When I read Psalm 147, the lesson we read today, I don’t hear commandments. I hear a song. I hear a song of hope. First, the psalm tells us, tells the world, that we can have hope. Second, the Psalm tells us, tells the world, where we ought to put our hope. And, third, it tells us in a very simple way where God puts God’s hope. Psalm 147 sings the answer to the question: Where is God’s hope?


We can have hope.

You’ve got to sing of hope.
You’ve got to sing God’s praise.
You’ve got to lift your heart.
Each and every of your days.
Hope – and hope alone – will get us through.

I wrote that. It’s my own version of Psalm 147. Thank goodness Simon Cowell isn’t here. I can hear him now. “Go back to your day job, Reverend.” And that’s OK, because there are way too many American Idols, anyway. The first thing this Psalm says is that we don’t have to drum up our own idols. We don’t have to embarrass ourselves with superstitious, silly behavior. We can have hope.

    How good it is to sing praises to our God;        for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Psalm begins with praise. The Bible tells us it’s fitting to sing praise to God. That’s not good news for those of us whose singing resembles the sound of wounded geese. It’s even worse news for those who have to listen to us. Small children have actually told me to stop singing because it (quote) hurts their ears (unquote). According to scripture, it’s not enough to just say praise, nodding assent and agreeing in principle that praise is good. The Psalm says we should sing praise. Why? Because singing is not a completely rational act. (Which is not to say that those who sing – or those who direct, say, a choir – aren’t rational people.) Singing both includes and goes beyond rational thought. Singing involves the mind, yes, but also the heart, the soul, the body, the breath of being. We’ve all heard singing so beautiful it brings tears to our eyes. What’s going on there? It’s hard to really say. The singer, the song, the emotion, the moment – it all works together to the point that we know we’re getting close to how angels must sound. Praise sung to God goes beyond the purely rational.

And that’s what makes any song of praise an act of hope. Hope isn’t rational. Projections are rational. Predictions are rational. We pick who’s going to win the Super Bowl based on complicated statistical research, like the combined gross weight of their linemen. But there are no equations in hope. Hope involves the mind, but at the same time goes beyond it. Hope involves the heart, the soul, the body, the breath of being. When we pray to God, we’re sending up a million songs of hope, whose harmonies join with beauty near that of angels. When the first words of the Psalm tell us to sing praises to our God it’s saying, yes, we can have hope. And whether we are praying to God in a hospital room, or a board room, or a vacant room, by lifting the voices of our hearts in praise, we are exercising hope. We are keeping hope alive. And hope is keeping us alive, singing with every breath.


Where do we put our hope?

A kingdom has been shattered.
A heart scarred by its wounds.
A life taken by terror.
A mind has been consumed.

The evil that confronts us
Does not know how to restrain
Its own impulsive action
That steals our sense of shame.

We cast our faith out of us
Like so many pearls to swine
We learn to love the darkness
That overtakes our minds.

Hope and hope alone will get us through.

The second thing the Psalm does is tell us, and tell the world, where we ought to put our hope.

    The Lord builds up Jerusalem;        he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
In weeks when Hamas wins a Palestinian election, and Israel’s Prime Minister lies in a coma, it would be too easy to want to take these verses literally, or to think they’re being disproved by world events. But this is poetry. Jerusalem is more than just a city and Israel is more than the homeland founded by the United Nations. Joining our voices to the Psalm, you and I become the people of God’s holy place, people who need building up. We sing of people who are outcasts, who feel like outsiders, and the parts of us that feel broken-down and cast-out sing with and sing for those who physically are.

If we put our hope in human ingenuity, if we put our faith in our world leaders’ ability to solve the world’s problems, from Iranian nuclear ambitions to the cost of prescription drugs – if we rely on even our greatest minds to answer these issues, we’ll continue to be disappointed. The second part of the Psalm names at length all the global powers that can’t solve our problems. It goes as far as to say that even we can’t solve all our problems. We have a duty to care for each other; we have the ability to do what we can for ourselves and others to address the problems. But solve the problems? One hundred percent?

Who will heal the brokenhearted?
And bandage where they bleed?
Who will set their eyes on heaven?
And give them what they need?

You and I, we have a calling
A duty from above
To share the mercy we’ve been given
To build justice with our love.

But we can’t put stars in heaven.
We can’t count eternity
We can barely fix our own lives
Where will we turn indeed?

The Psalm says:

    Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;        his understanding is beyond measure.     The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;        he casts the wicked to the ground.
Where do we turn to solve our problems if our problems can’t be solved? Our hope is in the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. There, and there alone.

God understands the children
Whose lives are beaten down
God lifts up the downtrodden
Casts the wicked to the ground.

God sends the rain and brings the sun.
God keeps the earth alive.
God gives the animals their food
Hears babies when they cry.

What you and I can never do
What we can never hear,
What greatness we can never reach
God makes out of our fear.

It’s not how strong you think you are,
It’s not how fast you run
It’s not how good your record is
That gets God’s message done.

It’s not the good you’ve done today,
It’s not what you believe,
It’s not your own self-righteousness
Those aren’t the things God needs.

But heaven’s hope within us,
Respect and love and fear,
A humble life and faithful joy
Are what bring God’s mercies near.

Hope and hope alone will get us through.

We can have hope. We can put our hope in God. Hoping in anything or anyone else we come up short.


Finally, the Psalm tells us, very simply, where God puts God’s hope. It’s kind of amazing to think God has hope, too. God sees all the ways we hurt each other. God sees all the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for us. God sees our sin. God sees all the ways we don’t praise. God hears all the ways we don’t sing – all the ways we just go muttering along, talking to ourselves about what’s wrong with the government, and how dumb our teachers and parents are, and how no one pays attention to the good things we do. Well, if we were God, we’d show the world a thing or two. Right? But we’re not. Not even close on a good hair day.

But here’s the really unbelievable part. The reading ends like this:

    His delight is not in the strength of the horse,        nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;     but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,        in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Where is God’s hope? God’s hope is in people who hope in God. Not in people with the strongest army. Not in people whose teeth are capped and whose clothes are all tailor-made. God’s hope isn’t in people who aren’t afraid of anything. God’s hope is in hopeful people. God’s hope is in people like you and me who know our voices might hurt small children’s ears, but who sing, anyway. God’s hope is in people whose songs won’t win any awards on American Idol, but who write them, anyway. God’s hope is in people who don’t know much, but know that they were made to praise God. God sent Jesus Christ as the ultimate act of hope. Jesus didn’t win any awards. In fact he had everything taken away from him. But even on the cross, he lifted his voice in praise. His song of hope burst forth. And though we didn’t literally suffer with him, we can still truly join with him. We can have hope. We can put our hope in God. God’s hope can be in us. And the harmony of that hope will rock the foundations of the world.

Hope – and hope alone – will get us through.