A Psalm is Like a College Dorm Room

DATE 15 January 2017 at Tainan International Community Church in English

TEXT Psalm 40:1-10

TITLE: Knowing and Showing

 Experience of God’s work in our lives is something to be shared. 

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INTRODUCTION

In this church, we come from many different cultural backgrounds, so making assumptions about where one person or another locates emotions is dangerous. Let’s experiment. Some years ago a person who had lived outside of her home culture said that in her adopted home, when one wanted to say, “I love you”, the words used were, in that place’s language, “My Liver is Sweet to You”. That’s because in the other culture, love resided in the liver. A few examples:

In Taiwan, courage is associated with the gall bladder.

In America, anger is associated with the spleen.

Our experiment: When I make this sign (heart), what does it mean to you?

OK, for the purpose of what we’re going to do today, let’s pretend that feelings reside in the heart. Maybe your culture has it elsewhere, but just go along for today.

There are many emotions that we carry in our hearts. We may feel sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, love, concern, worry,…lots of things. We may not even be sure what’s in there, and need help to see into ourselves and help to unload what we find. That’s when music, song, and the Psalms in the Bible (which were originally meant to be sung) can be useful.

I: The Role of the Psalms

There are many kinds of psalms: We might be more familiar with those which praise God, “Make a Joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” We find comfort in Psalms that tell of the writer’s faith “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want” But there are lots of Psalms that complain or tell of personal sorrow, too. Do any of these lines sound familiar, “O Lord, how many are my foes….” Or  “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing…

Whatever kind they are, Psalms can shine a light into our hearts and expose what is inside. If it’s our habit to read through the bible a chapter a day, then whatever Psalm comes up next during the 5 months it takes to get all the way through them might take us by surprise. We might be feeling quite joyful then hit a sorrowful Psalm. We might come to see the Psalm writer as a complainer or a person with a mental illness and wonder why this even was allowed into the bible. But sometimes the surprise of the complaint can uncover some personal sadness that we didn’t know we were carrying. It EXPOSES the feelings so that they can be dealt with.

Psalms can also help to carry the joys we are feeling outwards, helping us to EXPRESS what is in our hearts, giving us words for what we had been feeling. Sometimes we’re feeling is sadness, like these: 1) “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God… My tears have been my food day and night…”   2) “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Sometimes it’s our faith: try these:3) “Great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.”   4) “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications…”

Psalms are like a dormitory room at the university. The first time you enter it, you turn on the light to expose what’s in there. The last time you leave, you may need help carrying out all the things that have accumulated during your stay. In our lives as human being, there are Psalms available to help at both times.

II: Exposed and Expressed through Psalm 40:1-10

What was in (or on) the heart of the writer of the Psalm we read today?  Let’s start from the title ahead of the first verse, where it says “Psalm of David” If you’ve grown up going to Sunday school and hearing the stories of the boy shepherd who became the great king, these titles put you in a frame of mind about what you’re about to read. But these titles were added to the Psalms hundreds of years after they had been gathered into one collection, and that was hundreds of years after David had been a boy shepherd or a great king. They show a high regard for David, but they can’t be taken literally. The titles are between the covers of the Bible, but unlike the Psalms which are inspired by God, the titles are pious wishful thinking.  

Then, no matter WHAT we might decide about who did or didn’t write the psalm, we should remember that Psalm 40 is an “individual psalm of thanksgiving”. It is one person’s way of saying something to: 1) his neighbors; 2) to God; and 3) to us.

The 10 verses we read easily divide into three parts. In Verses 1-3 we learn the writer’s story of personal experience of God’s rescue. We don’t know what the situation was, but it’s compared to being in the mud, and not merely a little mud on your shoes, but deeply in it. .This was big trouble. When we unwind the events into a straight time line (remixing the lines of verses 1-3) they read like this:

I was in deep trouble.

I prayed,

God heard.

I waited,

God got me out of my trouble

God made me safe.

Now I have a story to tell

When I tell it, others will believe.

Verses 4-8 are not spoken to people. They are Praise spoken to God. That might be an important direction to consider. Consider, when you sing a song or hymn of Praise, are you praising God or telling other people that THEY should praise God? Look at a classical hymn in our Red book here, “All Creatures of Our God and King” (#22). It is sung to: 1) all creatures, 2) to the wind, 3) to the clouds, 4) to the moon,

5) to the stars, 6) to the water, 7) to the fire; and 8) to all people. It tells THEM to do the praising.  Or the Doxology, printed in our bulletin and often sung after the offering. In it we tell all creatures on earth and all angels in heaven to Praise God: Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. But do WE praise?

When I was in my early 20s I learned to sing, “Let’s Just Praise the Lord, Let’s Just lift our hearts towards heaven and praise the Lord.” In that song we invited each other and told each other what to do, but we didn’t DO it, and whether or not we followed up by praising (or lifting our hearts towards heaven) is debatable.

More contemporarily, but still 20 or more years old, there’s the worship and praise song, “Lord I lift your name on high” in which we tell God how glad we are to be saved before we get around to actually praising God for what has been done for us.

The writer of Psalm 40 doesn’t wait. He teaches us how to praise God, AND does it. Look at verse 5 “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us. None can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.”  That’s a great example of what it means to praise God with our words.

But the outline isn’t yet complete. 1) God did something wonderful for me. 2) In response, I praise God. There’s something missing…. 3) Now its my turn to do something wonderful.

What comes in Verses 9-10, is something familiar to any of us who are or who have ever been students. They are a report. They tell God the 2 things that the writer has done and 3 things the writer has not done in response to God’s action  A) “I have told the glad news in the congregation. B) I have not restrained my lips. C) I have not hidden your saving help within my heart. D) I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation. E) I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness.

The psalm writer says he did this “in the great congregation”. Hopefully, whatever God has done for any of us can (and should) be told to all the world. But if we can’t do that, at least we should figure out how to tell it in the church, where God’s people can join us in praising God.

IF and when a psalm or anything else gets through the shell we have built around our hearts, so that some light gets in to where we live (and sometimes suffer), then we can see ourselves, and maybe see the way to express whatever we find. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen put it this way, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The verses we read this afternoon can guide us.

III: Our pattern of Response

The first thing we can do is TELL what God has done. Whether that’s just that you had a good day or that you were wonderfully rescued from a muddy pit by God pulling you out, do not keep it a secret. Try not to be the kind of person who has been wonderfully saved from something terribly bad, but won’t tell anyone because it would seem either like bragging or like shameful admission of how low we had fallen. When we hold back on the telling, people never learn what God has done. Whether our silence comes from humility or from shame, we’ve gotta get over it. OK, that’s hard, but we should figure some way to tell the world.

The second thing is to honestly tell God how we feel. Review it in front of God, saying what you’ve learned from the experience. This is kind of like the what we who are or who have been students when writing an end-of-term research paper in which we discover for ourselves how much (or how little) being part of any professor’s class has taught us.

And third, tell out what you have experienced, but keep God at the center of the story. Many people who testify make THEMSELVES the center of the story. Many preachers (myself among them) stand and preach, thinking we’re proclaiming the gospel but really we’re only telling folks about ourselves. So, keep God at the center as you tell the story. You don’t have to wait to be asked about it, either. That’s what social media, Facebook, Instagram, Blogs and little Christian papers (like Heart Farmer in Taiwan) are for.

CONCLUSION

None of us is empty-hearted. Some of us have hearts filled with suffering, and we need music, songs, and even Psalms, to break in so that the sadness can get out. Some of us have hearts of darkness, and we need the light to come in through the cracks to expose ourselves to ourselves. Some of us have hearts filled with joy, and we need to learn ways to share that joy with people. We all need to learn how to express the wonderful things God does for us, each day and eternally. What we read in Psalm 40:1-10, offers us a pattern to lighten our own hearts, and to enlighten the hearts and lives of people around us.  

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

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