Do we sometimes mistake saying words for real worship? Is saying something the same thing as doing it? For example: We say ‘I am sorry’ to God in the Confession: do we always mean it? We all know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, but how many of us actually pray it? Do we really want God’s Kingdom to come? How high on our list of daily priorities is that? DO we really forgive others their trespasses against us? As I have said before – in church we run on automatic pilot, and words can be hypnotic. So much so, that the service can be over and we have not really been there. Are you in the here and now at this minute? Where is your mind this minute? Focussed on this sermon? Or wandering off on events scheduled later today or tomorrow? This moment is all God has allowed right now. Never miss the potential pleasure of any experience because your thoughts are elsewhere. Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.
Likewise sometimes we can say a word so often that it becomes meaningless. Any child knows this. My 6 year old son was once cleaning his bike. I said to him ‘Come on! put some gumption into it!’ I heard him later, still polishing away, saying over and. Over again: Gumption. Gumption. Gumption. He just liked the sound of the word. He had no idea what it meant. All words become just sounds, if you continually repeat them. ‘Glory’ is one of those words. ’Praise’ is another.
I have often been disturbed by the command in the psalms to Praise: sounds to me like God is saying that it is necessary to tell him – God – that He is good and great. God even seems to demand it. And yet I naturally tend to dislike people who demand praise – celebrities and so forth. Does God need me to Praise him? Especially over and over. Doesn’t Jesus warn against meaningless repetitions? Matthew 6:7 Jesus Tells us: do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do: they think they will be heard for their many words. Jesus calls them: vain repetitions.
But repeatedly in Scripture, especially in the psalms, in our hymns and in our songs, we encourage one another to ‘Praise him, Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise him’. In Psalm 34;3 we are encouraged to ‘Praise the Lord with me,’: well that’s OK, but the Psalmist puts these words into God’s mouth: ‘ whosever offers me thanks and praise, he honours me.’ (50:23) That sounds like God is saying: ‘What I most want to be told is that I am good and great.’
And the amount of praise seems to be important, too. Towards the end of the psalms it goes wild. Not once but ‘Seven times a day, do I praise thee’ (119,164 I couldn’t help wondering why God needed this continual eulogising?
What I have come to see, of course, is that Praise is just the sign of a healthy understanding: to praise whatever deserves it, reflects both the character of the thing praised and the one who praises it. It is in the praising of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to me. When the Jews gave their Temple sacrifices to God, bulls and goats, in reality, it was God who was giving himself to them. The Hebrews realised this: ‘All things come from you, and of your own do we give you’ we read in 1 Chron 29. This is even more obvious in our own Eucharist. It is God who gives and it is we who receive. This is a long way from the miserable idea that God needs or craves for our worship, like someone wanting compliments: In fact, God tells us in Psalm 50 – ‘if I be hungry, I will not tell thee.’
Of course not. Such a needy God would be absurd. When I am pleased with something I have done, I don’t need my dog to bark its approval. (But a word from my wife is always nice!!) To praise is not approval or giving a compliment. It’s the natural thing to do. If you enjoy something, that enjoyment naturally overflows into praise: did you see that film? Isn’t the weather great? Have you tried Morrisons Chardonnay? Have you read such and such a book?”
If you’re enjoying life, enjoying yourself, you can’t help but praise. Love, of course, almost forces you to praise the one you love, as our own Paul did on his and Rosemary’s anniversary recently. Some of us even write poetry! It’s been said that some recent hymns and songs to God are not much better that the lyrics a 14 year old girl might write on her pencil case about the boy she likes: but have you ever read some of the Victorian hymns that we no longer sing? Many of them are rubbish. Usually, we stop singing the bad stuff. (Not always!)
My point is: whether the hymn is good or bad, there’s an overflowing from within that must be expressed. It’s like: ‘I’ve got to tell you!’ People spontaneously praise whatever they value. Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? The psalmist telling people to praise God is doing what everyone does, when they speak about what they care about. They can’t help it. God doesn’t need it: we need to do it!
In fact, praising something completes our enjoyment of it – of God, or a sunset or a friend. Our delight is incomplete until it is expressed. Read a good book – tell someone about it. Did you see that film? Heard a good joke? – no point in keeping a joke to yourself, is there? That’s why Heaven is a state where the angels are continually praising God. The angels can’t help it. When we were at school my friend Alan said to me: that Eternal Life would be boring. I said I wanted to go to Heaven. Alan went to Nottingham. Eternal life would be exactly the opposite of boring! Heaven is not like church! Our services are merely attempts at worship, never really successful. Sometimes we fail totally.
How can we compare to Isaiah 6?:In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.’ Nothing boring there. To find out what worship really is, said CS Lewis, we must suppose ourselves to be in love with God. Drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by delight. Then the bliss flows out spontaneously.
In this world, John Donne says: we are merely tuning up our instruments. Tuning up can be enjoyable, but only because we are anticipating the symphony. Many of our prayers are infantile ramblings: asking God to change HIs mind, asking God for something trivial, when he wants to give us so much more. Most of our praising is similarly childlike – telling God what he already knows. But we have to do it, if we love Him. How could we not? AMEN