Maker of All Hearts - thrive UMC Official Blog

Maker of All Hearts

Psalm 33

            Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Our name for the season comes from the Latin word “Adventus” which means ‘arriaval,’ or ‘approach.’  And for hundreds and hundreds of years, Christians throughout the globe have taken this part of the year to prepare themselves…  because something is coming.  Thus, to ready ourselves for this impending arrival, we’re going to read a very, very old Jewish song. We’re going to be doing some bible-study this morning, so it might be a good idea to have your bible or bible app open, because the word on the screen will only stay up there during the reading.  The ancient Jewish song we’re looking at is Psalm 33; and this is how it goes:

33 All you who are righteous,
    shout joyfully to the Lord!
    It’s right for those who do right to praise God.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre!
    Sing praises to him with the ten-stringed harp!
Sing to him a new song!
    Play your best with joyful shouts!
Because the Lord’s word is right,
    his every act is done in good faith.
He loves righteousness and justice;
    the Lord’s faithful love fills the whole earth.
The skies were made by the Lord’s word,
    all their starry multitude by the breath of his mouth.
He gathered the ocean waters into a heap;
    he put the deep seas into storerooms.
All the earth honors the Lord;
    all the earth’s inhabitants stand in awe of him.
Because when he spoke, it happened!
    When he commanded, there it was!

10 The Lord overrules what the nations plan;
    he frustrates what the peoples intend to do.
11 But the Lord’s plan stands forever;
    what he intends to do lasts from one generation to the next.
12 The nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom God has chosen as his possession,
    is truly happy!
13 The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees every human being.
14 From his dwelling place God observes
    all who live on earth.
15 God is the one who made all their hearts,
    the one who knows everything they do.

16 Kings aren’t saved by the strength of their armies;
    warriors aren’t rescued by how much power they have.
17 A warhorse is a bad bet for victory;
    it can’t save despite its great strength.
18 But look here: the Lord’s eyes watch all who honor him,
    all who wait for his faithful love,
19     to deliver their lives[a] from death
    and keep them alive during a famine.

20 We put our hope in the Lord.
    He is our help and our shield.
21 Our heart rejoices in God
    because we trust his holy name.
22 Lord, let your faithful love surround us
    because we wait for you.

 

            The book of the bible we call Psalms is actually a collection of hymns, prayers, and poetry. In some ways, it’s a bit like our hymnals, because it contains the songs and the words that aid us in our worship. Just as there are different hymns for different themes and season, so too are there psalms for just about every occasion.  There are psalms of praise, and psalms of lament. Psalms of thanksgiving and psalms of desperation. There is even a psalm or two if you’re ever feeling like you want to smash the head of your enemy’s infant upon a rock –which is not something you’ll find in our United Methodist hymnals.  And personally, this is what I think makes the psalms so great –it’s what makes them holy –they are the words we need to help us worship because we don’t have the insight or the courage to voice them aloud ourselves.

            One thing I’d like to encourage you to notice when you’re reading or meditating on the Psalms is the often surprising way that they pair unlikely things.  Often a psalm will start off really beautifully, talking about God’s glory; but then it will suddenly turn and spend several verses asking for God to punish the wicked in nasty ways.  Or a psalm might start off depicting the terrors and cruelties the author or speaker is enduring; but it will close with an unexpected expression of gratitude for God’s wisdom and goodness.  Sometimes a single psalm will be about things that in our minds and experiences just aren’t related at all.  And our modern spirits don’t quite know what to do with it.

            Psalm 33 –the psalm that we just shared- has a number of these surprising pairings. For instance, it starts off as an invitation to praise God. “Shout joyfully to the LORD;” it says. “Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;” “Sing praises to him with a ten-stringed harp! Sing to him a new song. Play your best with joyful shouts!”  But then, just a couple of lines later, it’s talking about God’s creation of the skies and the oceans and the earth itself.  And that, of course, isn’t too surprising; human praise seems like a natural and appropriate response to the wonder of God’s creation.  However, if you’ll pay a little closer attention, you’ll see that the deeper pairing it’s making is a comparison between our human words, and God’s holy words. Here the psalmist seems to be suggesting that by praising God with music and our mouths, we are participating in a creative act. Just as God spoke the material universe into being with words, we are able to speak joy and praise into the world with our own mouths and music. There is parity between our words and God’s words. Thus, at the same time, this psalm is inviting us to reimagine the creation story that’s portrayed in the first chapter of Genesis.  Instead of occurring as a kind of dry and passionless speech, where God merely announces: “light!” “sky-dome!” “coasts!” and so forth –we’re invited instead to picture the creation of light and space and life as the composition of a cosmically-grand orchestra. Creation isn’t just God’s Word; creation –everything that is –is God’s joyous symphony. It isn’t just that God spoke life into being; God sang it.

            The next pairing in the Psalm is perhaps a little more jarring, where it compares the plans of ‘the nations’ with God’s plans. God’s plan has already been at least partially revealed through the cosmic song of creation. God’s plan involves light and life and the kind of order where everything that is has its rightful place. God’s plan is for joy and beauty. It goes on forever. It is fundamentally creative. It builds up. The plans of ‘the nations’ on the other hand, are epitomized in acts of war. Where God and the righteous sing a harmonious song of praise together, the instruments of ‘the nations’ are armies and warhorses.  Their melody is chaos. Their tone is rampant, global discord. Their words –far from being creative- their words are destructive. Their words are the kind of hideous, senseless shrieks that forever silence the mouths of the powerless.

            Then in verse 15, we have the climactic line that proclaims: “God is the one who made all their hearts, the one who knows everything they do.

            Here we’re reminded that everything that happens –every word that is spoken, every action that’s taken, is only ever an out-pouring of what sparks invisibly inside the heart. All of creation, and every moment where God has been active in history is an outpouring and a revelation of God’s holy heart. Likewise, our hearts are made known by what we say and do. We lay bare our hope when we speak and sing. Therefore the questions are lifted up: where will our hearts and our songs be?

            Will they be with God, to join the cosmically creative chorus?  Or will we join our hearts and voices to the competing, discordant cracker-jack bands of the nations? For we know that both bands and nations rise and fall with the tides of history; but God’s song is eternal. Will we, therefore, succumb to the temptation to put down our lyres and our harps –our plows and our builder’s trowel, so that we might take up the spear and the sling? When given the choice between God’s joy and the fear and gluttony of ‘the nations,’ where will we let our hearts be joined?  Because the tone of our voice will always, inevitably match the sympathy of our devotion.

            Traditionally, the first Sunday of Advent is focused on hope –for hope is a matter of the heart. So this morning I want to encourage all of you to take time to examine the state of your heart by taking an inventory of your hope.  What are your hopes for yourself and your family?  What are your hopes for this church community and our future together? What are your hopes for the nations and the world? What is it you really want, deep down?  Because your desires will give you a clue to the state of your heart. And your heart will set the tone of your song.

            I just want to ask: how many of you grew up with the practice of creating a Christmas wish list?  Please raise your hands. How many of you still have a Christmas wish-list as an adult? 

            I can still remember when I was about six, I wrote out my first wish-list, where I let Santa know everything I wanted for Christmas.  The list started out with transformers –Optimus Prime in particular, and I wanted Castle Grey Skull for my He-Man figures; and I wanted a remote control car –but not one of the cheap ones that was attached to a cord like my grandparents had gotten me the year before; I wanted a skateboard (even though I didn’t know how to ride one) … and my list went on for about two pages of the smallest script I could manage.  I was so excited because I could finally write my own wish-list by myself (I had secretly suspected that my mom had omitted certain big-ticket items from previous letters), and I didn’t want to leave anything off of it.

             But do you know what happened?  When Christmas came, it turned out that I got one transformer toy. One!  And it was a Decepticon I’d never heard of before.  And then I got some Go-bots, which were decidedly not Transformers. No Optimus Prime. No Castle Grey Skull. Nothing from the rest of my list.  And I remember my parents looking at me like: aren’t you so happy with all your new toys, Jeremy?  And I remember distinctly feeling: no! I was not happy, because there were so many of the things that I wanted that I didn’t get! And I didn’t understand why.

            So from then on, my list got shorter and shorter at Christmas.  And then, somewhere along the line, a strange thing happened to me.  At some point, I started actually getting the things I wanted, and do you know what happened?  Did I end up more joyful and well-adjusted and at peace? No!  Because what the wisdom of hindsight has revealed to me is that the things I had thought I wanted, were not accurately paired with my deepest hope. I had thought that I had wanted toys and video games and shiny new material things. But what I had really and more deeply hoped for was for fun, and joy, and love, and a sign or an expression that I was good enough.

             Thus I invite you again to compile a Christmas hope-list. Yes, a new 80 inch flat-screen tv would be pretty cool; but what’s the hope that lies veiled under the wish?  Yes, it’d be great to have your political party win the next elections; but beyond the rhetoric, what values of the heart are you expecting they’ll bring to our public life?  Yes, it’d be great if you got the job promotion, or if your investments grew by 20% next quarter, but what kind of security or assurance is that supposed to offer you?

            The 33rd Psalm closes with the lines:

20 We put our hope in the Lord.
    He is our help and our shield.
21 Our heart rejoices in God
    because we trust his holy name.
22 Lord, let your faithful love surround us
    because we wait for you.

The final pairing found within the 33rd Psalm is perhaps the most shocking of all.  The song opens with an invitation to praise. As God has spoken, so the righteous are invited to speak.  But the song closes on a cliff-hanger: ‘the nations’ are clamoring together for war –you can practically feel them marching toward the land of the poet; and God’s people are waiting for a new word. They hope because their deliverance has not yet materialized. God hasn’t spoken the word of their salvation yet. And amid the song of their praise, there is a silence like a gasp –perhaps as they pause to listen for the echo of distant war drums over the hills. And here the song dramatically and abruptly comes to an end, and we are left wordlessly waiting for God’s mouth to open again.

            This is the tension of the Advent season: God has spoken; and God will speak again. But Advent is a season of coming. It is the pause between notes, it is the breath-mark on the music. Let us ready ourselves to receive what God will deliver next.

            Let’s pray.

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