David A. Davis
June 6, 2021
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As we have been preparing this week to welcome a congregation, albeit a small one, into the sanctuary for the first time in 15 months, I found myself thinking about a sermon I preached about 14 months ago from our living room. I didn’t go back and look for it but I remember describing a return to the sanctuary for worship that would have all the trappings of Easter morning whenever we returned. 600 people, shoulder to shoulder, singing rousing hymns, and shouting “Christ is Risen”. While I cannot adequately describe how grateful I am to preach with people here in the room, it’s not quite that festival worship I imagined some 60 weeks ago or so. Yes, preaching to an empty room has pretty much been the hardest part. But right up there in the challenge of it all, has been not being able to sing the hymns. As one of our section leaders would sing the hymns, the rest of us in the room would only be singing in our heads. And when I was joining worship from home on livestream, like most of you I bet, sometimes I would sing with my cup of tea in my hands and sometimes I wouldn’t. Worshipping God on a Lord’s Day morning and not being able to sing has been really hard.
“I give thank, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise” says the psalmist. Not being able to sing hymns of praise in worship. It’s like taking one of the primary colors away from an artist, or even the brush. It’s like taking a stethoscope from a doctor, or the hoe from a gardener, or the putter from a golfer. I realize that back in the day on any given Sunday morning not everyone in this room would join in the singing. You remember where I sit and so I can see who is singing and who is not. And you have heard me in more than one sermon proclaim that when you can’t sing because of heartache, or struggle, or doubt in your life, the rest are here to sing for you. Singing praise to God rests at the very heart of worship and life of faith for the body of Christ. “All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O Lord, when they have heard the words of your mouth. They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.”
The husband of the organist in my first congregation was the retired funeral director in town. He retired before I was born. He was the son of a Methodist preacher. He was also full of wisdom. He told me once he didn’t favor stained glass windows in church because he found it easier to listen to the gospel while looking out on the world. He also offered to teach me how to tie a bow tie but he said I would have to lie down first. He also didn’t sing in church. Between being married to a musician and concluding one was enough in a marriage and having a voice made raspy by a lifetime of pipe smoking, “I gave up a long time ago”, he said. Singing he meant. “But don’t worry about me, preacher. I am always singing right along in my head.”
The sermon title this morning, “Accept This Our Sacrifice of Praise” is a reference to a part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving offered at the Table before the Words of Institution. It can be worded in several ways: “Accept this our sacrifice of thanks and praise…..Grant this praise and thanksgiving we may be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable in your sigh….grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your name.” Our living sacrifice of praise. It is a carefully worded distinction of the Reformed tradition when it comes to eucharistic theology, a theology of the Lord’s Supper. The focus is not Christ’s ongoing sacrifice at the altar every time the eucharist is celebrated. Rather the focus is on remembering his once and for all sacrifice on the cross at Calvary and our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in response. Indeed the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup is one of praise and thanksgiving. But the language, the image of “sacrifice of praise” is even more than that. It is the Lord’s Supper proclamation that our very lives are offed in praise and thanksgiving to God. You and I are called to lifetime of praise to God, a life full of adoration to God, an entire life that is thanksgiving to God for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. We are called to sing a hymn of praise with not just our voices but with our lives. You are a hymn of praise.
“You will make good your purpose for me; O Lord, your steadfast love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.” Make good your purpose for me. Do not abandon the works of your hands. The psalmist’s ending promise and petition. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established” (Ps. 8) The works of God’s hands. “I lift up mine eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Ps 121) The works of God’s hands. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps.139) The works of God’s hands. “O Lord, your steadfast love endures forever, do not abandon us, for we are a work of your hands. And as for God’s good purpose for us? What is the chief end of humankind? (Westminster Catechism 1649) “Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever” God will make good God’s purpose for us even when we can’t sing, even when we can’t be together. Because you and I have been created to be instruments of praise with our very lives.
And it’s one thing to sing to the glory of God with the choir behind you and the organ going full stop and a soprano descant on the last verse. It’s easy to sing of the glory of God when it’s Easter morning in this room when every pew is packed and you can’t really hear your own voice. It’s one thing to tell of the glory of God and proclaim God’s handiwork when your’re sitting here in this room with candle lit singing “Silent Night” and reminding yourself and the world of the birth of a Savior. It’s easy to tell of the glory of God when you join a 75 voice choir and sing Brahm’s German Requiem, or a Bach cantata, or Handel’s Messiah. But what if all you have to offer, what you really have to offer is the persistent, worker-like, steady routine trek of your life, that journey of life that comes with such joy and sorrow, with the mountain tops filled with faith and the valleys full of doubt, with the Lord’s Day worship where you shouted “Christ is Risen” and the Lord’s Day worship when you could barely bring yourself to pray, let alone sing. What if the most important means by which you and I sing praise to God, what if the most telling proclamation of the glory of God comes without words, without song but with the silent voice of the daily witness of how you live your life and how I live mine?
The singer Adele recorded a hit song called “When we were young”. Like many of her songs, it is about romance. The refrain in the song referring to the best of the relationship is “It was just like a move. It was just like a song.” Just like a song. But when it comes to the life of faith, our lives as instruments of praise, when it comes to “accept this our sacrifice of praise, its not just like a song. Our lives don’t reflect the hymns of praise. The hymns of praise ought to reflect our lives.
Like the saint of the church way back in the early nineties. I watched her sing a hymn of praise without a note for two weeks straight when she arrived at the church before sunrise to make sure the group of homeless men staying at the church started the day with a hot breakfast. Or the faith-filled handyman who would never speak a word about his faith but he sang wordless hymns all through retirement making sure all the older folks living alone in town had what they needed. Or the friend of mine who learned a new hymn without music during the pandemic. He committed to writing a note of gratitude or encouragement to someone every single day. Or the retirement seminary president who found a new way to offer a hymn of praise telling anyone who would listen that teaching the 2nd grade Sunday School and tell those kids about Jesus was the most important work he ever did. Or the group of adults who take time off from work to travel with a youth group to Appalachia to fix strangers homes and sleep on the floor of a gymnasium. For that week those advisors, even if they can’t carry a tune, they are like a choir offering beautiful praise to God. Yes, Lord, accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
As a seminary student I did my field education at Central Presbyterian Church up in Montclair. After the first sermon I preached the fall of my first year, one of the older women who I am sure must have been on the saints in that congregation, she took my hand at the church door, and with a surprising among of strength, pulled me in, and lifted her head to speak. Then she waited for me to lean down because she want to make sure I heard what she said and was paying attention. She didn’t say anything about the content of the sermon. She left any helpful critique or follow up notes to others. What she said to me, with really not much of a smile at all, what she said was, “You’re going to be fine. I could hear every word.” And she patted my hand and walked away.
When you and I get to heaven and the roll is called up yonder, tradition with a bit of help from scripture, would have us yearning to hear Peter, or Jesus, or God, say “well done, good and faithful servant. But how about this? After a lifetime of praise, a life full of adoration to God, an entire life that is thanksgiving, what if after our hymn of praise life, Peter, or Jesus, or God, or someone in that great cloud of witnesses, anyone in the communion of saints, stops to say, “I could hear every word.”