MEDITATION

Psalm 148

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

January 1, 2017

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“It’s a New Year’s Day, just like the day before.  Same old skies of grey, same empty bottles on the floor.  Another year gone by and I’m thinking once again, how can I take this losing hand and somehow win.” 

Well, happy New Year everybody!  How’s that for a beginning?  I have welcomed you to 2017 with the words of the singer songwriter Slaid Cleaves, a personal favorite of mine.  Slaid is a gifted musician but if you really want to hear the best of Slaid, you need to hear his sad songs, because he is to melancholy what a fish is to water.  It is his true medium. I am a sucker for a good sad song, thus I love old Slaid.  So let me read those words to you one more time, so they can sort of sink in and you can begin to grasp the genius of Slaid Cleaves,

“It’s a New Year’s Day, just like the day before.  Same old skies of grey, same empty bottles on the floor.  Another year gone by and I’m thinking once again, how can I take this losing hand and somehow win.”

Slaid would’ve been an excellent Psalm writer.  Well, let me amend that, he would have been really good at the psalm of lament.  Listen to these words from Psalm 44: 9-16,

“Yet you have rejected and abased us and have not gone out with our armies; you made us turn back from the foe and our enemies have gotten spoil.  You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among nations.  You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.  You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.  You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.  All day long, disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face.” 

I’ll stop there, but it keeps going like that for a while.  The psalmist could go dark with the best of them.  I feel Slaid would’ve been proud if he had written those words.

All of us can look around at our lives from time to time and see only a losing hand.  All of us can feel as though God has abandoned us when the waves of life wash over us.  We all know these feelings.  But here is the truth, while we all might recognize the feelings of Slaid or the writer of Psalm 44, we cannot live there.  We cannot let those feelings take hold of our souls.  It is not unfaithful to lament, quite the contrary, but it is unfaithful to live in a permanent state of lament.

Let me say that again.  While we might resonate with these dark words, we can never allow them to fully become our own.  When we allow darkness to overtake us, when we bow our heads not in reverence but in defeat, we welcome but one thing into our lives; suffering.  Suffering takes root when we dwell in the dark for too long, suffering for ourselves and for those who love us.  We can experience lament, we can cry out in lament, but we can’t stay there.

Slaid doesn’t stay there.  Verse 2 of his song tells us that he stops looking at the empty bottles on the floor and turns his eyes upward.  To God?  Who can say, but certainly he looks away from himself.  Listen to the second verse of the song:

“Just give me one good year, to get my feet back on the ground.  I’ve been chasing grace, and grace ain’t so easily found.  One bad hand can devil a man, chase him and carry him down.  I gotta get out of here, just give me one good year.” 

Slaid has reached the end of his own resources and he pleads to be given a good year. Despite the darkness in which he lives, he has not resigned himself to it, at least not yet.  And further, he has come to an important recognition.  He is powerless.  Give me one good year, he begs.  Give me…one good year.  He understands that he cannot get that good year on his own, a break is needed; intervention is required.  The recognition of our own powerlessness is key if we are to be the people we want to be and escape from the Death Star-like tractor beam of permanent lament.

So what about the psalmist?  How did he respond to the darkness of Psalm 44?  Well, either she or another writer wrote Psalm 148, and the fact that it and its cousin psalms of praise conclude the psalter tells us much about the response of the ancients to Lament.  The writer of Psalm 148 also recognizes her powerlessness, but this is no longer a source of lament.  Instead it is a reason for praise.  Listen to the words again of the Psalmist,

“Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!  Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.  He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.”

The Psalmist needed only look to the created world to recognize his powerlessness.  The sun and the moon.  The shining stars.  The highest heavens.  All of these things were created by God, and not only created but set in motion. When we are in dark days, our spiritual renewal begins with a simple acknowledgement, we are not in control.  We do not have ultimate control over our own destiny or the destiny of others.  Now let me tell you why this is good news.  It is good news because that control ultimately rests not with a more powerful person, not with blind fate, but with the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, the God of our lives.  This God is in charge and that means there is always reason for us to hope; always reason for us to lift our heads and look up.  That we live in God’s world is always a call for us to praise.

So today actually is the New Year’s Day, not a New Year’s Day, as Slaid was experiencing over and over. It is our New Year.  It is common to greet the New Year with resolutions, but what is the point of that, really?  This year, instead of greeting it with a desire to exercise more, eat less, pray more, worry less, why don’t we greet the New Year with praise.  Simple, humble, life giving praise.  Why don’t we place 2016 in the rear view mirror and lift our heads.

You are here today, you have breath flowing through your lungs, you have blood coursing through your veins, you have the sun and the moon and the shining stars.

All of these things, through their very existence, offer praise to the one true God.  So let us praise God, all you people.

Praise God young men and women alike!

Praise God old and young together!

This is God’s world.   You are God’s people.  It’s New Year’s Day, lift your heads and know that one good year is always a morning away.  Amen.