Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter (April 27, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Singing Alleluia in Troubled Times” (Psalm 105:1-5, 8)

            Alleluia! Christ is risen! [Response: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]
           “Alleluia!”  Praise the Lord!  That’s what Alleluia means.  It’s the last word of the psalm from which today’s Introit is taken, Psalm 105.  The ancient Greek translation has it as the first word, as well.  Alleluia!  Praise the Lord.  Listen again to the words taken from Psalm 105 [READ TEXT].
            These words were originally composed when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem when David was king.  This is recorded in 1 Chronicles 16, which was written after the Israelites had returned from captivity and exile in Babylon.  The former exiles would have listened to this psalm and remembered how David’s son Solomon placed the ark in his newly built temple.  They had just witnessed the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  They had much to rejoice about.  God’s faithfulness would have been fresh in their minds.
            Yet times were still tough.  There was hostile opposition to the exiles returning to their homeland.  Marriages were contracted with pagan idol worshippers. The priests failed in their duties by offering blemished animals in sacrifice.  The poor were oppressed.  Yes, it was home.  But there was still much sin.  It must have been hard to sing “Alleluia” in such times.
            Today, you and I are a week removed from our Easter celebrations.  God’s faithfulness is fresh in our minds.  Yet how quickly we fall back into our old sinful habits after recalling God’s rescue of us on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  How quickly do we slide from the triumph of Christ’s resurrection back to the trough of sin and shame.
            There is much to rejoice about.  Yet the troubles we face from within and without take our focus off of the victory that Jesus won for us at the empty tomb.  Alleluias do not fall so easily from our lips when our lives are burdened by sin and sorrow.
            The words from the Introit today can teach us how to sing Alleluia at all times, to recount Easter once again, to sing praise for God’s work on our behalf in Christ Jesus.  We can sing Alleluia as we give thanks, call upon his name, make known his wondrous deeds, and seek his strength and presence continually.
            The psalm begins by teaching us to “give thanks to the Lord.”  We know what that means.  It’s only polite to say “thank you” when you receive a gift or when someone acts kindly toward you.  But the “thanks” the psalmist has in mind also includes praise which responds to God and his “wondrous works.”  But this doesn’t come naturally to us.  Think of it this way for a moment.  Have you ever heard your children praise you at the same time they thank you?  “Oh, mother, father, you are so awesome, your love for me is neverending, you gave me life, you provide for all my needs.  For this and so much more, I give you praise and thanks.”  Not gonna happen, right?  Unnatural.  In the same way, praise is not natural for us.  We need to learn how to do it, and the Scriptures – especially the Psalms – can guide, direct, and shape our praise directed to the Lord.
            The psalmist also says to “sing praises to him.”  Psalms were always sung in Israelite worship.  It was the hymnbook of Israel and the early church.  We don’t naturally sing in our culture anymore, however.  People don’t burst out in song like they do in musicals … prancing across meadows with snow-capped Alps in the background, alive with the sound of music.  About the only time most people sing corporately these days is during birthday parties and the seventh-inning stretch.  Still, there is something to be said for singing and chanting as we do in the Divine Service.  Music gives expression to our joy over God’s wondrous deeds.
            After telling us to give thanks, the psalmist tells us to “call upon [God’s] name.”  When you call upon his name, you rely upon all that you know about him.  It’s a bit like a brand name.  Apple.  Rolex.  Mercedes-Benz.  You know what you’re getting when you buy from a company with a good reputation.  You’re going to get a well-made product.  You expect excellent customer service.  Even more significantly, when you call upon God’s name, you know what you are getting.  He is holy and wholly (w-h-o-l-l-y) good.  He shares that goodness with his creation, with those whom he has redeemed by the blood of Christ.  He is the great “I AM.”  He is the God who has acted on behalf of the world in his Son Jesus, whose name means “the Lord saves.”  And he is not a distant, impersonal God.  He has revealed his name to us, after all.  He has communicated with us through the prophets and apostles … and through his Son.  He wants to have a close relationship with his creation.  He is Immanuel, the God who is with us.
            Give thanks.  Call upon the Lord’s name.  Then the psalmist says to “make known his deeds among the peoples.”  True praise of God includes proclamation, telling what God has done.  “Glory in his holy name,” the psalmist says.  To glory here means to boast, or shine, or to flash forth.  There is a sense in which we can be proud and boast in the Lord, to broadcast his name among our neighbors, to boldly confess that we are Christians.  But do we?  Or do we tend to shy away, hold our tongues?  For most of us, it’s the latter.  Sometimes, I think we make evangelism harder than it really should be.  What do we have to be afraid of?  We have the God of the universe on our side!  Simply tell what God has done.  Check out the rest of Psalm 105.  That’s exactly what it does.  It rehearses God’s wondrous works from Abraham through the Exodus and God’s care of his people during their wilderness wanderings.  For you, simply tell what God has done through his Son Jesus by dying for the sins of the world and rising again in victory for us and for our salvation.  Let the Holy Spirit do the rest by working in people’s hearts and leading them to repentance and faith.
            Having worked repentance and faith in OUR hearts, the next verse of the psalm is true for us: “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!  Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”  In the Hebrew, the word for “presence” is actually “face.”  A person’s face can identify their mood, their attitude, their disposition toward an object or a person.  Are they frowning?  They’re expressing disapproval.  Are they puckered up?  They’re expressing disgust.  Are they smiling?  They’re expressing love and acceptance.
            In those times when you really don’t feel like singing “Alleluia,” it may seem as if God is frowning, perhaps severely.  Depending on the severity of your problems, you may begin to think that God hates you … that he is hiding his face form you … that he has turned his back on you.  But because of Jesus, you can be sure that it’s quite the opposite.  The Father turned his face away from his Son as he suffered and died for your sins at the cross.  Now, you can be sure that God looks upon you with love and affection.  You can be sure that the Father smiles upon you … that he turns his face toward you … that he lifts up his countenance upon you … that he looks upon you with favor … and grants you peace.
            Where have you heard those words before?  In the benediction, at the end of the liturgy.  And in fact, if you want to seek God’s presence, this is where you can be sure to find him.  Yes, he is everywhere, this is true.  But God is particularly and graciously present for you in the Divine Service.  Here we sing and rehearse the wondrous works of God on our behalf.  And more than just rehearsing… God is present to deliver his benefits to you personally in the Word of Gospel that you hear and in his Body and Blood that you eat and drink.  It’s here where we gather together as God’s people, recalling that he remembers the everlasting covenant he made with you in Holy Baptism.  This is the seal of God’s ownership of you and commitment to you, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
            Immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples still weren’t too sure about singing their Alleluias.  That first Easter night, what were they doing?  Hiding behind closed doors in fear.  But Jesus came to strengthen them with his presence and with his peace.  Eight days later, they were gathered together again, this time with Thomas who had not yet seen the risen Jesus … and who wasn’t sure it was at all true.  But Jesus graciously appears again, for Thomas’ sake.  Thomas praises him, saying “My Lord and my God.”  And maybe there was an Alleluia or two thrown in there.
            Then notice the change in the disciples in today’s reading from Acts.  Hauled before the Jewish ruling council, threatened with death for preaching about Jesus, beaten and told to stop talking about this Jesus, what did they do?  Go back to their room again in fear and lock the doors?  No.  “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).  In spite of their trials, they were able to rejoice.  During their trials, they were able to rejoice.  I’m also reminded of Paul and Silas when they were in jail in Philippi.  After having been beaten, with their feet fastened in the stocks, they prayed and sang hymns to God, loud enough so the other prisoners could hear them (Acts 16:25).  And I have no doubt there were some Alleluias heard.
            And finally, listen to the words of Peter.  Beloved Peter.  One of those disciples hiding behind closed doors.  One who once denied knowing Jesus in fear.  One who went out and cried in shame.  One who was restored by Jesus on the seashore and told him to “Feed my sheep.”  One who suffered much for preaching the crucified and risen Jesus, and who himself was crucified.  Peter knew suffering.  Peter could have had a hard time singing Alleluia.  But he had seen the risen Christ.  He drew strength from his presence and his peace.  And so he could say: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:3-9).
            All the more reason to say:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen! [Response: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]

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