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Text: Psalm 150 and John 20:24-29
Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below. These words are no doubt familiar to you. We’ll sing them in a few minutes as we collect offerings. You may know this song as being called The Doxology. It is really just a doxology, a word that means “words of glory.” Doxologies praise God.
Hallelujah! we sing around this Easter time. It seems like it should be translated “hooray!” Jesus Christ is risen today, hooray! But the word Hallelujah means “praise God.” Praise our God, the one we know by name. Hallelujah is a word of glory.
Hallelujah! Praise God in God’s holy temple. So begins Psalm 150. Praise God for God’s mighty acts. From whom God’s blessing flows. Praise God, all things that have breath. Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God with music and dancing and loud clanging cymbals. Hooray!
This is the last psalm. The final psalm in the book of psalms. After all the laments and songs of the earlier psalms, what does it come down to? When things are good, praise God. And when things are bad, praise God. Praise God, all the time.
Praise and sacrament are the backbone of our worship. We come here to praise God and to be fed. Lutherans have a pretty good understanding of the feeding part. But are more suspicious of praise, thinking we might have to act “praisy.” You know, waving our arms around and, as the psalm says, dancing and otherwise carrying on. We should do a little more of that, I suspect. But even for Lutherans, praise is central to our relationship with God. In one sense, praise is pure prayer.
Praise is not necessarily a religious term. But when it is, it has five characteristics that I want to talk about today. A kind of top-five list of things about praise. So we’ll do a countdown, as people do, back to front.
Number five: praise is thanksgiving. It is appropriate that we connect it with our offerings, which are, as we say, signs of God’s gracious love. Praising God is an expression of gratitude. For God’s mighty acts, as the psalm says. Hallelujah, thank you, God, for all you have done.
But praise is not transactional. We don’t praise God in exchange for the goodies God has given us. Praise is not payment: You be nice to me, I praise you. So, the fourth characteristic of praise is that it is not useful. That is, its utility is not germane. As one writer said, this psalm with all its praises is “an extreme case of inutility.” It asks for nothing, it makes no claims. It is not churchy or religious: it does not speak about judgment, covenant, or promise. It is just praise. God, you are great.
Number three: praise is naive. We praise God without knowing all that much about God. Just as you can praise, say, a hero for her bravery or a saint for his compassion, without knowing that person very well, so we can praise God for what we see, whether or not we understand it or can make sense of it. God has, as the psalm says, excellent greatness. That’s sufficient.
Number two: praise is not about us. Whether we are in fact thankful or bitter or whether our tears are from laughter or despair, it does not matter. We do not have to prepare ourselves. We do not have to be especially good or contrite or anything. We praise God in exactly the same way as we step up to the altar rail for Holy Communion: without qualification. We praise God without apology.
Praise is a way of seeing things. So, the number one characteristic of praise is recognition. Not recognition in the sense of reward. “I give you this certificate in recognition of your outstanding service blah blah blah,” kind of thing. Not that. But recognizing God as you would recognize a lover or a friend. Seeing them as they are (or as you know them to be). Embracing them. Admiring them for no good reason. Just because you love them. (As the father of the prodigal son does, who spies his wayward son on the road home and rushes to greet him.) Excusing them, even. Because they are your friend. This is the kind of recognition that reminds us, when we are in the middle of fight with our partner—that reminds us who he or she is, and interrupts our angry blindness. The person is not just anybody, but a particular somebody we love. Praising God is recognizing God in that way. God, our lover.
Now, what does this all have to do with Thomas? Thomas calls out to Jesus. “My Lord and my God.” These are words of praise, not of belief. Thomas recognizes Jesus, a friend Thomas had thought to be dead. We cannot call Thomas “Doubting Thomas,” for doubt and belief were never the issue. It is not that Thomas does not believe the other disciples. He comes back to the room—in which the disciples are strangely still shut up one whole week after they have seen Jesus—he does not come back for more evidence.
He demands to see Jesus not because he is short of faith. He has to see Jesus because he needs to recognize him. The disciples had seen Jesus. “We have seen the Lord,” they told him. But Thomas had not.
Luke writes that Jesus offers evidence. Touch me, Thomas, says Jesus. But Thomas never does touch him. He does not need any evidence of that sort. Thomas sees Jesus. The heart of Thomas recognizes him. Thomas praises Jesus: My Lord and My God! It has nothing to do with belief in some fact or doctrine or miracle, even. Thomas is in love with Jesus.
The language of worship is the language of love. We come to this place, this church, over and over, not because we need to learn something new, though maybe we do and maybe we will. We do not come, that is, for more evidence. We come to be fed, and we come to be with God. Sacrament and praise.
The words we use in worship, the songs we sing, the prayers we recite, are powerful because they remind us who God is, who we are, and who God and we are together. In one sense, they are boring. They are the same thing, more or less, each week. We do not need them in order to be healed; we believe that God heals us out of grace, not out of obligation. And I suppose that God does not need them either. They are boring in the way old stories are boring between friends, or little nothings are boring between lovers. Powerfully boring. They serve no purpose other than praise.
Not all praise is God-talk. You can praise all sorts of things and people. You can praise a soldier, or a nurse, or a president. But most God-talk is praise. That is because like most of the talk of friends and lovers, it all says the same thing.
You are my Lord and my God, says Thomas. When we talk to God, when we gather in worship, when we pray in our houses. And even when we complain to God and speak in anger and disappointment. We all say in other ways what Thomas said to Jesus. I praise you. God, you are mine. God, I am yours.
Praise the Lord.