Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on November 1, 2009.
Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Praise the Lord! Some of you are looking at me oddly. You are thinking it is funny for me to say that. Why would that be? It is an interesting phrase, isn’t it?
Praise the Lord! What does that mean? How do you explain that to somebody, particularly if you can’t use a word like praise to define it.
Praise the Lord! If you are a guest today, you might worship in a church where people use the expression, Praise and Worship. In that context, praise usually means singing. If you are in that kind of worship setting, the worship leader will often say, “We are going to praise for a little while,” and that means they are going to probably sing a certain type of music. Is there no praise other than singing? Wouldn’t our worship, even though we don’t use that expression, have already included praise today? I think so.
There is almost a dividing line in Christianity among people who use the expression, Praise the Lord. Some people use it as an exclamation meaning, That’s good. I remember having a friend in college and one day he said, “Oh, that’s great! Wait! I mean, ‘Praise the Lord!’”
An older person who was there in the crowd said, “Why can’t you just say, ‘That’s great’?”
He said, “Because I’m a Christian, and as a Christian if something is great, I must say, ‘Praise the Lord!’”
It evolved into an interesting discussion as to whether or not you were really a Christian if you just said, “That’s great,” which I think you can be.
Then those of us who don’t use it much or don’t use it explicitly, regularly or publicly a lot, are the fuddy duddies of the Christian faith. What does it mean to praise the Lord? I tried to say it without using the word praise, and I think it means to speak the highest good of God. It means to speak the highest honor. It means to thank God. It means to recognize all the great goodness of God to God. If we do that, then we are praising the Lord.
In the Psalms, we find the expression all the time. The 150th Psalm is filled with Praise the Lord. Why do we do it? If it is part of our vocabulary and we say it regularly or if it is not a regular part of the way we express our faith but we know we still do it, why do Christians praise the Lord?
If we read in scripture, we find that we praise the Lord because of what God has done. Think of this phrase: “I will praise him for his mighty works.” It is what God has done. God has done good things. God has done amazing things. God has saved his people. God has redeemed my life. God has redeemed me from the pit and, therefore, I will praise the Lord.
We also use it because of what we believe God will do and because we believe we can trust in God. I will trust in God and God’s promises are good. Therefore, I will praise the Lord. It is almost always related to this sense of God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, God’s ability to keep promises. Because God keeps promises, I will praise the Lord.
There are three times in this sermon where, if you will pay attention, you will understand most of it. Here’s one of them: If we praise God because God keeps promises, what promises can you count on God to keep?
If you watch religious programming on TV for about a week, here’s a list of the promises that you will hear that God will keep:
â— If you are single and will trust it to God, God will get you married.
â— If you are married and things are not going well, God will keep you married.
â— If you or someone you love is sick, if you will pray the right way, God will cure it.
â— If you are poor, God will make you rich.
â— If you want to be thin and are not, God will make you thin.
All of these are promises made in the name of God. As I list them, I can think for every single one of them someone I know for whom that promise has been fulfilled. But also for every single one of them, I can think of someone I know for whom the promise was not fulfilled. They did not find the mate. Their marriage was not saved. Someone they loved died. They did not come into some great material abundance. Their body style has stayed about the same size and shape. What can we really promise in God’s name? What promises does God keep?
If we are only going to praise God because God keeps his promises, then it seems to me that this would be important. It is not simply important because it has some academic angle on our faith or because we want to be theologically correct.
If you want to pay attention to only the important points, here is the second one: If there is a child in your life (your own child, a grandchild, a neighbor’s child, niece or nephew) for whom you have a lot of care, how do we teach that child to pray when we come to the promises of God? Do we teach them that God promises everything if you just simply believe it will work, and if we don’t believe, then it’s your fault? If you think that, you need to go back and read again Genesis 17 because the child given to Abraham and Sarah was not given because of their faith. I believe both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the word coming from God. They did not believe it but they still were given a child.
How do we teach a child to pray? Do we say that you are going to get everything or are we careful because we don’t want our children to be disappointed and do we teach them to pray for nothing? It is a difficult question.
Have ever had illness in your family and your child came to the table and said, “It is going to be OK.”
And you said, “Really? Why?”
“Because I prayed.”
What do you say to that child? How do you encourage their belief and not set them up for disappointment because we know not all prayers are answered? What promises does God keep?
If we look at the story that we have before us today of Abraham and Sarah, we need to recognize that God does a miraculous thing. Here we have a 99-year-old father, and a mother not much younger, who have a baby and become the ancestors of the entire Jewish race. Here we have the first and last Medicare baby and this baby is given at a time in life where there is no doubt that the only reason this baby is conceived, born, and alive is because God’s hand is in it. It takes place at a time in life where nobody can say it might have been an accident or wasn’t it unusual. The only answer is that it was a miracle from God’s hand.
When we read about this, we think, “Is there nothing God can’t do?” If God can do this for them, can’t God do anything? The real answer here is that we become so self-focused and narcissistic that we fail to understand the reason for the miracle in this story. The reason for the miracle was not simply because Abraham and Sarah wanted a child. The reason was God had a purpose, and God’s purpose was that God’s work would be done in the world through a people. God needed a people to call his own. God needed a people to use, to send, and to minister through in the world. The purpose of God cannot be stopped.
One of the promises God keeps is that his purpose will not be stopped. God’s work will go on. There will be a royal priesthood and a nation of witnesses and they will do what God needs.
We may think, “That doesn’t sound very good for me. I was really thinking more about some personal things, not some things about God’s work in the world.” Maybe that comes from our impoverishment of our understanding of what God is really about and what we should be concerned about.
Think for a moment about Soviet communism and what a bitter blight it was on the world for decades. For decades, people prayed for the destruction and defeat of communism. People prayed, and yet there were those who were sent off in
Russia to concentration camps. There was World War II and the advance of the Iron Curtain across Europe. There were good people who tried to stand up to them. The Hungarians and the Czechs in the mid-50’s tried to oppose it, but they were beaten down and crushed. How many of those people prayed that they would be delivered and they were not? For them, their exact prayer was not answered but God’s hand in the universe would not be stopped. We pray for things for ourselves and sometimes those prayers are answered and sometimes they are not. But if we pray for justice, peace, and grace, and for people in the world to know Christ, that will not stop. That is a promise that God keeps.
Sometimes I think it is just shortsighted on our part to only pray about the things that affect our own lives. There is a world where people’s lives are being destroyed by drugs, and gangs that are taking down the world. It is easy to wonder why God didn’t answer my prayer to an absurd thing that is offered as a promise of God and not fail to recognize that God’s word is not stopping, that God’s work is not backing up, that God’s promise that his word will not return void continues to move forward. God’s work won’t be stopped, and that is a promise that God makes.
In the midst of this when we look at Abraham and Sarah having a baby, we are reminded that anything is possible. When God is at work if a 99-year-old husband and his almost-as-old wife can have a baby, then anything is possible. That is not the same thing as saying that everything is possible. We don’t know when our lives might intersect with the purpose of God and we may never even see it. God might do some amazing thing in our lives because God has need of us. We are somehow related to God’s plan for saving and redeeming this world.
The miracles of scripture are rarely given exclusively for the individual. Most often they are given for the individual’s part in the work of God. Not everything is possible, but when God is at work achieving God’s purpose in this world, anything is.
If I were teaching a child to pray, I would want them to know that God will always be present with the person that we care for, the person that might be dying, and that God can do anything and that we will trust it to God. I believe that a child who grows up knowing that will find great faith.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord for what God has done. Will we be so narrowly focused that we only think of that in terms of what God has done in my life or for my family or will we think about how in the grand sweep of all time and eternity God’s hand is moving on. Would we united ourselves with the purposes of God so that we might have the opportunity to see the miracles of God, to know what God is doing, to have that intersect our lives and to believe that these promises are true and really above all other promises. If we do and if we will do these things, then we might be tempted to say, Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord for all the mighty things that God has done. Praise the Lord for all the great things God has yet to do, and may God wake me up and let me see what his hand is doing.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.