Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sermon on Psalm 96, for Advent 4 Midweek, "Disbanded Choir"

Sermon by Pastor Paul Roschke, 12-20-17
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday Pastor Schneider’s sermon on Isaiah helped us to watch for ‘doublets’:  “comfort, comfort” and “double for all her sins”.  Tonight we had a triplet:  3 times we read Psalm 96.  The first reading was from 1st Chronicles which included much of Psalm 96.  The second time, a cantor and a pianist helped us sing parts of it, and we just now read it together for a 3rd time.  
But King David, who is believed to be the author of Psalm 96, had a choir of 4,000 Levites to help the Israelites sing.  The first occasion for singing Psalm 96 was reported in the 1st Chronicles passage that we read earlier - when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into a tent in Jerusalem.  And then, after the temple was built by King Solomon, every morning and every evening, a portion of the Levitical choir gathered on the temple steps for the worship service.  The Levitical choir sang Psalm 96, not to God, but to the people.  The message of their song is not in the indicative, but rather in the imperative mood.  The imperative mood forms commands or requests.  Sing (a new song), bless (God’s name), tell (of His salvation), declare (God’s glory), ascribe (glory to God), worship (the Lord).  All are commands.
Luther writes in Reading the Psalms with Luther:  “The 96th psalm is a prophecy of the kingdom of Christ in the world, in which should be nothing but joy and praise.”  Verses 1-9 tell the people to sing a new song that proclaims the Lord’s victory, and the last 4 verses announce and celebrate His coming, his Advent.  
When we read Scripture, we do well to read what is actually written there, not what we imagine or assume.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  It’s not one shepherd and a large flock of sheep, but rather,  one shepherd and one sheep.  One-on-one with a teacher or a shepherd is as good as it gets.  We receive individual attention.  
Or, “he prepares a table before me.”  Normally in the King’s banquet hall, he is seated and his servants would prepare for him.  But in Psalm 23, we sit down and the King waits on us.”  Unexpected.  And it shows how deeply we come under His care and protection.
So, what is it about Psalm 96 that is surprising or unusual or catches our attention?  We miss it because we’re too familiar with it and we don’t see what is unexpected.  (Pause)  In the middle of being told to worship the Lord with singing and celebration, there are not two, but three mentions of God’s judgment – right alongside the joy.  (verses 10 and 13)  
Now if there’s any thought that makes us tremble, it’s the thought of God’s judgment.  Forty pages later from where your finger is in the hymnal, the Litany says:  “Help us, good Lord…. In the hour of death; and in the day of judgment.”  Or, our Lord’s words:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak…” (Matt. 12:36).  Or the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25).  The Goats are condemned entirely for their sins of omission.  That is, the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things done, but on those things that we never did, and maybe never even dreamed of doing.  No one’s conscience escapes.
So, it’s an unexpected surprise when we read (verses 12 and 13):  “… let the field exult, and everything in it!  Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.  How could the psalmist place joy right next to judgment?  
The prophet Joel: “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming” (Joel 2:1 ESV).  How can it be that God’s holy judgment is an occasion for universal rejoicing?
We look for the last judgment on the last day.  And yet, the Last Judgment occurs for us when? – every Sunday.  Each Sunday we come to God the Father, who is the judge of all.  
But He’s a God with a difference.  Because instead of God condemning us, rejecting us because we are sinners, what does He do?  He is the judge that pardons us, forgives us, justifies us.  
That’s why we begin the Divine Service each Sunday with Confession and Absolution.  Page 167 in our hymnal.  The Absolution is the sentence that God gives to us on the Last Day.  And we already anticipate that here and now.
God, the judge, says the following things:  you are guilty, you are condemned to death because you are guilty, but you are pardoned, forgiven.  The verdict is guilty, the sentence is death, but your punishment is life.  You are pardoned for my Son’s sake.
So Jesus says:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (Jn. 5:24 ESV).  St. Paul says “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
End of the World
In a sense, the end of the world comes for us every Sunday.  The last judgment and the final verdict of God comes every Sunday.  We come into the presence of God, the Judge, and He pardons us.  In the Absolution the pastor speaks for God Himself:  “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.”  This is the pardon that God gives to us on the last day.
We’ve got the Last Day behind us and we have only good things ahead of us.  And not only good things for us.  All through Psalm 96 it speaks of “the nations”, “the peoples.”  The psalmist commissions all of us to invite all the people we know to church next Sunday.  Not to receive the bad part of God’s judgment, but to receive all of the good things.  

2000 years ago, after the Incarnation of the Messiah, the temple was torn down and Christ’s resurrected body replaced it.  The Old Testament Levitical choir was disbanded.  The temple and the singers are gone.  So with God’s judgment already behind us, the church doesn’t sing its own song.  It sings a new song that has been given to it.  It is the song of David, the Psalter.  In few days it will be “Glory to God in the Highest.”  And tonight it is the Magnificat, the song of Mary.  We blend our voices, with our cantor, and with the heavenly cantors (the angels), and with the One in our midst, Jesus the Messiah. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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