Well good morning everyone. I am always honored when I have the opportunity to preach with you fine folk. And I mean specifically you here in attendance and joining us from online. Those sleeping in this fine Sunday morning, eh the jury is still out on them. I kid of course. But in all seriousness today’s scripture very much harps on maximizing participation. And that is just one of the many ways we will better understand and unlock the Value of Praise.
Praise has Infinite Value
Psalm 148 is a rich psalm that is very much appropriate for this first Sunday after our wonderful Christmas Eve services. And it is meant to help carry us through the remaining days of Christmas time, and even beyond. Because often when we think of worship and praise, our initial instincts create unnecessary limitations. Our thoughts turn only to Sunday gatherings and human voices lifted in song. Yet praise is that, but also SOOOO much more. Praise can be watering a garden. Praise could be feeding the chickens. Praise can be gathering family together. Praise can be helping a stranger and showing them kindness. Praise is recognizing the connection of God with the world, and actively tapping into and reveling within the beauty and power of that connection.
But right now, I actually want to take you back to just the other day when we had our Christmas Eve service, as well as the many Christmas Eve services that preceded it. A form of praise that we are very accustomed to and find great value within because of its impactful energy. For many, and myself included, the impact of the candlelight closing is commanding. There is a reason that our candlelight closing almost always feels so much more powerful than the closing for any other Sunday worship service. I offer the reason is less about the Christmas spirit, and more the fact that we are closer to what is called for in Psalm 148. With the candlelight closing we see visualized in such a brightly intense fashion, the power of Royal Lane’s light because EVERYONE in attendance is adding their light.
Thinking back to pre-covid, the near capacity crowds for Christmas Eve represented what we want for every worship, for every moment of praise. Maximized participation. And Psalm 148 illustrates just how all the heavens, all the heights, all the angels, all the hosts, the sun, the moon, all the stars, fire and hail, snow and frost, all the winds, all the mountains, all the hills, all the trees, and all the animals.
All of God’s creation praises God. All those things I just repeated from Psalm 148 don’t have any issue maximizing their participation in praise for God. They inherently recognize their connection to God and naturally offer up praise at all time. Thus, since everything God touched can tap into that power of praise, the natural conclusion is that there is no limit to the value of praise. Think about that, Praise has an infinite value. This psalm reminds us of how infinity is such a beautiful thing. Limitless and unabated.
Although it’s kind of funny. As Dr. Beth Tanner likes to note in her commentary on the Psalms, “Psalm 148 stands out from the other psalms in part because the praise does not begin with people. In fact, the people are not called to join in the chorus until verse 11. It is as if there is a praise party and we are the last ones invited.” And you absolutely get that vibe of being the last invited to the praise party from reading this psalm. However, I would offer that the reason for our very delayed recognition in this psalm is due to humanity’s difficulty with maximizing our praise. Our difficulty with comprehending the infinite value of praise. Something all those things mentioned before us in Psalm 148 do not struggle with.
So how do we go about solving this issue. How do we start to maximize our praise to the same level as the rest of God’s creation? Well, the key to that is understanding our value.
Understanding YOUR Value (thanks to Chess)
As we discussed earlier regarding the unique impact of the candlelight closing from Christmas Eve service, there is often a direct correlation between the number of participants and the level of impact that moment has. This is due in no small part to a very simple fact that has stood the test of time and has manifested its efficacy in countless ways. There. Is. Power. In. Numbers. This is a very real fact.
Now of course I am not going to stand up here and say bigger is better. That is not the case at all. Like I’ve said unlocking the true value of praise is about maximizing what you have. It is about optimization. Not adding more for the sake of more. Think of it this way. When it comes to going to a concert, which is a more enjoyable experience for the band and the audience. A full house at a smaller venue like The Factory in deep ellum, or a concert at the AAC with twice as many people, but it is only running at 40% of the venue’s capacity. The smaller sellout is always more enjoyable for everyone involved.
So when I talk about the power in numbers and the value of praise I want to be very clear I am not saying bigger is better. I am talking about maximizing potential.
Potential is such a valuable aspect, but a fickle one to say the least. Now when talking about the synergy of potential and value I am going to have to give everyone here a crash course on one of the things my lovely wife absolutely hates right now. I am talking about my second favorite sport at the moment, which only trails my fandom for European football (go Liverpool). My second favorite sport centers around seeing potential and understanding the value of every component, and it just so happens to be one of the oldest sports out there. I am of course talking about CHESS. Sorry Shannon. Yeah she definitely just threw daggers my way with that glare. Let me explain. Ever since the Queen’s Gambit came out on Netflix last year, I downloaded on my phone the chess.com app and I have been playing chess every day since. Very much to the chagrin of my wife. I will even watch live chess tournaments at odd hours of the day, like the recent Chess World Championship where Magnus Carlsen successfully defended his title while over in Dubai. Shannon likes to say I’m addicted to chess. And she might be right.
But I love playing chess and watching chess because few things better illustrate the need to see potential and the indispensable need for understanding the value of each and everything out there.
With that said here is a quick chess lesson for you that I am sure none of you were expecting to get when you showed up for worship today. In order to understand who has an edge in a game of chess each chess piece is assigned a value based on the advantage it brings to the board, or the level of disadvantage it presents when removed from the board. However even though a pawn is valued at 1, a bishop or knight at 3, a rook at 5 and a queen 9. You see the coordinated effort, the team work of each piece raises their respective value towards a winning advantage. Sometimes 3 pawns (3 points) perfectly coordinated can easily dispose of a rook worth 5 points. And even under the right circumstances those three pawns can incomprehensibly neutralize a queen worth 9 points. The synergy of the pieces is what dictates advantage. You could be up 5 points in material, meaning you might have two more pawns and one more bishop left on the board than your opponent, but you could still be playing at a severe disadvantage if your pieces are not coordinated at all, while your opponent’s pieces are still well coordinated in an impending attack and fortified defense.
That coordination, that synergy is only optimal when every piece out there is working in conjunction with one another. Understands its own value and its shared value all within the greater picture.
That understanding is what makes chess this beautiful, ageless game because it forces its players to examine, reexamine, and reexamine again everything on the board’s current value and its potential. The only way to become a better chess player is to hone your skills of valuation. And Psalm 148 illustrates how far we are behind everything else in understanding our own value. Understanding our shared value.
This is what I love about Sister Grove Farm. Praise is prevalent everywhere throughout it, at all times. And it accomplishes this because it understands that synergy, that coordination between all the agents of praise listed in Psalm 148. Sarah and Rodney are chess grandmasters when it comes to the praise of Psalm 148. For many of us we are still so far behind in understanding and tapping into the incomprehensible beauty of all that natural synergy.
Unfortunately, the world of modern chess shows how far behind us humans, us last to be invited to the praise party, how far behind we are when it comes to understanding value. You see, an important recent development in the world of Chess has been the role supercomputer chess engines have had on how grandmasters prepare for and play in major tournaments. These supercomputer chess engines can understand value and examine potential at levels and depths that dwarves the capabilities of our feeble human minds. They are able to know what move is best to degrees of certainty that humans could never approach.
Yet, the reigning world champ, Magnus Carlsen, has been praised for how he has rescued chess from the supercomputers. One of the many ways Magnus Carlsen is a chess phenom is his unique ability to use the best that the computers have to offer, while still maintaining the humanity he brings to the game. Maintaining that humanity, not replacing it, is vital for the future of chess. And because of how great the chasm is between Carlsen and the best supercomputer chess engine, it could have been easy for the chess world to just say we give up and there is no longer any place for humans in chess. But Magnus shows why one shouldn’t be intimidated by such a wide gap.
Not Letting God’s Immense Value Intimidate You Away from Praise
The great Will Willimon powerfully notes how “The most important decision in Christian theology is to decide whether you will speak of God as a person or as a concept, as a name or as an idea.” What Willimon observes here is that we can easily make God almost inaccessible when we skew towards the realm of concept and idea. Willimon goes on by stating, “Name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God will enlist you in God's move upon the world.” So, the more personable you envision God, the better equipped you become to connect with God. Counter intuitively enough, the more personable we view God, the better we participate in praise of God.
The praise of Psalm 148 is not praising the Lord as concept, the praise in Psalm 148 is praising God as a person. Just look at how many times pronouns are utilized for God in the Psalm. Practically every verse. Now we can have justified umbrage with the type of pronoun consistently utilized throughout this psalm, but regardless a pronoun is constantly utilized throughout this Psalm because praise very much leans into what Willimon was talking about. Psalm 148 is about eliminating false gaps that we self-impose.
Gaps between ourselves, and the rest of creation. Gaps between ourselves and each other. Gaps between ourselves and God’s self. Psalm 148 maximizes the value of praise throughout its passage because it continually eliminates the gaps instead of becoming intimidated by those perceived gaps.
Sadly enough it is easier said than done to not let the intimidation get the better of us. But intimidation can be subverted. One of the best examples of subverting intimidation comes thanks to some wings. The powerful wings I speak of are a central part to the YouTube celebrity interview series Hot Ones hosted by Sean Evans. If you don’t know the concept, Sean Evans has a celebrity come into his studio for a series of 10 questions, but before he asks each question, both Sean and the celebrity have to eat a wing which has been covered in a series of diabolical hot sauces that gradually get hotter and hotter with each wing and question. The wings on hot ones do this amazing job of eliminating a gap between Sean and the celebrity. At a certain degree of spice, we all are forced to embrace our humble humanity in the same painful way.
You know, come to think of it Harry, we might be on to something here. I think we need to start serving some spicy chicken wings during worship. It works for Hot Ones, surely it would work for Sunday morning too. All of us teary eyed, sweating, and begging for relief.
I’m kidding, mostly; but the success of Hot Ones isn’t merely due to the actual hot wings. It is also due in large part to how skilled Sean Evans is with his questions and interviewing. And that skill rises out of Sean Evans ability to subvert intimidation. Despite there being a wide gap of the level of notoriety, the level of celebrity between Sean and his guests, Sean has so many great ways to conquer that gap instead of falling victim to the vastness of that gap. Circling back to Willimon, Sean treats his guests as a relatable person, instead of this untouchable icon. Instead of approaching the interview as someone completely separate, and someone beneath his guests, Sean empathizes with his guests both literally (through their shared pain of spices no mouth should have to endure) and figuratively (with approachable questions that illustrate a connection with his guests instead of mere ego boosting softball questions). By not being intimidated, Sean is able to create pure gold over and over again.
We should all strive to be like Sean when it comes to praise. Because the beautiful paradox of praise is recognizing how God is God and we are not, as vast of a gap as there ever was. And yet despite that chasm, connection is never out of reach. Praise is about not letting the immensity of that gap intimidate us away from it. Instead praise is about reveling in the bridge that binds the gap, the bridge that reconciles the gap. And thanks be to God, God’s own self in the form of Christ serves as that very bridge, that very agent of reconciliation.
So let us go and recognize the praise everything else naturally lifts up with their whole being. Let us strive to further tap into that limitless potential of praise with anything and everything we can. Let us strive to better understand our own value, everyone else’s value, and everything’s value so we can continually raise the bar of our praise. Let us conquer intimidation not just within these walls on Sunday morning, but all the time, everywhere. In doing that we understand and delight in the value of praise.