As has been the case with most of the sermons in this series, this sermon also will be a “subject sermon.” By that I mean that the sermon will not be the exposition of a text of Holy Scripture, even the text we are about to read, but rather the exposition of a subject taught in Holy Scripture. I have chosen these verses from Psalm 145 because they beautifully introduce that subject; but I’ll have occasion to notice a number of other statements in the Word of God that bear on the same theme.
It is a commonplace of the criticism of modern culture that it imagines itself superior to previous cultures and civilizations, no doubt in large part because of the advances in technology that have defined modern life. As a result, modern people do not tend to feel connected in important ways to generations past; they do not tend to believe that they need the wisdom of the past and so do not look for it. Modern young people neither know nor care to know the history of our civilization. They have been led to think that most everything they really need to know has been discovered recently and concerns their own modern world which – and this is the central conceit of modernity – has left the old world behind. It is a conceit because, of course, it is utterly untrue.
Our feats of engineering are, to be sure, quite amazing: from the airplane to space travel; from the computer and cell phone to modern pharmaceuticals; from the atomic bomb to deep water oil drilling. But they are the result of the accumulated wisdom of ages. And, in fact, in their way, they do not really surpass the engineering feats of the ancient world. People millennia ago were very clever and accomplished utterly remarkable things. The great pyramid at Giza, built in the mid-third millennium B.C. was for over 3,800 years the tallest man-made structure in the world at almost 500 feet until it was surpassed by the spire of Lincoln Cathedral in the fourteenth century. Still today, no one is entirely sure how these immense structures were constructed, the mass of the pyramid estimated to weigh almost 6 million tons. Built in some 20 years, it was necessary to place 800 tons of stone every day, 12 immense blocks of stone – each stone weighing from 25 to 80 tons and having been transported from quarries as far as 500 miles away – 12 immense blocks of stone laid every hour, day and night. And the precision of the stone cutting was as fine as anything likely to be done today. The width of the joints was, on average, 1/50th of an inch and the average error in length on each side of the base, a side some 750 feet in length, was 58 millimeters. And inside the pyramid were galleries and rooms fitted into the structure in such a way as to be able to sit securely under uncounted tons of stone. As I said, still today, no one knows for sure how they managed the remarkable weight, the transportation, the lifting, and the precision of the cutting. And there were other feats of engineering in the ancient world as remarkable as these.
But, more than that, engineering is not human life. The cell phone is not the meaning of life, nor is a miracle drug. Nor is either a solution to the tragedy of human life. A cell phone may make communication easier, but it doesn’t purify the words that are spoken, you can ask Congressman Weiner about that; a new drug may make a comparatively few people’s lives longer, but it doesn’t make those lives more righteous or loving or kind or fruitful. And everyone still dies too soon, or so we think. Computers have been as much a bane as a boon to human life worldwide.
Fact is, human experience in its fundamentals is today, as it has always been. More of us live today to a ripe old age, but we do not live longer than the longest-lived of ancient times. Our world is as beset with the problems of human nature as any generation was before us and nothing suggests that the following generations will somehow escape or overcome the ravages of human foolishness, selfishness, and anger. Political instability, graft and greed, crime, poverty, and violence are as much a part of human life today as they have ever been in the past and the petty injustice of human beings that makes life so miserable for so many is as much a fact of man’s existence in the 21st century as it was two millennia before Christ.
The simple fact is that, in every way that really matters, the story of mankind in our time is but one more chapter in the saga of human history to be followed, no doubt, by another like it: different in some superficial ways and exactly the same in all the ways that really matter.
The Western church, by which I mean the church of Europe, and the English speaking countries of North America, Australia, and New Zealand, has alas imbibed the arrogant spirit of the modern West. It too has little sense of its history, little sense of connection either with the generations who have gone before or those who will come after. The contemporary Western church does not crave the wisdom of the Christian ages. She makes changes in what she thinks and what she does in this way or that without consulting the Christian past and without regard for the Christian future. She is a modern church in that way too; in that unhappy and unwise way.
I have told you before that a classic illustration of this mindset, this way of thinking that ignores the past and cares little for the witness of the Christian ages, is found in the widespread acceptance of cremation instead of burial as a proper method of treating the Christian dead. Christians have never cremated their dead. On purpose, they have never done it. They regarded it as an unchristian practice for very sound reasons. But nowadays Christians, even Reformed Christians, even Christians in our Presbyterian Church in America are in large numbers cremating their loved ones and hardly anyone gives it a thought. Their ministers neither know nor care what the church has always done or why. The unspoken assumption is that we are free to make our own choices and previous generations of saints have little of importance to say to us because they are unlikely to have been as smart as we are. The disappearance of the cemetery is a powerful emblem of the arrogance of the modern mind. In the modern world what matters is the cost of something. And cremation is cheaper than burial. Who cares if Christians have never, never cremated their dead?
But that conceit, that despising the connection between present and past, between past and present and future, is something never found in the Bible. In Holy Scripture the generations are connected to one another. Every generation of Christian believers belongs to the church as a whole, past, present, and future. Here in this beautiful psalm the point is made in ways with which any reader of the Bible comes to be familiar.
“One generation shall commend your works to another; and shall declare your mighty acts.”
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”
A more modern way of saying the same thing is that the kingdom of God, the covenant of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been the same from the beginning and will remain the same until the end of history. As we read in Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” That fact ought to be obvious in our thinking and living in many ways.
But in a psalm of worship, such as Ps. 145, the point is made expressly in respect to the worship of God’s people: “one generation will commend your works to another…” This psalm is a song, a hymn of the church. David wrote the poem but the title indicates it has become a hymn for the church to sing together. The people of God in their generations are connected to one another and that connection is expressed and preserved in worship. We are part of a long line of faithful life in the world and that line runs right through a Christian service of worship.
This point is made explicitly again and again in Exodus and Leviticus in respect to the regulations of the worship of the people of God. Of this requirement or that we read that:
“It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.”
We are the people of Israel, the Israel of God, Paul tells us in Galatians 6. And in Exodus and Deuteronomy and elsewhere we are reminded that the Lord keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.
There is everywhere in the Bible both this connection between past and present and future generations of the kingdom of God and the practical implications of that connection. We are to remain steadfast, you and I, in our following Christ because we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have run the race before us and are urging us on.. So we read in Hebrews 12. In 1 Cor. 10 Paul reminds a Gentile congregation that their forefathers were delivered from bondage in Egypt but perished in the wilderness for lack of true and living faith. Those ancient Israelites serve as a warning for Christians in the first century and ever after. Israel was in Egypt and Israel could be found among Gentiles in Corinth and the principles of the life of one generation are the same as the principles of the life of another. And in Psalm 78 the godly must prove faithful to their responsibilities precisely so that the next generation and generations yet unborn will have faith in the Lord.
But it is in the worship of the church that this intra-generational connection is confirmed and expressed and preserved. It is in worship that we are to look backward and forward and find ourselves a part of something so much larger than ourselves. If it not preserved there, if it doesn’t surface in the worship of the church, if it is not apparent there when the church meets together to worship God, then you will invariably have what you have increasingly in our time, a church that is cut off, disconnected from her past, from her ancestry, from her heritage, and, at the same time, from her responsibilities for the generations of believers who will follow. For many generations this connection, this belonging to the Christian ages has been preserved in worship as was the case in the Bible. In principle and in form, necessary changes of an outward sort being made, the worship of Exodus and Leviticus, the worship of the Psalms, and the worship of Acts, is the worship of the saints in heaven according to the Book of Revelation.
Do you remember that horrible time we passed through a few decades back, when young couples took to writing their own wedding vows? It is still done, to be sure, but not as often. What a mockery of the seriousness of that moment that became. Cheesy, sentimental, often ridiculous, often meant to be funny, the vows were someone’s assumption that he or she could do better than they did in the past and almost invariably the congregation learned that he or she could not. And how well do you suppose those marriages did as a class? But it was the perfectly modern spirit, the same spirit that now prevails in our culture as marriage continues to be redefined, its obligations made less serious, less permanent, its connection to children less profound, and so on. It is absolutely no accident that the generation that wanted to write its own vows is the generation that is re-writing the nature of marriage itself. What does the past have to tell us about marriage? We are the cutting edge, after all.
But, of course, the past was much wiser than the present. They knew what people today do not: you don’t get to write your own vows. Marriage isn’t an institution you are free to define. You can try, but don’t expect things to improve. And for Christians vows are promises to which God is a witness. His name is being invoked. You are not free to speak your own mind when the Almighty has already spoken his! And you are not free to make light of something so impossibly and wonderfully solemn, as when Jennifer Anniston promised in her wedding vows always to make Brad Pitt his favorite banana milkshake. Oh, that marriage didn’t last either, did it? Perhaps the milkshake wasn’t enough. Perhaps Jennifer and Brad needed instead the weight of the divine will and the accumulated expectation of many generations to undergird the promises they were making to one another. behind the promises they made. Previous generations of Christians understood the solemnity of marriage very well and they expressed the permanence of marriage and its solemnity by requiring everyone to make the same promises in virtually the same solemn, weighty, and beautiful words, words that had attached to them the authority of long use and the sanctity of generations of obedience. Nobody could possibly deny in those days that people kept these promises because almost everybody did at least in some significant measure. Children made the same promises their parents had made and their parents before them. The entire society, and certainly the entire Christian community was part of the congregation of witnesses; the generations were gathering, past and future, with that couple on its wedding day. That does not happen much any longer and the results are entirely predictable.
As I said, it is precisely in worship – whether the worship of a Christian ceremony of marriage, a Christian funeral, or a Christian Sunday service – that this connection with past and future is powerfully enacted; this sacred gathering of the Christian ages takes place.
Of course, one powerful demonstration of that intra-generational character, of the fact that a worshipping congregation stands in this long line of generations of believers and Christian worshippers is that we use the same Bible in our worship. Its most ancient parts are now nearly 3,500 years old, its newest parts were completed still two millennia ago. And churches that make a great point of reading the Bible in their worship, all parts of the Bible, who sing the Bible’s hymns and pray the Bible’s prayers in the very nature of the case join their voices to those of the Christian ages and send that message forward to the generations yet to come.
But it is not only in the reading of Holy Scripture that the generations of the saints gather in Christian worship. In the singing of Christian worship there has, until our own most recent days, always been a mixture of hymns from the various ages of Christian history. When the Psalms are sung, even in their metrical forms, a Christian congregation is singing the most ancient hymns of the church, the hymns that have been sung the longest by the largest number of Christians. When, on the night of his betrayal, the Lord Jesus and his disciples sung a hymn in the Upper Room before they left for Gethsemane, they sung a hymn that was already a thousand years old or nearly so. Every generation of God’s people had sung that hymn, and every generation since has sung the same hymn, whichever of the Hallel psalms it was.
And wise churches have continued to do the same ever since. When we sing Hail Gladd’ning Light or Shepherd of Tender Youth, though we are singing them in a different language than that in which they were first written, we are singing the most ancient hymns that have come down to us from early Christianity. And so with the hymns of Ambrose and Gregory among the early church fathers, John of Damascus or Bernard among the fathers of the medieval church, Luther among the Reformers; when we sing the hymns of Paul Gerhardt from the 17th century, the many great hymns of Watts, Wesley, and Newton from the 18th century, the hymns of John Ellerton, William Walsham How, Horatius Bonar and scores of other fine poets from the 19th century, we are doing what Jesus did and what our Christian heritage has always done: join our voices to the Christian ages that sung these very hymns in praise of God and in confession of their faith, using the very words they used and often the very music. And now it is ours to add our hymns to those that have been given us by our spiritual forebears, hymns that express the biblical faith in reference to the spiritual experience of the church in the 20th century and now the 21st. It is our duty to confess our faith in song for the benefit of those who come after us; to add to the heritage and the tradition that will feed and nourish their faith for decades, for centuries, perhaps for millennia to come.
And not just by reading the Bible and singing the hymns of the church do we take our place in the greater community of faith. We do the same when we use the creed, in our case the Nicene Creed, to confess our faith. When we utter together that form of words we are uniting our voices to 17 centuries of Christian believers and worshippers. It is as if in heaven the confession never stops being heard, as one generation’s voice is added as that of another falls away into silence, and still another’s begins to be heard as it takes its place in the world.
And we could say the same thing about the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the standing and kneeling for prayer that has been the habit of Christian worship these thousands of years. In every way it can be made to be so, our worship needs to be both the worship of a particular group of Christians in a particular place at a particular time (Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington in the year of our Lord 2011) – reflecting our language, our customs, and our cultural expressions, as we have submitted them to correction from and to the control of Holy Scripture and the Christian faith – I say, it must be our worship and, at the same time the Christian worship of all times and places.
As you may know, Orthodox Christians fill their sanctuaries with icons, pictures of angels and of Christian saints. Part of their purpose is to recall to worshippers that the church consists not merely of the local congregation, or even the sum-total of local congregations. It consists also of believers of past days, the great multitude of the redeemed, now gathered around the throne of God. They actually have a ritual in their worship called the “censing of the icons,” in which a censer with smoldering incense within it is swung around and the smoke laid over the icons. The point, in part, is that the assembled host of worshippers gathered before the Lord includes the dead in Christ as well as those still living in the world. Indeed, in some Orthodox thought the icon is actually thought to mediate the presence of the saints, so that they are in some real way present in Christian worship as, for example, Paul says the angels are in his remarks in 1 Cor. 11. [R. Abba, Principles of Christian Worship, 11; The Oxford History of Christian Worship, 26]
Now we, of course, for entirely sufficient reasons based squarely on the teaching of the Word of God do not employ icons in our worship. And we certainly are not given in Holy Scripture reason to believe that the Christian dead are present in our worship services. But the larger point remains very important and entirely biblical.
I suppose the closest we come to icons would be the pictures of the Protestant fathers on the back wall of the sanctuary – Luther, Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards – as well as the biblical saints who are being hung on the new narthex wall, Samson and Rahab being the first two of seven. We don’t swing a censer to spread the smoke of incense over them, but we are glad for the reminder they provide that we belong to a much larger congregation, that our worship is the continuation of theirs, and, in some respects, is shared by them even now in heaven; that we have an obligation to be true to the heritage of faith and the love of God that they have handed down to us and, equally, we have an obligation to hand on to the next generation of Christian worshippers a service, a liturgy, a common life of word and sacrament that is faithful to the best traditions of Christian worship and will not leave our children and grandchildren rootless and unconnected to the whole kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
When you come into this house of a Lord’s Day you are doing what believers in Jesus Christ have done for thousands of years. In our service here at Faith, much more so than in many Christian Sunday services nowadays in the Western world, you are not only doing that generally, but quite specifically. In the elements of the service itself, in the way the congregation behaves in the service, in the order of the elements, in hymn, prayer, Word, and sacrament, we are doing what untold generations of Christians have done before us on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, it is in the service of Christian worship, more so than in any other moment or event of human life, that time itself recedes into the background and we find ourselves in the eternal present. Where else in life do people stand so solidly in the midst of a life that precedes and that follows them; where else do they see or feel themselves so powerfully to belong to something far larger than themselves? What we do on Sunday here is nothing less than the ritual of the ages. Where else in human life do you find such a thing?
When this sense, this conviction, this experience is lost, Christian worship is diminished, made small, ordinary, ephemeral; more like any gathering of people for some purpose or another. When this sense is maintained, Christian worship becomes what it always is to be:
“One generation commending God’s works to another.”
Past, present, and future all gathered in a way before the eternal God. When someone challenges you that your worship isn’t hip enough, modern enough, contemporary enough, you reply, “No; our worship is as it has always been, from the beginning of time; and our worship is as it will always be, to the end of time. Our worship is the worship of the Christian ages, of our ancestors and of our descendants. Our worship is only as contemporary as it can be and still remain the worship of the eternal church of God.”
“During the First World War the regiment of a cynical English colonel was billeted in a French village. Nothing delighted the colonel more than the opportunity of taking a rise out of the old village priest. One Sunday morning he passed the church as a handful of people were leaving Mass. ‘Good morning, Father,’ he said to the priest at the door. ‘Not very many at Mass this morning, Father – not very many!’ ‘No, my son, you’re wrong,’ was the reply. ‘Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands!’” [Abba, 11-12]
The priest was exactly right. That is Christian worship, that is always true Christian worship and it is imperative that we have the sense that it is so when we are gathered here, that we are part of something so much larger than ourselves, a congregation so much greater and magnificent than this congregation.
“Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising You, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory: Glory be to You, O Lord most high.”