Praises and Pleases… and Jesus (Psalm 118)

Good morning friends.

We’re going to be in Psalm 118 this morning and as you’re turning there or loading it up, let’s make some quick introductions.

My name is Brett Davis. My bride, Joy, is there in the back. She’s the best person—the best person on the planet—that’s right—the best person on the planet is here at New Life Manitou this morning—if you want to meet her, she’d gladly, sincerely, love to meet you afterwards… because she’s the best person on the planet.

Our relationship is an answer to deep deep prayers. We’ve been married just over five years, and we actually met online with eHarmony. We met about a year-and-a-half after I graduated from seminary in Birmingham, Alabama, during a season when my life had imploded. Like totally collapsed. I’m talking… literally every bit of normalcy is gone, where do I start picking up the pieces, how can God resurrect my life when there’s only dust and ash left? And then—oh, the unsearchable mysteries of the Spirit’s work—I got a message from this girl 1,300 miles across the country in Denver. (Later I found out that she’d tried to delete me from her list of matches—in fact, she’d tried several times to delete me, but my profile annoyingly wouldn’t delete…) We dated long-distance for about six months before I finally moved out to Denver to be closer to her.

Our relationship is the miracle that I daily live in even though I sometimes lose sight of how miraculous it is. God paired up two strangers from across the country and used our relationship to heal each other’s wounds. That’s Joy.

If you see a THREE year-old with pig tails running around, that’s our precocious TWO year-old daughter Daphne… she only looks three. We took the fake ID away from her, but she’s still fooling people. Not she’s not an immature three year-old, she’s just a very smart, very tall, two-and-a-third year-old. She keeps us on our toes, and she’s an answer to prayer too… like so many people, we struggled with fertility issues as we began trying to start a family. We actually had two miscarriages before Daphne came along… we call them Enoch and Hope. And then Daphne came along—an answer to prayer in the form of a sweet, sensitive, firecracker pistol.

And then our youngest daughter, Daisy, is that sweet little baby that you might have seen. In the six months we’ve been a part of New Life Manitou, she’s gone from not-quite-sitting-up to sitting up strong-and-steady. She was born with something called “centronuclear myopathy.” We literally just got the diagnosis—we just got the name for it—a few weeks ago. Basically every voluntary muscle in her body struggles on a cellular level. That’s why she looks sleepy a lot of the time… because “every voluntary muscle” includes, of course, her eyelids and eye-moving muscles. She’s fifteen months old, and right now she’s got some pretty significantly delays in development. She’s still not crawling, still not babbling much, still not close to walking, but her doctors think she’ll eventually do all of that—that she’ll lead what we would call “a normal life” even though her muscles will always struggle on that cellular level. She’s come a long way, and we keep marching forward with her in hope (and confidence) that we’re headed somewhere beautiful.

And that’s really all of our lives, isn’t it? The journey is long, the journey is hard, the journey has twists and turns and places where we’re tempted to stop, but we all. keep. marching. forward. And Psalm 118 presents us with the beautiful destination.

Psalm 118 gives us the place—the destination—where we’re all invited and drawn and called. The presence of the Sacred—the presence of God. And that’s actually where Psalm 118 draws those who sing it—to the presence of God.

Psalm 118 is the end of a grouping of psalms that starts in Psalm 113 called “the Hallel” (which just means “the praise”). They are a one long Jewish prayer of thankfulness and worship sung at certain times of the year during particular holy days and festivals. And so for centuries the people of God would be singing Psalms 113-118 as they journeyed to Jerusalem—to the Temple in Jerusalem—during holy seasons like Passover. They would sing these psalms on the road—along the journey—as they made their way toward the sacred, divine Presence.

When verse 15 says,

“the sound of joyful songs and deliverance
are head in the tents of the righteous”

(Psalm 118v15)

it’s probably talking about the tents of those on their way to Jerusalem. With only a tiny bit of imagination we can picture the tired pilgrims finally passing through the gates of the city and singing verse 19:

“Open the gates… so I can come in.”

(Psalm 118v19)

They’ve been singing and declaring and reminding each other along on the long, weary road:

God’s faithful love lasts forever,
God’s faithful love lasts forever,

(Psalm 118v1-2)

Yes (v3, v4)—God’s faithful love—his “chesed”—his loyal, covenant devotion—lasts forever. And when they’ve finally arrived at the Temple—at the presence of God—the song ends with blissful fullness and contentment:

“…his faithful love lasts forever.”

(Psalm 118v29)

It’s like Psalm 118 and the psalms before it are keeping our eyes on the destination—as we live on the road in windblown tents: remember where we’re headed. We’re headed to God—to the divine Presence—toward hope, toward safety, toward love. And God is sustaining us. In every breath, with every step: “his faithful love lasts forever.” Even before we pass through those final gates, and enter the presence of God, praise is how we taste home while we’re still on the road.

As we learn to praise along the journey—as we remind ourselves what God is like—as we learn gratitude for the road already travelled—we can taste the bliss and contentment of heaven even in our windblown tents. Praise and worship, gratitude and remembrance—they help us experience our destination even before we arrive.

We remember the times in our lives when we were in tight circumstances—when the noose was tightening, and the pregnancies weren’t coming to term, and we were scared witless about what the doctors would say, and when life was collapsing. And we also remember the ways that in those times—how in the past—we have received answer. We recognize and remember that in our stories so far, somewhere, somehow, someway God has answered our tight circumstances (v5) with wide open spaces.

In fact, we’ve moved on to brand new anxieties

Because that thing we once worried about has been totally resolved—that somewhere along the way our claustrophobia gave way to euphoria, that our noose became a tire swing—when we recognize and remember how the faithful love of God has carried us in the past and when we choose—it’s a choice—praise and gratitude for that faithful love. We experience home while we’re still on the road. This psalm—Psalm 118—is chock full from beginning to end of practicing praise before we arrive. Praise is central to the life of the faith because it’s how we taste the future in the present. It’s how we taste home while we’re still on the road. It’s how we taste the victory of the heavens right now.

Praise and joy and gratitude and wonder and ecstasy and bliss and contentment—that’s the life of heaven—that’s the eternal, endless life of Father, Son, and Spirit—and we taste that life right now by practicing praise.

We practice praise before we arrive.

But then something really interesting happens in verse 25. Did you notice it? In the middle of all this praise, there’s a please. There’s a please in the praise. It just comes erupting to the surface in verse 25:

“LORD, please save us!
LORD, please let us succeed!”

(Psalm 118v25)

Who let “please” in here? Way to kill the mood, “please.” We were having a terrific worship service, we were all practicing praise and tasting the life of heaven, and then “please” had to go and show up. “Please” lets in the danger. It lets in the uncertainty. “Please” reminds us of our lack—of our need—our desperation. Where “Praise” reminds us of our destination, “please” reminds us that we’re still on the road.

This moment—verse 25—when please crashes the party of praise—shouldn’t surprise those of us who have been paying attention as we’ve journeyed through the psalms. Psalm 118 gives us a microcosm—a miniature picture—a good small-scale model—of the Psalms as a whole. And as we’ve seen, praise and please are both familiar faces in the Psalter. The life of faith and the life of worship involves both praises AND pleases. The abruptness of please’s eruption in verse 25 just makes us unable to ignore it. Praises and Pleases go together. “Praise” and “Please” are equally vital to the life of faith. “Please” didn’t come in and wreck our worship. “Please” came in and helped our worship not be a sham.

We need.

We need God and we need everything from God.

The life of faith—the life worship—is a pattern of praise and please. They’re both forms of honesty, getting honest about our lives and our stores. They’re NOT two opposites. Praise and Please are NOT oil and water. They’re two sides of a coin. They’re a pattern as elemental as air. It’s as rhythmic as breathing. We exhale with praise, we inhale with please.

We breathe out with praise, gratitude, thankfulness,
and we breathe in with please, help, save us.

They’re both forms of honesty. Some of us have been handed a version of faith where “praise” is somehow a stronger sign of faith than “please.” And so we’re really careful not to let anyone see the areas where we’re tired, or hurting, or doubting, or shivering, or waiting for God to save. We carry around an idea that the life of faith is endless exhale of praise. But you’re NOT an endless supply of air. You’re not God.

God is the Supply…
…and God wants to supply.

You need to inhale. And we inhale with Please. And we suffocate without it. Please isn’t the opposite of faith—please is actually an expression of faith. Please is an expression of confidence that God can do something about this. It’s precisely because the people of God remember God’s past faithfulness in cutting down danger that they ask for help in the present:

“…cut them down in the Lord’s name”

(Psalm 118v10, 11, 12)

We ask for help because one day our help will become a hallelujah. Please is just Praise in embryo. A Please is going to grow up to be a Praise. Help turns into Hallelujah eventually. But in the world as it is presently Praise and Please always go together.

Throughout the week, perhaps pay attention to which you inner being needs air. Are you struggling for air because of lack of praise or lack of please? Is it lack of exhaling or lack of inhaling? Is your tendency to endlessly try to praise—to endlessly try to exhale—without ever admitting your ongoing need? The Lord invites you to breathe. To inhale. To admit your need—to him, to others—and ask for what you need.

Or maybe some of us are on the opposite side. Maybe our tendency is endlessly asking God for help—we’re on an endless inhale, never believing that you’re being given air. That prayers REALLY ARE being answered. If you never learn to exhale praise, you’ll never have room to receive what God is giving. God’s answers are just different than we imagine.

Ugh… and I know that sounds cliche and rote. God’s answers are different than we imagine, and his timetable is different than ours, and his ways are not our ways… and all that can sound like some kind of excuse, or flimsy unthinking religious talk, that we’re tempted to just reject entirely. But it’s truly NOT. It’s pretty darn close to the mysterious heart of the gospel

Which, of course, brings us to the enigma of verse 22. The people of God are approaching the city, calling out for the gates to open (v19) so they can enter in (20), and are thanking God (v21) because God has been their saving help… and then there’s a strange line:

“The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone!”

(Psalm 118v22)

A lot of translations translate that word as “cornerstone.” Whatever it is—be it a foundation stone at the bottom of the building or a capstone or cornerstone near the top of the building it’s an important stone. But it’s not entirely clear what this stone was originally talking about.

There’s rabbinic story centered around this verse that talks about the building of Solomon’s Temple where a great shipment of stones arrives, and the builders of the Temple come across an large, unusual stone—very oddly-shaped indeed—that they have absolutely no use for. And they never will… so they cast it aside… rejected. But as the building project was nearing its end, the builders became incredibly concerned. The intricacies of the architecture had left an unusual hole—a vacuous space—right at the pinnacle of the structure. That hole is large and unusual… very oddly-shaped indeed.

…and then they remembered the stone they had rejected.

And thus—told the rabbis—was the providence of God, in the building of his Temple.

Others tended to think of this “rejected stone” as the people of Israel themselves. Kings and rulers of this world—the people with great plans and the builders of kingdoms—have rejected the people of Israel. Ancient Israel was crushed by empire after empire and absolutely rejected by everyone building the world. But as the people of God pass through the gates—nearing the Temple—they celebrate that despite being rejected and despised and crushed, they are chosen and significant in the eyes of Yahweh.

There are various ways of understanding this strange stone. But the early Church was convinced that—whatever else this “stone” might refer to—this stone is about Jesus. About the mystery reality that God chose to become part of his creation, chose to walk among us—to actually forever become one of us—and we wanted nothing to do him. We listened to his stories with mild curiosity, we took what we could get from him—a little healing, a few meals—but in the end he disrupted our little lives too much, and didn’t give us what we wanted.

So we rejected him.

So we abandoned him, betrayed him, lynched him, stood idly by while the government tortured him, and—finally—we joined in jeering and spitting and cursing and mocking until God’s Word spoken to the world was finally silenced. God, after all, has never been saying what we want him to say, never answering how we want him to answer, never doing what we think he should do. We’re the builders—busy planning our lives, busy building our little world, and God is just disrupting it all… in the first century, the human race finally had the chance to do something about it, and we did. We rejected him. And then God answered our rejection with resurrection.

God answers our loathing with love.

In the words of someone who was there—someone who abandoned Jesus, denied Jesus, cursed Jesus—in the words of a guy named Peter:

this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.10-12, CEB)

Psalm 118 became central to the early church because they had lived it. They seen had seen it. They had seen Jesus raised from the dead. And it turned their lives upside down. It turned the world upside down. The early church was convinced that this person—this Jesus—this cornerstone, this foundation—was the ground zero of salvation.

The mysterious heart of the gospel is that God saves in ways we want to reject.

God brings us forgiveness and peace, wholeness and healing, deeper and better life than we ever imagined; and God does it through what we initially reject. It’s NOT that God causes evil in the world, but God is working through it in ways I’d rather him not. I assure you, as my life was falling apart six months after graduating seminary, I was desperately saying, “PLEASE GOD—Please help.” And he did—just not in the way I wanted. But on this side of my unanswered please, I praise him for it. God gave a better answer than I could have asked for. And through it all, he was working a little more salvation into me.

“Here, Brett—in this mess, through this wreckage, here’s a bit of humility, here’s a place to practice forgiveness, and here’s a theater for my faithfulness. Your life is dust and ash, Brett? You call that wreckage. I call it soil. I’m doing something there. I’m growing something dazzling here. I happen to specialize in raising the dead and making crosses beautiful.”

In the midst of our miscarriages, we were handed a stone we wanted to reject. The pain, the grief, the waiting, the weeping—we begged with a mighty PLEASE to be spared it all. And yet the Spirit of Jesus was at work—deepening our marriage, cleaning out wounds we didn’t know we had, resetting long-broken bones in our souls. And we don’t know how it all works, but we have faith we’ll meet those two little ones when we pass through the gates.

There have been innumerable times that we’ve prayed for instant, miraculous healing on a cellular level for Daisy… gut-wrenching cries of “PLEASE, heal her… it’s painful to watch her struggle so hard to do normal things.” Maybe God will do that. He can—and I’ll praise him if he does. But if he chooses to give a different sort of gift we’ll learn to practice praise. Because God is working things into our souls that we couldn’t have imagined… the way we view those struggling physically, the compassion that has been grafted into our souls, the faith being built in us that God’s faithfulness is slow but sure.

If God’s supreme miracle in human history is rejected
why do we suppose
that God’s minor miracles in our lives will be easy to accept?

Central to following Jesus is learning to receive what we want to reject. Because I think our lives are a series of miracles that we’ve stopped recognizing. Our lives are a series of miracles that we’re often tempted to reject. Maybe we’ve never recognized them. You’re invited to begin. You’re invited to practice praise before you arrive. To recognize that God is at work—that his faithful love lasts forever. To learn to ask—to learn to say please—and trust that God is making our lives lovely with stones we wouldn’t have chosen.

Perhaps some of us need to take verse 17 onto our lips and into our depths:

“I won’t die—no, I will live
and declare what the LORD has done.”

(Psalm 118v17)

May our praises be fueled by the gifts and grace and beauty we want to reject. May our pleases be frequent and confident as we accept our limits and trust that heaven meets our never-ending need. May Jesus—that cornerstone of the creation—that foundation stone of the universe—our only salvation—teach us to see the miracles we’ve stopped recognizing, and help us accept the miracles we’ve been given.