Preaching Psalms 95

How do you preach the Psalms faithfully? The Psalms are prayers that are sung. Some call it the prayer book of Israel. They are Hebrew poetry and is designed to move the heart. Although there are wisdom psalms that may be more logical and cognitive in impact, most of the psalms touch our emotions and desires. How can I preach it and reproduce a similar impact? I find this difficult. I find myself dissecting, and analysing by breaking down and then synthesising and re-organising the material in didactic, conceptual and systematic. And what is meant to move the heart loses its power and fails to move the heart. In a way, it misses the mark.

A case in point, on Sunday I preached Psalm 95. It is a psalm that celebrates God’s greatness as King, Creator and Shepherd and why he deserves to be worshipped appropriately. It is punctuated with shouts of joy, and notes of “come let us”. Then it suddenly shifts into a poignant warning to about what true worship really is – a surrender to God’s will and voice. From joyous exaltation and call to worship to an unexpected warning to listen and obey.

However, the setting explains that sudden shift. The Psalm was to re-assure the Israelites in exile that God is great even as they ended up deported to Babylon and the Temple laid in ruins. It was meant to explain that they ended in this state because like the generation in Moses time, they too had not listened and obeyed God’s voice. Very hard-hitting and sensitive issue. It should anger the hearer, raise defensiveness or produce repentance. The question is how do you preach this text in such a way that it had the same impact that it originally wanted to achieve? True exposition should not merely bring out the real meaning of the text but to also seek to reproduce the original impact intended.

Here is the Psalm 95 in ESV:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

I came up with a title (GOD IS WORTHY OF WORSHIP) and an outline that was more targetted to the mind than the heart:

  1. We worship because God is worthy. (He is our King, our Creator and Shepherd).
  2. We worship with praise and adoration. (Expressions of praise: sing, shouts of joy, thanksgiving. Expressions of adoration: kneel, bow down, prostrate. We move from praise to adoration – which includes a loving reverence that obeys)
  3. We worship together. (The fivefold repetition of phrase “come let us”)

How do you think this could be preached to have the same impact on emotions and conscience that the psalmist originally intended? I would love to hear your opinion.

Teaching in the Deaf Faith Fellowship

Teaching the deaf in the Deaf Faith Fellowship requires hard work. It is cross-cultural communications. The deaf is a sub-culture. This was what I found out when the pastoral team decided that we need to help the deaf pastor in teaching and helping the deaf with evangelism, prayer and emotional health.

I took the lead with a Sunday sermon on evangelism followed by an afternoon workshop after lunch. We were preparing them for the Celebration of Hope. Sounds simple right? Far from it.

We decided to subject ourselves to the scrutiny and input of the deaf pastor Barnabas and his part-time admin helper Mui Keng. I ran through the sermon and seminar with them and from their input and advice, I had to make quite a number of changes in content, presentation and methodology. I had to simplify the workshop and I had to add more powerpoint slides with pertinent pictures. I had to plan some role acting and drama into the sermon and workshop.

Preaching about Zacchaeus in the Deaf Faith Fellowship

As there were 40 of them and not sufficient interpreters, I went through all the material with the cell leaders and assistants the Sunday before, so that they could readily help the members do the workshop exercises.

They participated and were attentive during the workshop

I must say I quite enjoyed doing this double sessions and the additional meeting to prepare the cell leaders. This has been enriching and satisfying for me, and I do hope it was for them too.

During their worship I found myself quite charmed by the beauty of Sign Language and learnt quite a few signs like “Hallelujah”, “Jesus”, “Lord”, “overcome”, “save”. During the sermon I had Hui Bong to interpret my sermon and during the workshop it was Mui Keng. I observed that you need patience and love to work with the deaf, and these two had it in abundance. May God bless them.

Boston: stumbling onto Phillips Brooks

At the beginning of the Freedom Trail, waiting tor the tour guide after having clam chowder for lunch
Posing with the tour guide who was dressed in clothing of Boston past

Freedom Trail

We were in Boston and had gone on a Freedom Trail walking tour. Boston has a rich and significant history. Momentous events took place there and some of the buildings and graves testify to the fundamental way America has been shaped by those events. I loved the tour and would recommend it to anyone.

We then wanted to have fantastic hot chocolate at a popular café near the park where the Freedom trail ended. On the way to the café, I spotted a statue in front of a huge church building. I went nearer to look and saw an interesting thing.

Rt Rev Phillips Brooks

It was a sculpture put up in memory of Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks, the famous preacher whose lectures on preaching I had read when I was in seminary. Phillip Brooks gave the “Lyman Beecher Lectureship  on Preaching” at the Divinity School of Yale College. The lectures now seem outdated but he had said some great, classic things about preaching. One of his often quoted sayings was his definition of preaching: “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.”

Beautiful Trinity Church (Episcopalian)

After tea, we went to take pictures in front of the sculpture. The sculpture was of Phillip Brooks preaching with his hands stretched out to make a point. There is a strange hooded figure behind him, with his hand on Phillip’s shoulder. Clearly the sculptor meant to indicate how Jesus anointed the preaching of Brooks, and how his effectiveness as a preacher depended on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Phillips Brooks and Jesus

Then we went inside the church to have a look. However, we needed to pay to go in and walk among the pews, the volunteers from church had told us. So I said, Forget it. Ping, my daughter in law, told the volunteers that I was a pastor and had read his lectures in seminary when I was young, and would love to be able to go in. That must have moved them to allow us to go in for free. Thus, we sat there inside the church, among the pews, and in silence I prayed for a fresh anointing and that I would give my whole heart to preaching.

The sanctuary was beautiful and awesome

That night I searched for a free download of Brook’s lectures on preaching and downloaded it. The next few days, I would open those pages and read them on my smartphone. I have gone back now to these lectures, but on my iPad so that I could highlight striking sentences and thoughts. God willing I will post these sayings of Brooks once I have finished reading the lectures.