Bless the Lord (Psalm 134)
- Liturgical Date: Last Sunday of the Church Year - November 24, 2013
- Order of Service: Matins
- Hymns: LSB #821, 534, 680
Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD! May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!
As we come to the Last Sunday of the Church Year, we take up the last of the Songs of Ascent. Those Psalms sung by the pilgrims as they went up into Jerusalem. As the last of the fifteen pilgrim psalms, it was also often prayed and sung at night. When the pilgrims would be waiting for the dawn so that they might offer their sacrifices. Be in the Temple. Worship God in His holy house. The goal of their pilgrimage.
For the Christian every day is a pilgrimage. We often sing, "I'm but a stranger here, Heaven is my home; earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home. ... What though the tempest rage, Heaven is my home; short is my pilgrimage, Heaven is my home" (LSB #748.1-2). Our pilgrimage in this world is not measured in length of years. It is measured one day at a time. As Jesus teaches us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," He says, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matthew 6:11, 34). Each day is a pilgrimage in this "desert drear". We're only given today. There is no promise of tomorrow.
And God brought this knowledge to us through the Psalms. And the Church has continued this practice in its daily life. This morning's Psalm is not only the last of the Songs of Ascent. It is also the last Psalm that the Christian should pray during the day. As early as the sixth century, the canonical hour of Compline lists Psalm 134 as the last of the Psalms to be prayed for the evening. Compline is very rarely done now in congregations. But our hymnal inlcludes Compline because the hymnal is designed not only for corporate worship but also individual devotion. The Psalm gives us the mindset God wants us to have before we retire for the evening. To properly be able to sing or say the Nunc Dimittis in complete faith and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord who invites us to "come" (v1). The Psalm begins with the invitation to join the congregation in worship. That God wants His creation to worship Him as their Creator. Jesus' invitation continues to stand, "Come unto Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). This invitation is made personal as we approach the Christmas season and His birth in Bethlehem. "Though the lowliest form now veil You as of old in Bethlehem, here as there Your angels hail You, branch and flower of Jesse's stem. ... We in worship join with them" (LSB #534.2).
And the invitation must have a purpose. The purpose of Christ's invitation is for worship. "Come, bless the LORD" (v1). The invitation is there because its opposite is very apparent. Even in Malachi's days they said, "It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape" (3:14-15). As we look out into the world, it definitely seems that the evildoers prosper instead of and at the expense of the righteous. It seems better to be ungodly rather than godly.
As we look at Jesus' death, it certainly seems vain to worship a God who died on a cross. A God who would allow His creation to kill Him. It seems utter nonsense. But this is the God of the Bible. A God whose mercy is shown in taking that "lowliest form" to invite people to become members of His kingdom. As the women mourned and lamented Jesus' impending crucifixion, He said to them, "Do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. ... For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:28-31).
We're invited to bless the LORD who sent His Son--the green wood--to die for our sake--the dry wood. Our sinfulness causes our trees of faith to wither and fade. Although we've withered in our sin, there is still the hope of repentance. Still the hope of salvation. God says through Malachi, "They shall be Mine ... in the day when I make up My treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him" (3:17-18).
God promises to establish once again His treasured possession in the Gospel. It is in the invitation in the Psalm that we see the Gospel in practice. "Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD" (v1). The invitation to come is given to those who have been claimed as God's servants. "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14). The invitation comes to those who have had their sins forgiven. Those who have seen the end of Jesus' death in His resurrection. Those who have been remade into the image of their heavenly Father. Imaged after Jesus, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15). "The head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18).
The Church exists as those who have been forgiven. Those who nailed Him to the cross through their sins. Those for whom He says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Those found in the book of remembrance written before God "of those who feard the LORD and esteemed His name" (Malachi 3:16). We are found in that book because we have been forgiven of our sins. We have been reconciled to God through Jesus. "Making peace by the blood of His cross" (Colossians 1:20).
As reconciled, forgiven sinners, we stand before our Lord (v1). Standing has long been considered in liturgical churches the proper posture for corporate prayer. Therefore we stand when we pray as a congregation. Whether it's a prayer or it's the entire liturgy. We stand in reverence to God. Standing during prayer dates all the way back to Tabernacle and Temple worship in the Old Testament.
This brings me to a point that was brought to my attention recently. Apparently, despite our striving against it, there are members of the congregation who are getting older. And being older, it's more difficult to get up and down like the hymnal tells us. But standing isn't the only acceptable way to pray. If it's too difficult to stand, whether young or old, feel free to sit. You are not disrespecting God. Your are simply acknowledging your need for His blessing. It doesn't take anything away from the service if you're not standing when the hymnal says stand. You can pray while standing, sitting, laying down, kneeling. There are many proper postures for prayer.
This also brings me to a little story. When my nephew was little, he had this habit of crawling under the pew in front of him and laying down during the service. He wasn't playing with toys. He wasn't sleeping. He was just laying down and listening. It irked my sister-in-law, but probably Renee more. But my father-in-law reminded them that the Holy Spirit can work on him even under the pew. When he got too big, he stopped. He sat in the pew and he stood. As he was supposed to. He was just glad to be in God's house, hearing God's Word. Receiving the Lord's invitation.
But the Psalm doesn't just say God's standing servants. "Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night" (v1). Again, the pilgrims would get into Jerusalem but would not go to the Temple right away. They would wait. They would spend the night in prayer and vigil. Preparing their hearts and souls for worship the next day.
This practice was brought into the early Church with the Sabbath vigils. We tend to only think of vigils in regards to Easter, but early Christians had vigils every Saturday night. They prepared themselves for the reception of the Lord's body and blood in the Sacrament. They sought to be ready for the Lord to return at all times. Even if the Bridegroom tarried until midnight (Matthew 25:6, 13). The Apostles had no problem having worship services at midnight. Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed to God in the presence a jail full of prisoners in Philippi. Through their words, and the earthquake God sent, the jailer was converted (Acts 16:25-34). Jesus spent many nights in prayer, including the night He was betrayed (Matthew 14:22-25; 26:36-46; Mark 1:35; 14:32-42; Luke 6:12; 22:39-46; John 17). Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to speak to Him (John 3:1-2). Night has been seen for centuries as a good time to bless our heavenly Father.
The invitation also gives the location for the blessing. "Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD" (v1). We're invited to bless God in His house. To gather together with the other members of the Church. To go to the safe haven for the saints. The destination for every pilgrim. The Lord's house. Where His children gather to sing, pray, speak and hear God's Word.
Especially in our prayers do we bless God. "Lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling" (1 Timothy 2:8). In the antiphon for the Psalmody in Evening Prayer, we pray, "Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:2). Not lifting up our hands in anger. Lifting up our hands in praise. Focusing everything on the Lord who has done everything for us. Our only response is to thank Him for His sacrifice. Singing our alleluias. Praising Him as we will at the end of our service this morning: "Thine the glory in the night no more dying only light Thine the river Thine the tree then the Lamb eternally then the holy holy holy celebration jubilee Thine the splendor Thine the brightness only Thee only Thee" (LSB #680.5).
But our hands are uplifted to point to the holy place (v2). Lifting our hands to point to the cross where forgiveness and mercy can be found. In many Jewish synagogues, the sanctuary was set up so that the people gathered together for worship were facing Jerusalem. In many Christian congregations today that is also the case. However, within the sanctuary of the congregation is the place where we should lift our hands and point. The altar. The holy place where we receive Christ's body and blood. His mercy. His forgiveness. His salvation. All these gifts are brought to us through His sacrifice on the cross. Remembered at this table as we receive those most precious gifts: "Life imparting heavenly manna, stricken rock with streaming side, Heaven and earth with loud hosanna worship You, the Lamb who died, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Risen, ascended, glorified" (LSB #534.4).
And your risen, ascended and glorified Lord blesses you in this place (v3). Giving you His forgiveness and mercy. Calling you to be a blessing to others. Do not just HEAR the invitation. LIVE the invitation. Do you know someone who is not here? Bring them the invitation to join in blessing the God who created Heaven and earth (v3). Invite everyone to see the holy place where we lift our hands to bless and worship our heavenly Father.
As pilgrims travelling in a "desert drear" (LSB #748.1), we need the refreshment of God's blessing upon us. We need to pray and bless the Lord because He has invited us to join in worship. "Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD! [And the LORD will] bless you from Zion, He who made Heaven and earth" (vv1-3). Amen.
PSALM PRAYER: Lord Jesus, the one true Shepherd and Bishop of Your Church, at all times grant true and faithful pastors and teachers, men eager to perform all their office. Endow them with the needed gifts to preach Your Word with power, and to make conquest after conquest, to the glory of Your name and the salvation of many souls. Amen.