Scriptures: Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 118:5-14
Isaiah 12 is a remarkable scripture passage. In many ways it reads like one of the psalms. In fact some of its phrases are taken from the psalms. Isaiah 12:2 says, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Compare that verse to a verse Kurt read for us from Psalm 118. Verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Isaiah 12 echoes Psalm 118.
A similar thing happens in Isaiah 12:4. It says,, “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.” Compare that to Psalm 105, verse 1: “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.” Isaiah 12 is built on psalms of praise from the Bible. But it occurs in a context where you would not expect a psalm of praise.
I have shown this map before. It illustrates how in the time of Isaiah the people of Israel and Judah were like a punching bag for the more powerful empires around them. Israel and Judah are down here, around the city of Jerusalem where Isaiah lived. During Isaiah’s lifetime they were invaded by three successive armies, each bigger than the previous one: first the Syrians then the Assyrians and finally the Babylonians who in 587 BC captured Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and took most of its people into exile as slaves.
Those are the times in which Isaiah was written. But Isaiah still believes in God’s power and love, so much so that he is able to sing about it even before he sees it. Isaiah 12, verses 3-4: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”
Our first scripture reading, Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise written after being rescued by God. Verse 5: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.” Psalm 118 celebrates how God has rescued the person from some horrible problem. And that leads to a chorus of praise in verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”
In contrast, Isaiah 12 is not a song of praise after the people have been saved by God. It is a song they are taught to sing before they are saved. Verse 4: “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.” Isaiah 12 is what I call “anticipatory praise.”
It’s one thing to come to church and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” when everything is going okay, when you’ve still got your job or your retirement income, when you still have a home to go back to and food to eat, when you still feel well enough to come to church. In those circumstances it is easy to be thankful and sing songs of praise to God.
But it is something else to come here and sing God’s praise when you are facing a cancer, or when your child is seriously ill or in trouble, or when you are depressed and worried about things happening at your school or in your home or in our country. Let’s be honest. There are plenty of things happening out there, that if you stop and think about it very long, will leave you feeling depressed. And yet, we expect you to come here on Sunday morning and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We expect you to sing, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does it successive journeys run.” We sing these songs, not because they are statements of fact but because they are statements of faith. They are anticipatory praise. They are our determined declaration to the world that love is going to win.
One time I had an experience of watching an old movie with someone who had already seen it. The movie was called Hoosiers, the story of a high school basketball team from the little town of Hickory, Indiana. Anyone who thinks a movie is not as exciting the second time you watch it should have been with my friend that night. He could hardly keep himself in the chair. Even before it started, he said to me, “This is a great movie; you are really going to like it.” So I settled into my chair to watch. But all through the movie he kept telling what was coming next. At the first practice with the new coach two of the seven players quit the team, leaving only five players to take the court. My friend turned to me and said, “That’s okay, wait until you see what happens next.” Well what happens next is that during the first game one of the players fouls out, leaving the team with only four players. My friend then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry; watch how it turns out.” He was like that all through the movie. At one point the team’s coach gets thrown out of a game. My friend turned to me and said, “This is a great scene coming up.” I was feeling depressed, but he could barely contain his excitement.
I discovered why at the end of the movie. In the end this small town basketball team from Hickory High School, enrollment 64, ends up winning the Indiana State Championship, beating a team from South Bend Central High School with an enrollment of 2800 students.
And then I realized what was going on: while I was sometimes anxious and depressed watching the movie, my friend was excited because he knew the ending. He knew how it was going to turn out, so he is praising the movie even while I’m thinking I want to turn it off.
That’s what Isaiah is doing. Isaiah is encouraging us to praise God, not because of what is happening in our lives right now, but because of how it will turn out in the end. Isaiah is teaching us anticipatory praise. Isaiah wants us to practice gratitude, even if at the moment you don’t feel particularly grateful. Isaiah wants us to practice praising God, not only for what God has done for us in the past, but for what God will yet do in the future.
Like many of you I was touched to hear Paul Edwards tell his story in our church two weeks ago. It was humbling to hear him tell about meeting his grandmother in Alabama who still bore the marks of slavery on her back, and then to hear him tell of marching in a civil rights demonstration in Memphis, TN, with Dr. King, and afterwards going into a hotel, getting permission to use their restroom, and coming to see a row of armed police officers pointing rifles at him and asking what he was doing in that hotel. Paul said he knew in that moment if he flinched he could be dead. Our own Paul Edwards told those stories and reflected on how experiences like that still happen to African Americans today. Then all of us in the church stood up with him, and together we began to sing:
We shall overcome; we shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.
That is anticipatory praise. It is not unlike my friend during the movie telling me, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next.” Every Sunday we stand in this church and proclaim to the world, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next. We shall overcome and love is going to win.”