“Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?”

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Genesis 13:2-18; Mark 7:31-37

Anthem: “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord?” by S.S. Wesley

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?”

Who indeed? In our anthem this evening, the choir has confronted us with a daunting rhetorical question. It is a question taken from Psalm 106: “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” It is a question of awe—of wonder. It is a question repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament: in the sweeping stories of the Patriarchs, in the majestic beauty of the Psalms, in the thundering power of the Prophets, the question takes many forms.

“Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” asks Moses in exultation, as he stands upon the distant shore of the Red Sea [Exodus 15:11]. “Who is like unto the Lord our God, who dwelleth on high?” asks the psalmist in Psalm 113 [v. 5], praising God’s power to help the poor and needy. “To whom will ye liken me, or shall I be equal?” asks the Lord himself through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah [40:25].

The unstated but undoubted answer to all these questions is “No one.” In all of these, as in the words of our anthem this evening, we are made to feel the awful transcendence of God: the distance between his ways and our ways—the gap between his thoughts and our thoughts. In these questions, we are taken in heart and mind to stand, meekly, at the foot of Mount Sinai, trembling as we gaze up in terror at the unsearchable, untameable, incomprehensible greatness of the Almighty. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” Who indeed?

And yet, as daunting as that question may be, this evening we have heard from a few people who try, against all odds, to answer it. In our Second Lesson, taken from St Mark’s Gospel, we met Jesus just as some folks brought forward a man who was both deaf and dumb. And “they [besought] him to put his hands upon him.” In his earthy, incarnate way, Jesus accepted their request. He took the man aside and put his fingers in his ears. He touched his tongue with some of his own saliva. Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and commanded the deaf man, “Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.”

And then, having done this noble act—having demonstrated divine mercy and power worthy of all praise—Jesus forbids them to speak of it. As Mark tells us, “He charged them that they should tell no man.” Again and again in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes this command of the people who have seen what he has done, or who can attest to his great deeds. Again and again the people ignore him. So it was in our story this evening.

“But the more he charged them [that they should tell no man], so much the more a great deal they published it.” Who could blame them? They were “beyond measure astonished.” And in their telling, in their publishing, they actually try to answer this evening’s big question. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” asks our anthem. The people gathered before Jesus that day eagerly respond, “We can! We who have seen his power—we who have known his mercy—we whose ears have been unstopped, whose tongues have been loosed, who now sing and shout to tell the news that the Lord is ‘good and gracious…and doest wondrous things.’ We can.”

To be sure, they cannot tell every noble act. Of  course, they cannot show forth all His praise. And yet those people dwelling in the midst of the coasts of the Decapolis find themselves impelled to answer the impossible question of our anthem. They were not left dumbfounded before the mighty God of transcendence. Rather, their astonished tongues were loosed to tell the praises of the God in their midst, the God who had come among them. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” From the lips of Jesus’ first followers rises the ready reply: “We can—we who have stood in his presence; we who have seen his power.”

Or consider, beloved, the story we heard in our First Lesson. In Genesis tonight, we met Abram just after he completed his long trek to the new land that the Lord had promised him. Faithful to the sudden call of God, Abram had gone up out of his native country—up from his father’s house—up from Ur of the Chaldees—and had come to dwell in the land of Canaan. With him, Abram brought his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and all the herds and possessions that marked a wealthy man in ancient times.

Already once before this time Abram has heard the promise of the Lord, that “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great.” Already, on the strength of that promise, Abram has obeyed the Lord’s command—has left all he knows—has gone up into a strange land. But still Sarai remained childless. Still, as Abram surveyed the wealth of his household, he could not see how it could pass to an heir of his own flesh and blood. Still, he found himself a sojourner, unable to dwell in the promised land together with his equally wealthy kinsman.

How alone must Abram have felt, even in the company of his wife and his household, as he watched Lot move slowly away to the East, to settle near the city of Sodom? How cut off must he have felt, as he beheld his only blood relative of the next generation decamp to the cities of the Jordan plain, leaving Abram in the Land of Canaan—the lonely land of promise?

And yet it was then, at the very moment when Abram found himself utterly alone, a stranger in a strange land, that the Lord said to him, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” And if doubts and fears clouded Abram’s breast at that mention of descendants, the Lord continued: “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.”

And hearing the renewal of the Lord’s promise, Abram obeyed the Lord’s command. There in the plain of Mamre, in Hebron, Abram built an altar unto the Lord, and in so doing he also set himself to answer our anthem’s question. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” Father Abraham, standing childless before his rough hewn altar eagerly answers: “I can! I who have heard the everlasting promise of the Lord. I who have received not yet in fullness, and yet in faithfulness—not yet in seeing, and yet in believing. I who now offer prayers and praises to the One who has called, the One who is ‘good and gracious unto all them that call on [Him].’ I can.”

To be sure, Abram cannot tell every noble act. Of course, Abram cannot show forth all God’s praise. And yet the father of a multitude who is not yet the father of anyone, dwelling there in the land promised to his unseen descendants finds himself impelled to answer the impossible question of our anthem. He was not silent before the mysterious God of transcendence. Rather, his troubled heart was opened to sing the praises of the God who called him—the God who held him still. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord, or show forth all his praise?” From the lips of Father Abraham rises the ready reply: “I can—I who have heard his promises; I who have known his faithfulness.”

Beloved, our Anthem and our Lessons this evening appear to stand on opposite sides of a great theological gulf. Our Anthem extols the transcendence, the awesome distance of Almighty God. Our Lessons celebrate the immanence, the astonishing nearness of the Lord. And yet, the Good News we announce in the fading light of this Third Sunday after the Epiphany—in this season of Christ’s manifestation to the world—is that God’s transcendence and God’s immanence—God’s distance and God’s nearness—that great and seemingly insuperable gulf between God’s power and God’s presence has been bridged in the person of Jesus our Lord.

In Jesus our Lord, the God who dwells in light inaccessible has come to be the light of our world. In Jesus our Lord, the God whose name is ineffable and whose power is eternal has come to bear a human name, and to show forth his power in human lives. “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all His praise?” May the lips of this assembly be opened to answer that question with boldness and faithfulness and a ready reply: “We can! We can, not because we possess the power to pierce the thunderclouds of Sinai’s height, but because we know that the same God who gave the Law in cloud, and majesty, and awe, has also given himself in lowliness, in humility, in human form.” “Who can express the noble acts of the Lord or show forth all his praise?” “We can, not because we have ascended on high to learn the secret wonders of the Lord our God, but because he has descended to us—because he ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’”

For, dear people, all God’s noble acts are confirmed and contained in the Cross of Christ Jesus. All his noble deeds are told and transfigured in the empty tomb of Easter. Our deaf ears have been opened to hear the Good News. Our dumb tongues have been loosed to sing his praise. Our barren hearts have been made ready to receive the fullness of his promise, and to show forth in this weary world the wondrous announcement: “O Lord…Thou art good and doest wondrous things: For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord.”

“Who can express the noble acts of the Lord, or show forth all his praise?” Beloved, to that great and terrible question may we here gathered in the Name of Christ ever make our glad reply, “We can!”