Don't you love the gospel accounts of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, while the crowds shout "Hosanna!" and wave their palms? I know the joy and praise were soon followed by Christ's betrayal and arrest, but while the procession was happening, there was so much excitement that the religious leaders told Jesus to get his followers under control and make them stop shouting praises.
And Jesus told them, in effect, "Don't you get it? If I stop these folks from shouting, the very rocks will begin to sing praises!"
Some churches, on Palm Sunday, re-enact this procession. Children and grown-ups alike wave their palms and shout "Hosanna!" and come into the sanctuary singing and praising the Lord. It's exciting! And the truth is, we don't actually PRAISE the Lord as much as we really should.
Do you know the difference between praise and thanksgiving? Oh, I know there's some overlap, but they're actually two completely different things. And I suspect that often, when we try to praise God, we end up offering thanksgiving instead.
Thanksgiving, of course, is simply giving thanks to God - for our lives, our many blessings, the people we love, our salvation, answered prayer, a million different things. This is an excellent way to spend time! Do you need an attitude adjustment? (And who doesn't, from time to time?) Offering thanks to God will change our hearts and our attitudes probably more quickly than any other thing we can do. But the focus in thanksgiving is on what God has DONE. The focus in praise is on who God IS.
It's actually very much like the praise we offer people. When a baby is born, she hasn't done anything at all, right? But we say, "Oh, isn't she perfect? Isn't she adorable and beautiful? Look at her blue eyes, her tiny perfect fingers and toes, that sweet smile!" Hasn't DONE a thing - she just IS. And we're delighted with her.
As she grows, and more qualities surface, we find other things to praise her for. We're not thanking her for anything - that's praise, pure and simple, just because she exists, and we love her. And it works pretty much the same way when we're offering praise to God.
We praise God first of all just because he IS, and he never changes - he's the same yesterday, today, and forever. He's absolutely steadfast, completely trustworthy. His nature is astounding: He's absolute love, absolute goodness. Imagine a being who's free from resentment, who never holds a grudge, who forgives fully and freely. He loves sacrificially and unconditionally, free from any selfishness. We need to praise him for that!
And we praise God because his love isn't blind - he knows us inside and out, and he loves us anyway. His love is perfectly wise, perfectly understanding. He knows when to say "yes" and when to say "no." He knows what to block from our lives and what to allow in. Supernatural, perfect wisdom and knowledge - we need to praise him for that!
God is powerful, the most powerful force in the universe. He's powerful enough to SPEAK the world into being, to heal the sick and raise the dead. And at this point, I have to add some thanksgiving for his love and goodness - because of those things, God's power is ALWAYS used to do good in the world, never evil. We can trust him. We need to praise him for that!
His compassion is beyond our understanding. His mercy never fails. His very nature is perfectly just, filled with light and truth and love and wisdom. There's never any shortage of things to praise God for, but sometimes we still run out of words, and we just have to shout, "Hosanna! Praise the Lord!"
I'm not sure why praising God does US so much good, but it certainly does. Maybe because when we're in the middle of a hard time or just in the middle of our day, it helps to remind ourselves that no matter what, God is good. It's not just for Palm Sunday! Praising God helps to lift us out of our circumstances and into a place of reassurance and peace. Praising God reminds us that we are God's child ... and we're safe in his hands.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.