Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2016
Psalm 147:12-20 Commentary
“January has always seemed to be something of a letdown,” writes James Limburg. After all, even if, as T.S. Eliot writes, “April is the cruelest month,” January is perhaps the coldest month, at least in many parts of North America. Christmas’ excitement generally allows North Americans to look past December’s sometimes-wintry weather. But now the holidays are over, leaving many of us with just the dark, cold and snow.
Yet, as Limburg points out, the church year’s mood is quite different. The psalms the Lectionary appoints for the beginning of the new calendar year are filled with calls to join heaven and the cosmos in singing praises to God. They invite worshipers to joyfully lift up our hearts and sing to the God of the new year, as well as all the years God graciously gives us.
This Sunday’s appointed psalm is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!” (literally, “Praise God!”). It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook. It is from start to finish, after all, as the psalmist insists, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord. In a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do for me?” the psalmist insists praise to God is appropriate all by itself.
Of course, while Psalm 147 is part of the ending of the church’s songbook, the Lectionary appoints its second half for a beginning, for the first Sunday of the new year. So it might be helpful for this psalm’s preachers and teachers to ask themselves how the Spirit can use this psalm to speak at the threshold of a new year. What might this psalm say about new beginnings?
Psalm 147 celebrates God’s loving care in history and for God’s creation. The second half of it picks up and, in fact, expands on some of the themes the psalm explores earlier. As Jennifer Green notes, while the poet earlier celebrates the way God binds up wounded and heals brokenhearted people, in verses 13-14 the poet goes even farther. There she notes that God protects God’s people, blesses children and grants God’s shalom.
God doesn’t just feed God’s children. God also, according to verse 14, fills them with the best wheat. God doesn’t just send relatively “pedestrian” rain (8). In verses 16-17 the psalmist notes that God also sends dramatic snow, frost and hail.
“Who can withstand these dramatic displays of God’s power?” the poet rhetorically asks in verse 17b. He answers, “Neither any person nor any thing.” Yet, as the psalmist adds, God also displays God’s tender mercy. God melts the dangerous ice into life-giving water (18). Of course in a world where temperatures are rising, the melting of ice may not sound like particularly good news. But those who preach and teach this psalm should see God’s melting of ice as those who try to walk down January’s sidewalks would, as a sign of God’s mercy.
Green points out the poet matches growing intensity of God’s power with growing provision for God’s whole creation. God doesn’t just recognize the needs of God’s whole creation. God also provides what God’s creation needs, even in the face of great suffering such as that which Israel experienced in exile.
Yet there is, as Hans Wiersma notes, irony inherent in elements of this psalm. After all, in verse 12 the poet calls Jerusalem and Zion to praise her God. In verse 13 she notes how God “strengthens the bars of” Jerusalem’s gates and “blesses” her “people within” her. God, the poet adds in verse 14, “grants peace to” Jerusalem’s borders.
Yet if history has shown us anything, it’s Jerusalem’s vulnerability. Her “gates” have repeatedly fallen. Jerusalem’s people have suffered endless waves of suffering and death. Peace has been, at best, fleeting. In that way Jerusalem might serve as a kind of metaphor for a world that knows much misery. So Psalm 147 stands not so much as a description of Jerusalem and the world, whether ancient or modern, but as a hope and prayer. It’s a profession that the God whose peace the angels promised at Jesus’ birth will ultimately usher in that peace across the whole world.
How might this psalm “preach” or “teach” on the first Sunday of the new year? Among other things, it assures worshipers of God’s ongoing faithfulness to what God creates. The coming year may include signs of the kind of growing ecological chaos that the psalmist could never have imagined. It will, unless the Lord returns, almost certainly contain wars and rumors of war. Yet the poet knew about different kinds of chaos. Even in the face of it, she could still insist that God remains utterly faithful to what God creates. It’s a profession that worshipers can share: if the Lord tarries, God will remain faithful to what God creates throughout the coming year.
The Lectionary appoints this psalm for the second Sunday after Christmas. So if preachers and teachers can pull worshipers back to the event about which they may already be sick of hearing, it may be fruitful to explore how Psalm 147 informs our understanding of the reason for Christ’s coming into our world.
Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s blessing on God’s people (13) as well as the peace God grants us (14). He is the Bread of Life, “the finest of wheat” (14). So Jesus’ birth worshipers so recently celebrated is perhaps the greatest reason to gladly and obediently respond to the poet’s call to “Praise the Lord.”
The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “bibles” Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy. America’s third president wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
Jefferson was heavily influenced by the philosophy of deism. He imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life. So he chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed. He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” Jefferson’s gospel ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, but omits an account of his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings that include the Beatitudes.
Psalm 147 is a good antidote to the myth of such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates. Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense. Its God is not some uninterested, uninvolved deity. It is a God always at work, creating and caring for what God makes.
Of course, it’s sometimes hard for 21st century Christians to identify just how God cares for what God makes. God’s revelation of himself in creation seems to suggest things like snow, frost, hail and wind are the products of “natural forces” rather than God’s “hand.” Yet Christians profess God remains active in lovingly caring for what God makes.
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