Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2016
Psalms 96 and 97 Commentary
Today is one of the many times I get a bit irritated with the Revised Common Lectionary, but then, upon further reflection, I repent of my pique and learn from its sometimes frustrating choice of readings. I was irritated this time because once again the Lectionary selects a passage that it focused on just a few months ago. The Psalms for Christmas Eve and Day in this liturgical year are Psalms 96 and 97. But I just wrote on Psalm 97 on May 2 and Psalm 96 on May 23.
If you didn’t preach on those Psalms back in May, however, you may find them to be a helpful alternative to the traditional Christmas readings from Isaiah 9, Luke 2 or Titus 2 and 3. Rather than focusing on the historical fact and doctrinal implications of the Incarnation, these Psalms simply call the whole world to unbridled praise. Using these Psalms will give your Christmas sermon a doxological purpose. Indeed, I can envision a Christmas Eve or Day service that consists entirely of singing, a service of praise to the King who has come. After calling all nature to sing, Psalm 96:13 gives this reason: “for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” On this day, we sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”
As I mentioned in my May postings, these are enthronement Psalms, trumpeting the audacious claim that “the Lord reigns,” in spite of appearances to the contrary. Placed as they are at the beginning of Book Four of the Psalter, they are designed to counter the undeniable reality of the Exile that occupies so many of the Psalms in Book Three. And Psalms 96 and 97 contradict the reality we can see so clearly in our day, when there is so much unrighteousness and injustice in the world. This is the day to shout with the saints of old, “The Lord reigns.”
That claim gives us an unusual angle on Christmas. He was such a little baby, born in such poor circumstances, attended by the lowest of the low. Philippians 2 says that in his incarnation, the Son of God emptied himself. The King of the Universe left his throne to be born in a manger as a helpless baby. But the use of these enthronement Psalms in this season remind us that his humble birth was, in a sense, a coronation. The Lord has come to his earth, in disguise to be sure, but as King nevertheless. In his humiliation, the Lord of all received his highest exaltation, for he is God who has come to save his broken world. There is no more majestic and regal deed a King could ever perform.
These Psalms give us an alternative way to explain his salvation. Jesus came not only to forgive us our sins and get us to heaven, but even more (?) to set all things right in the world. Psalm 97 declares that righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. So, of course, when he comes to his world in person, his agenda is to bring righteousness to the earth and justice to all.
All the talk about justice and judgment in these Psalms is probably not a reference to “The Great White Throne Judgment” at which punishment will be meted out to the wicked. That would hardly call forth the kind of world-wide joy we hear in these Psalms. The proclamation of judgment in these Psalms is seen as good news, as the promise that at last the King will make all things right in the world.
There are many ways to think of such a prospect, but Psalm 96 puts it in terms of our ultimate longings as human beings. It says that because the Lord reigns already, “the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” That is, we can rely on the stability of nature because the Lord is in charge. Chaos does not reign. The Lord does. And because the Lord reigns, “he will judge the peoples with equity.” We can count on justice in the world. Aren’t those the two great longings of the human heart? All humans yearn for a predictable and just existence. The heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, the fields and trees sing for joy because of the present reign of the Lord.
And now at Christmas, the present reign of the Lord has become even more evident to the eye of faith. The Coming One has come, so the “hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” There is more to be done, and it will be done when the King comes again. But the angels knew what they were singing when they rhapsodized about peace on earth—not just peace of mind, nor even peace among people, but that comprehensive Shalom promised by the prophets, when all shall be absolutely right, exactly at the Lord intended at the beginning of his earthly reign.
In a world filled with unrighteousness and injustice, the message of these Psalms will give your Christmas sermon a sharper, more powerful, more real-world point. This little baby has come to fix this mess. Though it is still messy, he does reign. And when he comes again, he will establish justice on the new earth. No more abuse of power, no more moral corruption, no more arbitrary justice, no more exploitation. Back in May I quoted J. Clinton McCann: “In a world weary of old patterns of injustice and unrighteousness, the best possible news is that God is still at work, creating new possibilities for life that are properly welcomed, celebrated, and facilitated by the singing of a new song.”
So, we can and should sing his praises today with strong faith, deep hope, and soaring joy. That note of joy runs through all of Psalm 97. It opens with a call to the ends of the earth to rejoice, because the Lord is King. That universal note is prominent in these Psalms. Christmas, then, is not just for Israel, or for those who currently believe in the Little One who is Lord of all, but for the whole earth, for “the distant lands” who don’t know or believe yet. But Psalm 97 ends with a special call to the righteous ones to sing for joy over his just reign. Verses 8-12 of Psalm 97 remind us that the reign of Yahweh over the whole world is a source of comfort and joy for those who love and trust him. We must be the choir that leads the entire creation in this song of joy. Let this day be a time for choir rehearsal. This sad world desperately needs to hear that song. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”
There’s one more thing you might preach on here. Psalm 97:8-12 are a theophany, a once-in-a-lifetime appearance of God in all his glory. That’s what Christmas was, but it didn’t impress many people. That’s why so many have mocked the story as unlikely and the work of the Lord as ineffective. I mean, the world seems basically unchanged, in spite of the triumphant shout and stout promises of these Psalms. So it might be a good idea to show your people this theophany in Psalm 97. In words that must have reminded ancient Israel of their first theophany at Mt. Sinai, God comes in or out of “clouds and thick darkness.” When God renewed his covenant with Israel on that mountain, Israel felt the earth shake, saw fire on the mountain and in the skies, and were overwhelmed with terror at the God who hid himself in deep darkness.
Here in Psalm 97 that’s exactly how the universe responds to the coming of the great King. “Fire goes out before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, the Lord of all the earth. The heavens declare his righteousness and the peoples his glory.”
On that first Christmas, the multitude of the heavenly hosts sang his glory. Yes, he was just a little baby, but when the shepherds heard the news of his birth from the angel, they were “sore afraid.” Of course, the angel said, “Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people….” But the shepherds knew this is not a God to be trifled with, “for he comes, he comes to judge the earth the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the people with justice.”
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Year A Advent season.
As familiar and comforting as the promises of forgiveness and heaven are to us, those dimensions of salvation might seem a bit ephemeral and otherworldly to some of your listeners, especially those who are in touch with the world situation. It should be relatively easy to highlight the need for justice and righteousness by simply reading the headlines from your local paper on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Or better yet, get a copy of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, or any other major investigative newspaper. They will be filled with stories of the very situations the Lord came to set right. The multitude of such horrific situations will show the beauty and relevance of the salvation Jesus has accomplished and will complete one day. “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground….”
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