Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2017
Psalm 148 Commentary
What a magnificent Psalm for this first Sunday after Christmas! The middle Psalm in the five Psalm “Hallelujah chorus” that ends the Psalter, Psalm 148 calls on the entire universe to praise Yahweh. These five Psalms are called the Hallelujah chorus because each one begins and ends with the Hebrew words Hallelu Yah, Praise Yahweh. After poetically exploring the heights and depths of their covenant walk with their God, the people of Israel conclude their songbook with that one word. How fitting! And Psalm 148, as I said, stands in the middle of that chorus, as the tallest peak of praise. It is the perfect response to what Yahweh has done at Christmas.
Think of all the ways people react in the few days after Christmas: collapse in an exhausted heap, clean up the house after all the guests are gone, gaze fondly at the holiday photographs, weep quietly over the obviously strained relationships in the family, take back the unwanted gifts, bask in the glow of a wonderful time. Psalm 148 takes us in a very different direction. Hallelujah! As a contemporary song puts it, Christmas calls for “Total Praise.”
This praise is total because it comes from the entire universe. That tiny baby born in an obscure corner of this third rock from the sun is worthy of praise from all creation. The first stanza of Psalm 148 (verses 1-6) is addressed to “the heavens,” beginning with “all his angels” and “all his heavenly hosts.” Unlike other ancient Near Eastern religions that saw angels/gods/invisible celestial beings as worthy of praise themselves, Psalm 148 joins the rest of the Old Testament in seeing such magnificent spiritual beings as mere creatures whose sole function in the universe is to praise the Creator, Yahweh.
The same is true of the celestial bodies that are visible. The sun, moon and stars are not gods; they are merely members of the choir, majestic to be sure, but simply part of Yahweh’s creation. And, perhaps reflecting the Jewish belief that there are three levels of heaven, the Psalm goes on to invite the ‘highest heavens” and the “waters above the skies” to give praise to Yahweh.
In this first stanza, the praise is directed to Yahweh as Creator of all that is above the earth. “Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for he commanded and they were created.” Just as humans must live by the law of Yahweh, so must the farthest reaches of the universe. “He set them in place forever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.” On this first Sunday after Christmas, let us join the cosmos in praising the covenant God of Israel for his creation of everything in the heavens, even as the angels did at the birth of that baby. “Glory to God in the highest!”
The second stanza (verses 7-12) summons the rest of the creation choir to praise Yahweh. Here the focus is on God’s creation on the earth. “Praise Yahweh from the earth,” cries the Psalmist, and then calls upon every category of terrestrial reality to join the chorus. That includes the monsters of the deep, the literal ones and the mythical ones who symbolized the chaos that threatened God’s good creation. Even those fearsome creatures are commanded to praise their Creator.
So are the inanimate forces of nature that can wreak such havoc on human existence. In this year of hurricanes and wildfires, verse 8 might be hard to hear– “lightning/fire and hail, snow and clouds/smoke, strong winds that do his bidding.” Even such destructive forces are commanded to join in praising their creator. We struggle to explain how Harvey and Irma and the northern California fires are part of God’s “bidding,” but the Psalmist is convinced that Yahweh is Lord of all creation, even the parts that seem to be instruments of evil. Even they must give praise to the Lord.
The director of the terrestrial choir calls upon on other parts of creation to join in the praise: inanimate geography like mountains and hills, animate but unconscious creation like trees, animate and conscious creatures like wild and domestic animals, insects and birds. Then the director arrives at the most skilled singers, or at least those who were given the most gifts—the human beings made in God’s own image.
So many of these humans have turned away from Yahweh and have made their own gods and have banded together in rebellion against their Creator. Yet, Psalm calls on “the kings of the earth and all nations” to praise Yahweh. Finally, the Psalmist calls upon ordinary people of all kinds, young and old, male and female, to complete the choir. On this first Sunday after Christmas, let us join the whole earth in praising the covenant God of Israel for his creation of everything on this beautiful, but rebellious and often dangerous earth.
The angels on that first Christmas sang about “peace on earth,” and Psalm 148 ends with a prophecy of the child who would bring that peace. While the praise in the first two stanzas of Psalm 148 focuses on God’s creation, the last two verses are all about redemption. While the heavens and the earth should give praise to their creator, Yahweh is, in fact, exalted above his creation; “his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.”
Yahweh is utterly transcendent, but he has stooped down to his creation to work his redemption. That is his greatest glory. Here’s how Psalm 148 described what God has done to redeem his people, those who are close to his heart. “He has raised up for his people a horn….” A “horn” was a symbol of power and authority. Think of the horn of the water buffalo or the ox or the rhino. Some scholars think the reference here is to Israel itself, or perhaps to David or his line. That is undoubtedly true, but not the whole truth.
We hear the whole truth in the Benedictus of Zechariah, which he sang at the birth of his son, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. “Praise be to Yahweh, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… (Luke 1:68, 69).” That little baby in the manger of Bethlehem was the horn of salvation foreshadowed in Psalm 148. Small and powerless as he was, he was the Creator of the heavens and the earth. No wonder the angels sang, “Glory and peace.” We see the glory of God displayed in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, but we see that glory displayed preeminently in the face of Christ. Hallelujah!
The days right after Christmas can be kind of a letdown. But Psalm 148 sets a very different tone. This is the day to pull out all the stops to praise the Lord. I see a full choir, an orchestra, a packed sanctuary, a service full of soaring songs of praise. You say people are too tired? Tell that to the universe!
Recently “60 Minutes” did an update on a previous show about the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has given us hitherto unimaginable information about the far reaches of the universe. But now, it has peered even further into deep space to show us that what formerly seemed to be empty black spaces are, in fact, filled with billions of galaxies. Such scientific data can be a challenge to our faith, or it can move us to even more praise. Our God is “exalted above the heavens….” Can you imagine? Those distant galaxies and any planets in them that might be inhabited by sentient beings are commanded by Psalm 148 to join us humans in giving praise to Yahweh. That puts the miracle of Christmas in an even brighter light.
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