Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 30, 2018
Psalm 148 Commentary
We have but one Sunday after Christmas this year as Epiphany proper is already next week on January 6. So the Lectionary decided to let loose with all the post-Christmas praise it could muster by choosing Psalm 148. Talk about relentless! This Psalm is one long string of the imperative hallelu yah or “Praise Yahweh,” and no one is excluded from this command to join the cosmic choir. Sure we start where you more or less expect a command of praise to be issued with angels and those beings in the heavenly realms. After that, though, things get kind of strange if you take this poem more or less straightforwardly.
Because the next thing you know it’s sort of the proverbial “Everybody in the pool!” invitation to sing a song to the God of Israel. It’s obvious I know but let’s make a list of who is compelled to sing along here:
By the time you get to verse 13 you half expect the psalmist to wonder aloud “Did I leave anyone out?” (Well, yes, old women seem to get a pass but other than that . . .).
It boggles the mind. Apple trees praise God as do dolphins and dung beetles. Mount Fuji is in the choir and so also are the depths of the Indian Ocean, the Baltimore Oriole, the star Alpha Centuri, and the giraffes. Things you cannot see (the wind) get included as well as things you can see like cumulus clouds and the hail that falls to the earth from big thunderstorms. It get to the point where you are almost tempted to wonder if this is a religious poem or the index for some National Geographic book about the natural world. Is this the praise of Israel or an episode of the old TV show “Wild Kingdom.”
(Good old Marlin Perkins!)
Of course, this tempts us to take only the first and last parts of that long list literally: a command to praise makes sense only when issued to those who can consciously respond to it: angels and people, in other words. Cougars and damselfish and snow storms are all just metaphors or, at best, anthropomorphisms we need not take seriously much less literally. The average raindrop cannot praise God, after all.
The thing is, the Bible in places like Psalm 148 doesn’t differentiate. The same command comes to all creatures and people and features of the creation equally and with the same force. Perhaps a given critter’s inability to understand this command literally is nothing against its participation in some fashion in the cosmic chorus of praise to Yahweh, the Maker of all things. Perhaps in God’s estimation—if not in his ears—the rushing of the wind, the swirling of the snowflakes, the songs of Humpback Whales, and the applause-like clattering of ocean waves over cobbles on the shore are songs of praise. Perhaps a chicken just being a chicken and an oak tree just clacking its branches are a larger part of a larger song that gives God pleasure and delight.
After all, once God finished creating the heavens and the earth and filling up the skies with birds and the oceans with fish, the first order of business in Genesis was a Sabbath, a rest, a pause. But it was not because the Almighty was winded and tired from six days of creating but so that God took take the time to soak up the sights and sounds of all he had made. Sabbath was for delight, for revelry, for looking and listening to creation’s chorus. Sabbath was not silence and sleep but vigilance and attention to what had been made.
So here we are on the Sunday after Christmas considering Psalm 148 in the Year C Lectionary. It is an apt choice. Because the incarnation we just marked once again was precisely a miracle in our time and space and on this very earth. For all our Advent and Christmas attention to glitz and glitter and angels dancing amidst the stars, Christmas is finally earthy, gritty, as real as the soil beneath our feet. The Son of God came down here in order to save us because it was not just the human “us” that was in the salvation mix. It was—to riff on Colossians 1—ta panta, “all things” that God set out to save. All the things the Son of God as the Word of God spoke into being in the beginning: let there be light, let there be clouds, let there be tadpoles and rivers and sea slugs and daffodils and gazelles and quasars and galaxies and mallard ducks. Let there be all things and let there then be salvation for all things too.
“O God, you hate nothing you have made” an ancient prayer of the church says. Indeed. And so everything that God made has a literal—and not a merely metaphorical—place in the cosmic choir of praise to God.
It is fitting, then, on this Sunday after the incarnation celebration just past to be reminded of that vast choir of other beings and creatures and things with whom we sing also our “Hallelujah” to our great Triune God. Psalm 148 widens out the scope of our wonder (provided we don’t cash out most of it as mere metaphor that is). God’s Name alone is exalted and is praised above the heavens. Praise the Lord, then.
Near the middle of C.S. Lewis’s sixth book of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” The Magician’s Nephew, there is a marvelous scene in which the characters in the story get to look back to see how it was the great lion, Aslan, had created Narnia (and the whole universe really). It was through a song. Aslan sings the creation into being. And as he sings, the creatures that get created—starting with the stars and other heavenly things—join in the song to create still more and more things and creatures. There is something utterly lyric—literally and figuratively—for Lewis to picture creation just this way. It reminds one of God’s words to Job about how at the dawn of time all the morning starts sang together for joy. Indeed, there is musicality to God’s great work of creation. Small wonder that a poem like Psalm 148 reminds all those created realities to join the cosmic choir of praise once more.
It also reminds me of the stunning creation sequences from Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life as they are accompanied by stunning music. Like Job, in that movie the story of creation comes in (quirky) answer to the deep questions we ask about life’s tragedies.
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