Perhaps it counts as something of an irony that the Lectionary calls on us to reflect on Psalm 96 on Christmas Day. After all, if ever there were a day in the church year when we do not want to do what Psalm 96:1 says—namely, sing to the Lord a new song—this day is it! We don’t want new songs just now. We want the tried and true carols. We want “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and all hymns like that. If a church’s music director wanted to insure that he or she would not have a Merry Christmas, all they would need to do was compose a Christmas Day worship service with all new Christmas songs no one had ever heard of before. Such a church musician would surely be sent home with an earful of criticism!
That makes sense, of course, and we all know why most people in the church feel this way. But we should not let our over familiarity with the finest carols and hymns of the Christian Christmas tradition inure us to the exuberance of Psalm 96 as the poet here gushes over the wonders that the Lord God of Israel has done, continues to do, and will do in the future. There is so much here to be gob smacked over that not only do we need new songs, we need new songs all the time! We will never be finished in time or eternity pondering the things of God and praising God for all God’s works of creation and salvation and re-creation.
But as Psalm 96 makes clear, it’s not finally just us people who need to sing to God. God’s works and God’s glory are so grand that the heavens need to get involved and so also the very earth needs to be involved. The oceans need to join God’s choir and after that also the fields on dry land. The trees of the forest sing for joy and every bird on every branch. And by the time you hit verse 13 the psalmist gives up on adding to this detailed list and just says, “Well, while we’re at it, let ALL CREATION rejoice and join the chorus of praise to the Lord God!”
A friend of mine once preached a sermon on the grand songs we hear in Revelation 4 & 5. It was one of those sermons in which the preacher did such a fine job just reading the Bible text that the sermon that came next was almost unnecessary. Because as my preacher friend read the text, he let the timber and register and volume of his voice keep building as the song John of Patmos heard being sung built up to ever grander participation:
Four living creatures and twenty-four elders sang . . .
The voice of many angels numbering thousands upon thousands sang . . .
And ten thousand times ten thousand angels sang . . .
Then every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth sang . . .
In a loud voice they sang “Worthy is the Lamb!”
Up, up, up the chorus builds until the song is unimaginably loud, mind-bogglingly glorious. As my friend read this passage and let his own voice try to convey this grandeur, everyone listening were all but brought to their feet.
That is the idea in also Psalm 96. And though we have heard the Christmas story a thousand and one times, that needs to be the idea in our worship of the Son of God come down, born as a baby, laid in a manger, and containing within himself all the salvation, all the justice, all the righteousness about which the poet of the 96th psalm sang. This and this alone is the one cosmic hope we have for restoration, for the righting of millennia’s worth of wrong, for the elevation of every person who has ever been beat low.
So yes, let’s sing the old familiar Christmas carols that have echoed down along the ages. Let’s sing them with joy and with gusto. Let’s let these songs evoke nostalgia and memories of Christmas worship services from our childhoods forward. But let’s never forget the grandeur of the incarnate God we are worshiping or the cosmic-shattering work accomplished by Jesus Christ our Lord. Let’s let that sense of awe infuse even the most familiar of songs with such verve that it might almost be like singing a new song to the Lord after all!
In the sermon on Revelation 4 & 5 referred to above, my friend Trygve Johnson of Hope College invoked a clever metaphor. He said he had grown up on Whidbey Island just northwest of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. This is an area known for its rain, for cement gray cloud cover, for mists and fogs. Yet it is also a place surrounded by the grandeur of mountains: Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, the Olympic mountains. But most days they were invisible, obscured by fog and cloud.
Once in a while though, the weather would break. The fog and mist would lift. The skies would clear. The sun would come out. And the folks on Whidbey Island would say to each other, “Did you see it? The mountains are out.”
Oh, the mountains were always there, just hidden except for such rare glimpses. And Tryg used this in his sermon as an image, a metaphor, for what John of Patmos saw when God peeled back the curtain between this world and the heavenly throne room to show John the worship of the Lamb that was taking place right then and that, as a matter of fact, never ceases.
If we could only see what John saw and maybe what the poet of Psalm 96 saw—if we experience days when the mountains are out—we too would leap to our feet and declare, “I think we need to write a whole bunch of new songs to sing to the Lord!”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2022
Psalm 96 Commentary