Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2023
Psalm 148 Commentary
Some years back at a worship service we used St. Francis of Assisi’s poem “Canticle of the Sun” as part of a responsive reading. There was, alas, a slight typo in the bulletin that made it sound at one point as though we were worshiping Mother Earth. This led a rather conservative member of my church to fire off a letter to me and the Worship Committee about how clear it was we were slipping into some New Age stuff or endorsing the Gaia principle that the Earth itself is a living, almost divine, being.
Clearly all of Francis’s talk about praising Mother Earth and Sister Moon and Brother Wind was just too much for our devout member. Even after we pointed out the typo, this person was largely unmoved. Just too much talk about “nature” in that Canticle. Keep things theological, please, or next thing you know we will slide clean into idolatry. (One wonders what this person would have made out of Francis’s preaching sermons to the birds . . .)
It goes without saying that St. Francis’s poem is close to identical to the language, the sensibilities, and the imagery of Psalm 148. But I think we can safely assume Scripture is not advocating for worshiping Mother Earth or Sister Moon in place of the Creator. Still, when you get right down to it, we may well find the language of Psalm 148 to be striking if not strikingly odd. And in fact most of the time we do not take Psalm 148 literally (or maybe even all that seriously, therefore). We assume that the psalmist’s calls for sun, moon, wind, hail, lightning, and so on to praise the Lord is a metaphor. Of course the sun cannot really praise God. Nor cattle nor sea creatures nor flying birds. That’s just sort of, you know, fanciful language. Poetic license. An image, a metaphor, a symbol but not something to be taken at face value.
Of course, the problem with that is that as the psalm proceeds, eventually we get down to this same praise imperative getting directed at kings, rulers, men, women, children. Then suddenly we toggle off the “Metaphor” switch and flip on the “Take It Literally” switch because now at last we have some people being commanded and of everything and everyone mentioned in this psalm, the people alone are in a position to take this literally and possibly do something with it (like actually praising the Lord). So the first half is sheer metaphoric hyperbole before we get to the literal stuff later in the poem.
In the text itself, though, the language throughout is undifferentiated. There are no linguistic cues in the Hebrew to indicate that the praise imperative is any different when aimed at people as opposed to being aimed at ocean depths and fruit trees and mountains. It is all of a piece. It is all one seamless poetic garment.
OK, perhaps what we are to take away from that fact is not that the moon has actual ears by which to hear and respond to anyone’s verbal command to praise God. But what we should learn from this and proclaim from this psalm is that in God’s sight (and in God’s ears) all of these created wonders, splendors, and creatures really do contribute to the Praise Chorus of all creation. These are literally members in God’s choir.
So how might this work? Well, from the looks of Psalm 148—as well as from many other parts of the Bible, including Job 38-41 and the imagery of many other psalms as well as vignettes in the Prophets and words from Jesus in the Gospels and language even used in the Epistles of the New Testament—God receives praise when these entities just do what they were created to do. When the moon spins and shines its reflected light upon the earth, God feels gratified, God feels glorified, God feels blessed. When crickets do their thing, when the fierce beauty of a snowstorm blankets the earth in white, when Orioles sing and Bald Eagles soar and mountains stand tall in all their created grandeur, God is praised. God is delighted.
Indeed, I have written in the past about what could be called “The Ecology of Praise” as it emerges again and again in the Bible. When creatures and things just fulfill their original purpose, God gets a boost. This is also what I have called the “Theology of Delight” that emerges in the Bible starting already in Genesis 1. There is an exuberance about God’s created works in the beginning. God does not create a few kinds of fish but a mind-boggling welter of kinds with every color and shape imaginable. God does not create a few birds but blackens the skies with flocks of warblers and cranes and seagulls and petrels. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, when in Genesis 1 we read again and again that God sees what he has made and calls it “good,” that is an aesthetic judgment, an appreciation of deep, deep delight in God. You can almost hear God yelling “Whoopee!” as he keeps proliferating the species, the mountain ranges, the ocean depths.
The Hebrew Psalter, as most of us know, is not some haphazard collection of poems. These psalms were carefully selected, edited, and then ordered to build up a larger theology. It begins in Psalm 1 laying out the rather stark landscape of this world: there are the righteous who serve God and the wicked who do not; the righteous who are like well-planted trees by a riverside and the rootless wicked who fly hither and thither like dust in the wind.
As the Psalter proceeds, we get more and more indications that a key calling of the righteous—and more and more of the entire creation—is to praise God. This call to praise keeps rising and rising in intensity until it reaches a kind of crescendo in the final half-dozen poems in the collection even as the Hebrew imperative, hallelu yah, gets shouted to more and more people, more and more creatures, and ultimately to the entire cosmos.
Praise is our common vocation. And not just our common human vocation but our shared calling with all the other things and beings and critters with whom we share this universe. Far from a metaphor not to be taken too seriously, Psalm 148’s call for all things and creatures to praise God reveals the deepest core of created reality. We came from a loving and exuberant Creator God, we are made for this Creator God, and we will all together find our truest identity in fulfilling that call.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
The Bible is full of surprises though seldom more so than in how the Book of Job concludes. After around 37 whole chapters that are chock full of deep theological and spiritual and philosophical wranglings and the pondering of perplexing questions of theodicy and why bad things happen to good people and the ways of God, the ways of the righteous, the fairness or unfairness of life, suddenly (and none too soon) God shows up to have the last word.
But God’s last word turns out to be somewhere close to being the opposite of what most any rational person would have expected. Theology is not at the forefront. The obvious questions that have preoccupied Job and his friends are not touched. Instead God takes Job and all of us on a tour of the cosmos. We go to the zoo, in essence. We discover that for all the other things God might have to do, he apparently spends a lot of time delighting in watching mountain goats frolic, wild donkeys cavort, eagles soar, and hippos just being hippos. Chapter after chapter God goes on and on about storehouses for snow, spectacles of the night sky, deer giving birth to fawns.
What does all of that have to do with anything given the overarching (and wrenching) concerns of the rest of the Book of Job? Well, in part it has to do with the deep mysteries of creation by which God reframes the questions of Job and his friends. But let us not fail to notice something else: the splendors of his own creation and the wide panoply of creatures he fashioned is never far from God’s mind. God loves all that stuff. He delights in all those things and creatures. He receives a kick out of it all and feels praised by it all.
All of which is pretty much the point of also Psalm 148.
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