Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2023
Psalm 148 Commentary
No moment on the annual calendar gets more associated with popping champagne corks than New Year’s Eve. So it is appropriate that on this last Sunday and day of 2023 the Lectionary directs us to Psalm 148, which is in its own way a fizzing and frothing bottle of champagne in word form. It is as though the Book of Psalms has all along been shaking and shaking a bottle of bubbly and now as the Psalter comes in for a landing in its final half-dozen songs, the cork has finally given way to the internal pressure and *POP* we end with explosions of praise and worship.
In various Psalms sermon commentaries here on CEP I and others have noted how in many psalms there is no distinction made between telling human beings to praise God the Creator/Redeemer and giving the same command to animals and trees and stars and snowflakes. In fact in the case of Psalm 148, we go through 10 whole verses out of the song’s total of 14 verses before human beings even make an appearance. Instead the poem concentrates on the non-human creation in its incessant calls for praise of God.
And the psalmist runs the gamut pretty well. If we just list out to whom this praise imperative is directed, we get a sense for the scope of this perhaps even better than in just reading the psalm.
Water over the heavens
That’s a list of 20 distinct parts of creation if you were keeping count and not much is left out. One assumes the list includes elephants as well as ants. Lemon trees and evergreens, cows and rabbits, eagles and sparrows, most every meteorological kind of weather you could name. Mountain ranges and the sea floor, meadows and grassy hillsides, blue skies and cloudy skies, whales and trout, coral reefs and kelp beds. Everybody is a member of the choir and so is called to sing praises to God.
Recently I wrote a blog for The Reformed Journal in which I reflected on all this after a trip to the Arizona desert. In some ways I cannot say a lot more about Psalm 148 than what I wrote there so I invite you to click on the link above and take a look if you are preparing to preach on this Psalm on New Year’s Eve Sunday or any other time.
For now I will take note of how the psalmist frames up the reason for all this praise of God as he states it very near the exact center of the poem:
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
6 and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.
In essence, the features of the natural world singled out here to give God praise—and again, that includes anything from creation you would care to name specifically—they are all given the same rationale for this praise and the reason is simple: God is the one who made you. God came up with the idea of you, Mr. Humpback Whale and Miss Apple Tree. So give it up to God for thinking to make you as you are!
What’s more—and here is an Old Testament hint that we are not to ponder any future with God without the created order—God issued a decree that establishes all these things for ever and ever. To any in the church or outside the church even yet today who think stewardship of creation is a waste of time since we are all destined to be whisked out of this world into some cloudy, vapory realm of “heaven,” the Bible says “No.” That’s not how it’s going to be. The natural world—as we often call it—might be purified and changed but it will not be destroyed never to be seen in any way, shape, or form ever again.
No, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, what we are to anticipate is a New Heavens AND a New Earth. As Revelation makes clear at the conclusion of the whole Bible, God’s dwelling will come down here. We will not be taken UP to a realm the likes of which we’ve never seen. God will come DOWN to this earth in a renewal of everything we know. Or as someone once pointed out, in Revelation 21 and 22 you do not hear God say, “Behold, I make all new things.” No, God declares, “Behold, I make all things new.” And what are those “things”? See the Psalm 148 laundry list of creation above!
As 2023 concludes, in some ways it is another year to which we could say “Good riddance!” The war in Ukraine grinds on and exacts its terrible toll day by day in ways too few of us are even tracking anymore. War in Israel and Gaza broke out too and the death toll and the sheer number of children being slaughtered is sickening. And tensions continue and violence continues in places like Sudan and Darfur and gunfire has erupted in America a record number of times in 2023 with a devastating amount of deaths coming from the over 630 incidents in which 4 or more people were shot and killed (that is almost 2 per day if you do the math).
In short, the future looks bleak. We seem bent on self-destruction. But as this year ekes out its final breaths, Psalm 148 directs us to try to have some hope even so. God did once upon a time fashion a cosmos that is good—very good. And somehow, some way despite our human efforts to vandalize that creation and the shalom God intended for it, God has issued some decrees that will not pass away. And so with all creation we do our best to praise this good Creator and Redeemer God. Maybe despite it all we can still affirm the end of Psalm 148: as God’s own people, we really are close to God’s heart. But then, so is all creation.
Some things bear repeating (because we have used this here on the CEP website before) and in this connection some of the conclusion of the final C.S. Lewis Narnia novel, The Last Battle, is a fun, imaginative way of thinking what the New Heavens and the New Earth will be. As the characters in this stories arrive at the New Narnia, Lewis writes this:
“It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different—deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.”
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