First Congregational Church
December 26, 2021
First Sunday of Christmas
“It’s Amazing We Can Hear Anything”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A little girl was fascinated by a nativity scene set up in her church. Asked by her mother, she was able to identify Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the animals in the stable. “And what’s that?” her mother asked, pointing to the manger. “Oh, that’s Baby Jesus’ car seat, Mommy!” the little girl said, proudly.
A grandmother took her five-year- old grandson Christmas shopping. They found a nativity set, brought it home, and set it out. “Look at that, grandma!” the little boy said. “Baby Genius in the manger!”
Last year an idea began forming about using a theme of the nativity at some point in the future. A conversation about Betty Webb’s nativity collection reinforced the idea “somewhere out there.” After the Worship Committee narrowed the selection to two sets, there was still no clear direction on how this idea would pan out. In a moment of truly divine inspiration, the path to replacing Advent lighting candles with the assembly of nativity characters was born.
In one person’s mind, the theme would conclude with the Christmas Eve service when Baby Genius was added. The nativity sticker sets for the children would tie the bow on the package and that would be that.
By the time it came to looking at the scripture passage for this morning, it was discovered that the gospel passage was Luke 2, the boy Jesus at the Temple. In just two days, we would have skipped from the beautiful tranquility of Christmas Eve to Jesus’ pre-teen independence when he stayed behind in Jerusalem after the Passover to be in the temple, while his parents were returning home. That passage just didn’t seem to be the right piece.
Then there was the epistle, or letter, passage for today, from Colossians 3, the one that sounds quite like Philippians 4, espousing all the good virtues of belonging to Christ. There’s never a lack of material in either of those passages, but for whatever reason, Psalm 148 seemed to need checking, and bazinga, as Shelton from Big Bang Theory would say.
Taking a closer look at the stars, angels, swaddling cloths, all of the parts of the nativity story over the weeks of Advent - at least in this heart - has caused those parts to became more energized, personified and maybe even alive in the joy of the birth of the prophesied savior. This psalm would be a great fit in the puzzle of our morning worship.
Interesting, this Psalm, number 148 of 150, this song that has no referrence to the mercy, pity or compassion of God, no reference to evil. Beginning and ending with praise, this psalm is the only place in the Bible where it specifically says that the sun, moon and stars exalt in praise to God. And just a little fyi, the horn mentioned near the end here is not like the horn from the Conan the Destroyer movie. It’s a symbol of strength. So without any further ado….
1 Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. 2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. 3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4 Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. 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. 7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, 8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, 9 you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, 10 wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, 11 kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, 12 young men and women, old men and children. 13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens. 14 And he has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his faithful servants, of Israel, the people close to his heart.
The confirmation of using this passage for today came from the phrase in verse 4 - the part about the “waters above the skies.” In 2018, scientists discovered water - a subglacial lake - under the polar ice cap of Mars, about a mile and a half down, roughly 12 miles long. Not a lot of hoopla about that, that I can recall, probably because the media was more interested in politics than science at that moment.
But just nine days ago, Ben Turner, from livescience.com, published a story about a giant reservoir of ‘hidden water’ on Mars, likely ice, but still significant as it’s about twice the size of Massachusetts, and even that ice cube is to praise God.
I had to smile at Scott Hoezee’s comment about this psalm. The author/pastor/director of Calvin Theological Seminary said, “I suppose one thing we could say is that on the final Sunday of the year, it is fitting to conclude with a psalm that resembles a well-shook bottle of champagne: when the cork flies off this poem, there is some serious praising going on in an effervescent explosion that involves nothing short of the whole creation!
Hoezee pointed out that for the most part, this psalm is taken as a metaphor. We don’t really expect the sun and moon and water above the skies to praise God. Except there is no real difference in the description between how the people of the psalm are to praise God and how the non-human elements are to praise God.
Hoezee had an interesting idea that he calls “The Ecology of Praise” or “Theology of Delight” which is that when “creatures and things just fulfill their original purpose, God gets a boost.
In one last mention of Mr. Hoezee this morning, he said, “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!”
I get that it can be tough to give God praise sometimes. Our attention diverts with the elements of regular life: remembering the list for the grocery store before leaving the house, worrying about the call-back from the last medical test, who will win the Super Bowl, important things like that. In all seriousness, it seems rather human to be angry with God in some circumstances, which is a tough way to give God praise. But I think doing just that helps us get through those tough moments. And giving God praise shapes the way we see the world.
A young boy approached his slightly older sister with a question about God. "Susie, can anybody ever really see God?" "Of course not, silly," came the response. "God is so far up in heaven that no one can see God." Some time later the boy approached his mother with the same nagging question, "Mom, can anybody really see God?" More gently his mother answered, "No, not really. God is a spirit and dwells in our hearts, but we can never really see God."
His mother's answer was somewhat more satisfying, but still the boy wondered. Not long afterwards, the boy's grandfather took him on a fishing trip, and the two had a great day together. As the day was winding down, the sun began to set with unusual splendor. The grandfather was enrapt by the beauty, and the grandson was aware of a deep peace and contentment etched upon his grandpa's face. "Granddad," the boy began, a bit hesitatingly. "I wasn't going to ask anyone else, but I wonder if you can tell me the answer to something I've been wondering about a long time. Can anybody ever really see God?"
The grandfather sat in thought for a few moments, then said simply, "Grandson, it's getting so I can't see anything else.”
That story got me to thinking that if most of creation - the non-human parts of creation - are praising God in doing that which they were intended to do, it’s quite amazing that we can hear anything else. We got our own real life version of that just a couple weeks ago, when the wind was roaring across the big lake. We can also catch the praise of things that go creepy crawly on the ground in the early spring or later fall, when the weather is just right and the ground is still covered with leaves, whether it be worms or mice or other sorts of varmints. Even the snow gives God praise if your hearing is good.
And how appropriate, this last Sunday of the year, to direct our attention to praising God. Equally so as we stand on the threshold of a new year and the call is a good one as a New Year’s resolution - to be more aware of the praise of God - yours, mine, our’s, everthing’s.
If you think about it, if you are praising God, you are more apt to turn off the sound of defeat, discouragement and distain. If we glory in God, even when we feel crappy or sick and tired, we are more likely to receive the benefit of increased dopamine and seratonin, allowing us to make better decisions, including some behaviors and vulnerability to addictive disorders. Such praise can also allow us to make the important distinction in worshipping the Creator and not the creation.
We are called to many things - caring for ourselves, family and others, being stewards of the earth, being wise and learning all that is beneficial. If plants and animals and the whole of creation is called to praise God, then our calling to do that very same thing may not seem like such a big deal. Except that it is. Doing what we were meant to do, praising the God of our creation, is a holy and sacred calling that deserves our best attention. Let su pay that attention to the One who created us as we pray to that same One.
Holy God of all creation, we praise you being you, creating a mind-boggling and gargantuan world, and through all that creation, exalting love above all of it. We know that not every moment of our lives can be completely present in thoughts of you and praise of you. But we ask that you make us more cognizant of those times when we might be able to do more in praise of you, more in prayer with you, more in living fully as the people you have always seen us to be. Enable us to do what you created us to be, that our living is not merely praise of you but inspiration for others to join such living. With more than our usual Amen, all your people energetically say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.