January has always seemed to be something of a letdown.
How Can We Keep From Praising?
If "April is the cruelest month,"1 then January is the coldest month, at least in the Midwest where I have lived my life. December always seems cheerful, warm, and bright, with carols near a fireside, vacation from school, skiing and skating, and of course, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. New Year's celebrations provide a bit of excitement, but then comes the January letdown. Classes start up again. We children insisted that our mother take the Christmas tree down when we were in school, so that we would not have to witness the sadness. The hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter"2 seems to catch the mood. I recall my father, a positive and optimistic man, admitting that "it's always good to get January out of the way." In addition, every pastor knows that letdown feeling after the Christmas holidays, when the numbers under the "attendance" and "offering" categories reach a low point.
Yet the mood of the church year is quite different! In fact, it is designed to give worn out pastors and weary people a lift! Note especially the psalms for these post-Christmas Sundays. Assigned to the first Sunday after Christmas, Psalm 148 is a hymn about heaven and nature joining in singing praises to God. The same thing is true with the psalm assigned for this second Sunday after Christmas. It is a part of that closing quintet of praise songs, building up to the final composition featuring the Bible's own praise band in Psalm 150. To invigorate post-Christmas preaching and worship, why not take up Psalm 147 as your text for the day?
Why Praise? Three Reasons (Psalm 147)
While the lectionary lists only verses 12-20, we begin by considering the psalm as a whole. As already noted, it is a part of the praise quintet that concludes the entire Book of Psalms, each one beginning and ending with "Hallelujah" (Psalm 146-150). Psalm 147 divides nicely into three sections, where each resembles the elements of a hymn, with a call to praise followed by reasons for praising (see my commentary Psalms, especially Psalm 113 for more information on this pattern).3 Each section also contains some observations about God.
Praise God who works in history and in nature! (1-6)
The initial call to praise (Hebrew, Hallelujah, translated "Praise the LORD!") is followed by a comment in praise of praise (1). God works in history, engineering the rebuilding of Jerusalem and acting to bring the exiles home. The imagery is that of a new exodus, gathering the exiles from afar, healing their hurts, and settling them in a land marked by shalom (v. 14, translated "peace," or "prosperity" in the NRSV footnote). Nature also reveals God at work, in the cosmos (4). At the end of this first section, we observe God's power on display for all, even while it remains impossible to fully understand the ways of the Lord.
Sing to the God who is at work in nature! (7-11)
This time, a pair of imperative verbs call for praise in the forms of vocal and instrumental music ("sing...make melody"). Reasons for praise involve the astounding range of God's work in nature, from preparing and providing rain to caring for the tiny ravens in their nest (8-9). Lastly, the psalmist observes that this God, known from cosmos to countryside, appreciates the trust and hope residing in God's people! (10-11).
Praise God who visits the earth with his word (12-20)
After acknowledging God's sending of blessings on Jerusalem as a reason for praise (12-14), the climactic reason for praising God in this part of the psalm has to do with the word of God, layered throughout verses 15-19. While the Old Testament can speak of the power of God's word as it creates (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:4-7), or brings about events in history (Isaiah 9:8; 55:10-11), the emphasis here is first of all on the word of God and nature (15-17). But the psalm concludes with a reference to the special privileges of Israel, the people who have received God's word in the form of "statutes and ordinances." In other words, Israel has been blessed with directives indicating how God's people ought to live, such as the ten commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21; see also Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 12-14).
Toward a Sermon
The Gospel text for this Sunday gives yet another run at telling the story about the person that God sent to the world at Christmas time. John knows that the stories of the birth of Jesus and the visit of the shepherds have already been told by Luke. Now the writer of the fourth Good News account sits back and spins out the story in a new way. He picks up the notion of the logos or "word" that the Jews knew as the power that came from God, able to create and sustain the universe and to direct events taking place both in nature and in history. And John makes an astounding claim. That word of God, he says, took human form and appeared on earth as a human being, eventually identified as Jesus Christ, Son of God and Messiah. Yes, a special word from God did indeed come to the earth through Moses who gave the law. But now, says John, an even more special communication from God has come, that Christmas Visitor named Jesus Christ through whom came grace and truth (John 1:14-18).
John obviously loves to tell stories about Jesus even though he knows there are many more that could be told (John 21:25). Another one who loves to tell that story is Paul. He was a Jew who knew his psalms. He tells the good news that this Jesus the Messiah has made it possible for all people to become God's adopted children, complete with an inheritance (Ephesians 1:5, 11). And knowing that good news, how could we keep from praising (Ephesians 1:12)? Even in the bleak midwinter.
1T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922).
2Christina Georgina Rossetti, "In the Bleak Midwinter," in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) #294.
3James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000).