First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

The psalmist of Psalm 148 sings:

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Eeckhout, Gerbrand van den. Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

December 28, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 148

The psalmist of Psalm 148 sings:

Praise the Lord from the earth
     You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
     stormy wind fulfilling his command.

What an odd call to praise! What an utterly odd call to praise!

I live in the northern hemisphere. And not just in the northern hemisphere, but I live almost exactly half way between the equator and the north pole — I live a few hundred yards south of 45 degrees north — and, I should add, in the middle of the great continental mass of North America.

Why do I bring this up? Because my “global location” means that “I know from snow” — as my friends in New Jersey would put it.

I know from snow. And I also know from hail, frost, stormy winds, freezing rain, ice, sleet, and even sneet.

I know from the entire spectrum of what my Sermon-Brainwave colleague Karoline Lewis calls, “nature’s unnecessary freezing of water.”

And to be quite honest, because I am a double amputee and use a wheelchair year round, I often greet the various forms in which nature’s unnecessary freezing of waters comes to us with a curse.

Which is why I find Psalm 148’s imperative call to “Praise the Lord” so odd: 

Praise the Lord from the earth
   You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
     stormy wind fulfilling his command.
Mountains and all hills,
     Fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle
     Creeping things and flying birds!

What are we to make of this ancient call to praise? Is it a poetic flourish, whereby nature is addressed anthropomorphically in order to underscore the psalm’s global call for all human life to praise God? It is at least that — a lovely poetic flourish. But we should not regard it as an anthropomorphic call for all humanity to praise God.

A Reminder of Nature’s Power and Danger

This poetic turn of phrase is, first of all, a reminder that all creation — and not just human beings — belongs to the Creator. The psalm’s poetry invites us to imagine the very heart of a windy, winter storm as the summoning of the Creator — “fulfilling his command” (more literally, “doing his word”).

This poetic imagination of Psalm 148 will remind us all that although we humans may have a specially endowed divine role within creation as the only creatures who have been created “in God’s image,” yet we should nevertheless be aware that the rest of creation nevertheless still belongs to God and operates according to the divine will — “doing his word.”

We are reminded that nature is powerful and dangerous. It operates according to the laws that God has established for it. Humans are to respect those laws or be placed at risk. This Psalm and the Old Testament in general do not have a romantic view of creation — nature can be dangerous. The seas roar, mountains shake and predators are plentiful.

The Old Testament views creation as a wild, beautiful, but dangerous and at times chaotic place. Nature operates according to God’s will. According to Psalm 104, there is a divinely established order in creation: “the sun knows the time of its setting” (v. 19). And night is the domain of the wild animals, especially predators: “all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (v. 22). Note that this order is divinely bestowed; the lions — ever the symbol of nature’s independence and danger – seek their food from God.

Creation, too, belongs to God and will be redeemed

There is more. The call for nature to praise the Lord, which is found here and elsewhere in the Psalter and in the Book of Isaiah, has a vital theological message for us.

The psalmic trope of creation’s praise, attested in Psalms 148:1-6 and 19:1-4 and elsewhere, bears witness to the biblical teaching that the redemptive scope of God’s work includes the entirety of creation. Because of the universal power of sin, all of creation is in rebellion against and separated from its Creator. But the Lord, who is faithful to the entirety of creation, intends to be reconciled to all of nature, not just humanity.

In the New Testament, Paul affirms both that the entire “creation was subject to futility” that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” and also that through Christ God renewing creation — in Paul’s words, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20-22).

In the Old Testament, creation itself is likewise understood as in rebellion against God. Especially throughout the psalms, the waters of chaos are portrayed as the manifestation of creation’s rebellion against God and against God’s purposes. And in Psalm 148, precisely those rebellious chaos waters are bid, “Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 148 has a message that is especially fitting in the Christmas season, when we remember that when the Savior was born, he was laid to rest in a manger, amidst the animals — sheep and goats, cattle and oxen. And notice that many Advent and Christmas carols bear witness that the reconciliation that Christ was born to achieve includes not only humans, but all of creation. Just a few examples:

  • In “Joy to the world” we sing that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” of praise. And also, “no more let sing and sorrow reign, nor thorns infest the ground.”
  • In “All earth is hopeful,” we sing “all earth is hopeful the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task.”
  • In “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” we sing “all creation, join in praising God, the Father, Spirit, Son, evermore your voices raising to the eternal three in one.”
  • In “People, Look East” we sing “Furrows be glad, though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there. Give up your strength the seed to nourish.”

As mentioned above, the psalm’s call to praise is evidence of God’s commitment to be reconciled to the rebellious creation. It’s helpful here to remember that the act of praise is a fundamentally relational act.

Praise is directed to God, because praise puts our communication with God back on the right footing. Praise transforms the rebellious, “NO! I want to know good and evil like a god!” of Adam and Eve, with a more humble and relationally proper, “Your name, O Lord, your name is exalted.” That is, when we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that we are not the lords of our own lives. When we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that the Lord is lord, and we are not.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that turns us away from ourselves, that works to untwist the curved-in-upon-ourselves nature of our being.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that, as my old teacher Jim Nestingen used to say, that “trues us,” that straightens us out and aligns our rebellious will with God.

When the psalms call on creation to join Israel’s praise of the Lord, the psalms are thus bearing witness to the wide will and work of heaven. That heaven’s love for and commitment to creation certainly embrace human beings, but heaven’s love for and commitment to creation go far beyond just us and include sun and moon, fire and hail, even the unnecessary freezing of water that we call snow and frost. The Lord’s redeeming arms are broad enough to embrace all of creation.