Relishing the Glory of God — Sermon for Christmas 1A (Psalm 148)

Mount Shasta from South Gate Meadow

Psalm 148

“Praise the Lord from the heavens!”  “Praise the Lord from the earth!”  “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.” (Ps. 148: 1, 7, 13).  With these words, the Psalmist calls us to join together in worship as we continue the Christmas journey on this last Sunday of the year and decade.

During this Christmas season, we encounter Emmanuel, the child born in Bethlehem, who reveals the message of the incarnation that “God is with us.”  In this celebration, we’re reminded, as Gregory of Nazianzus puts it, in him “the heavenly one is now earthly.” Because “Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling and joy” [Festal Orations, p. 61].

We began our service singing “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!” This hymn is a paraphrase of  Saint Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” which is itself rooted in Psalm 148. Francis’ song of praise addresses Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and in doing so he invites us to address all of creation as brothers and sisters, and then join with creation in singing praise to God.

This morning we gather together as one people drawn from three congregations to share in songs of praise to our Creator. We gather together because we’ve heard the herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn king; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”  Hearing this song of praise, we answer the call to “to join the triumph of the skies; with the angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’” [CH 150].

What has begun this morning with songs of praise is only the beginning of something new and hopefully exciting. We gather in the expectation that over the course of the coming year and beyond our three congregations will draw closer together, as we share in worship, fellowship, study, and service. Everything we do together begins, as the Psalmist reminds us, in our common worship of the God revealed to us in the person of  Jesus. It is in the spirit of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us that we join together this Christmas season and beyond.

By now at least some of you have seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If you’ve seen it, you might remember a declaration made by one of the characters, which I think fits with the message revealed in designated scriptures readings for today. The 148th Psalm is a celebration of God’s glory, but there are other readings for today that remind us that while the light of God revealed through Jesus shines into the darkness, that darkness is still present in our world. Since I don’t want to give away the plot and spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t give you the name of the character or the context in which it is delivered. But, in a key scene, one of the lead characters declares that the evil “First Order wins by making us think we’re alone. We’re not alone.” Indeed, we are not alone!

When we join with “all creatures of our God and King,” lifting our voices in song, along with the angels in heaven, we hear this truth confirmed.  As the angel revealed to Joseph before the birth of Jesus, in this child, who is to be called Emmanuel, God is with us (Mt. 1:18-23).

This morning we sang to the tune “Regent Square” a paraphrased version of Psalm 148, which was designed for use in worship. The final stanza of this paraphrase of the Psalm by Michael Malone, offers us an apt invitation to join together with heaven and earth and all the creatures of God to sing with one voice praise to our God.

Rise, O child of God, in wonder
At creation’s majesty; 
Young and old, God’s glory claiming,
Praise the Lord in unity.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Now and for eternity. [The Psalter for Christian Worship, p. 179]

  Psalm 148 can be divided into two separate parts, with a summary statement. It begins with an invitation to the heavens, which are called upon to sing God’s praises. Sun and moon and stars, “let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.” In the second part of the Psalm, we hear an invitation issued to the earth and all that inhabits it, to join the heavens in singing God’s praises. The Psalmist begins with the sea monsters, and moves on to include fire and hail, snow and frost, and even stormy winds. There is a call to the mountains and hills, the fruit trees and cedars, as well as the wild animals and cattle to join in praise of the Creator. Yes, everything from the creeping things to the flying things, everything should give praise to God. That includes us, who are numbered among God’s human creation, both young and old alike, along with those who rule.

The prologue to the Gospel of John begins by declaring that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Not only did everything come into existence through the Word, but from this Word came a light that shines in the darkness. While the darkness cannot overcome the light, the darkness still remains with us. Today’s lectionary reading from Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of how Herod’s troops slaughtered children living in Bethlehem.  The Holy Family escapes the slaughter by fleeing to Egypt after an angel warns Joseph of Herod’s intentions. They escape this slaughter, but they will live as refugees in a strange land until the time when Herod no longer sits on the throne. (Mt. 2:13-23). Yes, the Holy Family, like many other families down through the ages, became refugees because of the threat of violence.

Christmas is a season of joy and hope, but even as celebrate the message that God is with us in Christ, we shouldn’t forget the innocents who fall victim to human violence, whether through war, genocide, ethnic cleansing.  We should not forget the refugees who escape the violence but often find themselves in desperate conditions.

Ruthanna Hooke reminds us that “We cannot praise God with our lips while our actions are far from God. To praise God truly is to protect little ones, so that no more massacres of the innocents take place ever again” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 40]. Unfortunately, these acts of darkness continue into our day. They occur in Honduras, Syria, the Congo, Turkey, China, and yes, even here in the United States.

As we hear this call to join together in singing praise to God our creator, let us not forget the darkness that remains present with us. Instead, may we hear in this call to praise a call to embrace the light of God and share it in the world around us. Now that the Star Wars saga is complete, perhaps we can hear in it messages of redemption and that darkness will not have the final word.  Here is where we find hope, for as St. Augustine wrote in his commentary on this Psalm: “it is impossible for a man’s acts to be evil whose thoughts are good.” As we celebrate the call to unity that is present in the Psalm, may our thoughts be good, so our actions might also be good.

Once again, I am thrilled that we have chosen to gather together for worship this morning. Central Woodward and Northminster have worshiped together in the past, even as First Presbyterian and Northminster have worshiped together. Now, we complete the triangle by gathering together for worship. I expect we’ll do the same on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and who knows from there. We might even add a few other congregations into the mix. Wherever this leads, my expectation is that our relationships as congregations will continue to grow over the next year. What begins here in worship can lead to other opportunities to share in ministry together. These opportunities might include bible studies, mission projects, joint choir offerings, and expanded children’s ministry. There are many things we can do together to strengthen our ministries in the community. It’s important to remember that even though we may represent different denominations and different traditions, we are still part of the one body of Christ. We’re not competitors.  We’re partners in the work of God.

So, let us join as “Good Christian friends [to] rejoice with heart and soul and voice.” Yes, “listen now to what we say: News! News! Jesus Christ is born today.” [CH 164].

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 29, 2019
Christmas 1A