Written by Daniel Hazard
Sunday, December 26
First Sunday after Christmas
Praise is our cry, O Holy One of Israel, for you have come among us and borne our burdens. Give us open hearts, that we might embrace our suffering sisters and brothers, and welcome Jesus in the hospitality we show to exiles. Amen.
Praise God! Praise God from the heavens;
praise God in the heights!
Praise God, all you angels of God;
praise God, all you host of heaven!
Praise God, you sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining stars!
Praise God, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of God,
for God commanded and they were created.
God established them forever and ever;
God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise God from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God's command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts of the forest and all cattle,
crawling things and flying birds!
Rulers of the earth and all peoples,
nobles and all leaders of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Sovereign,
whose name alone is exalted;
whose glory is above earth and heaven.
God has raised up a horn for the people,
and praise for all the faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to God.
Praise be to God!
All readings for this week
Questions for reflection
1. What does our praise look like?
2. What reasons do members of your congregation have to give God praise?
3. Are there places in your congregation's worship where all are invited to praise God?
4. Is "feeling" acknowledged as a valid response that can move us all into deeper relationship with God beyond our intellectual understanding of spirituality?
5. What is the difference between praise and thanksgiving? What do they have in common?
by Karen Georgia Thompson
This First Sunday after Christmas is also the day after Christmas. For some, there will be lots to be thankful for - gifts, family, and the joys of the season. Yet, the text for the day is not a psalm of thanksgiving, but one of praise. Psalm 148 is a typical psalm of praise in its structure and in its place within the last five psalms of the Psalter. The distinction of choice between praise and thanksgiving is noteworthy in these days following Advent, as we move toward Epiphany.
The last five chapters of the collection of Psalms are unique in that all five begin and end in the same way. Psalms 146-150 constitute a small collection of hymns of praise that all begin and end with the cultic shout "Hallelujah" that calls upon the community to "praise Yahweh," "praise the Lord." While "Hallelujah" made its way through the centuries into our contemporary language, the ancient understanding of praise implied in the Psalter and particularly in these last five Psalms may need some refreshment in our busy 21st century lives. On this First Sunday after Christmas, as we move from Advent to the Epiphany, there is much to give thanks and praise for. Sadly, though, it seems that we in the mainline churches have "given" ownership of "praise the Lord" and "Hallelujah" to our sisters and brothers in Pentecostal traditions, rather than own these words as meaningful for our worship life and our spiritual growth.
In his introduction to the United Church of Christ song book, Sing! Prayer and Praise, Scott Ressman quotes the Praise Song Advisory Team's definition of praise music: "Praise music makes one 'feel' something, with a goal of establishing a deeper relationship with God. It can move one to thought, action and reflection based on the text or theme." This concept of praise is at the heart of these psalms of praise and is therefore worth exploring this Sunday after Christmas. Just as praise music makes one feel something, so does the act of praise that is invited by Psalm 148. Praise comes when we feel something, and it moves us into a deeper relationship with the Divine.
All the created order
This psalm invites the whole of creation to join in praising God as the ancients did. Found in the text is a view of the universe in which the heavens are above the earth, and above that are the waters. The heavens, the angels, the sun and moon, the waters above the heavens, sea monsters, mountains, hills and trees are invited to praise God. The list encompasses all the created order as envisioned by the psalmist. This list provides a challenge to the idea that in all of creation only people praise God and that there are only certain places, like sanctuaries and houses of worship, where people may praise God.
But what do we do with mountains, rivers, and trees that join in chorus with human beings to praise God and shout hallelujah? Is there room in our intellectualized beings to see that we are a part of all creation that is singing praise to God? Is our inability to see the hills and the trees and the mountains and the rivers praising God a reflection of the limits we place on praise as a part of our spiritual lives? How can we invite praise into congregational life in such a way that we come to understand that all creation is included and participating in this act of praise?
Minnesota loons and trumpeter swans
James Limburg calls us to imagine what Psalms 146-150 describe: "How do these creatures praise the Lord? It appears that praise not be limited to words. According to Psalm 150, one can praise God with dance, with trumpets, with stringed instruments, and percussion! If human dance can express praise, why not the dance of the loons on the Minnesota lake? If the sound of a trumpet can express praise, why not the sound of a trumpeter swan?"
Limburg's words confront our contemporary sensibilities about praise. "Not only kings and people but also humpback whales, hurricanes, and blizzard winds are called to join in praise." In the United Church of Christ's 1995 arts and lectionary resource, "Imaging the Word," Volume 2 (Sidney Fowler, ed.), the authors use images to help interpret the scriptures in the lectionary. The image which accompanies Psalm 148 tries to express that feeling of praise: it is a picture of artist Mark Wyland's painting, "Whaling Wall VI: Hawaiian Humpbacks," which captures a humpback whale leaping from the ocean almost fully airborne!
J. Clinton McCann also addresses the idea that humans are only one part of the cosmos that offers praise: "To be sure, the praise offered by humans will not be the same as that of a fruit tree. As for humans, praise will take the form of what Walter Brueggemann aptly calls 'lyrical self-abandonment,' the yielding of the self and its desires to God and God's purposes."
There is a reason for offering this chorus of praise to God. John Hayes believes this psalm offers two sets of reasons: God is the Creator of all things, and there are allusions to the Davidic monarchy in the psalm. "The psalm thus anchors praise in the divine rule in the universe and the messianic rule over the chosen people."
Connected with all creation
These were reasons for the psalmist and for these people who heard the text to offer praise. Their praise was loud, exuberant and strong. They praised God together and understood themselves to be connected with all creation and believed all creation had the capacity to offer praise to God. Because they embraced the creative wonder of God at work around them, they were moved to praise God. Because they understood themselves to be a part of the created joined to worship God, they had more reason to praise God.
Below the picture of the humpback whale in Imaging the Word are these lines: "At the birth of the Christ, all heaven and earth rejoiced. In Matthew the sparkling start becomes the Messiah's star. In Luke the angels declare to the shepherds the good news of Jesus' birth to all creation. 'Peace on earth….'" Christmas is a time for praise--exuberant heartfelt praise that moves us closer in knowing God. All earth rejoiced at the birth of the Christ: how will we lift our voices in praise as we celebrate these blessed events and their on-going impact on our lives?
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson is Minister for Racial Justice with the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Edward Young, 18th century
Wonder is involuntary praise.
Igor Stravinsky, 20th century
The Church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church's greatest ornament.
The highest form of worship is the worship of unselfish Christian service. The greatest form of praise is the sound of consecrated feet seeking out the lost and helpless.
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.
A. W. Tozer, 20th century
Without worship, we go about miserable.
Henry Sloane Coffin, 20th century
If there is one characteristic more than others that contemporary public worship needs to recapture it is this awe before the surpassingly great and gracious God.
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.