Sermon Seeds: Cosmic Praise/Orientation-Disorientation-Reorientation

First Sunday after Christmas Year A

Worship resources for the First Sunday after Christmas Year A are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations
Isaiah 63:7-9 with
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Psalm 148
Additional reflection on Matthew 2:13-23

Weekly Theme:
Cosmic Praise/Orientation-Disorientation-Reorientation

by Karen Georgia Thompson

On this First Sunday 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.

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? What does our praise look like? 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?

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?” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion).

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” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion). In the United Church of Christ’s arts and lectionary resource, Imaging the Word, Volume 2, 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” (Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary).

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” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). 

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. 

What reasons do members of your congregation have to give God praise? Are there places in worship where all are invited to praise God? Is “feeling” acknowledged as a valid response that can move us all into deeper relationship with God beyond our intellectual understanding of spirituality?

“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…'” (Imaging the Word, Volume 2; Sidney Fowler, ed.). 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 Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations on the national staff of the United Church of Christ.

Additional reflection on Matthew 2:13-23:
by Kathryn Matthews

Compare and contrast: we learned their meaning somewhere in grade school writing assignments, and Matthew shows that he understands the difference between them. In the few verses of this heartbreaking story, he reminds his listeners of the most powerful people and places in their shared memory. King Herod’s paranoia and brute power remind us of Pharaoh; Joseph’s attention to God’s leading through dreams sounds like his ancestor Joseph long ago; the flight of Jesus and his family to Egypt looking for safety from a threat sounds like the sojourn of the people of Israel, in need of food in a famine; Jesus, like Moses, is saved as a baby from the brutal tyrant; Bethlehem is the City of David, the great king; Rachel weeps in Ramah over her lost children in exile, like the lost children of the massacre. Matthew’s earliest listeners would have heard all of these similarities to their own story in the story of Jesus’ birth.

On the other hand, Matthew also provides stark contrasts. Think of the difference between Herod and Joseph: Herod’s ruthless violence in the face of a threat is exactly the opposite of Joseph’s response when in danger. And the contrast between the power of Herod, exhibited in the killing of innocent babies, and the power of God, not to be deterred from the plan of salvation, is dramatic. “King Herod” becomes just “Herod” once the true “King of the Jews” has arrived, Lawrence Farris writes (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels), but God is still God. A tiny baby makes a powerful king look weak in his insecurity and paranoia. Fred Craddock observes that “even in infancy the Christ Child stirred a capital city, disturbed a reigning king, and attracted foreigners to come and worship” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). Perhaps the word “disturbed” is not strong enough to describe Herod’s awful reaction, and Warren Carter’s description of this second chapter of Matthew as “The Empire Strikes Back” is closer to the truth. Mary Hinkle Shore quotes Carter, and she also provides another contrast, between the “powerful center” and the “powerless margins” (perhaps not so powerless, we think, in its own and different way). It seems that “the powerless margins” is where we belong, we disciples, since this is only the beginning of an entire Gospel that “imagines discipleship as an itinerant existence on the edges of empire” (New Proclamation Year A 2007).  

Surely, on this post-Christmas celebration Sunday, some of our church members will sit in their pews and hear this terrible story (full of terror, indeed), and they’ll ask, “Why did God have to kill these babies just to make the Scriptures come true?” This would be a mis-reading, or mis-hearing, of the text. Matthew is careful in his wording, saying not that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” but “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet….” According to Thomas Long, this matters, because Matthew  “stops firmly short of claiming that the murder of the children was God’s will. The message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction woven into the fabric of history and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). The middle third of verse 16, just one piece of one verse, recounts matter-of-factly a deed so evil that we can’t bear to hear more detail. Instead, we hear only the voice of Mother Rachel, crying for her children, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over these latest of her lost children.

The shepherds and the Gentile Magi, outsiders all, weren’t the only ones to “get” who this baby Jesus was. Herod, at the center of power, also understood the power, and the threat, of this Child, “the political implications” he held for a petty king like Herod, Lawrence Farris says. Herod sent his soldiers after Baby Jesus but also to squelch any messianic hopes in the people who had heard about the child’s birth. The good news that we hear on Christmas, of God entering our reality through the birth (and life, and death, and resurrection) of Jesus, is not good news for Herod on his shaky seat of power, for “if Jesus is Lord, then he is not.” Farris then says that the conflict that disturbed Herod’s soul rages, sooner or later, in ours, too: “Not all the world, then or now, welcomes God’s presence in human affairs. This struggle between Herod and the Christ is waged outwardly in the world and inwardly in every person. Who shall rule?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Perhaps it’s easier to welcome a sweet little baby if we don’t have to think about what the little baby was taking on. Perhaps it’s not a pretty image for the Christmas season, but then the Incarnation wasn’t about “pretty,” it was about God entering our own lived reality, including the pain and suffering.

The role of the soldiers who carried out Herod’s terrible command is often passed over in this story. How could they have executed that command and participated so directly in such horror? Farris quotes Frederick Dale Bruner, who says that “Those who begin by hating the Child will end by hurting children….If people will be ungodly, they will be inhumane.” But Farris also troubles our consciences, too, about being several steps away from suffering and yet, indirectly, being held accountable, if only for not resisting it: The soldiers’ “‘only following orders’ behavior is deadly and serves as an implicit call to examine where we collude with evil by not intentionally standing against it” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

How would you feel, at this point in the story, if you were Joseph? When have you had to change plans, to re-route your itinerary, to make a new life in a new place? When have you found yourself unable to put down roots, but instead having to move on, to a better, though unknown, place? When have you experienced this as God at work in your life?

According to John J. Pilch, “Egypt was a traditional place of refuge for Judeans….It came under Roman rule in 30 B.C.E. and was beyond Herod’s jurisdiction” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Ironically, the place where Jesus’ ancestors were enslaved, the place from which they escaped, is the place to which Jesus and his parents escape. What are the “Egypts” of your life? What powerful associations do you have with places and times in your life that have represented either captivity or freedom and safety, or both? When have you felt that you needed to run away, “under cover of night,” from what might harm you? As we think about those in our churches and in our communities and in the world who are refugees, have we built safe havens and help them make a new home in a new place? What is the “Nazareth” of your life – the unexpected home?

The babies who died at the hands of Herod’s insane rage have been called “the Holy Innocents” in church practice. Who are the “holy innocents” in our world today? Who are the babies and children at our mercy in our public life – who suffer from the lack of clean air and water, medical care, good schools? Who are the holy innocents who suffer in war, who endure violence in their homes and neighborhoods, who have no voice in the life of our community? Do we weep and wail, or simply read about them, and then turn the page, and move on with our lives?

Archelaus and Herod are tyrants whose days came to an end. Jesus, the baby whose goodness and power threatened the tyrants of old, still unsettles and provokes a reaction in those who use their power for their own gain. How have you experienced suffering for standing up to the powers that be? In what ways is God still speaking, calling you and your congregation today to stand up and speak the truth to these powers? What might be the cost, and are you ready and willing to pay it?

In what ways is God calling you to new places in your life of faith? How is God calling your congregation to travel to a new place, however uncomfortable, in a new day? How do you experience God’s presence with you in this new place and new hour?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Paulo Freire, 20th century
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“Nearly all [people] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a [person’s] character, give [them] power.”

John Steinbeck, 20th century
“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts….perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”

Paulo Coelho, 21st century
“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”

Nelson Mandela, 20th century
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, 20th century
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”

Jennifer Donnelly, Revolution, 21st century
“Little by little, the old world crumbled, and not once did the king imagine that some of the pieces might fall on him.”

Plato, 5th century b.c.e.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when [we] are afraid of the light.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 63:7-9

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
   the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
   and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
   according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
   children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
   in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
   but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
   he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Psalm 148

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!

Hebrews 2:10-18

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
  “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
     in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

And again,
  “I will put my trust in him.”

And again,
  “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
  “A voice was heard in Ramah,
     wailing and loud lamentation,
  Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”