A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
Old South Church in Boston figured out how to solve their financial challenges: they sold one of their Bay Psalm Books for multi-millions of dollars. It was printed in Cambridge in 1640, the first book printed in this country. Think of that! The very first book printed in this land was a hymnbook! With tongue and lungs, those old Puritans sang their praises to God.
I mention that sale today, not because I think this church should rummage around in its archives and find something valuable to sell. I mention it because we read one of the last psalms in the Bible today—Psalm 148. There are only 150 psalms in the Bible, and the last five of those psalms serve as a kind of exclamation point to the whole collection.
When you look at the entire collection of psalms, you notice that just about every kind of emotion is expressed: thanksgiving, lament, complaints, anger, joy, love, passion, the whole long list of emotions that are part of the human experience. That is the reason the psalms are always relevant.
But the last five psalms begin and end with one Hebrew word translated in our Bibles as Praise the Lord! That one word is Hallelujah! The first and last word in each of the last five psalms is Hallelujah. That makes ten Hallelujahs at the end of the collection of psalms: but then Psalm 150, the last of the collections, adds ten more! So when we read Psalm 148, we are in the middle of the original “Hallelujah Chorus!”
But there is something unusual about Psalm 148 that makes it distinctive among all the psalms. It is what I am calling a duet with the Milky Way. That is to say, the first half of the psalm calls on all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord, and the second half of the psalm calls on earthly creatures to praise the Lord.
Now I am going somewhere contemporary with this, so please stay with me! This heavenly part of the praise fest includes angels, the heavenly armies, the sun, the moon, the stars, and what the ancient writer calls the waters above the heavens, reflecting the ancient belief that the sky was actually a giant dome set down upon a flat earth, and rain came when God opened the windows of heaven to let the waters above the heavens fall on the flat earth.
So the first half of the psalm is a call for all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord. Now what does that have to do with us, especially when you consider the ancient view of a flat earth? Look deeper into that culture, and you discover that calling on all the heavens to praise the Lord was quite revolutionary! The poet names the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, and says, Let them praise the name of the Lord…. He was living in a culture of nature worshippers, people who believed that the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, WERE gods. They were not created by one God; they were gods themselves to be worshipped. Here was a writer with the audacity to say that all of these heavenly beings were created by one God and were to praise the Lord.
This writer, however, doesn’t just leave it there; he gives a reason for their praise. And this is where the psalm becomes contemporary. Look closely at this writer’s audacity. After listing all those heavenly bodies, he says this: Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Living in a world full of people who believed that these heavenly bodies were themselves gods who controlled their lives, this audacious writer was saying that the God of Israel made them and set bounds around them. Suddenly these heavenly bodies become creatures of God, not gods themselves!
If you think we are beyond what some would consider superstitious nature worship, consider the contemporary worship of deities that we call by other names. Often those gods end in the suffix “ism.” Consider the grotesque bloodbath we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria under the banner of religious extremism. We are stunned by the brutality and persecution of anyone who does not fall down and worship the extremism of ISIS.
There are, of course, many other “isms” that we fall down and worship: there is consumerism, capitalism, materialism, nationalism, chauvinism, racism, determinism, and on and on. These “isms” are like stars in the sky: some people are ready to fall down and worship them!
This psalm reminds us that God has set bounds on all these “isms.” Not one of them is the ultimate truth, the final answer, the one thing of eternal value. God has fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed. That is the reason people with vastly different political or ideological positions can worship together. We all recognize that there are boundaries to our ideologies. And above those boundaries is our God who made us all and who loves us all.
The heavenly bodies are one part of this great duet. The other part is a list of earthly things: let them, too, praise the Lord. He lists them: sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, and birds. They all should praise the Lord, he says.
Then he finally reaches the level of human beings: kings, princes, rulers, men and women, old and young together. Let them praise the name of the Lord, he writes. Why should all these people praise the Lord? The writer gives a reason: He has raised up a horn for his people!
What in the world is that about? A horn? In the Old Testament, the horn of an ox or a ram was a symbol of strength and power. For the psalmist to say that God has raised up a horn for his people means that in the face of death and destruction, grief and chaos, blood and terror, God will not be cowed! God has set bounds on the worship of extremism and fanaticism. To embrace this psalm is to stand with fellow citizens and say, “God is greater than hatred.” When you see black and white citizens standing arm in arm in the name of peace in Ferguson, MO, you are seeing God raising up a horn for his people!
There is one final thing to say about this duet with the Milky Way: it is ONE chorus. The praise of this God is not confined to one religion, one nation, one race. It is a chorus of praise from all peoples, all things, both seen and unseen, animate and inanimate. It is an image of all of the creation this writer could imagine praising God.
If this two-part harmony sung by the heavenly beings on the one hand and the earthly beings on the other hand seems a little odd to you in our scientific world; if it seems perhaps a little weird, even; consider this: we sing about this duet every Christmas in one of our favorite Christmas carols. We hear it each year in church and in shopping malls, and it is possible we have missed its meaning.
Consider the words written by Isaac Watts:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.
Watts was thinking big. Heaven and nature are joining together in a two-part harmony of joyful praise! To make sure that everybody gets the point, he repeats “heav’n and nature” three times, even having the tenors and basses echo it in a refrain.
When we gather for worship and sing our praises to this God, we are joining a great chorus that transcends earth, transcends time, even transcends our imaginations. God is doing something amazing in this world, and we will not allow the nightly news of chaos and destruction, brutality and heartache to cover up God’s goodness. Sun and stars, dogwoods and dandelions, beetles and baboons, snips and snails and puppy dog tails, the earth and all its creatures—all join in the chorus.
And we will not stop singing, for God’s strength is here in our voices joined in praise.