1st Sunday after Christmas – 2017 LSB #’s 387, 930
Text – Psalm 148:13
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His majesty is above earth & heaven.
HEAVEN & NATURE SINGS
“Joy to the World” is one of the most beloved carols sung during the Christmas season. One of its great lines contains the refrain, “& heaven & nature sings, & heaven & nature sings”! My question is, “What do you think about this line?” “Heaven & nature” sings? I suppose the hymn writer might have had in mind the heavenly host of angels when he mentioned “heaven.”
That makes sense. We heard last week about the angels singing their praises over the hills of Bethlehem where the shepherds tended their flocks. But what about “nature” singing? And what about calling upon nature to sing at the coming of Christ? It is not just this particular hymn that speaks of nature singing. It bears echoes of the Psalm that was read earlier.
Just as the composer of our hymn calls upon heaven & nature to sing, so the psalmist calls upon every creaturely thing on earth to praise God as well. But, that doesn’t tell us why the psalm writer calls for all creation to praise God. Put bluntly, why should creation praise Him? Before answering that question, we’ll ask another question to point us in the right direction.
It’s basic & yet pretty profound. Why did God create the universe in the 1st place? Have you ever thought of that? Why did God create such a wondrous array of life on earth? The best answer may be that which we find in Luther’s Small Catechism when he explains the 1st article of the Apostles’ Creed.
Luther exclaims that God does all this “out of fatherly divine goodness & mercy without any merit or worthiness in me.” In other words, God creates because He loves. God loves life, so He lavishes life on His “blue marble” of an earth. He loves the richness of life & the diversity of life. He loves the beauty of life & the sound of life. He loves “pizazz” as Annie Dillard once put it, & if you don’t think He likes pizazz, consider the dazzling array of creatures He’s made: from the icefish to the emperor penguin to the whooping crane & the giraffe; not to mention humans & our ability to imitate, to some degree, God’s creativity by producing art & music.
Because God loves all that He’s made, He declares 6 times in Genesis 1 that it is “good” with a final declaration of “very good.” We could say that God is wildly enthusiastic about what He made. He then rests & delights in it on the 7th day. On the Sabbath, “God can smile & rejoice over His work,” or, as Psalm 104 puts it, “may you rejoice over your manifold works.”
When God says “it is very good,” His words resound throughout creation. They cause a resonance in His creatures, a resonance that resounds as praise. Elizabeth Achtemeier has suggested that praise is the creature’s answer to the love God displays. Creation’s praise becomes an echo of that love. So imagine it going something like this.
God sings, “It is very good.” Creation then rises up & sings in response, “yes, life is very good, indeed.” In this way, creation’s praise of God becomes an echo God’s own declaration & love. It draws attention to the work of the Creator, thus drawing attention to the Creator itself. But exactly how does creation praise God? By simply being what God intended it to be.
Creatures praise God by doing what they have been given to do. We might consider this analogy. When we give someone a gift for their birthday or Christmas, how do we know that it’s appreciated or honored? It is not only by saying “thank you,” but by making use of the gift.
If they simply put it in a closet never to use it, or even “repurpose” it by giving it to someone else, we would sense that our gift was worthless to them. So when creatures live as God intended them to live, they give praise & honor to God. Now, notice how the psalmist calls upon the entire expanse of creation to praise God. He calls them to be what God has made them to be. Birds praise God by being birds, elephants by being elephants, dolphins by being dolphins, chipmunks by being chipmunks, etc. And as each of them does so, praise goes forth in both action & sound. Throughout creation the “sound of music” is heard in rhythms & trills & melodies. Think of creation as a symphony or choir with different voices, instruments & parts.
Bernie Krause, who wrote a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, points out that sound & rhythms fill every niche of the musical spectrum in creation. Each contributes to the soundscape of the created universe. At Psalm 148:7 the psalmist begins with water – oceans, seas, lakes & rivers. There we hear humpback whales singing, otters splashing, waves crashing onto the shore.
The author then moves to the air & the creatures that exist there. We hear the howling of wind, the crackling of lightning, rain splashing on the ground & the thumping of hail. There are owls hooting, hummingbird wings beating the air, wrens trilling & cranes bugling.
Then the psalmist moves to the land. There we hear elephants trumpeting, horses snorting, dogs barking, cats mewing, chipmunks chirping. We hear the crunch of snow beneath our feet & the rhythm of hearts beating, lungs inhaling & exhaling; each of these sounds in creation is a response to God’s love – a being what God created them to be.
With Psalm 148, the sequence of everything in creation moves from the heavens to the earth. In verses 7‒14, which deal with the earth & its inhabitants, humans come last in the list. Why might that be? Did the psalmist save the best for last? Does He mention humans last because they are the most powerful of God’s creatures? The most noble of His creatures?
If that were the case, would they not be up by the angels who were listed first? Or is it possible, as biblical scholar Richard Bauckham suggests, that humans come last because they are the most reluctant to offer their praises to God? They are the ones most resistant to living as God intended, as God envisioned. They have to be encouraged & cajoled to do so. We prefer self-adulation to praise for God. With that desire to be at the center, man sounds not a discordant note, it was worse than that. Harmony was turned into disharmony. Worst of all, the music of creation was interrupted, & at times, silenced altogether. Our sin leads to the silencing of creation’s praise, a silence that undoes creation, a silence that returns it to a pre-creation state.
We may not be aware that it’s taking place or we’ve become so accustomed to it that we no longer notice. Songs of delight & laughter among God’s human creatures often turn into screams of pain, & cries of sorrow, by war & disease. We hear it in the whimpering of a child hungry for food, the sobbing of a woman for her dead husband.
Voices of praise are often turned into voices of criticism & hate. Voices of thanks are turned into grumbling & complaining for what we lack. We hear it in the creaking of our joints as we age. And it’s not just among humans that the silencing of praise occurs.
The songs of ivory billed woodpeckers, passenger pigeons & the like are no longer heard as we’ve taken away their chairs in the orchestra by denying them places to live out the lives God had given them. The songs of whales are drowned out with the rumblings of ships, the chirping of birds with the roar of car engines.
When we don’t want to hear the noises of our machines, we plug our ears with ear buds or cover them with headphones to tune out the world around us, so we can live within our own little world. There are fewer voices in the choir today than in the past. Though innocent, this aspect of creation has suffered the curse at the hands of God’s human creatures.
Most frighteningly, we see in the Gospel reading an attempt to silence the creation’s praise of welcome for the Son of God as He enters the world. Remember what the Gospel of John said? “He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him.” That’s what we witness going in Matthew 2. King Herod heard that a king of the Jews had been born. He could not welcome – much less celebrate – such an event! So he set out to kill his perceived rival by killing all the infants that had been born during the previous two years. And the joy of mothers & fathers for the gift of new life was turned into the cries of grief over the death of their babies. Their children’s voices had been silenced.
Joseph & Mary had to pack their bags & flee to Egypt. Think of the tragic irony. The Son of God, who had given life to all, now had to flee for His. God’s own Son now needed protection from the very human creatures He had brought into existence. Psalm 148 provides an interesting contrast. The nonhuman creation offers up praise spontaneously & continuously.
In spite of our sin & the destruction we brought, silencing much of creation’s praise, creation’s praise continues to rise up to God. That same creation looks forward to the coming of Messiah. Isaiah spoke of the trees clapping at the arrival of the messianic age. Paul speaks of creation groaning in anticipation of our redemption, & of its own.
In the context of this psalm, the rest of creation leads the way. We are the ones who need to be encouraged & exhorted. But there is hope for us, & thus, hope for creation. Although we have given God nothing but trouble from almost the moment He created us, God has not washed His hands of us nor of His creation.
Yahweh would not let us go. He would not let death be the final word. He would not allow silence to fill His creation. The entire history of the Bible, & human history since Christ died & rose for us, reveals the limitless patience of the Creator that He continues to bother with this world at all.
In Christ Yahweh has set out to restore His creation by 1st restoring the creatures who caused Him the most trouble – His human creation! Jesus says we are of far greater value than the sparrows. God loves you more than all the wonders of His world. More than the whales, more than the birds, more than all the precious & colorful jewels found within the earth, more than Yosemite, more than anything! So here’s the wonder – being rejected time & again by His human creatures all through the OT, & now being hunted by Herod, Jesus will still grow up to redeem & rescue those same human creatures, & by extension the entire creation.
As God’s human creatures, we have all the more reason to offer God our praises. The praise of God’s human creatures has begun to arise once again. We heard it with the song of Elizabeth. We will hear it again with the song of Simeon. We hear it in the voices of God’s adopted children known as the Church.
God’s human creatures once again can lead the way. We can be conductors of creation’s symphony & choir, leading the way in praising God. With the birth of Christ, creation’s song hit a new key. Creation not only praises God for His original work of creation, but for a new work taking place within creation, removing the disharmonies & the cacophonies that we hear now.
Thomas Aquinas, once suggested that no one creature could exhaust the goodness of God. That’s why the world is filled with so many wondrous creatures. We may provide a corollary by asking whether or not our praise is sufficient to laud the love of such a God? Or do we not, with our Psalmist, need to be joined in our praise by a universal chorus?
Think of the world outside these doors as a cathedral – the cathedral of creation – a basilica in which the ceiling is painted in colors of blue & dotted with brilliant stars. Mountains form walls & trees create archways. Within all its various rooms, nooks & crannies are choirs & symphonies of sound. As they fulfill their duties, let heaven & nature sing! Amen.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room & heaven & nature sing. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, while fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains repeat the sounding joy. Amen. LSB 387:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet