By now I believe it is safe to say that you all know I love the Christmas season. Everywhere I turn I see reasons to celebrate… reasons to be thankful… reasons for gratitude. It is during such times that answering Psalm 148’s call to Praise God is easiest.
I suspect for many you, this Christmas season is a joyful one. Being only a week out from our own celebration of Christmas, most of us will probably find it easy to offer praise. And rightly so because when you get right down to it, we have so much to be thankful for. It is in such moments that Praising God comes rather easy I believe, most likely because all seems right with the world.
Yet I know there are people who find it difficult or even impossible to Praise God, especially during the holiday season. I think about my childhood friend who lost his Dad to a massive heart attack on Christmas morning some 5 years ago. A family for whom Christmas was the most anticipated time of the year, until that Christmas morning. I think about those who for the first time in their lives spent Christmas without certain loved ones. Their Christmas traditions of old now giving way to the start of new, unfamiliar ones.
These are the people I have thought about this past week as I was preparing to stand before you today and preach on Psalm148. How might those people hear this Psalm?
Praise the Lord? Tell me Pastor, how am I supposed to do that exactly? And while these conversations only took place in my head this year, I know they are real.
Although we have met a couple of times, I don’t personally know Rev. Ed Beddingfield, Senior Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, NC on the campus at Campbell University. Before serving at Memorial he spent close to fifteen years serving FBC Fayetteville as their Senior Pastor. It was in Fayetteville that Ed and his wife Sarah raised their two daughters, Shannon and Megan, now adults with one serving as a missionary and the other completing her Ph.D. work. Sarah was a longtime educator having retired a few years ago.
Ed is one of my father-in-law’s best friends in ministry and it was that friendship that caused Mike to call Ed early Christmas morning after hearing about the tragedy the night before. Around 10:30 PM Christmas Eve, after completing the Candlelight Christmas Eve service at Memorial where he assured the congregation that God is with us even in times of great darkness, Ed, Sarah, Shannon and Megan, who were visiting their parents for the holiday, were home when the unthinkable happened… an explosion occurred, and the house was immediately engulfed in smoke and flames. Ed and Megan got out safely, but Shannon was badly burned and suffered tremendous smoke inhalation. Today she remains in the burn unit at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill. Ed’s beloved wife Sarah did not survive.
Amy and I found out about this on Christmas day and we have talked about it off and on ever since. Together, we relived parts of our own house fire, but as the week went on and I sat with this Psalm and the heartache I felt for the Beddingfield family, I couldn’t escape how difficult it is to Praise God in the midst of tragedy and how angry being asked to Praise God can make those who are grieving. Now I want you to know, I believe the difficulty and anger are justified and no matter what anyone says, I believe God understands and is OK with our inability to quickly move past such things. In fact, I don’t think God expects us to be able to move forward by ourselves. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout the entire Bible, God’s promise that we are never alone and that we never have to face the difficulties in life by ourselves. In fact, it is this communal understanding of life that opened my eyes to the Psalmist’s words. This Psalm is a communal call, not an individual call. Like most of life itself, the Praise of God is not my sole responsibility.
This Psalm calls all creation to Praise God for it was God who created and called all of creation to live in community. As for God’s people, the Psalm tells us God raised up a horn for them, which is best understood as God restoring the people to strength and dignity. So all of this should help us understand that praising God is not determined by how well things are going at the moment in our own lives or in the world. Praising God is more communal than that, because all creation is more communal than we sometimes act like. “The praise we offer to God is wholly determined by, dependent on, who God is and what God has done and is doing in the universe. Praising God is what we—along with the sun and moon, snow and wind, mountains and trees, creeping things and flying birds—are called to do.
There are seasons, Christmas included, in which it may not be easy to find a voice for praise. Sometimes the word or song of praise gets silenced by a lump in our throat, as though we have swallowed too much grief or sorrow or loneliness to utter a sound. Sometimes praise is no more than a whisper, because we are exhausted or afraid or ill. What happens when we ourselves are too sad or too weak to offer praise of God? This psalm exclaims the hopeful, comforting message that we are not isolated or alone in our vocation of praise. From start to finish, Psalm 148 places us within a vast, diverse universe where continual praise is being offered to God: Angels and stars, fire and frost, wild and domesticated animals, men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor… join in a symphony of praise. So, when our own song or spirit is silenced, praise still fills the space all around us. Psalm 148 offers hope that a time of personal darkness may just be the time we let the rest of creation praise God for us until we find our voice again.
This common vocation of praise is the source of our true interrelatedness to God, to one another, to the universe. Praise, then, is a gift that brings us out of isolation and into communion. Communion is what Christmas is most truly about: God’s desire to be at one with us. Psalm 148 gives voice for many to the joy experienced in this season. For others struggling through these days, Psalm 148 offers assurance that they are not left in isolation and silence in creation or in the community of faith.” (Kimberly L. Clayton, Feasting on the Word Commentary)
No matter what, we can’t always find it within ourselves to Praise God. Sometimes it just feels too dog on hard, and the truth of the matter is, sometimes it is too dog on hard. Sometimes we just need time to grieve and time to rest. This is where the Church comes in. This is where we live into the community God desires because this is where the Church as community will shine. I dare say this is why God wants the Church, for there is no greater task the Church can perform than helping a brother or a sister, or every other part of God’s beautiful creation, when they or it can’t help themselves.
When we fall victim to thinking we must do it all by ourselves, praising God can be too difficult. I believe the Psalmist recognizes this and maybe the lesson it is teaching is for us to recognize that there are times when our brothers and our sisters cannot praise God and it is in those times that we, the Church, must. Instead of beating people up or expecting them to praise God when they can’t, the Church must step up, without judgment, without shaming, and fulfill its role of praising God for them. You see, judging and shaming serve only to isolate and anger, but Praising, especially for those who can’t, can be the gift that overcomes the isolation. Praising can be the gift that brings light into darkness. Praising can be the gift of community.
There is no greater gift the Church can offer creation. So today we join all other parts of Creation whose voice Praises God. Today we Praise God with them, but today and every other day I want us to do more because we recognize that there are parts of creation who don’t or can’t find a voice to Praise. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God for all who can’t. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God for all who won’t. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God until they find their voice again and when that happens they join us. This is who we are called to be. This is the way the Church will shine brightly in a world that often seems dark. This is how we do our part in building God’s Kingdom for this is how we answer this universal calling for all of creation to Praise God.