Praise the Lord
A Homily from Psalm 147
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Antioch Baptist Church, Godfrey, Georgia
January 4, 1998 (Second Sunday of Christmas)
Our text for today is a song of praise, it is a song of celebration of the mighty acts of God. Even when it is read aloud, in translation and without melody, the words themselves seem to sing of the awesomeness of God. It was written after Israel had returned from a time of exile, and it is a reminder of what it means to be in exile, and more particularly, what it means to be God’s children in exile.
The particular exile that gave birth to this song was the Babylonian captivity of the leaders of the nation of Israel. This is one of the pivotal times in the history of Israel, and they were very intentional about remembering the horrors of that experience. Of course, on one level the experience was not very horrible at all. From what we know of the time, the Babylonian king simply removed all of the political and social leaders from Israel and forced them to live in Babylon.
They were not jailed or kept in chains. In fact, they were able to lead normal, fulfilling lives. The only restriction was that they could not lead those lives anywhere except Babylon. This was the king’s way of keeping them from leading a revolt. All of this does not seem so bad on the surface, so why is the exile in Babylon considered such a big deal? Why does the Bible speak about it so often?
Well, because the Jewish people believe that there is more to life than productivity. The center of their lives was not their homes and their jobs, it was their relationship with God. That relationship centered on actually experiencing the presence of God, and that could only happen in the temple in Jerusalem. During the exile in Babylon, there were two problems. One, they weren’t in Jerusalem. Two, the temple had been destroyed by Babylonian soldiers, so even if they could return to Jerusalem, they still could not return to the presence of God.
During the Babylonian exile the Jewish people had everything that a person could ask for except one: the ability to share their lives with God. They were materially satisfied and spiritually empty. They felt alone. But they were not alone, because God rescued them, God drew the nation together, and then God brought the nation back into divine fellowship. Psalm 147 celebrates the faithfulness and power of God.
Which still does not explain why it is read during the Christmas season. This is a beautiful story of God’s faithfulness, but how does it tie into the Christmas story? Part of the answer can be found in the first words of the Gospel of John; the words that were read as our call to worship today. John tells us of the light that shines in the darkness, the light that is the word of God, the light that frees us to join into a relationship with God. That light is Jesus, and the darkness which Christ drives away is the darkness of exile.
Then, as now, material needs were not too difficult to meet. True, some had more and some had less, and most had to work for what they had, but most people led fairly fulfilling lives. What they did not have was a relationship with God. They were in eternal separation, exile, from God because of human nature, misplaced priorities and aching weaknesses, in short, because of sin.
The exile in Babylon is the exile of all people over all times. It is the story of our lives. On the surface, everything seems fine. We appear to be in control of our destinies, and we have happiness and fulfillment. But if that’s all we see, the physical world that will die for us when our bodies die, then we are blind and living in darkness.
And into that darkness God fling the blinding, unquenchable light of Jesus Christ. That is why this Psalm is sung at Christmas. Because without the presence of Christ, we are in exile, alone, and blind. With Christ we are free, we are reunited with God, and we can see the world with new eyes.
This Psalm also gives us some insight into the nature of Christ, the nature of the light that frees us from the darkness. Verse 18 tells us that with God’s word, the chilling frost of winter is melted, and with the breath of God nourishing water springs forth in desert sands.
John’s gospel echoes this by telling us that in the beginning the word was with God, and that in Christ the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The word of God. Kind of a strange phrase when you think about it. The Greek gods worked with things like lightning bolts and thunderstorms. You might say that the gods of today work with microchips and nuclear weapons. But our God, with a word, transforms the emptiness of winter into the bounty of summer.
Remember in Genesis, when with the power of word God freed the earth from the dark exile of chaos. With the power of word, God raised trees from arid soil and brought the blossoms of a million flowers blooming into their first daylight. With the power of word, God brought animals up from the dust, including the funny-looking, thin-skinned, two-legged animal called humanity.
In the Bible, word is the creative power of God. It is the way in which God takes some part of who God is, and uses it to transform the world that we know. It is an awesome thing, and the more awesome when it is tied to the word breath. In the two original languages of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, the words for spirit, breath, and wind are the same.
The breath which God breathed into the first man and woman is the Spirit of God. Even the gentle breeze that cools our skin on a hot summer day is a reminder of the creative spirit of God, which was breathed into us in the beginning of history, and is the very breath that fills our lungs. It is for this reason that, in John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born, not only of flesh, but of the breeze as well, born of the Spirit of God.
It is this spirit, this word, of God, which has created all of the wonders of our world, which gave us life, and which wept to be separated from us by our sin, and which became flesh that we might be freed from our darkness and exile.
How amazing. God, living on a world that transcends this physical one, shapes us. Yet we are doubting creatures, and eventually we doubt anything that is not part of the physical world. In Genesis, that means trusting a snake that you can see rather than a God whom you cannot. Today that might mean trusting in a job, or a title, or a possession, or a person, to bring us happiness and fulfillment. Whatever the example, it is our nature to cast ourselves into exile, to limit what we see.
Yet God does not give up on us. If we can no longer touch the power of God’s word, then God will shape that word into something we can touch. And so, the awesome, pure, creative power of God becomes one of those funny-looking, thin-skinned, two-legged creatures. Just like us. One of us. A little baby. Not just something we can touch, but something we can hold and nurture and love.
Make no mistake, it is still the awesome power of God that Mary held in her arms that first Christmas day. As verse 15 of this Psalm reminds us, it was the same power that had shaped the world in which we had allowed ourselves to become imprisoned. Yet such is the love and faithfulness of God that that very power has become the very means of obliterating the walls of that prison.
Of course, separation from God is not the only prison, the only exile, in which we can find ourselves. Nor is it the only one from which God can free us. Every day, we make decisions that separate us from our neighbors. Every day, we thicken the walls that separate us from the air and soil and sunshine that gave us birth. In fact, we seem to be poisoning our planet to such an extent that our homes themselves could become prisons as the outside world becomes dangerous. They are again prisons when we are afraid to walk the streets because of crime. Or when we shut our doors to shut the needs of others out. We even create exile with our words, when our gossip or our hatred or prejudice pushes others away.
The gospel, the story of Christ, is about liberation from exile. It is about rejoining community. It is first and foremost about rejoining the community of God, but it goes beyond that. It is equally about healing all of those things which shackle us. It is about learning to see in the blindness that our own weaknesses has brought.
The gospel is about transforming arid lives into fertile ones. It is about creation. Creating families and friendships where there was once fear and separation. It is about creating hope where there was fear, and about creating life where there was death. It is about doing it in new and surprising ways, because the old ways are ways of darkness. It is about a God who is a baby and a Savior who is a slain carpenter not a warrior-king.
And all of this is made possible by a God who not only is, but who acts. None of the action in Psalm 147 is past tense. This is not a song about what God has done but who God is. God is the one who makes peace. God is the one who speaks and heals and transforms. Our God was, is, and always will be active and constantly creating in our lives.
The trick is to see the sprit of God and not just the wind, to hear the word of God and not just the sound of our own voices. Because our voices can become the word of God as our breath can become God’s presence. We are the body of Christ, and just as Psalm 147 reminds us that our God is a God of action, then we too must be a people of action.
We must be a people who tear down walls, who empty prisons, who heal and create. That is how we can carry the light of God, the physical presence of God in to the darkness, and how the whole world can come to see beyond this frail world into the eternal love of God.
That is a tall order, and sometimes is very hard to see beyond the walls of our own fears and doubts. The gospel of John reminds us that, although the darkness cannot overwhelm the light, nor does it seem to be completely eliminated by it. In those times, when exile seems endless, Psalm 147 is a reminder, that God’s acts of liberation are not limited to the past. Liberation is who God is, and there is hope.
Not the frail hopes that we know. I hope that the weather will be nice, I hope that so-and-so like the present that I bought them, I hope my bald tires won’t go flat. At their very best, these hopes are just educated guesses, at their worst they are wishful thinking. This is not the kind of hope that Psalm 147 give us. God is the God who transforms the killing frost of our lives into warm spring breezes of creation. That is not a possibility, that is a fact of who God is. During those times that will come, times of separation and aloneness, there is only one sure hope, and that is in God.
And so, the passage that we read for today begins and ends, simply, “Praise the Lord.” A simple statement, but a never-ending task. The Psalmist has reminded us who it is that we serve. We serve the awesome God of creation, whose very words and spirit, simply through their existence, bring worlds into being. We serve the amazing God who transformed that creative power into a human being just like us. We serve the generous God who, when separated from us, focused all of the powers of creation into one being to light the way, to free us from our own limitations. Perhaps, also, it was to remind us who we are. That the air we breathe is the gift and presence of God, and that we were formed in the image of that creator God, and that we too have the power to imprison or to free, to create or to destroy.
What an amazing God, what an amazing gift. “Praise God!,” the Psalmist said. Praise God! Not just with words, but with our lives. In that little barn, a hundred miles from the nearest main road, everything that God is, every hope that God the loving parent had for us, was placed within our reach. Praise God, not just with our voices but with our lives.
Praise God through leading lives of joyous celebration. Not just in this season that the malls have already forgotten. Year round. That is the reminder of the miracle of Christmas and of this Psalm, God is never done, God’s miracles are never in the past. God is constantly a God of creation and liberation. Celebrate! Praise God.
And part of that praise is remembering who we are. Recognizing how we limit ourselves and each other, and finding ways to tear down what separates us and build up what brings us together. That is who God is, that is the hope of a little baby in a barn, of all babies, really, that is how we become the body of Christ, the very word of God.