Sunday, December 30, 2007

All Creation's Praise

All Creation’s Praise
A Communion Meditation

copyright 2007 © Robert J. Elder
all rights reserved
Psalm 148
First Sunday of Christmas: December 30, 2007

Praise the LORD from the heavens...
Praise the LORD from the earth

Fifteen years ago I wrote an article in a magazine for preachers1 about the different voices of preaching. It had occurred to me that preachers can make use of a variety of voices in our preaching to bring the Word alive for those who are called to listen. Now, I don’t mean ventriloquist voices, but rather the voices of speech: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and so on. As I thought about it, I realized that most of the preaching we hear is made up of declarative sentences, like this one. Declarative sentences simply state things as if they were true, and it is up the the listener to decide if they are or not. But preaching made up entirely and invariably of declarative sentences tends to make listeners either rabid skeptics who begin to question everything, or like passive omlette pans who come to church empty, but are not to be filled too deeply nor left on the burner for too long.

Interrogative sentences in preaching come few and far between, don’t they? I wonder why that is, don’t you? Do you suppose it is because they wear on us rather fast? Don’t they begin to make everything the preacher says sound like an equivocation, a waffling? Wouldn’t you tire of twenty minutes of this? Aren’t you tired of it already?

One of the seldom-used voices of preaching in the rational and common sense based Scots/Presbyterian tradition is the imperative. If you’ve ever been in the military, you know the sort of voice this is: Listen to imperatives and learn. You are the church of Jesus Christ, so get off your duff and get on the ball for the kingdom! If your eye offends you, pluck it out! If this speaking voice offends you, imagine how it would feel after twenty minutes! The imperative voice is seldom used by preachers, and while I’m not entirely sure why that is, I suspect it is because most of us are reluctant to command listeners to do this or think that. We specialize in persuasion, not the rapping out of orders to be followed, demands for obedience.

There are other voices, but I am sure you get the picture. Some voices should be used mostly for emphasis, such as an exclamation: “Hallelujah!” Other voices, such as the declarative, are the stock and trade of preaching, and will always have the majority interest in almost any sermon.

Knowing all this, imagine what goes through a preacher’s mind upon encountering a sermon text like Psalm 148. A rough count of the sentences and phrases in the psalm tells me there are eight imperative sentences commanding praise for God, supported by three declarative sentences providing a tad of information to remind all who are commanded to praise why it is appropriate that they do so.

One really intriguing feature about Psalm 148 is that, with all these imperatives floating around, the psalm only gets around to commanding human beings to engage in praise in the 11th verse! Prior to that, everything else under the sun, and the moon as well, receives the joy-filled command to make praise.

It strikes me that almost anything that could be said about this psalm would come in a distant second in importance simply to obeying its command. There is a sense in which the creation of God is simply a given, and our call to praise flows as naturally from that as the thank-you note follows the wedding gift. Still, modern people could expand on the awareness of the psalm’s original writer because we know so much more about God’s creation than the ancients did. The psalmist commands praise from everyone from angels to caterpillars, from sea monsters to weather patterns, from mountains to macaws, from the inanimate as well as the animate world. No wonder Jesus thought the stones might shout as he made his way down the road to Jerusalem!

Imagine how many more would receive the psalmist’s command to praise if he had known about molecules, elephants, electricity, redwood trees, the solar system, quantum physics, or microorganisms! In modern times some have assumed that advances in science have resulted in a roughly equal reduction in the need for religious faith. This psalm reminds us how entirely wrong-headed this idea was and is.

Explaining how things work, or numbering how many things there are never comes close to answering the most basic religious question, which is, “Why are there those things in the first place?” The mechanics of things themselves almost never reveal intention. A man sitting in a shed with thousands of pounds of fertilizer may be a farmer preparing to feed his crop, or a crazed bomber preparing to level a city block. Someone exploring the intricacies of DNA may have in mind new healing possibilities or creating a master race.

As any attentive parent can tell us, a response to a child’s “why” question that addresses only “how” can always be followed with yet another “why” question:

“Mommy, why does it have to get dark every night?”
“Because the earth turns around once every 24 hours.”
“Because as it travels through space, there isn’t anything strong enough to make it stop spinning.”
“Because there is no friction to make it stop.”
“Ummmm. Time to go to sleep.”

The child asks “why” yet the parent persistently answers “how.” I think that on a deep level the child wants to know something else we all want to know: Is there any reason for the spinning of the earth apart from a mechanical one? As darkness comes over us every night, is someone still committed to the light which will greet us tomorrow? Is that coming light on its way in any sense for our sakes, according to some purpose? Annie Dillard, in an award-winning book, once asked, “The question from agnosticism is Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”2

Once having made a turn in our thinking toward the goodness of a Creator, once having learned that the answer to the ultimate “why” question is “the love of the One who made you,” we can set aside our partial knowledge on some days and simply answer the command to praise. God’s loving kindness toward us has resulted in intricate details about us which even the smartest scientist will never know. I once learned there are 100 trillion cells in each human body, and each one caries all the genetically coded information necessary for the make-up of the entire body, as well as the special instructions for the proper functioning of every individual cell. It occurs to me that this would require some advance planning. Let’s see, if there are around 6 billion people on earth, each carrying their own 100 trillion cells, then that would mean... I’m not sure of the total, let alone what it would mean if we knew it!

Karl Barth, the great reformed theologian, once wrote about the music of Mozart: “Mozart’s music is not, in contrast to that of Bach, a message, and in contrast to that of Beethoven, a personal confession. He does not reveal in his music any doctrine and certainly not himself ... Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” Barth also wrote, “The miracle is not that there is a God. The miracle is that there is a world.”

The time comes, now and then, to set down our speculations and partial explanations and just give voice to our praise for the One whose care for us reaches into such intricate detail, doesn’t it? It is out of this praise that all our theology comes at its best.

So, dear friends, here is another set of imperatives straight out of scripture: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise him all creatures here below! Praise him above, you heavenly host!

1. “Stand and Deliver: Preaching in the Nineties,” by Rob Elder in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1993, p. 39.
2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, (New York: Harper and Row, 1974, Bantam Books, 1975), pp. 147-8.