Sermon for December 29th, 2013
1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! 2Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! 4Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. 6He established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, 8fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 10Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! 12Young men and women alike, old and young together!
13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. 14He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord
Just a few weeks ago, I stood here in this sanctuary and looked out across the pews at 455 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older brothers and sisters and probably a few second cousins who came here to watch our Preschoolers perform their annual Christmas program. 455 people--and that's not even counting the preschoolers, who completely filled up this entire chancel area where I'm standing right now. A few days after that, our chancel choir hosted their annual Christmas music program, complete with a full orchestra, bells, and other musical ensembles. There weren't quite 455 people that time, but there sure were a lot. A few days after that was our Christmas Eve service, and once again, this sanctuary was filled with people.
Today the sanctuary is noticeably less full, and I'm ok with that. In fact, if it had been as full as it was last month, that would have completely ruined the point of my sermon! I wasn't too worried, though. In churches across the nation, this morning marks an event that has a name, although you won't find it in any liturgical calendar: The Sunday after Christmas is often referred to as "Low Sunday." As in, "low attendance" Sunday.
A friend of mine, who is the youth director at a large, multi-staff church in Dallas, refers to it as "Associate Pastor Sunday" or "Guest Preacher Sunday," reflecting the fact that often even the pastor doesn't show up. I have to admit, I was a little tempted. But here I am, and here we are, and I think there's a very, very good reason for that. More on that later...
I can understand why attendance usually drops off the chart on Low Sunday — the Advent Season leading up to Christmas is kind of like the playoff season in football for most churches. Judging by attendance, our preschool Christmas program this year was the Superbowl. Maybe the Christmas Eve service was like the "All Star Game" (pun intended—get it? All-Star, Star of Bethlehem? I know, that was bad.).
But by the time Christmas actually rolls around, the congregation—especially its leaders—are just worn out on worship services. Then add to that mix the self-induced craziness of our consumer-shopping-cookie-baking-gift-wrapping-photo-taking-wallet-breaking-picture-perfect Christmas culture. No wonder everybody is exhausted by now, and nobody wants to go to church. Of course, the irony here is that after the presents are all unwrapped Christmas morning, most people in our culture think that Christmas is over. Time to relax and take a break from our Christmas break. But on the church calendar (unlike the shopping calendar), December 25th doesn't mark the end of the Christmas season—it actually marks the beginning!
I've often heard it said that attendance is low this time of year because people are out of town, visiting family in other places. I've always thought that excuse was a little shaky: If people leave this town, they're still in some other town, and surely some people from those other towns come here to visit family—so attendance should in theory balance out, with attendance down from members, but up from visitors. By the way—if you are one of those out-of-town visitors with us today, welcome! You get a gold-star and some cookies after the service for being so faithful.
But whatever the reasons, good or bad, the Sunday after Christmas remains one of the most poorly attended Sundays of the year. Low Sunday. So look around you...you are the few, the proud, the real "Christmas Christians." I'll come back to this idea of Low Sunday in just a bit, but first I want to backtrack through today's scripture reading in the Psalms.
Today is kind of an in-between Sunday in many ways, but as far as the sermon goes, that's because we're in between two different sermon series'. We just wrapped up a sermon series on the Christmas story from the perspective of prophets, towns, angels and shepherds, and next Sunday we're going to begin our annual sermon series on Faith and Film, exploring some of the best films of 2013 through the lens of our Christian faith. So what do you do with those in-between Sundays? Well, whenever I have the opportunity, I love to go back to the Psalms.
Reading the bible can be intimidating--it's a big book, with larger-than-life characters and ideas. But the Psalms (in the very middle of the bible) are simple. You can read just about any one single psalm in less than a minute (although if you have five minutes, it's good to read slowly and let each line sink in).
Psalms are personal--they are the short prayers, praises and cries of individual writers. Think of them as deeply personal letters, songs and poetry written to God in quiet moments of reflection, in times of deep distress and need, or in moments of exuberant passion. If you read more than a few psalms, you will eventually come across one that speaks with your own voice, echoing the deepest thoughts of your own heart.
So as we close the book on 2013, I couldn't resist one last opportunity to preach from the Psalms. But which one to choose? It had to be a good one: beautiful, deep, poetic and meaningful--the perfect grace note to the end of the year.
Psalm 148, as it turns out, is all about sea monsters, fruit trees, and cows praising God. So I thought, "Why not? Let's run with that one! In addition to those things, you also have sun, moon, stars, water, wind, snow, frost, fire, mountains, and hills praising the Lord. All inanimate objects. How does a hill praise God, I wonder? For your homework assignment, I want you to go home, find a hill, watch it very carefully for a few hours, and let me know. If people think you're weird, tell them it's just a Presbyterian thing. They already think we're weird, so it won't change anything.
If you add to that list wild animals, creeping things, flying birds, and angels—we still have a lot of non-human entities praising God. In fact, only two little verses toward the end mention kings, princes, rulers, young men and women, old and young alike: Let them Praise the name of the Lord, too. I mean, they might as well. After all, everyone else is doing it. But you see, we humans are a minority in this Psalm of praise to God. And in a Bible so predominantly focused on people and nations, that seems a bit odd, don't you think? So, a few weeks ago, I put this verse on the shelf in my brain, and went about the business of getting ready for my own season of self-induced Christmas Craziness. (By the way, and speaking of craziness, if you still haven't received the Locke family Christmas card...let's just start to think of it as more of a Happy New Year card, ok?).
It was somewhere about halfway through my 4th time singing "Joy to the World" this Christmas season that it hit me: Where is the other big place you see a whole lot of inanimate things praising God, along with farm animals and celestial beings? Christmas hymns:
- Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy...and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing...
- Ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now.
- The stars in the sky look down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay
- Do you See what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night. Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song, high above the trees with a voice as big as the sea.
- Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing all ye citizens of heaven above
- Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains, and the...[pause]...MOUNTAINS in reply, echoing their joyous strains.
The list goes on and on. Humans, of course, do feature in Christmas Hymns too, but often the non-humans are already praising God, while the hymn is pleading with humans to join in: "Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies, With the angelic host proclaim: Christ is born in Bethlehem." In other words, what the hymn is acknowledging is the fact that for the most part, humans are not praising God on that first Christmas morning, even though they should, and the person writing the hymn really wants them to be.
The High King of Heaven—the long awaited messiah—comes at last to earth, and if there's ever a time for a full orchestra, brass section, and welcoming chorus, this is it! What does he get? Well, contrary to the cute little nativity scenes we're used to, the “royal welcome” with gift-wrapped presents (the three kings, or magi, or wise men) doesn't show up for another three weeks yet. On Christmas day, you find a handful of shepherds (who likely wouldn't be there if not for angels scaring the you-know-what out of them), Mary and Joseph, and that's it for the human contingent! Even if we're generous and assume 10 or 12 shepherds, that leaves us with a total attendance of 14. So don't feel bad about the sparse crowd today. That first Christmas was the original "Low Sunday."
What to do? What to do? Should we postpone the birth of Christ until people get back from out of town? Should we shut the doors of the stable and call the whole thing off? Maybe what the nativity really needs is a better marketing strategy. A better website. Or more young people involved. Or maybe we need a nativity-committee (a nativity-fractal) to make it work. There's no room and the inn, and there's no room in the budget, either. We'll wait to have the birth of Christ until after a good capital campaign.
Fortunately endless dilemmas of humans are no-brainers for God. God doesn't focus on what's missing, what might have been, or what the world thinks is appropriate — the God of Psalm 148 says, "I made everything. So what've we got? Let's roll...with that." We got some livestock? Let them praise the Lord! We got a really bright star? Praise the Lord! We got angels? Praise the Lord! We got a mountain? Let it echo the angels! We got some frightened shepherds who don't quite know which end is up? Then let them praise the Lord!
Because a thousand years from now, when the rest of the humans have finally caught on and realized the divine significance of this day...it will be the lowly shepherds, the humble cow and donkey, the rocks, and hills and plains — not the kings and committees, not the masses or megachurches — just these precious few, that had the once-in-history opportunity to welcome the savior of the universe and praise his holy name!
So look around you, "Low Sunday Christians." See the faces of the ones God is ready to use. Because it is precisely in the bleak mid-winter that hope comes to the faithful. It is precisely on Low Sundays like this one that that the Creator of the Universe loves to show up. And if God can use rocks and cows and shepherds to praise the birth of the messiah, then God can use those few of us gathered here today to begin something new and something wonderful in the life of 1st Presbyterian Church, and in the city of El Paso — Praise the name of the Lord! God can use the very pews upon which you sit — and those no one sits upon — the rafters in the roof, and every brick in every wall of this place to praise the name of the Lord! God can even use rookie pastors, associate pastors, out-of-town visitors, and people who just barely made it out the door today!
Especially on a day like today, as the Christmas season of the world comes to an end, let our Christmas season begin. Let God use you. Why? Because you came. Who? Just you. Just you humble few. How? Just with three small words. We are not called to solve all the problems of the church or the world (at least not by ourselves). We are not called to worry about the future, or to dwell on the past. We are not even called to understand the complexities of a God who sends a baby to do what kings and kingdoms could not.
We are called to do the one thing that all creation does in Psalm 148. We are called to do the one thing asked of us by countless Christmas hymns. We are called to do the one thing done by shepherds and animals and angels on the low and lonely day Christ came into the world. I believe that if we get this one thing right, the rest falls into place. If you would let God use you today and in the Christmas season to come, then it starts right here with those few gathered today. It starts with three words. Do you know what they are yet? PRAISE THE LORD!