Scripture: Psalm 148
We humans are often poor judges of what is significant.
When I look back over my life, my own track record is pretty abysmal. An example: my choice of which college to attend.
Once I narrowed down college choices to three, I visited each. Ultimately, I chose to attend the one with crab grass. Seriously. That was what did it for me. The school I visited previously was so clean-cut it felt artificial. I didn’t fit there. But I fit with crab grass.
It’s a pretty poor logical leap, I’ll readily admit. And a rather flippant sort attitude toward a decision that ultimately shepherded me through theological crisis, introduced me to my spouse and some of my best friends, and had a significant impact in setting me along my current life path.
Another example: I chose to attend seminary as a stalling technique. Seriously, again, yes. I wanted to go to “real” grad school—you know, to work on a Ph.D.—but I had trouble narrowing my field down to the acceptable categories. So I avoided making the decision for three more years by attending seminary.
Again, a fairly petty process of decision-making for a commitment that resulted in more shaping of my worldview than probably any other I have made. This decision set me up for my travels in the Middle East, it forced me to find real-world application for my academic interests, and (perhaps most to the point) it was my official training for the job I now have…… Because of stalling.
On the other side of the coin, there have been countless decisions I thought were going to be life-changing yet are barely noticeable in hindsight. Purchasing decisions tend to fall into this category. So do conversations I’m too afraid to have.
It’s quite humbling, really. If it’s a decision that greatly impacted my life, I probably did not regard it with much significance at the time. If it’s a decision I thought would be immensely significant, it probably didn’t make much difference at all.
The story of Jesus’ birth illustrates that this pattern is larger than just me. All the people who should have recognized its significance completely missed the point.
All those religious people who knew the bible inside and out……
All those academics who debated the finer—and sometimes trifling—points of theology……
All those priests who serviced the temple and carried out the rituals of the faith……
All of them had all the pieces right in front of them, but they never put them together. It was the most significant event in human history, but it went right over their heads.
Those with Eyes to See
But not everyone missed it. You know who does tend to recognize what is really significant in the world? What really changes things?
Creation. Creation senses things and begins adjusting to shifts and pressures that we haven’t even started to notice.
Outsiders. Those on the margins of the world and culture are more susceptible to shifts that would make them victims, and so they tend to be more in tune with what these things mean.
Those in power. Those wielding the power of this world tend to have keener insight than most when it comes to what threatens that power.
Creation…… Outsiders…… Those in power…… These happen to be the elements in the psalm that recognize the significance of Yahweh God. And if we read closely, these are also the elements in the story of Jesus’ birth that recognize the significance there, too.
Many of the same elements of creation that praise God in Psalm 148 proclaim God’s praise in the birth of Christ as well. In the Luke 2 account, the heavens become filled with “the shining light of God’s glory” (Luke 2:9 VOICE). An angel and then even a “heavenly host” appear proclaiming God’s praise (just like v.2 of the psalm). And let’s not forget the feeding trough in which the baby Jesus is laid; while the bible doesn’t name the specific animals that were nearby, it isn’t too much a stretch to imagine the cattle of the psalm “lowing” near the baby Jesus, as we sing in the carol “Away in a Manger.”
Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the Magi see a peculiar star—something in creation that is out-of-the-ordinary—and follow it to Judea.
The “heavens,” “the heights above,” “the angels,” the “heavenly hosts,” the “sun and moon,” the “shining stars,” the “highest heavens,” the “waters above the skies,” and even the “cattle” have certainly added their voices in recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth.
But the psalm also suggests another group that tends to recognize the true significance of things: outsiders. The psalm makes reference to women, the elderly, and children praising God (v.12)—the very people with the least power in the ancient world. They define “outsiders” in the sense that they are powerless.
But the psalmist goes further than that. In the Hebrew Bible (the same as our Old Testament), the writers refer to non-Israelite rulers using the words of v.11 of the psalm: “kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth.” Non-Israelite rulers would of course be people who don’t know Yahweh-God. In the psalm, this trope anticipates a time when all people know and follow God’s direction and justice—much akin to the prophetic visions of Isaiah 2 and other places. The leaders and nations referenced in the psalm are outsiders, and it is outsiders who are precisely the ones who first recognize the significance of Jesus’ birth.
In Luke, it is famously a rag-tag band of shepherds who first receive the birth announcement, and subsequently follow their curiosity and hearts to our infant Savior. For Matthew, foreign, pagan Magi—astrologers rather than kings—travel from afar. Tragically, they are more in tune with what God is doing than God’s own people. They realize it’s significance.
3. The Powerful
There is (then) a third group of people (overlapping somewhat with the previous group) that recognize the significance of what God is doing: those in power. “Kings,” “princes,” and “judges” are ones who ordered the ancient world. They wield the power, control the money, and have absolute authority. That means, of course, that they are the ones with the most to lose when the Son of God—the Messiah—comes onto the scene and turns the world upside down.
Matthew’s story illustrates this for us most clearly. When King Herod began to hear rumors of what the Magi expected to find, he grew concerned—he knew immediately that Jesus’ birth had significant repercussions for his ability to hold onto his power and authority. So he tries to manipulate the Magi into betraying the newborn Messiah; and, when he realizes his trap failed, he slaughters countless infants and toddlers in an effort to protect his power.
Faithful people may have missed the significance of that newborn baby, but those in power knew just how dangerous this Jesus was to them; they did not miss the significance of his unassuming birth.
While I’m not arguing this psalm is prophetic in any way, I find it a remarkably appropriate description and response to the birth of Jesus.
In the advent of Christ,
“the name of the Lord” is praised;
God “alone is exalted”;
and God’s “splendor [shone] above the earth and the heavens” (v.13).
In the birth of Jesus,
God “has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart” (v.14).
In its own way, Psalm 148 guides us into recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth for ourselves and all of creation. Just as faithful people have seen for thousands of years, this ancient prayer and songbook of God’s people guides us (this morning) into relationship, celebration, and awareness.
And so, in recognition of the significance of the appearing of our Savior, let us join our voices with this Psalmist of old. Let us “Praise the Lord.”