Readings (2nd reading extended to include Rev 21:7-8)
What a combination of texts!
Let’s start with the psalm, one of the psalms at the book’s climax dedicated to praise. Think about what we praise, what happens in us when we praise: a delicious meal, a wide receiver’s unbelievable catch, a pianist who nails a concerto, the beauty of a sunrise. These moments, completely spontaneous, take us out of ourselves, bring us joy. They’re usually accompanied by gratitude, gratitude that we were there to participate. It’d be surprising if there weren’t some physiological benefits as well. So, praise: we probably want to be doing it more often.
The Book of Psalms, the Psalter, thinks that even if we’re half awake praise naturally focuses on the Creator. In fact, for the Psalter the basic contrast isn’t praising vs. silent but praising vs. dead. “The heavens declare the glory of God, / and the firmament shows his handiwork,” and the Psalter encourages us to join the chorus, gives us words to join the chorus.
Our Morning Prayer usually begins with Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing to the Lord; / let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” All hell may be breaking loose, Murphy’s Law may be strutting its stuff, but we still have the choice of how to respond, and in our tradition that’s with this psalm, even when a good part of our energy is going into keeping a firm grip on that Rock.
You see, the placement of Psalm 95 in Morning Prayer isn’t just about liturgy, but about we start our days in this unpredictable and dangerous world. When I first open my iPhone in the morning, do I go first to the Psalter or the New York Times? (I’m preaching to myself here.)
Psalms like Psalm 95 or today’s psalm have a further effect: they calibrate the rest of our responses. Let these psalms sink in, and the breathless calls to applaud the rich and famous or to fear the powerful lose some of their force. When I turn to the news my blood pressure meds have less work to do. Over time our praise of the Creator molds us into particular people with particular responses.
Now in Psalm 148, after all that praise of the Creator there’s a gear shift in the last verse: “He has raised up strength for his people / and praise for all his loyal servants, / the children of Israel, a people who are near him.” The Creator is also the Protagonist in our history, paying special attention to Israel. And for the Jews praying this and similar psalms, the temptation was virtually irresistible to emphasize the contrast between us and them. Of course, initiatives like the forced Hellenization that sparked the Maccabean revolt a couple centuries before Jesus didn’t help matters!
Which brings us to the reading from Acts. Peter has ignored that us/them contrast and the “circumcised believers” want to know why. So Peter tells the story, which includes both Jesus’ words and the Spirit’s sovereign action: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” It turns out that that line in the psalm “the children of Israel, a people who are near him” isn’t the last word. And that’s a hard one for Peter’s audience to swallow, and the issue appears later in Acts as well as in Paul’s letters. Praising the Creator and Protagonist in our history means—well, should mean—acknowledging God’s freedom to introduce the new. Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into an implicit contract: we keep praising; You keep doing things we like. You may remember the uproar when Bob Dylan went electric. Anyhow, the new…
“See, I am making all things new.” We can draw a straight line from Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and earth that we heard on Easter Sunday to John’s vision.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (65:21-22)
Our world will not be trapped in futility and oppression indefinitely. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” That’s worth celebrating, and that celebration is one of the dimensions of every Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (That’s one of the short answers to “Why do you go there on Sunday mornings:” there’s a new world coming and we’re celebrating!)
What of the last two verses? John’s visions use that word ‘conquer’ more than the rest of the New Testament books combined. The context is one of persecution, so at one point we hear “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). Pulling the camera back to include the rest of the New Testament, I suppose that the more general point is that courage—one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues—is necessary to live humanly. Our choices matter, not because God is keeping score, but because our choices mold us, mold our capacity to respond to this God. This God, not generic deity, but the God who has no use for “Rank has its privileges,” the God who welcomes the prodigal son, the God who welcomes the gentiles and the other riff raff, the God who apparently still doesn’t understand that you’re either predator or prey. Do I really want to spend all eternity with this God?
There’s a scene toward the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle (the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia) that tries to capture this:
“But as they came right up to Aslan—Lewis’ Christ figure—one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression on their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred… And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared… But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of these were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right” (Chapter 14).
Our choices matter, and may require some courage. This is probably one of the reasons for Jesus’ “new commandment” in our Gospel reading “that you love one another.” We need each other’s love, whether we’re choosing wisely or foolishly.
Let’s circle back to the psalm. Praise too is a choice, one of those choices that molds us into folk more receptive to God’s presence and God’s choices—or not. With Spring finally arriving with all that is new and green, it’s not a bad time to clear our throats and renew our praise.