A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Pastor, January 1, 2012.

Psalm 148

1 Praise the Lord!
   Praise the Lord from the heavens;
   praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his host!

3 Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens!

5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for he commanded and they were created.
6 He established them for ever and ever;
   he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.*
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and frost,
   stormy wind fulfilling his command!

9 Mountains and all hills,
   fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds!

11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
   princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and women alike,
   old and young together!

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven.
14 He 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!

Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;* this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.*27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon* came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon* took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant* in peace,
   according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon* blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna* the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him

Today is the first day in 2012 and the first Sunday following Christmas.  What better day to celebrate the start of a new year? 

But the start of a new year presents some big challenges.  It’s hard to put on a happy face in the face of personal, vocational, social, and other problems.  We can’t turn off bills, aging changes, school and job worries, or the many troubling other problems in our lives and world just because the calendar says “New Year’s Day”—even on Sunday.

We agree with the Psalmist that God deserves to be praised.  But how do we begin the New Year focused on praise in the face of seasonal depression, loneliness, strained finances, strained relationships, bittersweet memories, health concerns, and the injustices that wound and worry us?  How can we get in tune with the recurring theme of praise in Psalm 148 and the seasoned words and acts of praise by Simeon and Anna in Luke 2?  How can we live with praise, purpose, and power when faced by so many challenges?

We shouldn’t try to ignore this problem.  It won’t go away.  This combination of moral, emotional, social, economic, personal, and spiritual realities lies at the heart of what we call the “blues.”  This is the stuff that “Stormy Monday” (the 1947 blues classic written by T-Bone Walker and later covered so well by Bobby “Blue” Bland) is about.  We find ourselves in God’s house today reading about praise while at the same time wrestling with questions about our purpose and how to live well.  We sense that we’re supposed to be people of praise, purpose, and power.  We’re can’t hide from that call.  We can’t hide from the “blues.”

How can we reconcile the paradox in our living?

Remember that we are part of God’s comprehensive and infinite activity!  Praise is the theme that constantly runs through Psalm 148.  The Psalmist calls on everything in the cosmos to “Praise the Lord!”  No part of creation is omitted. Better still, notice that humans are the last group listed (after angels and the hosts of heaven, sun, moon, stars and the rest of the solar system, creatures on the earth and sea, fire, hail, snow, frost, and wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, birds, creeping things, and all animal life). 

The Psalmist reminds us that God deserves praise by all God’s handiwork.  We are part of what God is doing.  Yes, we’re important.  God loves us and has acted with strength (“raised up a horn”) for humanity.  We should praise God because of the liberating work God has done and is doing. 

But let’s not forget that humans are part of God’s work in the world.  We’re called on to praise God with the rest of creation because we share the same origin. 

  • Our God is the same power that created the sun, moon, and stars.
  • Our God is the same power that angels and the hosts of heaven worship.
  • Our God is Prime Power behind the existence of whales and minnows, birds and bears, elephants and eagles, snakes and spiders, redwoods and shrubs.
  • Our God is the Everlasting Judge of all kings and kingdoms, powers and power brokers, rulers and rule-breakers.
  • Our God is the source of inspiration for the young and consolation for the aged. 
  • Our God is the source of love and hope for every man and woman.

Humans are part of a comprehensive and infinite display of divine activity. We’re from God!  We’re part of God.  Our oneness in God with the rest of Creation and our participation in God’s activity give us reason to join all Creation in praising God.

We praise God by living according to God’s purpose for our being.  Contrary to the popular notion, praise isn’t something reserved for religious occasions and setting.  Praise is the outgrowth of obedient living according to God’s purpose.

Much of the difficulty we encounter surrounding praise may occur because we associate praise with our pleasure rather than God’s pleasure.  If we’re displeased with life we sometimes allow that displeasure and our notions about it to affect our perspective on praise.  But we aren’t here to please ourselves.  Just as the sun, moon, stars, and everything else in Creation exist to fulfill divine purposes, humans exist to fulfill divine purposes. 

God doesn’t exist to please us.  We exist to please God!  We won’t be people of praise until and unless we view our living in terms of God’s purpose.  Our difficulties with praise arise from trying to define praise as a function of our pleasure with ourselves instead of God’s pleasure operating in us.  God is praised when we act according to God’s purpose for our existence.

We are empowered to live with praise and purpose by community living.  Luke’s account of what happened when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple provides several insights on how people get the power to live with praise and purpose.  Mary and Joseph were young parents with a new baby in a struggling economy.  Simeon and Anna (whose name was Hannah in Greek) were aged people of faith.  Jesus was an infant. 

Nothing in creation exists for itself.  All creation, including all humanity, exists as part of a vast and comprehensive network of relationships to God who is the Source and Strength of each and all.  So the first need for every new person in the world is to be welcomed and affirmed as part of a wider community by responsible and reverent beings within the community. 

Parents are the first nurturers of community for infants.  But parents need community support also.  The temple, Simeon, and Anna demonstrate the kind of support needed by young parents.  Simeon and Anna praised God by being nurturers, affirmers, encouragers, prayer warriors, and counselors.  As far as we know, they weren’t kin to Joseph and Mary.  They were simply part of the faith community that the young parents sought to present their first child to God.

Sadly, too many parents don’t have a sense of connectedness that impels them to introduce new babies to God by involvement in a healthy moral community guided by a sense of divine oneness.  Sadly, too many religious places don’t provide the kind of holistic nurture that young parents need.  Sadly, much of our religious life works to separate people along generational and other lines.  

Young parents need senior prophets like Simeon and Anna to help them understand their role and live out God’s purpose in their parenting.  Seniors like Simeon and Anna aren’t to be cast aside, nor should they “retire” from active involvement in the moral formation and nurture of the community.  Instead, we each learn, grow, and fulfill God’s purpose for our being by relating with others and the rest of creation.  Do you recall people like Simeon and Anna in your moral development and sense of purpose?

The empowerment process isn’t always comfortable or convenient. Simeon praised God as he held the infant Jesus, blessed Mary and Joseph, and uttered words that certainly would have amazed any new parents when he spoke about the impact Jesus would have on people.  All parents want their children to make a difference in the world.  No parent wants to be told that “a sword will pierce your own soul” because of what their child’s living will mean.  Sometimes the preparation for powerful and purposeful living requires that others do the prophetic work of speaking and we do the uneasy task of hearing uncomfortable and inconvenient truth.

And the religious community can be unfair as it tries to empower people for purposeful living.  Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. recently shared with me that Joseph isn’t quoted in any of the gospel accounts about Jesus.[1]  I hadn’t recognized that fact, but it’s painfully obvious even in this lesson.  Simeon blessed both parents but is only quoted as speaking to Mary.  As we nurture people to comprehend their purpose as part of God’s comprehensive activity, we must beware the danger of treating some people as unimportant, insignificant, and invisible. 

However, we’re called to fulfill God’s purposes despite the hurts and other injustices we suffer.  Joseph knew that he mattered in God’s purpose.  Joseph mattered in Mary’s life.  Joseph mattered in the life of Jesus.  Joseph’s sense of God’s purpose led him to be a caring father, honest carpenter, and compassionate husband despite being overlooked, ignored, and downplayed.  That’s how Joseph praised God!

All this goes to show how Jesus was empowered!  He was welcomed into a reverent family.  He was introduced to the larger reality of faith by his parents.  He was affirmed by prayerful people like Simeon and Anna.  He grew up observing Joseph’s diligence as a father working and loving despite being overlooked, ignored, and downplayed.  Every child deserves that kind of powerful start.  It’s up to us to see that every child gets it.

Living with praise, purpose, and power involves being faithful to God’s purpose for our existence.  It involves welcoming people.  It involves living with reverent faith.  It involves affirming others and being affirmed by a prophetic sense of God’s goodness and purposes.  It involves nurturing others and being nurtured by people who exemplify diligent commitment to God’s purposes in the face of life’s burdens, changes, and pain. 

This is the way faithful and reverent people are developed.  This is how we sense the divine purpose for our being.  This is the way we learn to live with power in the face of life’s struggles.  We matter as part of God’s infinite and comprehensive activity.  We are part of God’s purpose.  Despite the burdens, pain, and injustice in life, we’re part of the kingdom of God!  That’s powerful stuff to live by and powerful reason to constantly praise God!  Amen.

[1] Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Pastor Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, formerly served as President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) and American Baptist Churches of the West.  He has also served as Professor of Preaching and Christian Ministries at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.

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