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Christmas Day: Psalm 96 and Luke 2:1-12

December 25, 2022

At Christmastime we have different stories competing for our attention. There’s Elf. How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s A Wonderful Life. And one of my personal favorites, A Christmas Story, about young Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. As a child I looked forward to these stories every year. One year I even studied the TV Guide in advance to make sure I didn’t miss the best ones.

We hear the same songs every year as well. Winter Wonderland. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Jingle Bells. I’m Dreaming of a Wet Christmas. Most of us have our favorites—Santa Baby makes me laugh every time.

Then there are the stories and songs we hear in church. Every year we hear about Mary and Joseph, about the census, no room in the inn, the baby in the manger, the angels, the shepherds. We’re careful to avoid mention of the Magi until Epiphany, when they finally show up, late for the party. Again. Just like last year.

But the psalm we hear every Christmas tells us to sing a new song. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.” Why should we sing a new song? We’ve got plenty of perfectly good ones already. Good stories and good songs.

The psalmist tells us to sing a new song to the Lord, all of us. Praise God, the great creator, magnificent, powerful, better than all the other gods. God is “more to be feared than all gods.” When the Hebrew scriptures talk about fearing God, they mean to be in awe of God, this overwhelmingly powerful creative force. Like being afraid or in awe of a river in springtime, rushing and overflowing.

So far, so good. Then in the last third, the tone stays the same—in fact, these verses inspired the carol Joy to the World—but now the psalmist is talking about judgment. Three times the speaker declares that God will judge the people, the earth, the world.

The theme of judgment is strong in Scripture, and I’ve long avoided it. I prefer to focus on love. I struggle to reconcile the idea of a loving, forgiving, God with a God who judges. I imagine a divine courtroom, and even if I’m acquitted the whole thing is awful. And what about truly wrong and evil behaviour—will all that harm be washed away without any consequences? Also an awful prospect. So why is the psalmist so happy about God’s judgment?

Here is what I finally figured out—with the help of some commentaries—and some of you may be way ahead of me on this. I am caught up in my understanding of human judgment, about punishment and anger. Judgment that is inevitably prejudiced, whether in formal civic structures or my own judgment of other people.

But God’s judgment is about relationships, about restoration. God’s judgment leads us back into relationship with each other, whether that means asking for forgiveness or being able to forgive. Doing what it takes to make things right again. Not because we are being forced into it, but because we can see clearly the harm we have done and we are ready to make amends. Because we understand our hurt and are ready to forgive.

This is God’s judgment. It comes from God’s deep love for us. And the vision of the psalmist is universal; this love, this restoration, is for all nations, all peoples; the heavens rejoice and the earth is glad.

God operates on a universal scale but does not stay there, an impersonal, abstract love. God loves us so much that God chooses to come to us, to live with us, to experience all our hurts and hopes. That’s the story that we tell at this time every year, about Mary and Joseph and the baby. God comes to us in a particular time of suffering—a real time, not so different from the suffering that so many people experience today. That same awe-inspiring force chooses to become a vulnerable baby, to be loved and to love.

This love is the “good news of salvation from day to day” that the psalmist urges us to sing out. This love is the good news of great joy that the angels proclaim to the shepherds and the shepherds proclaim to anyone who will listen. Herb O’Driscoll puts it this way: “God is constantly trying to get us to hear the good news that we have in our lives—one who can be grace and strength to us if we acknowledge that source and lay claim to it.”

He continues: “This is the heart of what this season is about. It is not just the memory of an extraordinary event. Not just the story of a long-ago birth. It is news—good news—about my life and yours and is for anyone prepared to hear it. The news is this—God is not just out there somewhere, just out of reach of the new James Webb telescope, or way back there somewhere in time. God is with us, in us, and among us.”

Alleluia. Glory to God.