Christmas Day, Year A
Christmas Day, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Praise… A word that we speak and sing so often—for example, every Sunday we usually sing at least one “hymn of praise.” Praise, a word familiar to us all who worship God regularly. Yet, like so many other words that are so familiar to us, what does the word praise really mean? Well, I’m sure we all have our ideas or our own definitions, or our definitions and ideas that we’ve learned over the years from our days in Sunday School and Confirmation—but I thought it would be good to consult a dictionary or two out of curiosity, to see what they had to say.
According to one dictionary, praise means:
1. (the) act of expressing approval or admiration; commendation; laudation. 2. the offering of grateful homage in words or song, as an act of worship: a hymn of praise to God. 1
According to one thesaurus, praise also means:
(to) applaud, eulogize, honor, acclaim, compliment, extol, magnify, glorify, venerate, adore. 2
According to another dictionary, the word praise comes from:
(the) Old English, (which comes) from Old French preisier to prize, praise, (which comes) from Late Latin pretiare to prize, from Latin pretium price. 3
As we gather here on this Holy Day of Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus our Saviour, Messiah, and King of kings; I think it is most appropriate that we focus on praising God for giving us the most wonderful, precious gift of all, Jesus Christ. Therefore, I think it is helpful for us to find meaning in our praise of God by associating praise with the older root words from the Latin: “prize,” and “price.”
In our everyday life, we are familiar with prizes and prices, aren’t we? Almost everyday, somewhere in the world, there are contests, and there are winners and losers of those contests. Usually the winners are rewarded in one way or another with some kind of prize. In some of the more serious contests; it may take quite a bit of talent, skills as well as other qualities, such as patience and endurance and—if it’s something involving say, music, it requires hours and hours of disciplined practicing, to win the contest. Sometimes too, the people who win contests and receive prizes enjoy other spin-offs—like being honoured in some sort of Hall of Fame; or having a street or a building named after them; or selling millions of dollars worth of recordings or books. Along with winning the contest, and receiving the prize, comes fortune and fame. We often refer to such people as: “wise, honourable, powerful, caring, gifted, talented, brilliant,” and so on. And, if they have touched our lives in any significant way personally—like, for example, a doctor who may have saved our life by performing a successful surgery—we may even be eager messengers, “good advertisers,” by spreading the word and speaking highly of such a person; telling others the “good news.”
However, in most cases, those people who win contests and receive prizes, fortune and fame; also usually end up paying a price of some kind for being a winner. For the devoted, successful doctor or lawyer or politician; it may mean that their works takes up so much of their time and energy that they have none left for their spouse and children. It may even cost them the price of a divorce and the hurt, pain and suffering and alienation that comes with their marriage breakdown. So it is too in many other areas of our lives—it seems that everything in life has a price or requires some sort of sacrifice.
In today’s psalm, the writer instructs the Israelites as well as us to: “Sing praises to the LORD.” The psalmist knows that in “the contest of life,” there is A Most Wonderful Prize—namely, the LORD God. In Psalm 98, the psalmist invites everyone and all of creation to engage in the act of praising God because the LORD has won the victory—in this case, the victory likely refers to God delivering the Israelites from their slavery and places of exile. God is Israel’s Most Precious Prize because God’s love and faithfulness rescued and saved Israel from evil and harm; and now brought them back into their Promised Land, where they could enjoy the good life by living in peace and prosperity.
For us Christians, we read this psalm a little differently, in that we see in Christ our Most Precious Prize and praise him for winning the contest of life by rescuing us and delivering us from the powers of sin, death and evil. We believe that he has won the victory over sin, death and evil. That is why, in the face of all the horrible events that took place this past year due to terrorism; we as Christians do not despair or become paralysed by fear. Jesus is still with us and will be with us always; we can make a difference by offering those in despair the hope that Jesus is their Saviour too. We can also assure those who live in fear that Jesus promises to be with us and them always—giving us his love, accepting us as we are, unconditionally, and in so doing, casting out, removing our fears by replacing them with trust in him; replacing our darkness with his ever-shining, unconquerable light.
However, just as in everyday life, there was a price that Jesus had to pay for winning the contest of life. He won the victory over sin, death, and the powers of evil by suffering and dying the most cruel and humiliating death of a criminal on the cross. Jesus had to, and willingly, lovingly did make the ultimate sacrifice, by giving up his very life, dying on the cross, for the sin of the entire world. Yet, as God predestined in all of eternity, Jesus would, through this costly sacrifice, this high price, be The Most Honourable, Famous, Powerful Person of all history. He is worthy of all our praises. That’s why we’re here today, is it not? To worship him by singing our hymns of praise—along with the whole of creation. Is it not precisely because he has rescued and delivered us from sin, death and all evil powers—that we shall want to be his messengers, to be good advertisements for him, by telling everyone about what he has and continues to do for us!?
Coming back to our word praise again, there is yet another aspect of this word which shapes and influences our worship on Christmas Day. I’m referring to praise as adoration. On this Holy Day, we come to worship our newborn King and Saviour by being filled with awe, reverence and respect for him. When we praise Jesus and adore him, we are regarding him with our most fervent and devoted love. He has filled our hearts and lives with the fullness of his love and grace. Therefore, it is most proper that in response, our love is poured out to him today as we celebrate his birth.
As we celebrate his presence with awe and deep respect and wonder; let us unite our voices and hearts, minds and lives by singing Isaac Watts’ beautiful hymn, “Joy to the World,” which is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 98. So hymn-writers and hymn-singers alike can share their joy and gratitude by praising our Saviour, the King of kings, the Word-become-flesh, pitching his human tent among us, our Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Praise to our Most Precious Prize—Jesus, our Messiah, who will one day come to judge the earth with his perfect righteousness, bringing justice and peace for us all—which will last forever!
1 The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition (New York: Random House Inc., 1981), p. 1128.
2 The Doubleday Roget’s Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1977), pp. 519-20.