Begin with Praise

Psalm 148

Why were we made?

We each can consider how God has called us to live and arrive at different answers, noting our roles and influence as parents, neighbors or workers in the world. There is, however, one answer we all share.

We were made to praise God, to declare him Creator, the being over all things. We are called to lift up words of praise in worship, be it worship in the church together or in other moments of our lives. When we fail to praise God, we fail in our primary task.

I love Psalm 148. It reminds me that we regularly should pull out all the stops and praise God. I don’t mean you have to jump up and down and wave your hands like you’ve just rung in the new year in Times Square. (If that’s how you worship, however, go for it.)

I simply mean that on a regular basis, we need to dwell in the truth that God made us, and that we love God because we owe everything to our Creator. Praise is more than simply giving thanks—it is acknowledging who God is regardless of whether we feel thankful.

We’re also reminded that we as humans are not alone when we lift up praise. Psalm 148 links praise to God’s creation, implying that everything made in this visible world and the unseen spiritual world exists first to extol God.

The angels in heaven are called to praise. The sun, moon and stars are called to praise. Fire and hail, snow and smoke are called to praise. The mountains, the hills, the wild beasts, the tame animals, kings and princes, young and old, all are called to praise.

Yes, it’s poetry, but it’s not over the top. Not when you consider that the being we declare God stands outside all of these things, even what we now know to be an enormous universe. Stars are huge and space is vast, but next to an infinite being they might as well be specks—nothing with defined boundaries can compare to the infinite. And in some mysterious way, even they are called to declare who God is.

Let’s focus on the stars and planets for a minute, learning from them. Their lives are unimaginably long. Other than our own sun, the stars we see are so far away that the trip their light takes to earth can be measured in years, centuries, or millennia.

And yet, while going through their clockwork motions a couple of thousand years ago, they managed to arrange themselves in a way so as to declare to tiny little humans on the earth below that Christ was present in the world.

That’s the best theory, anyway, as to what the so-called Star of Bethlehem actually was. Forget about that brilliant beam of light from the sky we see in Christmas television specials—the Bible actually doesn’t describe such an event. (Forgive me for messing with some precious childhood imagery. I call that picture we all carry in our heads the “Little Drummer Boy Effect.”)

In fact, if you’ll read the story of the wise men in Matthew closely, you’ll see that no one in Jerusalem had noticed anything odd going on in the sky above nearby Bethlehem. The wise men could actually see in the sky what had drawn them to the Promised Land, but they had to explain it to the king and other residents of Jerusalem.

These wise men most likely were Babylonian astrologers, people who studied the sky for messages about what was going on in the world. They in particular watched for close alignments of planets and stars, noting when these objects seemed to meld into one brighter-than-usual point of light. (They had no way to distinguish between planets and stars in their day, except for the fact that planets looked like stars that wandered among otherwise predictable points of light.)

Three of these heavenly bodies came together in unusual ways that would have spoken volumes to these astrologers, who would have been familiar with Jewish prophesies of a coming messiah. One, Venus, represented femininity and birth; another, Jupiter, represented a king; and then there was the star Regulus. It also was associated with kings and was in a constellation these astrologers would have linked to the Jewish people.

Watching these planets and stars interact in the sky was enough to convince these astrologers to hop on their camels and head through the desert toward Jerusalem in search of what they thought was a baby king. Most likely, Jupiter was the primary light they watched, as it was the one heavenly body consistently involved in the series of conjunctions they observed.

In making the universe, God had set into motion objects in the sky that would come together at exactly the right time to praise the God who saves us, the God willing to take on flesh and walk among us, the God who ultimately died on the cross to save us from our sins. Even non-Jews hundreds of miles away were provided a means to understand something incredible had happened in the word.

The skies were made to praise God. We were made to praise God. So, praise God!

For a presentation detailing the astronomy mentioned in this article, take a look at this MSNBC slide show based on astronomer John Mosley’s book, “The Christmas Star.”

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