JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

Whale Song: When Creation Praises God: A Sermon

Scripture Text:

O sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvellous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
    have gained him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
    he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
    to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
    the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98 NRSV)

Let us pray:

God of Life, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our minds and hearts lead us to deeper understanding of you and the love you call us to live. AMEN.

Listening to the Songs of Nature

On this day in the Season of Creation, we are being asked to listen to the songs of nature, the ways in which the non-human world sings praise to God through their ways of being in the world. All of God’s creation sings praises to God, celebrates God’s presence. Birds chirp and tweet and sing sometimes melodious, sometimes raucous, tunes of being alive in the world, thanks to God. Fish swim and leap and splash, their way of singing praise to God.

The wind moves through the leaves of the trees, and so the pines and the maples and the poplars sing their songs in concert with the wind, different sounds each, that together, when you are in the forest on a windy day, makes a marvelous symphony of celebration and praise. And whales sing haunting ballads, deep in the sea, a chorus of being in harmony with God.

The psalmists – those ancient song writers whose 150 psalms have been recorded in our scriptures – knew of this. They knew that all of God’s creation praised God, and ought to praise God. It is here in psalm 98 and elsewhere.

Whales Sing!

Did you know that whales sing? Maybe this is familiar to some of you. Male humpback whales, for example, have memorized songs – series of trills and clips and squeaks and groans – that they sing together in different regions of the Earth. All of the males of one population will sing the same song – and at the same time in another part of the oceans another population of humpbacks are singing a different song. Pretty cool! The songs tend to be quite complex, and the complexity has increased as the songs have evolved.[1]

What scientists have also discovered is that the songs change every few years, and they never go back to the old songs. So when our psalmist says in verse 1, “O sing to the Lord a new song,” the humpback whales have gone and done just that. Praise God.

Today, I want us to listen to the songs of joy that are all around us, to the sounds of praise that come from all of life, our lives and other than human lives. I want us to listen, and to hear what it tells us about the importance of praising God.

Praising God

Our ancestors in the faith, ancient Israelites, they were immersed in the world of God. They were also in a time of strife, and trouble, and conflict. Even so, when they thought of God, their first response was to praise God. And when they looked all around themselves, they saw that all of God’s creation was doing the same thing. Praising God was their first response to God.

What does our first reflex tends to be, when we think of God? Pastor James Howell suggests that it tends to be far more utilitarian; we ask God for things, we “measure God by whether God seems to be doing what [we] need,” or we are questioning God. [2] I dare say that we tend to praise God only when we feel like there is something to celebrate – some answered prayer, some good thing happening in our lives.

What is Praise?

But that is not what praise is actually about. Praise goes deeper; it expresses our wonder and amazement at God and the greatness of God. It is an expression of our recognition of both God’s power and God’s tenderness. We praise to show our enjoyment and celebration of God’s love for us. Praise is epitomized in the famous hymn that exclaims, “How great Thou art!”[3]

And so we are to be always praising God. Praise is to be our response to God not because our prayers are answered, or life is good, or we see something beautiful. Nothing wrong with praising God at those times. But praise is to be our response to God at all times because God is God!   

We are to praise God because God is sovereign over all the world. We are to praise God because God created us, and we exist in God. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains it best:

“All of life is aimed toward God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are. We have a resilient hunger to move beyond self. God is addressed not because we have need, but simply because God is God.”[4]

The Earth community sings songs of praise to God because they know this. They reside in God and rest in God and so with all of who they are – birds and wind and trees and cicadas, and the humpback whales – they sing their songs of praise to God. In being who they are, they sing praise to God.

Cheap Praise

But we humans, we have a problem with praise, don’t we? We 21st-century humans, we have a problem. It seems like we don’t feel like joining in, do we? Why is that?

Maybe because we live in a world of cheap praise, to use a phrase from the American monk Thomas Merton. A world of cheap cheer and false joy. Merton points out that we praise all sorts of consumer goods and celebrities; we praise that which makes our lives seem easier and look shiny. But when praise gets used for the superficial and the shallow like this, it becomes overdone. Praise loses its meaning, its depth, when everything from soap to beer to the latest iPhone are praised. What is left for God, when we have used up on our praise in this way? This is cheap praise.

And we are in a world that has forgotten that God created everything, and that God is still creating, still moving in and among us for transformation. It can be hard to think of the natural world praising God because we are used to divorcing the natural world from God. It can be hard to think of praising God when we live in a world that doesn’t recognize the hand of God in all things. It can be hard to think of praising God when we ourselves fail to recognize the hand of God in all things.

Listen

But listen. Listen to the birds. Listen to the wind in the leaves, listen to the insects at dusk. Listen to the whale song. God is in all things, and moving through all things, and our first response to that fact is, indeed, praise.

Just in how nature has been created (including us, only we have forgotten), all of the Earth community offers spontaneous praise to God, and proclaims the love and power of God. And so just by being what we were created to be, human beings in the likeness and image of God called to love God, ourselves and our neighbour, let us, too, spontaneously praise God and proclaim God’s love and power.

Like the whales, our songs of praise to God are not to remain the same throughout time. Surely, if we sing God’s praise continually, such songs of praise will change when we go through times of difficulty, or of celebration, or of transformation.

Let Us Sing a New Song

We are, after all, being asked to sing a new song of praise, in our psalm for today. There are numerous places where we are asked to sing a new song, and it is at times when God has done something new – “a new act of deliverance, a new act of grace, a new act of forgiveness, or a new act of blessing.”[5]

We are to sing a new song for the new ways that we see God alive and active, and doing new things in the world. A new song, to express the new ways we feel God working in us, bringing us into relationship with God and all of creation around us. A new song, to sing God’s praise in a world that barely recognizes God, at all.

After all, the songs of the whales change every few years. Every few years, the whales sing a new song unto the Lord, a new song of praise and thanks and celebration for being alive, for being in God, for being a part of this vast God place.

And so, as we listen to the songs of creation, as we listen to the praise offered up to God in the psalms and in the natural world, let us offer up our praise to God. Not cheap praise, not the praise for demands met and things given. But the powerful praise for a sovereign God who rules over all, who holds all of us in relationship with God and with all that is around us.

Songs and new songs of love and recognition and trust. The trust that, with the birds and the trees and the fish in the sea, we are loved and we are held, and God is doing a new thing. May it be so. Thanks be to God.


[1] Virginia Morell, “Humpback Whale Songs Undergo a ‘Cultural Revolution’ Every Few Years,” https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/humpback-whale-songs-undergo-cultural-revolution-every-few-years. Accessed September 23, 2022.

[2] James Howell, “Commentary on Psalm 98,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-3/commentary-on-psalm-98-3. Accessed September 23, 2022.

[3] Ibid. The hymn is “O Lord My God (How Great Thou Art).”

[4] Walter Brueggeman, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988), 1, quoted in Howell, “Commentary on Psalm 98.”

[5] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 98,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-iii/commentary-on-psalm-98-11. Accessed September 23, 2022.

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