THE WORD  Isaiah 55:10-12   For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

MESSAGE       “Let’s Clap”                        Rev. James Renfrew

I remember a TV program from long ago, in the early 1960’s, which means I was about 8 years old.  International Showtime was its name. It was like a European travel show, but it featured circuses in Paris, Stockholm, and even Moscow.  Each week, a different country and a different circus.  Clowns, and elephants, high wire acrobats, and all of the things you would expect to see at a circus.  The show was hosted by a man whose name I still remember, Don Ameche.  I didn’t know anything about him at the time, though I later learned that he was movie and television actor who performed for more than 60 years.  He was well-dressed, worldly and debonair, wearing a tux, though when I looked him up a few days ago, he was actually born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, his father a bartender.

The strange thing about the show, and what caused me to remember it after all of these years, was the way people clapped, the huge circus audience upon seeing a death-defying trapeze act, start clapping, but not like we would clap.  They would clap rhythmically, everyone clapping in time with everyone else.  In my experience, back then and still today, when we clap it’s a chaotic, spontaneous thing, there’s no one way to do it.   Last night we saw my granddaughter in a stage performance of Aristocats, and after every song there was clapping.  Some clap loud, some clap softly, some clap quickly, and some slowly.  Some clap with flat hands, some cup them for more percussiveness.  Some clap with a palm and the back of the other hand.  Some clap in their lap, some clap over their heads.  Some clap for a long time, some just clap once or twice.

I wonder where clapping came from?  It goes way back to the origins of human beings, I think, probably appearing even before people developed speech.  Think about what clapping might have meant before people developed speech.  A sign of warning, an attention-getter, a sign of welcome or joy.  A few nights ago a family of raccoons appeared on my porch.  Not wanting our cat to get into a fight I clapped my hands loudly to send the raccoons scurrying away.  I didn’t think I could reason with them using words.  You could probably show evidence that there are animals that clap, too, not just humans.  One that comes to mind is the beaver, which claps by striking the water with its tail, beaver talk for “hey, I’m over here!”.

So I don’t know when capping began in human history, but I can say that clapping goes back at least as far as 2,700 years, because that’s when our Bible reading from the Book of Isaiah was written.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 

I loved finding the picture for our bulletin that shows a tree with branches ready to clap.  It really brings the story to life.  Though, of course, the reading is not about trees clapping; it’s about inspiring people to clap, too!  And not just to make noise, but to praise God.

My house is surrounded by trees, and when the heavy winds blow they make a lot of noise, as the branches wave and smack into each other.  But I think Isaiah is being poetic here, thinking of a tree like the one on the bulletin cover, the branches like hands clapping in the gentle breeze on a warm day.

I think his point is that the whole natural world constantly celebrates the love of God the Creator.  And if trees can clap to show their joy, well, why can’t we?

In seminary I had to read this lengthy book by Jean Calvin, one of the most famous Protestant reformers of the 1500’s.  “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”.  Not only is the book lengthy, it is very dense.  Reading it in the 1980’s permanently ruined my sleep patterns.  I’ll pass the two volumes around so you can leaf through it.

So why do I mention this old book?  It’s because Calvin began this book stating that everything you need to know about God is evident in the world around us.  No scripture, no preacher, no church is necessary, because the hand and fingerprints of our Creator are everywhere, and appreciating the beauty of the natural world, its order and design, should naturally lead us to religious faith.  Just open your eyes and ears and you will see and hear God!

But Calvin goes on to say that the human condition is such that we don’t see the obvious.  Even when God’s works surround us we fail to see or hear.  And instead of being guided by the presence of a loving God, we blunder around thinking that we are in control and know what we are doing.

So God had to take steps to show us what should be obvious.  God has sent teachers and prophets to open our eyes and ears, and we read their stories, we hear their words, in the pages of Scripture.  Finally, sent Jesus to get our full attention, and to explain it in unmistakable detail, culminating in the cross and the resurrection.

So now we are able to demonstrate our understanding of God’s presence and power in words of testimony, books and theologies, songs and prayers, art, and more.

But today, sitting outside on a beautiful day, we will show our understanding in one of the simplest ways possible, by clapping, one of the oldest forms of communication.

What message do we convey in our clapping?  Joy, hope, welcome, love, peace, excitement.  Maybe the most basic meaning is “hey, look at us, praising God!  Join us!”  We clap our hands in delight!