June 15, 2014 Trinity
Lord Above the Storm
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Revelation 4:1-11, St. John 3:1-15
William Arthur Dunkerley was a prolific English journalist, poet and novelist who wrote under two pen names in addition to the one he was born with. For hymns and novels he used the name “John Oxenham.”
Like many a Christian before and after him, Oxenham stared into the biblical gap in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and wondered. What might Jesus have said and done in all those years between his visit to the Jerusalem temple at age 12 and the beginning of His public ministry at age 30?
Oxenham let his imagination fill the gap. In one scene in his novel “The Hidden Years,” Jesus is walking through the Galilean countryside on his way home to Nazareth. A younger lad, a close friend who is walking with him, reports on their adventure. “Eloi” means “my God.”
“I saw a great black cloud sweeping in from the West and darkening all the sky . . . The thunder was clapping all about us . . . long before we began to climb the hill.
“But the boy (referring to Jesus) seemed actually to like it, for he began singing at the top of his voice . . . ‘It is the glory of God that thundereth . . . Eloi! Eloi! Eloi!’ . . . With his arms thrown up toward the terrible black sky . . . he sang amid the thunder claps, and his voice was steady as a trumpet, and he knew no fear.”
We begin our Trinity season sermon series on the Psalms with the story of another menacing storm. A thousand years before Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, David stands in Palestine and looks westward to see black clouds raging in off the Mediterranean Sea.
Elsewhere in the Psalter, we find David locating God behind His works of nature. The night sky, the blistering heat of noonday, kindle thoughts of the Creator. Now comes the storm, and it almost seems David stands with Jesus, his son and his Lord, arms linked, awestruck by the Father’s wondrous works.
They see His craftsmanship in the vivid hues of a sunset, His power in the crackling of a tempest. God’s omnipresence is writ large in the divine architecture. Everything the eye surveys reveals the Creator.
This storm that breaks over us today gives us much to ponder. Behind the black clouds and the torrents of rain another storm chases. David, standing among the pagan nations that surround Israel, smiles. He is mocking them.
The Psalmist is using the language of the nature worshipers to show forth the superiority of his God, Yahweh. Any hearer, Hebrew or heathen, would grasp that David is making sport of the pagan deities.
The storm begins at sea, which had been the realm of Yam, the master of chaos. But Yam has fallen in battle before the onslaught of the more powerful Baal, god of thunder. Yahweh, God of Israel, will make short work of him.
The mightiest warrior the pagans can muster sits feeble as a sickly child before David’s God. Baal and the rest of the pantheon reside in nature. Yahweh stands above it.
He commands the awesome forces of wind and hail and lightning like a general deploying his troops; He marshals them first over here to assault His enemies, then over there to protect His forces.
And when at His pleasure He silences the thunder, down goes the god who dwells within it. Baal, the great champion of the Canaanites, suffers the fate of Dagon of the Philistines. His worshipers find him toppled and helpless; the god of thunder has fallen mute.
Follow along as the Psalmist shows us the movement of the storm and see how he gives us as well the transfer of God’s sanctuary from heaven to earth.
Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, give unto the LORD glory and strength.
Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
The “mighty ones” are angels. The congregation singing the psalm is calling on heaven to join in the worship on earth. The opening scene is in heaven, which is God’s sanctuary, but that sanctuary is not a building. Yahweh reigns from on high.
David calls on heaven and earth to give glory to God. To give glory and to worship are acts of the mind and the will. The mind and the will are where praise begins.
There is afoot in our land in our day the notion that our hearts rule us. Our feelings matter most. The Scriptures wag their head against such foolishness. We make choices, and our feelings follow.
We can almost hear God saying, “Get your mind right, boy, and your heart will fall in line.” The Psalter brims with feelings, but they bubble up from a heart ruled by a mind. Think rightly on who God is and, so doing, you will train your heart to offer up adoration and praise.
Know yourself for the sinner you are and you will fall to your knees and beg for His mercy and grace.
Glory and strength are attributes that are supremely God’s. The glory of His name is His glory revealed, especially in nature. The veil is lifted on a battle hymn. Storm gods are war gods. Yahweh’s strength and the glory due His name signal His power over the nature gods. The thunder of His voice will drown out Baal’s incoherent noise.
This phrase “in the beauty of holiness” appears in the Venite in our Office of Morning Prayer. A more literal rendering is “in holy array.” It refers to the dazzling garments the priests wore according to God’s instructions given in the Book of Exodus. Those who minister to the Holy One, those who approach nearest Him, must reflect His holiness.
The storm rolls in off the sea. Its thunder is God’s voice; it reveals His power and majesty. The storm imagery recalls to the mind of the Israelite the scene on Mount Sinai, when God appeared to His covenant people to lay out His commandments:
“. . . there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled (Ex 19:16) . . . Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (19:18).
This is Israel’s Pentecost, 50 days after the Exodus, and she would incorporate Psalm 29 into the liturgy for the Feast of Pentecost.
The Israelite remembers as well the confrontation between God’s prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Elijah proposes that each side slaughter a bull and lay out the pieces on wood, then call on its god to send down fire to burn the sacrifice.
Elijah mocks the idol’s prophets when their prayers go unanswered. Not so much as a spark from the heavens.
Elijah commands his sacrifice and the wood beneath it doused with water three times so that a trench surrounding the pyre is filled with water. Yahweh sends down a furnace of flame that consumes meat and wood and licks up the water in the trench.
The rebellious people return to the God of Israel, slaughtering the prophets of the thunder god, and a three-year drought ends:
“Now it happened . . . that the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain” (1 Kings 18:45).
Baal was in the fire and thunder, yet unable to produce them; Yahweh was above them and in control of them. He was the cause of the three years of remorseless sun that seared the land as well, sovereign over all nature.
The pagans believed a created thing contains its motivating power within it. The pagans of our day locate such a force within a crystal or a star or a political movement. They deceive themselves as Baal’s worshipers did.
They have not visited the fertile mind of the prophet Isaiah, who offers a glimpse into the worship of heaven. The Lord is seated on His throne, attended by seraphim. “And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:3-4).
The Psalmist’s storm surges ashore in Lebanon. “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. Yes, the Lord splinters the cedars of Lebanon.” The cedars and the mountains they clothe symbolize earthly magnificence. The cedars are the noblest and strongest of trees.
Seven times, the “voice of the Lord” speaks in peals of thunder, chasing one after the other through the psalm, devastating everything in the storm’s path. Confronted with power of this magnitude, the trees, snow-capped Mount Sirion, even the Lebanon itself skip like young beasts.
All the wonders that dazzle the eyes of man collapse under the brunt of the storm. In Psalm 60, David will say to God, “You have made the earth tremble; You have broken it; heal its branches for it is shaken.”
The storm breaks south and races down the coast through Palestine. It pounds the wilderness of Kadesh, where disobedient Israel had wandered after the Exodus. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness. The verb speaks of writhing or gyrating, whether in anguish or in a violent dance. Deer give birth prematurely.
The voice of the Lord strips the forests bare. And in the deserts, one commentator of old observed, “their afrighted denizens tremble.”
David informs us next, “And in His temple everyone says, ‘Glory!’” Is this the response to unbridled havoc, to Nature off her leash . . . “glory”?
Indeed it is, for him who has an eye to see, an ear to hear. Like the young Jesus of Oxenham’s story, David looks through the keyhole in the rampaging forces of nature and spies behind them the finger of God; he cocks an ear at the thunderclaps and detects the voice of God.
The fear of the Lord is a righteous fear . . . a holy fear.
“Glory!” is the cry of the angels in heaven, but now God’s temple has alighted on earth and His people in both realms sing out His praises. Would we not, we who are the very temples of God on earth? Would these sanctuaries of flesh not rejoice in the wondrous power of our God?
Eloi! Eloi! Eloi!
Glory! Glory! Glory!
Then comes the flood. Have you considered the flood?
“The Lord sat enthroned at the Flood. And the Lord sits as King forever.” As He was above the drought, He was above the flood. In the pagan myth, Baal had sat enthroned above the flood. David shows us Yahweh subduing the one who brandished bolts of lightning for his weapons, who overcame the god of the mighty waters, Lord Chaos.
Baal overwhelmed Chaos with stronger chaos. Yahweh humbled Baal with shalom. Stand against God and His peace will flatten you. In peace is the ultimate power.
The peace that prevailed in the beginning will have its way; it will restore the eternal day, the Sabbath rest. God’s peace will not subside; it must abide. Peace was and is and is to come. When we look back, we smack our foreheads. Of course! How could we have been so blind?
Was the storm a conjurer’s trick? No, the storm was real as the flood was real, an instrument of God’s purgation, a momentary thrust in His long campaign of peace. The storm can raise no defense against the calm. It beats itself out against the tide of peace.
Silly us. We feared the raging storm when we should have feared the benevolent God behind it.
David is smiling. He finds pagan impertinence amusing. His final verse:
“The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace.”
God does not flinch in judging evil . . . but His judgment of His enemies comes wrapped in mercy for His own. For righteous Noah and his issue, the ark was deliverance from deep waters but the flood was deliverance from a world deluged by wickedness.
God’s mercy abides on earth. The thunder recedes, and we find Him enthroned in judgment over His rebellious world but in blessing over His righteous people.
The Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch wrote, “This closing word with peace is like a rainbow arch over the Psalm. The beginning of the Psalm shows us heaven open . . . while its close shows us His victorious people upon earth, blessed with peace in the midst of the terrible utterance of His wrath. Gloria in excelsis is the beginning, and in terra pax the close.”
And so David has pointed us forward to the coming of his son and his Lord, Jesus. For at the Lord’s coming on the earth angels will descend from heaven to proclaim, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:14)
This God who is Lord over history, the Psalmist bids us never forget, is Lord over nature as well. David has bequeathed us a victory hymn. God prevails in time and space, managing history according to His will.
But His dominion over history and over nature are not easily disentangled. To rule over the affairs of men He must hold sway as well over the world we inhabit, this earthly coil. The gentle, life-giving rains and the merciless, death-dealing floods are alike at His beck and call. He is Lord in nothing and Lord over all.
Listen now for the peal of thunder that trains the mind and prepare your heart to sing, “Glory! Glory! Glory!” And “Amen!”