September 14, 2014, Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity
Joshua 24:14-28, Psalm 104, Galatians 3:16-22, St. Luke 10:23-37
Like many others, I experienced at mid-life a time of trial and testing. I examined my life and the presuppositions on which it was founded. I questioned things I had always taken for granted, asking myself if I could live out my days on this mortal coil holding dear beliefs I had so long ago accepted.
The result was a crisis of faith.
I determined that indeed I could not go on as before, following blindly a creed in which I no longer believed. My faith simply was not strong enough. I had become what C. S. Lewis termed a “failed atheist.”
It required less faith, I discovered, to be a Christian.
A Christian looks out the window and surveys a world of purpose and order. He concludes that a Designer towers behind and above it. I learned I could no longer sustain the Darwinian chaos narrative, the theory that atoms pin-balled through a series of random collisions in space and fell out in the patterns we find around us.
Chaos cannot generate order. Someone outside of it must impose order upon it.
I observed a sunset, an eagle, a baby, a rose, a woman, a snowflake . . . and behind them I made out the shimmering form of the Designer. Both Nature and History have had their say and they speak with one voice. I could not shake their story.
And here’s the delectable irony of it: The One who crafted objects of such surpassing beauty has Himself no mass or form; He is spirit. A spirit who is a He? Just so. A Person who lacks a body has created the heavenly bodies and human bodies, all that is . . . ex nihilo, out of nothing.
Space was formless and void . . . until He made it His canvas. And swirls and patterns descended on it from above.
We will not penetrate His mind; what is left for us but to fall down and worship?
This is the world the Psalmist sees. The particular but unnamed poet who composed Psalm 104 was, in the words of one sage of yore, “the Wordsworth of the ancients.” His love of nature pours out of his quill . . . but he does not love it for its own sake.
“It was to him,” this old sage goes on, “a book which heavenly truth imparts.
“And common face of nature spake to him
The poem before us today is a celebration of God’s creative genius, to be sure. It flows out of the creation story in Genesis 1. But even more than that it rejoices in the ongoing operation of the world God made, of its hospitality to both man and beast.
The Psalmist sings in awe of the perfect harmony of every stream and desert, hill and valley, lion and lamb, of the wonder of their interrelations . . . and of the majesty of the One who is both their Maker and King. He begins:
Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2 Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, who stretch out the heavens like a curtain.
3 He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters, who makes the clouds His chariot, Who walks on the wings of the wind,
4 Who makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire.
At the creation, God clothes Himself in a robe of imperial majesty. He begins with light, a garment that conceals Him as it reveals His design. Light floods His world with life and purity. His Son, present with Him in the beginning, will proclaim, “I am the Light of the world.”
God flings forth the heavens as a man might pitch a tent, unfurling a canopy that covers the creation but cannot contain the Creator. The tense of the verbs tells us the poet is celebrating the durable splendor of his Lord’s works as evidence of His majesty and His provision for His creatures.
The forces of nature are His conveyances and messengers and ministers.
5 You who laid the foundations of the earth, so that it should not be moved forever,
6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At Your rebuke they fled; at the voice of Your thunder they hastened away.
8 They went up over the mountains; they went down into the valleys, to the place which You founded for them.
9 You have set a boundary that they may not pass over, that they may not return to cover the earth.
But this world is no tent. Its maker has set it on a foundation so solid that it shall never be moved. He speaks thunder and the great waters instantly obey Him, seeking and settling in their assigned places.
The Israelites are no seafarers, and landlubbers live in dread of the deep. Those waters may spill over their boundaries and engulf them . . . but here is their comfort: Yahweh has designated the depressions the waters may fill and ordered them to stay put.
He has domesticated those menacing waters and He commands them to serve His end, which is to bless His people. Nature is changeable, to be sure, but it answers to an unchanging God.
10 He sends the springs into the valleys, they flow among the hills.
11 They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 By them the birds of the heavens have their home; they sing among the branches.
13 He waters the hills from His upper chambers; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works.
14 He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may
bring forth food from the earth,
15 And wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which
strengthens man's heart.
16 The trees of the LORD are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted,
17 Where the birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees.
18 The high hills are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers.
With the oceans in place, Yahweh directs springs from below and rains from above to irrigate the valleys and hills, supplying all the needs of wild donkeys and birds . . . and of the highest of His creatures. The good earth affords plants as food for man.
The vine, the tree and the stalk bear grape, olive and grain. The Psalmist exults not only in God’s bountiful provision of them but in man’s God-given ability to convert these plants into wine, oil and bread, the staples of the Palestinian diet in Bible times.
The “trees of the Lord” are those of the primeval forest, not those planted by man. The Hebrew word for “stork” is derived from chesed, “lovingkindness.” It speaks of the stork’s tender care for her young. Fir trees are those best suited to offering a platform for the huge nest the stork builds.
The cliffs offer refuge to rock badgers, skittish creatures which hide their young in the clefts of the rocks and scurry into them at the first sign of danger.
In His infinite love and His intricate plan, the Lord has provided for the least of His creatures as well as the greatest. Nothing is beyond His purview.
19 He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knows its going down.
20 You make darkness, and it is night, in which all the beasts of the forest creep about.
21 The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they gather together and lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.
The sun and the moon are God’s clock and His calendar. The heavenly bodies know their appointed roles. Man and beast alike order their affairs by the time they keep. Everything in the creation, animal, vegetable and mineral, has a purpose and a role.
24 O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all.
The earth is full of Your possessions --
25 This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both small and great.
26 There the ships sail about; there is that Leviathan which You have made to play there.
27 These all wait for You, that You may give them their food in due season.
28 What You give them they gather in; You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
The poet sings his wonder at the marvels of the creation. God is provider of all because He is possessor of all . . . of all that He has made. Is the Psalmist peering out at “this great and wide sea” as he composes? From the cedar grove of Lebanon every natural feature in the psalm is in view.
The ships that sail about blend into the seascape, as much a part of the Lord’s plan as the water itself. Leviathan, the great sea monster, looks not so menacing here, at play beneath His Maker’s benign gaze.
All these that “wait for You” are not the marine animals only but all creatures the Psalmist has mentioned, for all look to God for their nourishment. He is both Creator and Sustainer.
29 You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30 You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth.
De-creation and re-creation continue their cycle as God renews the face of the earth. As dark as this day may appear to you and me, God has a brighter one in store. As in the beginning, when He blew life into Adam, His own breath is the source of life.
31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in His works.
32 He looks on the earth, and it trembles; He touches the hills, and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
34 May my meditation be sweet to Him; I will be glad in the LORD.
At the creation, Yahweh pronounced what He had made “good” and “very good.” And so it will be again. May He go on everlastingly rejoicing in the glory of His world. As the Lord finds joy in His works the Psalmist finds joy – ultimate joy – not in the creation but in the Creator.
Here is a swipe at the prayer of the pagan. The Egyptian Akhenaten composed the “Hymn to the Sun. The Psalmist wants it known that it is the Creator and not the created things who is worthy of worship.
35 May sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked be no more. Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!
A clanking note? Indeed not. Yes, the Psalmist has spun out 34 mellifluous verses extolling the wonders of the Lord and His creation and now, in an abrupt change of tenor, he calls down fire and brimstone from the heavens.
But his poem is a prayer that uses the creation event as a platform for singing the glory of God for all He has made. Yet he does not stop there. He prays for restoration of the paradise his Lord called “very good.”
What has contaminated it? Sin. And where does sin reside? In sinners.
This is a God who will not dwell where sin is present, who ordered the earth of Palestine scorched so His people might re-create Eden there and He take His place among them, a God who will not remove His throne from heaven to earth until His Son and His people blot out all taint of sin from the creation.
The Psalmist would see sinners dispatched into the nether reaches that they might despoil God’s handiwork and delay His return no more. He uses the intensive form of “sinner,” denoting one of relentless and incorrigible habit, referring, it appears, to those St. Paul calls out in Romans 1:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
“20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (vv.18-21).
Those who will not desist from confounding the harmony of God’s creation by their sin give up their divinely ordained place in it.
In our day as in the Psalmist’s, alas, this earth is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. We may rejoice that our Lord wants to hear from us prayers not for our enemies’ destruction but for their repentance and redemption.
The Psalmist will not close on a note of condemnation. Instead he offers a final “Halleleujah!” “Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the LORD!”
May His kingdom come.
And so now perhaps you see why my faith failed. The creed of chaos demanded more faith from me than I could summon. I made the Psalmist’s world, where divine purpose and order prevail, where everything fits, my own. At last I capitulated and gave myself to God. And now here I stand, if not always serenely, no less securely, in a world that makes sense. Amen.