The Heavens Declare but Just Who is Listening?
A Sermon by Paul E. Jackson
For University Congregational Church
Sunday, November 15, 2015
The Psalmist has told us that the “Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.” We live out here on the Great Plains and because of our geographical providence we are often witnesses to some great and glorious skies. Who here hasn’t drawn a gasp of breath at a particularly spectacular sunset or sunrise. Who hasn’t felt that overwhelming sense of awe at one of our towering thunderheads that reach to God’s heaven? Which of us will deny that other feeling of insignificance that often seeps into the corners of our mind as we contemplate the vastness of the cosmos on a dark, cloudless night?
We have this endless blue canvas that stretches from the Rockies to Missouri and Arkansas, and from north of Canada all the way to the Mexican border. On this impossible canvas hangs clouds of such pure white that it hurts one’s eye and on occasion we get to witnesses such furious storms that twist and tumult and sometimes kill. Such dangerous beauty resides in our brilliant skies. Because of our artificial lives (air-conditioning, indoors, gadgets) we sometimes forget just how dangerous a planet we live on. And because of this potential threat we have some dedicated folks call Storm Chasers who do just that: They watch the skies and let the rest of us know if we need to be fearful or not. We certainly trust these brave (maybe crazy) souls to venture into God’s glory—glory that is sometimes furious–and inform us of any possible dangers. God rouses the tempest and we might avoid it—but we need to be aware.
Isn’t the Psalmist reminding us of just this fact? Be aware—both of the beauty and glory of God, but also of the need to obey the laws of God. Be aware to the possible tempest that can result from abandoning the ancient covenants with God? Now when I speak of these covenants I am speaking specifically of those covenants that the Jewish people have with God. These covenants are found in the Hebrew Bible and they are binding for people of the Jewish faith and also binding to anyone else who may choose to join them.
On the surface, like so many Psalms, the 19th Psalm reads as a hymn of praise to the Creator. The ancient Hebrew People include many Psalms in their writings section of the Tanakh and I think many of us appreciate the importance of music and poetry in our worship of the Divine. The purported author of many of these hymns of praise is the Chief Musician, David, (most modern scholars dispute this—but regardless of authorship we are left with these fine words—this one does indeed bear the line “A Psalm of David”) and many of us have an idyllic picture of David holding his lyre singing God’s praise while he tends his sheep. I like that that—it gives me comfort to access this image; especially in times of trouble and worry. Isn’t it nice to be able to rely on our Great Shepherd during these times? That perhaps someone is watching the skies for changes in the weather and the surrounding hillside for changes in the wolf population—such as an increase in both the wolves and their hunger.
So the 19th Psalm begins with words of majesty and praise, words that our great modern Christian Apologist C.S. Lewis has called “the greatest lyrics in the world”. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. The heavens declare—but just who on earth is listening? Here’s something that I’ve been learning in this past year and a half of seminary—when we open up Scripture—when we approach Scripture with new lenses—new eyes—eyes that aren’t looking for proof and validation of some already deeply held belief—but when we open up God’s word and read it with fresh eyes—with an open mind—then we can find –possibly– great truth—God is still speaking to us—but, is anyone paying attention? I’m learning how to approach Holy Scripture in a way that is true to my tradition and that doesn’t require me to shut off my brain. Holy Scripture can indeed be read with both heart and mind.
But, back to the psalm: We’re even told that the heavens “have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” How can we possibly hear something if no speech, no words are heard? No sound is created—nothing to land on our ear drums and give us the sensation of sound. No, the heavens declare the glory of God just by being. Their bright light and unfathomable distance, the stars in the cosmos, speak so loudly to us that they don’t need words or speech. In fact, the words and speech are going to come in the second half of the psalm. But first we have a little more in our praise section.
The second part of the first half—bear with me—we’re dealing with two main parts in this psalm—but the second part of the first half gives us images of one heavenly body specifically: the Sun. We’re told that God has pitched a tent for the sun. Isn’t that a lovely phrase: God has pitched a tent for the sun. What a helpful God! Now, I haven’t camped since I was much younger—at least camped in a tent—but I will attest that pitching a tent can be indeed an act of God. I would always end up with two or three extra tent spikes and too much extra rope and my tent always sagged in a very unappealing manner. So, in my mind, God pitching a tent for the Sun has lots of rich imagery. And I am sure that God’s tent went up in record time and was taut and I sincerely doubt that any raincloud would ever dare to spill a single drop on a tent pitched by God for the Sun. What an important metaphor for a nomadic people. If you live in tents then the pitching of the tent becomes a very important task. Having your God pitch a tent for the sun brings to mind all sorts of lovely images of care, doesn’t it?
Next, there is a kind of anticipation and urgency in verse five when the Sun is compared to the Bridegroom coming out of his chambers—anxious for his bride—or the runner primed and ready to run the race. This excitement continues with these words that remind us that the Sun “…rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth”.
So the psalmist has taken us from the cold, loud silence of the cosmos and then planted his finger firmly on the Sun with its circular movement and non-discriminating warmth. Six beautiful verses that now have our attention poised and ready for a lesson. We’re hooked by the praise and now the psalmist has something else to tell us. If we’re listening. If we’re paying attention.
The next section of this psalm gets into the nitty-gritty—the nuts and bolts of this work, if you will. Verses seven through nine tell us in perfect, symmetrical parallelism that the law and the statutes and the precepts and the commands and the fear and the decrees of the Lord are perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and firm. Six synonyms for the law and six descriptors of that law. We are left without a doubt that the Law is good–we are even told that the Law is “more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.” And then, once we’re hooked with beautifully starry sky images and the taste of honey on our tongues and a strong love of the law in our hearts, then we are warned: “By them (the laws) your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Bam—there it is! A hymn of praise to be sure, but deep in the lyric comes this admonition—those of us who keep these covenants with God must keep these laws and we will be rewarded. Back to this idea of covenant—of law. These covenants/laws are ways in which the people of Israel are to live in relationship with one another and with their God. These are laws, rules, of right relationship for these people. I cannot stress enough that they are not binding upon 21st century Christians except in as much as we choose to accept them. What I mean is this—these laws were established for an ancient, nomadic people living in a very specific time. Modern Christians and Jews may choose to engage with these covenants, but they are not for us. They were to show God’s people how to live in right relationship with each other and with God. And they can show us ways we might do this as well. But we are not bound to them as we are often led to believe. That would not be unlike to us using the Code of Hammurabi as a modern legal system. It just doesn’t work out of context. There’s just too many opportunities for storm clouds to appear on our horizon! Speaking of those storm clouds…
Our modern Storm Chasers do their work, not for glory, not for the money—I think a vast majority of them are volunteers—but for a desire to protect their people, like a good shepherd will protect her flock. Storm Chasers feel a tremendous responsibility to watch the skies and prepare to warn us of coming storms. They fill an important role for us, because I can’t tell an altostratus cloud from a cumulonimbus cloud. The psalmist asks us “…who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.” Oh great Storm Chasers! Discern my own errors. Am I too proud? Am I too impatient? Am I judgmental? Am I not living in right relationship with everyone I come in contact with on a daily basis? But wait; am I comparing my errors to clouds? Well, let’s see: Cloudy judgment; foggy memory; the winds of change; all phrases we use to comment on possible errors. And my failure to abide by the Law of covenant can lead to metaphorical storms in my life. The psalmist tells us it’s just that simple: Keep the law and the sky is bright and sunny and the honey tasty. Make error in the law and there may be “great transgression”. And here’s the truth for me hidden within this psalm: In my life, the great winds of storm and chaos come when I am out of relationship with the God of my understanding–when I deny God’s important role in and with me. When I am not in right relationship with the Divine or with my community. When this happens, there are storms. There are tempests. There are great winds and damaging floods.
But after the storm, when I return to right relationship, the Sun returns and “rises at one end of the heaves and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.” As it is in our skies, blue and bright or dark and stormy, so it often is in our lives.
The end of this psalm holds one of the great benedictions in our tradition: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight. Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” What a gift those words are—as is so much of the Hebrew Bible and our Christian Testament— they are gifts to us-to be opened and read and studied and understood and loved.
So…Go. Watch the skies. Check the weather forecast and be aware. Be aware for the tempest that may come if we fail to live up to our covenant or agreement of right relationship with God and with one another. And I think it is ok–as you’re standing out there on the Great Plains and watching God’s incredible sky and tending your sheep–I think it’s ok if you sing. Sing to your sheep and let them know that you are standing guard and that you will keep them safe.