Reading: Psalm 19
Nice You Tube video to introduce theme here
When was the last time something made you stop and think ‘wow’?
What sort of things inspire awe or wonder in you?
There is something wonderful about how so many things inspire awe in children. Mummy… bird, car, tree whatever. But all too soon it fades. It loses its novelty. What fascinates soon becomes commonplace. We get used to it.
Yet still some things retain the power to inspire us. Maybe it’s a work of art. A piece of music, painting, sculpture, a piece of writing maybe. A while ago Jools and I were in London and saw a place called choccywoccydoodah and I saw these. Schnauzers… made of chocolate. How amazing is that?
It might be a sublime piece of sporting brilliance, perhaps admiring the way a Paralympian overcomes adversity to achieve something amazing. Or a Roger Federer backhand.
Or perhaps we turn to the natural world. That’s what the little collage at the start was about. Last year Julie and I went walking in Austria and the scenery was spectacular. My father-in-law used to have a marine fish task. I could have watched it for hours and not got bored. The sheer diversity of colour, design, whatever…
Or perhaps we find wonder by looking into the night sky. Thinking about our universe. Even our solar system is just vast. The space craft New Horizons travelled at speeds from 50,000 to 160,000 km/h and took 91/2 years to reach Pluto. And that isn’t even the edge of our solar system. The outer edge of our solar system is called the Oort cloud. Theoretically it will take Voyager 1 300 years to reach that and 30,000 years to pass through it. That’s just our solar system.
And you… you are amazing. This complex mix of dust and stars; of systems and components that make up the human body. I’m told the various chemicals which make up a human body have a market value of less than £3.50. Yet the average adult body contains enough energy to power 30 nuclear bombs. Try remembering that next time you feel a bit tired.
But just as fascinating is when we go small. And I mean small. For a long time science searched for the building block which makes up anything. They thought they had found it when the atom was discovered.
Atoms are tiny. Millions fit on the head of a pin. There are more atoms in a cup of water than there are cups of water in the world’s oceans.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Then they discovered that atoms could be broken down into smaller units. And those smaller units could be broken down into smaller units still. In fact more than 200 subatomic particles have been discovered.
And at that level things get really weird…
There are particles which come into existence for the tiniest fraction of a second, then disappear. We don’t know where they come from or where they go.
There are particles which move from point A to point B. But they don’t travel the distance between those two points.
Some travel from point A to point B by every possible route, and only reveal which route they took when they’re observed. *
If your head hurts that’s ok. My point is that whether you go big or small, there is so much to inspire awe and wonder in our world.
The thing about awe and wonder is that sense that words cannot do the experience justice. Our best descriptions fall short. No words can recreate the beauty of that sunset or that waterfall. Photographs rarely even come close to doing them justice.
This week I came across a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein who said it was impossible to convey the aroma of freshly ground coffee in words. **
Einstein said that anyone who is not lost in awe and wonder at the power of the mind behind the universe is as much good as a burnt out candle.
That is when we turn to art. In the case of this morning’s reading to poetry and music.
In this morning’s reading we see the one who wrote the Psalm would have agreed with Einstein…
The heavens declare the glory of God.
The skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech
Night after night they display knowledge
They 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 end of the world.
We continue our time exploring different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. In the last few weeks we have considered the word Here. That’s where we begin.
Where we are.
We don’t have to get ourselves to some other place to encounter God. God comes to meet us here.
In this place.
At this time.
As we are.
We are invited to wake up to the presence of God who is with us in all things, at all times, whether we notice his presence or not, whether we recognise his presence or not.
We’re moving on to our next word. What are good, proper responses to this God?
We could have chosen to start with another idea, I suppose, but surely one appropriate response is awe, wonder, praise, worship.
There are a number of words which could have been used. Hallelujah for instance. But the one on which we will consider over the next few sermons is O.
We have used it and will use it quite a bit in our worship this morning. We sang O enter then his gates with praise. Unfortunately Baptist Praise and Worship changes the words in the chorus to All Creatures of our God and King to Now praise him. I always remembered it as O praise Him. Our closing hymn is O for a thousand tongues to sing.
A tiny word, yet it can be used to express so many emotions.
We can use it in gratitude at someone’s generosity. O, what a lovely gift.
It can express relief when we are comforted O, I’m so glad you’re here.
It might an expression of surprise or shock. Had you come in to my office when I was boogying and air-guitaring round the place to the Coldplay track we played at the top of the sermon, and I don’t hear you enter, I’m stopped short and say O, I didn’t see you there.
We might even use it in pain, O, my heart is breaking.
But it’s also the word we use for awe in the presence of beauty. O, what a sunrise. ***
In fact it’s almost not a word. It’s like the shape our mouths make it wonder. It’s like a gasp, or the sound of our breath being taken away. O.
The spiritual life will go through many seasons, but certainly awe and wonder should be a component of any healthy spirituality. It was there in the Psalms as the writer looked into the heavens, perhaps given some of the imagery at sunrise, at his breath was taken away.
But he didn’t just wonder at creation for its own sake. Instead, like Einstein he was lost in wonder at the power of the mind behind it all. He wasn’t driven to worship of the creation, but of the creator.
In the Psalmist’s mind creation’s not saying look at me, it’s pointing to the One beyond it, whose handiwork creation is. Just as we might be able to tell something about an artist by looking at their handiwork, so creation, without words, simply be being what it is, doing what it does, speaks eloquently about God, for God.
We sometimes speak of the Bible as the word of God. But actually the Bible itself speaks of lots of things being a word of God. I mean, THE Word is Jesus, but the first word, if you like, is creation itself. ‘In the Bible the whole universe is God’s megaphone.’****
But that voice needs interpreting. What is it saying?
The first thing, is that it is presenting a picture of a joyful God. I’ll focus more on this in one of the other weeks. But there is a certain joyfulness, playfulness about those opening words of the Psalms.
It’s possible for us to have this sense of God as serious, stern, angry, punishing. But joy is really the first emotion the Bible attaches to God. The scriptures start with God delighting in his creation. God keeps doing things and saying ‘O that’s good.’
Have you ever done a trick for a small child, or shown them something new and the child keeps saying ‘again.’ One of my Bible reading notes which has stuck with me for many years used that picture of God looking at creation and with each new tree, flower, fish or whatever, God is saying ‘again, do it again.’
Creation displays a certain playfulness and wonder in God. When you’re lost in wonder at creation, God’s joining you in it. He’s right there with you saying ‘yeah, it’s awesome, innit?’
If you don’t mind me saying so, some of the imagery might actually be considered a bit risqué. If I wrote a song with this kind of imagery, I’m not sure it would get included in the next edition of Songs of Fellowship. The picture of the athlete running his race, fine. But the sun rising like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber?
In the first chunk of this Psalm there is nothing specifically Israelite about it. Even the word for God is quite a generic name for God. If you look at the church Bible’s you’ll see from verse 7 onwards the Psalm speaks of the LORD (capitals). When you see that in an English Bible, the Hebrew word is Yahweh, the Israelite name for God. The name gave Moses at the burning bush. The word for God in verse 1 is El, which could be a name for any deity.
In fact it’s possible that this was borrowed or nicked from a song or poem about a God called Shamash, a Mesopotamian sun God. He was also linked with giving King Hammarubi his code of laws. In their mythology Shamash was said to lie at night in the sea in the arms of his beloved.
Either way the image the Psalm uses for the sun rising and sweeping across the sky, is of the newly-wed bloke, emerging from the boudoir with a bit of a swagger or a spring in his step, cos he’s had a bit of lurving. So it is overall quite a playful image in the passage.
Also when the Bible speaks of God, his glory and creation, power has a part to play in that. Definitely in comparison to us.
For example in Isaiah (40), the prophet has God saying…
‘to whom will you compare me. Or who is my equal?
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens, who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
And calls them each by name
Because of his great power and mighty strength
not one of them is missing.’
Other people around them worshipped the sun, moon and stars. The Israelites? Pah! Their God gave them permission to come out.
One of the greatest pieces of poetry in the Bible is found in Job, starting from chapter 38. Some of the words in Indescribable are taken from it. After almost 37 chapters of God being questioned, God enters the scene and begins with these words…
‘where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations;
Who marked off it’s dimensions,
who stretched a measuring line across it…
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
loosen Orion’s belt or lead out the bear with it’s cubs?
One of my favourite bits in the Message paraphrase can be found here. The ancient world saw the sea as a source of great terror, of chaos which could sweep them away. But it was nothing compared with God. In fact this God treats it like a baby…
And who took charge of the ocean
when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
and tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,
And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.
Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’
So certainly the power of God might be source of awe and wonder.
But by itself power might not be a good thing.
Not every one who has power need be good.
Not everyone who has power uses it well.
That’s why almost always, even in the Bible when people encounter God, their first response is fear. For the vast majority of human history, when gods have shown up, it’s not generally been considered a good or desirable thing.*****
That’s a barrier God has to get past to reach us. We know what we do with power and fear God might do the same.
But that’s only part of the message that creation is proclaiming about God. That’s just one part of the glory.
Ever noticed how two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different? Or the same person might react differently depending on their mood. You get a bit of this in the Bible. This is one of those situations.
This is not the only place in the Old Testament which uses the image of the sun making its way across the sky. But the other one is very different. You’ll find it again in Ecclesiastes…
Meaningless! Meaningless says the teacher.
Everything is meaningless..
Generations com and generations go;
But the earth remains forever;
The sun rises and the sun sets
And hurries back to where it rises…
It’s not so much of a swagger there. It’s like the sun, along with the whole world is on a treadmill. It finishes one day then has to rush back to be ready for morning again, there’s a sense of ‘if I must.’ Same old, same old.
Sometime we’ll do Ecclesiastes and I’ll talk about why that is. But where the teacher looks at the world and sees monotony, the Psalmist looks at the same world and sees that God is reliable, and trustworthy. God’s wisdom gives meaning and order to the world. The regular rhythms and seasons, might seem like same old, same old. But actually they are reminders of God’s trustworthiness, of his promise that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. This God is not just powerful. This God uses power wisely, faithfully, well!
And if God can be trusted with the ordering of creation, he concludes, God can be trusted with his life. That’s the link between creation and the law. For the same God who brings order to the world seeks to guide us, as we find our place within that world.
The same God is behind both creation and Torah. If I were to ask us to think of images to describe law, very few of us I imagine would think of it in terms of pure gold and the sweetness of honey. We often think of law as a limiter, a kind of harsh, grudging thing.
That’s not how the Psalmist sees it. He sees it as God seeking to guide him into life. It warns him when he is in danger of bringing disaster on himself. By following what God asks of him, he says he finds reward. Not in a kind of duty sense where I do this, so God has to do that. It’s just that in the Torah he finds God’s way of giving him real life, the kind of life God intended. God is not just a rule giver who likes to boss us around. He is actively seeking to guide us away from our own destructive tendencies.
I love how The Message translates verse 13.
Keep me from stupid sins; from thinking I can take over your work.
He looks at the order of creation and sees that the world works by functioning according to God’s wisdom, God’s faithful ordering. When he looks at the world and sees how God orders it, what makes his think he could do better?
And we see so much more than the Psalmist could ever know. Our world is much more weird and wonderful and mysterious than he could ever have fathomed, and we too can be moved to wonder at the mind, at the God behind it all.
I wouldn’t seek to tell our musicians how to play their instruments, they’re better at it than me. I wouldn’t think of telling Brian and Chris how to do their gardens. They’re so much better than me. And the Psalmist uses that same logic with God.
He can do it so much better than me. Why not trust him with it? The world works when it follows God’s wisdom. Why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t we?
We live in a world where knowledge and wisdom are so often confused. We think they can be found in books. For the vast majority of history they didn’t have books. They couldn’t read. They just looked at nature. They looked at how the world worked.
That’s where Jesus went to for wisdom. So much of his teaching came from observing the world around them and how it worked.
Technology has helped us to harness nature, to train it, to subdue it. That’s well and good. But a vital part of a healthy spirituality is to allow ourselves to stop and have those O moments.
We do well to stop and wonder at how the world works. Whether in its vastness or its smallness. To allow ourselves to be wowed. To allow ourselves to have our breath taken away in wonder.
Spiritual practice. Take time to indulge in something that wows you.
Not as an end in itself, but to allow it to point to the One behind it all. The One who calls all things into being and sustains all things. To allow ourselves to be drawn into worship of one who does it all so much better.
I heard this week a definition of worship as a way of practising ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ There will be other seasons, other words, other postures in our spiritual life and journey. But awe, wonder, O, should be part of that journey.
When we are drawn into O, into awe and wonder, we recognise that all things are held in the hands of one who does all things well. The universe does not depend on us. When we take time to wonder, we see that, and come to see not only his power, but his wisdom, love and faithfulness. He holds all things, what makes us think he can’t hold us? We can step into the knowledge that in his hands we are held and we are safe.
Notes * Everything is Spiritual II: Rob Bell; ** Faith and the Creeds: Alister McGrath; *** Naked Spirituality: Brian McLaren; **** What is the Bible: Rob Bell; ***** Richard Rohr, but I can’t remember where