The heavens are telling the glory of God – without words – can you hear it? Early morning bird song, gentle waves lapping at the sides of a canoe adrift on a lake at sunrise or sunset (if you aren’t a morning person!). Most of us have felt the indescribable presence of God in nature at some time in our lives – as Robert Browning describes it in his famous poem, “Pippa’s Song:”
“The year’s at the spring, and day’s at the morn,
Morning’s at seven; the hillside is dew-pearled;
The lark is on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”
We cherish such moments of communion with nature and the God who created it all – in part because it is extra-ordinary. Such beauty transcends the mundane and ugly parts of life that are too much with us. Partly because we don’t take time to seek out those special times and place, partly because it is increasingly hard to find such places in our hectic, crowded lives, polluted by noise and light and smog that tarnish our view of the heavens. Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch ran a story about air pollution being so bad in Beijing that they scored in the 700’s on a scale that is only supposed to go to 500! A month after the Newtown massacre we know all too well that life is anything but peaceful and serene for far too many of God’s children.
Who was this Psalmist and what planet did he live on? Would he or she have written such glowing idyllic words if he lived in the 21st century? In our century of suicide bombers and devastation from storms caused by undeniable global warming and climate change? What about the stagnant economy and congressional gridlock or senseless slaughter in Syria, starving kids in Darfur and Detroit? The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but heaven is a long way from our troubled planet – and some skeptics say you can’t get there from here!!!
Given all that doom and gloom, even when we gaze at the vast expanse of the universe on a clear night and pray to our God in heaven, don’t we sometimes find ourselves feeling insignificant and lonely and asking what God’s done for us lately?
I know I do. I can throw a great pity party – and then some friend on God’s behalf reminds me that suffering is written large in every chapter of human history – from the crusades to the black plague, from Roman imperialism to Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag, from the dark ages to modern day war lords, slavery and genocide. And they also remind me that in every one of those generations a faithful remnant has heard and seen the cosmic goodness of God’s creation and refused to surrender to the forces of darkness. Voices like Browning and our Psalmist have dared to affirm the goodness of creation and life, not because of turmoil and trouble, but in spite of it. Luther, Augustine, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Paul of tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth – just to name a few – too many voices of hope that have made too great an impact on the world to write them off as unrealistic optimists.
And that doesn’t even begin to address biblical history. Like many parts of the Bible, we don’t know for sure who wrote this Psalm or when, but knowing what we know about the history of Israel, it doesn’t really matter. To get a picture of Israel’s political and economic history – imagine a place like Ohio being an independent country and all of our neighbors – Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, even Canada and that state up north, all take turns overrunning the Buckeye state and taking over our government and economy. At one point we Ohioans are driven by a famine to Kentucky in search for food, and end up being slaves there for several hundred years to the pharaoh of Lexington. When we finally escape and cross the Ohio River again, other people have taken over our homeland, and we have to fight a bitter guerilla war to reclaim it. A then a few centuries later Michigan invades Ohio and our leaders are carried off to exile in Ann Arbor.
Pretty ugly, right? Well that’s Israel’s history – Israel isn’t a great agricultural country – they don’t have lots of natural resources or wealth; but what they had, especially in Bible times was location, location, location. Remember your geography and Israel’s location in that narrow strip of arable land along the Mediterranean coast. It’s called the Fertile Crescent because everything for hundreds of miles to the east is desert. So that narrow strip of land was the only trade route between the great political and economic super powers of the day. The only safe way between Greece, Assyria, Babylon and Rome on the north and Egypt on the south went right through Israel; so everyone wanted to control it, and took turns doing so. My point is that no matter when this 19th Psalm was written, it could not have been describing some utopian era when “all was right with the world” because no such time to this day has ever existed in Israeli history. The Jews are fully acquainted with grief – to the point where Tevye in that great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at one point asks God, “couldn’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”
And yet in this Psalm and throughout the calamities of slavery, exile, wars and rumors of wars, God’s people appreciate and witness to the glory of God. They heard the heavens proclaiming the glory of God – do we?
Maybe the Hebrews were closer to the earth and creation than we are in our urbanized technological world, but that’s no excuse. God is still speaking and the cosmos is as magnificent and awesome as ever if we take time to listen to its power and assurance. As the epistle James (1:17) puts it, “Every generous act is from above, from God, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” God and the universe don’t change, no matter how badly we humans mess things up – that’s the good news.
The temptation for some, even many of us, may be to withdraw into the beauty of nature and tune out the cacophony of human conflict. When I hear the shouting matches going on in federal and local legislatures over fiscal reform or hear the litany of senseless violence and tragedy on the nightly news, I can see value in high tailing it to Walden Pond or a remote mountain somewhere and communing with nature forever. But we know better. It’s not enough to hear the heavens proclaim the glory of God; we are expected to put that heavenly assurance into action. From Micah’s admonition to “do justice” (6:8) to James urging us to “be doers of God’s word, and not hearers only” (1:22), the biblical message is clear. We need faith and hope and strength from God in any form we can get it – but it’s not there to hoard for a rainy day. Love is only love if you give it away, or as James puts it even more forcefully later in this letter – “faith without works is dead” (2:26).
Talk can be cheap, and we know actions speak louder than words. So what does doing God’s word look like for us as Jesus followers today? To be doers of the word we need to surrender control and allow the ways of Christ to inform every decision we make–about vocations and vacations, how we spend our time and money, how we share our resources and care for mother earth. And beyond acts of charity and kindness, to prayerfully examine how doers of God’s word can make positive contributions to public policies that shape and influence the lives of everyone in society, not just our own.
We could say, “I have health care and my family is taken care of, so let’s leave the system the way it is, it works for me!!!” Or, “there’s enough money in social security to last my life time, global warming won’t get serious till after I’m gone; so let someone else worry about those complicated issues.”
No, what the heavens proclaim from our cosmic God requires bigger thinking and responsibility from us, and by the grace of God we are capable of bold, creative action, even if fair and equitable solutions to health care and other social justice issues seem currently impossible to achieve.
Yes, the heavens proclaim God’s glory, but we still know that all is not right with the world; and guess whose job it is to fix it? When we think about the beauty of God’s creation, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, which is where Adam and Eve get booted out of the garden. The Bible begins with Genesis, chapter 1 – where humans are created in the very image of God and entrusted to be God’s agents and stewards in the world.
Let’s be very clear that to be God’s agents and doers of the word is not advocating for some kind of works righteousness. We aren’t called to be doers of God’s word to earn brownie points with God. None of us can do enough good deeds to earn our salvation – that’s a gift of grace for those who repent and surrender to God’s word. Faith produces good works, not vice versa. People of faith can’t not do acts of justice and compassion, because once we truly hear the heavenly voice of God we know we are connected to each other – we are brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who don’t yet know we’re all kin.
Above the clamor and racket of modern life, the heavens are still telling the glory of God today. Stop, look and listen for it – hear the power and the majesty – the power and the majesty beyond words, beyond human comprehension, beyond human suffering and injustice!
Stop, listen, hear the heavenly voices, and then go from the places of cosmic beauty renewed, refreshed and inspired to be doers of justice and compassion and hope for those who most need to hear what the heavens are proclaiming.