Sermon on Psalm 19 for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 8, 2015
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of God is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
the ordinances of God are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God
my rock and my redeemer.
The Universal Message
I am a softie for nature. Besides music, I am most often moved deeply and spiritually by Creation. Quite often the sky draws my heart upwards in wonder and awe. Sunshine, streaming through clouds, sunrises and sunsets, amaze me. And so do the stars on a clear night.
We now know from scientists that the light we see when we look at the stars has taken a long time to reach us. We know the speed of light and the distance of the stars from the earth, so we can calculate how long the light we see has spent traveling to us.
They say that Polaris, the North Star, may be over 400 light years away. Four hundred years ago would be 1615. The light we see today started its journey back then. I have a personal connection with the events of that year.
That was the year Hungarian Gabriel Bethlen was recognized by Holy Roman Emperor Mathias, as Prince of Transylvania, endorsing what had happened several years earlier at the Transylvanian Diet at Kolozsvár (or, in Romanian Cluj-Napoca). That was the city where our family lived for two years from 1991-1993.
Prince Bethlen was a Hungarian Protestant, or Calvinist, which was what they called Reformed Christians in those days. Hapsburg Europe was predominantly Catholic and persecuted Protestants. Bethlen had the freedom to practice his faith because Holy Roman Emperor Mathias had signed the Peace of Vienna in 1609 providing religious tolerance at least in his area.
So we had the privilege of living among Reformed Christians whose faith survived because of tolerance which was signed into law 400 years ago. The light I see from the North star tonight left when that was happening.
Today we read a Psalm of praise that begins looking upwards at the heavens with awe and wonder.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God”
For me, nothing truer could be said. No matter how much science I learn to explain the universe, it still fills me with awe and wonder.
Without a voice confined to mere spoken words, the heavens, the sun, the moon and all the stars, the Psalm says:
“…proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
…their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
The message is universal. Everyone can see it, and hear it. Everyone feels the heat of the sun and sees its light. One sun illumines all the diverse places on earth. One source of light shines on all people of all languages, races, customs and religions.
But the idea that this one sun is the work of one God was not known for a long time. This simple Psalm represents a revolutionary idea that changed the whole world. In this Psalm, one God, not many gods, exist. The One God is the Creator God. The sun that travels across the sky by day silently sings praise to this One God.
Previously, before the Jews brought Monotheism to the world, people were poly-theists. They believed in many gods. The sun, in fact, was one of them. His name, in Mesopotamian cultures, was Shamash. Shamash was just one among many gods.
Besides the big gods of nature like the sun god, the moon god and star gods, there were also local gods, tribal deities for each people-group. The concept that there is only one God leads immediately to the concept of universality: if there is only one God then this one is the God of all people. There are no tribal deities any more.
That means that there are no favorites with God. There are no people who can claim exceptionalism. All people, every race and tongue is equally made in God’s image and treasured by the Creator.
That is why the scandal of racism is so deeply and profoundly scandalous. Racial discrimination is a direct attack on the very roots of our theology. No one can despise any other human without despising the God who made them.
This weekend, today, we celebrate the gains that have been made in the civil rights movement in our country, as we commemorate the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday” fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama. But we also hear the scathing report of the Justice Department about the racism in the Ferguson system and know that there is a tremendous amount of work left to do. We believe in One God, and therefore we are committed to a world of equal justice for all.
What is the Creator Like?
But there are still some questions left open. What is this one Creator God like? This is not an easy question. If you simply observe nature, you get a mixed answer. The same sun that can thrill you with wonder as it rises and sets can scorch the earth with drought, leading to the deaths of thousands.
Nature alone may fill you with dread as much as wonder, in the face of hurricanes, tsunamis, and bitter winter storms. The heavens that declare the glory of God without words leave us without explanations for the inglorious insults of nature. Maybe God is malevolent, or simply apathetic to our suffering. Who knows? The sun doesn’t say.
So we do need speech that goes beyond the silent declarations of the heavens. Which is exactly why the Psalm that begins with the wordless speech of the heavens immediately turns to praise God-the-Creator for being God-the-Revealer: the God who has given Torah, Guidance, or Instruction. The Psalmist sings:
“ The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure
making wise the simple;”
The Law, or, literally, the “Torah” of the Creator God is perfect, reviving the “soul” or, inner being, making us wise.
Revolutionary Moral Monotheism
What enlightenment does Torah give us? The second great revolutionary concept: that God is morally good. That the Creator God is for us. That God in fact loves us and wants what is best for us, our flourishing.
If there is only one God, and God is the creator, then God must be Great in every sense – greater than the sun or moon; creator that all the stars together. And, amazingly it is exactly in those places in Torah where God’s greatness is proclaimed and celebrated, we see something else: we see that the greatness of God is directed towards the humans that God made. In fact, specifically towards the weakest of humans.
One example, among many, will have to do for now.
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” – Deut. 10:17-18
In Torah we learn that the God we celebrate when we look at the ancient stars is the God who created us in God’s image, and whose greatness is on display precisely in his moral goodness, and especially in his compassion and mercy for those who suffer. This is why the Psalmist says that the torah of God “revives the soul;” it is life-giving!
Recently columnist Ana Marie Cox found faith and came out publicly as a Christian in an article in the Daily Beast. She was interviewed about it on Morning Joe. Joe’s cohost, Mika Brzezinski who had known her in the past, told Ana that she had seen a big change in her, as if she had gone from being “tied up in knots” to being “at peace.”
In both the article and interview Ana explained that what had changed for her came from her discovery of grace. She said that she had been aware of herself as a “bad person” and even an “unforgivably bad person” but what “the gospel of grace has taught me is that I may be fallen…but that I am saved despite that.”
You cannot get that from looking at the sun and stars alone. But in Torah, in scripture we learn that the creator God is also the Redeemer God who sets us free. That God loves us and does forgive us. This is what Jesus came to announce; this is the good news of the gospel: that God is best defined as God defines Godself in Torah:
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6)
This knowledge is, as the Psalmist describes it,
“More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”
For us, as Christians, who believe that God is best and most fully revealed in the Living Word of God, in Jesus, the “Word made flesh” we have even more grounds for rejoicing. God is in fact our Heavenly Father who “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
So, let us close this circle. We began with the Great God who is on display in the heavens, the God who is One, as universal as the sun he created to shine on every place on earth. The One God who can never be harnessed to any one tribe or people, but the God of all people.
We noticed that the light of the stars that displays the glory of our Creator God is ancient light; that the North star’s light we see is already 400 years old. That back in those days people of good courage were willing to sign declarations of religious tolerance and peace.
Sometimes I think we have not progressed much as a species in the past 400 years. Racism still exists, and religious intolerance seems to be at an all-time high all around the world. It is as if people have reverted back to the days when they thought that God was their own tribal mascot.
People are willing to do terrible things and say horrible things in the name of upholding the fragile honor of their gods – and I do not just mean ISIS and Boko Haram. People in this country attack Islam, as if the murderous extremists that pretend to represent it had any legitimacy. We need to be clear: ISIS no more represents Islam than the Irish Republican Army represented Christianity.
But let us be the people who finally take to heart the wordless message of the heavens. God is One; the sun that declares God’s glory shines on all the people of the earth, whatever their perception of God, whatever their religious practice. As Jesus said, God
“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45).
We have been enlightened by the words of Torah and by Jesus, the Word made flesh. We understand the One Creator God as the Great God whose greatness is made manifest in moral goodness, in compassion in mercy and forgiveness. No one is excluded. No one is exceptional.
Let us also be the people who know what a blessing and privilege it is to live on this planet in a world that reflects the glory of God. We have been given the mandate of stewardship of the planet on our watch in this generation.
Let us commit ourselves to live in such a way that there will be a glorious, clean planet around for the people who will be here 400 years from now; the people alive to see the light leaving the North star today.
May they be people who have learned to live in peace and in respectful coexistence with each other. May we set the example and lead the way.