Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2017
Psalm 8 Commentary
I was meditating on the words of verse 4, “what is man that you are mindful of him,” when I saw her picture—a lovely blond, her eyes closed in obvious contentment, a blissful smile on her lips, the perfect picture of serenity. She was on the cover of Time magazine with this headline next to her peaceful face: “The Mindfulness Revolution: The Science of Focus in a Stressed-out, Multi-tasking Culture.” Have you heard about the mindful revolution? I had, a little, but not much. So, I read the article inside. It was fascinating and helpful, especially in giving me a new angle on a familiar text.
Mindfulness, said the article, is learning to think about one thing at a time, learning to quiet a busy mind so that we are aware of the present moment and less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. It pointed out that technology has made it easier than ever to fracture attention into smaller and smaller bits. We answer a colleague’s question on our phone as we watch a children’s soccer game; we pay the bills while watching TV; we order groceries while we’re stuck in traffic. In a time when no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be many places at once—but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually want to be. Sounds true, doesn’t it? So, said the article, if distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness is the most logical response. The ultimate goal is to give your attention fully to what you’re doing.
The Mindfulness Revolution is sweeping our land because it promises a more peaceful and purposeful life. Some research suggests that it can actually do that, and that’s a good thing. But I want to suggest a better thing, the best thing. Let’s invite our congregants to join another mindful revolution, a way of thinking about God that will enable us to live more peacefully, more purposefully, and, best of all, more praisefully. Let’s use Psalm 8 as the basis for a mindfulness revolution that will enable us to start and end each day with the words that bracket this great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
This revolution is based in those words of verse 4 that are addressed to God. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care about him?” Hmmm. The mindfulness of God. What can it mean that God is mindful of us? Well, it means that God never gets pre-occupied with the affairs of someone else’s life and forgets about you, that God never dreams off in the middle of a conversation with you and just watches the TV, that God’s attention is never distracted as he drives your life with the result that accidents happen. God’s attention never wavers from your life, even as he multi-tasks in his providential care of the universe. God always gives his full attention to each one of us. To paraphrase country singer Willie Nelson, we are “always on his mind.”
Now, of course, by itself that isn’t necessarily a comforting thought. I mean, a psychotic stalker might have a laser-like focus on the object of his sick attention so that he can hurt her. Some people are most uneasy that God is always thinking of them, because they have a guilty conscience or because they have experienced some awful things in life. They picture God the way a Far Side Cartoon did a few years back– a beady eyed CEO hunched over a heavenly computer with his finger poised over the SMITE button ready to devastate our sinful lives at any moment.
The mindfulness of God won’t lead to a peaceful and purposeful and praiseful life unless we believe what the Psalmist says next in verse 4. God cares for us. That’s such a familiar idea for all of us that it evokes little more than a bored smile or bitter skepticism, but it is an idea so ridiculous to many people that it evokes blistering scorn. Going all the way back to the Deists of the 18th century, people have looked out at the infinite vastness of the universe that runs like clock according to unbreakable laws, and they have looked at the billions of puny humans who populate this tiny grain of sand, and they have said, “God couldn’t care less about us.”
In another issue of Time, there was an article about a scientist named Lisa Kaltenegger who is a leading researcher into the question of life on other planets. She and her fellow scientists claim to have found over 1,000 other planets. In a galaxy of over 300 billion stars, they say, there are surely more planets capable of sustaining life. In this immense and complicated universe, how can we claim that God, if there is a God, cares about these tiny hairless bipeds we call human beings? God might be mindful of us in the way we might think once a decade about a third cousin twice removed. But he certainly doesn’t care about us individually.
As he tended his sheep, the Psalmist gazed up at the same heavens, the moon and the stars that God set in place, and asked that same question. “When I consider the work of your fingers, what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?” But he gave a very different answer than Lisa Kaltenegger does. God does care, and Lisa Kaltenegger is the proof. Lisa Kaltenegger has been placed in a position where she can put the universe under a microscope and study it through a telescope.
This tiny bit of carbon based life is able to take charge of the world, because, says the old Psalmist, God made us only a little lower than the heavenly beings, and crowned us with glory and honor. “Heavenly beings” there is actually the word Hebrew word Elohim, usually translated “God. It harks back to the creation story in which God created us in his own image and gave us dominion over all the earth. We’re not just floating particles of protoplasm. We are princes and princesses. “You made us rule over the works of your hands.” That’s how much God cares. Out of nothing, he made us to be his royal children.
The problem is that we don’t feel like royal children much of the time. We feel more like the pauper than the prince. If I’m a child of the king, why is my life so hard? If I’m crowned with glory and honor, why is my life filled with misery? So, it doesn’t seem like God cares. It seems like we’ve been forgotten and forsaken by God. We feel like that homeless man in that famous picture from several winters ago. During a terrible cold blast in January, the nation’s attention was captured by a picture of a homeless man, a scruffy looking young man bundled up against the killer cold, huddled over a steam vent in a large Eastern city. The picture was distributed everywhere as a portrait of hopelessness. Here was a young man about whom no one cared. He might have been someone’s son once, but now he was forgotten.
Except that thousands of people did care, including his family, who had been thinking of him constantly. When they saw his picture, they said, “That’s our boy!” They found out exactly where he was. They sent word that they were coming. They turned over heaven and earth to get to him. And they welcomed him home. He was not a forgotten person about whom no one cared.
Neither are you and neither am I. God has done exactly what those parents did, and more. Psalm 8 points to the majesty of humanity as proof of God’s care, but Hebrews 2 uses these very words to talk about the mercy of God as an even greater proof. According to Hebrews 2 these words about the son of man who has been made little lower than the angels are finally about Jesus. Indeed, says Hebrews 2:17, “he had to be made like us in every way.” God didn’t just send word that he was coming to take us in out of the cold and bring us home. God’s Word actually became flesh and dwelt among us, shivering in the cold, huddling by the steam vent, a forgotten, God forsaken Son of Man.
God showed how much he cares about us not only by elevating us to positions of royalty in his world, but even more by lowering himself to the position of servant and criminal. Phil. 2 puts it in terms of mindfulness. “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” That’s how mindful God is of us. That’s how much God cares about us.
I think again of that lovely blond on the cover of Time, a model of the mindfulness revolution that actually has its roots in Buddhism. She’s peaceful and productive, because her attention is focused on one thing at a time. That’s good. Wouldn’t it be even better if her mouth were opened in praise to Jesus, because her attention is focused on the one God who is always mindful of us? Let’s invite our people to take the mindfulness revolution to its theological conclusion and focus on the one who demonstrated once and for the heart and mind of God on that cross.
That’s not easy to do. It is frightfully hard to keep your mind on God. We get distracted by the pleasures and pains of life, and we lose our focus on God. Here’s where the mindfulness revolution can be helpful to us. We need to train ourselves to be mindful of Christ, as the early Christians were. Col. 3:1 says we must “set our minds on things above where Christ is….” We need to learn to empty our minds of all distractions and focus on Christ. When we are convinced God has forgotten us or we are doubtful that he cares, we must “set our minds on Christ….”
Here’s how you do that. As you huddle over the steam vent of your life, over whatever it is that gives you peace and purpose in a hectic multi-tasking world, look up at the cross. Set your mind on the Crucified One. Then get up on your feet. Come back to Christ. Regain your place as one of the rulers of his world. Then give him the praise.
When mindfulness fails you, you can count on this. The Lord, Jesus Christ, is mindful of you. Nothing can distract him from paying attention to you and nothing in all this world can keep him from caring for you. “O Jesus, our Lord, how majestic and merciful is your name in all the earth.”
I’m not much of an opera buff, but a while ago I was privileged to attend a performance of “Madama Butterfly.” It is the tragic story of a young Japanese girl who is swept off her feet by a dashing United States naval officer who is visiting Nagasaki. Though he is simply impetuous, she falls deeply in love with him and they marry. To cement their relationship, she leaves Buddhism and converts to Christianity. A large cross displayed in an important part of her house symbolizes her new faith and her love for her husband. His ship soon sails, and he is gone for three long years.
Every day she scans the horizon looking for his ship. Every day she prays to the Christian God for his return. After three years, she begins to waver. “The Japanese gods are fat and lazy, but does the Christian God even know where I am?” Then her husband returns, and she is overjoyed– until she meets his new American wife. In a fit of rage and grief, Madame Butterfly sweeps the cross from its place in her house, smashing it to the ground. And then she kills herself.
Only if we keep that cross at the center through all the disappointments and disasters of our lives will we be able to begin and end each day with the words that bracket that great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
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