Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 11, 2017

Psalm 8 Commentary

On this Trinity Sunday, the other three Lectionary readings can legitimately be used for sermons on that great Mystery.  Both Matthew 28 and II Corinthians 13 explicitly mention Father (God), Son, and Holy Spirit.  Genesis 1 is a bit more difficult.  Although many scholars express reservations about such exegetical movements, an enterprising preacher can work with the plurals in Genesis 1 (“let us make humans in our image”) and with the cryptic reference to the “Spirit/wind” of God.  And reading backward from John 1 and Colossians 1 will give some plausibility to the notion that the Son is active in Genesis 1 as the Word that God spoke.

But preaching a Trinitarian sermon on Psalm 8 will prove nearly impossible, as there is no hint of even a plurality in God.  God is simply “Yahweh, our Adonai.”  At best, we could say that Psalm 8 attributes praise to the Triune God for his work of creation and his care for the pinnacle of that creation, the human race.  But there is no solid basis for a Trinitarian sermon here, unless we work with some angle that will lead us to the Trinity.

I want to suggest that we have such an angle in the concept of mindfulness found in verse 4:  “what is man that you are mindful of him?”  When I focused on that phrase, I saw a picture in my mind’s eye.  It is a picture of a lovely blond, her eyes closed in clear contentment, a blissful smile upon 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.”

The mindfulness revolution is everywhere, even as that woman’s picture is found in nearly issue of Time since that first one.  If your ignorance is as thick as mine was, you may benefit from the article accompanying that article in Time.     Mindfulness, said the article, is learning to think about one thing at a time, 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.

Time pointed out that technology has made it easier than ever to fracture attention into smaller and smaller bits.  We answer a colleague’s question from the stands at a child’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 mindfulness can actually do what its promoters promise, and that’s a good thing.

But Psalm 8 suggests a better thing, the best thing.  It calls us 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.  It invites us to join 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 mindfulness 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, put it in contemporary terms.  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.  It means 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 us, because they have a guilty conscience or because they have experienced some awful things in life.  (Think of Job protesting God’s attention to him.)  Some folks 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 time.

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 church-goers 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 contrast the vastness of our clockwork universe with the puny humans who populate this tiny grain of sand.  And they have concluded that “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 hairless bipeds we call human beings?  God could be mindful of us in the way we might think once in a decade about a third cousin twice removed.  But God certainly doesn’t care about us personally.

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 the Psalmist gives a very different answer than Lisa Kaltenegger does.  God does care, and here’s the proof:  Lisa Kaltenegger and her fellow scientists have been placed in a position where they can put the universe under a microscope and study it through a telescope.

These tiny bits of carbon based life are 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 God (elohim in Hebrew).  Psalm 8 hearks back to Genesis 1, where God created humanity 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 shame and misery?  So, it doesn’t seem as though God cares.  It seems as if we’ve been forgotten and forsaken by God.

We feel like that homeless man in the famous picture from a bitterly cold January in the recent past.  During that terrible cold, the nation’s attention was captured by a picture of a homeless man, a young man bundled up against the killer cold, huddled over a steam vent in a large city on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.  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.

This line of exegesis and application opens Psalm 8 up to some Trinitarian musing.  The God who created us a little lower than the angels has lowered himself to the cross. The God whose name is majestic in all the earth has become a “no name” who descended to the depths of hell.  That’s how mindful God is of us, how much he cares for us.

I think of that lovely blond on the cover of Time, a model of the mindfulness revolution that 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?   Psalm 8 invites us to take the mindfulness revolution to its theological conclusion and focus on the one who demonstrated once and for all the heart and mind of God on that cross.

That’s not easy to do.  It is frightfully hard to keep our minds 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 we can do that.  As we huddle over the steam vents of our lives, over whatever it is that gives us peace and purpose in a hectic multi-tasking world, we must 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 our attempts at Christian mindfulness fail us, we can count on this.  The Lord, Jesus Christ, is mindful of us.  Nothing can distract him from paying attention to us and nothing in all this world can keep him from caring for us.  “O Jesus, our Lord, how majestic and merciful is your name in all the earth.”

Illustration Idea

I’m not much of an opera buff, but a while back I was privileged to attend “Madame Butterfly” in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.  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 being 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 this great Psalm.  “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”


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