Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c Commentary
Digging into the Text:
During the week in which I am writing this sermon commentary a UN Commission released disturbing report on global warming and climate change. With an array of scientific studies to back it up, the report predicts that we have about 10 years in which to sharply reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere or the planet will undergo such profound changes in sea level and temperature as to make life precarious for millions of people across the globe. Reading these findings provides a fitting, and jarring, context in which to read Psalm 104.
Psalms 103 and 104 are clearly linked together as the only Psalms having the same unique beginning and ending, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Psalm 103 is a hymn of praise to the God who, like a father, cares for and saves people from the powers of sin and death. Psalm 104 praises the God who made all creatures, feeds and cares for them, and delights in them. In Psalm 104 we see the lovingkindness of God extended from humanity (Psalm 103) to all of God’s creation.
One of the striking things about this Psalm is the way in which it differs with its paired Psalm 103. Psalm 103 is focused on God’s love and care for humanity while Psalm 104 mentions God’s human creatures just once, almost in passing. These widely differing perspectives offer us an opportunity to see ourselves as one with all of God’s creatures. Humanity is, of course, uniquely made in God’s image, but we forget, to our peril, our common creatureliness with the rest of creation.
It’s too bad that the lectionary shortens the Psalm’s 104’s achingly beautiful verses down to just 11 for the sake of brevity. I would urge you to try to include the whole Psalm in the worship service. This abridged version tends to cut out the most dramatically personal aspects of the Psalm, the intimacy of the creator with his creatures. God makes the world habitable for all his creatures, feeds them, slakes their thirst, and even plays with them (vs. 26).
The Psalm as a whole begins by praising God as the great and powerful creator of all things who is “wrapped in light as with a garment.” It moves on then to describe how this unimaginably great Creator built the earth from its most basic sub-structures outward, and is in absolute control of all the forces that affect his earthly creatures.
Befitting its source in the Middle East, where water is so crucial, the Psalm overflows with the image of water. Ancient Israel saw water as both a threat and a necessity. Too much water, as in the tumultuous sea with its monstrous creatures like Leviathan threatened chaos. It’s only when water is channeled and contained that it can provide safe sustenance for God’s creatures.
In the same way storm clouds and blowing wind can threaten God’s creatures, but the Psalm pictures God riding the winds that become mere messengers, and fire that serve God’s purpose. The creator not only gives life, form, and being to the created universe, but sovereignly controls it to do his bidding.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
One problem in preaching this Psalm is that most fifth graders know that clouds, rain, and wind result from “natural forces” that can, to a large extent, be predicted by scientific techniques. While the Psalm claims that the earth is built on foundations that will never be moved, we think of the floating tectonic plates that shift continents over time and that sometimes give way in an earthquake.
Of course, like the early chapters of Genesis, this Psalm was written in a pre-scientific age. But its purpose is not to explain natural phenomena, but to sing praise to the Creator who “in wisdom” made it all. It points us to an enchanted world that we have lost in the flatland of modernity.
At a time when so-called “career atheists” insist that the Bible is a relic that should be tossed into the dustbin of history, we need to sing this Psalm. Its lyrical praise of the Creator despite its pre-scientific language, is about the meaning of creation, not merely its processes. It addresses a deep need within us to take delight in the world around us.
The Psalm does not just praise a distant and uninvolved creator, but a creator who loves the creation and is intimately involved in it. Following closely after Psalm 103 that celebrates God’s saving help for humanity, this Psalm asserts God’s close involvement with the whole of creation and all its creatures.
The naturalist story features an ultimately meaningless cosmos arising out of mere chance and ending in a spectacular collapse on itself. The biblical story depicts a creation alive with the glory of the Creator and ends not with the death-throes of a meaningless creation, but its glorious renewal. The Bible begins and ends with the creation and its Creator at the center. That’s something to sing about!
The naturalist story also does not address the crisis of our time deeply enough– the destruction of our planet as as habitable by God’s creatures. All it can offer is that we should work to save the planet out of self-interest and the welfare of future generations. The Christian story declares that God made it all out of love, and appointed us as its responsible caretakers. We must answer to God for the ways we have destroyed the planet.
One would think, then, that Christians would be among the most vocal members of society in urging creation care. But strangely, many evangelical Christians, the people of the book, tend to be among the climate change doubters. Might the reason be that creation and salvation have been torn apart, so that salvation is only about humanity and not the creation itself.
This important perspective helps us see the world from the perspective of its Creator as well as its Savior. God cares for and takes delight in all his creatures. The lyric tone of this Psalm calls us to realize that our our heedless destruction of habitat and climate, which threatens whole species with extinction, is of the deepest concern to the God we praise.
Preaching the Text
1). Psalm 104 is a hymn to the Creator who can be recognized in the beauty and grandeur of the creation. One of the effects of modernity is that the world is no longer a divinely “enchanted” place, filled with signals that point us to God. Instead, we live in a flatland where every natural phenomenon has an immediate cause and effect. It’s all scientifically and empirically explainable, and the mystery is gone.
I believe we need to fight against that flattening effect, and Psalm 104 helps us to do it. But we also need to listen to the poets of our own time who dig beneath the flat surface reality to the enchantment that still shines through–poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. A few lines from one or two of them could re-instill the sense of enchantment we need.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
2). Some of you probably have Power Point capability where you preach. Perhaps there is someone in the congregation who loves nature photography or who can find images on the web to complement the sermon. Too many might be a distraction from the sermon, but a few that illustrate both ecological devastation and divine enchantment might serve the congregation well.
3). One way of including more of the Psalm in your worship service is to sing it. There are a large number of hymns, old and new, based on Psalm 104. Check it out here:
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!