Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 9, 2019
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary
Sample Sermon: You wouldn’t think a wasp could do so much damage. Unless you are allergic to bee and wasp stings, getting stung by these bugs, though briefly painful and annoying, does not generally create any lasting effect or damage. However, about 150 years ago there was one particular kind of wasp that appears to have created a very long-lasting effect indeed. Charles Darwin was not even stung by this wasp but he did observe it and drew some pretty dire conclusions from what he saw. Darwin had grown up embracing pretty much the same perspective on the natural world as we just absorbed from listening to Psalm 104. That is, the world is the result of God’s handiwork, is filled with God’s holy designs, and so is something that bears witness to God in and through the goodness of that design.
But then one day, in the course of his studies, Darwin discovered a species of wasp that was so pernicious, it shook his belief in the world’s benevolent design. Because this particular wasp injects its larvae into the abdomen of a living host. Then, like some nightmare of an alien in a science fiction movie, the larvae mature inside this other creature, literally sucking the life out of the host in order to nurture its own development. Finally, when the wasps are ready to hatch, they burst out of the host’s body, leaving that host, not surprisingly, quite definitively dead.
Darwin considered this grisly scenario and concluded that something so predatory and dreadful could not possibly be the result of any good God’s design. God would never create a wasp to reproduce in so sick a fashion. This later became one reason (among, of course, many others) that led Darwin toward a naturalistic explanation of the universe’s existence in the place of a divine explanation. And ever since then, the debate has raged in an attempt to answer one very important question: Is the world the result of design or chance? Should we see the world as the work of God or the result of a blind process of evolution that neither needs any God nor shows any trace of God?
Psalm 104 brings us face to face with such questions. As we consider this psalm, let’s begin by summarizing what we learn from reading Psalm 104. First, notice how the psalm alternates between speaking about God and speaking directly to God. Verses 1-5, 10-18, and then 31-35 refer to God as “he” but all of the other verses are a more personal address that use the pronoun “you.” This psalm is part sermon, part prayer yet the tone is very consistent. From first to last we are told that God remains intimately involved with and connected to the physical world. Verse 31 sums up the whole poem as well as anything when the psalmist writes that the Lord God Yahweh rejoices in his works.
There is here both an element of divine playfulness and divine care when it comes to the creatures and features of the earth. We are told that God wraps light around himself the way we might put on and then model some new outfit from the store. As the great clouds scud across the expanse of the sky, we are told that we should picture God as riding on those clouds–it probably would not be too much to imagine a divine cry of “Yee-ha!” as he cruises overtop this world on clouds driven by the mighty wind! Verse 26 tells us not only that God created the great whales but did you notice the real punch of that verse: we are told that God created the whales with the specific purpose of their frolicking amidst the ocean swells! God infused playfulness right into the created order!
But we are also told that God is no absentee landlord. He is not someone who observes his creation from afar. If wild donkeys find water to drink, it’s because God put it there for them. If a badger on a mountainside finds a crag in which to build a home for himself, it’s because God cares for that critter just as surely as he cares for any one of us. Implied throughout this psalm is the doctrine of what in theology is called creatio continua or the “continuing act of creation.” God did not set the world to spinning and then left it alone. God at least does not regard his act of creation as something that was over and done with a long time ago. If you asked God about creation, he would not reply with a kind of dismissive “Been there, done that” attitude but would instead make clear that when it comes to creation, he is still here and he is still doing it.
As a brief aside, we need not interpret this to mean that God is attending to every single blade of grass that is currently growing in the world. Nor do we need to go to the extreme of thinking that everything is so divinely pre-programmed that every time a creature or person slips off a cliff it is because God took his finger and flicked them over the edge. There is, in short, a whole lot of careful nuancing that needs to happen when it comes to figuring out God’s involvement with the world. However, based on Psalm 104, suffice it to say that when we view the creation through the lens of our faith, we see that God’s attention and care abide with the universe.
In some ways, there may well be an analogy to parents and children. As all parents know, as busy as you may be in making preparations for a child while the little one is still in the mother’s womb, the birth of that child signals only the beginning (and certainly not the end) of the real work of being a parent. So also with God: once he created the universe, the work of creation had only just begun. But it’s not just the work, it’s also the delight. When we read in this psalm about God’s playfulness and delight in the creation, we are reminded of the way a parent beams when his or her child does well at a piano recital, scores a run at a baseball game, or is simply lost in a world of make-believe while playing in the backyard. A key joy of parenthood is precisely taking delight and pride in a child’s life. The joy of the creation for God is very similar: he loves watching his creatures at play.
All of that constitutes some of the main elements of Psalm 104. But now it’s time to note a couple of other things. First, this psalm celebrates what is good and delightful about creation without much discussing the obvious fact that we now live in a fallen creation. There are wild donkeys who do not find water and so drop dead in the desert as a result. There are birds who not only sing in the branches of maple trees but that snap their necks when they fly into your den’s picture window. Most creatures eat other creatures to live, and there are also those pesky wasps that bothered Mr. Darwin so very much. But with the exception of a reference to lions seeking out their prey, the “red in tooth and claw” nature of this present world is not addressed in this psalm.
But that hardly means that this cannot be addressed from a biblical perspective. With few exceptions, thoughtful theologians have been saying for thousands of years already that what you see in the world as it now stands is not necessarily a reflection of either God’s design or God’s intentions. Darwin looked at his predatory wasp and concluded that since God could not have designed this creature he must not have designed any. But as Christians we could just as easily conclude that in a broken world, things not only evolve toward greater complexity but they also de-evolve, fall away from what God wanted life to be like. Cancer does not mean that the normal division of cells in our bodies is a bad thing. Divorce does not mean that marriage itself is bad. And violence in the physical world does not mean that God made a bad world in the first place. God is aware of the bad things in this world but not because he put them there but because he, too, weeps over them.
But Psalm 104 leaves all of that to one side in order to put forward its main theme that when we see wonderful life, goodness, beauty, and playfulness in the world, then we must view these lovely things as reflections of the Creator God. However, what I just said is the rub, the sticking point, the debatable issue when it comes to a proper way to view reality. Is it merely “obvious” to look at the world and draw the same conclusions that Psalm 104 does? Is it automatic that when someone looks at a field of wildflowers ablaze in a riot of colors that she will say, “Ah yes, that’s God’s paintbrush at work! No doubt about it! I see God there!” Clearly the answer to such questions is no–seeing the world in divine terms is neither obvious nor automatic for many people.
And the reason for this is the same as the explanation for cancer, violence, and murder: this world is fallen. We need the Holy Spirit in us to see it correctly, which is maybe partly why Psalm 104 is the Year C Lectionary text for Pentecost Sunday. Without the Holy Spirit’s anointing, we don’t see straight, we don’t hear right, we don’t perceive correctly.
This is where our Christian witness comes in. We tell people what we believe, and why we believe it, in the prayerful hope that perhaps the Spirit will work through our witness to open another person’s eyes. There is glory to be witnessed in God’s beautiful world and we want others to see it and to share in it with us. Psalm 104 is one of many biblical reminders that paying attention to, and celebrating God’s goodness in, the physical creation is a proper and necessary part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. As the concluding verses well remind us, if we want to see and celebrate the “glory of the Lord,” a good place to start is by celebrating the works of that Lord–the very same works in which the Lord himself is said to rejoice.
One of the most interesting features to being God’s image-bearers is precisely our ability to pay attention to others the same way God does. So far as we know, no other creatures in the world are able to make a study out of others. But we can and we do. Go to most any library and you will find whole sections devoted to books that catalog different types of grasses, trees, fish, grasshoppers, ants, birds, and flowers. No other species on earth bothers to look at anything else. Fish in the Caribbean spend their lives on the reef and yet they never try to study different kinds of coral. But we humans do study both coral and the fish that live amidst the coral. That’s the God-likeness in us at work! We can rejoice in God’s works in a similar way to how God himself rejoices in them!
The poet of Psalm 104 took note of goats on a mountain, donkeys in the desert, storks in pine trees, clouds in the sky, and whales on the ocean and in every single case he sang out in this grand poem, “God did that! God cares for that! God rejoices in that! Praise be to the Lord!” Seldom do we image God better than when we take note of the other in our midst, pay close attention to that other, and then give God the glory for what we have seen.
Make no mistake: all of this is a singularly faith-inspired vision of the world. Those who do not share our faith don’t see it this way and so may resist our suggesting they should. Perhaps that is why our best witness remains just that: a heartfelt, unabashed witness and forthright proclamation of what we believe to be true about the creation. We should not pretend that others will understand or accept this without themselves having faith and so it is the Holy Spirit’s Pentecostal gift of faith that we should pray for people to receive. And as much as anything, it will be our own ardor, conviction, compassion, love, and enthusiasm for the things of God that the Spirit may be able to use as holy tools to help reach our neighbors.
Psalm 104 speaks the language of faith by using the vocabulary of grace. The psalm opens and closes with that Hebrew imperative or command phrase, “Praise the Lord!” That is a bold order to get people to join the cosmic choir that sings praises to God day and night. The creation sings. By the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, so should we all!
* = This sermon takes in the whole of Psalm 104, even though the Lectionary picks up only the concluding verses.
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