Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2023
Psalm 8 Commentary
There is a sense in which Psalm 8 comes down to just one question asked of God by the psalmist: How in the world are you even able to see us at all? Dwarfed by and mystified by the expanse of a starry sky on a cloudless night and long before there was such a thing as light pollution to wash out the stars above, this poet feels like a cosmic speck of dust. That God’s eyes could even pick him out much less care for him and perhaps even love him addled his imagination. God is majestic over all the earth! Us human beings? Not so much.
But what could have been said to this psalmist is along the lines of, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” In truth we know that in the ancient cosmology of the Israelites they believed in a flat earth with waters under the earth held back by the earth and waters over the earth held back my a kind of clear glass dome known as the firmament. The sun passed over the firmament by day, scooted back under the flat earth at night, and then arrived back at the Starting Line for another run. The moon did something similar. Back then they did not know that the sun is in fact a star same as all those countless stars they could see at night and they had no idea that the moon was not a source of light unto itself but merely reflected the sun’s light and so only appears to be lit up.
And those stars? They were sure pretty. There sure are a lot of them. But the concept of our living in a galaxy with a billion suns most of which have their own planetary systems was completely unknown of course. Even the idea that a few of the “stars” they saw were nearby planets also reflecting the sun’s light back at us could not have been grasped. The ancient Greeks eventually noticed that 4 or 5 lights in the sky did not move and behave like all the other stars so they labeled them “wanderers” using the Greek word for that: planeo. The wanderers were indeed planets as it turns out: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Maybe they managed glimpses of Mercury low on the horizon some nights too but could not see with the naked eye Neptune or Uranus.
In short, if the psalmist could have had a glimmer of what all is really out there, his sense of feeling cosmically dwarfed might have reached a point of almost hilarious proportions. Absurd proportions. In the midst of all that, how could God even see us and how in fact could human beings even matter? Precisely that is the conclusion of plenty of modern people in the wake of what telescopes and astronomy have uncovered in the last few centuries. Even if there is a God out there somewhere, how could he, she, or it care about our dust ball of a planet much less the even tinier creatures like us who inhabit it? To think we matter is arrogant. Wishful thinking. Hubris.
But the poet of the 8th psalm sensed something else; something that had been revealed to him not in nature but through other spiritual means: we do matter. The God who made all that splendor does see us, loves us. He made us a little lower than angels, fashioned us to be in some ways chips off the divine block. He crowned us with glory and honor. And yes, had anyone tumbled to this idea on their own or tried to muster some evidence for the claim from what we can see with our eyes in the night sky or anywhere else, it would be a ludicrous claim. But if we believe God engages in special revelation and beams reliable information into our hearts and minds by this means—we cannot prove it but there it is—well then, we trust it as true.
And it magnifies our wonder over God even more than the notion that he made all that we see among sun, moon, stars, and everything else in creation. That was always a striking feature of Israel’s theology: as much as they praised God for how almighty, majestic, and just plain big God must be, their real wonder and the fact that wrung out of them their deepest doxology was God’s ability to notice us in our littleness. The idea that God stoops low to help us blew them away at least as much all the stars whirring above our heads.
That is why the bookended phrase in Psalm 8 is so lovely. Yes, in verse 1 the poet praises God’s majesty because of the sun, moon, and stars. But by the time that line “O LORD, our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” gets repeated in the final verse of the psalm, the wonder has shifted from all that is big to all that is small; namely, us and the fact that God sees us, likes us, crowns us with glory and honor.
There is a stunning amount of theology packed into this poem’s 9 verses!
And it anticipates the ultimate condescension of God to us in our littleness. Listen:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Creation came when God noticed us in our littleness but even so crowned us with glory and honor. Turns out that salvation comes the same way.
O LORD, our lord, how majestic is your name over all the earth!
In preaching classes I hammer away on the notion that in preaching as in all good writing, there is a great need to “Show, Don’t Tell.” A while back I had occasion to encourage this in a student who wrote a sermon on Psalm 8. When he got to the part of the sermon to explicate the line from this poem that God crowned us with “glory and honor,” he settled for all Tell and no Show. He asked what this means to be crowned with glory and honor and admitted it’s hard to know what this looks like. To prove the point, he was unable to show what it looks like but just repeated several times that this is what we have—glory and honor—and it reveals to us our true purpose and calling. Glory and honor. We’ve got it. Yes we do.
In trying to suggest a possible “Show” for this, I suggested something like the following:
Some of us remember our dear sister Millicent who went to be with the Lord some months back. Millie was a remarkable woman in many ways but not least because she had an eye to spy the lonely and marginalized no matter where she was. She would see someone after church standing alone or someone at a potluck to whom not many if any others were speaking. And Millie would break away from her friends to go be with that person and draw him or her into the circle of fellowship after all. She could always see the little people and found a way to make them feel included. And every once in a while when I saw Millie doing this, out of the corner of my eye I was just sure I could see a crown of glory and honor atop her head.
Here is a vignette of a person wearing a God-like crown of glory and honor precisely because she does what in Psalm 8 God is depicted as doing: noticing the little people—us—and lavishing us with care and love and bringing us into the divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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