SUNDAY SCHEDULE
9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

God’s World and God’s Word

San Williams

March 8, 2015
Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Several years ago I was camping alone on the Conejos River in southern Colorado. One morning I woke at first light, warmed a cup of coffee, and sat on a rock beside the stream. Soon a band of sunlight struck the very tops of the pine trees high up on the mountain in front of me. I watched as the light slowly crept down the face of the mountain, erasing the shadowed trees to expose their bright colors and vivid beauty. Eventually, the light reached the river, turning the dark water into sparkling diamonds. Finally, the place where I was sitting became bathed in light. As the warmth of the sunlight washed over me, I found myself in tears, overcome by the beauty and wonder of it all.

If I were a poet, I might have declared: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork…” Certainly the poet of Psalm 19 put into words what I was experiencing: “In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hidden from its heat.”

C.S. Lewis called psalm 19 “The great poem in the Psalter, and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” I agree. In this Psalm, praise for the glory of God’s creation reaches a lyrical height unparalleled in scripture.

For one thing, the poet of Psalm 19 expresses the praise of nature using the metaphor of speech. “The heavens are telling the glory of God. The firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night declares knowledge.” But then, paradoxically, in the next verse the psalmist continues: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.” It’s true, of course, that we do not “hear” the heavens in a literal sense, or the firmament, or the rhythm of day and night. Rather, the beauty of the earth shouts in silence. The stars in the night sky speak of grandeur and mystery without making a sound. The blossoms of the redbud tree proclaim the handiwork of God, yet utter not a word. Clearly the Psalmist calls us to listen to the music of the spheres, which is the sound of creation glorifying God in absolute silence.

Yet I wonder whether we are still able to hear the hidden voice of nature. Well over half a century ago, the theologian Paul Tillich pondered the same question. He wrote: “This technical civilization, the pride of mankind, has brought about a tremendous devastation of original nature, of the land, of animals, of plants. It has kept genuine nature in small reservations and has occupied everything for domination and ruthless exploitation. And worse; many of us have lost the ability to live with nature. We fill it with the noise of empty talk, instead of listening to its many voices, and, through them, to the voiceless music of the universe. Separated from the soil by a machine, we speed through nature, catching glimpses of it, but never comprehending its greatness, or feeling its power.” (The Shaking of the Foundations, 79). If a loss of communion with nature was evident in the 1940’s, how would we begin to assess this loss in our own day?

And calling ourselves, as the Psalmist does, to tune in to the mystery and grandeur of creation need not lead to a naïve or purely romantic view of nature, one that overlooks its destructive potential. Indeed, all of creation—human and nature alike–is fallen, and this gives it a tragic dimension. But this admission doesn’t erase the fundamental goodness of creation. Neither should it prevent us from hearing what Tillich called the voiceless music of the universe. For those with ears to hear, the creation sings to the glory and praise of God. The Apostle Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans, when he wrote: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that God has made.” (Romans 1:20).

Now brace yourself for a jarring shift of themes. Without any transition, Psalm 19 abruptly turns our attention from nature to Torah, from contemplating creation to contemplating God’s law, commandments, ordinances, and decrees. So seemingly disparate are these two sections of the Psalm that some scholars conclude the Psalm to be not one but two distinct Psalms–one on the glory of creation, and the second on the goodness of the Torah. That may be, but as one commentator said, “If they were ever two, their joining would be like the happiest marriage you have ever known, or the bonding of hydrogen and oxygen to form the water that quenches your thirst.”

And that’s because the Psalm, in its entirety, proclaims that God has given us two incomparable gifts, both of which reveal God and God’s ways: the gift of God’s Word in creation, and the gift of God’s Word in the Bible. It’s so easy to take God’s Word in scripture for granted. We may even think of God’s commandments as burdensome and oppressive. But the Psalmist reminds us that God’s law is a precious gift, one that, in the imagery of the Psalm, revives the soul, makes wise the simple, makes the heart rejoice, enlightens the eyes, and is more precious than gold. Just as creation is ordered so that life can flourish, God’s commandments order human life and make it possible for people to live together as neighbors. God’s moral instruction to care for the poor, feed the hungry, forgive our enemies, and refrain from violence, stealing, lying—these are God’s ethical decrees, and they are as precious and indispensible in their way as the creation is in its way.

In a commentary on Psalm 19, Jim Limburg, Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary, recalled an incident during his student days. A group of students had gathered on one of the hills near his college. The event was the regular Sunday evening meeting of the Lutheran Student Association, which met outside during the early fall to take advantage of nature’s beauty before the weather turned cold. The speaker for the evening was the college president. Limburg remembers his talking about the two books that reveal God to us. One book, he said, is the Bible, which he held in his hand. Then he paused and pointed to the red, green, and yellow trees, and his hand swept along the river moving through the valley below. He said, “And there is God’s other book: the book of nature.”

Friends, here in the middle of our Lenten journey, let us simply pause and give thanks that God has spoken and God continues to speak. God speaks in the voiceless music of the universe, as well as in the words of the Bible. Let everyone with ears to hear. . . listen!