Jan. 24, 2016 “A God Who Speaks” – Psalm 19
Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21
A GOD WHO SPEAKS
January 24, 2016 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Mike Fargo, guest preacher
I am preaching from the lectionary today, which is the third Sunday after Epiphany. And although the period we are now in is generally called Ordinary Time in the church calendar, for many Christian traditions this is a season when we reflect on the revelation of God that has come to us in Jesus Christ. This is what that word Epiphany is meant to convey. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the lectionary readings for today continue this theme of how God discloses himself.
Now I realize this is a topic that is often met with great skepticism by people within the western world. And yet, ironically, while many people claim that God seems absent or hidden today, most of them don’t deny a basic awareness that God does exist. And yes, there is widespread doubt about God, but every survey in the last twenty years confirms that there are very few actual atheists in the world. And in spite of an ever increasing secularism in our culture, there’s also a burgeoning interest in spirituality of one kind or another.
So what makes for this strange dichotomy—skepticism about God and yet an inability to ignore him? I think there are several factors at work. First, God is a God who is always revealing himself. At the very center of his being, he is a self-revealing God. But he is also a God who reveals himself through his own chosen means. When people insist that God present himself in a specific way, they often miss him entirely, because they are looking for him in all the wrong places. Some think they will find him at the end of a philosophic proof or a miraculous event or a mystical experience. In the end such people seek a god they can point to and say, “See, there he is!”—which means they want a god they can wrap their minds around and define, put in a box, and ultimately feel comfortable with.
Ironically it’s the people who demand indisputable evidence that are the ones who miss the evidence God has already given them. They’re like the Pharisees who witness Jesus performing a great miracle, but instead of embracing the implications, they immediately demand some better or greater sign. They refuse to see and hear God as he had chosen to reveal himself, because when all is said and done, they really didn’t want to know him as he really is.
Tragically this ultimately leads to a debilitating form of chronic doubt, a condition where someone claims to be a seeker, but they never seem able move beyond their doubts and to exercise genuine trust in God. They are always on the periphery of faith, seeking its benefits and comforts, without embracing any of its risk or discipline or sacrifice. But chronic doubt eventually undercuts itself. In the end such a nominal faith has no reality.
Now don’t get me wrong; there is a place for honest doubt, provided it’s a doubt that is pushing ever deeper into the reality of God—a doubt that is seeking faith on God’s terms and not its own. Such a doubt will eventually discover that God will always remain beyond our comprehension to some extent, because after all, he is God—infinitely big, complex, all-knowing, completely free and sovereign. His reality will always far exceed our grasp.
What’s more, as Paul puts it, “In him [God] we live and move and have our being.” We can never step outside of our total dependence on God and look back at him in some kind independent, distant, or abstract way. Every breath, every heart-beat, even our ability to think at all is completely dependent on Him.
But in spite of this enormous distance between God and ourselves, he has nonetheless chosen to reveal himself in a meaningful way. And so for today, in this third Sunday of Epiphany, let’s stop reflect on what this means, and how we might draw near to him. Our Old Testament reading this morning from Psalm 19 tackles this whole question in a very clear and striking way. It identifies three basic ways God has made himself known, beginning with verse 1:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
The physical world, and especially the vast cosmos, proclaims the reality of God in a wonderful and powerful way. It’s mere size, intricacy, coherence, beauty, and profundity point to a source or creator of incomprehensible wisdom and power. This is the apostle Paul’s whole point in the opening chapter of Romans when he writes:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Even people with no religious belief whatsoever have been struck by this. Over thirty years ago I read an excerpt from Nash Sovremenik, a literary monthly magazine published in the old Soviet Union. These were the days of communist Russia before glasnost and Gorbachev, when the official state ideology was still materialism, and God was still viewed as an “opiate of the masses.” The article apparently brought its author, Vladimir Soloukin, a stern rebuke from state officials. Without even using the word ‘god,’ Soloukin dismissed the notion that the world’s existence had come about by blind chance. And so he wrote:
“…in the twentieth century, there is no doubt for every reasonable person that a supreme reason exists in the world, in the universe, in life. …The question is not whether supreme reason exists, but whether it knows about me and has anything to do with me.”
This author, although showing great courage to say it, was only doing what logical thinkers have done for centuries after seriously contemplating the universe. There is clearly a mind behind our physical reality. The key question, as he wisely points out, is whether this mind actually cares about us.
And so Psalm 19 goes on to give us a poetic example of God’s greatness:
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
In the 9th century BC when this psalm was written, human perspective was limited to what the naked eye could see. And the most significant natural phenomenon, obviously, was the sun. What’s more, even the ancient world appreciated the sun’s role in sustaining life on earth through its warmth and light. The sun was more than just a celestial ornament, but an essential part of the whole intricate chain of life. It spoke eloquently of God’s wisdom and power.
And yet there are severe limitations to what God has revealed through the physical world. As the psalmist points out, although the universe “speaks,” it does so without words. It teaches, but its voice is inarticulate. It shouts at us that God exists, but it leaves unsaid God’s character, and what it is that he requires of us. It lacks that transcendent, moral dimension to life that is essential to human existence. Without some kind of moral compass, life on earth quickly devolves into violence and chaos, as human history has so often demonstrated. And so after describing God’s revelation through the physical world, the psalmist abruptly shifts to God’s special revelation through the prophets when he writes:
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Notice that all the nouns used here are virtual synonyms—law, statute, precept, command, decree, and warning. But the adjectives take these nouns and expand on them. God’s revealed law in scripture is described as perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, firm, righteous, and sweet. What’s more, the verbs that go with them describe what happens when God’s law is embraced. It makes one wise, brings joy, gives light, fosters godly fear, creates stability, warns us of pitfalls and brings great reward.
And so we have the unspoken but powerful fact of God revealed in physical creation, and the spoken, specific word of God revealed in scripture. Both of these are essential witnesses, and desperately needed by the world today. And yet there is a problem. Both of these witnesses exist “outside” of us, so to speak. Our ability to hear them depends directly on what is going on inside of us. In other words, who we are on the inside will either enable or disable our ability to hear God at all. And so we need a third kind of word from God, a word that works on us from the inside. And so the psalmist finishes with this observation:
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
Our human capacity for self-deception and self-justification is so immense that it can virtually cancel out God’s external witness. As Jesus put it, we are all by nature blind and in need of God’s spiritual assistance to truly see and hear. We need God’s Spirit to awaken a hunger for God and to sensitize our conscience so we can benefit from his revelation. What’s more, we need God’s grace to undertake the journey of life-long obedience.
Which brings us to our gospel lesson from Luke’s gospel. The prophet Isaiah had predicted the coming of Christ six centuries before Jesus was born. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah, or the Christ, would bring a fuller, clearer, final and comprehensive revelation from God. Indeed, Isaiah wrote that he would be called Immanuel, “God with us,” for God came to us himself in his Son, Jesus.
And so when Jesus read from that passage in Isaiah, he was claiming that this final word from God had now come in himself. And the promise of that passage was that the Messiah would set people free from captivity, free from our own bondage to ignorance, unbelief, sin, and death itself. Jesus, in both word and deed, is the one who has accomplished all of this. And thus he has become for us the ultimate Word of God.
Tradition tells us that King David wrote Psalm 19. If he had been present in that synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, I think he would have added a whole new stanza to this psalm. He would still call us to hear God in his creation and in his law. But he would have followed the apostle John and written that God’s truest Word, his clearest Word, indeed the divine Word itself, had become flesh and walked among us. This is the Word that can enter into us and transform us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
All that is required of us is that we say “yes,” that we open up and allow Christ to fully reign in our lives. He will take all that has been revealed before and make it real to us. He will show us that God is indeed the bedrock of reality, as well as a God who saves. In the end, David’s closing prayer in Psalm 19 will become our own prayer:
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.