Sunday, March 4, 2018

'Acceptable in Your Sight' (a sermon on Psalm 19)

This prayer has been familiar to me since I was young, because it used to be a common one for preachers to use in the pulpit before they started their sermons. I must have heard my dad pray this prayer hundreds of times when I was growing up, and I’ve prayed it myself too – often, sadly, without thinking very much about it.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it really speaks for me. My actions sometimes bother me, yes, but my thoughts and my words bother me more. There are times when the best I can do is to put on an act – you really wouldn’t want to hear what my thoughts are saying! And there are so many times when I speak without thinking and then live to regret it. There are so many words I’d give anything to be able to call back.

This is where we need to start with this psalm; this is where the writer is going from the beginning. How can the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in God’s sight? The answer he gives us is that we need a vision of God’s glory and a grasp of God’s will for us. And we get this through God’s revelation of himself to us in creation, and in the word he has spoken to us.

So, let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm; it’s on page 725. Let’s look first at verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.

Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, the older I get, the more I experience them – although I think children experience them frequently too. On Monday Marci and I were walking in Whitemud Ravine with our daughter Jacqui. As you might remember it was a beautiful afternoon; the sky was clear and the sun was bright on the snow, and we saw chickadees and nuthatches, a downy woodpecker and a great big pileated woodpecker, and of course lots of squirrels! And I felt as if I could just reach out and touch the hand of God. The presence of God was all around me in the things God has made.

I think the writer of Psalm 19 had similar experiences. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps. Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. He didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.

Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and was thrilled by the experience of watching the sun rise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring - or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber the morning after his wedding, with a new spring in his footsteps! All of this taught our psalmist about God’s creative power.

What does our writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something like our English word ‘shining’. I think that’s actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know a source of light is present. And in the same way, when we experience creation we know the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the glories of a prairie sunset, or the chickadees flitting around from tree to tree in Whitemud Ravine – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.

Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So in this verse we read ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themselves into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God?

I found these questions in Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:

‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?

‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?

‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’

God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the impression that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?

The first half of Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. But by itself this isn’t enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but it doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how to live our lives to reflect God’s glory in the world. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the Scriptures.

We can learn a lot about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.

The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Scriptures God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).

The psalmist thinks the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ - it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ - it helps them see the path God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to their soul and warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.

For me, the most important of these sentences is in verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Sometimes we think what that means is, ‘Keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward for it’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No - the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it’s the most rewarding way of life”. The good life God reveals to us in the Scriptures is its own reward.

And of course for us Christians, God’s revelation doesn’t stop with the Old Testament scriptures. In the Gospel of John Jesus is called ‘the Word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of the Old Testament Torah.

So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the Scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.

However, we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say, ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. In other words, God’s revelation makes our shortcomings clear to us and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.

That’s what we see in verses 12-14 of our psalm:
‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offence. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

This is where we started from this morning: our great need for transformation, so that our words and thoughts and actions reflect the glory of God rather than our human propensity to mess things up. How do the things we’ve heard this morning help us with this?

First they give us a vision of the glory and wonder of God. We humans can only see a very small part of this in this life, because our vision just isn’t up to anything more. We’re tiny little created beings trying to take in the glory and wonder of the Creator of everything that exists. ‘Who can see God and live?’ ask the Old Testament writers – and that’s not only because we’re sinners and God is holy, it’s because we’re humans and God is God!

But nonetheless, God does give us little glimpses. And here’s the thing: once we sense the touch of God, were spoiled for everything else. Once you’ve experienced something of the wonder of God’s presence, you know that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever take its place. No substitute will ever do. That’s what this revelation of God does for us: it shows us how cheap and inadequate our false gods really are.

Second, the things we’ve heard this morning give us a vision of God’s purpose for human life. In the Scriptures - and most of all in Jesus - God has shown us his design for us as humans. At the centre of it all is love and faithfulness. We’re called to live in love with one another – our neighbours, our family members, people like us and people different from us, our friends and even our enemies. And we’re called to make commitments to each other and keep those commitments – to be people others can count on to be there for them, just as we can count on God to be there for us. Simply put, the Scriptures show us that God designed the human race to be a community of faithful love, and to use all our ingenuity to find more effective ways of living that out.

But thirdly and finally, we’re all conscious of our failure to live up to that. ‘Who can tell how often he offends?’ asks the writer in verse 12; ‘cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me’.

You see what the psalmist is doing here? He’s admitting that just getting good information is not enough. We can be inspired by the vision of God and of God’s will for us, but we’re going to keep getting tripped up by our human weakness, our human propensity to mess things up. And so we’re going to need God’s forgiveness, day by day, and we’re going to need God’s help to move forward.

This is where the New Testament Gospel comes in. We’re promised in the Gospel that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And we’re promised that if we look to God and pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, the Spirit will fill us and give us the inner resources we need, so we can be people who are learning to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.

So let’s open our eyes to the glory and grandeur of God as we see it all around us in God’s creation. Let’s open our eyes to the wisdom and guidance of God as it comes to us in the Scriptures and in Jesus. And let’s turn and ask for the forgiveness of God when we fail, and the strength of God to get up on our feet again, so we can be transformed into the image of God that we see most clearly in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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