By Annette Brownlee
Whenever my family hikes, as we do often in the American west, I end the day with my pockets and backpack filled with rocks. I love rocks. They become paperweights, page holders, book ends, soap dishes and part of my garden wall. My family is amused by my habit and my children indulge me by presenting me with a small rock from the top of each mountain they summit.
Why do I love rocks? I love them because each tells a story, often millions of years old, in its layers, the form of its grain and so on. It’s like the Bible, I tell my children. Like rocks, the Bible tells a story, and like rocks, most people don’t know how to read it.
It’s strange that I make this comparison, because I’m not good at reading rocks actually, keeping straight the differences between sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic. Last summer our son gave me a book to help with this and deepen my knowledge of what I already love. It’s called Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth. In it the author, a geologist, Marcia Bjornerud says that the different kinds of rocks are like different literary genres, and she goes about bringing us in on the four-billion-year-old conversation between rocks, water, and all forms of life.
In a sense that’s precisely what our Psalmist is doing in Psalm 19. Showing us how to read God’s handiwork, not just rocks, but the four-billion-year-old conversation between rocks, water, all forms of life and their creator.
The Psalmist tells us this: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. One day tells its tale to another; one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands and their message to the end of the world.” (Ps. 19:1-4)
And what is the sermon or message they preach with their intricate and interconnected beauty? The tale which one day passes onto the next? It is this: that God made all this marvel to declare his glory. The heavens with their stars flung wide and all creation.
And we probably agree, even as we live among asphalt and cement. The state of the created world, its fragility and our place in it has taken center stage in our national conversations in a way it has not in past generations. The land, where our food comes from, global warming and rising seas, what is happening to coral reefs and animal habitats. Young people as they come of age and think about their futures and this planet’s future, are listening closely to the tale the day tells the night, listening and responding by what they study in university, the jobs they look for, what they eat and so on. We need to pay attention to them.
But look where the Psalmist’s reading of the created order leads him. After praising creation for the first six verses, in verse seven his praise seems to take a different direction. “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes (Ps 19:7-8).
Is this a different direction? Here, the Psalmist catalogs the Torah, or law, the way Marcia Bjornerud catalogs the mineral composition of sedimentary rock. In verses seven through nine the Psalmist identifies six aspects of the Torah: law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear and judgment. He then describes seven characteristics of these six aspects: the Torah is perfect, sure, just, clear, clean, true and righteous. And after such careful study what is his conclusion? It is this: the law is to be desired more than fine gold; it is sweeter, far sweeter than honey from the comb (v.10). It is a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field.
Would we make the same connection that the Psalmist does? Between the created world and the law God gave to Israel? That the same God who has marvelously made this world, which sustains us, has also marvelously made the commandments to sustain us in it? Would we go so far in connecting the two? Just as God created the moon and the tides to be bound to one another, and the sun and planets to stay within the boundaries of their established rhythm, so too God has created his commandments. Commandments which establish the rhythms of our complex and interconnected life together with God and one another? With rocks, water and all forms of life—and their Creator?
This is exactly what the Psalmist declares. Just as God created the planets in their courses to give him glory, so too God gives us a rhythm to live by. And because God is Creator of both, God makes us a promise. In living by the rhythms of God’s law we, like the stars, are made a thing of beauty which declares God’s glory.
Imagine: our common life a thing of beauty to rival the stars. Our ordinary life with one another, day in and day out, a thing of beauty. Imagine if the young people today who are working on organic farms and trying to protect the wilderness knew that such a promise—and way of life—was ours. And theirs.
Psalm 19 is a classic affirmation that God’s gift of the “law” is essentially bound up with God’s gift of the created world, of the universe itself. The Psalmist praises this, “the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes” (v.8). But his knowledge of God’s gifts of creation and the law do not end with his words of praise.
It leads him beyond praise to another place. And what is that place? Look at vs. 11-13. It leads him to self-examination and repentance. “Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound” (v.13). Is this a direction we would go?
Throughout Scripture, not only here in Psalm 19, this affirmation that the God who created the world also has given us a way to live in it leads to a response of self-examination and repentance. Again, I ask, would we follow the Psalmist here? Does seeing and knowing that God has given us both the created world and his commandments for human flourishing, lead us to self-examination and repentance? To acknowledge with the Psalmist how far short we come of receiving and trusting this beautiful God-given rhythm? Acknowledging with the Psalmist that sin does get dominion over us? And the church?
Scripture calls us to do just this. Our repentance, like the Psalmist’s, witnesses to our understanding that God created both the world and the law as gifts to his people for their flourishing. Notice that it is on these very terms that God criticizes Judah for its faithlessness. For severing the connection between his gift of the created world and the gift of the law, and for their failure to repent.
Declare this in the house of Jacob,
proclaim it in Judah:
21 Hear this, O foolish and senseless people,
who have eyes, but do not see,
who have ears, but do not hear.
22 Do you not fear me? says the Lord;
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea,
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail,
though they roar, they cannot pass over it.
23 But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
they have turned aside and gone away.
24 They do not say in their hearts,
“Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives the rain in its season,
the autumn rain and the spring rain,
and keeps for us
the weeks appointed for the harvest.” (Jer. 5: 21-24 NRSV)
This weekend was the five-year anniversary of the 2011 tsunami in Japan: we know the chaos and destruction that happens when the sea does indeed violate the barrier God established for it. Once in a long while the waves toss and prevail; and we cry out because of the damage, destruction, and senseless loss of life.
But there is far more damage, destruction, and senseless loss of life, not from the sea crossing the boundaries God established, but when we cross the boundaries God has established for us to live together with him and one another. All the ways we say I have a right not to be bound to my neighbor. When we covet, kill, commit adultery, steal, give false witness and make idols for ourselves of wealth, power, and influence and so on. There is far more destruction in any calendar year, from greed alone, which blinds us to our neighbor, than floods or natural disaster.
But imagine if the moon said to the tide: I have a right not to be bound to you. Or the sun declared that no one could rotate around it anymore. Imagine if fall refused to follow summer and spring declared its right not to have to deal with winter’s frozen earth. Does our insistence that we can do our own thing make any more sense? That we have a right not to be bound to our Creator, to our neighbor and to those who will come after us? Paul asks, can the eye say to the hand, I have no need of you? (I Cor. 12:21) Or the elbow says to the shoulder, I claim my right to be independent on you?
No, I don’t think so. And I would guess that young people who are turning to the land and trying to find a way to live in a sustainable fashion are looking for such a connection—between the land and life-giving rhythms of our dependence on it and one another. We have good news to tell them. It is the same good news that one day tells to another. God did not create his creatures for lives of disconnection, to the land, to the rhythms of day and night and to one another. And certainly not to Him. God, who is the creator of this marvel that is this world, that is my body, my life has given us a path – a form, a model, a blueprint – to follow in the way that we live within this world. In doing so God promises that He has created us to be a thing of beauty, created like the stars to declare God’s glory. We have good news to tell indeed.
And so, to this end, Jesus steps out of the pavilion God set for the son in the uttermost edge of the heavens (v.6). The Psalmist tells us that Jesus steps forth like bridegroom from his marriage chamber, like a champion to run his course (v. 5). But instead of running his course God upsets his well-ordered creation. And rather than rejoicing like a champion, Jesus gives up his equality with God and takes the form of a slave.
Why? Because despite sin’s determination to have dominion over us, and our determination to push God aside, God can no more cast us aside than God can the stars and moon. It turns out that just as God’s gift of the law is bound up with God’s gift of the created world, so too is his love. God declares to Israel and to us this: “if any of you could break my covenant with the night, so the day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant, David, be broken” (Jer. 33:20).
And can we break God’s covenant with the night, (even you who e-mail me at 3 am)? No?
So that the day would not follow the night? (a reminder than this warming planet in God’s hands as well as our) No.
Thus, can we break God’s covenant with us? No.
And so, God sends his Son to a place he does not belong. And just this once, in Jesus, just this once God upsets both his beautifully ordered creation and the law. The sinless one is crucified. Why? For in his Son, crucified and risen, God sets his world right. In Christ God frees us from the grip of sin and death, so, in Him, we can take our place with all creation–young and old, day and night–to declare his glory.
Spring is coming. The night skies are clear. Go outside tonight. Look up at the stars. And read the rocks God has made: they tell the story of our life together. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto. Reprinted with permission from Preaching Jesus Christ today: Six Questions for Moving from Scripture to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018)