Creation Responds

By Annette Brownlee

The eight short verses of Psalm 114 cover centuries of God’s faithfulness to Israel. From slavery in Egypt to their Exodus through the Red Sea, into the wilderness. Through the Jordan to the promised land. But its compactness is only surpassed by its beauty. Look at it. There is so much that is beautiful to notice.

First, look at its structure. There are eight short verses, divided into four units of two verses, each verse composed of two parallel lines. Second — and this is what I want us to hear — notice how the Psalmist tells Israel’s history. Not in covenants or dates (but it is all there), but by the reaction of the waters and mountains to God’s saving actions. The Psalmist’s eyes are directed to the trembling of the created world in response to God. Our eyes follow. The parted sea through which the house of Jacob flees. The rushing Jordan held back. The mountains that skip like rams, the little hills like young sheep.

What ails you, the Psalmist asks the mountains, that you so skip and tremble? Could it be their response to the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai? Many think so.

What the Psalmist describes is strange for us to think about, or to know what to do with. First, a created world that witnesses and reacts to God’s actions in his history with Israel. Hills and mountains that skip, waters that turn back.

Second, a created world that does more than witness and respond to God’s actions. In verse 8, the Psalmist describes a created world that participates in God’s redemption of Israel. At God’s command, hard rock becomes water, flint becomes flowing springs. Rock and stone created by God here cooperate with God in his creation of Israel. By obediently responding to God’s Word. So God’s people can make it through the all-too-real wilderness.

The Psalmist seems to be saying this: the history of Israel (and we can add the Church) is not primarily a human enterprise or even a divine and human enterprise. It seems to be a cooperative venture between humans, their landscapes, and God, who is the creator and redeemer of both.

What are we to make of this? As followers of Jesus Christ? We, who like so many — we are not exempt — must sit before our computer screens because of COVID and mourn its devastation and deaths.

Now Psalm 114 is certainly not the only place Scripture describes such a joint venture. Once you start looking, it’s all over the place. The created world witnessing to God’s actions and participating in them. Right after God’s good creation of the world in Genesis 1-3, remember what happens in chapter 4.

In chapter 4, the ground God has just made steps in as a witness. To what? To human disobedience to God’s good ordering of his world. Cain has killed his brother, Abel. God says, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand (Gen. 4:10-11).

In the Book of Deuteronomy alone, three times Moses calls on heaven and earth to witness to the covenant (4:26, 30:19, 31:28). “Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to testify against them.”

Ezekiel prophesies not only to the people but to land, mountains, forests, soil, and wind (6:2, 7:2, 21:2, 35:2, 36:1). And those who try to silence the crowd of disciples who praise Jesus as he enters Jerusalem? They discover that they have no power to silence the created world’s praise of him. Jesus declares, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).

We can say at least this: The land is not only a stage for which the drama of God’s relationship with his people is played out. Any disinterest in the created world because of the promised return of Jesus is misplaced.

But I think the Psalmist nudges us to go further, for whether the created world is praising God, or witnessing to God’s mercy or judgment or participating in it, it is always in response to God’s Word. In response to God’s Word.

You see, what is startling about this Psalm is this: It is not so much that God speaks to the created world; after all, God speaks it into existence. It is that the created world responds — and that response is always an obedient response.

And oh, if only we could, we would obey God’s voice like the rivers and mountains. And rock and flint. And don’t we know this? God has come nearer to us than God ever did at Mt. Sinai, or at the Jordan, or in the wilderness as the rock became water. God became our flesh, sent us his Son, joined us to him in his body, the Church, calls us his brothers and sisters, gives us his own ministry and Spirit until his return. And yet, unlike the Jordan and the sea and the mountains and rock, most people are neither driven back from their sins, nor tremble at his presence, nor moved in the paths of obedience.

God tells us as much through the prophet Jeremiah. “I placed the sand as a bound for the sea, a perpetual barrier which it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it. But this people have a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away” (Jer. 5:22-26).

Elsewhere in Scripture, not so much in Psalm 114 (it is a psalm of praise) the landscape responds to human disobedience with its own kind of mourning (Jer. 2:12-13, Zech., Amos 1:2 — Hosea 4:1-3-11:3, Jer. 12:7-13). Its mourning is expressed in drought and desolation. In his first lament, the prophet Jeremiah asks, “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it, the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways” (12:4).

What we must notice is this: this joint venture between humans, the landscape, and God cuts all three ways. We need the created world’s obedient response to God’s Word for our flourishing. The cycle of seasons, rain and snow to water the earth. Likewise, the created world is dependent on our obedience for its flourishing. And both the created world and humanity is dependent on the obedience of Jesus to his Father for its redemption and recreation.

It is Jesus’ obedience to his Father that led him to give up equality with God, to take the form of a servant. His obedience led him to the garden, and then the cross. The earth trembled at his death; the skies grew dark. When the women ran to the tomb on Easter Day and found it empty — they didn’t know it yet — but Christ’s empty tomb is God’s final and decisive Word on his created order. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has stood by his creation. God has not let it come to naught. Death will not prevail. Through Christ’s resurrection and ascension, God has redeemed the whole thing. Christ’s resurrection: a joint venture with recreation.

So God tells us, “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).

God’s covenant with the night and day stand firm. So does his covenant with his people. Christ joined himself to us and frees so we can take our proper place — proper place — within the created order.

Which brings us back to the time of this virus. Throughout Scripture, the mourning of earth is linked to the state of the whole human community — Israel, Judah, wicked inhabitants as a whole. We don’t need Scripture to tell us that the created world is far from impervious to human life. But what global warming alone cannot tells us is what the Psalmist tries to point to: It is the obedient response to God that sustains all of creation. The obedience of Jesus to his father, the obedience of the created world to God’s Word, and our obedience to that same Word — made flesh. Obedience also, it seems, is a joint venture.

All this is good news to us, especially in a time of global warming and pandemic, when so much has been disrupted and the future seems up for grabs. How can I possibly preach this? The narrow way God gives us to live and witness in his world has not changed: it remains — and is perhaps more crucial than ever — the narrow path of joyful obedience and sacrificial love. As we take on the form and mind of Jesus Christ. In his service, to our neighbor and the created world, is found perfect freedom.

This might seem like small potatoes — magical thinking — in this time: how is this going to stop the fires and droughts, lead to a vaccine and bolster the economies of so many countries? The narrow way of Christ can seem dry, lifeless, and useless. Its difficulties are real.

But precisely as such, the difficulties and impediments are constitutive of the saving power of Jesus Christ. The ineffectiveness we perceive in the narrow way of Christ is part of the potency of new life promised — for it forces us to submit ourselves to a lifetime of obedient searching in the very narrow way of Christ. We otherwise, especially at a time like this, abandon as inauspicious and lifeless the weakness. Its foolishness, at St. Paul describes it, forces us to look again rather than to look elsewhere (see Russell Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in a Diminished Age [Brazos Press, 2002]).

Let this difficult year be a season of looking again and responding with one another in obedience. Looking again and responding with one another and with the created world in obedience.

In our short, beautiful Psalm there is only one verse, verse 7, where we are addressed. It is a command, and not to us alone: “Tremble O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.”

God is mentioned for the first time here. All of God’s created world is commanded to tremble — that is, to respond in obedience to God’s saving actions to Israel. It won’t surprise you to hear me say that worship, like obedience, is a joint vocation.

We can tremble with the mountains and rivers, forests, and fields. God has promised that he will not break his covenant with the created order. Nor with us, his people. And God cannot and will not be unfaithful to his word.

“Tremble before him, all the earth — we are commanded in 1 Chronicles 16:30 — tremble before him, all the earth — yea, the world stands firm, never to be moved.”

Never to be moved, even in this strange time.

The Rev. Dr. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto.


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