Witnessing to Creation – Psalm 19, Romans 1:18-20,25
There are lines of scripture so beautiful they take your breath away, and I would put these first verses from Psalm 19 in that category.
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.
In his Reflections on the Psalms C.S. Lewis writes, “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”
It is a well-known and well-loved psalm, and, as you probably know, this is just the first section. It goes on from praising the beauty of God’s world, to praising the beauty of God’s word and, finally, a personal prayer of the psalmist. There is evidence the three parts were originally three separate psalms, the language and themes are very different, but they have been brought together because all three speak of attention to God’s instruction in our lives.
But this morning I want to just take the creation hymn, the first six verses. There is a poetic twist here for although creation is silent, the psalm says, it has plenty to say (language about speech dominates the first four verses!) about our relationship with our Creator and our fellow-creation, and our responsibility to each.
I am certain we have all had the experience of being out in the bush, away from city lights, and looking up at a sky full of stars, or of looking over a beautiful mountain vista. (I have it every time you reach the top of Hindmarsh Drive or where Yamba Drive becomes Erindale Drive and I have to take my eyes off the road – just briefly – to appreciate the Brindabellas in the distance.) Or we have all walked through giant chasms of rock worn away by water or wind over millennia, or through forests of giant trees with birds calling high in the canopy, or risen early, and watched the sun rise, and seen the dew drying on the blades of grass. We have all had our, “The heavens are declaring the glory of God” moments.
What is intriguing about this psalm however is that we do not share the same sensibility as the ancient Israelites, where the psalm originates, about the natural world. They did not experience the separation of urban environments and natural environments which has, over centuries, shaped so much of our world view. C.S. Lewis, again in Reflections on the Psalms, speaks of the ancient Jewish writers approaching nature with a gardener’s or a farmer’s interest. “What they give us,” he writes, “far more sensuously than anything I have seen in Greek, is countrymen’s eyes, [nature] enjoyed almost as a vegetable might be supposed to enjoy it. [From Psalm 65], “Thou art good to the earth… thou waterest her furrows… thou makest it soft with drops of rain… the little hills shall rejoice on every side….”
However, the psalmists’ appreciation for the natural world goes beyond the agricultural. Lewis writes, “Their gusto, or even gratitude, embraces things that are of no use to man…. [In psalms like Psalm 104] we have not only the useful cattle, the cheering vine and the nourishing corn. We have spring where the wild asses quench their thirst, fir trees for the storks, hill country for the wild goats and ‘conies’…[and lions]; and even with a glance far out to see, where no Jew willingly went, the great whales playing, enjoying themselves.”
What we find here is the world view of the ancient Israelites included all things – [‘lions and whales side by side with human beings and their cattle’]. Their overarching vision was of God as the Creator and Sustainer of all, and that all creatures, all creation, then are our fellow-created beings, our fellow-dependants.
Another poem that I am reminded of reading Psalm 19 is God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It even feels like the sprung rhythm that Hopkins developed is already there in the lines of the psalmist. I was going to read God’s Grandeur, but I found this reading online and want to share it with you.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
There is a concern in Scripture that human beings will fall into the error of worshipping nature, or worshipping the creature, as Romans says, rather than the Creator. And yet there is also an urging that we pay attention to what the created world is telling us about the Creator; to the witness of the created world to the Creator! “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” says the Psalmist. “Ever since the creation of the world,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans, “his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through [what God] has made.” Silent nature is shouting God’s glory. An invisible God is made visible and knowable in the world around us.
We might say that modern generations rather than worshipping nature have done the opposite and completely denigrated it. Or that we have worshipped avarice and achievement – “all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil,” as Hopkins writes – rather than care and preserve our environment. But what strikes me is that we have lost this sense of being fellows with creation; fellow dependants and fellow witnesses to God’s glory and nature and purpose.
Creation is witnessing to us, but how are we witnessing to creation in return? What are we saying to the created world around us in our actions and in our attitudes, and in our living?
The last part of the creation hymn in Psalm 19 speaks of the sun as bringing light and energy and life to the world, and there is an interesting variation in translation for the last phrase in verse six. The NIV which we heard this morning says, “nothing is deprived of its warmth.” The NRSV says, “nothing is hid from its heat”. These two different descriptions of the sun speak volumes to me of how human beings have changed this planet; of how global temperatures have risen one degree since the 1900s with over half of that increase occurring since the mid 1970s. Our world, caught in the throes of fires and floods and other weather disasters, perhaps even the emergence of new viruses, is calling us to repent of an inadequate witness in the past; to commit ourselves to a new witness; to doing all we can to reduce and support the reduction of carbon emissions; to trying to hold the global temperature increase to the lowest level possible. We, too, need to tell the glory of God in our actions and our living.
There is another poem that I am reminded of when I read Psalm 19. It is Praying by American poet Mary Oliver. Karen Baumgart shared this as part of our Scriptorium Sunday in February, our sharing of devotional material with each other.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
This poem too speaks of messages which arrive in silence, God speaking to us, but I also love this encouragement that worship, that prayer, that our response to God needs only to be small and ordinary. In the small and ordinary ways we reduce our consumption, in the small and ordinary ways we responsibly dispose of waste, in the small and ordinary ways we reuse what we can, and in the small and ordinary ways we care for the world around us, we are making a prayer, we are giving witness, we are telling God’s glory.
You may have seen in the Canberra Times article this week about our cardboard mini church, a reference to Common Grace’s Knit for Climate Action campaign that we were part of in June. The article said, “This is not the first time Canberra Baptist Church has done something out of the ordinary. In June, the church was draped in a 100-metre scarf – made out of second-hand bedsheets – to highlight Australia’s changing climate and the need for climate action.”
The actual scarves – scarves which traced in their changing colours the tragic reality of our warming planet – scarves knitted by people like Jillian Farrer and Kelli Hughes (you might see Kelli in this photo) – have now been given to every Member of Parliament and every Senator, and they are being encouraged to wear them, less than one month from now, on Thursday 21st October. The 21st October is the last joint sitting day in Parliament before the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, COP26, and the campaign wants to encourage our leaders to show their support for urgent, ambitious climate action.
Wrapping the church in a scarf might not be so small and ordinary, but sending a message – a call, an email a social media message – to your federal MP or Senator sometime before the 21st October encouraging them to wear their scarf and show their concern for our climate and our world is not such a difficult thing to do.
May our prayers be simple, so we hear God speak.
May our actions be care-full, so we witness to God’s glory.
And may we join with all creation in worshipping and serving the Creator “who is blessed forever! Amen.”