Third Sunday after Epiphany
24 January 2010
One of the things our boys are learning in kindergarten is that everybody can be a scientist. They are learning to be curious, to be open-minded, and to investigate the world around them. Their teacher tells them that when they encounter something that looks or smells disgusting, instead of responding with, “Eww, yuck!” a scientist says, “How interesting!” It is their new favorite phrase. For them, every day has become an opportunity for scientific investigation, and there is no realm of life that cannot be approached with a scientist’s quest for knowledge.
Our contemporary culture, which excels at compartmentalization, prefers to divorce science from other facets of life. The most famous such split is the supposed divide between science and religion, which are seen to be not just distinct from each other, but in conflict. Science and poetry are also seen as completely separate fields, but this can’t really be the case, can it? There is an inherent poetry in equations, for instance – rhythm, symmetry, something like rhyme, and certainly beauty. When science shows us something new about the human body, or about the earth, or about the skies, we are brought into new awareness of how vast is the mystery of life. It is hard not to be struck by wonder and by awe, at such new discoveries. These are the same responses that poets are going for. And of course mystery, wonder, awe – these also lie at the heart of faith.
A few nights ago, one of our little scientists approached us and asked if, for his birthday, we would let him take a special trip. When we asked him where, he answered matter-of-factly, “To the center of the earth.” When I asked him how he would get there, he had an answer for that too, “A rocket drill.” His brother chimed in, “That sounds exciting. I want to go. I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s at the center of the earth.”
We know what science teaches us about what is at the center of the earth. And of course we know that it would be not only impossible but also unpleasant to attempt to take a little day trip there. But the impulse behind this birthday request is possibly universal and certainly profound – the desire to know what is at the core of reality. What is the center of life? What lies beneath that part of reality we can see? What holds everything together?
Our psalmist has some thoughts about that. He has a poet’s sensibility, a scientist’s quest for truth, and the attentive delight of a child. He starts not by pondering the center of the earth, but by pointing our gaze towards the edges of the universe.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom
from his wedding canopy
and like a strong man runs it course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is his from its heat.
On a January weekend in Michigan, we might not agree with that bit about nothing being hid from the sun’s heat. But even grey skies and barren trees and icy wind tell of God’s glory, though for some of us it may sound more like tiny whispers than like a voice that goes out through all the earth.
The psalmist here is reflecting an ancient belief that the sun, and the moon, and the stars produce a harmony of tones by their movements, and that this harmony is sounded day and night from one end of the earth to the other.[i] The voices of the universe are not in human language – as the psalmist says, “there is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.” And what they are telling is the glory of God.
The psalmist knew that creation is gorgeous enough in its own right, but there is a gift beyond that gift – what creation teaches us about God. Beauty, power, persistence, whimsy, usefulness, harmony, fierceness, interdependence, wildness – all of these will teach us about who God is, all of these will teach us how to praise God, if we pay attention.
And yet we know we cannot look at creation and see only good; there is tragedy and terror in it too. The horrific damage of the earthquake in Haiti is too fresh on our minds to be glib about how pretty nature is. Creation deals cruel blows. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Praising the glory of nature does not mean speaking of the beauty of nature alone and forgetting its overwhelming greatness and terrible power. Nature never manifests shallow beauty or merely obvious harmony.”[ii]
How do we reckon with the wild and terrifying freedom of creation? Natural disasters leave us horrified, bewildered, and enraged. They lead some of us to question God, and some of us to question if God even exists. It is the central perennial question of faith: how can God be both all-good and all-powerful and still allow such terrible things to happen? It’s a problem that cannot be settled, not entirely, and not entirely satisfactorily, not on this side of eternity.
But we can learn something from the psalmists about engagement with cruel realities. The psalms speak of God as refuge in times of destruction and distress. The psalms tell us that in response to fire and earthquake, in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” The faithful did not deny evil or tragedy, but even those things led them towards humility and reverence. It caused them to bow before the great mystery of a God who has set such a complex and uncontrollable universe in motion. It led them to respond with praise to the fierce, untamable nature of a God who is beyond our understanding or control.
But God wants more than our reverence; God wants a relationship. The psalmist, who had us looking up to the skies, now directs our eyes toward the Torah, God’s instruction. Like the sun in the sky, the Law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes. God’s instruction, which has been built into the very structure of the universe,[iii] has been made more explicit in Scripture.
What the psalmist is trying to help us see is that the same God whose power is proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the universe has also directed a personal word to humanity. The implications of this are staggering. The God who set the stars in the farthest galaxy also address us intimately, warmly, directly. The God who created the whole vast universe also came seeking a relationship with each of us.
God’s instruction, in creation and more overtly in Scripture, is meant to draw us into that relationship. The psalmist declares that what God’s Word accomplishes in our lives is all the good things God wants for us: vitality, wisdom, joy, enlightenment. Creation’s voice goes out over all the earth, and yet we do not hear it. But we have been given this book, and if we listen deeply, we do hear God speaking words of life.
The problem is, we’ve treated Scripture more like rules that we can’t live up to than like a relationship we’re willing to embrace. We find ourselves unable to do the things we know would keep us in harmony with God, or with each other, or with the world, or even with ourselves. We fail, and we hurt each other, and we do great damage to other people and to ourselves. And so the psalmist acknowledges our faults, and makes a petition for forgiveness. A psalm that started at the outer edges of the cosmos bends down now to the one place that matters most to God – the human heart.
Whereas creation is for us music without words, the Scriptures have been for many of us words cut off from music. Not because the music isn’t there, but because in our human limitation we have not been able to hear it, and accept it, and dance with it. So finally, God brought the music and words together for us, in the life of Jesus. His life, and death, and resurrection said the Word we needed to hear, the Word that is already written in the skies, and in our Scriptures, but that we couldn’t seem to see, couldn’t hear – that Word was Love, and only Love.
This is the core reality. This is what holds at the center – God’s love for us, and for our world, from the expanding edges of the universe to the shifting floors of the sea. When we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast.
We look at our creation and divorce it from any sense of reverence and connection with our creator. We look at our Scriptures and we read judgment. We read constraint. We read irrelevance. But the only thing God has ever been trying to say was, I love you. The only thing God has ever wanted is for us to live in the freedom and the refuge of that love, that we might honor and care for each other and our world.
I love you! he tried to tell us through the stars and the moon and the sun and the trees. But we couldn’t hear it. I love you! he tried to tell us again through the Scriptures. But we couldn’t accept it; we thought it was only a law we couldn’t keep. I love you! God told us one more time in Jesus, and tells us still.
In the 14th century, a 30 year-old English woman named Julian of Norwich received the first of several revelations from God. The most famous one, and the one you’ve probably heard quoted, was about a hazelnut. Her visions went on from there, for 15 years, and she continued to ask God what it all meant, when finally she received this answer:
What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[iv]
Love. If we yield to it and embrace it, we will know more of the same. But we will never know different, without end.
That Sacred Word, the Word that spans the universe and stretches across the pages of Scripture and finally took on flesh to reach down to the depths of our sad dark hearts – that Word is saying just one thing, and always only one thing, and never anything different, only more and more of that one word. I love you! I love you! I love you!
It only says that one thing, and it only wants one thing in return – to shine like the sun over your whole life.