Last week, we considered, “What are human beings?” This Sunday we looked to the Psalms and considered, “Who or what is God?” God is beyond our grasp and cannot be contained by our words, and yet many poets, composers, and scholars have tried to describe and reach for understanding about God through their poetry, songs, music, and writing. The authors of the Psalms were the same way. What might we learn about God through these ancient writings?
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
To close out the month of May, we’ve done a two part series on the Psalms. Last week, we explored Psalm 8 and the question “What are human beings?” You can find that, and all of our past sermons and services on our website.
Usually, the questions we raise at Calvary don’t lead to simple, pat answers.
But instead give rise to more questions and more searching. Our journey of faith is riddled with questions. Whether you are like Lucas, just beginning this journey or like Eddie being called to a new role in this journey, wherever we are, our questions and our searching fuel growth in faith and our curiosity about God.
If you were with us last week, you may remember that the Psalms were written in a pre-science world. Molecular biology, the idea of cells, the big bang theory, none of that existed in the psalmist’s worldview. That’s not to say that, we as people of faith today shouldn’t engage science, we most definitely should, but we cannot force a scientific worldview into these psalms when it simply did not exist.
So while this book of the Bible asks some of the “big” questions of life like “what are human beings?” and “who or what is God?” their attempts to answer these questions are not based in science or deductive reasoning, but rather in relationship and in personal or communal experiences.
They also assume that there is a God, something many people in this day and age do not necessarily assume. The psalms do not offer apologetics or provide proof that God exists. They assume that God is. And then, through songs and poetry, try to describe and express their love and awe of this God.
If you are searching for proof that God exists this morning, I encourage you to come and talk with me or John or Victor sometime. Any one of us would be happy to explore that with you. But this sermon won’t be able to take that on fully. Unfortunately, there’s rarely enough time in the context of worship to just experience God for a bit, let alone to try and prove that God exists.
But John Calvin, who was one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, once said, “God cannot be known but by the signs of which appear in [God’s] sanctuary.” In other words, God is perhaps best known through experiences and the traces of God found in this world, through physical nature and through human nature: the smiles of children; the sunrise, a thunderous waterfall, a peaceful lake, a helpful neighbor, or much-needed hug, all of these can point us to a God who is real and active in this world. They can be signs or symbols of a God we cannot see.
In our attempts to characterize and understand God, we have also used human images to help us. Many have not served us well, indeed many have served to reinforce the hierarchy and patriarchy of our cultures. And too often we have created God in our image rather than believing that we are created in God’s image.
Anne Lamott, a writer and Presbyterian elder who is a friend of Calvary has said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” It’s a valid warning that too often we distort God to be just like us. And if our God hates all the same people and things that we do, then maybe what we’re imagining to be God is not quite right after all.
All of these efforts, however, misguided as they sometimes are, have all been attempts to describe an indescribable God, a reaching towards something that is always beyond us.
For instance, the psalmist in Psalm 96 uses the image of God as judge and king. Other places in scripture use God as father, mother, lover, and friend. Scripture also says that God is justice; God is love; God is grace, and that God is peace. And these only begin to capture the many images of God found in scripture.
As people of faith who call ourselves Christian, we believe in a God who is both transcendent and immanent.
Immanent in that God is fully self-giving, with a generosity of spirit that moves toward us in ways that we can comprehend. And we are created in the image of God, so we as human beings can bear the image of God to one another.
Ultimately, though, Jesus the Christ is the full embodiment of God on earth: God made flesh; God who lived and breathed and dwelled among us. For most of us, we understand God best by reading and learning and following in the footsteps of Christ who was fully human and fully divine. Not 50% God and 50% human, but 100% God and 100% human. Don’t bother doing the math because it doesn’t add up. Which only serves to remind us that God is also transcendent.
Transcendent in that God is beyond our comprehension; God is mystery, ultimately and wholly other. We will never fully understand this transcendent God. In fact, St. Augustine of Hippo says, “If you understood it, it would not be God.”
Our limited minds cannot grasp the nature and being of God. For God is not “like” anything in creation because God is the creator, everything else is created. God is beyond us.
Yet we reach for God again and again, trying to better know and understand this creator of the universe. We live in that tension, of not ever being able to fully know, yet wanting to know and searching and understanding the best we can.
The person who wrote Psalm 96 also lives in this tension, and through this Psalm, tries to capture and comprehend this God whom he worships. So much is said about God, even in just these 13 verses. But three in particular stand out.
So who or what is God?
First, God is to be worshiped. According to verses 4 and 5, this God whom the psalmist worships is to be revered above all gods. Jerome Creach, a biblical commentator says that this “song originated in a time and place in which many deities were recognized. Every nation had its gods and claimed them to have sovereignty…Psalm 96:5 declares, however, that … the other gods are merely idols… Only this God was real and powerful and therefore worthy of praise.
One of the central tenets of our faith is to worship God and God alone. This psalm reminds us that idolatry is real and a part of human nature.
Idols are not just carved images of deities, an idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives, anything that begins to receive our worship, reverence, and priorities.
Idols can be good things, but when they begin to take precedence above and before God, even good things become idolatrous:
Needing a sports team to win, even a good and upstanding team like the Warriors, can be a form of idolatry.
Wanting worship to only be one certain kind of way can be a form of idolatry.
Insisting that scripture is the only way God speaks to us can be a form of idolatry.
Aspiring to make America great again can be a form of idolatry.
Consider the things in your life that make you irrationally angry, the places in your life where you have little to no flexibility; consider how you spend the bulk of your time or the majority of your money. None of these things are inherently idolatrous, but they can be, depending on the value, the significance, and the weight we give them.
God is to be revered above all. God wants us to delight in the joys of life, to be passionate in our living, but to remember from whom all blessings flow, and that all these things are signs that point to God. They, themselves are not god nor are they worthy of our worship.
The second is that God brings salvation. That word salvation comes from the root, “salve,” which is a balm or an ointment that brings healing. In Hebrew, the word is yeshuah which is the Hebrew form of Jesus by the way.
Salvation is a means for healing, for wholeness, for deliverance. It’s not just a means for escaping some future, unknown eternal punishment. It’s not just spiritual either.
So who or what is God? God is salvation. God is in the healing and the bringing about wholeness of all that is broken.
Where broken relationships are reconciled, there is God.
Where broken systems are remade and restructured, there is God.
Where grieving and broken hearts are able to find strength and hope again, there is God.
Where wars cease, and violence ends, there is God.
God is salvation.
And lastly, God delights in a new song. God expects and desires a new song.
One commentator writes, “The resistance to singing a new song is almost certainly accompanied by the refusal to consider the possibility that God is capable of, and is indeed doing, new things.” But God, throughout the course of human history, has declared again and again that change, transformation, and newness are a part of how God works in this world.
Isaiah 42:9: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare… ”
2 Corinthian 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Revelation 21:15: “See, I am making all things new.”
So who or what is God?
God is innovation, transformation, reformation and change. It is so easy and comfortable to hold on to the ways things have always been. But to follow God means being willing to experience God in new ways and to allow God to do a new thing in our lives.
Change is hard. Change is difficult. But change is necessary.
This past Easter, I gave the children’s sermon. And in it, I told the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a lovely story of transformation.
But what it doesn’t mention is what the caterpillar has to go through to become a butterfly. The caterpillar doesn’t just go into the cocoon, hibernate, and sprout wings to become this new beautiful creature. Embarrassingly, that’s kind of what I thought.
But recently, my friend Theresa shared with me the process a caterpillar undergoes to become this butterfly, and it is gruesome. First, the caterpillar makes this cocoon and then it literally digests itself. And it just breaks down and becomes this caterpillar soup.
Any trace of the caterpillar itself cannot really be found. It goes away, almost completely. And only after the caterpillar has disintegrated its own tissue can it start to rebuild itself from the few imaginal discs that remain to form wings, and antennae, and legs.
Undergoing change can feel like you’ve lost your identity completely. You may feel like caterpillar soup right now.
This congregation as it comes forth from so much transition, may feel like it’s just emerging from caterpillar soup. But within that soup are the proteins and the few core pieces of identity that cannot be taken or digested away which then give birth to what is new.
The darkness of the cocoon, the soup that you become, all of that is necessary for something new to take hold and bring about new life.
People of God, sing to the Lord a new song.
Whether you are a caterpillar, a butterfly, or amorphous caterpillar soup this morning, sing the Lord a new song.
For God is doing a new thing in and among us. For God is worthy of our worship, for God brings salvation, help, and healing to us all.
Sing to the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.