A little lower than the angels Psalm - Psalm 8
Mary was a professional woman in her early thirties when she decided to take a leave of absence to attend theological college. It was there that she expected to find answers to the gnawing questions that kept welling up from within. At one point in her struggle she made an appointment to see her tutor. Thirty minutes into the session she blurted out, holding back the tears, I know longer know who I really am. And I am afraid that if I find out, there wont be a place for me.'
And just in case we thank that is the angst of someone undergoing a mid - life crisis, here are some words of a fourteen year old: Why am I here? What have I done? Why was I born? Who cares about me? Why do we live? For love, for happiness? Why should I not commit suicide? I hate this world. hate my parents and my home - though why I dont know. I searched for truth but found only uncertainty.'
Now when you think about it, those two women express most graphically the crisis many people are having today in our Western post-modern society, the crisis of personal identity - who am I?
Now the question Who am I ? is of course, closely linked to the question What am I? Just how are we to think of ourselves as human beings? What models can we turn to and say This is what we are like?
Well, some would tell us that we must learn to think of ourselves as nothing more than sophisticated biological machines. This is the view Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has popularised in his book The Selfish Gene.' He writes ; 'We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self - sustaining process. It is every living objects sole reason for living.' Do you believe that? If so, the next time you look into the eyes of your beloved over a romantic, candle lit meal, just take them lovingly by the hand and whisper, My dear, you are my reason for living, because you are such a wonderful DNA dispensing machine.' Not exactly Mills and Boon is it?
But others would urge us to turn not to the world of machines to understand who we are, but the world of animals. Some within the green movement argue that this is this is the only way we are going to save our planet, by altering the way we view ourselves not as superior to other animals but equal. But as the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer rightly argued, far from this approach having the result of elevating other animals to our level, our worth is lessened as we are lowered to theirs. And so we have Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stating : A rat is a pig is a boy.' That is we cannot say that a human child is innately more valuable, and so should have a higher privileged status, than, say a rat or a pig.
Now if you cut God out of the picture, then you really have no alternative. We are either nothing but a machine or nothing but an animal and it is nigh on impossible to rationally derive any sense of specialness or dignity for human beings. We seem very sad specimens indeed.
But supposing there is a God then what? More specifically, what if the picture we have of God as presented to us in the Bible is true, then how are we to understand ourselves and our place in the universe?
Well, then the our self understanding is simply revolutionised. You see, what the Bible calls us to do is not to look down to the world of machines or animals to try and scratch around for some sense of meaning and value, but rather to look up, which is literally what the writer of our Psalm does - Psalm 8. And what we discover is that when we do that we encounter the paradox of how small we are and yet how great we are. How from one point of view we seem to be as nothing and yet from another point of view, Gods viewpoint, we are the most wonderful creatures he has made, the jewel in the crown of his creation.
Now three things stand out about humankind when we begin to see ourselves as God sees us, which means as the Bible sees us. In the first instance we seem to be diminished. In the second place we possess tremendous dignity. But thirdly, we have an amazing destiny.
First of all we appear to be diminished - vv 1 - 4 (Read).
The late President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to have a little ritual with the famous naturalist, William Beebe. After an evenings chat, the two men would go outside and look into the night sky. Gazing at the stars, they would find the lower left hand corner of the great square of Pegasus. And one of them would recite these words, as part of their ritual: That is a spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750, 000 light - years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our own sun.' They would then pause, and Roosevelt would finally say, Now I think we feel small enough. Lets go to bed!
If only more of our great leaders would practice something like that! What a different world we would have, instead of all this posturing. Well, that is what this great leader who wrote this psalm, King David, is doing. As he stands beneath the star studded night sky, he feels dwarfed by it all. What he sees is only an infinitesimal fraction of what is really there, but that is still enough to make him feel as if he is but a mere transitory speck of nothingness on this tiny rock hurtling through space. But David is no ordinary man, he is a believer and he knows that it is God - Yahweh - who dwarfs the universe which dwarfs David. So that provokes another question: how can this all knowing, all powerful God who is perfect and sufficient within his own glorious being, even have time for someone like him? Would Einstein have been concerned for an ant which just happened to cross his path one day? I doubt it. Well, how much more should God in his infinite majesty give even a moments thought for a race like ours, let alone an individual? What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him? Well just who do we think we are?
You know, there is a sense in which we do need to be cut down to size. Not only in our universities, but in the media and even down the street there tends to be a quiet arrogance in thinking about God, as if the basic question is Why should I bother about God? When the real question is, of course, Why should God bother about us? Some assume that God is there for them, the cosmic sugar daddy who should guarantee us a stress free, fun loving life, as if we were the centre of existence. No says the Psalmist, it is God who is the centre of existence, - v 1 it is his name which is majestic in all the earth, he has set his glory above the heavens, not us. So the real question is not Is God relevant to me? But in all honesty Am I relevant to him? We talk about our rights, dont we? But the only right we have before such a God as this is the right to be judged. But this is where we must begin if we are to know God and find significance. You see, if there is no God, if all we are is a product of blind, meaningless chance, living in vast, cold impersonal universe, then we can never feel of value. Never. No one cries about the extinction of the Archaeopteryx. Do they? So when the human race eventually perishes, the there will be no one to cry about that either. If there is no God.
But there is a God, our hearts testify to that knowledge, as does this amazing creation in we which we live. What is more this God has taken the trouble to communicate with us and that communication is here in the Bible. And it is when we see ourselves as we truly are, creatures made by the loving hand of a personal - infinite Creator that we realise how amazing we are. That we have, in fact, a tremendous dignity - v5 - 8 (read).
I guess that one of the most popular TV programmes of the 1990s is the sitcom Friends, and its still going strong. For those of you who dont know, it centres upon a small group of Generation X-ers who share two apartments (they are Americans) across the hall from one another. And through thick and thin, good times and bad, these friends laugh with one another and support one another. And it is their relationship to one another which gives meaning to their lives. The central message of the series is captured in the theme song Ill be there for you.' They promise to be there for one another. Why? Well, because to cite the last line in the song, youre there for me too.'
Now that reflects a deep God - given intuition, namely, that is in relationships we find significance. That is what the Psalmist is getting at. But it is not just in any old relationships, it is being rightly related to God first and foremost and so as a consequence being rightly related to the world and to each other.
We are first of all made to be friends with God. Notice in v 5 that it is the Lord, the covenant God, the one who enters into a personal love relationship with his people, who crowns us with glory and honour. We do not give ourselves crowns, that is the way of idolatry, making ourselves into little gods. No, it is God who has made us the pinnacle of his creation. So yes, we are one with the animals in that we too are creatures, but we are separate from the animals in that we reflect something of Gods nature, we are made in his image. God is a moral being, so are we. He is a rational being, so are we. He is the Creator, and in a way we imitate this too, so we can be artistic and musical, we can legitimately explore the world through science, thinking Gods thoughts after him as Faraday once said. And what amazing things we have done. Think of the great paintings of the world, De Vincis Mona Lisa, or the great, marble statue of Michaelangelos David. They are magnificent. No mere animal has ever come near creating such wonders. Think of the technological achievements of the 20th century, space travel, computers, instant global communication. Talk about being a little lower than the angels!
What is more, humankind is meant to care for the world God has made, not exploit it thoughtlessly, but manage it responsibly, knowing that it all belongs to God and we are ultimately answerable to him. Which is what v6 and following is all about, You have made him ruler over the works of your hands.' That is why modern science developed in the Christian West and not the non - Christian East, because the West understood the biblical mandate to subdue the earth as it says in Genesis 1, to understand it, and lovingly tame it. Nature is not a goddess to be feared or worshipped, it is a creation which is an expression of a caring personal Maker.
So we are not nothings, we are a little lower than the angels according to this psalm. They are Gods messengers, but we are Gods managers. And there is no religion or philosophy on earth which gives such dignity to human beings as does the Christian faith. Not one. So dont be apologetic about being a Christian. It is precisely because of this belief that Christians have always been in the forefront of social justice. Who have freed slaves, emancipated women, cared for the sick, instituted Trade Unions, and brought education and medicine to the masses. You check out the history books, these have been Christian initiatives.
So let me ask: if you are here tonight and would claim to be a Christian, is this the way you view things? Do you see the world as belonging to God or have you bought in to the throw away mentality of our post - Christian society? That life is cheap, so what of the elderly or the infirm? Do you see your studies as something God - given, not just a meal ticket on to a more prosperous lifestyle, a rung on the great career ladder of life, but as a way of finding out more of what God has done and is doing, leading you to worship him? Are you using your mind for him, it is his gift to you after all, thinking through issues biblically, or are you simply taking on board what the world thinks and compartmentalising your faith - so it is just there for Sundays? Do you see that person sitting next to you, or in the Uni. or at work, of being of supreme worth to God that you treat them with love and respect, especially as objects of such worth that you would be willing to go out of your way to share the Gospel with them, or are they just folk to put up with, competitors you could well do without? You know, of all people, it should be Christians who are at least trying to live out this magnificent picture of human dignity as we have here.
1But lets be frank. As we look at the world around us can we honestly say that men and women are rulers over the world God has made? Hardly. Instead of man taming nature we see him being cowered by nature - witness the recent flooding in Bangladesh. Far from managing the world wisely to Gods glory, we see human beings mismanaging the world for self gain, hence the concern over genetically modified food. And all of this is a reminder that things are not as they should be, that we are out of sorts with our Maker. That far from being friends with God so that we promise to be there for each other, we are as a race on the run from God. This rebellion of ours, of which we will be hearing more about next week, is what the Bible calls sin. We try to rule the world without him, and things go badly wrong, of course they do.
But does that mean that Gods original plan to rule the world by mankind has somehow been thwarted. Well, no. And that is where that reading from Hebrews 2 comes in, so do turn with me to that passage. Because here we have a very important principle on how we are to read our Bibles, namely we are to look at the OT (the first part) in the light of the NT (the second part). And here we discover a mind blowing truth. That there now is a man who rules the world for God as God, the God - man Jesus - v9 Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death.' Do you know what that means? It means that this Psalm is also a prophecy about Jesus, it is foretelling of the rescue mission, the mission impossible he was to accomplish. For it is Jesus who is Gods man par excellence, the perfect man, who for a while became a little lower than the angels as he left the glory of heaven to come into our sin riddled world in order to bring it back into line with Gods saving rule. Think of how he stilled the storm, bringing creation under control. Think of how he healed the sick and raised the dead, signs of restoring things back to the way God originally intended. But his ultimate victory over all that is evil took place on the cross, and having been raised from the dead he is now seated at Gods right hand, the place of supreme authority. Even as we meet he is superintending every twist and turn of this worlds history. And as people are saved in hearing the Gospel they incorporated into his new family the church, until one day he will return and for ever visibly rule a new heaven and new earth. That is what this psalm ultimately has in view. This is Jesus destiny and the destiny of all those who put their trust in him - the new race, called Christians.
Now perhaps you are here tonight and to be honest deep down you dont feel that much worth. You seem to have achieved so much and yet you are left feeling so empty. As a Christian traumatic things may have happened in your life which has left you wondering what it is all about. If so, bearing in mind what we have been hearing God say to us tonight through this psalm, let me close by reading to you some words of the Christian Counsellor Larry Crabb and ask whether what he says rings any bells with you: I will come to feel significant as I have an eternal impact on people around me by ministering to them. If I fail in business, if my wife leaves me, if my church rolls drop, I can still enjoy the thrilling significance of belonging to the Ruler of the universe who has a job for me to do. My need for security demands that I be unconditionally loved, accepted and cared for now and for ever. God has seen me at my worst and still loved me to the point of giving his life for me. That kind of love I can never lose.' And it is that kind of love, you find in the Lord Jesus, who for your sake and mine was made a little lower than the angels but who is now crowned with honour and glory.
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