Galactic Grandeur - Psalm 19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Apparently one of the reasons why Professor Richard Dawkins dismisses Christianity is because: ‘‘The universe presented by organised religion is a pokey little mediaeval universe and extremely limited." That is, there is nothing startling or inspiring about the Christian conception of the cosmos, it is all rather dull and drab and hardly the outlook which would further the scientific enterprise. Well, apart from the historical fact that it was the Christian view of the universe and the Christian view alone which gave rise to modern science- that a rational God created a rational universe and so it should be studied rationally- which is why astrology gave way to astronomy, and alchemy to chemistry- the Bible itself over and over again presents us with a view of Creation which is simply overwhelming and awe inspiring- a view of the universe which is anything but pokey- it is grand on a scale which goes beyond grandness. And that is what we are going to discover as we turn to Psalm 19.
Now this is a Psalm which could actually do with having three sermons preached, for naturally the psalm divides into three sections- God speaking through the sky vv 1-6, God speaking through the Scriptures vv 7-11 and man speaking to God in his sin, vv 12-14. And so what I am going to do this morning is to focus solely on the first 6 verses- God speaking through the sky. And you will be aware that whenever God speaks it is in order to minister- there is always a purpose to his speaking which benefits us in some way- maybe a word of warning so there is a danger we are to avoid, a word of revelation so there is a lesson we are to learn, or a word of hope so that there is a blessing we are to grasp. So what is it that God is ministering to us through the things he has made? Let’s find out and read verse 1 ‘
The real focus of these six verses is what we see when we look up, and what is that? The heavens and the skies or to use the old fashioned term the firmament referring to the blue arched dome which rests above the circle of the earth. So whether it is the stars and the moon at night which sparkle like diamonds strewn across a black velvet cloth or the sun in the day and the vast array of colours of crimson and gold and turquoise which accompany its rising or setting- it is upon these which we are to fix our eyes and minds in order to receive ministry from God. But we ask: why the heavens? Why not the oceans? Well, I don’t think David is saying that God doesn’t speak, as it were, through other aspects of his creation like mountains or flowers or animals. But when you think about it there are two things about the skies which commend them for special meditation. First of all, their universal access. Not everyone can get to the sea. I think my Dad was nearly sixteen before he ever went to the seaside- and even then it was Cleethorpes! But the skies- well they are available to everyone, everywhere. Secondly, we have their universal grandeur. There is something about a star studied evening in the middle of the country as you gaze upon the countless number of stars and planets which simply make you go ‘Wow’. ‘Just look at that!’ ‘How vast it all is and how tiny I am in comparison.’ And so it is the accessibility of the skies and the vastness of the heavens which God uses to speak to us- v 2 ‘Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge’ The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’
Notice this ‘speaking’ is continual- ‘day after day.’ There is this ‘pouring forth’ of speech, literally a gushing, a constant torrent of communication, bubbling over and over. Night after night there is a setting forth of knowledge. Do you see what King David is saying? He is maintaining that there is this continual heavenly ‘chatter’, but not the inaudible background noise you get in a room where the acoustics are bad, or the droning of a Terry Wogan on the radio while you a trying to do the hovering. When God seeks to communicate it is never mindless or meaningless- there is always a point, a purpose. And we shall see what that purpose is in a moment. But before we do notice the paradox of verses 3 and 4: ‘There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’
Doesn’t that baffle the mind?
Verse 2 : "Day after day they pours forth speech . . . But, " Verse 3: "There is no speech . . . " -the same word in the original. In other words there is something which the God of the universe wishes to convey from his mind and heart to our mind and heart- making contact- real communication which is not written in words, but in colour, shape, magnitude, form, texture and motion. And so verse 3 says, ‘There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.’ But then verse 4 goes back to say, 4Their voice (or line- like the line of a sentence or line of a song) goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’ And that is the apparent contradiction- paradox- wordless words, voiceless voices. By these means God is trying to get through to us, to stir us, to arrest us, if only we would stop and take notice and listen.
So what is it that God is trying to tell us with words which are not words- but skies and stars and planets and space? Well, it is a message from God about God and we are back to verse 1: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ So how are to understand this message? What is it about God that is being communicated through what he has made and which we can see moment by moment wherever we find ourselves? Well, maybe it would help if we thought for a moment of the sort of thing we might experience when we are confronted with a painting.
There are two things which happen to everyone when you see a painting and you don’t have to even think about them- these experiences are immediate. The first is obvious but it is worth pointing out. When you see a painting you know it is a painting. You do not mistake the portrait of a person for the person. If it is a painting of a landscape with a stream running through it, unless you are seriously deranged you don’t expect to find that your finger will get wet if you touch the painting of the stream. You just know it is the work of a human hand- and that knowledge is immediate, it isn’t reasoned or argued- you just know.
The second thing that happens more or less straight away is that there is a reaction to the painting, some kind of assessment. You think-‘this is beautiful’ or ‘this is interesting’ or ‘this is just bonkers and plain rubbish- a child could have done this- this is never worth a million pounds.’
Now might it not be that this is the sort of thing David is saying is happening when he writes, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim his handiwork.’-words which are not words, voices which are not voices? It is that these things come to us without having to go through the reasoning process- it is an immediate knowledge which is being conveyed.
So taking things in reverse order- we ‘know’ this is a handiwork of a God, just as we ‘know’ a painting is the handiwork of a painter. The very existence of a creation speaks of a Creator, as does the existence of a work of art ‘speaks’ of an artist. It is a clarion blast from heaven that beyond all of this we can see- the majesty of the Milky Way, the Spirular nebular, the birth of a super nova, is a greater majesty- the majesty of the mind that conceived it and the power which crafted it. And that is a knowledge which is communicated directly to the heart- what theologians in the past called the sensus divinitatis – the sense of the divine. So our awareness of God is not something deduced by following a piece of philosophical reasoning, it is impressed upon us within by looking at that which is without. But let me also make it clear that it is at this point that the Bible parts company with New Age and Eastern Mysticism. We do not believe that nature is God, something to be adored and feared. That is as fundamental a mistake as a person mistaking the painting for the painter. No, although God may speak through nature he is beyond nature and never to be identified with nature.
But what the psalmist considers being the one thing of paramount importance about God that the heavens and the skies shout at us in uninterrupted unison is ‘glory’- ‘the heavens declare glory of God’. You may look up at the night sky in hushed reverence and awe, hardly daring to breathe because it is so magnificent that you don’t want anything to distract you from that moment of wonder. Have you ever felt that? But your thoughts are not to stay there. Yes, the constellations are perfect in their symmetry. Yes, the blackness and the vastness of space stretching out further and further into infinitude draw from within us a gasp of utter amazement. Yes, when we see the shear brilliance and beauty and complexity of new stars being formed courtesy of the Hubble telescope- we might say, ‘Isn’t that glorious?’ But all of this is but a reflected glory, a derived glory- for there is only one Being who sits enthroned at the centre of the universe who is Glory and he is God. It’s as if the stars and the skies are saying, ‘Don’t stay too long staring at us- look at Him. We are but creatures, he is the Creator. We are but lights, he is the light. We are beautiful, but he is Beauty. Let your heart rise above all of this to the one who made it all and we now know his name to be Jesus, Colossians 1:15 ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.’ ‘For him’ in what way? Why? For His glory!
But then we come to something rather strange in verses 4b-6, well, at least it appeared strange to me at first sight: ‘In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, 5which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. 6It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.’
You have to ask: what is it about the glory of God which is being communicated by this imagery? I don’t know about you, but unlike King David I would not have thought in a million years of likening the rising of the sun to a bridegroom coming out of his house ready for his wedding, or it may be the bridegroom coming out of his bedroom after his wedding night or a champion athlete running a winning race. Is that the sort of thing that comes to your mind when you look up at the sun? I wouldn’t have thought so. That is what seems strange. But presumably the Holy Spirit as he inspired David to write this psalm did have a purpose in enabling David to make a connection between the sun and these two things. So what could it be? What is it that the glory of God displayed in the heavens and a bridegroom on his wedding day and an athlete on his sports day have in common?
Let’s take the bridegroom image first. Isn’t God saying to us something like this: When you leave this building this morning and you look up at the beauty of the sky, I want you to see and feel that my glory is a happy glory giving you a joyful experience? When you see the bridegroom come out of his house ready to go to church to marry his bride- what strikes you is not simply that he is decked out in his best clothes, sporting a carnation and carrying a top hat so he looks dapper. Rather it is that this is the happiest day of his life. Nothing that he has experiences so far compares to this day, this is what he has been looking forward to for months, he has been counting the days and at last here it is and he is thrilled, he is beside himself with joy. And that is what experiencing the glory of God is meant to be like. You gaze at that crimson sunrise, you see the colours turning from lavender to gold and your heart is stirred, you don’t simply think this is beautiful and thrilling- you feel the thrill, you feel the beauty. Then you can think that God’s glory is like this but magnified a billion times and that one day in heaven I am going to see it. But I can see something of it now, a reflected, a diffused glory even which makes me want to worship the great Being who made all of this and gave me the faculties to appreciate it- I want to shout thank you Lord!
And the same message is found in the second half of verse 5 and the champion athlete. He is saying that when the sun rises and pours forth speech about the glory of God it is like a strong man that runs his race with joy. Now if I were to ask you; which scene of someone running a race which conveys this sense of utter delight and pleasure would you point to and say, ‘There, that is it! That is the sort of thing David had in mind’ What would it be? My guess is that it would be the scene from the film Chariots of Fire as Eric Liddell runs and wins the 400 metres at the 1924 Olympic Games. Do you remember that scene? He had refused to run on a Sunday and so things got switched so he could run the 400 metres race instead. With that little note in his hand taken from the book of Samuel that someone had slipped to him, ‘The Lord honours those who honour him’, he sets off on the outside lane, the lane that was least sought- leading the field the moment the starting gun went off. And as was his usual practice towards the end of the lap, he would throw his head back, close his eyes and with every muscle in his body working to full capacity, his legs and arms pumping like pistons- his whole demeanour was shouting ‘glory’. Remember how he said to his sister Jenny, that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. Eric Liddell’s running was not a drag, a chore, it was a delight! You know, one person who is quoted in Liddell’s biography contrasting sport as it was in Liddell’s day with our own said this: ‘I think that a great deal of the joy has gone out of sport today. It has ceased to be play-its just jolly hard work to stay at the top level in modern sport. I wonder occasionally if we’re getting our priorities a little wrong; I really think that we’re getting to the stage now where we’ve got to ask where the demarcation line is between what used to be this lovely, enjoyable activity that we could all take part in- and this awful, grim business now that passes under the name of sport.’ Now, the picture we have in verse 5 is of sport as it used to be, not as it is- namely, pleasure. And that my friends is the way we are meant to experience God’s glory as we look to the heavens- it is a pleasurable thing- and as such is good for us, godly pleasure is meant to make you feel good, to enrich you, energising you to think: ‘It is good to be alive and it is wonderful to know this God who has made this most amazing world.’
But you say, ‘Surely, if God is speaking to everyone, everywhere, everyday about his glorious existence through the things he has made, then why are more people not Christians?’ And this brings us to one of the greatest tragedies in the universe which David acknowledges in verse 12 and 13- that we are so twisted and perverted by sin, that we close our eyes and stop our ears so we do not hear what God is saying because we don’t want to hear- ‘forgive my hidden faults...keep your servant from wilful sins’. Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans gives this precisely as the reason: ‘Since what may be known about god is plain to them….for since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities,- his eternal power and deity—have been clearly seen….for though they knew God , they neither glorifies him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish heart darkened. ‘(Rom 1:20-21). It is not that God has not been speaking; it has been that we have not been listening. And so God has spoken even more clearly through Scripture- the gospel- vv 7-11. But the point is this: we who claim to be Christians have been given the wherewithal to see this universe as a Creation because we have come to know the Creator in Jesus. So as we look up into the sky with our physical eyes, we should with spiritual eyes look even further to the one who now occupies that glorious throne, whose sovereign word keeps the planets in motion moment by moment- and our hearts should cry out ‘glory’- glory to the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb’ for he has not only created me, he has redeemed me and I can enjoy life in a way I never could before, for now I see that all of this is a visual choir singing the glorious praise of Him who is its God. Let us pray.
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