Note: I preached a version of this sermon on January 24, 2016 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork.”
When you ask Americans about how and where they experience God, there is one answer you hear more than all others. It’s an answer you hear regardless of how connected people are to church or how much their faith shapes their lives. And that is: “in nature.”
Now I’m not going to ask how many of us would say this. But let’s just say for the sake of my point that a lot of people would say this: they most experience God in a sunset, or the woods, or at the beach.
Americans tend to be somewhat Romantic about nature. Indeed it’s hard not to be struck with awe as you travel through the Rocky Mountains or up the Pacific Coast or into the redwoods in California or the old growth forests of the northwoods. And those of us who live in the suburbs now but had a childhood connection, or even an ancestral connection, to farming or rural life, can get especially sentimental about the relatively few moments we get to be in the stillness and green of the forest preserve. Those of us whose lives are governed by the clock do not get to actually watch sunsets very often. So when we do, the feeling of wonder and peace that can come over you really is religious, or almost religious anyway.
So people experience God in nature. But to be quite candid, this is an answer that many pastors and theological types find discouraging. Some of us think, my goodness in church we hear the Word of God and have our sins forgiven and share the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament and have fellowship with our fellow believers and we offer prayers and sing praises and yet our members still experience God most fully at the beach?
Now to try to be fair to people who find God in a sunset AND to my grumpy colleagues, let’s ask ourselves: What does nature show us about God?
You may have noticed that this is a subject of today’s psalm, Psalm 19—one of my personal favorites. The heavens declare the glory of God, the psalmist says, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. The psalmist is looking up at the sky and observes its constant movement—day speaks forth to day and night to night, one after the other in a continuing song of praise. There are no words, no speech, the psalmist says, but yet their message goes out in the image of this pattern, the heavens revolving around us in a constant dance of darkness and light, sun and moon and stars.
God has established a tent for the sun, the psalmist says. And this is important because the sun was itself worshiped as a God by many of the people around the Israelites. But the psalm says that God created even the sun in its course, this mighty sun that rises like a bridegroom and runs its course like an athlete and touches everything with its heat.
In six verses, the psalmist tells us that this wondrous sky, day and night, light and dark, burning heat and freezing cold proclaims the One who made it all. To put it in more modern terms: the heavens tell us, none of this exists by accident. None of this exists on its own. It all works together, it is one great symphony, one great poem to the glory of God if only we had ears to hear it and eyes to read it.
I remember being a college student in the desert in California and looking up at the night sky and being filled with a kind of awe I did not have a name for. I didn’t yet have any firm ideas about God. But it was as if I was being asked something: is there some great unity behind this vast universe? Do the stars in their courses have anything to do with me, a little tiny person on a mountain somewhere? There is something about beauty and vastness and the sheer power of nature that leads us to the edge of ourselves, right up to God.
So yes, we experience God in nature—the sun, the moon, the stars, the forests, the oceans. The psalmist agrees with us.
But then the psalmist says more:
“The teaching—or the Law—of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.”
Now the psalm is going in a new direction. For six verses the psalmist is talking about the world God made and how it praises God. But now he or she is talking about the Word God speaks to his people. The Law, the Instruction, the Torah—this does more than proclaim that God created the world. The Word of God comes to us and changes us.
Look at what the psalm says this teaching, this instruction, this Law of the Lord does:
It revives the soul.
It gives wisdom to the simple.
It rejoices the heart
It gives light to the eye
It creates desire in us
It is sweeter than honey
It warns us and enlightens us.
This is the truly awesome work of God that the psalm asks us to praise. God does not just leave us sitting here under a glorious sun to admire his works. God seeks to work in us our righteousness, our goodness, our enlightenment, our desire. We can’t desire the sun. Or if we could, we couldn’t possess the sun. But we can desire God, and we can possess God too.
And that is not something we can learn from the sunset, or the crashing waves or the multitude of stars. We learn it from hearing God’s Word, and acting on it. And I don’t mean here simply the written words of the Scriptures, but everything that shapes our lives of faith. Think about what we hear from God: Your sins are forgiven. The body of Christ, given for you. The Lord bless you and keep you. I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Think about the words that Ezra the priest brings to life for the people in our Old Testament lesson, when the people weep for joy to have their law, their faith, and their Temple back. Think about the words that Jesus brings to life in his hometown, saying that God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and then saying this has been fulfilled in your hearing.
So yes, it is true: God speaks to us in the world. God gives the creation generously to every living thing. This creation is so vast and wonderful and miraculous that a greater one can hardly be imagined.
But God does more than that. God speaks to those who are called to hear his Word: to be revived, to be made wise, to rejoice, to be enlightened. God prompts us to want more than the world gives us. Not just to be happy, but to be good. Not just to feel peace, but to be forgiven. Not just to enjoy what our eyes see, but to create what our minds imagine. Not just to praise God for his works, but to know God’s goodness to us.