Based on Psalm 148
On a particularly cool May Day not long ago, I stood on a hillside with a spectacular view of the mountains behind me. In front of me was a couple, that day getting married. While I performed their wedding, the wind whipped around the mountains, it produced an unmistakeable tone. As I performed this couple’s wedding, the mountains sang.
It was, as if, the mountains were praising God.
Nature has a way of doing that.
There are many moments in life where our souls sense that they are in the presence of the praise of God; many times when our depth connects with God’s depth because of a place and space. Sometimes it’s a forest, or a beach, or a mountain. Sometimes it’s the bird that visits the feeder in the backyard, or watching the garden in your yard grow. Sometimes, it’s catching a glimpse of the sun as it finally breaks through the clouds on your drive to work. Sometimes, it’s seeing the soft rolling farmland that frames this city.
Nature can take our breath away through it’s beauty and majesty, connecting our depth to God’s depth. Our souls sense in these moments the depth, the beauty, the wonder, of the God who created nature. In these moments, we sense in the deepest part of our being that we are in the presence of the praise of God.
Such is what the Psalmist has in mind this morning. All around him, he hears, senses, the praise of God, noting that if the sun could talk, it would sing the praise of the Lord, if the snow could talk, it would sing the praise of the Lord, if the sea monsters could talk, they would sing the praise of the Lord, if creation itself could talk, it would sing the praise of the Lord.
Jackson and I have sensed this many times standing outside our house at night. There are some amazing apps for iphones that you can hold against the night sky and learn exactly what you’re looking at. We’ve found all eight planets, we’ve found the position of the sun on the other side of the world, we’ve encountered constellations that I didn’t even know existed, and we’ve found stars that are close by and others that are far, far, away.
Whenever we go out with the app, or take out my telescope and check out the stars, our souls both sense that we are in the midst of the praise of God. Discovering the names of stars and the planets only seems to heighten the sense of awe, wonder, and mystery present in the night sky. If the sky could talk, if the planets and stars, and moon could talk, they, too, would sing the praise of God.
Just as the highest heavens, the creatures of the earth, the mountains and the trees, all praise the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. We see God’s glory, we are surrounded by God’s glory, every time we enter nature, for in creation, we see a reflection of God’s magnificence.
Creation indeed surrounds us with the praise of God. When we walk out of our home, when we walk through the parking lot, when we walk in and out of the stores, when we roll down the windows of our car and let in the wind, we enter a worship service, for all of nature around us is engaged in the never-ending praise of God. For the trees and the grass, the wind and the waves, the ocean and the land, the birds and the crawling creatures, the stars and the sky do talk; in their very existence, they all sing the praise of the Lord.
We live and move and have our being in the midst of an infinite worship service.
Every Sunday, we invite that worship service into our sanctuary. The flowers in the chancel area remind us that this moment of worship through liturgy is a heightened and structured version of what is always around us in nature: the praise of God. Consider how lilies add to our worship of Easter, or poinsettias to our worship of Christmas. And consider how, on Good Friday, the absence of life, the absence of flowers or anything from creation, adds to our sense of tremendous loss at the death of our savior. At the height of the Christian calendar, on the holiest days, the addition or subtraction of nature from our liturgical worship heightens the connection of our depth to God’s depth.
For we are constantly surrounded by an infinite worship service. All of creation sings the praise of God.
What, then, are we to make of Hurricane Harvey, currently wreaking havoc on the coast of Texas? Knowing the news of this weekend, it may have seemed strange to offer as our morning prayer a praise of creation, for certainly the hurricane does not seem praise worthy.
Nor do the tornados that struck South Georgia last fall seem praise worthy? Nor the earthquake that struck an Italian island just this past week. Nor the mudslides in the Congo that have killed over 200 people? Nor the draught in the Dakotas and Montana that’s the worst in 30 years?
When fires devastate, when flooding destroys, when the earth quakes, when the storms come, what are we to make of this created order that returns praise to God. Do the quakes, the storms, the draughts, and the mudslides sing the praise of God, too? Does hurricane Harvey praise God?
Creation can be beautiful and terrifying, sometimes at the same time. The astronaut Mark Kelly, before returning to earth from the International Space Station, took a photo of a huge thunderstorm over India. It was magnificent to see from space, beautiful, but I thought of how terrifying it must have been to those in the midst of it, below the clouds that Kelly could see from space.
From earth orbit, the thunderstorm certainly seemed to praise God in its beauty and magnificence. But from earth’s surface, the storm seemed more evil than good. Nature contains within it both good and evil; both order and chaos. The order is inspiring, deep, and beautiful, causing our deep to be connected with God’s deep. In this order, our souls find rest and peace and joy. But in the chaos, we find desperation and horror. Do those chaotic things return praise to God as well? How do they fit into the infinite worship service happening around us in nature?
The answer is the sea monster.
Now this may seem odd to us, but for ancient Israel the sea monsters controlled the sea. They could make tranquil waters turbulent and turn them back again. That’s why so many other ancient societies around Israel worshipped the sea monsters and made offerings to them seeking to create placid waters for their maritime commerce. That’s why the men aboard Jonah’s ship as he fled Nineveh wanted to throw him overboard: they thought doing so would serve as an offering to the sea monsters, causing the monsters to quell the ocean.
Sea monsters represented for ancient Israel the chaos of the seas and the chaos of creation.
Just as the fire and hail, snow and smoke, and stormy winds also represented chaos. All of these aspects of nature listed in verses seven and eight are examples of the chaos of nature. For a primarily agrarian society, these were not beautiful things, like a fire in a fireplace on a cold winter day when freshly fallen snow covers the ground. No, these were reasons to fear nature, to fear its chaos, for fire, hail, snow, smoke, and stormy winds all wreak havoc on farming.
Indeed, verses seven and eight are a call not for the beautiful aspects of nature to praise God, but for the chaotic aspects to praise God. The Psalmist is saying, in no uncertain terms: Praise God, you sea monsters who kill sailors and withhold catches of fish. Praise God, you snow and smoke that kills plant life. Praise God you earthquakes that kill and destroy civilization. Praise God you tornadoes that strike fear and hurt into the lives of humanity, your images. Praise God, you chaos! Praise the Lord!
The Psalmist tells us that even the chaos joins in creation’s infinite worship service that surrounds us: the sea monsters, the fire and the hail and the storms and everything else chaotic joins in this infinite worship service because they reveal that God is a God of order, not of chaos.
God is a God of order, not a God of chaos. Sometimes, the chaotic parts of nature will rear their head and we’ll face sea monsters of our own: earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, damaging stormy winds, and the like. But God is always in the midst of that chaos, moving for order. God enters into our chaos, enters into our suffering, enters into the evil that infects us and all of creation, and moves to create stability, moves to create release, moves to create order. This is how the sea monsters reveal the worship of God: they demonstrate that God is always in the midst of our chaos, working for order.
It’s God’s goodness and grace and mercy that leads God to always, always, bring order out of the chaos. Just as for a time, chaos may win in our lives; just as for a time, chaos won when Jesus was on the cross, God will always bring order back to the chaos.
The sea monsters may rule, the hail and fire and tornados may rear their ugly heads, but God is in the midst of them, creating order out of chaos.
This is all good and true, but you may be asking this morning how you can see that far? See far enough to see order coming out of chaos? For the chaos of this moment in your life may be so overwhelming, the lack of stability and unpredictability of life so all-consuming, that how can you see far enough to see order coming out of the chaos?
Amy Grant asked the same question in a very honest and revealing song on her album “Heart in Motion.” She talks of marital difficulties, of a difficult pregnancy and birth, of the ways that joyous occasions, like a wedding or a pregnancy, can suddenly turn sorrowful and threatening. Her song reveals a fundamental truth of life on this earth that we all know too well: order can suddenly turn to chaos.
In the chorus of the song, she says,
“The same sun that melts the wax can harden clay
And the same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay
And the mighty wind that knocks us down if we’ll lean to it, will drive our fears away”
Creation demonstrates to us both order and chaos, and it can seem like God is ambivalent at best, or random at worst, in deciding whether or not the rat will drown or the hay grow in the midst of a rainstorm; in deciding whether or not chaos or order will reign. But I don’t hear that randomness, or ambivalence, in Amy Grant’s lyrics.
I hear, rather, the promise of God moving for order, moving the sun to harden clay, moving the rain to grow the hay, moving the wind to drive fears away. Chaos comes in the sun and the rain and the mighty wind, just as chaos comes in the midst of challenging marriages, or pregnancies, or relationships torn asunder or bills that pile up or drugs that infest a life or alcohol that turns to abuse or in any number of ways that we see life around us turning toward death. But God is in the midst of those moments of death, those times when chaos rears its ugly head like a sea monster, moving to create order and resurrect life out of death.
But how can we see that far? How can we see past our chaos and look with hope toward a future where God has tamed the sea monsters of life, bringing order to our chaos and life out of our death?
With the psalmist and generations before us, we gain the vision we need for our future, we gain the sense of God in the midst of our chaos, moving for order, when we go to worship.
When we come to church weekly, we discover God’s order and the healing power of God’s presence. In worship, we experience God’s abundant life intersecting our lives, resurrecting the ways death has impacted us. We find order and stability no matter the chaos that has ensued between worship services. There is healing power in worship, the healing of God’s order intersecting our chaos.
And, as with the psalmist and generations before us, we can go into nature in between Sunday worship to discover the infinite worship service that’s happening all around us. Take a hike, work in your garden, drive to the mountains or the beach, for there is a healing power in going into creation, entering into the infinite worship service that is happening all around us. Go, be quiet in your soul, and simply enjoy the majesty and glory that surrounds you. For while nature cannot replace Sunday worship, we can still find there, in the midst of the beauty and majesty of creation, the healing that comes from God’s order intersecting our chaos.
We can go to worship to discover how wide, how deep, how long, is the love of a God who brings order to chaos, who resurrects life out of death. We can go to worship to discover the beauty, the majesty, the glory, the honor, and the order of God.
For this is our Father’s World. O let us never forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is our Father’s world! Why should our hearts be sad? The Lord is King, let the heavens ring. God reigns over the chaos and brings order. Let us all be glad.
I wonder if you’re in need of healing today? Maybe you’re experiencing a kind of spiritual death, a draught in your soul that seems unable to find any water. God is there, moving through the chaos of the draught for order.
I wonder if you’re in need of healing today?
Maybe you’re experiencing a kind of emotional death, drained by the demands of people in your life. God is there, in the midst of your weary emotions, moving for order.
I wonder if you’re in need of healing today?
Maybe you’re experiencing a kind of physical death, worn out by the pace of life. God is there, in the midst of your exhaustion, moving for order.
I wonder if you’re in need of healing today?
Maybe you’re experiencing a kind of death by sea monster, wrestling with some great temptation in your life or some addiction or other trouble. God is even there, wrestling that sea monster with you, working for order.
I wonder if you’re in need of healing today?
For God is a God of order, not chaos, moving through resurrection power to create life out of the many ways we experience death.
If this morning, you’re experiencing more chaos than order, if death seems closer at hand than life, if you’re facing a sea monster of your own, the altar is open for prayer as we worship together.
The challenge this morning is to make worship a regular occurrence in your life, both in regular church attendance and in taking moments of your day to enter the infinite worship service happening in nature. For there, we discover God’s healing presence and gain the vision we need to see far enough past our chaos in our lives to the order that God is working to provide.
So indeed, Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail and snow and frost; stormy wind fulfilling his command. For chaos cannot undo us. Chaos will not reign forever. Chaos does not have the final say. Chaos does not hold the ultimate power.
For chaos may reign for a night, but God’s order comes in the morning.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.