In our world today the doctrine of creation has become a battleground. The frontline for many of our young people are their schools and learning institutions. Christians have been forced to expend so much energy to confront the idea that creation is not just a myth, that we can just miss the comfort that God being creator brings. “Talking about creation,” Says John Goldingay, “is not a statement about what God once did back at the beginning but about our utter dependence on God for life now.” God’s creative power shows us we can depend on God to restore, renew and recreate.
This is a series of messages I have called ‘The last word on Praise and worship’… It’s not an arrogant attempt to provide the definitive understanding of “praise and worship”. Rather it is a humble and hopefully helpful exploration of the five hymns of praise that form the conclusion to the book of Psalms. They are the last word in Psalms on praise and worship. They start and finish Hallelujah. They are Psalms that draw together threads and motifs and themes that have been running through the whole book calling God’s people to Hallelujah… to ‘Praise the LORD.’ Amidst all the issues and struggles and conflicts round our faith, in life and practise, they summons us to worship trusting in God’s power and goodness.
Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise, in fact it may very well be three separate hymns of praise bought together to form something new. Unlike modern songs they are not bought together because all three share a common rhythm, rhyme or tune, but because their reflections on a particular theme meld beautifully and powerfully together to bring hope and inspire praise.
Each of these three sections, hymns, starts with a summons to Praise and worship God. We read those out together when we had our bible reading this morning. Then they each give reasons to praise God. Reasons that pull together Gods work in creation and God’s work at restoring Jerusalem after the exile. It almost like the psalmist calls us to go back to school not to battle it out about creation but to learn again about God’s creative power at work here and now.
The first hymn focuses on God’s numeracy. It’s applied maths…
Maths is a big part of my life…Around our dinner table on any given night you will hear conversations about quadratics and derivation, statistical analysis, computer programming, quantum physics, matrixes, complex engineering calculations, trigonometry…with the occasional bad joke and pun thrown in… just so I don’t feel left out and left behind. It’s one of the joys of having five people studying mathematics and or its applications at various levels in your family. I’m not sure if you’d find that conversation comforting or confusing, I have both reactions…
The psalmist points to the numerical superiority shown by God in creation as cause for hope. The exiles had started coming back to Jerusalem from all over the now defunct Babylonian empire and building again. They would have seen themselves as a small remnant, many would be wondering and worrying about family members who were not with them, there were others still unable to make the migration back home, longing to return and feeling forgotten. But the Psalm says that God’s people can trust that no one will be lost, no one is outside God’s ability to restore and return and to bring to wholeness. The return may seem like an impossible task but look up particularly in the darkest night and see that God has set the numbers of the stars and knows them all by name, something that is beyond even the best and brightest of our day. If God can do that then drawing his people back together again is well within his grasp.
My mum shared a vision with me she had in church one day… She saw a man standing in a vast field of wild flowers. She said ‘she just knew it was Jesus’, and he turned to her and smiled and said “ I know each of these by name”. We might think that we are small and insignificant, like flowers and grass, here today and gone tomorrow that our lives, our troubles, our small stuttering steps on the journey as followers of Jesus are too small for God, or hidden from God’s sight. That we don’t count. But The Psalmist uses God’s creative power to show us it is far from the truth. God Is active God is able to bring his people together, to bring all of us to wholeness.
This first section finishes by reaffirming not only God’s power and might but also God’s goodness and justice. Just like in Psalm 146 we can trust God because God is just…God’s great power and wisdom displayed in the heavens is manifest on earth in that God sustains the humble and brings down the wicked.
The second hymn brings hope using the science and geography of creation. It talks of God’s provision through the metaphor of the water cycle.
I grew up and went to school in Titirangi, out in west Auckland, and we were very aware of the water cycle. The windblown clouds would come ashore from the Tasman Sea laden with water vapour, they would hit the up draft of the Waitakere rangers and that water vapour would come together and form rain and it would fall on us… Or when the wind blew from the east the clouds would sweep over the Auckland isthmus and carry their load of moister from the pacific until they hit the Waitakere’s and it would rain on us. When I was growing up there were times when it felt like it might not rain anywhere else in the city but it would rain on us. It had to be a very severe drought for the hills round us to start browning off.
Jerusalem on the other hand is on the edge of desert land, rain is not such a constant and dependable event. The book of Psalms starts by expressing the life of dependence on God like being in the privileged position of a tree planted by a river that does not run dry. We know from the book of Haggai that in the first few years in the restoration of Jerusalem that there were droughts. With those droughts came doubts could they survive could they thrive again. The Psalmist picks up the return of the rain clouds and the growth of the grass to provide food for cattle after the drought as a way of showing God is able to provide and restore.
More than that it is a big picture metaphor for God’s ability to bring his people back…Just as the rains and provision come through the water cycle that God has created, God is able to restore his people. God is able even when they were surrounded by the swirling uncertainty of the rise and fall of empire. God is able even when there were those who opposed the reestablishment of Judah as a nation. It does not have to do with military power and the stomp, stomp, stomp of marching boots but Gods provision and creative ability… as Walter Brueggemann puts it “victory does not always go to the strong and the swift.”
But it was also a reminder to Jerusalem themselves as Brueggemann goes on to says “armed power was a constant temptation for Jerusalem’s reestablishment”. All through the history of Israel and Judah there has been a struggle between radical reliance on God and trusting in military alliances and strength. Maybe in the fall out from the horrific shadow of the holocaust in World War 2 it is hard for modern day Israel to hear this, but the words of this psalm echo round the streets of Gaza and Jerusalem today with challenge and hope just as they did to their first hearers. Just as he brings the rains…God is able… God can be trusted.
The last section again invites us to study the weather: its meteorology. God’s ability to command both winters storm and springs thaw are presented as proof that God can sustain Jeruslame in all areas of life.
One of my most memorable experiences in my university education, was walking through a blizzard in Dunedin to sit my first exam as an adult student at Otago University…Trudging down the hill through the snow, and then coping with roads covered with sheets of ice as I got to the bottom. Clawing my way up a holly hedge to get up a frozen road and then slipping and sliding from one parked car to another to get down again. Getting to my exam room and stripping off layer after layer, after layer of clothes to be comfortable enough to write. Then tiring three hours repeating the process wrapping up and trudging back up the hill in near white out conditions to get home…Yet in Dunedin, my faith and my academic ability flourished and our family did as well.
The third hymn, talks of winter storms coming and going at God’s command, they would have been rare occasions in the city and like in Dunedin hard to endure, but as the Psalmist point out they both come and go at God’s command and leave life giving water. God took the people into exile and God can restore them. The psalmist uses this metaphor to address three pressing issues for Jerusalem. Security, Population growth and provision and says that just like with through adverse weather so he is able to provide those things even in adverse situations. During Nehemiah’s time they would have watched the wall round them being built brick by brick, but it was a wall that had been breached before and they are assured that it is God who is their ultimate protection.
Isn’t interesting that again Jerusalem’s safety is being said to depend on a wall to keep people out? Concrete and barbwire won’t do it, only trusting in God and his justice. Borders are drawn politically and in the fluidity of the ancient Middle East moved at the whim of far off kings and empires. Israel is assured that God is able to bring peace in their borders. We miss the play on words in English but the word for bar, as in strengthen the bars of your gate... and son sound alike, and the psalmist tells the remnant that God can be trusted to bless the sons and children within the walls…to be able to provide for their needs.
Lastly, as a way of pulling these three hymns together, the psalmist points to the fact that not only do Israel know God’s creative work they also know God’s special revelation as well. God not only speaks through the cold of winter and the number of stars and rain and pasture, but he has given Israel his laws and commands. God is able to physically restore Jerusalem and also restore their spiritual life as well. It is because of the unique relationship that God has with them that they are restored after their exile. It is this unique relationship they are being called back to. It’s not as explicit as it was in Psalm 146 that we looked at last week, but hallelujah is a call to a the life of worship and praise and that is a life of trust and justice.
In our New Testament reading this morning Jesus calls us to learn the same leasson. He invites us to look at God’s power and provision in creation. The Raven, or as we are more used to in Matthew account, the sparrow, mentioned in the Psalm that does not sow or reap but God provides, the wild flower, arrayed in a splendour no design collection catwalk show can compete with. Why worry he says about what you will eat or what you will wear, God is able to provide those things, so we to are called to worship God with a life of worship by trusting in God to provide and restore and living our God’s justice… Put first the Kingdom of God’ say Jesus and all these things will be added to you.
On the first day… in the garden’ are words that we have been encountering a lot in our worship life over the past two years. They keep coming up… they keep echoing in our midst…they are words from John’s version of Jesus resurrection, the words that come in the gospel that starts in the beginnings with God and the creation. Words that speak of new creation, the behold I make all things new made possible in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The ongoing work of restoration and renewal that God is doing in our lives and our world…Creation not just way back when but here and now…We are summons to praise God for his work in creation and his work in our history, to have hope that the power of God we see in creation displayed again in the resurrection is at work in us. We need to school our souls to know we don’t get lost amidst the numbers, refreshing rain and growth come after drought, and the storms of winter and the thaw of spring come and go at God’s command. He can be trusted to bind up and make whole to strengthen and provide to restore and renew… So Hallelujah, praise the Lord.