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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 27, 2013

With or Without Words

Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21

             C.S. Lewis, in his book on the Psalms, called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”  The Psalm begins as a hymn to God as Creator, then proceeds to praise God as the giver of the Law, or the Torah.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.”  One preacher said of this Psalm: “David didn’t have a laptop, but he had a rooftop.”  From there the Psalmist watched the sunrise and the sunset.  From there on a clear night he could likely see two thousand to three thousand stars.  (With a good pair of binoculars we can see one hundred thousand stars today on the right night!)  But what the Psalmist saw spoke to him of the grandeur, the majesty of God.  Jonathan Edwards said once that he was “compelled by the stars to believe in a God whose goodness coursed throughout the universe.”  He spoke of “the sacramental power of God’s handiwork.”

             Creation itself points the Psalmist to God the Creator, and he suggests that creation itself praises God and gives God glory.  Gerhard von Rad the great Old Testament theologian, said, “Creation not only exists, it also discharges truth….”  Luther added, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but in trees, and flowers, and clouds and stars.”

             Of course, the Psalmist does not worship creation itself, which to some can become an idol.  Augustine noticed that some fell in love with the creation and never traced it back to the Creator who out of love gave it.  Nature’s beauty and goodness points us to God’s beauty and goodness.  And nature speaks of God’s immense generosity and God’s love of complexity, diversity and sheer beauty.  I remember reading once at Radnor Lake that over thirty species of warblers alone dwell in Middle Tennessee, and that is only one bird.  That is why theologians have sometimes called creation “the wordless Bible” or “the Book of Creation.”  “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “And every common bush afire with God.”

             Freeman Dyson is a physicist who also is a believer.  His book, Infinite in All Directions, sees the universe as a place that reveals to us evidence of a Creator.  Of course, for the Apostle Paul, creation also judges us by its very existence.  In Romans 1, Paul argues, “From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made … so they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20).

             For the believer, nature speaks powerfully and beautifully of God.  Frank Borman was among the first men to orbit the moon, and to peer toward earth form his space capsule.  He later led Eastern Airlines through some of its most profitable years.  Borman was one of those who looked at creation through eyes of faith: “The more we learn about the wonders of our universe, the more clearly we are going to perceive the hand of God.”

             But creation itself is not all God has given us to know who the Lord is.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.”  But thankfully God has given us more than creation itself to come to know who God is.  Because by itself, creation can leave us questioning God.  If you lived in the path of Hurricane Sandy, you might conclude from nature that God is indifferent to human beings’ well-being.  The very laws of nature that make life possible can in a moment utterly destroy it.

             So God has also given to us a Word to stand alongside this beautiful, complex world.  After praising God as Creator, the Psalmist turns to praise God for the Law, or the Torah.  We might rightly read this Psalm as a word about the Word of God, the Scripture of the Old and New Testament, though when the Psalmist wrote this he was speaking only of the Hebrew Scriptures.

             When we went to Jordan and Israel with our Holy Land group in November, we started out in Jordan.  One of the wonders of the world has to be the carvings of the Nabatean people in Petra.  They are awe inspiring; carved hugely in the sandstone cliffs that protected their city there that once housed twenty to thirty thousand cave dwellers.  The Nabateans were expert traders, and they borrowed architectural themes from the Egyptians and the Greeks with their massive stone carvings.  They were excellent water engineers and held no slaves.  But all that exists from their once grand culture are weathered carvings on stone.  We know almost nothing about the Nabateans and their influence died with them.

             Not so with the Jews, who probably never possessed the wealth that the Nabateans did, and certainly never had the power politically of the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Babylonians.  Yet the abiding influence of this small group of people who understood themselves to be chosen by God is impossible to overestimate.  And why?  I would argue it is because they did not build their culture in stone or in weaponry, but rather in words – words they believed to be God’s Word.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord our God abides forever,” said the prophet Isaiah.

             The Bible remains the most powerful book ever written.  Calvin says of this Psalm about the world and the Word, “From nature we know only the hands and feet of God, but from Scripture we know God’s very heart.”  This is true even in the linguistic structure of the Psalm.  In verses 1-7 when the Psalmist speaks of creation, he uses a general name for God (Elohim).  But when he turns to speak of the Scriptures, he uses the name Yahweh, translated “the Lord,” the Divine name revealed to Moses out of the Burning Bush.  In the Bible, God has spoken a personal word to us that enables humans to live in harmony with God and the whole of creation.  This is the “why” of the Law.  The Law of God is not given to restrict us or to be a burden, like a stone in your shoe!  It is given by God, Yahweh, out of love, to guide us and to give wisdom, ultimately to save us and to reconcile all creation.

             And three thousand years after the Jews encountered this God as He delivered them from Egyptian bondage and revealed to them the Law, this word continues to give life wherever it is heeded.  I love the way Bruce Feiler put it in his book on Moses called The American Prophet: “Wherever in the world freedom is spoken, it is always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”

             I love how the Psalmist speaks of the Law in this Psalm!  “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes….”  Notice what the Psalmist is saying about the Law.  It revives, it makes you wise, it gives you joy, it gives you light.  Pat Miller, the wonderful Old Testament Professor who has written deeply on the Psalms suggests that all the things that the creation part of this Psalm says the sun does for us, the Law of the Lord does for us as well.  It warms, it enlightens, it endures forever; in a word, it gives life.  Last week we spoke of how Jesus, the Word made flesh, gives life and joy wherever He goes.  That was true at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  But it is true wherever Jesus is an invited guest.  But here the Psalmist is suggesting that God’s Word has the same power, the same effect.  The Scriptures bring life, because they come to us through God’s people from God Himself, and in them we find life, wisdom, light, joy and truth that is larger and deeper than we can ever hope to find anywhere else.

             “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”  I know from the crucible of my own life that this is true.  When the bottom fell out from my life, when tragedy struck, it was not my money or my education or my wits that sustained me.  It was the Word of the Lord, the Biblical truth to which I could cling.  “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou are with me.”  Those words became my lifeline.

             I have found revival in this book, and joy and enlightenment and wisdom.  In a word, it has given me life.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon said late in his life, a life marked by great bouts with depression, that there were books on his shelf that spoke to him in a particular season of life, were helpful, but then were put aside.  He wrote, “Nobody ever outgrows the Bible; the book widens and deepens with our years.”  And that is my wish for you.  That this Word, this Book, would widen your heart and deepen your soul, that in it you would increasingly find life.

                                                                                     Amen.

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