Sermon - 6th January 2019
What can I give him?
Scripture - Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
On behalf of all the elders, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year and every blessing for 2019!
The readings in our service today are those set in the Lectionary for New Year’s Day itself. In a very brief summary, they call us to take a little time out to reflect, to examine our place in the world. When we know where we have come from, and know where and who we are, we stand ourselves in good stead for the direction we will take in the new year.
The Lectionary choice of Psalm 8 comes at a very poignant moment, with some quiz questions for you…
(1) Image of Ultima Thule
Photographed on 1 January 2019 by the New Horizons probe, 6.6 billion km from Earth
(2) Chinese Probe Chang’e-4 on 3 January 2019 on the Moon’s far side
(3) Apollo 8, Christmas 1968, 50 years ago, from the Moon’s far side
So what have these space-faring accomplishments of humankind got to do with our Psalm?
The Book of Psalms, a collection of 150 pieces of Hebrew poetry, over half of which, including today’s Psalm, Psalm 8, are ascribed to have been composed by David, Israel’s second king, although from the style and content, Biblical scholars believe the book to have been written by several people over a few centuries, and then compiled by Jewish scholars.
The Book of Psalms is special in many ways: it is the ‘hymn book of the Bible’. Even though we might not always be aware of it, many of the hymns and songs that are sung in churches everywhere have their roots in the Psalms. The book of Psalms is also the Scripture from which Jesus most quoted. Even the word “Psalm” itself refers to a song sung to the accompaniment by a plucked stringed instrument. The Hebrew name of this Book of the Bible is “tehillim”, meaning “praises.”
Like any collection of poems or songs, the book of Psalms covers a wide range of themes, and today’s Psalm, Psalm 8, which falls into the category of a songs in praise of God’s majesty.
Psalm 8 quite short, with only 9 verses and it divides itself up into 4 sections. Remember Sir Bruce Forsyth’s catchphrase: “Nice to see you! To see you nice!” Typical of much Hebrew poetry in the Bible, there is considerable repetition, looking at the same idea from two sides.
It begins and ends with the identical words, proclaiming the supreme greatness of our God: “O LORD, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world!” We see in the 7 couplets of verse, each containing a repeated idea viewed from two directions.
What is this Psalm all about? Essentially, it is about our place in the created order. The Psalmist looked around himself and looked inside of himself and realised his position: that is our position as humankind, in the created order.
The Psalmist was aware that the world is a big place; he will have looked up into the sky at night and seen countless stars. He was awestruck by the size of creation and saw that it reflects the infinite majesty and power of our God. For us, the world can sometimes seem quite small. Whereas in ancient times, a person might have managed 50km on horseback in a day; we can fly 18,000km to New Zealand in the same time.
So, let us think big… really big. If you have ever been to Joddrell Bank Visitors’ Centre, you may have walked in their arboretum, where they have a scale model of our Solar System which is on the scale of 1 to 5 billion. There in the car park is the model of the Sun, and you can find Earth a mere 30 metres away. But to get to the dwarf planet Pluto you have to walk a whole kilometre to the far corner of the arboretum.
Our God created the Solar System. Our God is the awesome Creator, and God is not limited to our world which we call the Earth.
But our Creator God is yet bigger! The nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri, and on our scale model from Joddrell Bank, that star would have to be placed 8,000km away in Beijing! In the words of Douglas Adams, the author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’: “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”
The Hubble Space Telescope has been able to see 125 billion galaxies, and in each galaxy there about 100 billion stars, so we get a number with 22 zeroes, a number so big, we do not have a name for it.
Our God is even bigger than that! Our God created them!
In the words of the Psalm: “When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places - what are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?”
The Psalmist was awestruck by the majesty of God’s creation. Even though we can see so much more of God’s creation, are we awestruck?
We have looked upwards and outwards: now let us look inwards.
The average human body contains 100,000,000,000,000 (100 quadrillion) cells. Amazing! And yet each one of us originated from just 1, when egg and sperm fused. And in that one cell, the DNA from our parents contains 3,200,000,000 (3.2 billion) pieces of information.
Scientists have identified and named about 1.8 million different species on the Earth, each one different from the other through different DNA. God specialised in amazing diversity in the Creation.
When we look at the diversity in our world, are we awestruck by the diverse creativity of our God?
Do you think humankind has forgotten its place? Have we forgotten God, the Creator of the universe so infinite that our minds cannot begin to comprehend the immensity of it?
Verses 5-6 are key in our Psalm and in our understanding of our place in the Created order: “You appointed [human beings] rulers over everything you made.”
Taking for a moment that David was the Psalmist, he was anointed King over Israel by Nathan the Prophet. He knew his power as King came from God and this is reflected this Psalm.
A year ago, the BBC series “Planet Earth 2” shocked us all at how humankind has abused its dominion over the Earth.
The current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has said a lot about our Earth and the environment. Speaking in January 2015 in Manila in the Philippines, a country which has suffered many natural disasters, he said: “As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling.”
In Psalm 8, we get a wonderful picture of the kind of relationship that God seeks to have with us, and that God desires for us to have with our world. Although God is so great and majestic, God takes notice of humanity. Though we are insignificant in comparison to the size of this vast cosmos, we are not insignificant to God.
Looking at the world through the eyes of Psalm 8 can leave us feeling overwhelmed. There is another book of Hebrew poetry – Ecclesiastes – which can ground us and help us to get a bite-sized, slice-by-slice view of life. This was our second reading today.
Just like the Psalm ascribe authorship to King David; Ecclesiastes ascribes authorship to his successor, his son, King Solomon, although Biblical scholars believe it to have been written several centuries later. In Hebrew, the book is called ‘Qoholeth’ meaning ‘The Teacher’. King Solomon is known in popular history for three things: his wealth, his wisdom and his many wives! His most well-known act of wisdom was when two women were brought before him in a dispute as to who was the mother of a child.
If you read the whole book (only 12 chapters), the ideas can seem confusing and contradictory; however, the idea that while the world itself is innately changeless, humankind within their societies are beset by injustice, rendering the future unpredictable.
Today’s reading from Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes from made famous in popular culture in the 1960s by the American group “The Byrds” with their song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Like with Psalm 8, each couplet looks at each idea from two different sides: for example, “a time to be born, and a time to die” – looking at life; “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” – reflecting on the ups and downs we all face; “a time to keep, and a time to throw away” – how we accept that sometimes, it is time to move on and do things differently.
In our life experiences, we learn that it is the harder, tougher times which cause us to grow. The author is writing as an old man with his life largely behind him, taking stock of the world as he has experienced it between the horizons of birth and death. He reflects on all aspects of humanity, human wisdom and enterprise, just as we tend to do at the start of a new year.
In this first service of the new year 2019, we began by leaving behind the Christmas story using the carol “In The Bleak Midwinter”. Just like the Hebrew poetry of Psalm 8 and Ecclesiastes 3, the final verse of that carol turns around the way of looking at the Christmas story, looking away from the manger, and to us! That verse is asking us how do we respond to Jesus’ birth. Christina Rosetti’s response in her hymn is – “give my heart”.
The Psalmist reminds us of our place and responsibility in the created order. We proclaim a Gospel of social justice: feeding the hungry, recycling the rubbish; fighting against injustice, not wasting precious water; helping the asylum seeker, reducing our carbon footprint. These things are all one in the same, enveloping a love for all of God’s creation.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us of the simplicity of life: “all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive.”
In a moment, we will have the opportunity to rededicate our lives to God at the start of this new year, using a prayer from the Methodist tradition. It is not an easy prayer to pray. It can be summarised in the last line of Rosetti’s hymn: “Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.