Sermon - 26th May 2013
Our place in the created order
Scripture - Psalm 8
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
This is the second sermon recently in which we have looked at one of the Psalms. Previously, Andy looked at Psalm 51, a psalm of penitence written by Israel’s King David; today, we are looking at Psalm 8. Before we begin to look at the Psalm in more depth, I thought we would begin with a quiz about the Psalms, followed by some background information.
- Question 1 – How many Psalms are there? (a) 100 (b) 150 (c) 175 Answer: (b)
- Question 2 – What is another name for the book of Psalms? The clue is that it also begins PS. Answer: Psalter
- Question 3 – Which King of Israel is said to have written many of the Psalms? Answer: King David. 73 of the Psalms are ascribed to him.
- Question 4 – Which is the most famous Psalm? Answer: Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd”, again written by King David.
- Question 5 – 39 of the Psalms contain the word “selah”. What does this mean? (a) a congregational response (b) an instruction to the musicians (c) a period of silence, or (d) we don’t really know Answer: (d)
As we just discovered in our quiz, the book of Psalms is a collection of 150 poems and songs. 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 word Psalm is a very strange one, and it means “a song sung to the accompaniment by a plucked stringed instrument”, so something like a harp or lyre or lute. The Hebrew name of this book is “tehillim”, meaning “praises”.
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.
Of the Psalms, 114 of them have a title of some kind; for example, today’s Psalm, Number 8 and 72 others are entitled “Psalm of David”. And, Psalms 50, 73 and others are entitled “Psalm of Asaph”.
Traditionally, the Book of Psalms is divided into 5 smaller sub-books [Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150]. In the first sub-book, the most frequent Hebrew word for God which is used is “Yahweh”, translated as “the LORD”; in the 2nd sub-book, the word “Elohim”, or “God”, is used.
The book of Psalms also contains the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117 with just 2 verses; and it also contains the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119 with 176 verses.
We might shudder at the thought of sitting and listening to a reading of Psalm 119, but let me give you a momentary glimpse into the cleverness of the author. The Psalm is divided into 22 acrostic stanzas. [Hebrew is read from right to left.] The Hebrew letter at the start of each line in each of the stanzas is the same. So in the first stanza, each line begins with Aleph; in the second stanza, Beth, and so on.
Like any collection of poems and songs, the book of Psalms covers a wide range of themes, and scholars have put them into 12 categories. Some Psalms fit into more than one category:
- 1. Prayers for the individual
- 2. Praise from the individual
- 3. Prayers of the community
- 4. Praise from the community
- 5. Confessions of confidence in God
- 6. Songs in praise of God’s majesty – like today’s Psalm 8
- 7. Songs celebrating God’s universal reign
- 8. Songs about Zion, that is Jerusalem, City of God
- 9. Royal songs, about the King
- 10. Pilgrimage songs
- 11. Liturgical songs
- 12. Didactic (instructional) songs
The final point I would like to mention about the book of Psalms in general is that it is the book which Jesus quoted most.
Today’s Psalm, ascribed to King David, is quite short, with only 9 verses and it divides itself up into 4 sections. 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!
David, when writing this Psalm, looked around himself and looked inside of himself and realised his position: that is our position as humankind, in the created order. David was aware that the world is a big place; he will have looked up into the sky at night and seen countless stars. David 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 King David 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 Jodrell 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. In reality, Pluto is 5 billion kilometres away. In 2015, a space probe will reach Pluto, and it will have taken 11 years to get there, and it has been travelling at 64,000 km/h, which is 25 times faster than Concorde flew.
Our God created the Solar System. Our God is the awesome Creator.
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 zeros, a number so big, we do not have a name for it.
Our God is even bigger than that! Our God created them!
In David’s words in 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?
David 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.
In David’s words in the Psalm:
What are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?
When we look at the diversity in our world, are we awestruck by the diverse creativity of our God?
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.
David was anointed King over Israel by Nathan the Prophet. He knew his power as King came from God. And David reflected this in his Psalm. 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?
The Psalm tells us that humankind has mastery over “everything” and goes on to list animal-kind, birds, fish and the seas. Since the 16th century, over 800 mostly animal species have become extinct, and it is estimated that thousands of others have been lost each and every year without us noticing. How many of you have seen the stuffed extinct dodo in the Natural History Museum in London?
Every day, 80,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed – that’s about the size of Greater London. All life on Earth needs oxygen to live, yet we are ripping out the lungs of our planet. Plants and trees absorb carbon-dioxide and release oxygen. We are contributing to global warming by removing the very thing which would help control carbon-dioxide levels.
We are all aware of the appalling situations in which many humans in our world find themselves as a result of famine or flood, arising from extreme weather patterns of drought and monsoon. Even in the UK, we are experiencing longer, colder winters and wetter summers.
Returning to our Psalm and reflecting on how God gave humankind mastery over the Creation – are we good rulers?
I do not think we can give a definitive answer, as each of the 7 billion humans on this planet will need to answer the question for themselves. Humans form communities and communities form countries. Some countries respect the Creation better than others. Other countries respect their citizens better than others. Diversity of all kinds is treated in so many different ways in itself.
Clearly, we have drifted far from the ideal, the order as David the Psalmist expounds: God, the Creator, created humankind to be ruler over the Creation, and the book of Genesis tell us that God created us in God’s image and that which God created was said to be “very good”. But, the Created has largely chosen to forget its Creator. The Creation itself, whether in the infinite size of the Universe or the microscopically small world of cells, DNA, molecules and atoms, they all point to the Creator, our God.
Each of us is just one of 7 billion, but the Psalmist says to God and to each of us:
You made them inferior only to yourself...
and that each of us is
...crowned them with glory and honour.
Our Communion video reflection today is a well-known musical setting of this Psalm with the refrain “How Great Thou Art”. Let us use this Psalm as a reminder and a wake-up call this Trinity Sunday.
Where has each of us lost sight of the Creator? All of Creation points back to our amazing Creator God. Where has each of us abused the Creation? Jesus, our Redeemer, died for us and all our wrong-doing and has reconciled us to God.
The Psalmist tells us that each of us has been made
...ruler over the works of [God’s] hands.
What kind of ruler is each of us? And God’s Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, teaching us the way.
O LORD, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world!