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The Message at the Heart of Creation

March 12, 2012

“The Message at the Heart of Creation” Psalm 19 Lent 3B © 3/11/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The sky is bigger in West Virginia.

That’s the way it seemed to Susan and me on vacation near the turn of the century. As we lay on the hillside outside our little motel, the stars were closer. The milky white streak that gives our galaxy its name was an arm’s length away. A meteorite streaked by on its way to a fiery oblivion. There in the windy darkness, we felt again the sense of awe that has touched us at other times when we have gazed at the twinkling lights in the sky.

The psalmist would say that the heavens were speaking to us. No, there were no words, nothing audible. This language is heard with the heart, captured with the imagination, experienced as a feeling, almost like telepathy. It can be understood by anyone on earth, speaking any tongue, of any age or race or economic status. And though his or her stars would be different, someone on a planet 100,000 light years away could be caught up in the same reverie as Susan and I were.

We can look at the stars and know or wonder something about ourselves. Maybe we will see how small we are. Perhaps we will wonder why, faced with such vastness, human beings don’t get along better. Could be we ask questions about our relationship to the universe. Are we made of “star stuff,” as a scientist once put it?

And those would be important musings. But the poet goes one step farther and claims that when we look at the heavens we can know that they had a Creator, whom we call God. And God is glorious. Big. Majestic. Colorful. A Reality exceeding our wildest imagination. The universe shouts the praise of this One. Not just a phrase here and there. Not a hidden hint, a puzzling clue. Instead, this is speech that is poured out, knowledge for the taking. Again, wordlessly, heard with different ears, but real all the same.

As a prime example of the glory of this Creator the poet gives us the sun. The ancients, of course, thought of the sun itself as a god, but the psalmist says “not so.” Wherever the sun dwells, God has constructed the house. Whatever joy it gives to humankind by its heat and light, the gift is from the Creator. And its constant presence reminds us of the abiding care and watchfulness of the Lord.

All of this is debatable, of course, and not self-evident. It is already a response of faith to look at the stars and see there the work of God or a god. Let’s admit: the universe could have just happened. The right mixture of molecules with temperature and pressure, and you’ve got the Big Bang. The stars might not mean anything other than a fusion furnace gives off energy that may support life that in turn gazes back at the star and decides there must be a God who designed it all. A college philosophy student could disprove all the classic arguments for the existence of God.

Even as people of faith, we claim with Paul only that the divine nature and eternal power are known from creation. But a creator could be cruel; a majestic king, aloof; a cosmic designer, uncaring. The heavens are telling the glory of God, but they don’t let us know that he is moral or compassionate, just that he has a grasp of unbelievable technology that can construct galaxies or turn lumps of clay into living beings. Nor is there one word in the vocabulary of comets, quasars, black holes, dark matter, and nebulae about how you and I should or can live a better life.

So the heavens teach us only the basics. For more, we need what the Hebrews knew as “torah,” the instruction of the Lord. We might call star-gazing “Theology 101,” the prerequisite to the next level courses. But as in college courses, what was learned previously is built upon, not discarded. This one who gives torah is the Creator. The work of the sun that enlightens, energizes, and restores is also done by this God’s instruction. As we rejoice when a gray day is banished by the bright sunlight, so also do we revel in the good law of God that helps us know the right thing to do, to say, to be. As colors are revealed when darkness turns to day, so does the commandment of the Lord make clear the varied dimensions of our lives, the spectrum of our choices, the primary colors that are his principles. Relative to the span of human life, the sun endures forever, but even it will burn out in few more billion years. But the instruction of the Lord never ends. The sun, says the poet, goes from one end of the heavens to the other. So also does the torah. The text as we heard it says “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” But one commentator has suggested that a better rendering is: “the law of the Lord is all-encompassing, restoring life.” The extraordinary claim of the psalmist is that the instruction of God is built into the very fabric of the universe; life depends on torah as much as on the energy of a sun. We can no more live without the word of God than we could without the light of our star.

But torah is still not enough. It’s as if it came with a little label on it that said: “batteries not included.” The knowledge of what to do is there, but the power is lacking in the document itself. There is word, but the word comes alive only when the Spirit breathes on it. We find power to obey only when we are gifted by God. Torah is God’s instruction, but it is not the Instructor. The psalmist wants to move us now to finding a relationship with this Creator who has given his word, wants to speak of a linkage deep in the heart, a covenant indeed between two hearts, two lives: ours and God’s. And the key provision of this agreement, this bond may be summed up in one word: forgiveness.

The poet knew how prone every human is to self-delusion, self-deception, how we think more highly of ourselves that we ought to think. Sometimes we believe ourselves righteous, and in that very thought, show our unrighteousness. Neither the poet nor we are much good at times at seeing the truth about ourselves, detecting our own errors. We do well then from time to time to look into the mirror of other people’s perceptions, and better yet, to see our true reflection in the word of God. It is only God, the psalmist knows, who can clear us from our faults, both because he has the power to do and because every sin is ultimately an affront to God. It is also only God who can help us resist the persistent peer pressure and the pervasive influence of a society in which we are constantly invited to forsake the sovereignty of God and let some other deity have dominion over us. So, with the poet, we turn to our Creator and Instructor, and call him our Rock and our Redeemer.

That last word, “redeemer,” is interesting. It also means “next of kin.” The custom in ancient times was for your family members to buy you out of slavery if somehow you had gotten yourself in that state by debt or some other bad circumstance. So the amazing claim of the psalmist is that the Creator of the cosmos who gave a marvelous, delightful law is intimately, personally related to human beings. It is God who spent his own resources to buy us back from our bondage to every power that enslaves and threatens us. We believe that it was in Jesus Christ that God paid such a price.

There is a message, says the psalmist, at the heart of the creation. Albert Einstein agreed in a way. Though he dismissed the idea of a personal God, he spent his days describing mathematically what he perceived as the order “deeply hidden in everything.” The NPR religion commentator Krista Tippett notes that indeed “mathematics might be the mother tongue of God” (“My Grandfather’s Faith,” The Christian Century, July 27, 2010).

The idea of a hidden message within the order of things also showed up in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Sagan said that the question of God was not one science could answer, but still the late scientist dealt from time to time with matters of faith. He certainly does in the novel. If you know the story or saw the movie back in the day, aliens from another star send a coded message to Earth. It contains the instructions for building a machine of some sort. Some scientists are selected to ride in the machine to wherever it might go. The device takes them to the center of the galaxy, through a kind of interstellar subway system. At the Grand Central Station, Sagan’s character Eleanor Arroway has a conversation with one of the extra-terrestrials, who looks like her dead father. He tells her that there is a message hidden deep within the computation of the number pi to an astoundingly large number of decimal places. The message turned out to be a perfect circle. Sagan writes: “The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point….It doesn’t matter what you look like, or what you’re made of, or where you come from. As long as you live in this universe, and have a modest talent for mathematics, sooner or later you’ll find it. It’s already here. It’s inside everything. You don’t have to leave your planet to find it. In the fabric of space and the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature.”

But that knowledge is not finally what touches Arroway. Rather it is this: “She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all. She had been fierce in debunking the creation myths of others, and oblivious to the lie at the core of her own. She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love” (430-431).

I am fond of saying that all truth is God’s truth, and I think what Sagan has said is God’s truth. Stephen Hawking, the physicist, once wrote that his project was to “discover the mind of God.” The psalmist would say to him, and to us, that what is in the mind of God is also in the heart of God. The message at the very heart of creation is that this One who made it all is our next of kin who loves you and me, small creatures as we are. And it is his love that does indeed make the vastness bearable, because we are not alone. God is with us in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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