My friend Adrianne told me she had never seen the stars till she came to Auckland. She had grown up in the neon and quarts halogen glare of Hong Kong.
It was only as a teenager when she came here to study that looking up at night she saw something of the vast array of the night sky. I don’t know about you but I’m not always aware of the stars in Auckland, and one of the things I love doing when I’m on holiday away from the city is look up, to stand on a beach or hill top and gaze heavenward.
I told Adrianne she had something special in store if she had the chance to go to the country away from the city and its light pollution because then the stars, the heavens, become a lot more visible, so much more awe inspiring. As Psalm 8 says they are able to speak of the majesty of the one who created them, able to put our existence into perspective, and open us up to the amazing grace of God. That the one who made the vastness of it all should think about us and care for us, and place us in a unique relationship with our creator with such responsibility for God’s creation. Do we look up enough?
The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, which we are part of, has as its mission statement 'to work with others to make Jesus known', and sees that being worked out through what we call the five faces of Mission... One of those faces is care for creation. This series looking at the nature psalms is called "Theo-cology; The breath Print of God and the Renewal of Care for Creation in the Nature Psalms." Theo-cology of course is a word I've invented. Its a mix of theology and ecology, the study of God and the study of the eco system. My hope is that as we look at the nature Psalms that we regain a sound theological basis for the care of creation which in turn will encourage us to care for the planet that God has gifted us. that may seem a bit dry, but I am aware that the Psalms are first and foremost poems. Prayers and songs that flow out of peoples encounter with God and in this series I also don't want to lose sight of the artistry and beauty of the Psalms which first and foremost invite us to worship and stand in awe of the creator.
One of the challenges of studying the Psalms is putting them in their historical context, if they are one of David psalms where do they fit in his life? New Zealand Biblical Scholar EM Blaiklock, sees the opening section of Psalms coming from the time David had had to flee from Jerusalem when his son Absalom had set himself up as king (2 Samuel 15-18). Psalm 3, has that very situation in its introduction. Blaiklock sees the psalms being a series of morning and evening prayers from that time. Psalms that pour out David’s grief and suffering to God, yet in the midst of all that, reflect a deep trust. Psalm 8, an evening prayer, is the first Psalm that is full of joyful praise and adoration to God in the whole Book. You get the picture of David, weighed down, looking down, coming to the end of yet another weary day of flight, stepping out to say his evening prayers. He starts with words he is so familiar with giving praise to God for the majesty of his name, and suddenly he looks up and now away from the royal palace, sees the night sky again, and encounters the reality of the God whom he loves and is praising. As Gerald Wilson says, (click for quote)
“just for a moment, (after Psalm 8 we go back to psalms of concern and suffering) but Just for a moment darkness and suffering are driven away by the commanding vision of the sovereign God of the created universe and his unfathomable care for humanity.”
God is able to use creation to speak into our lives, to reveal something of God’s character to us.
Let’s have a look at Psalm 8.
Historically the way that people talked of science and faith was not that they are at loggerheads, but are two books, the book of nature and the book of scripture, natural revelation and Special revelation, which together revealed the truth about God. Psalm 8 starts and finishes with an affirmation of the name of God, YHWH, which was revealed to God’s people through Moses encounter with God at the burning bush. This Psalm is first and last an acknowledgement of a God who invites us into a relationship. ‘LORD, my lord’. In the Old Testament a name summed up the very character of a person. I looked up the meaning of Howard as a first name, and I discovered it actually comes from the old English for ‘sheepherder’ interesting I should end up a pastor. YHWH ‘I am who I am’ is a name that speaks of a promise of God’s continued presence, of God’s continued self-revelation and the fact that God is self-contained and not changed by circumstances or open to manipulated.
When David sees the heavens he is reminded of just how big and awesome this God whom has revealed himself to us as YHWH is: The book of nature and the book of scripture together revealing the truth of God. That God has made the vastness of the universe. The metaphor of a potter comes to mind, that he rolled the stars and moon on his fingertips, like balls of clay. Of course as we are able to see further and further out into space, and what we thought were stars we now know are galaxies of billions of stars and we try and contemplate the vastness of it all, some want to say that it diminishes the need for, or evidence of the existence of God. But I happen to agree with popular Christian speaker Louis Gigglio, who like me loves the amazing images from the Hubble Telescope, who says that if the purpose of the universe is to speak of the greatness of God, that now we are beginning to realise that it just may be big enough for the job.
The other effect of gazing off into the vastness of space is that it makes the psalmist and us aware of just how small and insignificant we are. ‘Who is man’ asks the psalmist. We are dwarfed by the grandeur of a mountain range, we realise our frailty as we stare off into space, we come and go, generations raise and fall, yet the time scale of what we see in space is so amazing, that it is only recently that we can actually comprehend stars having life cycles. Astronomer Carl Sagan, says with each and every new discovery of cosmology humans realise that we are smaller and less significant.
The universe does not revolve round us, I’m sorry to say it…we are not centre of the universe, we revolve round the sun, we’ve got photographic evidence that we are living on what looks like from the edge of the solar system a speak of dust caught in a beam of light, a pale blue dot.
our sun is not the centre of the universe either, it is just an average star just a little more than half way up a not that impressive spiral arm of a galaxy filled with billions of stars.
Our galaxy is nothing extraordinary either…its one of billions of such galaxies, Carl Sagan’s response is similar to that of the psalmist, it calls us to humility he says. Who are we. It calls us to recognise our frailty, the fragility of our planet. While Sagan says it shows we are alone in the dark void, the psalmist becomes aware of the presence and care of the creator.
Who are human beings that you are mindful of us, who are we that you should care for us. But you do.
In verse 2 of this psalm which is hard to understand. We see that the God whose awesomeness is displayed in the heavens, in the immeasurable vastness and wonder of the cosmos, is also equally at home with the praises of infants and toddlers. There is the picture of the transcendence and immanence of God. He defends those who trust in him. The metaphor is one of a small child who is totally dependent on their parent, they voice their thanks and trust in contented gurgling one commentator calls it inarticulate burbling. Jesus uses this verse in Matthews account of the his entry into Jerusalem, to defend the children following him through the streets singing “hosanna, hosanna”. For David in his difficult situation it is heartening to know that this dependency on God gives him hope in the face of God’s enemies, God is able to supply all his needs.
The focus of the psalm turns to the unique position that humankind holds in the created order. That God has made us to be in his image. God has made us a little less than the heavenly beings, we are still part of this earthly creation, we are creatures, but able to contemplate the universe and know and be known by God. And He has provided for our needs and placed us in this position of ruling over all the works of his hands.. Now for many people this understanding of human beings as the highpoint of creation is criticised as underpinning humanities and particularly the western worlds, belief that they have the ‘God given’ right to exploit and misuse the world and its resources.
But that is a misunderstanding of the biblical narrative. Firstly, the bible ties us very much into the created order. We need that perspective of the heavens, that we are small and fragile, weak and dependant, I read once of a Jewish rabbi saying that the fact that we are created last reminds us that even the flea comes before us in the order of creation. We need to join the psalmist and look up more often, and find the humility that Sagan talks of and David expresses as “who are we”?.
Secondly, that position is not ours by right but one given by the creator. It implies relationship. In our commonwealth country we have a governor general who represents the queen as our head of state. They don’t do what they wish, maybe historically some have, but should reflect the values and grace of the monarch. In the ancient near east powerful kings often made a treaty with lesser kings, which allowed them to continue ruling, but only as much as they reflected the values and laws and nature of that more powerful king, the ten commandments and the Sinai covenant between God and Israel actually follows the template of such a treaty. Our reign over the works of God’s hands is to reflect the nature of God.
Sadly with the fall that image of God has been marred and In Romans there is the picture of the whole of creation groaning, like an oppressed nation waiting for the children of God to be revealed; waiting for God’s new creation in Christ for that right image of God to be restored in humanity. We are called to rule as a reflection of the God who made it all and who shows his love and care and mercy.
This relationship with God has some moral imperatives. The earth and all that we have belongs to God, it is given to us as part of God’s provision but how we treat it and use it should reflect our reverence and praise to God. It has value because it was lovingly made by God, and reflects his glory. Secondly, we are made in the image of a God whose self-revelation is of a God in community, the trinity. That is shown in us being made in God’s image both male and female. That image is marred when the focus is on what we can have and use, rather than on the needs of us all, of seeing that all receive what they need and that the needs of future generations are considered. We need God’s grace in Christ to help us in that task.
The psalm again finishes with Praise..."Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth". Maybe it has started out as the words of a traditional prayer. But as the stars have appeared those words have become an utterance of praise and awe, of deep understanding of the majesty and mercy of God. On a personal level, if today you are like David and caught in difficult situations weighed down with grief and sorrow ‘look up’ and encounter the sovereignty and grace of God. On a corporate communal level we need to look up as well, to see creation as the great and awesome works of a great and awesome God. That God calls us into relationship with him and calls us into a position of responsibility for his creation.