May 15, 2005

The Lord Provides for Us
Psalm 104:24-36

It has often been said that people take greater pride in or care of those things that they have a personal investment in. Students who pay at least a portion of their college bills themselves, for example, often seem to take their education more seriously than those students who have everything handed to them. Or think for a moment about a piece of property. I’ve lived in and refurbished two houses now—I hope not to do a third!—and I try to take good care of my investment. My hands, as well as those of my wife and children, are all over our current house. In the paint, wall paper, flooring, dry wall, shutters, and so on. We bought the house, and we remodeled it. We also take good care of it, far better care than did the tenants who rented it from us during our last extended trip overseas. People typically care more for those things that they have a personal investment in.

The same holds true, or at least it ought to, in our relational lives. While we are called to care for a variety of people around us, we all agree that we feel a heightened sense of responsibility—and desire—to care for those who we are personally invested in: our children. I suppose that is why crimes such as the killing of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and her best friend this past week in Illinois was even more troubling than it originally sounded. Laura’s dad committed the crime. Parents have been blessed by God to participate in the wonderful and mysterious process of creating life—our children are a fundamental part of who we are. We are expected to care for them, to protect and provide for them. We care, so it would seem, for what we create.

God does. Psalm 104 announces this loud and clear. This is a hymn—a psalm of praise par excellence. Like Psalm 103 immediately before it, the 104th Psalm elevates God in resounding ways. I suspect that Psalm 104 was to the worship of the people of Israel like “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “And Can it Be” is to ours! And among the various themes that surface in the psalm, one stands out today on Pentecost Sunday—the Lord, through his Spirit, provides for us.

Psalm 104, as I said, is a hymn or psalm of praise. Following a one-line call to worship—“Bless the Lord, O my soul,” we encounter line after line and image after image, all celebrating God’s glorious creative activity and all directly addressed to God himself. “You did this,” the Psalmist declares, “and that. And that. And that. And that.” One immediately thinks of the six days of creation so vividly described in Genesis 1, for Psalm 104 includes six stanzas of its own. Look briefly as the psalm moves through its various scenes.

In the first stanza (vv. 1b-3), the Psalmist—and the entire congregation as everyone joins in—acknowledges that God created the heavens above us. Like a backpacker setting up her tent or a contractor constructing a roof, so the Lord set all of the heavens in place. Or we might compare God to an amusement park ride designer. Do you sense the playful mood in verse 3? After setting the heavens in place, the Lord flies through the sky like the builder of a roller coaster at Hershey Park enjoying his recent invention.

In stanza two, the Psalmist celebrates the establishment of the earth’s foundations (vv. 5-9). God dug the holes and poured the footers. He used the best materials—granite, gold, and cedar—and he built it to last. The earth is not like a certain house that I looked at when I first moved to Grantham. Every corner was out of whack—none were square—and the house sounded hollow wherever I knocked on the wall. I wanted to get out before it fell over! This old earth of ours that God has made, the Psalmist announces with confidence, will never be shaken.

Stanza three describes God’s activities in fashioning water (vv. 10-13). From springs trickling up in a meadow to streams flowing down the side of a mountain, God brought water—the world’s most precious commodity—into existence. People in the world fight over water. Nations write stipulations in their treaties concerning the distribution of water. Water that quenches thirst. Water that nourishes the ground. God—our God—made water.

In stanza four (vv. 14-18), vegetation appears at the Lord’s command. Grass. Plants. Trees. Annuals. Perennials. Fruit-bearing. Finger-pricking. Vegetables to eat. Branches to rest on. You name it. God made them all.

In stanza five (vv. 19-23), the Psalmist’s thoughts leave the earth and focus on the sun and moon above. Human minds have for millennia been fascinated, even overwhelmed, by the sun and the moon. Countless people through time have enjoyed their light and patterned the rhythm of their own lives according to the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Others have called them holy and worshiped them. God, the Psalmist proclaims, fashioned them both.

And finally, stanza six (vv. 24-26), celebrates the Lord’s creation of the vast and seemingly measureless seas that cover the earth. Once again, a strikingly playful mood appears. Many in the ancient world feared the seas, believing that frightening monsters lived there. One in particular, Leviathan, is even mentioned here in v. 26. According to ancient mythology, Leviathan was an intimidating sea monster—a sort of “Lockness Monster”—who terrorized those who dared to sail the seas. In the Psalmist’s depiction, these same seas, as nasty and threatening as they may appear to be, are in reality God’s pond. Here, like a child sailing toy boats in a bathtub, God plays with the creatures of the deep—big ones and little ones. God, Psalm 104 joyfully declares, is the master Creator who has formed the world and all—all—of its inhabitants.

This psalm, however, is more than a glowing description of God’s creative action, although it surely is that. It portrays, in addition, a mental break-through, a leap of self awareness on the part of both the Psalmist who wrote these words as well as the congregation who sang them. In the book of Lamentations, which is set against a totally different backdrop—the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 587/86 B.C.—the writer suddenly realized, in the midst of great personal and corporate suffering, that God did in fact care for him. As the smoke ascended from Jerusalem to the heavens, the poet nevertheless declared, “Your mercies are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Now, in Psalm 104, the psalmist expresses a similar thought (vv. 27-30). God, who has created all of the world, everything big and small, likewise cares for each and every one of us. We have certainly seen hints of this idea previously in the Psalm, but now it strikes us with full force. The Lord provides for what he creates! When God opens up his hand, all the world comes to eat. But if he for some reason would ever hide his face—if he would turn off the light switch on the wall—the world would grow dark. This is what John Hayes refers to as “vertical universality.” All of life, from earth worms to earth’s rulers—share this in common—we are vertically dependant. “In him we live and move and have our being,” is the way Paul phrased it in Acts 17:28. God gives and sustains life.

This connection between God creating and God providing is a vital one for us to get a hold of. In his book, The Journey, Alistair McGrath considers a profound awareness of this connection to be a major stepping stone on our spiritual journeys. So often, conversations concerning creation are little more than academic exercises—debates concerning creation and evolution and whether creation ought to be taught in school. It is as though Christians assume that they have to verbally affirm the fact that God created the world in a particular way in order to be true disciples. Don’t get me wrong. I believe completely that God created the heavens and the earth, although I don’t presume to know when and how. But of greater importance than the details that Christians often argue about is this: how does my belief that God created the heavens and the earth—that God created me—affect the way I live my life?

McGrath rightly points out that a biblical theology of creation ought to be for people a great source of joy and confidence. Already in the Old Testament, the community uses the idea of creation as a means of affirming God’s ongoing care. In Isaiah 42:5-7, for example, the prophet announces that God, the Lord who created the heavens and the earth, likewise gives breath and spirit to all who live. Isaiah points out a clear connection between creating and providing. It reminds me of the times when I rode in the car as a child. I always felt most secure when my father was driving. And I can think of no one’s food that satisfied my hunger more than my mother’s. Mom and Dad, by God’s grace, created me. Mom and Dad cared for me. The Psalmist wants us to see this connection. God provides for his own.

What, then, might this really mean for us who live in a part of the world where most of us have virtually everything that we need—this sermon would be far different were I preaching in Zambia? Two ideas immediately come to mind. First, it means that we continually recognize that everything we have is in fact a gift to us from God. We of course participate in the process of working and earning, but all of that could be cut off in a minute. We are, Psalm 104 reminds us, vertically dependant. And second, it means that we can increasingly wean ourselves from our dependency upon the things of the world. We can reject our tendencies to horde and store up unnecessarily. We can temper our intrinsic drive to preserve ourselves. We can stop panicking when needs arise. We can, if we really believe in creation, begin to trust more.

We have on occasion invited you to call out words that describe God and inspire your souls. Were we to use Psalm 104 as the foundation for such an exercise, many words would readily come to mind: competent, playful, masterful, powerful, creative, warm-spirited, imaginative, and in-charge, just to name a few. But as the Psalmist rehearses the events of creation and reflects on their significance in his own life, he is struck by this thought: “The Lord is my provider.” “When you send forth your spirit, O Lord,” the Psalmist announces, “you create.” “When you send forth your spirit, you likewise renew the face of the ground.”

Jesus, you will remember, shared the same conviction. “The Father will give you the Holy Spirit,” he promised his disciples, “and he will teach you everything (John 14:26).” Likewise, “he will give you power and you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8).” God creates. God provides. The two go hand in hand. May we all share the Psalmist’s life-changing confidence as he concludes this marvelous hymn. “May the glory of the Lord endure forever.” “Praise the Lord!”