Psalm 19: 1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
One summer when our two daughters were still quite little, and we were on a trip back East to see family, we stopped at a state park in Ohio, near where I had lived in my youth. We were going swimming at a beach on Lake Erie. As we were getting into the water, I said to them, “Now, enjoy this, because when I was little, nobody could swim here.” They looked at me like I was crazy. So, I told them, “The beaches were closed because the water was so dirty.” I didn’t go on to tell them, at their tender age, how cities and factories and some farms would just dump millions of gallons of raw waste into the rivers that fed this lake, thinking “we’ll let people downstream, or in generations to come, worry about it.”
Our young daughters were thrilled with the beach and a swimming pool so big that the other side was beyond sight. I still get a deep and powerful surge of a tender, grateful, humbling and appreciative feeling whenever I stand by the shores of that inland sweet water sea, the last time being just a little over two years ago. I feel it also whenever I stand by the Pacific Ocean, and look out at something so beautiful, so life-giving and generous, and so mind-boggling vast and deep. Many of us have experienced that mix of tender longing, love and respect for nature at Drift Creek Camp, or under the stars in the high country of Eastern Oregon.
But such wonders also stir up an element of fear, or at least, respect. The mountains around Drift Creek Camp are not to be trifled with: they do not suffer the foolhardy, the inattentive, nor the unprepared. Wild waters off Oregon and Ohio have swallowed up a lot of ships and sailors. But even scarier than nature’s raw power is our own capacity for indifference, disrespect, callousness and carelessness toward Creation and each other. I’ve seen raging waves on both the Pacific and the Great Lakes, but nothing matches for sheer terror our human willfulness, like that which leads to war, and which nearly killed one of the five Great Lakes.
The most-repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not.” Fear not for life nor the love of God. But Psalm 19 does recommend that we fear something. We should fear our own capacity to overlook, ignore, abuse, damage or even destroy three gracious, wonderful gifts by which God reveals himself in this Psalm. They are: 1) Nature or Creation; 2) God’s revealed and Written Word; and 3) our own consciences. To treasure and cherish God and his gifts, and to fear and to hate the evils we may do to them, is what this Psalm calls in verse 9 “the fear of the Lord.”
Last week, I said that our theme for this year’s Lenten Season readings, messages and prayers is “Between You and Me.” That theme is about having a personal covenant relationship with a personal, covenanting God, rather than merely a contract for goods and services with a contractual God, whom we make after our own image. I will preach this Lenten season from the Psalms, because they describe the experiences of this covenant relationship from both our human perspective, and that of God. Psalm 19 describes a very important part of this personal covenant relationship from our human standpoint: the fear of the Lord.
That phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” sounds oppressive, repressive and regressive in an age and a culture that are all about self-affirmation and self-actualization. It conjures up images of an oppressed people, paralyzed by terror, waiting with shoulders hunched for God to stomp on them in anger and hatred.
But that doesn’t match with the description of “the fear of the Lord” in verse 9: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever,” it says. Nor does it match with Solomon’s Proverbs, which say that, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Elsewhere in the Psalms we read that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Rabbi Abraham Heschel often translated that word “fear” from his native Hebrew into our English words, “awe” “wonder” and “reverence.” In his book, God In Search of Man, Heschel wrote: “Awe is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery…Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is comparable to both love and joy.”
King David grew up tending sheep in a mostly dry and desert land. So the sky, the stars and the sun, which are so beautifully described in verses 1-6, spoke to him and his people about their Creator, and moved them to that same sense of tender, grateful awe and wonder, reverence and respect which the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.”
David’s Philistine neighbors thought of the sky, the sun and the stars as gods in their own right, and so worshiped them. But according to Psalm 19, these things stir up awe, wonder, reverence and humility in us—“the fear of the Lord”—not because they are gods, but because they reflect something about God. Like God and God’s Word, “their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Just as nothing in the desert is deprived of the sun’s light and warmth, so no sparrow that flies, no soul that breathes, is hidden from the light and love of God. Nature then continually points beyond herself as if to say, “Anything you find sublime, beautiful and breath-taking in me is not about me nor in me; it’s only a reflection of our Creator’s glory and goodness.”
If it should ever come to the point that nothing and no one in God’s world awakens or stirs any tender longing awe, wonder, delight, joy, respect and reverence that catches our breath and restrains our hand from abusing, misusing or destroying a Creature or Creation of God, it is not because we are beyond fear. It is because we fear the wrong things. Like the first Spanish explorers to see the Grand Canyon. They reacted to it not with the holy awe and wonder of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, but with terror, despair and rage. They feared they would never get to the other side, where they thought there was gold.
But as Father Henri Nouwen wrote, “People who pray stand receptive before the world. They no longer grab but caress, they no longer bite but kiss, they no longer examine but admire.” That, again, is the fear of the Lord, which God’s first book of revelation calls forth from us, the book of nature.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
1 By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
The awe-inspiring witness of Nature to God and God’s glory we receive often through the eyes. The second book of God’s self-revelation in Psalm 19 most often came to David and his people through their ears. It is also called in Psalm 19 “the law,” or “the statutes, the precepts and the commands” of the Lord. To David that would include the Law of Moses and the records of God’s covenants with his ancestors. But all that David said about the law and the covenant would also apply to the prophets, the proverbs, the psalms, and the New Testament that came later: We know it as the Bible.
The Biblical record of God’s Word and God’s work, if we approach it in the spirit of Psalm 19, ”refreshes the soul… making wise the simple… giving joy to the heart… and light to the eyes.” And now I speak as a pastor, whom you have called to preach the Bible. In relation to the Bible, may there ever grow in myself that sense of tender, holy awe and reverence like what I feel next to the ocean, the Great Lakes, or a mountain landscape. Or which I felt at the birth of each of our daughters. The only options to such tender, fear-tinged reverence are indifference, presumption and arrogance: the arrogance that says, “I have something to teach others, but this passage has nothing new to teach me.”
I know that much about the Bible seems alien, strange or even primitive to 21st Century Americans. As though we weren’t alien or strange to most of the rest of humanity. If it’s of any help, consider also how God has always spoken words that are challenging, alien, disturbing, sometimes even frightening to people in every time, culture and place, including the people who first heard and recorded these words. But over time, those very points of scandal and offense often turn out to be the most fruitful and liberating. Like the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Different people have different questions and critiques of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Word of God is most fruitful and effective in our lives when we let it question and critique us first. We may have different ways of interpreting the Bible. But its treasures unfold for us when we let the Bible interpret us. Like all of us, I have questions about the Bible, and certain passages in the Bible. But let’s let the Bible question us, if we are to be refreshed, renewed and mad wise.
Modern Western people often fear that taking and teaching the Bible very seriously and authoritatively will lead to manipulation, domination and control by religious leaders. But I find that the Bible is itself the most effective check on religious teachers, pastors and leaders and the constant temptation on us to dominate, manipulate and sell ourselves to others as indispensable. Every person and every community will have a supreme authority, one way or another. Without an authoritative Bible, leaders, teachers and preachers finally have no other authority greater than ourselves, and the constant temptation to be popular, powerful, admired, and so keep our jobs.
That’s why the pastorate is a dangerous calling. So I hope you take the Bible seriously enough, with Psalm 19’s kind of “fear of the Lord,” so that you can hold me accountable if ever I should start to advocate or exert any authority in this church or from this pulpit other than that of the Bible. For you to take the Bible that seriously, that you hold me accountable to it, I must model that same reverential stance to you, that stance called, “the fear of the Lord.”
12 But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
In addition to Creation and the Scriptures, the third gracious, precious reflection of God which should provoke from us a tender, grateful, awe-struck “fear of the Lord,” comes to us not through the eyes nor the ears, but from within, from our hearts and minds. I’m talking about the conscience, that internal witness that warns us against evil, and which draws us toward all that is good and of God. When we fail to heed its voice, conscience then keeps reminding us to make amends and to seek reconciliation and restitution. Conscience speaks in words like those last few verses of Psalm 19: “Forgive my hidden faults…. Keep your servant from willful sins; may they not rule over me…[May I]be blameless, innocent of great transgression.” It is the awareness that, to God, our inner lives, as well as our outer ones, are equally open to Him, and that God lays claim to both.
The exact contents of our consciences may differ a bit from one person to the next. My Muslim or Jewish friend might feel conscience-stricken to find bacon in his sandwich, the half he hasn’t eaten yet. I, by contrast, might ask, “Can I have the other half of your sandwich?” because I would be bothered by the waste of food. But the universal fact of the conscience is in itself a holy fear-inducing miracle.
It was this universal and unavoidable law of conscience that made a believer out of Dr. Francis Collins. Collins is the physicist and geneticist who led the project that cracked the code of human DNA, all that information in our body’s cellular structure. The order he glimpsed at our most basic cellular level alone points toward a Creator, Dr. Collins has said. But before that, it was the universal and unavoidable logic of right and wrong and of conscience that spoke to Collins of a moral and spiritual order to the universe that reflects something of God, as do the ocean and the sky.
As miraculous, universal and insistent as the conscience is, it is not invincible nor indestructible, however. Like any other gift of God it is vulnerable to destruction. The Bible warns us about how conscience can be desensitized, cauterized, silenced and finally destroyed by repeated choices to ignore it, betray it and disobey it, should it die the death of a thousand cuts by compromise. Our ability to distinguish truth from wishful thinking dies under the weight of so many little white lies. It’s why violent shoot-em-up video games were first developed, by the Defense Department: to desensitize and destroy the conscience against killing that recruits brought into basic training.
To protect and strengthen the gift of conscience, Martin Luther would often meditate on the Ten Commandments and review his recent conduct in comparison with them. Some Christians practice the daily examen, a prayerful review of the day, at the end of each day, according to these two questions: “Where was God in my life today? And Where was I?” Not physically, but in my thoughts, intents and actions? Step number 10 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says that, “We continued to take personal inventory and whenever we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
And so we nurture and grow that gift of God that reflects God: the inner life of conscience. The stronger that is in us, the more of the beauty, glory and goodness of God do we enjoy through God’s other self-revelations in Psalm 19: Nature and the Scriptures. The only thing we need then to fear is becoming deadened, dull and destructive toward God and God’s gifts. As Rabbi Heschel said: “We will not perish for lack of information, but for lack of appreciation.”