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Talking to the man in the mirror

Talking to the Man in the Mirror

Psalm 19


One night a couple of years ago at about this time of year, I was driving home, going from Traverse City to Williamsburg along the shores of East Bay between Holiday Hills and Acme and I happened to notice the sunset. It was so striking that I had to pull over for a minute and just watch. As I watched, I grabbed my phone and jotted down these words:


“Lavender waters giving way to an indigo sky, shafts of light bouncing off the clouds as indigo changes to light teal and the sun says goodbye. You can’t beat a sunset looking west over East Bay. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t just drive right on by. Take in the moment.” Between work and our kids’ activities I make that drive, either headed into town or coming home, at least four times a day on a typical day. And on that night it struck me that I drive it so often, I take the beauty of creation right in front of me for granted. I made a commitment on that night to try never to take the beauty of this playground God has given us for granted ever again.


Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told of an incident that seemed insignificant at the time, but had a profound influence on the rest of his life. The winter he was 9, he went walking across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed out his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as an arrow’s flight, and then young Frank’s tracks meandering all over the field. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.” Years later the world-famous architect liked to tell how this experience had greatly contributed to his philosophy in life. “I determined right then,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye, “not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had.”[i]


I’m drawn to the beauty of our skies. Whether it’s a sunset over the bay or the countless thousands of stars that fill the sky as I stare at the sky at night, there just ain’t no sky like the Northern Michigan sky. In the 19th Psalm, the Psalmist draws our attention to the magnificent beauty of the skies as well. And he does so for a very specific purpose. C.S. Lewis said that he considered Psalm 19 to be “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[ii]


Look at how the Psalm begins. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Several years ago A. Cressy Morrison, former president of the New York Academy of Sciences, wrote an article entitled, “Seven Reasons Why a Scientist Believes in God.” He said, “Consider the rotation of the earth. Our globe spins on its axis at the rate of one thousand miles an hour. If it were just a hundred miles an hour, our days and nights would be ten times as long. The vegetation would freeze in the long night or it would burn in the long day; and there could be no life. Consider the heat of the sun. Twelve thousand degrees at surface temperature, and we’re just far enough away to be blessed by that terrific heat. If the sun gave off half its radiation, we would freeze to death. If it gave off one half more, we would roast. Consider the slant of the earth: twenty-three degrees. If it were different than that, the vapors from the oceans would ice over the continents. There could be no life. Consider the moon. If the moon were fifty thousand miles away rather than its present distance, twice each day giant tides would inundate every bit of land mass on this earth. Think of the crust of the earth. Just a little bit thicker and there could be no life because there would be no oxygen. Or the thinness of the atmosphere. If our atmosphere was just a little thinner, the millions of meteors now burning themselves out in space would plummet this earth into oblivion. These are reasons,” he said, “why I believe in God.”


In his letter to the Romans in the New Testament, Paul said that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” In other words, as the original and ultimate artist, the magnificent Creator, God has left evidence of himself in all that he has made. “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Day to day and night to night refers to the orderliness and regularity that we find in creation – the predictability that science so desperately depends on as it delves more and more deeply into the mysteries of the universe. This regularity and dependability, the detail and care that was taken, that conditions are exactly perfect for the development and sustenance of life on this tiny little planet, that if one of those conditions deviated even a little bit life wouldn’t exist here, the very vastness of the universe itself seen in the sky by day and by night point us to the incomparable majesty of our Creator. Take a look at this video.


“There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Without ever speaking a word, the heavens declare the glory of God. They shout his existence, they shout his power, they shout his immensity, they shout his majesty. But that isn’t the point of this Psalm. From the vastness of the heavens he narrows his gaze down to just one star: our sun. Look at the last half of V. 4-6.


Two characteristics in particular of the sun stand out to him: its unwavering constancy and its pervasive and persistent heat. Whether the sky is obscured by clouds or not, the sun appears in the sky every day, providing warmth and light to our tiny corner of the solar system. And as we’ve been all too aware this past week, when the sun shines there is no escaping its heat, even in the shade.


As we’ve seen, it’s a small star, but its 12,000 degrees of surface temperature travel the nearly 93 million miles between earth and sun, a distance that would take roughly 106 days to reach from earth, in just over 8 minutes, providing the light and heat that makes life possible day after day after day. If we were even a few degrees closer, or farther away, life could not exist here. The sun rises at one end of the sky, and runs through it to the other end each and every day, and during this course, nothing can escape its heat. And it is in thinking about our sun, feeling its heat, experiencing its light, that the Psalmist comes to the point of his song: The Word of God has the same impact on our lives as the sun does on our planet. Look at Vv. 7-11.


Notice that the name the Psalmist uses to describe God has changed. In the first part of the Psalm, God is our creator God. The Hebrew word is “El,” and the word is simply translated “God.” It refers to God’s power and might, But starting in V. 7, He is identified as “the LORD,” and the word “Lord” appears in all caps. When you see the word “Lord” in all caps in your Bible, the word being translated isn’t the word for lord, or sovereign, or ruler, typically referring to a human ruler. It isn’t even “Adonai,” a word used in the Old Testament exclusively to refer to God as lord, ruler, authority. That’s Lord with a capital “L” and lowercase letters. When the word “LORD” appears in all caps, the word being translated is Yahweh, the personal name God chose to use to identify himself to his people. It literally means “I am who I am” and is the name God first identified himself by to Moses. It is the name the people of Israel considered too sacred to speak, and so it does not appear in our translations of the Hebrew text even today. It is translated as LORD with all of the letters written as capitals. It is the name behind the phrase “I am.” It signifies the only God who is, who exists. And to be is to be present. It points us to a God who is not distant. He is present with his people, calling out, reaching out to save. God is, and is personally present with his people to save us from our sin. He has revealed himself through his creation as the mighty creator of all that is. And he has revealed himself more clearly through his Word as the loving savior of all who will heed his call.


And then in beautiful and unparalleled language, the Psalmist lays before us the beauty of the Word of God as a beauty that surpasses that of the most beautiful vistas in all of creation, no matter where they may be found. Creation speaks without words and in general terms. The Word of God speak in clear language about the beauty of a God of power and might and majesty, a God who creates atoms, cells, organs, bodies, nations, planets, and stars, who is also a God who sees, through the vastness of the universe, you and I on this little planet, and loves us, and reaches out to save us, calling us his special possession.


The New Testament writer of Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That’s a summary of this Psalm, and the Psalmist lists four ways in which the beautiful Word of God is active in our lives. First, it revives. It restores us. There is a refreshing nature to it. It brings healing and hope. I think some of the most beautiful words in scripture come from the 23rd Psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” Creation speaks, but without words. Through his Word God speaks with words we can understand, communicating on our level the incomprehensible beauty of his love. Through his Word God revives and restores.


Second, it is a source of wisdom. The writer of Proverbs tells us that the beginning of all wisdom is not intelligence, a high IQ, or talent and special abilities, it isn’t youth or even age, it isn’t experience. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, reverence for God. Those who build their lives on the foundation of reverence for God want to please God and seek his will in every part of their lives. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: to live a different kind of life patterned after the life of Christ, because he is alive in us and living through us. If that’s true, shouldn’t it impact the way we do … everything?


The problem is that we don’t treat the Word of God as the Word of God. I think there are five unhelpful approaches to the Word of God, and we’re all guilty of all of them:


The Xanax Approach. Feel anxious? Read Philippians 4:6. Feel tired? Read Matthew 11:28. The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Bible study is about finding comfort for my issues. The problem with this approach is that I ask how the Bible can serve me, rather than how I can serve the God it proclaims.


The Pinball Approach. Lacking a reference or any guidance on what to read, I read whatever Scripture verse I happen to turn to next, ricocheting from one passage to the next. But the Pinball Approach gives no thought to the culture, history, authorship, or original intent of the passage.


The Magic 8 Ball Approach. Remember the Magic 8 Ball? You just shake it and wait until it provides a clear answer to your most difficult questions. But the Bible isn’t magical and its primary function is to transform us rather than to answer our most pressing questions.


The Personal Shopper Approach. We don’t actually study the Bible; rather, we shop around for Bible teachers or preachers who suit our tastes. This isn’t all bad, but it can prevent us from taking ownership of Scripture. Much like the Pinball Approach, we ricochet from teacher to teacher and topic to topic without getting the tools to study God’s Word for ourselves.


The Jack Sprat Approach. In the English nursery rhyme, the character Jack Sprat “could eat no fat.” We take this approach when we’re picky eaters who refuse to digest certain parts of the Bible. But all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. We need a balanced diet to grow into maturity.


Third, the Word of God brings joy. Those of you who have been a part of Christ Church have heard me say time and time again, “joy isn’t the same as happiness.” Happiness depends on happenings, circumstances. Happiness and sadness have nothing to do with joy. I can be deeply saddened by something and still filled with joy. Why? Because joy is the quiet confidence that God is in control. It’s an inner peace, a tranquility that is much closer to the Jewish concept of shalom, persistent and pervasive peace both within and between people, than to happiness. If you think about it, happiness is kind of, in a way, inherently selfish, because something that makes me happy might make you sad. I get a job, which means you don’t. I’m happy, you’re sad. Shalom, peace, the joy that the Word of God brings, surpasses all of that. It is deeper, growing out of a sense of resting securely in the hands of God regardless of what happens. It enables a soon-to-be martyr to face death for the sake of Christ with fear and trembling, eyes and heart filled with tears and dread, and yet courageously, knowing that your last breath in this life precedes your first breath in the next.


Fourth, and this is why it is important to understand what joy really is, it brings light. We tend to view light as a really good thing, don’t we. It helps us to see. And light, whether from a bulb or from the sun, is always accompanied by heat. Light illuminates and warms. But there is a searching nature to the light of the Word of God that should make us uncomfortable. Most of us do our best most of the time to keep a clean house all winter long. We vacuum and dust, but the lack of natural light makes it hard to really do a good job, doesn’t it? That’s why we have spring cleaning. The light and fresh air of open windows stirs up dust and dirt that we didn’t know was there, in corners and behind the television and under the couch. The first time the light really shines in the spring, I mean really coming directly through the windows, I’m always kind of depressed at the dirt and dust and grime, and the fingerprints on windows that were hidden by winter’s darkness and cloudy days. Light illuminates indiscriminately. It helps us to see clearly, keeping us from stumbling in the darkness, but it also reveals things we would rather not see and things we would rather keep hidden.


That’s why this Psalm ends with an incredibly courageous prayer. Look at Vv. 12-14. He begins his prayer with a tough question: “Who can discern his errors?” It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is “no one.” Why? Because no one is perfectly self-aware. We all have spiritual and emotional blind spots, areas of darkness and weakness that we aren’t aware of, but that impact our behavior nonetheless. That’s why he prays “Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” Things I’m not even aware of that are offensive to God, sinful. Sometimes through his word and our growth in Christ we become aware of some of those blind spots, and it usually doesn’t feel good when we do, and then we begin to work on them consciously with God’s help. But we’ll never uncover them all, even if we live 200 years. That’s why the Psalmist seeks forgiveness for the sin in his heart that he isn’t even aware of. And then he seeks forgiveness for “presumptuous sins.” Those are the areas we are aware of, things we know we do that are offensive to God, or things we willingly leave undone that God wants done. And then he simply asks that no sin, known or unknown, will have control of him. Now, there’s a difference between sinning and being controlled by sin. In Christ we are set free from sin’s control, and it is that freedom that the Psalmist seeks.


And then he closes with these beautiful words, his goal as a child of God: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord (Yahweh, my loving, saving, mighty God), my rock (that’s El) and my redeemer (Yahweh).” The words of my mouth. Visible behavior, actions, words. The things everyone can see. And the mediation of my heart. My hidden, inner world. The things only God and maybe I am aware of. The secret part of my lift. May it all be pleasing to you God. At Christ Church, we’ve had a saying since the beginning: no masks. Over 20 years of ministry I’ve grown tired of the Sunday morning Christian mask. The mask that says that it’s not ok to be not ok at church. The mask that says I have to put on a front, to appear to have it all together. The mask that says I have to smile, even if I want to cry. Most American Christians live lives of great pretense. It’s scary to take the masks off. It’s scary because I’m afraid you might not like me, might reject me, if I let you see me as I am, not as I want you to see me. It hurts to take the mask off. It hurts because coming out from behind the mask forces me to face with some parts of myself that I would rather not face. But it is freeing to take the mask off. It is freeing because when I take the mask off, God goes to work, cleaning out the darkness, cleaning up the sin. Nothing to hide. Nothing to hide from. Free in Christ. Free to live. Free to love. Let us pray.

[i] Focus on the Family letter (September 1992), p.14; submitted by Jeff Arthurs

[ii] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms