Sermon Nov 17

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

November 17, 2013

“Awesome God”

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 has been called the Psalm of the Seven Thunders. How does it make you feel when a storm breaks out and there’s thunder and lightning? Back in the summer, or maybe it was in the spring, there was one of those afternoon thunderstorms. It was still daylight but the skies were getting darker and darker. And then the hail started coming down.

I looked out in my backyard and my two dogs were running all around the yard barking. I opened the basement door and tried to coax them in, but they wouldn’t do it. Even soaked from the rain, as long as there was thunder, they wouldn’t come in.

I really wonder what goes through a dog’s mind during a thunderstorm. I wonder what the dog thinks is happening. Actually that’s a question for all of us – What goes through your mind during a thunderstorm? Do you know how to listen to thunder?

In Psalm 29, seven times we hear the refrain: “The voice of the Lord.” Or we might call it: “The roaring of the Lord.” When the men and women of Israel gathered for worship they celebrated thunder as the voice of God. Psalm 29 is considered to be one of the oldest in the collection of psalms and it was supposed to be sung by the congregation gathered for worship in the temple on the last day of the harvest festival – the Feast of Tabernacles.

Psalm 29 is easily divided into three parts. First comes the call to worship in verse 1 and 2. Then in verse 3-9 is the main body of the poem. It is a recounting of the majesty of God. And finally in the last line of verse 9 through verse 11 comes the congregational response and the benediction.

The first words of the psalm form an impressive overture that reaches to the very heights of heaven. The psalmist says: “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” As if the voices of humans are inadequate, he calls upon the angels to lead us in worship.

The poets and prophets of the Old Testament strain at the bounds of language to depict the awesomeness of God. Psalm 95 says: “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.” Psalm 104 says: “You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.” Psalm 46 says: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.”

The ascription of majesty to God by the heavenly order in Psalm 29 reminds us of the first verses of Isaiah 6. While in the temple, Isaiah had a vision of God sitting upon his throne. He said: “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

When Isaiah realizes that he has come into the presence of his Creator and Redeemer, he becomes conscious of himself. He is acutely aware that he is in the presence of the unutterable goodness of God and he begins to feel like an intruder, like one who is unclean in the cleanest and holiest place. His sinfulness overwhelms him and he cries out: “Woe is me! I am lost!”

Are we able to hear the message of creation? – can we hear the heavens telling the glory of God? All creation is telling us the story of the God who loves us. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

The heavenly call to worship of Psalm 29 sets the mood for our worship. We are here to proclaim the inexpressible glory of God. We dare not lose sight of our divine purpose in worship. We should be hesitant to be too casual or too cavalier in our approach to God. This is not a party or a workshop or a reunion. It is a worship service, and our demeanor should reflect our allegiance and our devotion to the God of the universe.

In verses 3-9 the psalmist leads us to contemplate the object of our worship – the majesty of God. Try and picture in your mind what he is describing for us – a tremendous thunderstorm is brewing over the sea. He says: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.”

It was well-known that the Israelites feared the sea. The sea was filled with great terrors for them. They would let other nations get rich trading across the seas, but not Israel. The sea reminded them of the creation story where the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of chaos and demonstrated his mastery over the whole creation by bringing out of it land that would sustain life.

And then this dark foreboding storm over the water reaches the land and slams into the coastal mountains. “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.”

The trees and the mountains – these were the symbols of strength and grandeur. The cedar was the prince of trees and Sirion was the Phoenician name for Mt. Hermon. The snow-capped peaks of Lebanon and Sirion were thought by the ancient inhabitants of the land, before Israel’s time, to be the abode of the gods. But in an awesome display of power the voice of the Lord smashes the cedars, the same strong trees of which the temple had been built. And in a poetic surrealism the psalmist describes the massive mountains skipping and leaping like frightened calves.

The storm passes over him and continues its fury in the wilderness beyond. He says: “The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare.” There is an alternative translation for the last phrase that reads: “Causes the deer to calve.” The animals too are affected by the voice of the Lord. Frightened by thunder, they bear their calves out of season.

This is really the heart of Psalm 29 – to comprehend in the elements of creation the inescapable majesty of God. My family likes to spend the week after Christmas at Lake Tahoe, at the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center. That’s always been a favorite place for us. No matter how many times I go there, I never fail to be inspired by the beauty of that setting. Even if there’s not much snow at the lake level, it is gorgeous still. We always spend a fair amount of time just looking out at the lake and the rim of mountains around it.

It is a magnificent sight; it’s spectacular. I’m sure you’ve seen sights like that – the kind that take your breath away – giant redwood trees, or a spectacular waterfall, or the night sky filled with bright stars. In the great wonders of creation we witness the majesty of God.

Whatever our station in life, whatever our circumstances, we find that the glory of creation points us toward a glorious God. Victor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist, shared in his book, “Man’s Search For Meaning”, some of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. One time was during winter. They had been marched off to work in the morning, had spent the day at hard labor, had had only a thin soup to eat, and had staggered back to the camp in the late afternoon. Many were sick. Most had lost loved ones in the camp. They were lying around resting on the floor of their hut when one of their group came running in and insisted that they come outside quickly. Curious at what had created such excitement in their friend they went outside. It was a sunset.

Frankl said: “Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be.’”

I should also say that what is true on the largest scale is equally true on the smallest. I read a book recently by Francis Collins entitled, “The Language of God.” Francis Collins is one of the world’s leading scientists and a devout Christian. He was the head of the Human Genome Project and his team of scientists mapped and sequenced all of the DNA in the human body. Collins referred to it as deciphering God’s instruction book. Whether it’s something as large as the solar system or as small as a microbe, we can witness the wonder and complexity of God’s creation.
That’s the way it is with the majesty of God. I can’t convince you of the majesty of God. You either believe it or you don’t. I could give a slide show of all of the greatest natural wonders of creation. But it is up to you to decide what you believe about it. I remember a rhyme that said: “Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw mud, and one saw stars.”

In the creation story God speaks the world into existence. The voice of the Lord is the agent of creation. And all around us we hear the voice of the Lord. Do you know how to listen to thunder?

Albert Einstein made the following statement in a letter to a close friend: “The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that compared with it all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

I can agree with that whole statement except the last line. You and I are not insignificant in God’s eyes. This is the final point that the psalmist makes. In the last line of verse 9 he brings us back to the temple, to worship. He writes: “And in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” Because he knows that “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever,” he offers the benediction: “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

David Hubbard writes that as the Hebrew people were “astounded by the glory of God, these worshipers contemplated the thunder and lightning. But they did so not as spectators but as participants. The God of creation was also the God of the covenant. His grand design included them.”

When we hear the roaring of thunder it may make us feel very small. Sometimes that can be a good thing. I need to know my place in this big world. I need to remember that the world does not revolve around me. However, when we recognize in the thunder the voice of the Lord, we should also feel like the important part of creation that we are. The God of the universe is my God. And God loves me.

What do we see when we look at the world around us? The ancient psalmist saw the greatness of God. Beside the Creator, all the little gods of this world are shown to be false and idolatrous. God is in control of the world because in his hands are the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the sea and the dry land.

One of my favorite hymns is – “This is My Father’s World” by Maltie Babcock. It starts off:
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.

And he concludes:
This is my Father’s world; Oh, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

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