May 21, 2012
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Well before Jesus ever preached his first sermon, there was John the Baptist. Long before Jesus ever uttered a parable or healed a blind person, there was John. John had come to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus. And when John preached about this great and coming One, he talked a lot about the Holy Spirit. Everybody who came out to see John knew that chief among the spectacles they would witness would be baptisms. They hadn’t nicknamed John “the Baptist” for nothing, after all. Baptizing was to John what making bread is to a baker: it was the most common thing he did each day when he went to work.
But John always downplayed his baptisms in favor of the vastly more powerful baptism Jesus would do. Hopping up and down with great verve, John said over and again that the real fireworks would start as soon as Jesus showed up to baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit. For all the publicity he had garnered, John’s self-assessment of his own ministry boiled down to “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And indeed, when one day Jesus showed up to be baptized, John saw the heavenly dove of the Holy Spirit land squarely on Jesus’ head. Clearly, everything John had predicted about Jesus would come true.
But then a funny thing happened: in his ministry Jesus hardly ever talked about the Holy Spirit. Nor did he baptize anyone. Go through any one of the four gospels and you can count on one hand the number of times Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t what John had anticipated at all, and so in a startling passage we’ve looked at before, John at one point sends Jesus a message to ask, “Are you the One who was to come, or should we be on the lookout for somebody else?” John was looking for more Spirit, more fire.
But in this Pentecost Year B lection from John 16 we encounter what is hands-down the longest single section about the Holy Spirit in all the gospels. Here we discover that John the Baptist had been right except for the timing of it all. Jesus was going to send forth a powerful Holy Spirit. But the surprise comes from the fact that before he would do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father dispatched the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth.
Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit would become the conduit through which would flow all the energy and riches of God. The Spirit would become the jumper cables to re-infuse us with the Father’s energy whenever the Church’s batteries ran down. The Spirit would become the cosmic water main through which the cleansing tide of baptism would flow to wash away sin. The Spirit would become the ultimate radio beacon who would broadcast the truths of Jesus, letting all of us who have been fitted with the right antennae learn on a constant basis the implications of the gospel for our lives. Use whatever image you want, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been the Church’s living connection to God ever since the great day of Pentecost.
But this tends to be the limit of our thinking about the role of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we quietly restrict the Spirit’s primary work to the interior life of the Church and of its members. That’s why John 16 is so arresting. Because here when Jesus talked about the Spirit’s work, he focused as much on the Spirit’s work in the wider world as he did on the Spirit’s work in the church. In fact, in verse 8 the very first thing Jesus says has to do with what the Spirit would reveal not to the church but to the world.
As Dale Bruner has noted, the Spirit, according to Jesus, would tell the world three related things:
And please notice that any one of those teachings without the other two would be not just incomplete, it would be wrong. Take away or forget about any one, and the other two dissolve into confusion.
First, the Spirit reveals what’s wrong. The Spirit needs to convict the world of guilt with regard to sin, Jesus says. Just talking about the fact that this world has problems is not enough. In fact, it has never been too difficult to convince the world that something is fundamentally amiss. The key is to underscore not just that something is awry with life but why that is so. After all, it is sickeningly easy simply to note the horrors of this world. The underlying message that needs to be revealed by God’s Spirit is that the source of all that wrongness is sin. There’s a cause behind hunger and terrorism, behind corporate greed and pornography, behind drive-by shootings and cynicism, and that cause stems from the fact that this world has fallen away from what God wanted. There’s something wrong with this world all right, and the reason is sin. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost reminds us of this.
But secondly Jesus says the Spirit comes to convict the world of something else: righteousness. At first glance, that seems like an odd thing to say. These verses are a bit difficult to translate or understand, but it seems that Jesus is saying that he himself is the Righteous One, the source of all that is good and beautiful and proper. The Spirit reveals this Christ to the world. Jesus is going to return to the Father and so will not be on display, will not be visible, in the usual way a person can be seen. He’s not going to be available for any interviews with Larry King and won’t be making any guest appearances on the Hour of Power, either. But despite that physical unavailability, this Jesus must be taught to the world and also brought to the world through us. We are the Body of Christ. When filled with the Holy Spirit, we are the ongoing presence of Jesus on this earth.
That much we know, but here’s what I take away from Jesus’ close linking up of the Spirit’s message about sin and the Spirit’s subsequent message about righteousness: what I take away from this is that we dare never talk about what’s wrong in this world unless we do so in a hope-filled context. It’s altogether too easy to talk about what’s wrong. Op-Ed writers in the newspapers and the talking heads on all those 24-hour cable TV news channels do this every single day. In fact, bad news is better for ratings than good news could ever be. In the television industry a so-called “slow news day” is any day when no disaster happens. Most of us don’t watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox News on those days, but if you ever have turned to those channels on a quiet day, you soon realize they are crashingly boring. The news anchors cast about for things to say but they mostly dissolve into an inane blather that can make your skin crawl.
Anybody can talk about what’s wrong with the world. Christians are good at it, too, and we do it a lot. But the key item to check is whether or not we do this with hope ever and always lurking behind even the worst and most difficult things we must say to the world. Are we just lamenting what’s bad for the sake of lamenting it? Are we merely wringing our hands and shaking our heads and wagging our fingers in order, by contrast, to highlight our own moral integrity? Or are we letting the Holy Spirit inject even our critical words with a strong dose of the hope that comes through Jesus the Christ?
It’s the difference between screaming at someone “That’s wrong!” and then walking away in disgust and saying instead, “That’s wrong but now let me come along side you to spend however much time it takes to introduce you to the Righteous Jesus who right this very minute loves you despite the mess you’ve made.” It’s the difference between saying only “You’re a sinner!” and saying “You’re a sinner, but it was while we were all still sinners that God in Christ loved us, so let’s talk about that, too!” Sometimes convincing people of this may take a very long time indeed. But if we cannot find a way to present the gospel even at the same moment when we confront the world with its faults, then we’re missing not just one piece of the Spirit’s work in the world, we’re missing the whole thing.
But that’s not to say that we never arrive at a conclusion of judgment, because that is the third thing Jesus says the Spirit must do. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is here also to reveal to the world that the prince of darkness is done for. It will be the goodness, grace, and beauty of the Righteous One that will rule the cosmic day in the end. That’s the good news of the gospel. The bad news, however, is that if any person refuses to be on the side of that Holy One named Jesus, then that person will forever be on the wrong side of history.
So as people of Pentecost, we need to let the Spirit use us to tell the world what’s wrong but we do this ever and only with hope in our voices. There is much that is wrong but because it is not random wrong but a systemic problem that can be traced back to sin, it is possible for a powerful God to fix that systemic wrongness, and in Christ Jesus the Lord God has already done so!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
What is Jesus talking about in John 16:16 (and is it sufficiently confusing that this is the reason the Year B Lectionary technically stops just shy of it in this lection)? Because there Jesus paradoxically says, “In a little while you will not see me, and then after a little while, you will see me.” There are a couple ways to understand these words, and probably a mixture of each is correct. In one sense this is a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But considering that he has been talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in this passage, it seems probable that Jesus means also that by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we and the entire world will be able to “see” Jesus even after he returns to the Father.
That’s the Pentecostal challenge, and it maybe explains in part why even church-going folk get more excited about something like Christmas than Pentecost. Christmas, after all, is all about the miracle of what God gave to the world. Pentecost is more about what we in the church must now give to the world—or better said, it is still God giving gifts to the world but he now does so through US. But since we’d all rather receive than give (that old adage about which is the more blessed activity notwithstanding), we’re more naturally drawn to the Christmas event that allows God to do all the work than to the Pentecost event that implies that we now have a lot to do to present—and to re-present—Christ to the world on God’s behalf.
This is not easy. It’s properly daunting, in fact. After all, when Jesus was on this earth, sinners and stragglers, the outcast and the shunned were all drawn to him. As the perfect Son of God, there was never any doubt that Jesus stood for all that is moral and holy and so stood against all that is sinful. Jesus exuded the perfection of God and so, by virtue of that perfection, stood in sharp, judging contrast to all that is imperfect. Oddly, though, he didn’t put people off. His grace and compassion drew people to him.
If we in the church today are to be filled with the Holy Spirit Jesus sent, then we also should find that people are willing to be with us despite the obvious fact that we must be up front about sin. The question of Pentecost is whether or not that happens. Do we present to the world the same Jesus who attracted people mired in sin or do we obscure that Jesus in ways that put people off?
When the people in this world look at the church, and at each of us as individual members, do they see Jesus? Does the Spirit of Pentecost in us make us enough like Jesus that we become what he was and is: an attractive doorway to life and joy? For nearly two millennia now the Spirit has been busy taking the lead in his part of God’s salvation project by energizing, strengthening, and bringing gifts and fruit to the Church of Jesus Christ. But the Spirit’s interest extends beyond just the Church.
Like God the Father who so loved the world he sent his only begotten Son, so the Spirit so loves the world that he wants us to display that Son. After all, Jesus is the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth–the very same grace and truth this world needs today as much as ever. Being a people of Pentecost means many things, but if by the Spirit we do not display Jesus to the world, then nothing else we do will in the end much matter. Jesus said that it was for our good that he went away. What remains is that we now live like Jesus so that we can do the world some good, too.
The NIV of John 16:11 translates the Greek to say “prince of this world.” I’m not certain why they used “prince” here because the Greek is archon, which quite straightforwardly means “ruler,” which is the translation in the NRSV. But maybe for some people calling the devil the “ruler of the world” sounded too scary and so they made him a prince, which seems less threatening. But John has Jesus saying that the evil one has been a ruler of this world, and the long, sordid run of history certainly lends credence to the idea that someone pretty awful has been calling some shots in this world. But the really good news is that even if there is some sense in which the devil really has been a “ruler” of this world, he has even so gone down to defeat at the hands of God’s Christ!
Some years back I watched the movie, When Harry Met Sally. In one scene we witness something that is at once somber and yet funny. In the scene Harry and his best friend are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because Harry is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part of this otherwise somber scene is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is that phenomenon that cropped up about twenty or so years ago whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, and give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to a basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? (Or have you ever been to a game where you saw someone you know—someone who is ordinarly rather shy and retiring in nature—screaming like a banshee!!?) There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Interestingly, the New Testament tells us in many places that the Holy Spirit of God–the living fire that just is Pentecost–is also something in which believers need to get caught up. The Spirit carries us away and so leads us to say things and to do things that we would not do were we not in the zone of the Spirit’s influence.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.
To read a sermon on that Ezekiel text, click here: http://yardley.calvin.edu/sermons/2002/pentecost02Youth.html
What does the H1N1 flu virus have to do with Pentecost? Probably very little except for the way that such a flu strain can remind us that spiration, breathing, is worth pondering. Without realizing it, we all breathe in and out many times every minute. Respiration is that fundamental process of life by which our bodies refresh their supply of oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. It is a powerful phenomenon and yet the same thing that keeps us alive can kill us, too. The spectacle of all those people in Mexico wearing surgical masks at airports and out on the streets provides a vivid reminder that spiration, necessary though it is for life, can also prove to be our undoing if we breathe in virus-laden microbes.
The Latin word for “spirit” (spiritus), the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach), and the Greek word (pneuma) all mean “breath” or “wind” at their most basic linguistic level. But, of course, that implies a number of things. For one, it implies that “spirit” is an invisible phenomenon–no one can see the wind, only its effects. It can also imply that “spirit” may at times be a rather fleeting thing. After all, the refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is that much of life seems like no more than a “breath,” a transient, vapory blip that disappears in an instant. At the same time, however, we know that both wind and breath are not only invisible and sometimes fleeting but they can also be awesome realities. The “breath of life” provided by someone giving CPR literally is the difference between life and death. And certainly we are aware of the fact that the wind can be hugely destructive–you don’t need to be able to see the wind or know where it comes from to respect its reality and power.
Pentecost celebrates the day the Holy Spirit of God came upon the church in power for the very first time. And like the breath in your lungs right now, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead. Of course even so, it is part of the very nature of the Holy Spirit that it doesn’t call much attention to itself. The Spirit’s job seems to be a history-long highlighting of Jesus. So in order not to get in the way of anyone’s ability to see Jesus as the Living Lord, the Holy Spirit seems quite content to remain about as invisible as a puff of air. The Spirit does not mind one bit if you look clean through him so long as what you are looking at through the Spirit is the Christ of God.
But make no mistake: the Holy Spirit is not the only game in town. There are any number of spirits in life that we can breathe in, get whipped up by, and so be shaped by. But whereas some spirits can consume our lives, only the Holy Spirit of God will finally bring us true life. When God’s Spirit comes down and fills us, we find a purpose, a clarity, and a spark of life that will not and cannot come from anywhere else. The entire creation began when the Spirit of God blew over the waters of chaos. The creation of humanity in the image of God came to its zestful culmination only when the Spirit of God was breathed into the first man’s nostrils. The re-creation of humanity into the image of Christ likewise requires this Pentecostal encounter with the breath of God through the Holy Spirit.
All other spirits in life lead sooner or later to disappointment, confusion, and aimlessness. There is in Scripture a clear parallel between what happened in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel and what happened in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Both stories talk about how a group of people are “all together” in one place under the heavens. Both stories have to do with a multiplicity of languages and of God’s involvement in that phenomenon. But each story is the mirror-image opposite of the other.
In Genesis 11 the people decide to mount up to the heavens on their own. They want to build a monument to human achievement so grand and so tall that it will become the focal point for a greater human unity and resolve. But the result of this mounting up to heaven is just the opposite: people end up scattering, having been confused in their languages. Confusion and disunity, not clarity and unity, occur when people on their own try to construct the meaning of life. Of course, Christianity is hardly alone in telling a story about what can happen when mortals try to mount up to be gods. The fall of Icarus, the fate of Prometheus, and other such myths all have the same bottom line: the higher up human beings try to fly, the farther it is they will finally fall.
Most other religions leave it at that. We are told to learn our place in the grander scheme of things and just be content. For people to get close to the gods is detestable to the gods themselves and so dangerous for the people who attempt it. As a well-known line from Shakespeare says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”
But the Christian vision tells a different story. At Babel humanity tried to mount up to God and fell into confusion as a result. But that was not because God did not want fellowship with humans. God did not frustrate the people at Babel because God just can’t stand human company. God’s ultimate goal, as a matter of fact, is to have fellowship with us. To get that goal, God eventually became human himself! The problem at Babel was that this storming of heaven was being done in an arrogant way and on human terms alone.
The gospel shows us what can happen when God, on God’s own terms of humility and grace, brings heaven down to us. God himself snuck down the back staircase of history to deposit a baby into a manger one starry night long ago. In humility, not pride, the Son of God built his own reverse tower from heaven to earth not so that we could spritely spring our way up but so that he could come down. What happened on Pentecost was another example of this same movement: since we cannot get to heaven, heaven comes to us. And when that Spirit of God blows down from heaven, Babel is reversed! Instead of scattering, people come together. Instead of confusion, a gospel clarity comes. Instead of being a maddening barrier, the multiplicity of languages is transcended so that the same message gets through to everyone.
This Spirit of the living God, this wind and life-giving breath of Pentecost is the only Spirit that can do this. Did you hear that? It is the only one.
The Holy Spirit of Pentecost was poured out for so many reasons. The Spirit now gives us gifts and talents, provides us with our life’s callings in whatever vocation and work we pursue. The Spirit animates every worship service. The Spirit keeps faith alive even when our bodies are dying, allowing even gravely sick people nevertheless to testify to the hope that is within them. The Spirit touches us at the graveside of a loved one, allowing us somehow and against all odds to say the Apostles’ Creed and to believe it when we say, despite the casket in front of us, that we really do believe in “the resurrection of the body.” The Spirit pours itself out at the baptismal font and stays with our baptized children even in those far countries where our more prodigal sons and daughters sometimes travel. (And when one of those wandering sheep returns to the fold, there is never any doubting what Spirit it was that led this one back home.)
The Holy Spirit of Pentecost does all of that and more. But let us not forget the very first effect this Spirit had: the Spirit of God brought people together, allowed a common understanding of the same gospel among people who were very different from one another. So I would be so bold to suggest to you this Pentecost Sunday that although you may indeed have God’s Spirit within you, if you inhale, and so also exhale, ideas and viewpoints and behaviors that tend to drive wedges between people, then it is fully possible that you are breathing in spirits other than just the one true Spirit of God.
If your desire always to be right makes you shut out those who question some idea you have expressed, you may run the risk of fracturing community in ways that run counter to the unity of the Spirit of Pentecost. Spirit-filled people listen to each other in love.
If your desire to be loyal to your home nation causes you to forget about, or not much care about, the fact that you have brothers and sisters in Christ living in probably every nation on earth, you may run the risk of downplaying the unity of God’s church in ways that run counter to the Spirit of Pentecost who wants gospel love to transcend barriers of language, culture, and ethnicity.
If your desire to go with the flow in this pluralistic and relativistic culture leads you to downplay the cross as the way to salvation, then you are inhaling a spirit that runs counter to the Holy Spirit of Pentecost who brings the one true message, ever and always the same, to all people everywhere. Spirit-filled people know the truth and love it fiercely.
In all my talk here about various uses of the word “spirit,” there is one I have not mentioned: it’s the one you see on liquor stores that say they sell “spirits.” I’m not sure when “spirit” and “alcohol” first got yoked together, but maybe it was Acts 2. When a person is drunk, the alcohol within him affects everything: thinking, speech, and physical movements are all affected. When the crowds in Jerusalem watched Peter and company carrying on after receiving the Holy Spirit, the conclusion of many was that they were drunk. In a way, they were! They had a new Spirit within them that affected their thinking, their speaking, and their every action and movement. That’s what the Spirit of God is supposed to do for all of us. Pentecost is a good day to check if it does.
As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by a local high school regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled some years ago, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 104 is a lovely, lyrical hymn of praise to God the Creator and Sustainer. It offers what William P. Brown calls “a grand tour of God’s creation and maintenance of the cosmos.” It glides from verses 2b-9’s description of God’s first acts of creation to verses’ 10-30’s description of God’s care for God’s world and everything in it.
Yet as Brown also notes, Psalm 104’s “tour” actually begins with Psalm 103. After all, the psalmist’s call to herself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul” brackets each psalm. The psalms are also, in one sense, complementary. 103 focuses on God’s gracious work in people’s lives. 104 focuses on God’s loving work in God’s creation. Taken together, they remind us that the God of salvation and the God of creation are one and the same.
Citizens of the 21st century tend to think about and analyze the world in terms of disciplines like science, economics and aesthetics. Psalm 104 invites us to think about that world as “the work of God’s hands.” Those many “works” fill both the earth and the sea. In fact, Psalm 104 seems to want to draw our eyes, ears and attention to the abundance of God’s creatures. After all, verse 24 notes that the earth is “full of” God’s creatures. Verse 25 adds that the “vast and spacious” sea teems “with creatures beyond number.” Yet as many creatures as there are, Psalm 104 reminds us that, in the words of the beautiful hymn, “The Lord God made them all.” In fact, it reminds us that God even creates creatures that seem strange and terrible to us.
This assertion offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 an opportunity to invite hearers to reflect on how much more we know about God’s “works” than the psalmist did. After all, he didn’t have microscopes with which to peer into the minutest corners of God’s creation. The psalmist didn’t have a Hubble Telescope with which to stare into the farthest corners of God’s creation. He didn’t even have undersea apparatus with which to peek into the ocean’s deepest depths. So it may be fair to suggest that we have even more reason than the psalmist did to “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
God created this abundance, says the psalmist, “in wisdom.” (24) While biblical scholars aren’t sure just what that means, it would seem to at least suggest that God creates with such skill that God equips creatures to do precisely what they need to do. Those plentiful “creatures,” notes the psalmist, include those that fill the earth. So verse 24 is a bit reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s sixth day: “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures, according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind’.”
In verse 25 the psalmist adds with an almost breathless hint of awe and admiration that God’s work includes the countless creatures that fill the great seas. That makes it reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s fifth day: “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures’ … So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the sea teems … God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas’.”
Those who read verse 26 may be surprised by its inclusion in the list of abundant sea creatures the “leviathan.” After all, it was a mythological creature that terrified mariners. The psalmist’s contemporaries thought of the leviathan as an enemy of both God and people. Yet in verse 26 the psalmist compares it to what the NIV Study Bible calls “God’s pet playing in the ocean.” So he invites worshipers to think of God and the leviathan as what Brown calls “playmates.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 104 may want to reflect with hearers on the contrast between its theology and some views of our world. After all, if our contemporaries think of God at all, they tend to think of God as perhaps creating the world, but then having nothing to do with it afterwards. By contrast, Psalm 104 views God as vigorously and intimately involved in caring for what God so lovingly and wisely created. Even when worshipers take into account the specifics of the psalmist’s pre-scientific understanding of the world, we can’t help but marvel at the truths it communicates about God’s deep ongoing involvement in the world God so loves.
Psalm 104 vigorously asserts that God provides for what God makes, including wild animals, trees and even mountains. So the psalmist insists that creation completely depends on God for its sustenance. In fact, her imagery brings to mind a kind of servile or childlike dependence. Psalm 104 invites hearers to think of creation as a baby hungrily straining toward his mother’s breast.
So when God generously provides, the psalmist adds, creatures eagerly scoop up the provision. He uses language that’s reminiscent of Exodus 16’s description of Israel’s act of eagerly gathering manna. It’s vivid language of timely provision, inviting worshipers to think of God’s “hand” as open rather clenched as in a fist of anger or miserliness. Psalm 104 reminds us that God is very generous, an attribute of God that worshipers sometimes neglect.
Yet when God is not generous with God’s creatures, those creatures suffer. When God looks away, when God withdraws the breath of life, dependent creatures are terrified. They so rely on God’s timely provision that when God turns away, they, in fact, die and return to dust, the very stuff of which Genesis 2 reports God created Adam. However, when God sends God’s creatures God’s life-giving spirit that hovered over the primordial waters at creation, creatures are made and renewed.
Psalm 104’s hymn of adoration concludes with a prayer to the Creator and Sustainer of creation. The psalmist prays that God’s glory will “endure forever.” God’s creation and creatures may be fragile and short-lived, depending completely on God’s generous provision. However, the psalmist prays that God’s glory won’t be fragile, that it will outlast even the creation as we know it.
However, in a lovely, poetic but perhaps surprising turn, the psalmist also prays that God will rejoice in God’s works. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 a chance to reflect with hearers on how often they think of God as rejoicing. God’s children sometimes think of God as punishing and forgiving, as being angry and loving. However, they may not often think of God as rejoicing or delighting in things. Yet the psalmist invites worshipers to think of God’s care for what God makes not as drudgery, but as something God enjoys. So perhaps, as Brown notes, God’s children’s own care for creation is something not to be just endured, but enjoyed as we celebrate the abundance with which God fills God’s works.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers Psalm 104’s preachers and teachers the opportunity to skip verse 35a’s troubling words. Yet that verse offers an opportunity for those who teach about the psalm to explore just how it fits into the rest of the psalm. The psalmist prays, apparently harshly, that sinners will vanish from the earth and that the wicked will no longer exist.
It may seem difficult to reconcile this prayer with the majestic and lyric hymn that is Psalm 104. It may be helpful, however, to remember that the wicked and sinners mar that for which God cares so deeply, God’s creation and creatures. After all, Psalm 104’s creational chaos comes not from mythical beasts like the leviathan, but from “human” monsters. What’s more, one might interpret verse 35a’s plea not as a prayer for sinners’ obliteration, but for their repentance and regeneration. After all, were the wicked and sinners to join God’s creation and creatures in recognizing their complete dependence on their Creator and Sustainer, God’s whole creation would join together to sing to the Lord as long as it lasts.
Few activities are more pleasant than feeding birds. The late Jane Kenyon wrote a lovely poem describing that activity that she entitled, “At the Feeder.” It delightfully capture’s birds’ dependence for their provision and hints at the delight God takes in generously feeding God’s creatures.
“First the Chickadees take/ their share, then fly/ to the bittersweet vine, / where they crack open their seeds, / excited, like poets/opening the day’s mail.
And the evening Grosbeaks — / those large and prosperous/ finches – resemble skiers/, with the latest equipment, bright/ yellow goggles on their faces.
Now the Bluejay comes in/ for a landing like a SAC bomber/ returning to Plattsburgh/ after a day of patrolling the ozone. / Every teacup in the pantry rattles.
The solid and graceful bodies/ of Nuthatches, perpetually/ upside down, like Yogis … / and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding/ on the ground, taking only/ what falls to them.”