Yr C ~ Creation 2 ~ Psalm 104:1-2, 10-31(MSG)
What’s the difference between poetry and prose? How about saying that one tells a story (prose) and one paints a picture (poetry)? Text books are written in prose. Songs are written in poetry? Now the kicker: Which one is true? We may be tempted to answer that text books are true because they’re all factual and proven. But I hope you would admit that songs and poems are true as well—possibly even more true!
Did you trip on that? More true? Can truth be truer than facts? I believe it can! Facts tell us what something is or is not. They are true or untrue. Poems invite us to look beyond the factual. They offer layers of meaning—they offer depth (and if you’ve been around here the last few weeks you know all about how important depth is!). And where there is depth there is more depth, and more depth, and more depth.
Here’s something else to consider. If I gave you a text book and asked you to rewrite it could you do it without changing the meaning or the truth of it? As long as you didn’t alter the facts you could indeed rewrite it and still come out with the same truth.
Now think of any song or poem you know and rewrite a stanza. As you change a poem’s words you can profoundly change the depth of meaning—sometimes for the better, and sometimes you destroy it.
Why the English lesson? Because today we’re looking at Psalm 104, and we’re using a unique bible translation called The Message. The Message is a paraphrase meaning it attempts to translate thought for thought rather than word for word like the NRSV that we usually use.
The Psalms are poetry. They’re the ancient Jewish hymn book which naturally means that they were written in Hebrew. So, to get at it we have to translate a passage from an ancient and completely alien language to us into understandable English. Translating word for word may offer one level of truth, but going thought for thought will probably come closer to the poetic meaning of the original. You’ll especially see this near the end of my message today.
Think about the subject matter of this liturgical season: Creation. We could approach it in prose like a text book and it would yield a certain level of truth. For instance we can know that while the poetry says the Heavens and the Earth were created in 6 days we know it took billions of years. You may remember a sermon from a while back about how that poetry in Genesis actually offers profound truth, but no facts.
And we can know that life on Earth evolved from very simple to very complex organisms over millions of years and understand scientifically how botany and biology work, but that prose can never communicate to us on the same level as a poem about a glorious sunrise. The bible has never been concerned about how Creation really happened—it’s only concerned with what it means, and so poetry is the perfect medium to convey that deeper truth. Let’s go!
Psalm 104:1-2 O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are! Beautifully, gloriously robed, dressed up in sunshine, and all heaven stretched out for your tent.
If you try to make that prose you ruin it. It’s pure poetry—dressed up in sunshine.
10 You started the springs and rivers, sent them flowing among the hills. 11 All the wild animals now drink their fill, wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12 Along the riverbanks the birds build nests, ravens make their voices heard. 13 You water the mountains from your heavenly cisterns; earth is supplied with plenty of water.
The poet is gushing. They’re overwhelmed by the enormity and wonder of Creation and they’re being effusive in their description of it all. Don’t make the error of thinking because they address this poem to God and use the word “you” that they’re necessarily imagining a Big Guy in the Sky with a beard and a bag of tricks. Just because they’re ancient doesn’t mean they’re metaphorically primitive. It’s our modernist eyes that have stripped all the mystery out of things.
It could be that the poet is simply personifying the incomprehensible awesomeness of the world that surrounds us—that they sense that in and through and under and around everything they see and experience is Something More, something Sacred, something light years beyond prose. And so they sing to the Sacred.
14 You make grass grow for the livestock, hay for the animals that plow the ground. Oh yes, God brings grain from the land, 15 wine to make people happy, Their faces glowing with health, a people well-fed and hearty.
Doesn’t it just make you feel like celebrating?! Wine, health, well-fed and hearty! Yes please!
[in a boring lecture voice] The Earth produces grains and grapes that humans have learned to use to create foods such as bread and wine which contribute to human nourishment and enjoyment resulting in their facial area changing hue as blood vessels expand creating the effect of a radiance that communicates happiness…[snore]
Prose just doesn’t cut it here.
Then we get to hear about some of the awesome diversity of creatures and how we’re all so interdependent on one another. The Season of Creation theme this week is Fauna, which means animals. We’re not going to use them as metaphors for God (like Aslan the lion in The Narnia series), but we will look at them as examples of God’s abundant diverse blessings. We’re going into the wild.
16 God’s trees are well-watered – the Lebanon cedars God planted. 17 Birds build their nests in those trees; look – the stork at home in the treetop. 18 Mountain goats climb about the cliffs; badgers burrow among the rocks. 19 The moon keeps track of the seasons, the sun is in charge of each day. 20 When it’s dark and night takes over, all the forest creatures come out. 21 The young lions roar for their prey, clamoring to God for their supper. 22 When the sun comes up, they vanish, lazily stretched out in their dens. 23 Meanwhile, men and women go out to work, busy at their jobs until evening.
Then one of my favourite expressions in this psalm:
24 What a wildly wonderful world, God!
Yes indeed! What a wildly wonderful world! And we’re called to go into that wild—both literally and metaphorically. Literally we are part of the wild, part of the web of life that is delicately and intricately woven into the fabric of this planet. We are part of the chain. We are part of the eco-system. Although we should understand our place with some humility, because there are those who think the wild could get along just fine without us!
And it also means that we’re called to go into the wild metaphorically—to allow ourselves to be swept up in these poetic metaphors that open up deeper meanings and deeper appreciation and love for our good fortune to be able to enjoy the fruits of this breathtakingly diverse planet. I mean, just stop for a second and consider how amazing this world is. It’s wild! We can catalogue it scientifically, but there are deeper layers that we can connect with and feel deep down in our bones that we’re not just on the Earth we’re “in” it. We’re “of” it.
We perceive that deeper layer as special, as powerful, as awe-inspiring, as Sacred, as Mystery, and we name that powerful, awesome, Sacred Mystery God. And we’re inspired to express it poetically.
24b You made it all, (O glorious Mystery), with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. 25 Oh, look – the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon. 26 Ships plow those waters, and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.
Isn’t that fascinating. First you get an accounting of the awesome diversity of creatures and animals in the world. Then you get this really weird thing about God’s pet dragon!
I read that the idea of Leviathan (a stupendous, mythological sea creature) being God’s “pet” is actually the real connotation from the Hebrew words. If God had a dog what would the dog look like? Like a giant sea creature, I guess! But it’s communicating that even the Creator shares in the joy and beauty of Creation—that God is not a distant clock-maker who set it into motion and monitors it from afar but rather that God is interactive with Creation and keeps a pet dragon in the sea for fun. (Remember, it’s a poem, not a text book!)
That ends the first section of the psalm which explores the awesome diversity of Creation. The next part looks at God’s providence. Providence technically means: the foreseeing care and guidance of God over the creatures of the earth. The root of providence is to provide.
It says that God can see stuff coming and guides God’s “creatures” (including us) to the best possible outcomes. That’s why it gets used as a synonym for “luck” or “good fortune” sometimes. When good things seem to happen out of nowhere we call it providence to suggest that God’s hand guided the situation to work out well for you. Lucky.
I have some trouble with that meaning. It suggests that God intervenes and changes your luck or fate. That doesn’t work for me. God can’t intervene because to intervene means you have to be set apart from a situation or a place and we’ve just spent 10 minutes describing how God (or the Sacred) is integrally in and through and under and around everything we see and experience. How can the Sacred intervene if it’s already here?
Instead, I understand providence to mean that moment when I finally see what’s been there all along and in that revealing it feels like the Sacred has burst in from nowhere and transformed my reality, when in fact what’s happened is I’ve awakened from my sleepy trance and discovered what was always there. As I follow spiritual teaching and engage in spiritual experiences I become attuned to the Sacred Presence that is everywhere, and I am more and more influenced and inspired by it. That’s providence! Do you know what that sounds like in poetry?
27 All the creatures look expectantly to you to give them their meals on time. 28 You come, and they gather around; you open your hand and they eat from it.
That’s God as provider. Have you ever hand fed a small animal, like a chipmunk? It’s the same kind of image with God as provider. God’s open hand provides. Not food, but love, blessing, breath!
Now listen closely to this next bit. This is the payoff! We’re going to have to work with this one to get it. Remember I said that translating poetry into different words can sometimes ruin it. Here’s an example. So let’s try to get at the original poetry. None of us probably read Hebrew, but it might help to know that Hebrew doesn’t really form into sentences like English does—it’s more like it’s a collection of little word-images that you have to assemble together into a thought.
This part of the poem is written in a parallel structure. That means that each part of one sentence has a direct correlation to another sentence, and you can’t understand the first one until you finish the second one! They work together to build the meaning.
Here’s the NRSV translation:
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
Here are the Hebrew word-pictures:
you-are-gathering spirit-of-them they-are-expiring and to soil-of-them they-are-returning
you-are-sending-forth spirit-of-you they-are-being-created and you-are-renewing surfaces-of-ground
But now look at it in parallel:
and to soil-of-them and surfaces-of-ground
Can you see it?
The left side is dying. The right side is rebirth.
The left side is what it’s like when you can’t see the Sacred in all things.
The right side is the abundant life that comes when you can.
The people reading the text book version of the world are on the left side. They scoff at suggestions that God is Creator and think our language is silly when we quote psalms like this one. They smugly put Darwin fish on the back of their cars thinking it makes them look smarter than those foolish spiritual types, when all it really shows is that they’re watching black and white in a billion colour world.
But people of faith are on the right side – the side of abundant life and rebirth and renewal – it’s about what happens when you learn to see God’s face hidden in all those things the text book catalogues. It’s about the deeper reality of recognizing the Sacred and the Mystery in all things. It doesn’t mean you can explain it, but you can see it.
You are in the really real world – the wildly wonderful world – God’s world.
We celebrate Creation because we see God’s face in it and sense God’s presence in it – everywhere! And that leads us to verse 31 – a final burst of praise for those with eyes to see…
31 The glory of God – let it last forever! Let God enjoy God’s creation!