Awe, Wonder and Love, Oh My!
A sermon based on Psalm 66: 1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 13, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
An elementary school teacher called on a student during the math lesson, “Wendy, if I give you two rabbits plus two more rabbits, how many rabbits would you have?” Wendy thought for a sec and answered “Five!” The teacher responded, “No, Wendy listen carefully again. If I give you two rabbits plus two rabbits how many rabbits would you have? Wendy said, “Five.” “Let’s try another way.” “If I give you two apples and two apples how many apples would you have?” Wendy answered “ Four.” “That’s right! Good.” “Now if I give you two rabbits and two rabbits how many rabbits have you got?” Wendy said “Five!” “Wendy, how on earth do you work out that when I give two rabbits plus two more rabbits you have five?” “Well,” Wendy said, “I’ve already got one rabbit at home!”
Math word problems can be tricky, especially when you don’t “show your work” so the teacher can figure what variables are missing . . . or rabbits you are adding. I am pretty sure all of us remember having to show our work in math. It was not enough to provide a correct numeric statement showing two mathematical expressions coming out as equal, we had to also explain the arithmetic we used to get there. This meant that we could have the right answer but still be wrong in the dangerous area of showing our work. That may not have seemed fair to our young minds, but it revealed if we knew what we were doing. I suspect most of us do not want to do math problems at church or maybe at all on Sundays. Do not fret there’s no math test today. Indeed, it is unlikely I will ask anyone to show their math work today. But I brought math up because sermons are work being shown on theological questions and the answers derived.
Today’s Lectionary reading is a case in point. Way back in June I set out ideas for sermons all the way through Christmas. Basically for each Sunday I chose a lesson from the Lectionary Bible selections and named a topic. For today I selected Psalm 66 and I wrote this brief note “Is there cause for the world to make a joyful noise?” I often put my sermon ideas in the form of a question, because, that’s how I see the task before me. I lift up theological questions and then answer them showing the work anchored in Jesus and the Bible.
Only . . . well, it’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It’s simpler in the sense that I know the answer is going to be awe, wonder and/or love. It’s more complicated because not every question or set of verses obviously leads to that answer. So, see, every time I sit down to write a sermon it is in a way akin to explaining answers on math homework. “Okay, I know the answer, awe and wonder and love, but how do we get there?”
Theology deals with lots and lots of deep and complicated issues. But virtually all of the issues are in response to experiences of, or searches for, THE awe and THE wonder and THE love we encounter or hope to encounter in life. I know the answer is always awe, wonder or love because those are the basic answers Jesus gave throughout his life–and for Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God.
Before I go any further I want to briefly explain what I mean by awe, wonder and love.
By “Awe” I mean what Webster’s indicates the word means:
an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by . . . the sacred or sublime.
By “Wonder” I also mean the Webster’s definition:
a cause of astonishment or admiration . . . the quality of exciting amazed admiration . . . rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience . . . a feeling of doubt or uncertainty.
Because I am using love in the Biblical sense of the word, I turn to the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms which defines love as:
Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others. It is the primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.
If we admit that there is that sort of awe, wonder and love in our lives, then that admission surely is enough all on its own for us to make a joyful noise to God. Psalm 66 tells us to do just that. As the Psalmist goes on to assert, it is enough for the whole of the earth to make a joyful noise.
Fortunately the Psalmist shows his work whichmade my efforts a little easier. But the Psalmist starts with how to respond. Awe-plus-wonder-plus-love adds up to the response our lesson calls for in the first three verses. The response being
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of [God’s] name; give to [God] glorious praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!”
I hear that as a call to try and stop focusing so much on the hardscrabble in life and take time to look, hear and feel the overwhelming goodness, all that awe and wonder and love.
Genesis tells us that God called all of creation good from the start, when we take time to gain perspective and notice how very true that is, it brings us awe and wonder and a sense of well being and desire for it– for the rest of creation. Psalm 65, which I read for the invocation, ends with creation itself celebrating:
You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. THE pastures of the wilderness overflow, THE hills gird themselves with joy, THE meadows clothe themselves with flocks, THE valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
That is Psalm 65. In Psalm 66 it is humanity’s turn join in and “make a joyful noise to God” to “Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds . . .”
And God’s deeds include more than just the making of the wonderful world. The deeds of God for us go beyond the physicality of creation, they extend to God desiring our being and working toward it. God gives us help– rescues us. And we see that in the seminal salvation story of the Hebrew Texts. Psalm 66 raises up the image of Exodus where God helps Hebrew slaves escape over the Red Sea and unlike earthly powers that come and go, God rules forever. Listen again to verses 4 through 7:
Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations . . .
But its more that one Exodus we are to be joyful about. At verses 8 through 9 praise is added on for just keeping us alive in all the little exoduses we experience in life’s difficulties– we all have them and we have all lived through them. So the Psalmist writes:
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
Professor Clint McCaan, an reknowned expert on the Psalms, who visited us during worship a few months back noted that those lines I just read are about “God will[ing] and work[ing] for life.” 1. The good professor goes on to point out that
Given the focus on life, it is not surprising that Psalm 66 recalls reverently and joyfully what was for Israel the quintessential and paradigmatic life-giving event– the exodus from Egypt and Pharaoh’s death-dealing regime. 2
The Psalmist, you see, wants all of humanity to grasp that and be moved by the reality of God’s exodus-wise actions in life, not just for the Hebrew slaves way back when, but for all those in need of help throughout time. As Professor McCann points out we need to grasp that “God’s characteristic activity is on behalf of those whose lives are most threatened and vulnerable.” 3.
The Exodus Bible story is the gold standard example of God’s actions for humans in the Judeo-Christian traditions. But it is not told just to recall one incident in history. It is meant to symbolize and remind us that God extracts humans from troubles throughout time. Psalm 66 acknowledges that difficulties in life are a part of the human experience, that they are a part of living in creation. We all know what that means, we all know difficulties. We all have hard things to deal with.
The Psalmist points out that life comes with troubles and they test us, but he also notes that they make us stronger and wiser so that we can survive and live– that without the endurance tests we don’t endure. Verses 10 to 12 address the tests of life in creation and the safe place God brings us to time and time again as we endure them and are rescued from threats and vulnerabilities.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; you have brought us out to a spacious place.
Over and over again Gods acts in the Bible stories to bring people out of trouble. God acts that way today for people, including me and you. God acts exodus-wise pushing and pulling and prodding us to our best as well as to provide the best for others and creation. There is so much awe and wonder and love in that.
Besides shouting for joy the Psalmist sets out how else he responds and gives back to God,
I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
The Psalmist gives blessings back to God. And he again shows his work when he tells others of the blessings from God:
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
Finally the Psalmist finishes up by blessing God for actions and love received: “ Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
So there it is. We have Psalm 66 setting up the word problem why to we rejoice. The answer we know. We have awe, wonder and love, that’s the answer. The work shown in the Psalm and in this sermon evidences how he got that answer. Creation is good. Living in it includes difficulties. But God acts exodus-wise toward troubles in the lives of those in the Bible – and in our lives. God always seeks to act on behalf of those who are threatened and vulnerable. Help them exit it. And the proper responses is for us to grasp that as a blessing and offer blessings in return, including offerings and proclamation to the world of our joy and God’s good works in this goodly creation toward God’s goodly people.
That, of course, is just the work shown for a general answer. I said I would not give out a math test. But I do want to give us some homework.It is not math homework. It is holy homework. Take some time this week to sit in quiet with no electronic gadgets nearby, and prayerfully and carefully try – really try– to gain a perspective that allows you to notice how very true it is that creation is good. Take time too to consider how God has worked – and is working in your life– in an exodus-wise fashion. How has God worked to rescue you and others from troubles. And also take time to try to see how and what specifically there is in your life, big and small, that brings awe and wonder and a sense of well being, and a desire for well being for creation. As you do this, ask yourself is there a cause for me to make a joyful noise?
When you find the answer offer up to God thanks and blessings. And, of course, make a joyful noise. I hope and pray . . . and bet . . . all of us can find many things to be thankful for. Whether it be beauty of creation, kindness of people, love for family, help in time of difficulties or resolution of troubles as well as what we learned from all that– and let us consider how we can offer blessings back to God. Whatever detailed answer you come up with, be assured it is God-soaked . . . And proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you are loved and matter much.
1. McCaan, Clinton, Psalm 66: 1-9 Commentary in Working Preacher, Preachng this Week on the internet at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1731
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