Awesome God Back to all sermons
Date: August 9, 2013
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Psalm 104:1–104:35
Synopsis: In this message, we explore the emotion of awe. Every human being has a natural capacity to feel awe when witnessing great size, beauty or intricacy. But often that is where the experience ends. That is too bad, because awe is an opportunity to experience God in new and personal ways. Find out how in this message from Psalm 104 entitled, Awesome, God!
I want to talk today about the emotion of awe. When is the last time you felt awe? Now maybe you’re not sure exactly what I mean by the word, so I took the time to look it up in a dictionary. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines awe this way: “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.”
I was interested to see that it is specifically identified as an emotion. The word itself has a certain range to it – not all of it positive. The feeling of awe can also can be aroused by different attributes or experiences. One of them is authority – such as when we are ushered into the presence of an important person; a king, a president, or just the head of our company – we might be said to feel awe.
For the purposes of this message, I intend to narrow our focus to the emotion of veneration and wonder that is inspired by the sacred or sublime. I also checked my Roget’s Thesaurus for some synonyms. In addition to wonder they included: marvel, astonishment, amazement, surprise, fascination. Someone who is experiencing awe might be described as breathless, open-mouthed, awe-struck, thunderstruck, lost in amazement, dazzled.
I believe every human being experiences this emotion. We are hard-wired to feel awe in the presence of great beauty, great size, great intricacy, great perfection of design. We like the word “awesome”! We probably overuse it so that as a word it has lost some of its impact. But even our overuse of the word illustrates our human capacity for and even desire for this feeling of awe. It is a feeling that we are in the presence of something bigger than we are, something unexplainable, something wonderful.
A family was on a camping trip. It was the first camping experience for the little boy. As they sat looking up at the sky at night, the normally talkative little boy became very quiet. Noticing his long silence, his father asked him what he was thinking. The little boy replied: “I never knew I was so little before.” That’s the feeling of awe.
As this little boy discovered, one of the ways we experience awe is by looking carefully and intentionally at the world in which we live. The beauty of a sunset, the sheer size and majestic beauty of a mountain, the scope of the night sky on a dark night, the roar of a waterfall, the perfect intricacy of a tiny wild flower – all of these are invitations to awe.
The emotion of awe is a wonderful feeling. But it is more than a feeling. It is also an opportunity; an opportunity to experience God in fresh, life-affirming ways. All we need to do is to mix our awe with faith. Here is the theme statement for my message this morning. Faith transforms awe into personal worship of the living God.
In just a moment, we are going to be looking at a psalm in which the writer does exactly that. But before I do, let me highlight another Scripture which supports my thesis and points out the link between faith and awe. It is found in Hebrews 11:3; By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
I believe we are all predisposed to feel awe when we look at the world around us. We can’t help it! It is so big, so beautiful, so incredible! But therein lies a fundamental question. Where did it come from?
I remember when our boys were small, around 3 years old, they both went through a “Who made it?” phase in their development. They would look at a tree and ask, “Who made it?” They would see a car and ask, “Who made it?” We would drive over a bridge and they would ask, “Who made it?” They would look at the river flowing past and ask, “Who made it?”
When we look at the world around us, we are faced with this question. Faith answers that question. “By faith we understand that…God made it!” The universe was created by the word of God.
Not everyone believes that. In fact the Book of Romans talks about people who refuse to believe that God created the world in Romans 1:19-22:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his 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. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools…
So the glories of the world in which we live present us with a choice. I believe we all feel the awe. But how will we answer the question, “Where did it come from?” There are really only two choices at the end of the day. Either it just happened. Or God made it. The atheist says it just happened; time plus chance. Faith says, “God made it.”
This leaves the atheist with a dilemma. I always enjoyed the Peanuts comic strip, because the writer, Charles Schulz had a way of capturing very profound truth and putting it into the mouths of children. I remember one strip in which two of the characters were sitting looking up at the night sky – I believe it was Linus and Charlie Brown. After a long silence, Linus said to Charlie, “Where does an atheist go to say, ‘Thank You?’”
There is the heart of the matter. When facing the majesty and beauty of the world and the feeling of awe that comes with it, faith knows where to go to say “Thank You.” Faith transforms awe into personal worship of the living God.
What I want to do in the rest of this message is to encourage all of us to be more deliberate and intentional about doing just that; letting faith transform awe and awe-filled moments into worship.
In some ways I have mistimed this message. I probably should have preached this one before people went away for their summer vacation or summer break – since that is the time that many of us have the opportunity to see and experience the beauty of the world we live in. But better late than never – and such opportunities are all around us if we take the time to look, experience and appreciate the beauty of the world God has made.
One psalm stands out above all the others as an example of someone who has transformed awe into worship. That is Psalm 104. It is a psalm of soaring images and beautiful language – lyrically capturing the scope, beauty and design of the Creation while giving all the glory to the Creator.
It is difficult to know just how best to preach a psalm like this. Because it is poetry, I don’t want to spoil the effect of the language and its imagery by over-analyzing it, so I am not going to attempt to go line by line. So what we will do is read it together, one stanza at a time – and I will then pause to make just a few comments. Then I will make a few summary remarks at the end.
Let’s read together the first four verses:
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
2 covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
3 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
4 he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
First let me point out a feature of this poem that continues throughout the whole. That is the way the psalmist moves back and forth in his person of address from the 3rd person to the 2nd person; from referring to God as “He” to addressing him as “You.” He starts out in the third person, commanding his soul to “Bless the Lord.” Literally, “Say good things about, or praise the Lord.” Then he immediately obeys his own directive in words spoken directly to God: O Lord my God, you are very great!” He is engaging in personal worship in relational, “I-You” language.
The second thing I would highlight here is the image of God clothing himself with as well as inhabiting his Creation. God is viewed as covering himself with light. We cannot see God directly, but in the light that shines all around us in the Created Order, we see his radiance, his garments, if you will. And the heavens are like his tent. He not only dwells in it, but it was as easy for him to create it as it is for you and me to pitch a tent.
The third point I would make from these verses is the personal presence of God in the Creation. He didn’t just make it and then go away. He is still here in a very personal way riding on the clouds, and soaring with the wind. I realize that this is poetic language and I don’t intend that we take this to ridiculously literal extremes. But I do think this psalm calls us to worship a very personal God who not only made the world but who is very personally “here” in it.
Let’s move on to the next stanza in verses 5-9:
5 He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
8 The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
Here the psalmist is retelling the story of Creation in poetic language in parallel with the account in Genesis 1. The establishing of the earth on its foundation, the water covering the face of the earth until God separated the sea from the dry land, raising up the mountains and setting a boundary for the seas. What this section calls us to do is to look at the world around us and give God the credit for it. “You made this, God! That mountain is your mountain! That valley is your valley. The sea – you made it.” Again, we see the psalmist going back and forth from “He” to “You” as he reflects on the world.
Let’s move on:
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
11 they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
In this section, we are called once again to not only acknowledge God as the Creator, but also as the Sustainer of the world and the Created Order. He is still here. He is still the source of the springs that rush through the wadis to quench the thirst of the wild donkeys and create the verdant valley forests with trees, in which the birds sing. And of course we recognize that water always flows down – so every stream is an acknowledgement of water from higher up – until ultimately you stand on the mountain and wonder where the water comes from – and we acknowledge that God is the One who sends the rain on the mountains that then flows down to create the springs.
This whole stanza of the psalm addresses God as “you”. This is personal, relational worship. Have you ever stood by a stream and worshiped like this? Why not? It’s an open invitation – let faith turn your awe into personal worship!
Now the psalmist leaves the beauty of mountain stream to wander through field and vineyard. Yet he continues to see God’s hand and is moved to worship:
14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15 and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Yes, we see man’s hand at work in this stanza, but who brings the grass and food forth from the earth? Man cultivates, but truly only God can make it grow. Oil, wine and bread symbolize all the abundant provision God has made for us to eat and to enjoy. Why don’t we more often make meal time an occasion for worship?
In the next stanza the writer moves back to the forest and mountain and continues to worship.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.
When he refers to the “trees of the Lord” he is describing the natural forests that have grown without human planting or cultivation. Here again, the psalmist depicts God as personally engaging with nature and its creatures as the one who sustains and cares for all; trees providing nesting places for birds, mountains for wild goats, rocks for the hyrax.
In May, during our vacation in South Africa, we spent 10 days near Hermanus in the Western Cape. Not far from where we were staying was a shallow, salty lagoon that was home to a variety of birds. Esther Ruth and I enjoyed walking there each evening to watch the birds. There were numerous flamingoes feeding in the lagoon. There were different species of sea gulls nesting and an entire tree almost filled with cormorants. And every evening just at sunset, whole flocks of black and white Sacred Ibis would come swooping in to land on the far shore. Each species had its place to feed, to rest, to nest or spend the night. It was a beautiful place. Faith turns beautiful places into sacred places, when we allow faith to transform awe into personal worship.
Most scholars believe that the creature translated here as “rock badger” is a type of rock hyrax or “dassie”. That was another animal we encountered during our South African stay. As we walked along the cliff paths near Hermanus, these rabbit sized, furry animals could often be seen sunning themselves beside their dens. They were quite used to humans, but if we got too close, they were still quick to scurry into their homes among the rocks – God’s provision for the dassie. It was another opportunity to worship.
The psalmist also takes time to marvel at the times and seasons and the scheduling of life on earth under God’s design.
19 He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.
I like that imagery; of the lions roaring to seek their food from God. God is again seen as being actively engaged with the world he has made; not only feeding the creatures, but also giving certain times for certain creatures and certain purposes. The lions hunt at night, while man goes out to work during the day. It is all part of God’s design and plan and purpose. If we know where to look, we can see God’s fingerprints everywhere. Once again the psalmist goes back and forth between “He” and “You” as he turns his observations of the Created Order into personal prayer and worship.
This worship bubbles up again even more explicitly in the next section:
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
This stanza begins with an even more exuberant expression of worship. O LORD, how manifold are your works!” He is overwhelmed by the numbers and diversity of creatures reflected in God’s creation and his wisdom in creating them all. He moves from land to sea to continue to marvel. Growing up in Kenya, we used to take our vacations on the coast near Mombasa and I have always loved snorkeling. It is another world beneath the surface of the sea – and almost everything is alive in an incredible array of colors and shapes and sizes and designs. And then of course there is the Leviathan. This Hebrew word is variously used to refer to mythical sea creatures and dragons, as well as large water creatures such as whales.
When I read about these great creatures formed to play in the seas, again, I am reminded of a visit we made to Hermanus several years ago when we happened to be there during the season when the whales come to the area to give birth. It is an incredible sight to see these great creatures throwing themselves half way out of the water, only to fall back in. Nobody is quite sure why they do it, but they look like they are having fun. We took a whale watching cruise one day to get even closer to the whales. I will never forget one particular whale that lay on its side, just slapping the water over and over again with its flipper, for all the world like a child splashing in a bathtub just for the fun of it. It’s the way God made them! He enjoys watching them play. Why shouldn’t we enjoy watching them as well, and letting faith turn our awe into personal worship.
God’s role of Sustainer of the world is highlighted once again in the next section:
27 These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
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.
God didn’t just make the world and walk away. He is still actively involved in the feeding of the creatures and even in the cycles of drought and plenty.
The purpose of the psalm really comes into focus in the final stanza as the psalmist allows faith to transform his awe at God’s creation into personal worship.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works,
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke!
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more!
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Praise the Lord!
The awe that we feel when we contemplate the world around us is a wonderful opportunity to engage with God; to be refreshed by him and to share in his enjoyment of what he has made.
There is one verse in this section that doesn’t seem to fit – and yet it does fit for two reasons. It is the verse about sinners being consumed. It fits, because as we consider the world around us, we are faced clearly with the fact that all is not well with the world. There is much beauty and much to enjoy. But there is also something drastically wrong. In this psalm, I believe the writer has felt and seen the echoes of the original creation as God intended it to be before the Fall of man, and aches for it to be so again. And he also recognizes that the source of the problem lies in the heart of man. So he cries out for the restoration of the beauty of Eden by calling out to God to remove sinners and the plague of sin from the earth.
The second reason this verse fits is because true worship of God must always include a moral component. This is what nature worshipers want to ignore. We cannot worship God in truth without recognizing that he is a moral, holy and righteous God and that he wants us as human beings, created in his image, to be moral, holy and righteous as well. We are not simply animals living among other animals. We are made in God’s image to reflect his glory. And until we do, all is not well and cannot be well with the world.
Yet, while we wait for that final, completed act and work of God, we can still worship. We can still find and see God in the things that he has made. We can still enjoy his works and acknowledge him as the artist, architect and designer of this amazing world in which we live. And whenever we feel the emotion of awe well up inside us at the sight of a perfect rainbow, or the incredible colors of a tiny sunbird sipping nectar from a flower, or a whale heaving its mighty bulk exuberantly above the surface of the sea we have an open invitation. It is the invitation to let faith transform awe into personal worship of the living God.
I remember one particular experience I had a number of years ago. I was in Kenya. I had flown to the town of Kisumu to speak in a pastors’ conference. I arrived half a day early, so they took me to a hotel for the afternoon. After a few hours reviewing my notes for the conference, I went outside to walk around. The hotel was located on the shore of Lake Victoria and had a beautiful lawn sloping down to the lake. It was a beautiful afternoon, with the sun reflecting brightly off the water. I could hear a fish eagle cry. A variety of other birds were singing in the trees. I spontaneously turned my stroll down to the lake into a kind of prayer walk, just talking to God as I walked and enjoyed the sights and sounds. I walked down to the very edge of the lake. There was a tree there, with branches extending out over the water. I climbed up onto the tree, and sat on a branch with my feet dangling above the gently lapping waves. As I sat there, a herd of impala came out and began to graze on the green grass. They were unafraid of me, and soon I found myself surrounded by them, heads down, feeding on the lushness. As I sat there, surrounded by all that beauty, as the sun slowly descended over the lake, I could almost feel what Adam and Eve must have felt in the Garden of Eden.
As evening approached, I clambered down from the tree to walk back up to the hotel. I remember saying, out loud, “Thank you, Lord. I really enjoyed that.” I also remember that God replied to me that afternoon, in as close to an audible voice as I have ever heard. Do you know what he said? He said, “I enjoyed it too.”
Let faith transform awe into personal worship of the living God.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Share an experience when you felt awe when viewing some natural, God-made sight. Describe what you saw as well as what you felt.
- Read Psalm 104 together. How does the writer turn awe into worship? Discuss ways that we can do the same.
- This psalmist expressed his worship by writing a poem. Are there creative ways we can express our worship?