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At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Sermon on Psalm 104
Earth Day 2018
“[God has] only to sing, and the rocks will crystallize,” wrote Emerson. “Sing, and the plants will organize;/Sing, and the animals will be born.”
The magnificent psalm we just read is a song of praise to the Creator God, whose Spirit sings the world into being. The psalmist can hardly contain his wonder at the vast panorama of creation spread out before his eyes: mountain goats gaining a foothold in the craggy alpine rocks; lions panting softly in their dens; human creatures going about their labors and enjoying a glass of wine at the end of the day. God’s Spirit blows through the whole world, bringing forth life, giving growth, refreshing the earth and its manifold creatures. The psalmist can hardly contain his wonder, and wants us to feel that wonder, too.
The psalmist recognizes the point of commonality between every living being as the Spirit of God. Everywhere he looks, he sees the Spirit at work. Everything, plants and animals and humans, in no particular order of importance, lives and breathes by the breath of God.
In the beginning, Genesis says, a wind [or spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light,” and pretty soon life was springing up everywhere. Then the Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being. In the same way, the psalmist notes the connection between the breath of God and the life-giving Spirit that animates everything:
“When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.” (vv. 29-30)
What is striking about this psalm is the poet’s sense of utter delight. The psalmist gazes around himself, considers the rich multiplicity of life forms and God’s gracious provision for all of them, and is simply bowled over. Not only that, he wants to be sure that God is bowled over, too: “May the Lord rejoice in his works,” he says. The God who has looked upon God’s own work and pronounced it “good” must gaze on this creation every day with at least the psalmist’s own delight. Even the terrible sea-beast Leviathan, the mythological chaos-monster that symbolized everything that was threatening and disorderly in the ancient world, is seen as a kind of playful pet for God; “God’s rubber ducky,” as one person put it. In fact, there is a kind of playfulness throughout this psalm, an appreciation of the world for its own sake, an openness to its beauty and wildness. At the same time, there is a recognition that God has ordered everything in a coherent
way. The creation is lush, wild, and exuberant, but it is not random.
The psalmist’s rapturous description of the play of God’s Spirit through the world points us to a God who is in love with the whole created world.
The one jarring note in this rhapsody is struck in the last verse: “Let sinners be consumed out of the earth, and the wicked be no more.” The lectionary actually omits this one verse, but I have included it because the psalmist clearly intends something by it: that the splendor, beauty, and abundance of the created world is threatened by human sin.
There is an ongoing tension in Scripture between affirming human beings as God’s most favored creature and pointing to them as a blot or stain on God’s good creation. Human sin messes everything up.
And it must be confessed that we human creatures, as a species, haven’t done such a great job of loving God’s world. Somewhere along the way we started thinking of the created world, apart from human beings, as something God made purely for the use of human beings. We forgot that it is a world God delights in for its own sake. We lost the psalmist’s appreciation of God’s Spirit breathing through the branches of the trees, the grasses of the plains, and the winged exaltation of the birds.
The reasons for this loss are complex, but one thing we can say is that in some ways, we have misinterpreted our own biblical traditions. Unlike some religions, in which nature is said to “contain” God, biblical religion makes a clear distinction between Creator and creation. God is separate from God’s works and should not be confused with them. The psalmist is clear on this point: “O Lord, how manifold are all your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (v. 24). That means that from a biblical perspective, the natural world, in and of itself, is not exactly sacred. It does not convey divinity, but is an expression of the sovereign majesty of the Creator God, the “Maker of heaven and earth.” God’s command to human beings to “exercise dominion” over the created world meant that people could make land habitable for themselves, plant it for food, clear portions of it for roads, and enlist the animals to help them do these things.
When you think about it, the biblical view of nature, as creation distinct from its Creator, is what has allowed us to do scientific research. If nature itself is not sacred, if it does not contain God, you can put it under a microscope and dissect it and examine it. You can unlock its secrets, with great benefits for humankind. Antibiotics, electricity, x-rays and DNA sequencing are all available to us because we have permission to play around with nature.
However, this divine permission has its limits. The mistake we made was when we forgot who made “nature” in the first place, and whose Spirit continues to animate it. Somewhere along the line people started thinking of the natural world as just matter, with no intrinsic value in itself. “Nature” became a commodity to be bought and sold or an obstacle to be removed. That thinking eventually led to the thinking that made it OK to cut the tops off mountains to get the coal out of them, to clear-cut ancient forests for lumber, and to drain fragile wetlands in order to build golf courses or new subdivisions. All too often we allow even our fellow-creatures, the animals, to be treated as commodities. In the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes said that animals were just machines, with no capacity for thought or emotion or even physical pain, and paved the way for horrible abuses of animal life. If they are not sentient creatures, animated by the breath of God, we are free to do whatever we like to them -- but that’s not how the psalmist sees them, and it’s not what we know about them, either.
The other way we have misinterpreted Scripture is in overemphasizing the primacy of human beings. It is true that the Bible assigns a special place and role for human creatures, but the Bible also insists on how interconnected we are with the rest of creation. In this psalm, human beings are simply one kind of creature among many, and that view is echoed through the Bible. Referring to the great beast Behemoth, God says to Job, “I made him just like I made you,” and extols this beast as the best thing God ever made.
A purely materialist, or commodity, view of the created world, of course, has negative consequences for human beings as well, such as unhealthy air, an overheated climate, and the dangerous loss of species diversity that scientists have been warning us about for decades. Taken to its logical extreme, a materialist view of creation diminishes the value of human life. Biologists can tell us that if you reduce a human being to her material components, she is worth about 87 cents.
The real value of a human being is given by the Spirit of God. The Spirit also gives us the capacity to think, imagine, dream, wonder, create, love, and worship. We cannot sever the connection between our material, physical selves and our spiritual selves. When the connection between matter and spirit is broken, we become what we would have been before the creation of Adam, senseless lumps of inert clay, worth about 87 cents.
We know instinctively that human life cannot be reduced to its commodity value. The psalmist reminds us that the created world is not merely a commodity, either. By their very existence, creatures breathe forth the praise of their Creator, whose Spirit ranges freely through the world. The whole earth is the place of God’s blessing.
On this Earth Day, let us celebrate all the work and play of God’s Spirit, and pray with the psalmist: “Send forth your Spirit, O God, and renew the face of the earth.” Send forth your Spirit, and renew us. Amen.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2018
 William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), p. 135, from a citation by Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Post-Modern (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998).