Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.
OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.
Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.
Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.
Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.
Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”
I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.
And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.
But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)
What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.
The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.
The chorus says:
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.
What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.
The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase
Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.
Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.
I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)
The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.
In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.
No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.
The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.
What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.
But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)
And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.
For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.
‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.
But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:
- Creative management of God’s world.
- Moral management for the good of all.
- A community of good relationships.
While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.
Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.
Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)