1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.
3The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
10The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Sermon: God in the Thunderstorm, preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony on 1/12/20
I want to start off this new year preaching by and large out of the Psalms—something I haven’t much done here during my time at CCOV. We use the psalms a lot for Jewish and Christian calls to worship, and their words inspire many of our great hymns and comfort us during celebration of life services, but I thought it would be inspirational to delve into them a bit more deeply in terms of preaching. The ecumenical lectionary lists a psalm each week, and its usually the one I fashion or adapt for our bulletins’ weekly calls to worship. For the next few months though, I am going to go deeper and use the lectionary psalm for my preaching text as well.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 29, is one in which the psalmist, whom we typically think of as David, beholds a powerful thunderstorm, and in it sees a manifestation of God’s glory. And above the storm’s fury, David sees God sitting enthroned in peace over all of the tumult. We know that there are great storms in life—both in the weather and the metaphorical storms that we go through during times of great stress—like the loss of loved ones, health crises, financial stressors, errant children, war, you name it. There are storms in life to be sure, and often we are wondering where God is through those tough times. But here is the take-home message. God is right there—even when we don’t see God. God is there and sovereign over the storms just as God is there and sovereign in the gentle voice that alights on Jesus like a dove in our New Testament passage about Jesus’ baptism today. Both Psalm 29 and Matthew 3:13-17 are paired by the lectionary because the theophany (a word which means a mighty revealing of God in nature, like in the burning bush)—here the mighty theophany of God in the storm and the quiet epiphany in the waters of the Jordan are intricately linked. The storm says “This is my cosmos.” Jesus’ baptism says, “This is my Christ” (Interpretation, Psalms, Mays, John Knox Press, 1994, 138). God is present in the natural order of earth and in the divine—in the unseen. In Jesus we see how humanity was meant to be. We are not, and will never be, the perfect fusion of spirit and matter that Jesus was, be we are a fusion of spirit, the spirit of God and matter, the matter of the cosmos. We are what the Bible calls “living souls” in Genesis 2:7. This fusion of spirit and matter is what it means to be in the likeness of God, and that thought should give us peace—nothing happens to us apart from God, in whose very image we are created. God is actively at work bringing all things to a glorious fulfillment; maybe not today, but one day. See, Christians know how the story will end. So be it fires in Australia, earthquakes in Puerto Rico, wars and rumors of war with Iran, oppressions, injustice, all manner of mighty storms: one day all of this will cease. For now, God not only sits above the storm but is also present to us in them.
Let’s talk about storms—because we are going to go through them if we haven’t or aren’t going through one already. Let’s talk first about what storms can do for our faith. The way we weather storms can be a powerful witness to an observer, and the struggle through the storm itself can strengthen our souls. Now indulge me here: I went to a thorough-going Methodist seminary and we heard a lot of stories about John Wesley, Methodism’s founder. There is tremendous richness in Wesley’s teaching and life experiences. Here is one of them, a story I want to tell you, because it is instructive especially as we talk about storms, this one about a storm at sea. Anyone who was ever a Methodist might know this story about John Wesley and the Moravians when John was on board a ship bound for American during life-threatening storms. John Wesley was heartily influenced by a group of German Christians called the Moravians, a pietistic sect. Many of the Moravians, in fact, settled in the environs of Allentown, PA—which was near where I grew up. Anyway, in Wesley’s Sunday, January 25, 1736 journal (which is in old English) he wrote of this storm as he crossed the Atlantic:
At seven I went to the Germans (the Moravians). I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”
From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.
Feareth here really means revering God—respecting God, and recognizing the mystery and otherness of God. Because the Moravians respected, revered, and recognized God, they could know blessing and peace even in the middle of a storm at sea—even with the English screaming all around them. The Moravians knew that their circumstances were beyond their control, so they quietly sung their hymns. None of them were afraid to die, because they knew that this life is not all there is—this world is not ours—it is God’s. John Wesley was heartily influenced by this event when he observed the Moravians and the great faith that sustained them through this terrible storm. The Moravians knew what we must learn: Nothing other than God has the final say in our lives, and this should give us hope and peace. This is also what Psalm 29 is teaching us: Faith is not about expecting God to calm the storms of life, but faith is about being okay despite the storms—fearless like the Moravians in the eyes of death, in contrast to the English—knowing that God is with us now, in our crossing over, and will be with us throughout all eternity. That is the good news and should move us to shout, like’s God’s temple worshipers in our psalm, the word “glory!”
Let’s delve more deeply into Psalm 29. I want to give you a little background on it that will give you some of its context. Scholars feel that this may be one of the oldest psalms. It contains echoes of Canaanite literature, yet it is also a parody of Canaanite literature. You remember that the Canaanites, pagans surrounding ancient Israel, worshiped Baal, the storm god, whose voice was also said to be heard in thunder. You will probably remember other Bible stories in which there is a showdown between Yahweh and Baal. The writer of this psalm, curiously, repeats God’s name (which appears as LORD in our translation) eighteen times to underscore that it is the LORD, Yahweh, not any other deity, whose power rules the world. By this repetition, David, or the author, elevates Yahweh over Baal. The take-home message in this is that we worship a God sovereign over all the dark gods of this world—our God will have the final say. There are unseen spiritual battles waging all around us, but at the end of it all, our God triumphs. This psalm discloses a God sovereign above all and in whose power we find possibilities that are not our own. It’s good to know that there is Someone outside of ourselves who is good and reliable, who stands above and beyond the storms of this life and at the same time goes through them with us.
The irony of storms is that we often experience God’s presence in them when we may fail to experience God when everything is going well for us in life. Nature can point us powerfully to God; our Bibles do say that there is indeed revelation of God in the natural order. We also increase in our faith when we go through storms—we would have not spiritual growth without them. Storms, in that sense, are necessary, just as they are in nature. A few days ago, the wind howled furiously in Prescott, especially on the top of the hill where we live. It stripped the aspen trees of the remaining brown leaves clinging to them, ones that hadn’t fallen off in Autumn. The furious wind was needed to rid the aspens of the old growth, preparing the branches to host the new buds of spring. So it is with us; storms can effect spiritual growth in us. Storms are a reminder that there is something, Someone outside of us. We turn to God in the storms in ways that we do not when everything is well.
From my own experience, I know how I turned to God during the worst season of my life: the year when I was with my mom as she unsuccessfully battled pancreatic cancer. I turned to God for comfort, late at night, reading a devotional to get me through—to strengthen me to be a support for her. I would not have turned to God like that when all was going along as it should, I don’t think, had I not needed the assurance of presence and God’s strength through a difficult season in my life. I remember that time now though, even when things are going well, and remember to express gratitude to God for each and every blessing I enjoy each day: my health, my strength, my daily food, my comforts, my privileges. I learned that sometimes God uses storms to bring us closer—not that God causes them so much as God resurrects something good out of them and thereby tends to our spiritual growth. I’ll end with this:
A pastor named Dr. Richard Meier tells this story. “A small boy was playing with his
sailboat at the edge of a lake. When the wind pulled the sailboat away from the shoreline and out of his reach, he began to cry as he saw it moving farther and farther away from him. An older boy came close to the scene and began throwing stones at the boat. The smaller boy cried, ‘Why are you throwing stones at my boat?’ The older boy said, ‘You don’t know what I’m doing. I’m throwing stones on the far side of the boat to create some waves to bring the sailboat back to you. Trust me, I know what I am doing’” (www.pastorlife.com).
It may sometimes feel that stones are being thrown at your lives. You know what they are right now; God does too. I’m not so sure that God throws them; it’s just that life here in this earthly, material realm can be stormy and tough: people do get sick and die. Storms of all sorts inevitably come; the earth shakes; in nature these things have their purpose. For the psalmist, they reveal God’s presence and glory in nature, terrible as it can seem sometimes. For the Christian, all things work together for ultimate good and for newness of life and growth—for resurrection. In the meantime, stones and storms draw the Christian closer to God; they are not meant to drive us away. Like the psalmist, in faith, may we be moved even in the storm to ascribe to God glory, along with the whole host of heaven and the worshippers here on earth. Amen.