17 Pentecost, Year A
17 Pentecost, Year A
Believe it or not, this is true: the city council of Southampton, England, in order to comply with preservation laws, was required to write a letter to a tree informing it that it would be cut down and that the tree was welcome to make any objections or comments. The letter, which was tacked to the tree’s trunk, began: “Dear Tree...” 1
As some of you likely know, especially those of you who are familiar with aboriginal peoples and culture; it was also a common practice among some of them at least to regard all of creation as a unity. In some aboriginal religious traditions, everything in creation had life, including such things as rocks and trees; therefore, it was to be treated with respect and one had to talk to a tree, and ask the tree’s permission to cut it down. Therefore it was not considered that strange to personify nature and talk to nature.
In today’s psalm, which is one of the Hallel Psalms (Pss. 113-118) that the Israelites included in their liturgy during the Passover and other festivals; we encounter a similar kind of phenomenon. The psalmist speaks of nature, of God’s creation in a personified way.
For example, in verse 3, the sea is described by the writer as supposedly having eyes and maybe even a body with legs: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.” Now, we contemporaries of the twenty-first century would likely respond to this phenomenon in a rational way and say something like this: “We must read this kind of literature as poetry, and poetry speaks in figurative, symbolic language, which is not meant to be interpreted literally.” That statement may be true for a lot of us; but it likely was not true of the psalmist and of ancient Israel. For the psalmist and ancient Israel, no scientific explanations of the natural world existed. They were a people who lived very close to God’s creation and hence were more in touch with and felt more connected to nature than we do today in our world of advanced science and high technology. Furthermore, they saw God as very active in the natural world--hence, the language of today’s psalm.
And what a creative language it is! The psalmist, so overflowing with the exuberance of God delivering the Israelites from Egyptian slavery; breaks into a moment of sheer joy by speaking of mountains skipping like rams, the hills like lambs. That’s quite a creative way of expressing the joy of the psalmist and ancient Israel, isn’t it? So elated, so free, so grateful and awe-filled was the psalmist that nature is also viewed as serving God’s purposes and celebrating with the ancient Israelites in their joy.
Then, in verses 5 and 6, the psalmist now, in the form of questions, speaks directly to the sea, to Jordan, to the mountains and to the hills. In asking the sea and Jordan why they receded, and why the mountains and hills skipped; the psalmist is preparing us for the answer, which comes in verses 7 and 8. These verses speak now in the form of a command and an invitation: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.”
In other words, the answer to the questions as to why God’s creation behaves the way it does is found in the very presence of God. According to the psalmist, God’s presence causes everything in nature to submit to God in obedience by the power of God’s Presence and God’s word speaking directly to God’s creation. This, of course, is reminiscent of God at the time of creating the universe; whereby God speaks and in that speaking all of creation comes to life.
The power of God’s Presence and spoken word remains among God’s people to this very day. That is why we practice bowing our heads when we address God in prayer, and bow down onto our knees when we receive that sacrament of Holy Communion, out of respect and awe for God. And that is also why the word of God continues to be of vital importance to us in our worship services, along with the sacraments where the elements of nature; be they water in baptism and bread and wine in Holy Communion; combined with God’s word, carry with them the mysterious, forgiving, and saving power and Presence of God. In our world today, I sense that there is a tendency to reduce the awesome, wondrous, transcendent Presence of God; to make God as domesticated as we can to suite our selfish purposes. Yet, the psalmist tells us that the creation, the earth has enough “sense” to “Tremble, at the presence of the LORD.” Deep reverence for God does not make God less accessible for us or make God into some threatening and strange spooky Presence. Rather, deep reverence for God draws us closer to our True Source of all life and helps us to remain fascinated and astounded and excited about God’s Presence in our lives—reminding us of our place as creatures of God’s creating to serve and love God; not to be equals with God.
It is quite interesting that in verse 8, the psalmist now describes a different kind of water than that of the threatening sea and the Jordan. Now the psalmist tells us what God did during the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness, God “turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.” In this nature miracle, water is now life-giving, not death threatening. For those ancient Israelites, wandering in the hot desert heat without water would certainly bring death. So God’s miraculous activity of turning rock and flint into water was certainly life-giving.
In the preface to her fascinating book, Water in England, Dorothy Hartley writes, “Our water was always important. Before roads were built it was our travel guide and map-maker. We caught it running, kept it static, conducted it and made it work for us. We washed in it (homesick Romans built Bath for it); we even drank it sometimes. Our saints made it miraculous, minerals made it medical.”
Water! How much we take it for granted! When next we turn the tap we might remember that bit of potted history above and also the millions in the world who suffer through prolonged drought and polluted water supplies. (Our) prayer for today (may very well be), “Give us this day our daily water!” 2