Human Humility in the Face of God’s Grandeur
Based on Psalm 147:1-11, Isaiah 40:21-31, and Mark 1:29-39
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on Feb 7, 2021
A week ago Friday, at about 7 pm, my girlfriend Kelley was heading north from Traverse City to Petoskey on 31, when she was wowed by that massive full moon that was rising in the eastern sky. She called me – hands free, of course – and said, “You’ve got to go outside and check out the moon! It’s amazing.” So I bundled up, grabbed Fergie, and walked up to the end of my street to get a glimpse of God’s glory. She was right…It was one of the largest, brightest, most majestic full moons I have ever seen, an incredible gift on a cold winter’s night.
Then this past Monday at about 10 am, I was working on this very sermon when Fergie gave me the sign that she wanted to go out. I walked her through Ransom Hall to the double glass doors, and as I let her out, I was nearly blinded by the glint of the sun off the snow in our side yard. The combination of the cloudless blue skies, icy white sheet of snow, and the sunlight was stunningly beautiful.
We live in a beautiful world. It almost doesn’t matter which season it happens to be; if we open our eyes and look around, we are bound to be amazed. As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his famous poem, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” But I wonder how often we miss it? I would love to know how many days go by without us being wowed, stopped in our tracks, moved to praise by that absolute wonder of creation. The 147th Psalm says that God, “determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name…His understanding has no limits…He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes the grass grow on the hills; He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes.”
The prophet Isaiah asks, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth…He stretches out the heavens like a canopy.” Isaiah emphasizes that the Creator God is beyond compare. In verse 25, he says, “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal? Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all this… He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them each by name.”
I have to believe that one of the greatest sins we commit on a daily basis – or maybe even on an hourly one – is the failure to say, “WOW!” The failure to open our eyes and actually notice the grandeur of God on display all around us.
As I mentioned in a recent newsletter, I’ve been studying the latest book by progressive theologian Brian McLaren – Faith After Doubt. Toward the end of this amazing book, McLaren writes, “I think it is an absolute spiritual necessity to expose children to nature and to build in them, from the youngest age possible, a lifelong sensitivity to the patterns of the natural world. If we think of God as both the creator of the cosmos and the source of love, then it sounds ludicrous to think we could encounter God and divine love apart from God’s creative project… We encounter God first and foremost through God’s original self-expression, in aspen trees and the waters that gush out of mountain springs, in swirling galaxies and the green gray lichen that adorns a rock, in the wood thrush and orangutan, in a shimmering brown trout or the power of a summer thunderstorm.” (Pgs. 168-69)
Wasn’t this pretty much what Jesus did? When he taught people about the Kingdom of God, he showed them a tiny mustard seed; he pointed them to a grain of wheat; he climbed into a boat along a lakeshore; he took the disciples fishing. He looked at the trees on a windy day and held a cup or wine and a crust of bread. In all of these ways, Jesus said, ‘You’re going to know God first in and through creation, the natural world.
So your first assignment in the coming week is to see if you can be wowed 14 times in the next week – twice a day for 7 days. If you keep your eyes open – truly open – it shouldn’t be hard. Just tune into creation, remembering that that natural world is the most direct link to the Creator. And the second assignment is to let it humble you…As you tune into the natural world and get wowed by it, let that humble you.
All three of our passages this morning feature the grandeur of God on one hand and the posture of humility by those who experience that grandeur on the other hand. In Psalm 147, after noting that it is God who determines the number of stars and calls them by name, the Psalmist goes onto say that this same God “sustains the humble” and “supplies” us with rain, grass, and the blessings of food. Isaiah 40 juxtaposes the God who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” with “its people who are like grasshoppers.” I love that – the God who sits upon and rules over the entire earth; and we are mere grasshoppers. In verse 23 Isaiah reminds us that this almighty and powerful God “brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of the world to nothing.” He “blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.” Can you hear the humility that we humans are called to in the face of God’s grandeur? It makes me think of Psalm 8, when David writes, “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in their place, what is man that you are mindful him…or the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:3-4)
But perhaps my favorite moment of humility in this morning’s readings comes in Mark’s gospel, the first chapter. In this story, Jesus has been serving others. He went to Simon’s house and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. And then, when word of that miracle spread, throngs of people came to that same house, bringing all manner of sick and demon possessed people to Jesus, that he might touch them. Jesus did, indeed, touch them and healed many from their various diseases. But then we’re told that, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Did you ever wonder why he did that? I mean, the dude just healed a ton of people. He’s a miracle worker, a rock-star, right? Why not sleep in, bask in his glory for a while? Jesus knew who he was…and he knew who he wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t the one who sat enthroned upon the planet. He wasn’t the one who created the moon and the star. He wasn’t even the one who healed Simon’s mother-in-law and all those other people. That was God’s work, God’s doing. Jesus got up very early that morning to acknowledge the One whose work all that healing was. That morning time alone in a quiet place was Jesus’s chance to say “Wow! That was some pretty awesome work you did, Father!” This early morning prayer time was Jesus humbling himself – appropriately – in the face of God’s grandeur. And if Jesus did that – if he humbled himself before God – then I’m guessing we probably should too.
Humility has become somewhat of a lost art in recent years, especially here in America. We aren’t so good at giving somebody else credit for what we see as “our” achievements. As one of my friends likes to put it, “We Americans were born on 3rd base but act as if we just hit a triple.” Humility isn’t an act. Being humble is not pretending to be a team player. Genuine humility is nothing more than acknowledging reality – the way things really are!
Whenever we are feeling prideful, too big for our britches, it’s usually the result of having the camera of our vision zoomed in too much, failing to see the big picture. Back the camera up from any achievement you are prideful about, and, chances are, you’ll see a lot more people who made your achievement possible. I used to be extremely prideful of my education: Cum Laude from DePauw University, Graduated with Honors from Princeton Seminary. But if I back the camera up from those apparent individual achievements and get an arial view, I see things a little differently. It was my home church and the Presbytery in Cleveland, Ohio that even made it possible for me to attend and afford Princeton in the first place. The only reason I even knew about DePauw and was steered toward it as an undergraduate school was because of the upper middle class family I grew up in and the countless advantages that gave me in the college process. It’s like the wonderful position and opportunity I have here at this church. I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Joan Robinson and her search committee. Backing the camera up a little further, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Neil Wilson and Cheryl Burke, who invited me to consider the UCC as a denomination. Every single one of us, no matter where we are or what we do, is standing on the shoulders of countless people who opened countless doors for us. We’ve just got to back the camera up far enough to see that big and humbling picture.
And that brings us back to creation, the natural world, right? That’s why noticing a rising full moon or the sun glinting off the snow is so darn important. We need, just like David did in Psalm 8, to “consider the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars, which God has set in place.” For only then we can join David in his humble cry, saying, “What are we, O God, that You are mindful of us?”
You see, folks, when I’m at my least humble, it’s because my gaze and my focus are too limited, overly narrow and focused on myself and my immediate surroundings. But when I allow my eyes to open, my head to lift and tilt back…When I breathe in that gift of the next breath from God’s oxygen, I see a bigger picture. I see God’s grandeur. As one of my devotions advised this week, “Lift up your chin and your eyes will follow. The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Our job is to constantly say, “Wow!” and be humbled by it. Amen.