Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Recovering Wonder

Ps. 65; Luke 18:9-14[1]

It seems to me that we as a people find it incredibly hard to be astonished about much of anything these days. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Maybe it’s because we can only imagine what someone can portray for us on some kind of screen. Maybe it’s because we have been so shocked at human behavior that we have no more capacity for astonishment. Maybe it’s because we’re too wrapped up in our own man-made lives. After all, it’s hard to feel awe and wonder at much of anything when we’re surrounded by steel and concrete and glass all the time.

In our Psalm for today, we hear a call to worship, which also means a call to awe and wonder. And why are we summoned to worship God? Because God has acted with awe-inspiring signs of deliverance! And what specifically astonishing deeds has God done to inspire such awe? The Psalmist says it this way, “You visit the earth and water it”; “you provide the people with grain”! You might be tempted to interrupt at this point—these are things that we are able to control all by ourselves. We don’t need God to provide food or keep the cycle of precipitation going.

Okay, I’ll give you that one. But the Psalmist also calls attention to the astonishing deed of creation: “By your strength you established the mountains.” Some of you might be persuaded here, but others may still be shaking their heads. We can construct a plausible explanation for the origins of the universe without resorting to God, thank you very much!

Well, I think that’s a stretch, but for the sake of argument I might give you that one, too. The Psalmist has one more answer—the astonishing deed of salvation: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgression.” I think I may have most of you now, but there may still be some who are skeptical. It’s that old bug-a-boo of “sin” that keeps us under the thumb of religion.

I’m afraid we have gotten to the place where we’ve lost all sense of wonder. The Psalmist, like many of the biblical witnesses, insists that the work of God is something astonishing—from the vastness of the cosmos to the tenderness of new life. It ought to promote a sense of awe and wonder; it ought to provoke fear and trembling. But I’m afraid that increasingly it doesn’t—why is that?

I wonder if our religion doesn’t play a significant role in all of this. You may find this hard to believe, but in my opinion religion tends to use “God” primarily as a means of controlling our lives. When we diminish God in this way, it’s no wonder that we lose the capacity for awe and wonder. In a very real sense, we turn our God, the living God who has been acclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the redeemer of those who trust him, into just another version of Baal. If you don’t recognize the name, that was what the people of antiquity called their various “gods”. There was the “Baal” of weather, and the “Baal” of crops and the “Baal” of flocks and the “Baal” of family. You get the idea—every aspect of life was viewed to be under the control of a man-made deity. But in a very real sense, those other gods were simply the means for people to feel like they were in control of their lives. They “used” their “gods” to get what they wanted in life—children, food, and safety.

Before we start shaking our heads at the na├»ve foolishness of those “primitive” people, we should remember that we’re not much different. We want the same thing they did—control over our lives. I remind you that for every astonishing deed the Psalmist mentions as a reason for honoring God, we can come up with an explanation that puts us firmly in control of every aspect of our lives. [2] At least in our own minds.

I wonder if this isn’t at least part of what was going on with the one who exalted himself in Jesus’ parable. His prayer is one that is only superficially couched in terms of thanksgiving. The real content of his prayer is self-congratulation. I think that’s one of the serious pitfalls in a religion that turns God into a means of controlling our lives—it’s really a matter of worshipping our own ability to make our lives turn out the way we want them to.

And notice that the way in which this religion of self-congratulation manifests itself is by despising those we deem “less than.” And so the one who exalted himself in prayer not only congratulated himself, but also did not fail to use the opportunity to demean the tax collector.

But as Jesus said, we cannot expect to experience God’s deliverance, salvation, forgiveness, and renewal when we effectively exalt ourselves as “gods”.[3] In contrast to this rather cynical and mechanical religion that is so popular even today, the message of the Psalms is that the only way to experience God as savior is to honor God as creator and provider.[4] It may seem counterintuitive, but it is when we humbly acknowledge God’s astonishing deeds of creating us, redeeming us, and sustaining us, that we also place ourselves in the position to experience God as the one who exercises tender mercy and unfailing compassion.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/24/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:934: “In terms of security, we are convinced that we either do have or should have things under control. As for prosperity, we are generally convinced that we have earned it. From this perspective, of course, praise is due not to God but to ourselves.”

[3] Cf. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Commentary IX:341: “Trusting in oneself is obviously a posture of blindness to one’s position before God.”

[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the LORD reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” 793.

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