Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Lord Reigns

The Lord Reigns
Psalm 29[1]
I’ve lived most of my life in places where people are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait, it’ll change.” We certainly know about that around here. Especially at this time of the year. Those of us who live in “tornado alley” know all about flooding rains, high winds, and tornadoes that can come seemingly out of nowhere and catch us off guard. The weather forecasters do their best to give us as much warning as they can, but ultimately all they can do is make educated guesses. That’s even true in the case of my primary experience with unpredictable weather: hurricanes. The weather service knows they can’t be sure where the storm will make landfall, so they have a “cone of probability” that extends to five days out. With many storms, the “cone of probability” can cover the whole Gulf of Mexico!
The unpredictability and volatility of the weather are potent reminders that we are not ultimately in control of our lives. Not nearly as much as we’d like to think. Those of us who make a living working the soil know that perhaps better than most. In this day and age, with all our satellites and computer models and sophisticated gear for trying to predict the weather, I sometimes wonder how much it helps. It at least creates the illusion that we know what’s going to happen, and can make preparations. I guess that makes us think our lives are a little more safe. But when a storm comes out of nowhere and turns your life upside-down, that illusion gets blown away.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today may seem a shocking reminder of that reality. The Psalmist uses the awe-inspiring and terrifying experience of a massive storm as a reminder that God is greater than anything we can even conceive.[2] The description of the storm is something that those of us who have lived through will readily understand. The Psalmist speaks of the voice of God flashing forth in lightning and overpowering in thunder.[3] He also speaks of the powerful winds that breaks the mighty cedars—which could be as large as the redwoods in California. The storm is so massive that it makes the mountains “skip like a calf” (29:6), shakes the wilderness (29:8), and strips the forest bare (29:9). And the Psalmist adds that those who witness these things from the relative security of the temple cry “Glory!” I would imagine those who were caught in the worst of the storm cried out other things!
We may wonder why in the world the Psalmist would pick such a frightening image in order to demonstrate the awesome greatness of God. In fact, there was a very good reason for it. In the religion of the people of Canaan, the god Baal was the one who controlled storms. People made sacrifices to Baal to try to ward off the storms.[4] In fact, however, in their mythology, the people believed that Baal had to battle the elements of wind and water in order to control them. And so you couldn’t be sure whether your offering to Baal would actually protect you from a storm!
In the midst of that kind of thinking, the Psalmist depicts the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the one who “sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (Ps. 29:10). I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in the message translation: “Above the floodwaters is God’s throne from which his power flows, from which he rules the world” (Ps. 29:10, The Message). In contrast to Baal, who must constantly wage a battle for control of the elements, the Lord God Almighty calmly rules the world from his throne on high. While Baal’s power is uncertain, it is clear that God’s power is beyond question.[5]
Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe the Psalmist is telling us that God sends the storms and the floods. I find that notion offensive. When our brothers and sisters in the human family suffer the effects of natural disasters, whether flooding, or tornadoes, or hurricanes, or even earthquakes and tsunamis, I don’t believe that God somehow sent that tragedy to teach them a lesson. The point of the Psalm is something altogether different: it means to call attention to the fact that while the power of nature is awesome and at times terrifying, God’s power is greater still. God calmly reigns over not only the forces of nature, but also our lives.
If we still can’t get past the notion that God must somehow cause natural disasters, take a look at what the Psalmist says about how God exercises his reign: “The LORD gives his people strength. The LORD blesses them with peace” (Ps. 29:10). The message of the Psalm is that God’s power is beyond anything we can even imagine—even the most powerful storm. But the message of the Psalm is also that God exercises that power to “bless” his people with “peace.”  God doesn’t cause the natural disasters that can completely upend our lives. But God is there with us to give us strength and peace, and his power is greater than that of the most fearsome forces of nature.
I think one of the main motivations behind this message is to remind us why we come to worship. We do so in order to experience the awe-inspiring greatness of God in our lives and to cry “Glory!”[6] The Psalmist reminds us that the ultimate reason for being here is to be reminded that we worship the God who “rules over the floodwaters,” the Lord who “reigns as king forever.”[7] We’re here because the God who reigns over all things has summoned us. And we’re here to bear witness to the truth that the Lord reigns indeed, and his reign gives us strength and peace to face whatever may come our way.[8]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/31/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 136, where he says the “organizing motif” of the Psalm is “glory”; here it is a “summary term for the attributes of the Lord as king” but also “a term for the manifestation, the display of the Lord’s divine royalty in the world.” This sermon focuses on the display of God’s reign in the world. For a treatment of God’s attributes in this Psalm, see Alan Brehm, “Awesome God,” a sermon delivered on 6/7/2009 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX. See .
[3] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 136; while the phenomena described are those of a storm, this is also the language of a theophany (manifestation of God).  He reminds us that “here its purpose is simply to evoke the power and majesty of the Lord as the ruler of the universe.”
[4] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:793, where he says that “the religion of Baal asserted what humans are all too inclined to believe in any era, that ultimately we are in control and that our efforts can ensure security. While Psalm 29 is not anti-science or anti-technology, it does suggest definite limits to both. The universe is the sphere of God’s reign.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 137: “The name of Israel’s God appears in eighteen of the psalm’s twenty-three measures, as if to say by its constant repetition that it is the Lord, not any other deity, whose power rules the world. Where in Canaan’s myth sea and river were the opponents of Baal in his battle to gain kingship, in the psalm the mighty waters and the flood are simply subject to the Lord’s power as symbols of his everlasting reign.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms” NIB IV:792, where he says, “Yahweh’s sovereignty—not Baal’s—is absolute.” Cf. similarly, H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 351, who says that Ps. 29 presents the claim of the creator in the midst of competing claims: “Yahweh appears. Yahweh’s kabodh [glory] radiates forth. Yahweh’s voice resounds. Yahweh makes heaven and earth quake. To him all powers must bow in homage, and him they must serve.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 137. He says that the Psalm is an indication of the importance of worship, describing it as “the marvelous possibility” of the “use of time and space and sound” to create a situation “in which ‘Glory!’ is uttered in response to the one true God.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:793, where he says that the Psalms “speaks eloquently what Christians affirm regularly in the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer: ‘for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.’”
[8] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, 79: “worship is not an informational event. It is not a time to inform people about the church; it is not a time to inform people about the Christian faith; and it is not a time to inform people about God. It is a time to experience God, to experience the sacred, in ways that are life-changing.”

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