When I first moved to Eynsham I went out into my back garden soon after I arrived – it’s behind the Church – and was astonished at the number of stars I could see. Maybe some of you have been somewhere that is even darker and where, I am told, you can see thousands if not millions of stars, and …. wonder at their glory! That is surely the experience of the person who wrote Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. Yes, I think it was a night sky that writer was thinking of, although, of course looking up into the sky on a beautiful day or at sunset or dawn are other examples of times when anyone who has any sensitivity at all is filled with wonder. But the stars and the planets with the moon in the night sky are surely what is meant by “the heavens” for they were so significant for humans some 2600 years ago when this Psalm was written.
The people then may not have been able to understand the stars as our astro-physicists do today – more of them in a moment – but they knew an awful lot and their experts were able to plot the yearly movements of the stars plus the planets apparently erratic courses across the sky and interpret these patterns in all sorts of ways. Yes they were great astrologers, and we even hear of them in the wise men who come from the east following the star to find the baby Jesus. But that is an unusual thing to find in the Bible because the people of Israel were taught not to take any notice of these pagan ideas and to simply wonder at all that beauty and intricacy their God had made.
Nonetheless they knew that peoples everywhere looked up at the same stars they did and they did believe that in some way not fully understood God was speaking through them. So “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out … to the ends of the world” For them, and for us too, this is an affirmation that whatever gods people worship in different parts of the world, the one true God is always there revealing himself to them. It reminds me of an atheist Staff nurse who said to me as I came to visit her Ward every week. “So where is your God then in all this suffering?” And I replied “God is in you, whether you believe or not. God is present in you as you care for them.” So in the same way, the heavens proclaim the glory of the one True God whether people believe or not.
But I want to take this one step further by taking you into the world of astro-physics. Don’t be alarmed. I don’t understand all the maths either, but the fascinating thing to me is to remember it is there. Now in order to explain this I need to take you back to the 1920’s. The scientists in those days had come to the conclusion that the Universe never had a beginning, and they were pleased to be sure about this because it showed how stupid Christians were. But there was one physicist who was Belgian called Georges Le Maitre and after studying all the Maths in great detail laid out a proof that the Universe did have a beginning, that there was a moment when there was nothing and another moment a nano second later when there was something from which at an immense speed the Universe began to expand. He was immediately ridiculed by the atheist scientists and one called Fred Hoyle made fun of this theory by nicknaming it the Big Bang.
What happened next was that more and more physicists looked at Le Maitre’s Maths and found it made sense, and with more study of the stars and more Maths the Big Bang Theory gradually became accepted as the true scientific theory of what The Universe is like. I don’t know if any of you have watched any Programmes where Professor Brian Cox explains what The Universe is like? I find it all fascinating even though I do not understand it. One of his programmes is called The Wonder of the Universe – here is the book based in the programme. I only wish he had called it The Glory of the Universe because, as the Psalm says “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Sadly, although Brian Cox is not anti-Christian, he cannot see, as you and I can, that the fact that all this maths makes sense, that you can calculate distances and the movement of the stars, that it has an order, a pattern that can be predicted and studied, all of this science “proclaims the glory of God”. Ah yes, and now I will tell you, the man in Belgian who was ridiculed by the atheists then, but now has been shown to be right, was not just a physicist, he just happened also to be a devout Christian, indeed he was a Catholic priest. Mathematics and Physics you see both show the intricacy and order of the Universe. So here too God’s glory is present.
But now, after a description of the glory of the sun rising and setting regularly day after day, another sign of God’s glory, the Psalm appears to change direction completely. The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple”
But actually I want to show that the Psalmist was making the same point as before, but in another way and this is something I have just realised after reading Pope Francis’ latest Encyclical Laudato Si. First of all, the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God unless we humans recognise that they do. We are the only part of creation that has the ability to not only be self-conscious but also to be conscious of God. So if the heavens are to proclaim the glory of God, then it is through us that it happens. Now I don’t mean by this a rather romantic idea that we look at the heavens and say “Ah, isn’t it beautiful”. No, in order for the heavens to proclaim God we have to actually pause and make it happen. So we look up to the sky and actually praise God for what we are seeing and experiencing. It is, of course, the same for everything. God is in all things but unless we stop and recognise this, then the proclamation of his glory has not taken place.
The law of the Lord for us is therefore not principally avoiding doing wrong, but learning to be fully human, to be what God wants us to be, what God has made us to be; and central to this is that we are made by God to recognise his presence in all things and to respond by affirming that he is there and thus being drawn into a closer and closer union with him. As the poem goes “What is the life so full of care, we have no time to stop and stare” So “the law of the Lord” is that we are to continually praise him. And that law as the Psalm says…. “is perfect” And note what it does –“ it refreshes the soul.” It makes that part of our being that is most able to sense God’s presence more alive. And what is more, this “gives joy to the heart” that is it gives joy to every part of my being.
What we are surely being reminded of here is that we are not outside the rest of creation looking on at it as if from afar. WE are part of creation and we have the ability given to us by God to do two things. First, as I have just said, simply to recognise its beauty and to recognise God as its source and sustainer. But secondly, we are able to mould and use creation. We make things, so all that we make and do should also proclaim God’s glory. It is no accident surely that although Jesus does use natural things to proclaim his message, as in “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin: yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Luke 12:27) He also uses things we have made. So at the Last Supper, not sheaves of wheat but bread, not bunches of grapes but wine.
Some might wonder why this is so important, so let me explain. If we do not recognise God’s presence in the beauty of creation then we will most likely see the world as something simply there for us to use… just as we want.. and in the process spoil it. One simple example…If we simply cut down the rainforests because we have a use for them we end up destroying the planet God has given us. So failing to give glory to God for the world in the long run is a very serious sin indeed and the Psalm warns against it saying, “By them (by the laws of the Lord he means) your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
This means that we are not only meant to look at the heavens and praise God for them, but we are also meant to study and understand the heavens, and the earth of course.. not to exploit it, but to be able to use it wisely in ways that God would want us to. So the Psalms says “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.” So we are meant to use maths and physics wisely, that is those who can understand them, because using them to study God’s creation is part of the way we humans do the will of God. So an important part of God’s law for us is that we should strive to understand and use aright the natural world in all its complex splendour. That is why it is so sad that some Physicists are atheists, and so wonderful that many are Christians and do see their work as part of their faith.
Note now the end of the Psalm. It is easy to fail to respond to the natural world with the praise to God that is our calling. It is easy to take it all for granted and so the Psalmist says “Forgive my hidden faults.” Things I do wrong are fairly obvious to me, but failure to fully recognise the glory of God, now that is a fault that I easily do not notice, that is a hidden fault. Of course I must also avoid “wilful sins” but I need God’s mercy and forgiveness for all this if I am to be “innocent of great transgression”
That is amazing isn’t it? That when we fail to recognise God and praise him for his presence in the beauty and glory of the world, the sun and the stars we are guilty of a great transgression! Think of that great Hymn
Teach me My God and King in all things thee to see. And what I do in anything to do it as for thee.