My Utmost for God's Highest
Sunday, November 25, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
I had a conversation with a member of our congregation this past week. She said: “Andrew, you introduced a new word to me last week – not a word I knew existed before! While you have a tendency to do that from time to time, this was a word that seemed important. It was the word ‘dystopia’. Utopia, I get; dystopia, no! So I Googled it, and I found out that it means, ‘an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.’ I get it! There are times when I think I live in dystopia.” Then, she went on to remonstrate about all her concerns over the last few days. She talked about what happened up the road at a school, and how sad it was; about her bank statement that she received this week with her investments, and that it didn’t look very good. And then, she said, “Then, I turn on the news, and there is something about China promoting the use of coal and hurting our atmosphere, and not only supporting coal usage in their own country, but in other countries.” She continued, “I just threw up my arms! Dr. Stirling, you have given me a new word to use when I feel like that: ‘dystopia’ and that we are in a dystopian world! Thank you for that!”
I thought about what she said, and the whole notion of us living in a dystopian world, and I realized in many ways it is not new. It is certainly not new for Christians and people of faith to sometimes believe that we live in a dystopian world. When you look, for example, at the Psalms, the psalmist is writing out of a sense that this is a dystopian world at times. David often wrote his psalms about his own indiscretions or fears, enemies or difficulties. Some of the psalms are written about the catastrophic nature of the environment, and walking through valleys of the shadows of death, storms raging, and the sun beating down on us. Sometimes the psalmists write about nations who want to destroy Israel, as was the case with the Exile. There are a plethora of psalms that deal with a dystopian world. So, there is nothing new, really. The Psalms were written and arose out of these dark and unpleasant moments. What is significant about the Psalms, and certainly about Psalm 93 (our text today) and indeed the whole group of psalms that are known as “Enthronement Psalms” is the belief that God transcends the effects of the dystopian world, so we have this psalm of hope, of great affirmation about the things that God actually does.
The psalmist starts out by simply saying “The Lord reigns” or in another version, “The Lord is the King.” In other words, God is a monarch, God is a sovereign, and this sovereignty is manifested in very human terms. The psalmist describes God as being “robed in splendour” just like a monarch would be, or “girded with strength” again like a monarch. The language anthropomorphises God, shows God in human form, like a monarch ruling over the earth. This of course was in keeping with much of the vision of Israel of God, that the monarchies of Israel themselves were only manifestations of the sovereignty of God. David, for example, becoming king and establishing the great monarchy of Israel was really a reference to someone being placed under the sovereign power of God. The prophet Isaiah, in Chapter 52, talks to the people who have returned from the Exile, and says, “Don’t forget folks, your God reigns!” In another one of the great Enthronement Psalms, Psalm 132, it said, “God sits enthroned.” All the language is the language of a monarchy, a king, a sovereign. This is what God is like. This is the power of this sovereign God.
It is also picked up in The New Testament in the Gospel of John where Jesus, in Chapter 18, appears before Pontius Pilate, who teases Jesus about his kingdom, and suggests that if Jesus really was powerful, he wouldn’t be in the position that he is in. He mocks him and questions what truth is. But then, Jesus says these immortal words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Now, what Jesus was doing was affirming what the psalmist affirmed in Psalm 193: that there is a power that transcends earthly powers that is greater than all of those, for Jesus recognized – and by the way I am preaching on this next week, so this is what they call “a teaser” because this kingdom that Jesus established, over which He, along with the Father and the Spirit reigned, is the establishment of the reign of God. It is not as if Jesus made up another kingdom. His kingdom is not of this world; it is the world of the sovereign Father.
The psalmist has written something glorious and stated it, and it all might sound very nice, and we all might be loving every moment of it, praising God, who is above all other monarchs. We have our hymns, “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” We sing this with passion and with power, but there is a lot more to it than that: God established the world. This is a mighty claim because the psalmist wrote this – and it is probably one of the very earliest of the Psalms – in a world that was often full of dystopia, so the pagan notion that primordial forces dominate human existence and that human beings have no power over the primordial forces, that the only way to control them is to make a god of each of the forces – the sun and the moon, the wind and the stars, the waters, and so on. And because of that people lived in a state of fear. They felt they had no power, no control over the things that were around them, and that they were simply moved around by the forces of nature. The psalmist writes in the midst of all this: “No! The Earth was established by God. There is permanence to things. It is not just a matter of forces buffeting us and pushing us around, there is a God who from the very beginning was there. God who created the world is eternal and established.
These days that is certainly called into question. There are many who turn, particularly to quantum physics, and question whether there is an established order, a sense of permanence. After all, there is the Heisenberg principle, which believes that there is uncertainty in the world, an uncertainty principle, and that the position of things, or the momentum of things is unknowable, and because of that, it seems as if the world is in chaos, both as we look down into the very minute nature of the universe, or to the expanding universe. It seems as if it is continually evolving, unpredictable and unknowable. So, there are many who say, “Well, if that is the case, and we know that as a fact, let’s say quantum physics is a given, then should we not change our notion of what God is like?” There are some who do that. There are some, for example, who say, “Okay, we can believe that there was a God who made the world, but then basically, to use John Polkinghorne’s phrase “an absentee landlord” – created it, walked away, and left it to its own devices. There are others who say, “No, God is physically in the world – in the rocks and the stones and the trees – and the very nature of God is that God changes, along with the universe, and the universe and God are one and indivisible. Therefore there is no transcendence, no permanence; God changes as the world changes. Then, there are those who say that there is no God at all, and all we have is this random and chaotic unknowable universe that we live in.
There is another view, and I think it is very strong. I have mentioned John Polkinghorne before – some of you heard him preach from this pulpit some years ago – he is a quantum physicist from Cambridge and he an Anglican minister. He wrote this in his incredible book, Belief in God in an Age of Science: “Modern science, properly understood, in no way condemns God to the role of an absentee landlord, but it allows us to conceive of the Creator’s continuing providential activity and costly loving care for creation.”
In other words, there is no need to make a distinction between the existence of God and/or the scientific notion of what is known in Latin as “creatio continua”, which refers to God’s continuing creative activity throughout the history of the universe. In fact, Polkinghorne argues that God created the world with change built into it. An evolving, ever changing, dynamic world, and that God is the creator of it, the origin of it, the source behind it, and the spirit that animates and moves it. But this God is inextricably concerned for and involved in the welfare of the world, notwithstanding its often chaotic nature, and the fact that it often appears dystopian, for the belief that this world is important, this creation is valuable, God’s children are important is a matter of God’s eternal concern and grace. I love the way Polkinghorne puts it.
There is also a sense that if you ascribe to the fact that there is a sovereign God who established the world, it also says to all other pretenders of human powers that they themselves are accountable to something higher. Have you not noticed over the years that when despots rise to power they often do so by claiming that the world is unpleasant and nasty, chaotic and out of control. They, and they alone, have the power to restore the order that is necessary in creation, and that might include force, or it might include the persecution of others in order to create the kind of order they want. Stalin did that eighty-five years ago with the Ukrainian people. Adolf Hitler, after Versailles, continually made mention of the fact that the world was in a dystopia-like realm and that everything was dark and bleak, but he could make everything work again and make his nation great again. It seems that all despots make a claim that they are the ones who create order in the midst of chaos. That is why it is so important to believe, as Christians do, that God is both transcendent, and above the powers of this world, and intimately concerned for the wellness of that world. Where do we see the world in God’s hands? As Bonheoffer said, “You see the world in God’s hands in Jesus of Nazareth."
The psalmist goes on and talks about life really, and I want to quote the last words of the passage, “Your decrees are very sure (I prefer the word “statutes”), holiness benefits your house, Oh Lord, forevermore.” Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.” In other words, God has established not only creation itself, but a law for the governance of human life. We see that, do we not, in The Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus? Those Ten Commandments map out the wonderful nature of God’s concern for us that God’s statutes remain precisely because they create order in the midst of chaos. “Do not murder’, “Do not commit adultery”, “Do not bear false witness”, “Do not steal”. These are established for the wellbeing of the human family. Above those, transcending those, “You shall have no other gods beside me”. No other gods, no pretenders; just the sovereign God, “The Lord and Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
I was reading recently a fascinating book by the Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice. It is a fascinating read, particularly for any of you in the legal community. I say so because the book is the story of how Genesis is about the dystopia of the human condition. All the stories - from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, through to Joseph and Tamar, and so on – it is a magnificent piece! He argues in this book that the stories of Genesis and the problems of the human condition paved the way for the law, for the Decalogue, The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were necessary because of the dystopia of Genesis. It is a great thesis! I love Alan Dershowitz and have attended his lectures. He loves to argue about things in The Bible. He wrote:
Genesis inspired a collection of tales, which tell the story of the law’s development through the ages. Lawlessness and injustice provide the impetus for change and improvement. Understanding the complexities of justice, historical and contemporary, requires an understanding of the passions of the people of Genesis. We continue to strive through law and other social controls to suppress the yetzer ha-ra — the evil inclinations — that all humans possess, and to encourage the yetzer ha-tov — the good inclinations — that most humans also possess. This story is told in Genesis. It will continue as long as Adams and Eves are tempted by serpents, Cains are enraged by jealousy, Abrahams fights for justice, Jacobs succeed by deception, Tamars are blamed for men’s passions, Josephs are falsely accused, and God does not always bring about visible justice.
In other words, the story of Genesis will continue until the end of humankind.
It is true. Dystopia, change, chaos, they continue. It is the nature of the world. But, as Dershowitz argues, God has set the boundaries, the statutes, the guides to help humanity. Not to stand above and uncaring what happens, but to be intimately involved in the very creation that God had made. If the story of The New Testament is the story of anything, it is the embodiment of the rule and the reign of God in Jesus of Nazareth!
So, what of us? What does God want from us? If God is sovereign, and we accept that by faith, if God established the world, but that does not mean that he left it to its own devices, if God set statutes to guide us, what should we do in response? Well, believe, for one thing. But, more than that: Be engaged in the very world that God has created. In that moment of dystopia, bring both the Word of God and the compassion and the justice of God right into the centre of things. This is God’s will. Seek God’s discerning presence in the midst of this creation, to protect the Earth when it is in danger, to protect the weak when they are subjugated, to say “No” to tyrants when they oppress, to uphold those who are in need of God’s redeeming love and grace. These are the things that we do. To play on the words of an author, to do our utmost for God’s highest for, as the psalmist said, “The Lord reigns!” Amen.