The Clandestine Heart
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 26, 2020
Reading: Psalm 36
It was excruciatingly painful to watch a recent interview of an NFL player following a playoff game. As the interview went along a little bit of me died, because the player ascribed his success to the hand of God and how wonderful God had been to him, which was laudable but the problem was, in this particular case, the reporter did what I've never heard before, and started to dig a little deeper and asked him, “What is your God like? Whose side is God on?”
I have never seen anyone die on a camera like he died at that moment. It was painful. He tried to find words to describe his God, but they all sounded vacuous. He struggled to find any illustration of how he finds God, or to convey where God is in this great universe. I felt for him, not because I in any way stood in judgement, but because I've been there. I'm sure you've been there too. When you've been asked about God and to talk about God in general conversation or even in a formal setting, often our language fails us. We're left with “inadequate stutterings” to quote Janet Soskice of Jesus College, Cambridge. She says, these stutterings, this inability to clearly explain what it is that we believe is one of the great struggles that we have in finding language to describe the God that we know and believe in.
I find the more philosophical I become the less erudite I am. Oftentimes, the more I go deeply into the very heart of God, the less clear I am. Words escape me. It's hard to describe and to put into a bottle the magnificence of the universal God. What are we left with then? If we have a hard time talking about God, if our language is flawed, then I have found that one of the great aids is the use of metaphors. Now, all metaphors, at some point are inadequate, and in the light of the person of Christ, I don't think we have to resort to metaphors a great deal. But there are times when metaphors are helpful because they take an idea and connect it to reality. Something that we can understand. Something tangible and real. Or maybe we have a simile and we say God is like something, and again we connect this immutable God, this almost unknowable God to something that is real and concrete and down-to-Earth.
If you don't think that that is an appropriate way to do things then clearly you haven't listened to our reading this morning, because in that powerful psalm there are metaphors galore. The psalmist deep from the root of his own experience – and it probably was a Davidic psalm – is speaking about the concrete nature of life and the powerful presence of God. Now, this psalm has often had a bit of a rough ride with critics because it's believed to be two psalms rather than one. One about the destiny of the wicked and the other one about the goodness of God, but there's no evidence to suggest that. This is unified psalm. It's a hymn, but it's in two parts, and in both parts the metaphors change. They need each other to make sense because it's a contrast metaphorically between the barrenness of the life we live outside of God's will. Those who are, to use the term in the Scriptures, the wicked. The psalmist feels that he had an Oracle within him coming from his very heart to talk about the wicked. Maybe he is talking about his own life as David and the things that he had done wrong. Maybe it's autobiographical. Or maybe he's talking about those who seek to persecute him. Either way David is passionate about the problems of the wicked. He sees this as a barren life. A life that is apart from God. He uses metaphors to describe the wicked and says that if you do not fear God then you are one of the wicked. The fear of God and its absence is what makes a wicked person.
This is completely in line with the prophets and Amos Chapter 7 where he says that those who deny the presence of God have no plumb line, no line by which to judge their lives. They've decided that they're going to move away from God or not believe in God, so there is no standard whereby they can live, no law to which they can subscribe. The wicked have decided they have no fear, which really means no respect for or faith in God. Therefore, they have no standard by which to live their lives. They are free from the constraints of the presence and the power of God, or so they think. But he also says that the wicked are those – and I love this – who flatter themselves. The wicked are those who puff themselves up, who speak highly of themselves, who think that they're above any need for God. They are wise in their own eyes, and they're continually flattering themselves. He also suggests that those who are wicked not only have no sense of God, no sense of their own place within the world, but they speak wickedness and plot evil in their beds at night.
This is not a pretty picture is it? I don't know about you, but I find that nighttime often brings worries and concerns to mind that when I'm busy during the day I do not think about. Oftentimes those things make me frightened or fearful of what might happen, or what the world may be the next day when I awaken. For the wicked the opposition of others, plotting and scheming against those who might be their adversaries, these are the things that they think about and plot at night in their beds. Then they speak wickedness from their mouths, and with words hurt others.
We're living in a world, I think, where people are both sensitive to, and sometimes over-sensitive to words, but there's also a way in which words, particularly electronically, can damage lives. Just look at the angst that many teenagers face these days from words, not actions. Words can be wicked. For the psalmist, once you have said there is no God, once you have no fear of God, then what you say, what you plot, what you plan, how you elevate yourself seems almost irrelevant. You can do these things with impunity. But at the very end of this psalm, after all the metaphors about God there is this warning: Those who are the wicked who say they do not fear God will lie face-down. It's a hard message. But – and here's the beautiful thing – the psalmist does not hang onto this wickedness stuff. He goes into something positive. He knows that darkness and problems are not the things on which we should dwell. Not the things that should bother us the most. We cannot allow those things to consume us.
This last week I had a wonderful time with our teenage theatre group, Spirit Express. I got to talk to them about C. S. Lewis. They are preparing to do the production Narnia, which you should really come see. That evening got me to go into the writings of C. S. Lewis a little bit more in preparation for talking to the group (who had some very good and searching questions and comments about Narnia and God). It was great. As I went into C. S. Lewis, I read part of Mere Christianity, one of his classic books, if not THE classic book, that I've always recommended. Therein is this beautiful moment where he says, “We should not allow the darkness of things to consume us.” We should not dwell on those things because at times – and he uses this example – you hear about something that is wicked and terrible, a disaster, then a little later on you hear that it is not as bad as you first thought: not as many casualties, or as much destruction or death, not as dark a crime and you almost feel disappointed because your heart has got to the point where you've seen the horror and the darkness and you're kind of respectful of it. Lewis said that when we become like this, we are like devils, and we cannot any longer see the value of the good, because we've been consumed with the darkness.
C. S. Lewis is right. If one dwells on wickedness, if one dwells on the dark corners and recesses of the turbid human mind and life, then after a while one becomes so consumed by it that you think that is the ultimate reality. This, I think, is a challenge with a lot of the dark and death movies that we have right now that are affecting young people psychologically. C. S. Lewis was ahead of his time. He knew that if one dwells on those images all the time it's too dark.
The psalmist doesn't stop there. He’s brilliant. He talks about God in metaphors that are joyful and full of praise. He's not interested in arguing for the existence of God, he is arguing for the involvement of God. God’s intricate involvement in the life of people and he uses the metaphors that are powerful and positive. He talks, for example, in glowing terms about the love of God being like the heavens. Remember that in his era, before Galileo, before Copernicus and those that followed, there was a belief that the Earth had three spheres to it. It had the heavens, it had the Earth in the middle, and it had the waters below. In this universe the heavens were the canopy over everything, and God held it all together. Without God they're all going to tip and tilt and go out of balance. The heavens are universal. They are there at the day with the sun, and they're there by the moon and the stars at night. God's love is like the heavens.
God is also like the mountains. It's kind of cute really, in those days, hundreds of years before Christ, the belief was that the mountains held up the sky. Isn't that great? Think about it. The mountains hold up the sky. Take away the mountains and the sky falls. That is why mountains play such a prominent role in the Bible. When you go up to the top of the mountain, whether you are Moses, Elijah, or later on Jesus, you're going to a high place, a pinnacle that holds everything up.
I remember years ago visiting Mount Robson with Marial. She will tell you I was overcome by the awe of Mount Robson. There is a place where you can sit and watch the mountain. I watched the clouds move and touch the peak. I stayed there so long that I took time lapse photos. It was awesome. I mean of the things I've seen in this world! it was one of those moments that just took me into another realm. I felt so small, so inadequate in comparison to the grandeur of the mountains. I think I've shared this with you before.
According to the psalmist, God's righteousness, God's justice is like those mountains. That's what God is like. Grand. Holding it all together with justice and with righteousness. He goes even further and talks about the valley and the waters below. He says God is even present in the valley, and like a running stream in the waters below. Oh, we like to talk about God and the mountains and the sky and the high and the exalted. That's the language we use to describe God most of the time. Like that NFL player, he was talking about his success, his glory, his wonder, his victory, but did not know how to talk about God in the valley. God in the valley for the psalmist was real. God in the valley was a God who was there at every single moment. He knew even there, God was present.
God's running waters. Make God like – and I think this is the best metaphor – the fountain of life. God is not a simile like the fountain. God IS the fountain of life. The fountains, as we know, were seminal, central places in the life of the world, particularly of the nomadic world of the time in which the psalmist wrote. Fountains were the source of life. They were often the centres of community. People came together around fountains. People found the water that supported and nurtured them. Fountains were more than the beautiful Trevi, more than the Peterhof in St. Petersburg, more than Nathan Phillips Square. They were a gathering place for life. Without the fountains the community did not have life.
Not long ago I was talking to the Anglican Bishop of Cairo, Mouneer. He's coming to Toronto again soon. He was saying that in the Sahara Desert the growth in the desert has been so enormous since the 1900s that it has expanded 250 kilometers south and 6,000 kilometers wide and continues to grow. He said, “We talk about climate change, we talk about all these other things, but this is a very serious problem because water is becoming scarce.” If you think of David the psalmist, and you think of the places where he lived, the notion of the fountain of life was powerful.
Water was powerful. God is the source of life.
In contrast to the barrenness of the one who plots at night, who wants to get rid of his enemies, who has no fear of God, who's full of his own self-importance, who does his own muttering words of evil and wicked against the other. The person who believes in God sees the love of God as universal. Saving both – and this is a fascinating line in the psalm – both human beings and animals, the God who saves the universe. The God who is high and mighty, just and righteousness. The God who comes lowly in the valley and becomes a stream of living water. Oh wow. If we use language like that to describe God, we do not have to mutter. We do not have to stammer. We can simply talk about God by the things that we see. Having seen that God and having known that God, it transforms the way we live. The psalmist knew that.
Sixteen years ago, this very week, a member of our congregation died. He was rather well-known, and unlike most people that I'm privileged to conduct a service for, he had an autobiography written about his life. His name was David Philpot. David was quite a remarkable man. A businessman who decided to sail around the world single-handedly. His book is an account of the travails and the challenges, the successes and the failures of that venture. There's one part that really struck me and deeply moved me. This is where he sees, in a sense, the life-giving power of God changing his existence.
Once the land has disappeared over the horizon it is just me, my boat and the sea. It's a microcosm of life, with the complexities removed. For me this has had a purging effect. It is become of the necessity of staying alive. It erased all extraneous matters from my life and forced me to concentrate on the exercise at hand. On Bay Street, in New York or London I'm playing the game according to the rules and the conventions of established society. Out here I go through the cleansing process, which rids both the mind and the soul of things of questionable value and brings into sharp focus those parts of my life that are important and dear to me.
After clearing away the debris of my 53 years of programmed thinking and values, I have come to a very simple conclusion – success, accolades, pride, material and sensual satisfaction are worth striving for. But in more than 30 years in the business community and family life I have gradually put these and other objectives ahead of the two essential ingredients of my life from which all forms of gratification are born – God and love.
And although I have been aware of the existence of God all my life, I now know that He is the very fibre, essence, and reason for my being. For me it's been impossible to separate this world of the sea, His private world, from my presence in it.
To God be the glory.
Now if that NFL player could only have said that on air, I would have been a happy man. I want to send him Philpot's book. Notice the language David uses to describe God. He does it from the basis of what he had seen and known and contrasts it with other things that do not give that full nature of life and gratification and peace.
I love Psalm 36. I love it because its metaphors are real, and its language is about concrete things. Wickedness, which exists in this world, but more than that, the fountain of life, who is our great Redeemer. To God be the glory. Amen.