"The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it," begins today’s Psalm. As I prepared to write this sermon, with these words going through my head, I took a walk early on Friday morning (before the heat of the day). I walked to the park near our house, and began to revel in the fullness of the trees, the wildflowers, the birds. But then, as we neared the field provided for soccer and lacrosse games, the grass became scattered with plastic water bottles and aluminum power drink cans, snack bags, and other trash – all within walking distance of the trash cans and recycling cans provided by the park. No one around this ball field seemed to think that "the earth is the Lord’s."
Our Psalm today is one that Walter Brueggemann would classify among the Psalms of Orientation. Unlike the woeful beginning of Psalm 13 that we read last week, this psalm expresses a confident sense of faith in the Creator God throughout. Psalm 24, in fact, is the clearest example among the psalms of a ceremonial liturgy which might accompany bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the sanctuary. The liturgy starts with a profession of who God is, the creator of all that exists. The "seas" and ‘rivers" upon which God established the earth represent the chaos out of which its creation came. The seas and rivers are always there, but God has brought order with the creation of the earth upon them.
The liturgy proceeds with a bit of a dialogue (which is why we read it together this morning), between those present, wanting to enter the sanctuary, and the priests overseeing the worship. "Who can come into the presence of God? Who can enter this holy place?" the people ask. Those with clean hands and pure hearts, and who do not worship idols, or take the Lord’s name in vain or lie, the priests tell them.
These descriptions are not given as a list to check off. The worshipers cannot rush out and wash their hands and declare their hearts are pure, throw away the idols they worship, and vow to quit lying, and rush back for entrance into the sanctuary. Those who enter already show these signs of faithful living. The priests are describing a faithful life. "Clean" and "pure" do not mean just what we might assume, involving soap and anti-bacterial cleansers or even something that is pure in the sense that it is not mixed with other ingredients. The word used for "clean" comes from the same root word for "innocence." I have "washed my hands in innocence," declares Psalm 73. (Ps. 73:13). "Blessed are the pure in heart," says Jesus, "for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). "Clean" and "pure" here talk more about an ethical way of living, an innocent and trusting life, untainted by the sins of the world. The priests further describe this faithful life with references to the Ten Commandments. "Those who do not lift up their souls to what is false" do not worship anything that does not come from God. And they "do not swear deceitfully," so they do not lie, and they do not use God’s name in vain. Here, in brief, is a description of those who "seek the company" of God, who strive to live faithful lives, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. These are the ones who will enter the sanctuary, and they will receive blessing from God. The term for "vindication" can also be defined as "righteousness," or right relationship to God. Those who live rightly will be blessed and in right relationship with God and others.
Now that we have established who will be in the sanctuary, it is time for the Lord and the Ark to enter. Those bearing the Ark cry out for the huge ancient gates of the city and the big doors of the temple to be opened, because the "King of glory" is coming in. "Who is the King of glory?" the people ask. This term is unique to Psalm 24 in the Old Testament. God is often recognized as "strong," (izzuz) and with "glory" (kabod). Ancient peoples saw creation as a battle with chaos, so God, "mighty in battle" was the victor. "The Lord of hosts" could be seen as a military term, as "hosts" could refer to army units. But "hosts" can also refer to the heavenly beings surrounding God in many verses throughout the Bible. The title "Lord of hosts" also follows "King" in Isaiah, using it as if it is God’s throne name. With the Ark as God’s throne, God rules over the world God has created. ‘Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, this is the King of glory."
Psalm 24, then, is a powerful worship confession. It declares that God is sovereign, that God has triumphed over the chaos and brought order to the world, even in the midst of the continuing chaos of the waters of life. The psalm declares that those who come into worship strive to live within that world as God’s creation, respecting God and all other creatures, all of creation, with love and respect. The psalm declares that God comes into our midst as our supreme leader, as One who is strong and triumphs over evil, as the One who can bring order out of chaos, as the One who should come first in our lives.
But do we let the King of glory come in to our lives? The rivers and seas, the chaos, continue to exist. They are all around us, in the natural occurrences of heat and fire, rain and flooding, and in the human-made disasters as well. We cannot escape the chaos entirely. It is a part of life. All people are touched in some way by the floods and fires of life – accidents that change our lives in an instance, diseases that drastically alter our plans, jobs that disappoint or dismiss us, even the natural effects of aging, of living and dying, and so much more, can create chaos in the midst of our lives. The chaos can overcome us, if we let it.
It seems to me that it is only in seeking "the face of God," that we can overcome the chaos. We cannot escape it. Perhaps we do not even want to totally escape it, for it is a part of life. Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, says of a prayerful life:
"But we do not want to escape this world. Instead, we want to be fully part of it without drowning it its stormy waters. We want to be alert and receptive to all that happens around us without being paralyzed by inner fragmentation. We want to travel with open eyes through this valley of tears without losing contact with the One who calls us to a new land." (Nouwen in Reaching Out)
The King of Glory calls us to enter into a new world, a world of inner peace and assurance, even in the midst of the waters of chaos. The King of Glory reminds us that the world is not ours, but belongs to the One who made it. Therefore we need to care for the world as if we are renting it from God, not as if we own it. If we think we own it, we feel entitled to scatter our water bottles and trash all over the fields, or along the hiking trails and highways. We have no hesitation about releasing dangerous chemicals into the earth or waters, or about building in flood plains or along shores that erode away quickly. We often do not respect the earth that the King of Glory gives to us. But we can, if we choose to let the King of Glory in.
The January/February issue of the devotional magazine "Alive Now," had as its theme, "Our Earth." Anne Broyles share a list of "10 Great Ways to Care for Creation." They include:
- Thank God for our beautiful world and show your thankfulness in the way you live!
- Be an example of good earth care so others will be inspired to also care for creation.
- Learn as much as you can about the habitat, plants, and animals in your area.
- Recycle everything you can.
- Don’t litter – ever!
- Before buying something new, think about whether you really need it.
- Clean out a room, and donate things that you don’t need but are in good condition.
Taking care of our earth is a spiritual issue as well as a moral one. We honor the God of Creation when we care for the earth God creates. But first, we have to let the King of Glory into our lives. We have to trust in the Lord of all life, and make a commitment within ourselves to follow God’s ways. One of my favorite professors at graduate school, our ethics professor, Isabel (better known as Izzie) Rogers, said: "When we are at home with God, we can be at home in God’s world. We can trust life; we can risk loving people, letting ourselves be vulnerable to them."
Letting God in changes the way we look at the world. I remember one of the Berenstain Bears books that I read to my daughter so long ago. It was a book about dealing with strangers. Sister Bear and Brother Bear went to the park without Papa Bear or Mama Bear. Brother Bear warned Sister Bear about being too friendly and talking to everyone. At home Papa Bear showed Sister Bear the newspaper with articles about missing cubs and Chief Grizzly questioning strangers. The next day when Sister Bear went to the park, instead of seeing pretty birds and friendly faces, she saw the same scene in a different way – the birds were dark and menacing, the man on the bench feeding pigeons had an evil look on his face. Her view of the world had changed, until Mama Bear could help her to sort things out with a lesson that involved good apples and bad apples, reminding her that there are always a few bad apples in the bunch, but most of the apples are good.
What strikes me most about the book was how Sister Bear’s view of the same scene changed. Our world already looks pretty dark right now, with all the violence and hatred around the globe, with the crazy and dangerous weather, the schisms in politics and even in the church, diseases that come as such a surprise and so much more. Our view of the world can change when we let God, the King of Glory, into our lives. The storms look less dark when we know God walks through them with us. The chaos does not overcome us when we trust in God. Psalm 24 points us to a way of life that looks to God first, and sees the world through the lens of the Creator, as we regard the world as belonging not to us but to the Creator who asks us to care for it, and for one another. "We want to respond with compassion to those we meet on our way," says Henri Nouwen, "and ask for a hospitable place to stay while remaining solidly rooted in the ultimate love of our God." (Nouwen in Reaching Out). The earth is the Lord’s, and we are too. We belong to God, and we trust in God, when we let the King of Glory into our lives.
In the lectionary, this Psalm is used in Advent, as the baby born in a stable is revealed as the King of Glory, and on Palm Sunday, when the King of Glory enters the holy city, soon to be rejected and executed. Prepare to come to the table remembering that in Christ, God came into our world, and became one of us, and one with us, to set our world right. At this table, Jesus offers us respite in the midst of the chaos of life. At this table, Jesus offers himself. The question is, will we let him in?
Thanks be to God. Amen.