"Witness, Wisdom, and Whispered Prayer"

Sermon Preached by Anne R. Ledbetter

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Scripture - Psalm 19


Christian writer C. S. Lewis considered this morning's psalm his very favorite and one of the most beautiful lyrics ever composed.  He wrote, "...nature gave the word glory a meaning for me.  I still do not know where else I could have found one."

When did the night sky first mesmerize you with its silent symphony of splendor?  Were you a child?  Was it on a camping trip, or were you traveling at night along the interstate in some open country like Utah or west Texas?  I was nine years old, attending Camp DeSoto for girls, atop Lookout Mountain, in northeast Alabama.  Though I had routinely searched the sky for twinkling stars to wish upon, it was on that mountain, far from city lights, that I first encountered the deafening witness of the heavens.

While renowned astronomer Carl Sagan claimed to be agnostic, the beginning of Psalm 19 sounds so like him.  The heavens are telling the glory of God! Sagan frequently appeared on The Tonight Show exclaiming that when we look up at the Milky Way, earth's galactic home, we are gazing upon billions and billions of stars!  Our psalmist exudes the enthusiasm of Sagan, emphasizing that we need only lift the eyes to be overwhelmed by nature's witness and drenched in God's glory.

Like the Hebrew psalmist, 19th century English priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed it this way, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God!"  It's not just the sky but every creature, crack and crevice of creation.  Throughout the centuries, poets have distilled humanity's wonder over creation into concise verse. Listen to Wendell Berry describe the holy testimony of a forest:

Slowly, slowly, they return

To the small woodland let alone:

Great trees, outspreading and upright,

Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air

Tier after tier a timbered choir,

Stout beams upholding weightless grace

Of song, a blessing on this place.

Whose heart has not joined the psalmist in this chorus of praise to the Creator?  Who has not been rendered speechless at the sight of a rainbow arching across a lilac sky?  Or not marveled at the miraculous engine of a hummingbird or the lofty dance of a butterfly?  Who has not seen God in the flaming trees of fall?

From infancy we are struck by nature's witness to the glory of God.  Ever noticed how babies relish being outside?  Celtic theologian Philip Newell remembers moving from the wild and rugged landscape of the Scottish Isle of Iona to the dense industrial city of Portsmouth, England.  One day while working in the miniscule yard of the manse, Philip noticed that his infant son Cameron, lying on a blanket under their solitary tree, was stretching up his arms to the glittering, light-filled leaves above.  Newell could not discern whether Cameron was reaching to embrace creation's song or simply raising his hands in praise and delight.[i] As preaching professor Fred Craddock has noted, "There is no square inch of earth so barren that the observing eye cannot see, in the lower right-hand corner, the signature of the artist."[ii]

And yet, our world's amazing witness is insufficient.  Unfortunately, we often live our days blind to God's glory out the window and deaf to creation's constant hymn of praise.  Moreover, nature's testimony offers no answers to such ultimate questions as: Why are we here?  From whence have we come, and where shall we go?  In response to these questions, the stars can only flicker and the mother cardinal forgets her song.[iii]

Thankfully, says the psalm writer, God gave us law, or torah in Hebrew, meaning instruction to reveal God's purposes.  In verses 7-10, the psalmist reiterates six times this essential truth: torah leads us into life.   The law, decrees, precepts, commandment, ordinances and fear of the Lord are perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and righteous altogether.

Torah is not really "law," and even less a list of laws, but much more expansive.  It is a pattern of life individually embraced and shared with the community as a guide and goal.[iv] Unlike nature's witness, torah makes known God's will for humankind, and nourishes our daily lives.  Through the stories and tradition of torah believers may reap the wisdom of God.   Wisdom which, according to the psalmist revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes, endures forever.  Listen to Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of these three verses in The Message version:

The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together.

The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road.

The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.

The directions of God are plain and easy on the eyes. ...

The decisions of God are accurate down to the nth degree.

Indeed, this is why the law of the Lord is finer than gold, sweeter than honey.

For Jews, law, or torah, is God's greatest gift - containing the way of wisdom, the path to a godly life.  Let us remember that our Jewish savior Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, to embody it, to enflesh it.  Jesus proclaimed the essence and spirit of the law saying, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself."  The gospels profess that Jesus lived out this commandment to love - welcoming outcasts, healing lepers, teaching women, eating with sinners, seeking God's will above his own.  As Christians we see Jesus as the embodiment of Torah, the Word made flesh, Wisdom incarnate.  For us, Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.

And so, as people of faith, as Jews and Christians, and Muslims too, we have creation's witness to God's glory and scripture's word and wisdom for our own story.  God has doubly blessed us, and we need both.  As Philip Newell writes,

"To listen to scripture without creation is to lose the cosmic vastness of the song,

To listen to creation without scripture is to lose the personal intimacy of the voice."[v]

How incredibly blessed we are to have both creation's witness and scripture's wisdom to nourish us and guide us on our life's journey.  And yet, while God's word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, we wander off the illumined course again and again.  We repeatedly ignore God's witness and wisdom, and instead seek to go our own way.  Our eyes become blind to wonder, our ears fall deaf to God's law of love, our hearts cool towards God and neighbor.  Such personal awareness stirs the psalmist to pray to God for help, seeking deliverance from evil and the influence of the insolent.  We pray likewise, asking God to lead us from the temptation of greed, selfish pleasure, power and culture's other false gods.

Finally we come to the last verse of the psalm: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.   You may have heard this sentence-prayer recited by a pastor prior to preaching a sermon.  But here in the psalm it serves as an ending.  Verse 14 seems like a coda or afterthought at first - like an added postscript.  But upon closer examination, we see that the verse summarizes the entire psalm.  God has given us nature's witness and scripture's wisdom to inspire and guide us, and in return we seek to live lives pleasing to God.

This last verse is not simply a preacher's prayer, but a practical plea for any disciple.  At that same camp on Lookout Mountain, I learned an old hymn that goes like this:

"Whisper a prayer in the morning, whisper a prayer at noon, whisper a prayer in the evening, to keep your heart in tune."

I think verse 14 is a perfect prayer to be whispered - not prayed mightily so that others hear you, but humbly, quietly, and reflectively.  Psalm 19 has a vibrant, bracing rhythm, celebrating God's glory in creation, praising God for the wisdom of torah.  But we are led to a soft, dramatic finale: this whispered prayer of the psalmist, offered in earnest faith.

I know some people carry a smooth stone in their pocket or keep a small wooden cross in their wallet as a tangible reminder to pray each day.   Whatever impels you to pause and pray - whether it's a stoplight on the way to work, a meal over which to give thanks, or children to tuck into bed; I invite you to use this verse as a personal prayer, a mantra of sorts.  Maybe you struggle to be a patient parent, or you tend to lose your temper with your spouse or partner.  Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with care-giving responsibilities or you battle a crippling addiction - whatever your life situation, let this verse become your whispered prayer, your surrender to the One who is rock and redeemer.


As we grow in faith, certain scriptures begin to hold for us powerful truth and comfort - may this verse become of your internalized Word of God, a prayer to whisper and live in to each day.  Please join me in a quiet echo prayer:


Let the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart,

be acceptable to you, O Lord,

my rock and my redeemer.  Amen.



[1] J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts

ii Fred Craddock, from "Life-Giving Law" The Christian Century, March 8, 2003

iii Patterned after Fred Craddock, from "Life-Giving Law" The Christian Century, March 8, 2003.

iv Mark E. Stanger, Feasting on the Word Year B, Lent - Pentecost, p. 82.

v J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts