Friday, I was in Red Cup Cafe working on my sermon. My friend Andy said, “What are you preaching on?”
“What the ____ is a hyrax?”
“I don’t know, but we’re going to thank God for them.”
Psalm 104 is a celebration of this “wildly wonderful world” God has made.
That's how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Luci Shaw read her poem, “Psalm for the January Thaw,” with her lilting voice and twinkling eyes highlighting the humor. In many ways, it’s nearly a translation of Psalm 104 for us.
Blessed be God for thaw, for the clear drops
that fall, one by one, like clocks ticking, from
the icicles along the eaves. For shift and shrinkage,
including the soggy gray mess on the deck
like an abandoned mattress that has
lost its inner spring. For the gurgle
of gutters, for snow melting underfoot when I
step off the porch. For slush. For the glisten
on the sidewalk that only wets the foot sole
and doesn't send me slithering. Everything
is alert to this melting, the slow flow of it,
the declaration of intent, the liquidation.
Glory be to God for changes. For bulbs
breaking the darkness with their green beaks.
For moles and moths and velvet green moss
waiting to fill the driveway cracks. For the way
the sun pierces the window minutes earlier each day.
For earthquakes and tectonic plates — earth's bump
and grind — and new mountains pushing up
like teeth in a one-year-old. For melodrama—
lightning on the sky stage, and the burst of applause
that follows. Praise him for day and night, and light
switches by the door. For seasons, for cycles
and bicycles, for whales and waterspouts,
for watersheds and waterfalls and waking
and the letter W, for the waxing and waning
of weather so that we never get complacent. For all
the world, and for the way it twirls on its axis
like an exotic dancer. For the north pole and the
south pole and the equator and everything between.
We can see God in the magnitude of our universe.
As the Psalmist says, in the starry curtain, in the oceans and mountains. Or as Luci Shaw says, in “the bump and grind” of earth’s tectonic plates, or in the world twirling “on its axis like an exotic dancer.” I told Greg about this poem this week, and he said, “Any time an 85 year old Christian poet compares the earth to an exotic dancer, I’m in. I’m in.”
We can also see God in the obscure particulars of our world.
As the Psalmist says, in the wild donkeys, the olive oil, the storks, the wild goats, the hyraxes, and the ships. Or as Luci says, “ whales and waterspouts … watersheds and waterfalls and waking and the letter W.”
God is everywhere and is working everywhere.
There is no “taking God to the heathens.” God is already there, already at work. The Psalmist says to God, “You fill the earth with the fruit of your labor.” “They all depend on you.” “When you give them your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.” God is everywhere and is working everywhere.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is near, close at hand.” That’s a heavily loaded phrase with lots and lots of meaning, but at least part of the meaning seems to be that we can meet God in the world close around us.
I don’t often include 19th century American preachers in my research, but for some reason, this week I did. I read Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on grass - yes grass. At one point, he encourages his people to:
see God in common things. He makes the grass to grow—grass is a common thing. You see it everywhere, yet God is in it. Dissect it and pull it to pieces: the attributes of God are illustrated in every single flower of the field, and in every green leaf. In like manner see God in your common matters, your daily afflictions, your common joys, your every-day mercies. Do not say, "I must see a miracle before I see God." In truth, everything teems with marvel. See God in the bread of your table and the water of your cup. It will be the happiest way of living if you can say in each providential circumstance, "My Father has done all this." See God also in little things. … to see God in the little as well as in the great—all this is true wisdom.
Part of our calling as Christians is simply to invite people to open their eyes and hearts to God’s work all around them. We invite each other to breathe deeply of God’s Spirit.
But that’s not enough.
Celebrating God’s goodness in the created world is not enough, is it? That won’t really satisfy us in the end.
Our world is not all daisies and rainbows. Our world also has earthquakes that killed 8,000 in Nepal last month or 120,000 in Haiti a few years ago. Our church is well familiar with the horrors of sex trafficking. ISIS is on the move again, taking over new cities. And on top of all these big things, we have 1,001 struggles in our daily lives.
No amount of meditation on stars or hyraxes can deal with the problem of suffering. Our big beautiful world has some dark nasty potholes with deep and terrible suffering.
But even more, if we’re really honest, we must face that the darkness is inside us as well as out there in the world. If we’re really honest, we have to face the depths of our own selfishness. Poverty, hunger, and thirst kill tens of millions every year, but actually our world doesn’t have a production problem. Our world has a distribution problem. We humans just aren’t very good at sharing. And as much as we love this big beautiful world, we are destroying it pretty quickly. I read just this morning that the world’s oceans are at a tipping point for mass extinctions and dead zones, and we’re quite happy to close our eyes to the effects of our own choices. The hard truth is that -globally and locally and individually - we cause much of our own angst through our own selfish choices.
Our world is both big and beautiful and dark and terrible.
We humans both good and beautiful and loved. Psalm 104 says, “The Lord takes pleasure in all he has made.” That means you and me, too. God takes pleasure in you. God is happy about you. But just like the world, we have our own quakes and dark sides.
So, do we just accept this? Is our world really built around Yin and Yang? We need the dark to see the light? We need the sadness to feel the joy? Is our world always going to be like this, and we just need to get used to it?
Is the answer just to make peace with suffering?
Well, there is some truth there. Our world is broken, and we are broken, and some suffering is part of the reality of living in brokenness. Also, not everything that feels like suffering turns out to be bad in the end.
But ultimately, making peace with suffering is fatalistic, hopeless, and self-centered. I just need to make peace with the pain in the world so I can go on about my life because I can’t really change anything anyway.
There has got to be a better answer! There has got to be some solution for our global and personal suffering. There has got to be a solution for our global and personal sin that causes so much of our suffering.
Today is Pentecost, the day when God poured out the Spirit in a new way on all God’s people. I think we find an answer to our global and personal suffering in Peter’s preaching on and after Pentecost.
Acts 2:22-24 -- People of Israel, listen! God publicly endorsed Jesus the Nazarene by doing powerful miracles, wonders, and signs through him, as you well know. But God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed. With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.
Jesus experienced the depths of human suffering - death through torture on the cross. “But God released him from the horrors of death and raise him back to life.” All of this resulted in a completely changed community.
Acts 2:42-47 -- All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people.
Once they started celebrating and experiencing Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, they started having an awesome block party that lasted for weeks - meals together, sharing with whoever needed it, all with great joy and generosity.
Not long after Pentecost, in Acts 3, Peter and John healed a man who had been crippled from birth. Once he was up, jumping around and praising God, people started asking what was going on. Then Peter explained:
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact! Through faith in the name of Jesus, this man was healed—and you know how crippled he was before. Faith in Jesus’ name has healed him before your very eyes.
Friends, I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Jesus endured the worst of human suffering and sin, and he redeemed it. Jesus’ resurrection cracked open the restoration of all things. Jesus’ resurrection is the D-day beachhead of the final restoration of everything that is broken in our world and in us.
Are you tired of suffering?
Are you tired of cancer, depression, abuse, and bad bosses?
Are you tired of living in a world with earthquakes, and bombs, and poisoned water?
Does all of that just make you mad?
Good! God is tired of it too!
God is not content with suffering. God is not making peace with suffering. Through Jesus, God has started the healing of the world, and God is carrying it forward through Gods people. God is healing us and healing the world through us.
Through our World Vision runners, God is setting the world right and giving people in Africa clean water.
Through Free The Girls volunteers, God setting the world right and giving sex trafficking survivors hope and new futures.
Through Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, God is setting the world right in Nepal and helping people rebuild their homes and communities - stronger than ever before.
That is good news. Jesus is healing us and healing our world through us. That is an answer to suffering I can live with.
That answer both settles and propels my heart. It gives me peace for now, and it pushes me into action to make our world better.
So let’s read that Pentecost text. Jesus died on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Three days later, God raised him from the dead. Forty days after that, Jesus returned to heaven. Seven days after that, the disciples were still trying to figure out what to do next. They were gathered together in a room to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, and they were all praying.
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.
They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
Psalm 104 says, “The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants.” Acts 2 says the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a great windstorm and there were tongues of fire over all the people. Both texts give us one message: God is everywhere for everyone. Hyraxes and mountain goats and donkeys and stars and storks. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. God is inviting every being on the face of the earth to join in the great restoration begun in and through Jesus.
So what is a hyrax anyway and why does he even matter? It’s a rock badger that lives in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The hyrax is part of this wildly wonderful world that God renews and sustains with his Spirit. You probably never even heard of them before today, but God loves them and gives life and breath to them.
Hyraxes are part of our beautiful and broken world along with:
- wild donkeys, sharks, and salmon
- Egyptians, Kurds, Aussies, and Kiwis
- hippies and hipsters
- gangsters and rednecks
- prudes and transgendered
- men and women and boys and girls.
And God loves us all and invites us all into his family mission of healing us all - everyone everywhere.
And that’s why we thank God for hyraxes today.