Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

Psalm 111

1Praise the Lord!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.

4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.

5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.

10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

 

 

            Last Thursday I was doing some electrical work in our house and it was necessary for me to go up into our attic.  The opening into our attic is pretty narrow.  In fact I need to put both arms up over my head to be able to climb off of my step ladder through the narrow hole.

            So I’m just getting into the attic with my bucket of tools, being careful to only walk on the beams so I don’t go through the ceiling, and I flip on the light when I hear something.  I realize…that I am not alone.  Now I’m not the faintest of hearted person I know, but I am not the bravest, either.  And my coming up years led me to the knowledge that if you corner an animal that they will fight back. 

So my visitor revealed herself to me…a bird.  I hate birds.  They are dirty animals with a significant advantage over us human beings.  And as I learned first hand, when you are trapped in an attic with them, they continually fly back and forth, looking for a safe place; looking for a way out.  Evidently that small hole in the eaves is a lot more difficult for a bird to find when they are trying to get out of my house than when they are trying to get in.

            Thankfully we have a hatch in the roof that I could open, but how could I encourage the bird to leave my house and leave me alone?  I noticed that the bird was fluttering around the lights and I got an idea.  The sun was just setting outside.  So I opened the hatch, I turned out the lights, turned on my head light so that I could see, and I went to the far end of the attic where the bird was and tried to chase it toward the opening. 

            I figured the bird would fly toward the light.  The question was would it fly toward the light of the outdoors or would it fly toward the light fastened to my head?  So I chased the bird toward the opening and sure enough, it saw the light and flew out just like it had always known the way.

            That bird was drawn to the light, though I am sure the bird didn’t know exactly where it was going.  Did the bird know where the light was coming from or where that hatch would lead?  Does a bird even know what light is?  Probably not.  But instinctively that bird knew to fly toward the light.  And that instinct probably was what saved both of us!

            I believe that there is something within us that instinctively draws us to God much the same way as that bird was drawn to the light.  Many people probably don’t know who is drawing them, and many people probably don’t know who God is.  But instinctively, I believe that we are all being drawn to God; we have a need to connect with our creator.

            Today I want to look at Psalm 111 and see how we as humans are able to know God better; how we are to come to know the one to whom we are instinctively drawn.  And while this list of how we can come to know God is incomplete, I want to draw from today’s scripture to look at three different ways we come to know God: through corporate worship, through humility, and by observing God’s works.  We will begin by looking at corporate worship.

            The Psalms are a book of Hebrew poetry written with the intension of praising God, lamenting, and coming to a better understanding of who God is.  There is a lot of theologizing going on in the Psalms, just as we can see a lot of theology in the songs we sing in the church today.  And though I have never been a real artsy kind of person, I am really learning to appreciate the contributions of poets, artists, and song writers to our understanding of God.

            So the Psalmist is seeking to know God more through poetry, through writing Psalms.  But the Psalmist knows that while seeking God on one’s own is great, we need more.  We need other people.  We need corporate worship.

            The Psalmist says, “Praise the Lord!  I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”  We gather together as believers for many reasons.  We call this time “worship” but it is much more than worship.  We come together to pray as a group.  We come together to share in one another’s joys and concerns.  We come together to sing praises to God.  And we come together to learn about who God is and what God is calling us to do as his followers.

            Now I’m not saying that we cannot worship God on our own or that we cannot learn about God on our own.  Absolutely, we can and should be learning about God, reading the Bible, and spending time in prayer in our free time, even if we are alone.  But I believe that our learning about God is enhanced by studying the scriptures together, by discussing what God is calling us to in a group.  That is why we have a discussion style Sunday School.  We learn from one another and from one another’s experiences.  I believe that Christianity is inherently communal.  We cannot separate being a Christian from being a part of a community of believers.

I think we can even draw from tonight’s events to help illustrate the importance of corporate worship.  Tonight is the Super Bowl.  I don’t know how many millions of people will be watching this thing world-wide, most of them on their television sets.

            Now I like to watch football on television.  But nothing compares to watching it in person.  That’s why as an undergraduate I spent money, which was a really limited resource back then, to stand for three hours in the freezing weather with 100,000 other people dressed in the scarlet and the gray. 

I wonder how many of the millions of people that will watch the Super Bowl are going to parties to watch this game with other people?  Even when people have no interest in football, they often go and watch the game with other people!  We are communal people seeking the company of others.  And there are even times when we as communal beings get together that we just happen learn to something from one another.

            Yes, just like Jesus showed us, it is good to take time and retreat from the rest of the world for prayer, fasting, and to connect with God.  But Jesus also shows us that we need one another.  Jesus lived with twelve of his closest friends where they enjoyed one another’s company and they learned from Jesus.  I would even bet that they learned from one another as well.  We see in the book of Acts that the Christians continued to have dialogue with one another, discerning the will of God.  Christianity is a communal religion and we come to know God better and to understand what God is calling us to by being in community.

            The Psalmist knew that even though he (or she?) was able to come closer to God through writing Psalms, ultimately he had this internal need to praise God in the company of the upright; in the congregation, in the church.  And yes we can praise God in the privacy of our own home, watching pastors on television, but it isn’t the same.  We were created to relate with one another.

            Jumping out of order a bit we can see that the Psalmist turns to humility as a way to connect with the God we know and seek.  The Psalmist writes in verse 10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.”  The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord.  If you want to know God you need to fear God.

            Now I don’t believe that the Psalmist is saying that we need to be shaking in our boots if we seek wisdom.  We don’t need to fear God in the same way we might fear the boogey man or being locked in the attic with an angry bird.  To fear the Lord means to be in awe of God, to realize that God is more powerful, more knowing, just more than we are.  The first step to knowing God is to recognize that God is greater than we are.

            This is a humbling thing to do.  We don’t fear something that we are more powerful than.  We don’t fear something that we are able to outsmart on a regular basis.  To fear God means to have a reverence for God.  To say, Lord, you are God and I am not.  The first step toward knowing God is to fear God; to say that God is greater than we are.

            Now the problem with these first two ways of coming to know God is that you need to already know something about God to do these things.  You don’t wander into a church if you have never heard about God before and you don’t humble yourself before God unless someone defines for you the power of God.  But the third way in which we come to know God is something that is available to everyone, whether you have ever had contact with God or not.  The third way we come to know God better is by observing his works. 

            The Psalmist draws our attention to the miraculous things that God has done for the Israelites.  God has made a covenant with his people that they would be blessed and be a blessing to all people.  God has provided them with food, like manna, in times of need.  God has given them the Promised Land.  God has given them redemption from their sins.

            But these observations are not available to everyone.  Again, if you didn’t know about God then you wouldn’t know about how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, fed them manna, and gave them the Promised Land.  But I believe even the untrained eye and the untrained heart can recognize who God is by observing God’s creation.

By looking at the mountains, rivers, and forests, I know that God is creative and has an eye for beauty.  By looking at human beings I can see that God has a sense of humor.  By looking at all that we have been given we can see that God is loving.  By looking at the things that God has not done, we can see that God is mysterious.

            I had a conversation once with a person who had recently become a follower of Christ and I shared with him that God doesn’t always give us the things that we want, but that we as humankind have been given the opportunity to have the things that we need.  And he understood that, but he said, “God gave me the things that I needed before I believed in him.  God had already given me oxygen to breathe and water to drink.”

            And I replied to him, “Yeah, that tells you something about the God we serve, doesn’t it?  We serve a God that loves us so much that he gives us the things we need, even if we don’t believe God exists.”  I think he got my point, just as I had gotten his.

            By looking at the things that God has done for humanity, we can learn to know God better and to learn to know what God expects of us as his followers.

            I believe that everyone has this internal desire to know God, whether or not they recognize what that internal desire is leading them to.  And I believe that we are called as Christians to point out the extra-ordinary in the ordinary to others.  When we see a beautiful sunset, we can say with the angels in Isaiah 6:3 that the whole earth is full of God’s glory.  When we witness the birth of a child we must thank God for giving new life.  We need to be aware of how God moves through the things that we might see as ordinary.  And we need to make sure that others are aware of how God moves through these seemingly ordinary things as well.  I’m not asking us to over-spiritualize everything.  What I’m doing is calling us to a greater awareness of how God moves all around us all the time.  This is for our own good as Christians and for the good of others as well.  As I’ve said, we must make sure that people are able to see the extra-ordinary in the ordinary.  That includes ourselves.

            I find nothing more extraordinary than a simple practice that I took for granted every year growing up: planting corn.  Each year we would wait until the soil would dry out enough to drive the biggest tractors out to the field to turn the soil, preparing the seed bed for the year to come.  We would pull various pieces of tillage equipment across the fields until the seed bed was ideal for the optimum amount of seed to soil contact.  Then we would pull the corn planter across the field where one kernel was dropped every three inches in rows spaced 30 inches apart. 

            After the corn was planted we would always find other jobs to work on, the hay harvest was becoming mature, the cows always needed milking, and so on.  And without much attention from us, over the next 180 days or so that corn would break the surface of the soil and begin to produce its own energy from the sunlight, water from the rain, and the nutrients in the soil.  That energy was used for growth, growth that would take that corn from a seed to a plant standing 8-10 feet high.

            On each of those stalks of corn was an ear of corn.  What once was a single seed had duplicated itself and made up to 400 new kernels.  One acre (assuming a seeding rate of 35,000 seeds per acre) can produce 200 bushels of corn today, which is 11,200 lbs of corn.

            That corn is then used as food for people and for animals.  We eat corn or corn products every day.  Corn meal, corn syrup, corn flakes.  Look at the labels on your food and you will surely find a corn product.  Our animals consume corn as an energy source that is converted to meat, milk, fiber, or just for maintenance.  And we all take this for granted!  Each and every day we live with something so extraordinary that we miss it.

            Did you know that the earth is the only planet with liquid water on the surface?  Because of that fact (and others), the earth is the only planet that can support life.  But if the earth was only 5% closer to the sun, all of the water on the earth would boil off because the temperature would be approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit.  The earth would go around the sun faster, making our growing seasons shorter.  Nothing could grow, nothing could live on the earth.  If the earth was further from the sun the water would all freeze and not be available for plant life.  A smaller earth would mean less gravity; a larger earth more gravity.  All of this is to say that no other planet can support life, but this one has the specifics to do just that.

            So something as ordinary as growing corn is really quite and extraordinary thing, don’t you think?  To be honest, I don’t even know how corn grows.  I know how to provide the optimal environment for corn to grow, but what makes it sprout, grow, and put forth fruit?  So many things had to come together just right for corn to grow, and that’s a pretty simple plant.  Imagine what it takes to make you or me tick!  Life, seemingly ordinary, is really quite extraordinary.  And I think that by pointing that out to others and just being aware of it ourselves can help us to better understand this God we worship.

            So the Psalmist probably wasn’t thinking about corn and the earth’s atmosphere when this Psalm was written.  But we have all been talking about some of the ways in which we can come to know the God who gave us life a little better.  Ways that have never changed and never will.  We learn through corporate worship, we learn by humbling ourselves, and we learn by observing the wonderful things that God has done, even if they seem quite ordinary to us.  And we must help others to see this God we worship as well.  Because I believe that much like that bird in my attic was attracted to the light of the outside, we too are drawn to God, drawn to know God more.  May we never stop seeking to know him and to make him known.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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