God in Nature and God in Jesus
Sermon for Worship at the Park
Scriptures: Psalm 19:1-10; Colossians 1:15-20
I cannot count how many times I have heard people say to me, “I believe in God; I just don’t like going to church. I feel closer to God out in nature.” Well here we are out in nature and we’re going to church. What could be better?
There is a reason people feel close to God in nature. God intended it that way. Listen again to Psalm 19, this time from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message:
God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. … Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, but their silence fills the earth—unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
I love to hike, and one of my favorite hikes is the trail to Panorama Point on Mt. Rainier. This time of year the trail from the Paradise Inn to Panorama Point is draped in wildflowers: purple lupine, magenta paintbrush, yellow arnica, white beargrass and avalanche lilies. From Panorama Point, you are up close and personal with this enormous mountain; you can even hear it creak. And looking the other way on a clear day you can all the way to Oregon. God’s glory is on tour at Mt. Rainier; God’s handiwork on exhibit across the horizon.
The problem is that people don’t always see God in nature. Sometimes they see only their self-interest. As a teenager I remember going to Mt. Rainier with my parents. One time my father stood in front of the Paradise Inn and said, “You know, this would make a great golf course.” Even as a teenager I was appalled. I could not believe my father looked at Mt. Rainier and saw a golf course. But later that day at the Paradise Visitor Center I saw an old picture on the wall taken in the 1930s. It showed people in front of the Paradise Inn playing golf. People have a tendency to see in nature what they want to see.
And that’s the problem. Nature cannot really talk to us. Nature cannot challenge our greed, our prejudice, our arrogance, our self-centered idolatry. Nature hints at God’s power and majesty, but it leaves out a lot of vital information, like why we are here, where we are going, and how we are supposed to treat each other along the way.
So Psalm 19 does not end with nature. At verse 7 it abruptly changes the subject. Reading from again from The Message:
The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. … God’s Word is better than a diamond, better than a diamond set between emeralds. … God’s Word warns us of danger and directs us to hidden treasure. Otherwise how will we find our way? Or know when we play the fool?
According to Psalm 19 we need something more than nature to guide us in the life God wants for us. We need God’s word, passed on to us in the scriptures. We need not just God’s handiwork but God’s word to prevent us, or at least restrains us, from confusing nature with our own self-interest.
If you get lost on Mt Rainier, the mountain will not tell you the way down. If you do something stupid on Mt. Rainier, the mountain will not come to your rescue. Nature can be quite unforgiving.
So in our second scripture reading the apostle Paul does not talk about finding God in nature. He talks about finding God in Jesus. Colossians, chapter 1:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation …. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
You can look at nature on a beautiful day and sense God’s majesty. But there is nothing in nature to tell us that God loves us, that God put us here for a reason, and that God wants to save us from all the stupid things we have ever done. Nature rewards the powerful, not the righteous, let alone the weak. But in Jesus, God shows us a power made perfect in weakness. In Jesus God shows us a love that wins out over hate, arrogance, exploitation, greed, and despair.
In Spokane I knew a Presbyterian pastor named Mike Bullard who did volunteer work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. In 2013 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance sent him to the town of Yarnell, AZ, where a wildfire had destroyed half the town. Nineteen firefighters lost their lives trying to save it.
Here again is a case where nature does not give us a cozy feeling about God. Nature can be beautiful, but it can also be powerfully destructive and relentlessly unforgiving.
So Mike went to Yarnell as part of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team helping organize, house, and feed volunteers from all over the country who came to help with cleaning up and rebuilding. After the church service one Sunday at the Community Presbyterian Church of Yarnell, a woman saw the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance logo on Mike’s shirt. She came over, gave him a hug, and said to him six words. She only spoke six words, but they were etched in Mike’s memory. She said, “I was bitter; now I’m not.”
Sometimes Jesus can help us find our way to God in a way that nature cannot, and the church, even with all of its flaws, can help us experience that.