Knowing God in Nature?
Scriptures: Psalm 19, Romans 1:18-23
I was doing a memorial service for the father of a church
attender in Spokane, and when I met with the family I asked if their father had attended any church. His daughter hesitated as if afraid of offending me. Then she said, "Dad always felt like the woods were his church and that nature was his Bible."
Actually I have heard that a lot. In fact I have felt that
way at times. Last summer my wife Nadine and I went on a hike to Panorama Point on Mt. Rainier. [Slide 1] It was one of those amazing days when Paradise earns its name. [Slide 2] All around us was purple mountain majesty. [Slide 3] The water fall coming off the mountain flank pointed to a source higher up, and so did the mountain. The mountain pointed to a source higher up. Looking back across the valley I thought of Psalm 8: [Slide 4] "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth." And the 4th verse: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" In a place like that humans look so small, and God looks so big.
Psalm 19 agrees. It begins, [Slide 5: Ps 19:1-4] "The heavens are
telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God's handiwork. . There is no speech, nor are their words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice [message] goes out through all the earth." Joyce Kilmer wrote a poem that begins, [Slide 6] "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree." Nor probably a sermon as lovely as a tree.
There is a danger, however, of making nature our only Bible. People
have a tendency to see in nature only what they want to see. When I was young I remember going to Mt. Rainier with my parents, [Slide 7] and my dad would stand in front of the Paradise Lodge and say, "This would make a great golf course." I was appalled. I could not believe he could look at Mt. Rainier and see a golf course. Later at the Paradise Visitor Center I saw an old picture taken in the 1930s in front of the Paradise Lodge. [Slide 8] Apparently my father wasn't the only one who could see a golf course at Paradise.
Joyce Kilmer may have looked at a tree and seen a poem, [Slide 9] but
in Potlatch, Idaho we saw lumber and firewood. You look at a tree differently when your livelihood depends on it. The way you look at God through nature can easily be bent to your own self-interest.
And that is why Psalm 19 does not end at verse 6. Did you notice the
startling change half way through Psalm 19? The first six verses are this beautiful hymn about how nature testifies to God, and suddenly-out of the blue-come verses 7-8: [Slide 10: Ps. 19:7-8]
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.
How did we get from the majesty of God in creation to this hymn of praise for the Bible?
Simple. Nature is ambiguous. It is easy to feel close to
God on a beautiful day on Mt. Rainier, but what about that beautiful day on May 18, 1980, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens? [Slide 11] Nature can be terrifying. So can life? How close do you feel to God when an earthquake wipes out your village [Slide 12] or a tornado destroys your town? [Slide 13]
Nature may tell us certain things about God. It certainly
hints at God's size and power. But there is nothing in nature that says God loves us. When you look at Mt. Rainier up close, you certainly see how impressive God is. [Slide14] But there is nothing on that mountain that says God is compassionate. To climbers who screw up, Mt. Rainier can be quite unforgiving.
You will not discover God's love in nature. You will only
discover God's love in a person. And that is why we need the scriptures. The creation proclaims God's glory, but it does not show us God's character. Nature shows us God's power, but it does not show us God's heart. For that we need the scriptures. For that we need Sunday School and church. For that we need the story of Jesus.
We are warned about this in our first scripture reading from
Romans 1. Verse 20 says, [Slide 15: Rom. 1:20]
Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
Exactly the point in the first half of Psalm 19: "The heavens are telling the glory of God." But then Romans 1 goes on in verse 22-23: [Slide 16: Rom. 1:22-23]
Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
When nature is our only Bible, we can end up worshiping nature instead
of its creator. Even worse, we can end up worshiping ourselves.
Psalm 19 warns us against self-deception. Verse 12-13: [Slide 17: Ps.
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.
If nature is our only Bible, it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that what we want is "natural," that what we want must be what God wants. [Slide 18: Blank]
In 1932 a group of German Christians formed a
religious/political party supporting of Adolf Hitler. As part of its guiding principles, the group adopted this statement: "We see in race, folk, and nation, orders of existence granted and entrusted to us by God. . Consequently (any mixing of races) is to be opposed. . The nation must be protected against the unfit and inferior" (Quoted by Edward A. Dowey, Jr. in A Commentary on the Confession of 1967, p. 256).
Here an appeal to nature has become a thinly disguised form of
bigotry-a way of justifying one group's sense of privilege and superiority over others. This did not happen only in Nazi Germany. Slavery in this country was justified as part of the natural order of things. So was apartheid in South Africa. When it comes to self-interest, people have an unlimited ability to rationalize what is natural, and that ability increases when other people go along with the deception.
That's why we need the Bible. The Bible is a voice that
challenges our view of nature when that view of nature is distorted by our own prejudice or self-centeredness. When the culture says, "It is only natural that people of different races should be kept apart," then the Bible says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." When the culture says, "It is natural to want to get all you can for yourself," then the Bible says, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." When the culture says, "Nature is survival of the fittest; only the strong will make it," then the Bible says, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." And when the culture says, "Do what comes naturally; do whatever feels good," then the Bible says, "You are not your own, you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body."
That's why nature cannot be our only Bible. A mountain can
show how impressive God is, but it cannot show how much God loves you, nor how much God wants you to love one another.