A headline recently appeared in my newsfeed: “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” The tag line explained, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone–so how did it come to be?”
The article made me think back to the extravagant splendor we find in the mountains of western North Carolina. Against the advice of the 90s pop group TLC, we do go chasing waterfalls, utilizing a book we found that catalogues and gives directions to all the waterfalls in the area. Sometimes, such visits require long hikes, such as a two mile hike we did a few years ago. Carter wore out before we found the waterfall and he and Dana turned around to go back to the car. Within five minutes, as Jack and I pressed ahead, we were at a towering waterfall of what I estimate to be twenty feet. It was magnificent. So much so, that Jack and I ran back down the trail to fetch Dana and Carter before they returned to the car so they could see it. Jack lost both of his shoes to the mud, but we caught them and brought them to the extravagant splendor of the waterfall.
There, we stood in awe. Creation, nature, in all its extravagance.
Like when I first heard great jazz music performed live. I was ending my sophomore year of high school one spring when I went with several other students to a jazz clinic at Georgia State University. There, I heard one of the best jazz trombonists I have ever heard. I was in absolute awe at the extravagant splendor of his playing. I didn’t know the trombone, my instrument, could sound that way. While I no longer have opportunity to play in a jazz band, it inspired within me a lifelong love of jazz and kept me playing in jazz bands through college.
And this was just the point of that article stating that beauty is making scientists rethink evolution. The way we’re enraptured by art and beauty, the way we value beauty, is something the article said evolution cannot explain. Such valuing poses no evolutionary benefit, meaning it provides no ability to survive, to become more fit, to live in a world marked by chaos that rewards the survival of the fittest.
Those who appreciate beauty are not stronger and, therefore, more likely to stand the test of natural selection. Those who engage in the creation of art of many kinds are not better equipped for the challenges presented by a nature that can often be characterized by chaos more than order. And yet, we humans love beauty and, should we allow ourselves to be so consumed, awe can inspire our hearts and draw us to a place of extravagant splendor. So said the article I read, and certainly I can relate to being enraptured by awe and wonder.
We are drawn to beauty in a chaotic world that demands strength. A world where we might think only the strong survive, but beauty enraptures.
Two ways of seeing the world are thus presented by this article: survival of the fittest and awe-inspiring extravagant splendor.
How do you see the world?
The Psalmist has something to say about these two ways of seeing the world. Embedded in the thirty-third Psalm are both ways. Let’s hear that Psalm now as we begin our series on the Psalms and the life of faith, looking today at Psalms of orientation.
There are those who would say that all this talk of awe, of beauty and extravagant splendor, of art and music, of waterfalls and jazz, is misguided or a just plain wrong view of the world. They say it’s escapist. It’s to see the world through rose colored glasses, denying the true nature of things. That the true way to see the world is through the lens of chaos, sin, evil: to be aware and recognize all the problems that abound. Christ may have come for life and life abundant but to truly realize that requires that we have our head on straight, seeing the chaos that defines our world.
For the world really is survival of the fittest; natural selection, they say. Those who are strong win. Those who have the right resources win. Those who create opportunity for themselves and rely on no one else win. The world is full of winners and losers and the right thing to do, the only way to be, is to do what you need to do to win at life. Life is chaos, create your own order, is the right perspective, the one this crazy, unpredictable, cruel, chaotic, life seems to demand.
In this crazy world where chaos can strike at any time, where wars and rumors of wars abound, where we see much dysfunction in governments near and far, where we live in fear of the next violent act, the next mass shooting, where we worry and fret over most everything; in this world of chaos, we must create our own order for ourselves and those we love. No one else can do it for us; the task is to survive and, when we’ve survived, to then win.
To focus instead on being in awe of the beauty of the world, of the extravagant splendor on display in nature, in the arts, in our relationships with each other, is to merely escape and delude ourselves into thinking the world is not a chaotic place requiring strength. And yet, those who love the arts, or those who find extravagant beauty in nature, or those who find awe in their children and grandchildren, in the miracle of life, would argue that this is essential to life; that we must find the beauty that’s around us for to ignore it is to miss out on what life is really about! Beauty and the way it can inspire awe and wonder is essential for a full life and, in fact, helps us when we’re struggling against the chaos and sin of the world.
Based on what we’ve said so far, we see the world one of two ways: survival of the fittest or extravagant splendor. One sees the world through conflict and chaos, the other beauty and order.
How do you see the world?
How does the Psalmist see the world?
There’s much talk of nations and wars and militaries and councils in this Psalm. The strength of the world, and of the people of the world, is on display. The nations war with each other, they conspire against each other, they have their war horses and armies, their wealth and status in the world, and they seek to increase that. They do so in a world that’s unpredictable, where God frustrates the plans, where natural disasters occur, where strength fails. The Psalmist speaks to the way the world operates: survival of the fittest in a world of conflict and chaos.
Right there, in the middle of this Psalm, a prayer from the Israelites to God, is awareness that the world is a chaotic place that requires strength, leading nations and leaders to amass strength best they can.
I love the Psalms because they speak so candidly to the way things are. It never ceases to amaze me that folks who wrote these words some 2500 years ago could speak to human nature and the way of the world in ways that have relevance for today. In the newsletter this week, I noted that the Psalms are a great prayer partner, and this is part of why that is: while the world has changed much in 2500 years, human nature and things like the way nations amass strength and war and fight with each other haven’t fundamentally changed. The experience of those who wrote the Psalms is our experience, and in hearing their experience, we learn much about how to relate to God.
Which is true here. The middle of the Psalm speaks to the nature of the world and the nature of the people in it. But it’s only to prove a larger point.
To begin, the Psalmist declares the glories of God’s creation and God’s reign over that creation. The glory of God is on full display in nature, in the works of his hands. There’s no denying that God exists for the Psalmist because every bit of nature declares the reality of God’s presence in the world through the extravagant splendor of creation itself. And in seeing nature, in understanding creation, the Psalmist understands that all God’s ways, everything God does, is just and righteous. The Psalmist is in awe of God.
And that awe inspires hope, even over and against the nations and their conspiring and the wars and conflicts and their devastation. The Psalmist is full of hope because the Psalmist is in awe of who God is. The extravagant splendor of God on display in creation leads to hope and trust.
How do you see the word?
As chaos and survival of the fittest or as extravagant splendor, full of awe and wonder?
How does the Psalmist see the world?
In traditional Methodist fashion, the answer is both/and. He sees the world as both survival of the fittest and extravagant splendor. And yet, his way of understanding those two things is very different from how we’ve described those two views.
This Psalm, like the entire book and, indeed, all of scripture, sees the chaos in the world. There are enemies, there are those who seek to steal, kill, and destroy, there are warriors and war horses and those with great armies who would seek our destruction, there is natural chaos in the world that comes through disasters. The Psalms and all of scripture also show people waiting for the next violent act, the next mass shooting, and despairing over dysfunctional governments and the disorderly ways of the world. The Psalmist doesn’t deny any of this.
But here’s the key difference: the Psalmist places no hope in his own strength. He is not interested in securing his own survival. He has nothing to say about winning himself.
That’s because the strength he relies upon, the strength that always wins, the only strength that can guarantee his survival, is God. God is the fittest, and those in God will survive.
God is the strongest. God’s strength makes the mightiest army look like a gang of ten year olds with spit balls. God’s wisdom makes the wisest human look like a fool. God’s provision is so great he can overcome the greatest famine. God’s offer of life and life abundant is so remarkable that not even death can defeat it.
God is the fittest, and those in God will not only survive, but thrive. The Psalmist acknowledges strength is necessary for survival in this world, but only God’s strength counts, only God’s strength matters, and our job is to rely not on our own might nor our own power or the might and power of governments or nations or the powers of this world, but to rely on God’s strength alone.
And it’s the beauty of the world, the things that cause awe within us, that remind us that God is with us and among us, moving for order. Extravagant splendor is our way of finding security in this world by reminding us that the fittest of them all, God, is with us and takes care of us.
That’s how the Psalmist sees the world as both/and: the extravagant splendor of the world, the ways we find beauty in this life, remind us that God is with us. And if God is with us, God who is the fittest of them all, then God will bring order to our chaos, take care of us when life is challenging and difficult, and provide for us with abundance beyond measure.
How do you see the world?
How you answer that question makes all the difference in your faith, in your happiness, and in your life.
The eyes of sin cause us to see the world as a place where only the strong survive, where we must rely upon ourselves because no one will do it for us, where we can’t count on anything but chaos and ourselves to provide.
The eyes of faith cause us to see the world as a place where God provides, where we can rely upon God to take care of us, where we can count on God to bring order to our chaos.
That’s because only God can restore the world, only God can undo the chaos, only God can restore the destruction, only God can bring hope amidst despair. Only God can do these things.
The world is a place of the extravagant splendor of God on full display; a display that should inspire our trust and hope that God’s strength will provide and take care of us.
Rejoicing in the extravagant splendor of the world, in the ways we encounter beauty, isn’t escapism away from the despairing realities of life. That beauty serves as a reminder that God is present among us, that God is with us, that God created the world to be a place of order and beauty that brings us to a place of awe and wonder. That’s what God’s about. And that’s what God is doing in our midst. And the reality that God is among us, creating order that causes beauty, is why we can trust God.
Today, we begin a sermon series on the Psalms. The Psalms reveal to us the cycle of faith, the way we go through life with God: times of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Orientation is the foundation of this cycle, it’s the basis, just as it’s the basis of our faith. It’s about being properly oriented toward God; understanding who God is and how God is with us. And to be properly oriented toward God is simple: it’s the message of this Psalm, it’s to be in awe of God and allow that awe to inspire our trust that God will take care of us.
Our world gives us extravagant reasons to be in awe of God. There’s what we find in nature and in the world around us. There are the ways we see God in our children, in our grandchildren, in people we love and admire. I have had several occasions already to see God in you and your witness, both collectively as a church and in the lives of individuals here. I’m grateful for how you bear witness to the presence of God in your life; just as the Psalmist says “our hearts are glad in him.”
But even more than that, and best of all, we have the opportunity daily, even moment by moment, to find ourselves in awe of God through a life of prayer.
The Psalms are ultimately prayers. They set an example for us in how to pray: with praise and thanksgiving, with hope and gratitude, but also with authenticity, plainspokenness, complaints and challenges. We’ll hear more of those in coming weeks as we talk about what it means to descend into the darkness of disorientation and then be brought back into the light through reorientation.
But prayer is the bedrock of faith, it’s the grounding of our souls, it’s the best way to experience awe of God. And for many years, prayer didn’t make any sense to me at all. I thought prayer was just talking to God in your head; and of course, it is that, but so much more. For me, prayer takes the form of a daily office prayer book, of journaling, of solitude and quiet moments of listening to God through contemplative practice. Prayer is transformative, it’s a pathway to experiencing the extravagant beauty of God that leaves us in awe of God, better than anything in nature or the world around us.
The Psalmist, as much as he is full of awe from nature and wonder, is praying and finding awe and wonder in that act of prayer. The ultimate example for finding the extravagant beauty of God that inspires our trust that God’s strength will provide for us is through living a life of prayer.
Standing in awe of God teaches trust in God which inspires hope. That’s the proper way to see the world. That’s how we are to orient our faith and, indeed, our very lives. And we find our way to such a worldview, such hope and trust, through a life of prayer.
So here’s the invitation this morning: commit yourself to pray the Psalms daily. I have a suggested schedule on my blog and we’re providing it for the next few weeks in a handout in your bulletin. We’ll also be posting some ways to engage in reading the Psalms on our Facebook page during the week. Take the schedule, read the Psalms daily as a prayer to God. Find the difference that prayer makes.
When we choose to stand in awe of God, we begin to see the world the way God does: through the lens of hope. Finding hope begins here, with how we orient our faith. Do you look for hope in the world or do you look for despair? It’s the same as asking does the world inspire awe of God or fear of survival? Do you spend the majority of your time enjoying the extravagant splendor of God, finding trust and hope, or worrying about how you’ll survive and win?
N.T. Wright says, “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible.” A different worldview is possible this morning, one grounded in our loving and almighty God who, extravagant in splendor, is the strongest and provides for us.
How do you see the world?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.