Epiphany 3 C: The World’s Wordless Whispers

The readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany are:

Old Testament      Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10

Psalm                    Psalm 19

New Testament     1 Corinthians 12:12–31a

Gospel                   Luke 4:14–21

The whole idea of the Epiphany season of the church year is that the glory of God is made known, especially in Christ.

Glory is a hard thing to get our head around. And in a way, that’s just the point. It is a way of saying, “God is more—more than we can comprehend.” And so, awe and glory go together, and the sound of awe is speechless silence.

And when we say Christ is special glory, let us not constrict the meaning of Christ. Christ, who is the man Jesus, and the eternal Word of God, is the center and perfection of God’s glory, but not its boundary. There can be no boundary to God’s glory.

Coming to grips with the absence of boundaries is of the essence of theology. When believers consider where and how they encounter the glory of God, they can’t get their heads around it; and therefore they gradually understand that it is dangerous, and even deadly, to underestimate glory.

This Sunday’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons both speak of Jewish synagogue worship, centered on the reading of Scripture. In Nehemiah it is Ezra who reads the Torah in a proto-synagogue moment; in Luke Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown. Judaism has rightly taught us that when we hear and reflect on the Lord’s message of Law and Gospel, we experience glory. We are touched and transformed by God’s written Word.

But for most of Israel’s history, all the way up to the centuries after return from Babylonian exile, torah was not yet our first five books of the Bible (they hadn’t yet been collected or edited), or the Law of Moses, but it meant instruction. It meant the stories of wandering and slavery and oppression, and of the God who showed steadfast love and faithfulness in spite of all the changes and challenges of life. The miracle and wonder of a faithful God was read to young and old around the campfire; and it was the burning glory of God.

But we can dive even deeper into the well of human-divine interaction. When we read Psalm 19 carefully we soon discover that there are two distinct ideas working about how God’s glory is made known. The first six verses are about the glory of God made known in Creation. The last eight are about torah. So, have two psalms been pieced together? What does Creation and torah have to do with each other?

Psalm 19 takes us way back in history. That first section focuses on the sun; and we know from the last century’s discovery of religious texts from the ancient near east that for millenia the sun was thought of as a deity, often very concerned with justice on earth. We can imagine that our ancient ancestors realized how dependable sunshine kept them alive. And so they imagined that there was something out there that cared for life. So, it seems this psalm combined the old way of expressing awe, with the newer. It now proclaims to us that God’s glory is made known in two ways: through nature, and through inspired and revealed instruction.

So this psalm is typical of the wisdom tradition of Scripture. It has wisdom’s hallmarks of respecting the glory in nature. The heavens and the earth pour forth speech without speech—wordless whispers about God’s glory. And torah instruction revives the soul and enlightens the eyes as it teaches us to fear the Lord—that is, to “Shut up and listen.”

Indeed, there is a marked similarity of theme with an Ugaritic hymn of the 13th or 12th century BCE that has these verses:

Speech of tree and whisper of stone,
Converse of heaven with earth,
E’en of the deeps with the stars;
Yea, a thunderbolt unknown to heaven,
A word not known to men,
Nor sensed by the masses on earth.

So, it is Psalm 19 that I would heartily recommend for our attention as we struggle to find ways to endure in the midst of the pandemic. At this point it is no longer the virus that is inflicting the greatest harm, but the avalanche of words: words that warn, words that threat, words that twist the truth, words that foretell disaster, words that are weapons. No matter where you get your news, it always makes you feel we are going to hell in a handbasket.

But Psalm 19:3-4 tells us of the wordless whispers of the world, making known the glory of God.

The wisdom of Palm 19 is that to heal and to ward off depression and anxiety, we must turn off our screens, put away our ear buds, and go outside. We are blessed here at Heatherhope in that four or five times a day we absolutely must do just that. We go out with our dogs and run them around the farm. And when we do they dance and leap for joy as if they hadn’t seen us, or smelled each other’s pee in ages. And we are eagerly anticipated by the sheep as if we were A-list celebrities, so eager are they to be fed. It seems a miracle that the snows, the winds, the slumbering soil, are all there today as they were when we were children, seventy-plus years ago! Long before anyone heard of a Covid.

These Monday evenings our Northern Illinois Online Bible Study is delighting in the hopefulness of the Book of Revelation. That’s right—hopefulness. All the death and destruction in that book is woven with many affirmations that God is still in charge. The glory of the One upon the throne and the Lamb is made known in bright cosmic worship. Angels in heaven join rocks and trees and grass of earth, who in turn join with us mortals. We all are in awe about God’s power to wipe away every tear and quench our thirst for life and for justice.

Jesus Christ showed forth God’s glorious love perfectly as the Lamb who was slain for us. But that same glory is spoken of without words every moment in the ways of Creation. It’s waiting for us to step outside and discover.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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