I’m told that 96% of the species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. Of course, some have evolved into newer species, such as some of the forerunners of Homo Sapiens; some, such as dinosaurs, would have driven many other species into extinction. But the fact remains, the variety of life on earth is but a fraction of what it was, much of this is not good, and much of it due to human action.
The Bible is filled with this concept of the variety of life. It repeatedly celebrates the variety, beauty, and complexity of creation. Nowhere is variety celebrated more than in Psalm 104, which we read tonight. Verse 24, in one translation, sums it up by simply stating, “What a wildly wonderful world, God!”
I want to look at Psalm 24, and use some P words (like Blockbusters!) to help us reflect upon this.
Psalm 104 raises an obvious question for me: who is this all for? Everything – trees, birds, mountains, humans, lions and sea monsters, is completely dependent on God, and draws its value from relationship with God. Much in our world today asserts either that variety is a random meaningless valueless process, or that humanity is the pinnacle of variety and therefore entitled to exploit and mould it as we wish. Psalm 104 provides a much needed sense of perspective in our world. God is the source, sustainer, and supreme purpose of all life and its variety. God is at the heart of all life. All creation – birds, animals, people, trees, rivers – lives in trustful dependence on God. Psalm 104 reminds us of perspective.
We live in a world obsessed by power. Our media is obsessed with those who exert power: physically as athletes or as ‘beautiful people’, culturally in the worlds of music and film, economically in the world of business, and in those who wield political power, seemingly both idolising and challenging power simultaneously. In Psalm 104 what we see is an incredibly powerful God, but revealing a very different sort of power. God’s power is not kept to himself, but poured out in the oversight, design and shaping of a huge, complex, and endlessly varied universe: the sunshine as God’s clothing, the heavens as his tent. In a world that is obsessed by a narrow definition of power as control, perhaps we can learn from the way God’s power is expressed in variety – creatively expressing his character in endless variety, and rejoicing in the relationships between his creatures.
Many people struggle to hear God’s voice in the busyness and disappointments of life, and in the babble of conflicting voices where can we discern God’s presence? Psalm 104 suggests that the first place to start is not in Church, nor even in the pages of the Bible, but in nature. There are many, many people who dimly discern something of God’s presence in creation but who would never go near a church, and when Christians link creation to Christ, the penny starts to drop. According to Psalm 104, when we see a beautiful sunset, or a snowdrop pushing up through the wintry soil, or a tiny bird that has just migrated thousands of miles from Africa to England, we’re glimpsing something of God’s creating, sustaining, transforming work in creation. God isn’t remote from us, but active in sending the Holy Spirit and renewing the face of the earth (as verse 30 puts it), providing for all of life including humanity. The vision in this Psalm is of God’s transforming presence in all creation. May we name it when we sense it, and seek to encourage nature to flourish so that all can discern God’s presence.
God’s overarching priority for this world isn’t for human beings to take everything over and destroy the variety of life on earth. Psalm 104 is clear that creation is not for us, its primary purpose is God’s own pleasure: “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works”. So, God’s priority is to create the conditions for all creation to flourish: designing the architecture of the earth, its foundations and boundaries, and then by providing life’s essentials – water, food and shelter. This is a very long way from how many understand priorities in today’s world. The very words ‘our environment’ suggest it’s all about us. Psalm 104 rebukes this attitude, reminding us that we’re a very small part of the whole, and we need to recover a sense of God’s priorities: worshiping God through seeking the flourishing of the whole creation, not just our little bit of it.
And that brings us finally to our place in God’s world. In Psalm 104 humanity is seen as part of a varied world, not separate from it. We are amongst the ‘creatures’ the earth is full of. Our welfare and that of other species are tightly bound together. Might God be calling us to know our place by getting a sense of God’s perspective and priorities in terms of how we humans fit in to God’s created order – if you like, to regain a sense of proportion and a proper humility. Might God also be calling us to know our place in a literal earthy sense – to get to know the place we live, to listen to the birds and to look at the flowers, to delight in variety and to delight in the God who reveals himself through it, and to know that our well-being and that of all creation hang together in God’s wildly wonderful world?