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"I Sing the Mighty Power of God" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on March 24, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“I Sing the Mighty Power of God”

Isaiah 55:1-9

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

March 24, 2019

During this season of Lent, Pastor Sarah and I are looking to some of the hymns of our faith for inspiration, as well as scripture.  The first Sunday of Lent, Sarah highlighted The Servant Song, last week I used God of Grace, God of Glory, and this week it is I Sing the Mighty Power of God.  Many of our hymns are beautiful poetry which we don’t always appreciate as much as we sing them, and this hymn is a lovely bit of poetry so I’d like to start by reading it.

I sing the mighty power of God 
that made the mountains rise, 
that spread the flowing seas abroad 
and built the lofty skies. 
I sing the wisdom that ordained 
the sun to rule the day; 
the moon shines full at his command, 
and all the stars obey. 

I sing the goodness of the Lord 
that filled the earth with food; 
God formed the creatures through the word 
and then pronounced them good. 
Lord, how your wonders are displayed, 
where'er we turn our eyes, 
if we survey the ground we tread 
or gaze upon the skies. 

There's not a plant or flower below 
but makes your glories known, 
and clouds arise and tempests blow 
by order from your throne; 
while all that borrows life from you 
is ever in your care, 
and everywhere that we can be, 
you, God, are present there. 

This poetry was written by Isaac Watts in 1715.  Watts has been referred to as the “Godfather of English hymnody.” He is credited with over 750 hymns, many of which we still sing today.

In this hymn, Watts speaks about a God greater than our imagination. A God who is powerful and wise and good.  A God who attends to every detail of creation with care and purpose.  A God who is worthy of our awe and wonder.  And as I studied it’s words this week, it made me think about my own sense of awe and wonder. 

When was the last time you felt truly in awe of something?  Perhaps it was when you felt so small as you looked into the night sky and considered the vastness of the universe or as you stood on a mountain or at the edge of the Grand Canyon or a body of water when the horizon seems endlessly far away?  OR maybe it was in taking in the wonder of something so small: the light shining through the leaves on trees, the buds of flowers peeking up out of the ground, the tiny fingernail of a baby’s pinkie finger.  Or maybe you felt awe for the depth of love you felt looking into the face of someone dear to you or in witnessing someone else’s or even your own strength or accomplishment in the face of adversity.  Perhaps you have felt awe in the midst of seeing terrible things – the destruction of floods or winds or quakes or the results of human sinfulness.  I’ll give you a moment to really think about the most recent time you felt a strong sense of awe or wonder.

The feeling of awe and wonder has spawned a great deal of humanity’s best poetry, art and of course, music, including Watts hymn. Watts was, of course, not the first, nor last, person who has attempted to make a tangible representation of the feeling we have when confronted by God’s grandeur and power.  The Bible is full of people trying to do this.  The Psalms wax eloquently on and on about God’s greatness and power, God’s strength and amazing works.  The story of the Israelites, from the Creation story through their entry into the promised land, is full of stories of God’s providence and God’s power.  The prophets speak about God as almighty and ever-present. 

And of course, in each attempt to name God’s greatness, all-knowingness, and mighty power, we come face to face with the understanding, that we do not fully understand; that God is beyond our imagination; that no matter what we can articulate, we still have not fully grasped the magnitude of God.  As Paul says in Corinthians; “we see through a mirror dimly.”  Which is what Isaiah is trying to say in our scripture today when he reports that God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”  God’s thoughts and ways, are not ours.  God is different, separate, above, beyond, unique, distinct.  And we know, that except for fleeting moments in life, there is nothing on this side of death that can do much to bridge the gap.  This knowledge is the root of awe and wonder – what we feel when we encounter that which we cannot fully understand, comprehend, or find words for – when we know that even our best art falls short of capturing the full truth. 

And so, we go through life encountering these moments of awe and wonder.  The more we pay attention to the world around us, the more frequently we encounter them.  And these moments can be beautiful and wonderful and make us feel closer to God, but not always.  Sometimes our response to awe and wonder is far from feeling they are wonderful.  And in particular, there are two responses to awe and wonder which can cause real problems.

The first is fear.  It is easy to fear what we do not understand. Awe and wonder on the top of a mountain or in the face of a baby are wonderful.  But as beautiful as nature can be, our inability to understand it completely also means we don’t know how to make it rain or stop it from raining or slow the wind or stop a wildfire or most difficult for us, to stop death.  And when we encounter these kinds of events, they cause us to feel so out of control, so at the whim of something larger than ourselves, that our awe and wonder, turn to fear. 

In the Bible, we see examples of this all over.  People who are trying so hard to understand God, to understand creation, as they making burnt offerings and try to barter with God, even with their own children.  They want to believe that if they just give God the right thing or say the right prayer, that God will keep the bad things from happening or give us the answers.  Which doesn’t seem so foreign an idea to most of us.  Who wouldn’t give up a little awe and wonder, if it meant safety and security for you and your loved ones? So, often humanity’s response to God’s uncomprehendable greatness, has been fear of God – the fear of what we can’t understand or control. 

The second negative way we respond to awe and wonder is frustration or denial.  Not the same as fear, this stems from our desire to understand and be able to explain things.  It is uncomfortable to not be able to explain the world around us fully.  We are curious beings who want to fill in the answers. We feel uncomfortable with mystery.  Awe and wonder lead to questions and curiosity and even doubts about what we think we know.  Awe and wonder are a place where God meets us and sometimes where God reveals Godself to us in new ways. 

As theologian Shirley Guthrie explains, “The word revelation itself suggests that something hitherto hidden or unknown has come to light.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s way.  Therefore, when revelation happens we are confronted with “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.”  The self-revelation of God is in fact so new and unexpected that it is often offensive to those who think they already know who God is…”

In other words, awe and wonder can reveal new things to us about God or ourselves that can change the course of our lives and that can be so uncomfortable, so frustrating, so shocking that it is easier to turn away from it altogether.  It is easier to decide things are simply black and white – to accept easy, pat answers for things or just stop asking questions altogether.   Better not to experience awe and wonder at all.     

So, how do we not fall prey to fear or frustration or denial when we encounter awe and wonder?  We remind ourselves, that the same God who says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways,” is also quoted through angels and prophets saying “do not be afraid” more than anything else in scripture.  Not that God promises to keep us out of fearful situations or to make everything in our lives safe, but that God promises those moments are not the end of things, even our death. 

And that same God, is the God who the Psalms say knit us together in our mother’s wombs - the source of our curiosity and desire to seek greater understanding.  God created this complex, creative, often chaotic world, and has invited us to use our minds and bodies to explore and discover its possibilities.  Perhaps every great human invention and discovery has come from our wondering and feeling awe; our curiosity about the mystery of the universe. 

Ultimately, awe and wonder are meant to be gifts to us.  God is great and powerful and unique and distinct from us. But God has continually revealed Godself to humanity.  Over and over again, people throughout all our history have encountered God in all manner of ways – some ways which they have been able to explain and tell stories about and share; some which have left the recipients without any ability to put into words what they’ve experienced, just the knowledge that they are sure it happened and it changed them.  Maybe you have had such an experience – a dream, a feeling, an encounter, a revelation.  We may only see through a glass dimly now, but we have seen enough to know awe and wonder, reverence and curiosity, surprise and amazement.  These are good responses to a God capable of creating all the universe who also wants to be in relationship to us.

In his reflection on the hymn, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, theologian Walter Bruggeman picks up on a word choice.  Watts uses the word survey in both this hymn and in his more famous hymn, “When I Survey the Wonderous Cross” so we “can see that both creation and cross are God’s wonders; both creation and cross, moreover, are to be surveyed so that we allow for complete astonishment at these two divine actions that escape our explanation.  We cannot “explain” creation even though scientists rightly keep working at it.  We cannot “explain” the cross even though theologians continue to propose variant “theories of atonement.” (theories of what the cross means)

God started a relationship with humanity through the act of creation.  And in creation we see endless examples of God’s greatness, power, and might.   We may even understand a portion of God’s love for us through admiring the fullness in which God has provided for us. But God did not stop there.  We see God through the stories of the Old Testament coming again and again to the people. God shows them again and again how to rely on God, to trust God, to believe in God’s faithfulness and to live with justice and care for all of God’s creation.  But then God doesn’t stop there.  In the greatest revelation of who God is and how greatly God desires to be in relationship with us, God sends Jesus. God comes as one of us.  To walk this earth and show us the possibility of what we can be and how deep and wide God’s love, grace and forgiveness really are. And God continues to offer opportunities for awe and wonder to each of us, all the time, if we can put aside our fears and stay curious enough to be open to new revelation.  Which takes practice.  Always practice.  So, we are already part way through this Lenten season, but I invite you to consider another practice for the season – awe and wonder.  Take time each day to find something which can knock your socks off a bit; something that reminds you, you don’t understand everything; something which opens your mind and heart to God’s power and greatness, beyond anything you comprehend.  Amen.

 

 
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