Thursday, 9 June 2022

God’s Purpose for Humans

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th June 22

Psalm 8.1-9  A Psalm of David. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.  2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.  3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;  4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.  6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,  7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,  8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.  9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Do you ever look at people who really ought to be on top of the world
            and find yourself wondering why it is
            that they actually seem to be in the pits of despair?
Do you ever wonder at the choices they have made
            that has set their path on a route that promises so much, but delivers so little?
At a celebrity level
            it seems that almost as soon as someone gets enough money, fame and power
                        to mean that they can do what they want,
                        with whomever they want, and whenever they want
            they are at imminent risk of spiralling down the path
                        of alcohol or drug dependency
                        as they seek to mask the feelings of worthlessness
                                    that threaten to overwhelm them
Maybe, having too much choice
            is something that is much harder to deal with than it might at first appear!
Whether it’s the beautiful, talented and traumatized
            jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse
or the moodily brooding musician and poet Pete Doherty,
            it seems that low self esteem is something
            which no amount of money, talent or tabloid exposure can cure.
But, of course, it’s not just the celebs who suffer from low self esteem:
            They just have the money to do it in style!
All around us, there are people who are plagued by hopelessness
            when they stop and consider their own lives.
Every day we meet those who struggle to make sense
            of their own brief existence on the earth.
There are those of us who struggle
            with the choices we have made.
As Shakespeare said:
            ‘O gentlemen, the time of life is short!’
So, what’s the point of life?
            What are we humans here for?
            Is there any purpose to our fleeting existence?
These are the questions that are haunting the writer of Psalm 8
            as he seeks to puzzle out God’s purpose for humans
Something that’s interesting about the answer the psalmist proposes
            to the question of the meaning of life
            is that he doesn’t start with human beings at all…
And this is quite unexpected!
            After all, we might expect a short poem on God’s purpose for humans,
                        to start by talking about the human condition:
            outlining who we are, what our strengths and weakness are,
                        what choices we are going to make,
            and how we are going to respond to this mysterious thing called ‘life’
                        that we seem to have inherited from our parents.
But no, the writer of Psalm 8 doesn’t even mention humans until verse 4
            Verses 1-3 are all about God and creation:
Psalm 8:1  O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
This is how he chooses to begin
Humans only come into things
            once the might and majesty of God has been asserted
The Psalmist goes on:
Psalm 8:3-4  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;  4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
This, it seems to me, could be the classic starting point
            for a statement of low self-esteem!
If God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, so powerful…
            Then what could God possibly want with me?
            Little, insignificant, flawed, hopeless me…?
So, where does the Psalmist go next?
Well, it certainly isn’t into a statement of despair.
            Rather, he links to the next verse
            with that most wonderful of words… “Yet”…
Psalm 8:5  Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
            and crowned them with glory and honour.
It seems that, in spite of our insignificance
            when compared to the vastness and majesty of God
nonetheless, ‘yet!’,
            God is still mindful of us
God has crowned us with glory!
            We have been made only a little lower than God!
This is no ‘low’ view of humanity
            In fact what we see here are divine characteristics
                        being ascribed to humans…
‘Glory’ and ‘honour’ are characteristics of God
            and yet the Psalmist claims
            that God has given these to human beings as well
But he doesn’t stop there…
            Having defined humans in relation to the heavenly beings
he then goes on to define us
            in relation to all the other creatures which share this world of ours
Psalm 8:6-8  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,  7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,  8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
As humans we are not only crowned with glory and honour
            but we also exercise dominion over the natural world
            on God’s behalf and at God’s request.
This is an unusually positive view of humanity!
            Everything ordered, everything in its place…
            humans are presented in this psalm as being almost god-like,
                        ruling the planet because God has asked us to do so.
Those of us who know the creation story from Genesis
            will of course be making links here to the way in which that story
            describes humans being given dominion over the earth.
Genesis 1:26-31  Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
In both Psalm 8 and this passage from Genesis
            it is humans who are given the pivotal role
            in God’s plan for the good ordering of the universe
Humans are given not just the gift of life,
            but the gift of choice.
Life, it seems, is about choices:
            we get to choose what kind of creatures we will be.
It is we who are entrusted with the task
            of keeping the world ordered and secure on God’s behalf
as we exercise our God-given dominion, having been made in God’s image,
            having been crowned with glory and honour.
It is we who hold back the forces of chaos
            that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm the earth.
The answer which the Psalmist gives the question of God’s purpose for humans…
            is that we have a divine mandate to exercise authority and responsibility
                        in the ordering of and caring for God’s world
As I said, this is an unusually positive view of humanity!
The only nagging doubt at the back of my mind
            and it may be at the back of yours too…
Is that this does not seem to describe what I see
            when I look at the world around me!
Do I see humans exercising God-given dominion with responsibility and care?
            Do I see an ordered world where everything has its place
            and where humans play a pivotal role in ensuring the stability of creation?
Surely we have to say: ‘Absolutely not!’
Rather, we see humans consistently exploiting creation for their own selfish gain
            from habitat destruction, to rainforest clearance, to global warming,
                        the list could go on and on.
It seems that we are a long way from the Psalmist’s high ideals
            of God’s purpose for humans.
It seems that the freedom we have to choose good,
            is also the freedom to choose evil,
            the freedom to choose selfishly rather than selflessly.
How quickly the divine mandate to care for creation
            becomes an excuse for oppression and distortion!
Think for a minute about the song many of us will have sung in school,
            which I mentioned last year when preaching on Psalm 1.
It starts off very much like Psalm 8
            with its assertion of God’s careful ordering of creation
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
So far, so good!
            The earth is made good, by God who is good
But where do humans fit into this?
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.
According to the Sunday-school hymn,
            our task in this well-ordered, non-chaotic, well-made world
            is to testify to the one who created the earth and placed us in it.
A little while ago a friend online challenged the ideology of this hymns,
            as being too saccharine, to cloying, too perfect,
and said that they would only sing the hymn again
            if it included a verse about Lyme disease, which they had recently had.
So I thought I’d oblige:
Tics that carry Lyme disease
Are made by God as well;
Things that make us ill at ease,
And make our armpits swell.
            Survival of the fittest
            Is part of how things work;
            Immunity is needed
            To fight off other germs.
But then there’s that other verse
            which I can remember singing as a child
but which has mysteriously disappeared
            from most modern hymn books which feature this song,
and it’s this verse which, certainly to our modern ears,
            hints that this well-ordered world
            might not be quite as wonderful as it might at first appear:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The implication here is that extreme imbalance of power and wealth
            is something ordained by God
            and is part of his plan for creation
Rather than the consequence of human choice and action.
According to the hymn,
the economic and social oppression of the poor man
            begging at the gate of the rich man’s castle,
is as God has ordered it to be.
And once again, if we look carefully, the cracks are starting to show
            in the Psalmist’s bold assertion
            that God’s purpose for humans is to exercise Godly authority and responsibility.
It might be fine in theory
            but when it comes down to it,
                        the powerful always seem to use their God-given dominion
            to exploit both the natural environment and other human beings,
            bending creation to their will and resisting the natural order of things.
It seems that, the greater a person’s power, wealth and influence,
            the greater the choice they have available to them,
            and the greater the temptation to choose evil and not good,
                        the greater the temptation to choose selfish good,
                        rather than the good of others.
Well, is there a way forwards from here?
            Are we to conclude that the Psalmist has optimistically read the situation wrong?
            And that the human exercising of divine dominion
                        will never ultimately be anything other
                        than an exercise in oppressive and destructive power
                        and immoral choices?
To return to the Psalmist’s core question:
            What is God’s purpose for humans?
Something which may help here
            is to see how this Psalm is used in the New Testament
In the book of Hebrews this Psalm is quoted:
Hebrews 2:6-9  But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  8 subjecting all things under their feet." Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Here, the Psalm is used to help understand Jesus,
            as the one who ultimately rules over all.
The human dominion which the Psalmist so boldly asserts,
            becomes relativised by the Lordship of Jesus.
In the book of Hebrews, it is not just humans who are crowned with glory and honour,
            rather, Jesus is the one in whom all glory and honour are embodied.
Ours, it seems, is not to be an absolute dominion over the earth:
            we are not free to choose without care for the consequences.
Rather, our dominion, our freedom, is to be exercised
            within the context of the absolute Lordship of Jesus.
We are to choose not the path of pleasing ourselves,
            but the path modelled by Jesus;
who journeyed through life in selflessness,
            living for God, and living for others,
and whose journey took him towards the cross.
Jesus is the one in whom, as Paul says, ‘all things hold together’ (Col 1.17)
Jesus, the one who has ultimate power and dominion,
            is the one who chooses the path of servanthood,
            he chooses a life of obedience and service.
His dominion and power are not exercised through control and dictatorship,
            but through service to others and obedience to God.
As Jesus himself said:
Mark 10:43-45  whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Or, as Paul put it:
Philippians 2:5-8  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
The example of dominion and power which Jesus sets
            is very different from the way
            in which humans normally exercise their God-given power.
The choices modelled by Jesus about the way to be human
            are choices for life eternal, rather than life today;
            they are choices for the good of all, and not for selfish gain.
And this changed, Jesus-transformed, understanding of power and dominion,
            sends us back to the Psalm
            to see if it can be read differently in the light of Jesus’ example,
What happens if we read the Psalm with a Jesus-inspired understanding,
            of glory, honour, power and dominion?
Well, firstly we notice that the Psalm both starts and finishes with words of praise to God
            Psalm 8:1, 9  O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
And it becomes clear
            that the statement of human dominion over the earth from the middle of the Psalm
must be read together with the words of praise to God
            found at the beginning and end…
The point becomes clear:
            human power must always be bounded and surrounded by divine praise
                        and it is this praise of God
                        which gives the human exercising of dominion it’s appropriate context.
Our worship of God gives us the context
            within which we can make good choices.
Those who praise God without taking seriously the exercising of human authority
            are simply abdicating their responsibility:
            and ‘leaving it all to God’ is not an option.
But those who seek to use human power,
            without doing so in the context of praise of God
end up usurping God’s rightful place in the cosmos
            and so commit the sin of idolatry.
Humans are, indeed, to rule upon the earth,
            but we are to do so after the example of Jesus,
            exercising dominion through serving others and in obedience to God.
Always giving him the ultimate glory
            and never taking it for ourselves.
And it is in giving worship to God
            that we find divine balance and order,
            in our exercising of our dominion.
God’s purpose for humans is therefore two-fold:
            it is to exercise dominion on his behalf,
            and it is also to give worship to him.
When we exercise dominion on our own behalf,
            claiming divine mandate for our selfish choices,
            we exploit the planet and oppress humanity.
When we take glory and honour for ourselves,
            we usurp God, seeking to become like gods ourselves
            and when we do this we lead the world back into chaos.
So where does this leave us,
            in the midst of a world
                        where humans do very much grab glory and honour for themselves,
            and where dominion over the earth
                        is very much exercised for selfish reasons?
Well, in a world that seems intent on slowly leading itself to the gates of hell,
            we have choices to make, corporately and individually,
            choices which can point the world to the revelation of God’s good news
                        in whom is truly to be found the hope of the nations
We have a choice -  to live as the people of Christ,
            showing the world what it means
            to live as Christ’s transformed and restored humanity.
I certainly don’t think that Christians have a monopoly on good news,
            and there are other paths people can take that lead to peace and justice;
but we do have a revelation of God in Christ,
            that calls and challenges us to live into being
            the good news that has been revealed to us.
We have a choice and a chance
            to model what it means to exercise dominion on the earth,
            not for our own sakes, but on God’s behalf;
and to model what it means to give honour and glory to Jesus,
            rather than to take it for ourselves.
The call to selflessness is inherent in the call to worship Jesus,
            as we enthrone the one who is love,
            and dethrone all those powers that deny and distort love, peace, and justice.
And as we do all this, we will find that it affects our whole lives,
            and the choices we make within them.
From how we spend our money,
                        what we buy, what we don’t buy, what we give away,
            to how we use our time, energy, power, and voices,
                        all these can be understood as an exercise of power.
And through these choices we can build a vision in the world
            of what it means to resist the seductions of consumerism,
                        to subvert the narratives of nationalism,
            to live for others, as we live for ourselves,
                        to love others, as we love ourselves.
In our living we can make real in the world
            the truth that there is another way of being…
And to do this is our calling:
            because any glory, power and dominion that we might think we have;
            are only within our grasp for a season,
                        because, ultimately, they belong to Christ,
and so our calling is to live into being the truth for which we pray,
            that the kingdom of heaven come upon the earth
as a new kingdom of good news for all,
            where all are welcomed by the loving embrace of God.