O God Beyond All Praising

O God Beyond All Praising

Liturgy Lessons: March 31, 2019 (4th Sunday Lent)
Call to Worship: Psalm 33:1-12
Prayer of Invocation
Hymns of Adoration: Come, Thou Almighty King (#101); Holy, Holy, Holy (#100)
Confession and Trisagion
Assurance: Based on Romans 4:21-25; 5:1-5
Hymns of Assurance: My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone; O For a Thousand Tongues (#164)
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: TBA
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
The Lord’s Supper: Man of Sorrows; My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness
Closing Hymn: O God Beyond All Praising (#660)

“For the Lord God is a sun…”
– Psalm 84:11

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
– Psalm 27:1

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”

– C.S. Lewis, from “Is Theology Poetry?”

Last week the sun came out with such force that it took us straight from winter to summer, which seemed to nudge spring aside as the temperatures and pollen count soared. I don’t remember the last time I got sunburned in March. It was glorious. After a very wet and snowy winter, the sunlight seemed to transform everything overnight. We took a spontaneous camping trip to Deception Pass, where we soaked up the vitamin D at the beach, caught some magnificent sunsets, and then slept under the full moon’s light. All the cloudless days and nights made me think of the wonder of the sun and the planets, and the beauty of God’s handiwork.

On the first day of creation, God said “Light, BE!”. With his voice alone, he splashed the entire spectrum of brilliant golden hues across the expanse, separated the luminous from the dark, creating day and night, and then, like a painter stepping back from the canvas to assess the first strokes of the brush, he smiled, nodded with approval, and called it good. On the fourth day of creation, after distinguishing sky from sea, and filling in the middle with plants and trees, he decided that there should be innumerable “lights in the expanse of the sky”. Over the cradle of creation he balanced two glowing and glossy globes, and parents have been putting shiny, spinning, sparkly things above their babies’ beds ever since. All of creation was made in preparation for mankind. The first five days only found their purpose on the sixth. The opening sections of the Creator’s symphony were just a glorious prelude, those first five days like some sort of extended tremolo in the string section before introducing his grand theme and magnum opus, man and woman, the imago dei. And the Psalmist reminds us that all this miraculous creation is an expression and symbol of his great love, which “endures forever” (Psalm 136). Of all the elements in creation that man can enjoy, perhaps no thing is more astounding than the sun itself. The center of our universe, the source of life on Earth, the dictator of our daily order, and the governor of the seasons, the sun is an awe-inspiring, impossibly gargantuan miracle in itself.

Consider this. The sun, at its core, reaches temperatures of 15 million°C. It is an almost perfect sphere that is 870,000 miles across; that is 330,000 times larger than Earth. This means that close to 1 million Earths could fit inside it. The sun is the entire color spectrum mixed together, which is why it appears white to our eyes. The sun contains 99.85% of the entire mass in our solar system. It is so massive that its gravity is 28 times more than ours. That means that a person weighing 150 pounds here would weigh over two tons on the sun. The sun’s energy is mind-blowing. It would take 100 trillion tons of dynamite detonated every second to match its output. And yet the sun is a relatively small star compared to others. There is a star called Betelgeuse, located in the shoulder of Orion. This red supergiant has a radius of 950-1200 times the size of the Sun, and would engulf the orbit of Jupiter if placed in our Solar System. And, there are other stars that astrologists say would dwarf even Betelgeuse. The current prize for the largest known star goes to UY Scuti, with an estimated mass of 1,780 solar radii, basically 5 billion times that of the sun.

How do we respond to such incomprehensible majesty in creation? Psalm 8 comes to mind. The Psalmist declares “Lord, you have set your glory above the heavens. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

Good question. If God can just play marbles with the stars, setting Betelgeuse and UY Scuti and our own sun in their places, how could he possibly care for us? And yet, he does, and more. He loves us. Oh, how he loves us. Our heavenly Son’s love is a burning ardor that endures forever, the gravity of which is irresistible. His love is “better than life” and rightfully should eclipse all others. We know this because “God, who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)

In August 2017 there was a solar eclipse that swept across the Northwest. It was the first time in 99 years that a full solar eclipse was visible in North America. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I remember that morning. It was August 21st, and the hills and fields were full of spectators wearing protective sunglasses all gawking and gazing at the moon’s halo. At mid-day in summer, it was suddenly night and the morning stars were out. This apocalyptic anomaly must have terrified the ancients. It is a spectacular interruption in the normal cycles of life to which we are accustomed.

I’ve been thinking about God’s celestial creations in relation to our current culture. Much has been written recently about the decline of our culture, how we in the west are living in a post-Christian age. Christianity brings the warmth and light of Jesus, and the fire of His love to the cold and broken heart. He is the sun. But as the moons of enlightenment, modernity, and post-modernity have orbited our world, they have created a slow spiritual and cultural eclipse. The new sexual ethic and its sovereignty of the self has turned our souls inward, and so we rarely, if ever, look up. We have experienced what American poet Holly Ordway calls a “Ptolemaic” shift, a modern retrogression to pre-Copernican thought (where Earth is the center of the universe). Deep darkness is covering the people once more. But, we have not been given a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never put it out (Jn. 1:5). These current trends shift like the moons, and this eclipse shall pass. Our faith is based on the inextinguishable light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Those who do not see have had their minds blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4).

The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun as “Ra”, their chief deity. Imagine their horror during the ninth plague, when, through the hand of Moses, there was a three-day extended eclipse of their god, and darkness covered the land in a literal foreshadowing of the death to come. That supernatural sign brought a cultural eclipse. Darkness fell upon Egypt, “yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived” (Ex. 10:23). Four hundred years of slavery was about to end.

Fast forward seven-hundred years, and another message of hope is given to God’s people by the poet-prophet whose name means “the Lord saves.”

“Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the Lord will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
– Is. 60:1-3

Isaiah warned Judah of impending captivity at the hands of Babylon. But, in some of the greatest passages in the Old Testament, he also rhapsodized on an ultimate redemption and rescue that would be reminiscent of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and symbolic of our salvation through Christ.

“The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.”
– Isaiah 60:19-20

This same vision is captured by John in the penultimate chapter of the Bible:

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.”
– Revelation 21:22-25

What a radiant vision, when we shall see Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2) and the light of the world (John 1:4-9), shining in all His splendor. And that light will never be extinguished. To paraphrase the old hymn, “when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” the party will go on and on and on….

The ancient Egyptians had a hymn to the sun, the first line of which was, “You are beauteous, great, radiant, high over every land; Your rays embrace the lands, to the limit of all that you made, Being Ra, you reach the limits”. Sadly, pagan gods have always reached the limits, their own limits. The truth that we celebrate is in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the limitless sun that outshines them all. Bernard of Clairveaux said it best in this hymn of praise:

O Jesus, Sun most wonderful! O Conqueror renowned!
O Source of peace ineffable, in whom all joys are found:
When once you visit darkened hearts, then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanity departs, then kindles love divine.
O Jesus, light of all below, the fount of life and fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know, all that we can desire:
May every heart confess your name, forever you adore,
And, seeking you, itself inflame to seek you more and more!

O God Beyond All Praising
Text: Michael Perry (1982)
Tune: JUPITER, from The Planets, Gustav Holst (1918)

Jupiter was the king of the gods in ancient Roman religion. The equivalent of the Greek Zeus, Jupiter was the chief deity in the Roman Empire until Christianity rose to prominence in the 4th century. Jupiter is also the name of the 4th movement of a symphonic suite titled “The Planets,” the most well-known work by 20th-century English composer Gustav Holst. As the title would suggest, it is a seven-movement orchestral suite in which each section corresponds to one of the planets (Earth is not included). Holst depicts the character of each planet through orchestral color, and attempts to evoke the human emotions and psyche in response to each planet. The movement devoted to the largest planet is entitled “Jupiter, the bringer of jollity.” Bookended by music of effervescent cheerfulness is the Jupiter theme, and it is a melody that you go home humming. The suite as a whole has been incredibly popular and enduring, but it is Jupiter that has received the most attention. True to the planet’s gargantuan dimensions, Holst’s Jupiter theme has drawn many into its orbit, transcending the concert hall and being arranged by everyone from Frank Zappa to Led Zeppelin. And, it has found its way into the Orthodox Presbyterian Hymnal, paired with text by English hymn writer Michael Perry. The title is fitting: “O God, Beyond All Praising.”

Two things are worth contemplating here. First, we are singing music that was an attempt to capture incomprehensible grandeur and awe. Jupiter could hold within itself more than 1,300 Earths, and is 2 1/2 times the sum mass of all the other planets in our solar system, which God sang into existence on the 4th day of creation (Gen. 1:16). When pondering the sheer immensity of Jupiter, and the fact that God created it, calls it by name, along with all the other millions of stars and planets (Isaiah 40:26), a proper response would be found in Psalm 8: “When I consider the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?”

The second thing I’d like to highlight is the role that the text plays in orienting our affections toward true north. Music is a powerful tool, and a tune such as this, by itself, can arouse great emotion. But, as Bob Kauflin states in his book Worship Matters, “music is a carrier of God’s truth, not the truth itself. Jesus said the truth, not emotional highs, will set us free.” This hymn text orients our affections toward Christ, THE Truth, by whom all things were made (John 1:3). This frees our hearts and minds from the idolatry and hopelessness of worshipping created things rather than the Creator.

Our opening Psalm in today’s liturgy declares, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” This reads like a precursor to the first verses of the New Testament that tells us that the Word is eternal from the beginning that all things were made through Him (John 1). That includes Jupiter. Christ fashioned this Gargantua with his fingers and set it on its course. He is so much greater than Jupiter, Ra, or any other pagan Gods. In his poem ”Descent,” Malcolm Guite gives us a beautiful depiction of the unique humility and sacrifice of Christ, not just his supremacy:

They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
​But you came down.
You dropped down from the mountains sheer
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other Gods demanded fear
But you gave love
Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought you to your knees
Your blood was warm
They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead
They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
​But you were born.
Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all ‘astride the grave’
Weak, to be with us when we fall,
​And strong to save.

The following verse from “O God Beyond All Praising” echoes the second verse of Michael Perry’s hymn. It is a verse which is, inexplicably, left out of the Trinity Hymnal, but one that is crucial to the gospel message of the hymn:

The flower of earthly splendor in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender to you the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature the eternal seed is sown
though small in mortal stature, to heaven’s garden grown
for Christ the Man from heaven from death has set us free,
and we through him are given the final victory.

We can be grateful that by the power of the Holy Spirit our hearts and minds are illuminated by the light of the Gospel. And now when we sing, we trumpet the truth that the one, true God in Christ, the “maker of all things” (Psalm 121:2), is strong to save, and has given us the final victory through his sacrifice on the cross. May our doctrine and devotion rightly be pulled into the overwhelming gravity of Christ’s saving love, and may we, His people, declare with one voice “O God, beyond all praising, we worship you today; we marvel at your beauty, and glory in your ways, and make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise.”

Sheet music
Recording of “Jupiter” mvt. From “The Planets” (listen for the theme at about the 2’50” mark)