God In the Storm. A Classic Sermon.
May 18, 2003
Give unto the Lord, O ye sons of the mighty,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
The God of glory thunders;
The Lord is upon many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
Yea, the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes them also to skip like a calf;
Lebanon and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
The Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the hinds to calve,
And strips the forests bare;
And in his temple everyone speaks of his glory.
The Lord sits upon the flood;
Yea, the Lord sits King forever.
The Lord will give strength unto his people;
The Lord will bless his people with peace.
Reading from Swedenborg
In the Bible, "floods of waters" and "rains" and also "stormy winds" symbolize temptations. (Apocalypse Explained #411c.11)
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters. (Psalm 29:3)
For those of us who dwell in crowded urban communities, a summer vacation offers an opportunity to seek renewal in communion with nature. With the pressure of our daily routine lifted off us for a time and more leisure to think--on the seashore, in the mountains, or on the side of a quiet lake--our problems and preoccupations soon fall back into their right proportions, and we find ourselves again.
As the ancient Hebrew poet puts it, "there is no speech nor language, their voice is not heard" (Psalm 19:3). But it is felt. The very silence, rhythm, and harmony of the great outdoors does something to us. On a clear night, we share the experience of the Psalmist who writes, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars that thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou art mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:3, 4).
In such moments, we worship God for all this wonder and beauty. There is a power and a wisdom greater than our own. There can only be true humility in the further thought, "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet" (Psalm 8:6).
What shall we say, however, when the other side of nature is suddenly revealed? Its harsher side? When disaster beyond human responsibility strikes unmercifully? Polio, floods, or hurricanes? Is God in these things also? Is God in the sunshine and in the storm?
There was a time when the most enlightened religion answered in the affirmative. According to the creed of the ancient Jews, God could say, "Behold, I create both good and evil" (see Isaiah 45:7). This was no problem then. God was not yet revealed as a God of love. Psalm 29 makes the point that the same Yahweh whose power can unleash at will the elements, and cause desolation and terror as he rides on the path of a destructive tempest has, therefore, the power to give both strength and peace to his people. In other words, in this display of nature's violence, the people were meant to find both comfort and reassurance.
How our ways of thinking have changed! The very happenings that in olden days bolstered faith now provoke questioning and doubt. Yet we may well wonder whether, despite all that, there is not something timeless still in what the writer is saying.
To his mind, in the storm season, and from year to year, God is reminding human beings of our limitations and dependence on him. Confident in our own power, we may think that today we have outgrown the Gospel saying, "The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth" (John 3:8). In our daily papers we find maps of high and low pressure areas through the whole country. We set warning signals on our coasts as our radios blare hourly information on the progress of any serious weather disturbance. But although we may fly with our planes into the very center of a raging hurricane, when it strikes, to a great extent we are still face to face with our helplessness.
However, our question is then not likely to be, "What is man?" But rather, "What is God?" Why does he allow this to happen? We have been taught that he is love, and that he cares. How can this be? While primitive religion thought of him as loveless power, should we conclude in these more enlightened days that he is powerless love?
Of course not! But we should seek to understand the true nature of his power and love, and realize that what we call his "omnipotence" is not synonymous with his changing at will the laws of the physical universe, nor attending primarily to our material comfort. God is not "almighty" in that sense. His power is limited, or rather, directed, by the nature of his own being, which is love. He does not create evil; humanity does. As to the pain and suffering attendant on a physical upheaval, while he does not will them, and they are at times unavoidable, he is not insensitive to them. He still can make them serve his purpose. His primary concern for us is our spiritual growth and welfare, in the light of the eternal rather than the temporal.
God's nearness and loving care are to be sought within. Life is more than mere existence and what we eat and own for a time and with what we are clothed. He can give us the courage and patience, the insight and faith to make all our troubles, difficulties, and trials a means of growing more like the persons we ought to become--more like him, and closer to him. As we learn to cultivate his inner presence, our outward defeats can be turned into inward victories.
God is in the sunshine and in the storm; in that sense, "closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet" (Tennyson), if we will let him be. In that sense, too, even the storm can reveal him and his glory; for according to our response to him, our difficulties and trials bring out the best or the worst that is in us.
This was made plain in the many incidents reported of the flood that was recently in the news. While in a small stricken township the homeless had to pay exorbitant prices for a meager pittance, in the next town food dealers adopted the slogan, "What we have, as long as it lasts, now belongs to everyone." Many other instances of self-sacrifice and heroic devotion are familiar to us. God's love is not powerless when it can find expression in the human heart. Its limitations are those of our smugness, selfishness, and indifference. Concern is the answer; the deed is the answer. If we would know the power of his love, it will not be through philosophical or theological reasoning, but through opening our own hearts to its expression. As Swedenborg said, "Influx is according to efflux"--meaning that what flows into us is according to what flows out (Arcana Coelestia #5828.3).
So it is with the Lord's presence in the storms that from time to time make their way through our little world within, in our personal life. While in our inner trials and temptations he seems to be far distant from us, and while we are distraught and fearful, he is indeed in the cloud and in the darkness, ever ready to sustain us, though wanting us to act in freedom and with a sense of dependence on him. We are told that without temptations--which in reality are a testing of our strength--no one is able to attain his God-intended spiritual stature.
How truly then, in that deeper sense, this Psalm of the thunder storm becomes a picture of our spiritual experience! How it should change our outlook and help us face our hardships as a discipline through which the glory of the Lord can be revealed in us--rather than running away from them!
"There is more joy in heaven for one sinner that repenteth. . ." (Luke 15:7). Temptations are moral combats in which our heavenly destiny is involved. Our angelic friends are concerned, as we know by our Lord's agony in the garden when, in his own words, invisible legions stood by (Matthew 26:53). So the Psalm starts by calling on the "sons of the mighty," which means here heavenly beings, "to give unto the Lord glory and strength." They share with us our experience at such a time, and sustain us.
Then the storm itself is described. In the distance, "the voice of the Lord is on the waters," just as his spirit was brooding on the waters at the beginning of creation. Through facing aright our trials, we can be made anew; we can become new creatures.
But soon, the faint muttering of the thunderclouds over the Mediterranean grows louder, and the storm pours its fury over the mountains. It shatters the cedars of Lebanon. So the heights of our self-love are devastated, and our proud assumptions, reasonings, and selfish principles are brought to naught. The ground of our false security quakes.
The "voice of the Lord makes the hinds to calve." A new life comes into being, and the storm spends itself at a distance again in the wilderness. Then "in his temple everyone speaks of the Lord's glory." "The Lord will give strength to his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace."
Dramatic? Yes--and biographical for each one of us, is it not? Even in its violence, nature is a symbol of the true way for us to find inner peace. When the rain falls and the winds blow for us, why be fearful? It may be, if we so choose, the Lord "storming his way through us" so that we may grow strong--the very temples in which the glory of his love may abide forever!
Mighty God, showing yourself in the storm and darkness as well as in the sunshine and light, be with us, we pray, in our times of storm and struggle. In our times of trial and temptation, show us the power of your spirit that can shatter the cedars of Lebanon, yet chooses to support and strengthen rather than to destroy. When the lightning of conflict is crashing around us and within us, be our shield and our protection. Give us a firm faith to carry us through the storm. And when the wild winds have subsided, give us the peace of the spirit that comes only when we have overcome our own weaknesses through your strength. Amen.
Rev. Antony Regamey