Once I get past check-in, security, passport control and the duty free lounge, I quite like flying. It does not make me scared; rather I get a thrill when we accelerate along the runway, and lift off. Once we’re up, I like to look out of the window. I love maps, so it’s fun to try to work out where we are if there is a break in the cloud. On one trip I was sure we were over Liverpool because I could see the River Mersey and the shape of the Wirral Peninsula where Birkenhead is- and I was right!
When you look down from a great height, you can find yourself pondering what’s happening down there. Flying across a populated area at night, if you see the glow of floodlights from a sports stadium, you know there is sports meeting of some sort happening. A ship leaving a harbour, you can imagine the crew getting ready for a long voyage. But mostly you guess.
When you see the lights of the cars on a motorway, you can only guess where everybody is going. (Though if they are all standing still, you can imagine they are frustrated by being caught in a traffic jam!). But if you are over hills or mountains, and you catch sight of headlights, you can wonder, ‘There is someone driving along a lonely road tonight. He has no idea that someone has seen him, and even if we ever were to meet up, we wouldn’t know each other’. You make a connection, of sorts, even from 30,000 feet.
Something of that sort of impression can be gained from reading Psalm 113. This is a Psalm of praise, which emphasises the glory of God. After a call to worship: ‘Praise the Lord! You servants of the Lord, praise his name!’ the Psalm speaks of how God will be praise from east and west. For the Lord, says the Psalm:
The idea of God living in the sky is an old one. For people who lived before aircraft, never mind spaceflight, the sky must have seemed a mysterious places. No wonder we still sometimes speak of the sky as ‘the heavens’. Maybe that’s why flying can make us seem a bit godlike: from 30,000 feet I can watch you driving your car! I see you, whether you’re aware of it or not! But of course my knowledge of what is happening in the ground when I’m at 30,000 feet is minimal. Even the captain of the aircraft has only air traffic control to speak to.
‘rules over all nations;
his glory is above the heavens.
There is no one like the Lord our God.
He lives in the heights above,
but he bends down to see the heavens and the earth’.
It is not literally true that God lives in the sky (I probably don’t need to say that!). Yet that imagery reminds us that there is something about God which makes him no entirely accessible to human minds. The sky metaphor was a good one- it emphasized that there is much about God to which we cannot approach. Our knowledge of God is limited, for God is, ultimately, mystery.
And another aspect of God which the sky metaphor brings out is that God does have, in a sense, a bird’s eye view of all that is going on. He sees it all from ‘up there’. Flying also gives you that new perspective, a wider perspective, which sometimes we find it hard to keep in mind. Too often we are caught up in our local or personal concerns- not that the local or the personal is not important.
I delight in being a parish minister- the highest calling our democratically-minded church can offer. My parish is my calling. The local is absolutely important, for that is my first priority. And so is the personal- as a pastor, I am to care for people, and their personal situations, personal stories, are meat and drink to me.
The adjective that refers to parish is ‘parochial’. I am proud to be a parochial clergyman. Yet not for nothing is the word parochial often used in a derogatory manner. My dictionary does indeed define the word parochial as ‘of or relating to a parish’; but it also mentions those other, negative meanings; ‘(of sentiments, tastes, etc.) restricted or confined within narrow limits’. Parochialism is defined as ‘provincialism, narrowness of view’ (Chambers Dictionary, 1998).
We cannot always be parochial- and this Psalm is reminding us that God is not parochial. God is not even national: ‘God rules over all nations’ says the Psalmist. It’s strange how when you fly, you are rarely able to tell when you have left one country and entered another. On the ground there may be customs posts, but in the sky we leave that behind. We can fly seamlessly over a dozen countries and hardly notice.
The great thing about Israel’s God was that he was not simply Israel’s God. The Old Testament was formed in an age when each tribe, each nation, had their own gods. But Israel’s God was maker of heaven and earth; he transcended all national boundaries. The Hebrews were, therefore, a bit dismissive of other people’s little local gods. In Psalm 115 we read:
Why should the nations ask us,
“Where is your God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever he wishes.
Israel’s God is a god of a different order entirely. He is the God of the entire world, of all peoples, of all nations.
Too often, we get caught up in our parochial concerns so that we forget the wider context. Our Church of Scotland counteracts that by grouping congregations in areas- the Presbytery. And it provides a national forum, the General Assembly. And from the start of the ecumenical movement, the Church of Scotland has been part of wider bodies which link us with Christians around the world and of other denominations. We need that wider perspective, to be aware of the world around us.
Indeed, I think that is why Christians often make such good internationalists. We will pray today, as we do each Sunday, for the church and for the world. Not just for our own congregation, but for the church around the world. Not just for our own community, but for the wider world. Christians are often people with a wider perspective, feeling a connection to people who may live far away, but with whom we share a common ground- Jesus Christ. It’s why Christians become missionaries or aid workers in foreign parts, and why we support Christian Aid. It’s why we should always object to anyone that wants to hijack God for just one nation- for we know that God is not American, not English, not Scottish. God is (if you like) above all that.
That wider vision has its roots in the ancient Hebrew ideas about God- that he is Lord of all the nations, because he is the creator of the world- what we find in the
first part of Psalm 113. It’s what it means to describe God as enthroned on high. It gives us the sense that God’s infinite majesty takes him, in a sense, beyond the local. He has a view of the entire planet- something humans could never have imagined until the space age. Nowadays we are used to seeing the pictures of the entire planet, taken from space. There’s a famous ‘earthrise’ of planet earth rising over the mountains of the moon. The ancient Hebrews were imagining that God had such a view of the earth- or even the whole creation.
There as a striking image taken some years ago by a Voyager craft, which, as it left our solar system, turned its camera backward for one last look at its home planet. It took a picture from so far way, our earth was only a small smudge of light, like a tiny star. Just imagine that- that small speck is where everyone is that you’ve ever known, everywhere you’ve ever been or are likely to go, and where all the music and art and culture you have ever known was created. A small speck in a vast ocean of dark space- it does rather make our wars and arguments seen tiny and insignificant, does it not? That is the wider picture, the picture which God has- one that certainly does transcend parochialism.
But does this mean that we are small and insignificant to God? Well, the Psalmist makes an interesting move in the second half of the Psalm:
There is no one like the Lord our God.
He lives in the heights above,
but he bends down
to see the heavens and the earth.
He raises the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from their misery
and makes them companions of princes,
the princes of his people.
More picture language; but, again, something here from these old Hebrew ideas about God which have carried on in our faith today. We can speak so much about the might, the mystery, the ineffable distance between humanity and God- but it also needs to be tempered by the thought that God is also, at the same time, very close. If I see those car headlights moving down a mountain road, I might be able to conjure up a picture of an anxious driver, straining to see out his windscreen, and wonder why he is travelling along such a lonely road at night. But I don’t know why he’s travelling, where he’s going, or even who he is.
The Psalmist says that the God knows, and cares. He wants to raise up the poor from the dust- no-one, not even the least of God’s people, are beyond God’s care and attention. The Psalmist even suggests that God is concerned about a woman who is distressed because she has no children. For God is never closer to us than when we suffer, are in distress, or are feeling hopeless.
Jesus understood this very well. In the short parable we heard, Jesus comes tells the story of a woman who has lost a coin. She searches high and low until she finds it- for a small coin like that could be worth a lot to a poor Jewish peasant woman in Jesus’ day. This is really a version of the parable which appears just before this in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep. One sheep is lost, and the shepherd sets out to find it- and great the rejoicing when the sheep is found.
For God has come looking for us. In Jesus of Nazareth, God is present in our world, coming to us to offer us salvation. For the Christian God is not content to simply spy us out from afar. Our God is almighty and majestic beyond our imaging. As creator of the universe, he is further beyond our reach and our ken than the furthest galaxy. Yet he is as close to us as our breath. He knows, says Jesus, who many hairs we have on our heads. He is concerned for us like an ever-loving father, like a mother for her children. This is the great paradox of Christian faith- that the God of the universe is also intimately involved with the world he has made and with each of his creature. That he feels our pain and rejoices in our joys. God is personal, and even parochial in the best sense. Yet also has the whole world in his hands, for he has the whole picture.
Ascription of Praise
All things were created by God,
and all things exist through God and for God.
To God be glory for ever! Amen.
Romans 11.36 (GNB alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo