The following is a lightly edited transcription of the sermon audio.
This morning’s message was based on Psalm 19 and its main point was that the heavens are telling the glory of God and that the glory of God is a very happy thing and that this is a ministry that God doesn’t want you to miss out on. He doesn’t want you to go through your days neglecting the ministry of the skies.
God does not speak in vain. It is a very sad thing when you are in a room with God and he is pouring out speech to you and you are watching the television. Isn’t that a sad thing? Or if you are out of doors and he is pouring forth speech to you from the sky and you never listen. You never look up. That is a very sad thing, because you don’t get the benefit of that ministry.
God always ministers through his Word. And Psalm 19 very plainly says that day to day pours forth God’s speech through the sun and the moon and the stars and the clouds and the blue expanse and the thunder and the lightning. And I think tonight we can just expand it to everything that he has made.
So I want to take these four words and just touch on three of them briefly and then dwell on one of them more at length: humility and hope and healing and happiness. I said that when God ministers through the sky he brings those four things into our lives. He advances those four things. We are less hopeful, we are less healed, we are less happy, we are less humble if we do not pay attention to the sky, I believe. So let me take these and point you, at least, in a direction for your reflection and then, perhaps, dwell more at length on one of them.
First we will start with humility. And I suppose if we just took a little survey here and I asked you, Which Psalm connects nature and humility? many of you would remember this Psalm 8, wouldn’t you? Do you remember how it goes and how it connects? “When I look at the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established: What is man that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Psalm 8:3–4).
So this is a very godly and fitting response. When I look at the heavens and everything that you have made, I feel very small. That is an appropriate response. I am humbled. And I was thinking about the space age that we live in and the photographs that we have to look at. And the photographs, of course, that make me feel the smallest are the photographs of earth from the moon or from other places. And I look down and say, “I suppose the IDS tower isn’t that great after all. I don’t see it. In fact, I can’t even make out America. Oh, yes, there is Baja California. Hmm. Guess John Piper is nowhere to be seen.”
And that is a very good thing to happen. It is a very good thing. It is not the only thing that should happen, but it is a good thing. It keeps us in proper perspective.
Of course, God means for us to keep on dwelling long enough on nature to hear the rest of the message. In Matthew 10:29–31, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny and yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. Are not the very hairs of your head numbered? Yes, I tell you, you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Now he means for us to hear that message second. I am totally persuaded that message is a second message, not a first message, because you will not be amazed at grace until you feel insignificant — properly insignificant. Once you realize how utterly infinitesimal you are in this universe of billions of galaxies, then you hear the Lord who made those galaxies say, “I know that you have about 135,000 hairs. And John Piper has 132,000 and less every day. I know them. I keep count. And I know your value to me and I cherish you in Jesus Christ my Son.” That comes from nature, too. But it is a humbling thing just to look up.
If you want to get that out of Psalm 19, the phrase that communicated it to me was the phrase, “In them [that is, in the skies] he has set a tent for the sun” (v. 4). This blue canopy that goes around our globe is to God like a pup tent. So he pitches a tent and says to the sun, “Now, you cruise around this globe and I will pitch a tent for you to cruise in.” And then I feel the magnitude of this God and am humbled.
Now you can think of many other passages, so I just want you to look up to the sky and say, “God is big and I am small. Let the weak say, ‘I am strong.’ Let the poor say, ‘I am rich.’” That is a beautiful chorus — very biblical. Of course, you can never sing it if you don’t think you are weak and if you don’t think you are poor.
First humility and then hope. I thought of hope because of the crisis in the Mideast and the tendency to feel afraid about what the world is coming to. And perhaps some of you have relatives who are caught or some relatives who were sent. And then I let my mind run over the way the biblical people who were caught established their hearts in God. Let me just point to a few texts: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2).
Now why does he say that? I think he says that because it is an awesome thing to have the God who made this for your help. That is what you should see when you look up. You look up and you say, “This is big. This is about a billion times bigger than the Middle East. There is more power in this sun, 93 million miles away, than all the atom bombs on this earth. And God made this and it is one of the littler things that he made. And this God is my help.”
Now I just got out my concordance and looked to see how many times biblical writers prayed like that, and there are a lot of them. Many times, biblical prayers begin that way. I wonder if you could think of one in Acts? What prayer in Acts begins by crediting God as the Creator? In Acts 4, Peter and John have just been released. The situation is very explosive and dangerous. In Jerusalem, it is much more explosive there than in the Middle East, because death is right on the horizon. It will come to James very soon and these people have already been arrested and it is a fragile situation. They get together and they begin their prayer in verse 24. And it begins like this: “When they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said: ‘Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’” And then they continue with their request, after they acknowledge that the nations rage and the kingdoms make a big noise. But he reigns. That is the way they establish themselves in hope. They reminded themselves: “They are raging against us, but our help is the God who made them and made everything over them.”
And there are many other psalms which I will pass over. But consider Hezekiah. Do you remember him? He was in Jerusalem. He got surrounded by 185,000 Assyrians and Sennacherib was mocking the living God. So Hezekiah goes to the Lord and he cries out, “Oh God, who made the heavens and the earth” (2 Kings 19:15). The point is that the heavens and the earth are great. The God who made them is even greater. Sennacherib and all his forces, along with Hussein and all his forces, are very tiny compared to God in his power. Therefore we will take hope from the fact that he is our help.
Third, consider healing. I have two kinds of healing in mind: emotional healing from depression and healing from lust. I want to talk briefly about how nature is meant by God to minister to people oppressed in their emotions and to people in the grip of bondage to sexual lust.
First, we’ll think about depression. I want to take a wise man here and quote him. Some of you have read this. I think I have read part of it before. This is Charles Spurgeon in an essay written for pastors called, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” which is an old-fashioned word for depression and discouragement. His description is awesome. I really believe everybody ought to read this essay in his book, Lectures to My Students. Is is available still even though he is over a hundred years old. And he has long descriptions of causes for depression and discouragement in the ministry and why we enter bleak times. It is so wholesome and so healthy to realize this truth. Here is a man who had his own bouts.
Moreover, most of us in some way or other are unsound physically. Here and there we meet with an old man who would not remember that ever he was laid aside for a day, but the great mass of us labor under some form or other of infirmity, either in body or mind. Certainly bodily maladies, especially those connected with the digestive organs, the liver and the spleen are the fruitful fountains of despondency. And let a man strive as he may against their influence, there will be hours and circumstances in which they will, for a while, overcome him. As to mental maladies, is any man all together sane? Are we not all a little off balance?
It is very healthy to realize that nobody is totally normal. Now here is one element in the healing process. And I don’t ascribe to it any more power than it ought to have, just don’t neglect it in the array of means the Lord gives for us to fight the fight of faith.
While nature lies outside his window, calling him to health and beckoning him to joy, he who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes and the sighing of the wind among the pines needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows weary. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills or a few hours ramble in the beech woods umbrage is calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. A mouth full of sea air or a stiff walk in the wind’s face would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body which is the next best thing.
I think I would take exception with the negation in that last sentence, because I believe in common grace and I believe in its healing power. I believe a stiff wind in the face ministers grace to the soul. He didn’t mean that, though. He was meaning saving grace.
Heavy as the heart is in heavy air, every wind that rises blows away despair. The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and violets, the farm yard, the new mown hay, the fragrant hops, these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshment for the weary. For lack of opportunity or inclination these great remedies [notice what he calls them] great remedies are neglected and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.
There is a healing in nature. Chesterton said something very much like that. I wish I could get all of you to read this little book. It is only 160 pages. Chesterton, a Catholic journalist from two generations ago, wrote a book called Orthodoxy. It changed my life when I read it as a senior in college. And he says something very similar to Spurgeon on page 20: “I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air. To convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Air, not just argument, is needed.”
I did a talk on David Brainerd at our pastors conference last January and my heart broke of Brainerd. Do you remember him, the missionary to the Indians from two hundred years ago? Brainerd died when he was 29 of leukemia. He was coughing up blood the six years of his ministry. I read every word of Brainerd’s journal preparing for that talk. And do you know what? Brainerd worked in the woods all the time. He ministered to Indians. He lived in huts and he moved through the woods. He rode on horseback everywhere. You cannot find one word of exultation in nature in the journals of David Brainerd. And that is one of the reasons he was a very morbid young man.
Jonathan Edwards, his almost father-in-law, on the other hand, lived in the same time, in the same place and Edwards’s sermons are filled with imagery from the woods where he lived around Northampton. Edwards lived off of the God who speaks in the skies as well as the God who speaks in the Scripture. And I remember reading an essay by Clyde Kilby whom I am going to quote extensively here in a few minutes, a professor of English at Wheaton, one of my teachers, about David Brainerd. And he would, with tears, as it were, in his eyes say, “Oh, that David Brainerd could have just opened his eyes in the woods where he was to see what Jonathan Edwards saw when he looked up and when he looked out and would have allowed God to minister to his morbid, oppressed spirit day in and day out.” It could be that he availed himself of that and just didn’t put it down in his journals. I don’t know, but I never, ever saw it.
We are changed when we behold the glory of the Lord and we need to avail ourselves. I think that when we get trapped in a kind of depression it is not so much that argument or even Bible verses have the kind of effect we would like them to, but sometimes a change of atmosphere where a new vision of reality and of possibility is granted to the soul. And so often, I believe, God means for the sky to minister that newness.
Now I am going to come back to that when I talk about happiness here, but let me just say a word about healing from lust. And I will be very brief here. I would love to develop this further and I might, but I am more inclined to develop further among the men, because I don’t know much about women’s struggles here and I do know quite a bit about men’s.
Do you know why there are no windows on adult book stores? Or do you know why there are no windows on certain kinds of nightclubs in the city? I suppose your answer would be, “Well, because they don’t want people looking in and getting a free sight.” That is not the only reason. You know why? Because they don’t want people looking out at the sky. You know why? The sky is the enemy of lust. I just ask you to think back on your struggles. The sky is a great power against lust. Pure, lovely, wholesome, powerful, large-hearted things cannot abide the soul of a sexual fantasy at the same time.
I remember as I struggled with these things in my teenage years and in my college years. I knew how I could fight most effectively in those days. Now I have developed other strategies over the years that have proved very effective. And one way of fighting was simply to get out of the dark places — get out of the lonely rooms. Get out of the boxed-in places. Get out of the places where it is just small — me and my mind and my imagination, what I can do with it — and get to where I am just surrounded by color and beauty and bigness and loveliness. And I know that when I used to sit in my front yard at 122 Bradley Boulevard with a notepad in my hand and a pen trying to write a poem, at that moment, my heart and my body were light years away from the sexual fantasizing that I was tempted by again and again in the late night, quiet, secluded in-house moments. There is something about bigness, something about beauty that helps battle against the puny, small, cruddy use of the mind to fantasize about sexual things.
And then turn it around. It works this way, too. We know from experience that if we give way to sexual fantasies and yield to lust and dwelling on unwholesome things, our capacities for seeing the sky are cut in half and then cut in half again and then cut in half again until you are just a little worm on the ground and your language and your mind is nothing but smut. It can happen to anybody. And so I just commend to you: Don’t let that happen.
Battle lust along with all of the other weapons that you are given in the Scriptures — battle it with the upward glance of the magnificent blue and the thunder and the lightning and the sunrises and the sunsets and the glory of God. And say to yourself, “If I give way in this hour to that kind of thinking, I won’t enjoy this. I won’t have a large heart. I won’t have a capacious mind. I won’t be a noble person. I will just be an old gutter person.” Preach to yourself like that and then give yourself over to the ministry of the sky and let it help free you from lust.
Now, finally, happiness — and this is the message all to itself. Clyde Kilby is dead now and with the Lord. And I have here in my hand something very precious to me. He spoke at a meeting down at First Covenant Church. I think it was about 1975 when I went to hear him lecture and he closed his lecture, this professor of English literature at Wheaton who had probably done more to open my eyes to the world than anybody else. He closed his lecture with 11 points toward mental health. And I want to read you maybe eight of them here in closing.
Number one. And by mental health he means a wholesome, happy, complete, able to function person. Number one. “At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience am on a planet traveling in space with wonderful, mysterious things above and about me.” Once a day he resolved to look up and remember mystery. Mystery is very healing, brothers and sisters.
Chesterton said, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason.” That is good. He also said, “The poet [which he considers the healthiest of all people] does not try to get the heavens into his head. That is what the madman does. The poet tries to get his head into the heavens.” That is the difference between going insane and being healthy.
Number two. “Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add or subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an intelligence, which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death when he said, “There is darkness without. When I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”
A lot of people have died like that and Kilby says, “I will not die like that. I will believe there is an intelligence, God Almighty, who is running the drama.”
Number three. “I shall not turn my life into a thin, straight line which prefers abstraction to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which, of course, I shall often have to do.”
Now this is so important for health and I have to explain it, because I am sure that didn’t communicate completely all that it should. Do you know what it means to abstract? Abstracting is talking about trees instead of talking about the specific tree in which Noël and I carved our initials in 1968 about six feet up and went back ten years later and found them all grown over. That is now gone and it is full of memories. The latter was concrete; the former was abstract. Abstract is unhealthy. Concrete is healthy. You mark it down. Why when I preach on Sunday morning and come to a point in the service that says, “Do you know there was a morning on study leave?” Immediately there is silence in the congregation. Now I can talk about all kinds of theological abstractions, expositing the text and as soon as I say, “You know, there was a morning.” Do you know why? Because you are made for concreteness. You are made not for me to talk about the noise in the trees at night in Barnesville, but that one little tree frog who lived in the black pole that held the barbed wire fence and in the morning sat on top and allowed Abraham to pet his head. A tree frog of all things. That is concrete and you love it. The kids love it. We are all kids. We love the concrete.
Here is what I mean. This is C.S. Lewis. You want to be healthy? Read C.S. Lewis. Read the children’s books first. Read the space trilogy. Read Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain. Read C.S. Lewis. At all costs, read C.S. Lewis if you want to be mentally whole. “In space and time there is no such thing as an organism. There are only animals and vegetables. No, there are no mere vegetables; only trees, flowers, turnips, etc. [Et cetera, by the way, is the worst abstraction of all.] There are no trees, except beeches, gums, oaks, and the rest. There is even no such thing as an elm. There is only this elm in such a year of its age at such an hour of the day. This lighted, this moving, thus acted on by all the past and all the present and affording such and such experiences to me and my dog and the insect on its trunk and the man a thousand miles away who is remembering it. A real elm, in fact, can be uttered only by a poem.” That is what Kilby was trying to say.
We Americans have fallen into what Darwin experienced at the end of his life: “Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure. Even as a school boy I took intense delight in Shakespeare; formally pictures gave me considerable delight and music. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. [Now note this. This is what is happening to all Americans if they are not fighting against it. All modern, rational, technological people, this is happening to us if we are not fighting against it.] My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for the grinding out of laws out of large collections of facts. But why this should have caused the tastes to fail, I cannot conceive. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
That is the way Darwin ended his life. His mind had become a large machine of intelligence, grinding out general laws from facts and not able to get any enjoyment from the specific anymore — from the frog or the poem about the toad or the tree or the insect on the tree.
Another Kilby resolution: “I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological category I am in. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.”
Oh, what a good word to us. We are in a psychological age. And there is so much helpful in it and so much danger in it. We are much too self-conscious. I remember reading in George MacDonald about being depressed and feeling nothing and he said, “When that happens heed not thy feelings, do thy work. If you must, sweep your room.” In other words, get out beyond yourself. We will never figure ourselves out. Believe me. You will never understand yourself in this life. You won’t understand your spouse in this life. You won’t understand your colleagues in this life. Everybody is a mystery of perplexity that baffles, rages, and frustrates — especially ourselves. You will never figure it out. And if you spend your whole life trying to, you will go insane.
Look at the sky and forget it. Just forget about you. It is just good advice every now and then to say, “Sweep your room and iron your shirt. And put things away and take a walk and look for a frog.” And when you find it, try to pet it. And if it hops away say, “My, how frogs hop!”
We have got business to do with the Lord. There are so many things. The message is just real simple. Avail yourself of the ministry of the sky, the ministry of nature in all of its concreteness and specificity, and let it minister to you. Let it give hope and let it give healing and let it give happiness and let it give humility.