The Strange Brightness of the Things of Earth
This sermon series is designed to explore a central tension in the Christian life. Let me introduce it by showing how it shows up in the songs that we sing. Your theology will always show up in your doxology. Doctrine will always eventually come out your lips and your fingertips. The first song is where the title of my book, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, comes from.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
What is the song telling us? It tells us that earthly things may have some brightness; they may have some beauty. They may bring us some joy. But when Jesus shows up, that brightness grows dim in his light. That beauty fades in comparison to his wonderful face. In his presence is fullness of joy, and therefore the delight we had in earthly things is now dullness and dust.
Now it’s possible that Helen Lemmel, who wrote that hymn, meant that sinful things grow dim in the light of his face. She may be rightly interpreting Col. 3:1-2, which as we saw a few weeks ago, equates earthly things with sinful things like sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness. It’s those sinful things that grow dim when Jesus shows up. But, her language is at least ambiguous, and I’d venture that many who have internalized her words has applied it, consciously or unconsciously, to all created things: April showers, May flowers, a game night with old friends, chocolate ice cream, uncontrollable belly laughs from a five year old, chili and cornbread, an ice cold Leinenkugels, an evening walk by the river in early summer. It’s these things that we think grow strangely dim when Jesus shows up.
I said that this sermon series would address a tension in the Christian life. That tension comes into focus when we take the dimness of earthly things in the light of Jesus and set it alongside the hymn we just sang, “This Is My Father’s World.”
This is my Father’s World
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere.
hat does this hymn teach? Not that earthly things grow dim, but that God shines in them. “He shines in all that’s fair.” They’re not dim; they’re bright with his brightness. They don’t go silent when God shows up; He speaks through them. And there’s the tension: which hymn is true?
And if that was the only question, this sermon series would be short and sweet. We’re Bible people here, so we’d simply need to compare the two hymns to the word of God, and whichever one matches the Scriptures, wins. But this isn’t just a tension in our songs; we feel it in the Bible itself.
God richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Tim. 6:17)
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:24-25)
Which is it? Should I enjoy everything that God richly provides? Or should I only desire God? If we really believe what we just sang—“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10 )—then how can we possibly justify leaving church today? Shouldn’t we stay here, in his presence, for as long as possible? “One thing I ask, and I would seek, to see your beauty. To find you in the place your glory dwells.” One thing. Not many things. His beauty. Not the beauty of a West Texas thunderstorm on the horizon, or a Minnesota lake at sunset, or a bride on her wedding day.
But this isn’t just a tension in our songs, or in some passages in the Bible. This tension produces a conflict in our souls. We’re torn by our desire to love and honor God above all things and our unavoidable and inescapable delight in earthly things. The result is a kind of low-grade guilt whenever we really enjoy legitimate earthly pleasures. We live with a perpetual sense that we’re not enjoying God “enough” (whatever that means) or enjoying his gifts “too much” (whatever that means)? We begin to treat created things like a hot potato, looking at our delight in physical affection and art and music with a wary and skeptical eye, because we wonder whether it is too precious to us. We have a sense that as we grow in holiness, as we become more like Jesus, that our enjoyment of fresh raspberries and lively conversation with friends and Shakespeare ought to diminish, ought to grow dim, because we’re increasingly satisfied with God alone.
So this is what we want to explore over the next five weeks. Let me give you a preview. This week, I’m going try to establish God’s purpose in creating things that aren’t God as well as give a basic paradigm for resolving this tension. Next week, I’ll continue to flesh out the paradigm by asking how it applies to things that we make—in other words, culture and vocation, entertainment, leisure, and job. The following week, Pastor David will ask how all of this relates to how we should spend our money. Then Pastor Jonathan will explore how a life that seeks to treasure God by enjoying his gifts fits with Christ’s call to deny ourselves and voluntarily give up good things for his sake. And in the final week, I’ll help us to think through how suffering and the loss of good gifts relates to our enjoyment of the things of earth. So what I want to do in the rest of this message is to press behind the practical and experiential question (the lowgrade guilt, do I love God enough? Do I love things too much?) to the biblical and theological question “Why did God make this world, filled as it is with all of these earthly pleasures?” That brings us to Psalm 19.
How the Heavens Declare Glory
All of us know that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” But I want us to drill into this biblical claim by asking the question: How do the heavens declare the glory of God? Most of us probably think, “Through their size and majesty.” The heavens are so vast, they remind us of how small we are in comparison to the glory of God. Or perhaps the beauty of a sunset or a starry sky is a pointer to the beauty of God. Both of these are good answers. But there’s more to say than just this. Notice how the psalmists unpacks his meaning.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
The sun is like a bridegroom leaving his chamber and like a strong man who runs his course with joy. David looks at the sun as it moves across the sky and then looks at a groom on his wedding day and sees a connection. He looks at the sun again and is reminded of Joshebasshebeth, one of his mighty men, running into battle with spear raised and eyes blazing (2 Sam. 23:8). The sun is like the groom, is like the mighty man. It’s this web of images that shows us how the heavens declare the glory of God.
- Reality is a web, held together by God, of various images, pictures, patterns, analogies, and metaphors. Metaphors and analogies operate on a principle of comparison. We set one thing next to another thing in order to better understand them both. The sun helps us to understand weddings, and weddings in term help us to see the sun with new eyes. In the psalm, David recognizes the likenesses among the various things of earth. They’re not identical, but they are similar. And this web is held together by Christ: in him all things hold together.
- God draws us into this web of creation so that we might know him through it. It’s his way of revealing himself to us in a way that fits our frame. We are creatures with bodies and souls. And all of our knowledge is built up out of our experience of the world. Consider Psalm 1.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalm 1:1-4 ESV)
Fruitful trees are audio-visual aids to help us understand the blessed and righteous man. This is why God made the world he did and gave us eyes and ears and a nose and a mouth and skin. Our sensory apparatus is designed to take in the world, and then our minds and hearts are designed to connect our experience of the world to the God who created it. Lewis argues somewhere that when the glory of God hits our minds, we call it truth, and when it hits our wills, we call it goodness, and when it hits our senses, we call it pleasure. Here’s what I mean.
My son, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
Know that wisdom is such to your soul; (Prov. 24:13-14)
Why did God make honey so tasty and sweet? So that we would have some idea what wisdom is like (at least, that’s one reason). The sweetness of honey points beyond itself to the wisdom of God. Honey is “good,” and we are exhorted in Psalm 34 to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” Our souls have taste buds, just like our tongues, and we can train the soul buds by exercising the tongue buds. We savor the sweetness of honey or sweet tea or pumpkin crunch cake and in the moment we hear what the honey is declaring—the honey declares the glory of God (just like the heavens). We transpose the physical enjoyment of honey onto our souls and say, “God is like this. He’s more than this. But he’s like this.”
But this means that we can’t short-circuit the enjoyment of the honey. In order for us to gain the full spiritual benefit of honey, we must really enjoy its sweetness. There must be a savoring of honey as honey before there can ever be a savoring of honey as a pointer to divine wisdom and glory. In short, if we are to obey the biblical exhortation to “know that wisdom is such to your soul,” we must first “Know . . . such,” that is, we must first eat honey.
Keeping Our Metaphors Honest
At this point, it’d be worth briefly addressing an obvious question. If God communicates to us through creation by means of analogies, pictures, and metaphors, does that mean that any metaphor that I can invent is a revelation of God? What keeps this way of thinking from going off the rails and becoming simply a way for people with fruitful imaginations to say all kinds of foolishness about God? There are long complicated answers to that question. But let me give you the basic and foundational one, which is found in Psalm 19.
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
he written, authoritative word of God is what keeps us on the right path. The Scriptures revive the soul, make us wise so we don’t say foolish things about God, enlighten our eyes so we see God everywhere, and guard us from error. If creation is a language in which God speaks to us through sights and sounds and smells and tastes and sensations, then Scripture is the grammar textbook for the language of God. It doesn’t give us the whole language; we’re not restricted to the images of the Bible. But the Bible does show us the rules; it gives us examples so we can learn how the images of divine things work, and then unleashes us, by the grace of God, to find him everywhere that he is speaking.
Summary and Application
So, let’s summarize the answer to our theological question: God created the world as a web of people, places, and things that are images of divine glory. We come to understand these images through metaphor and analogy. God has given us bodies and senses in order to know the world and minds and hearts in order to connect our knowledge of the world to the God who reveals himself in it.
Now let’s return to our opening question. What I’ve said thus far hasn’t addressed “the things of earth grow strangely dim” tension, or the guilt that comes when we feel like we don’t love God enough. Even if creation does reveal God, the psalmist still says “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Let’s tackle this last one first.
It’s better to be in God’s presence than anywhere else. But what has Psalm 19 just taught us? The heavens declare his glory; the sun in the sky reveals something of what God is like. And the voice of the heavens goes out to all the earth. The sun is like the bridegroom, is like the warrior. But, if we know our Bibles, we’ll see more in this swirl of images than just the images. We’ll see Yahweh, the great bridegroom who rejoices over his bride (Isa. 62:5). We’ll see Jesus, his face “like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev. 1:16); the strong man who binds the Devil to plunder his goods (Matt. 11:20); the author and perfecter of our faith, who ran his race for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2); the true warrior who kills the dragon to get the girl (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 21:2). If the sun in the sky is a picture of the God who made it, then isn’t it significant that “there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:6)? In other words, just as you can’t escape the heat of the sun, neither can you escape the presence of God. As David says in another place, “If you go up to heaven, he is there. If you go to the depths, he is there. No matter how far you go, heaven is above your head, hell is beneath your feet, and God is there.” No matter where you are, you can be in his courts. Now this of course raises questions about church gatherings and corporate worship and how they relate to life everywhere under the sun, and I hope to answer some of them next week.
For now, I want to close by thinking a little more deeply about creation’s dimness in the light of Christ’s face. To do so, let me add one more biblical passage to this line of thinking. “You have put more joy in my heart than when their grain and new wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). In other words, Jesus is better. He’s better than the harvest, than the celebration. “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” “There’s nothing on earth I desire besides you.”
Now, here’s the question, “What do we do with that truth?” Two possibilities. The first says, “I love ice cold lemonade. But Jesus is better. So maybe I shouldn’t love ice cold lemonade so much. Perhaps I should even mix in a little vinegar to spoil the taste.” The second says, “This lemonade is so good, and it’s just a fleeting taste of the fullness of joy that Jesus offers. Let’s have another drink so that we can indeed see that the Lord is good.”
You see the difference? In the first case, we seek to make Jesus better by making creation worse. In the second, we seek to let creation be grand, only to remind ourselves that we have not yet begun to experience true grandeur. In the first, we try to make the lemonade dim so that Jesus shines brighter. In the second, we simply let the lemonade be itself, in all of its tart sweetness, and discover that in the light of his face, the things of earth grow strangely bright. In the first, we make creation stoop so that Jesus stands taller. In the second, we let creation rise to its full height, reaching for the skies with all its towering pleasures, only to then confess from the low down bottom of our heart, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, tongue has not tasted what God has prepared for us.” Jesus is better. The mountains of God’s glory extend far beyond our present experience. As wonderful as we have it now, these are but the fringes of his ways. We don’t need to diminish the glory of the doorstep in order to enjoy the majesty of the dining room.
That’s what we see in Psalm 4, isn’t it? “You have put more joy in my heart than when the grain and new wine abound.” How shall we confess this meaningfully, if the grain and wine had never put any joy in our hearts whatsoever? How shall we say that his love is better than life, if we refuse to enjoy life at all? To say that we desire nothing besides him seems an empty compliment if it is literally true. It would be as if to say, “I desire nothing besides you because I’ve never desired anything at all.” But surely what the psalmist means is, “I have desired many things in my life, many things of earth. But compared to you, they are as nothing. Jesus is better.”
What we do with the undeniable truth that Jesus is better makes a huge practical difference. I think my main counsel to those struggling with how to enjoy the things of earth while knowing that Jesus is better would be to avoid suppressing any of their legitimate pleasures when they arise. Now there are all kinds of qualifications that we need to make. That’s why we’re going to talk about wealth and money and self-denial and suffering. But when a delight in a legitimate pleasure spontaneously erupts, take the governor off. If your joy in your family is going to shoot through the roof, don’t reinforce the ceiling with steel. Perhaps even open the skylight so that it has a clearer shot. The reason is simple. If I am relating to God properly (and I realize for many this is a very big ‘if’), that is, if I know in my bones that he is the Alpha and Omega of all joy and delight, then I need not fear the lesser pleasures. Let them erupt. Let them soar as high as they can. For when they do, they carry my joy in God with them.
You don’t test your faithfulness to Psalm 4 by throwing dull parties. Instead, have the best party possible, and at the end of the night and in the midst of your joy, say, “This, even this, is but a picture and foretaste. Oh for that day!” Don’t throw out the grain and new wine; gather in the sheaves and grapes, add the fatted calf, and teach the world the meaning of “Harvest!” And do so knowing that when we ourselves are one day reaped and gathered into barns, the mountains will flow with wine and the Son of Man himself, eyes twinkling with the joy set before him, will offer us the cup.
Which brings us, fittingly enough, to the Lord’s Table. Here is grain and new wine abounding. It’s not their grain and new wine; it’s his grain and new wine, his body and blood. And though you cannot see him now, even still it is Jesus himself who offers this bread and wine to you, who offers himself to you through the bread and wine, these lowly things of earth, so that by faith he might be for you not only the King of kings and Lord of lords, but the Joy of your every joy