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Sunday, June 11, 2017

God's Glory and Human Dignity (Psalm 8, Genesis 1, Hebrews 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 4, 2017 - Psalm 139; Acts 2:1-13

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Holy is the Lord (Tomlin, Giglio)
Singing Together: Our God Saves (Brown, Baloche)
Offering of Music (women's trio): O Lord, How Majestic is Your Name (Larson)
Hymn of Sending: Jesus Shall Reign (DUKE STREET)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

The Psalms are the original songbook of God’s people. They are poetry – sung, recited, memorized, shouted, and prayed. They cover the range of human experience and emotion, from lofty praise to anger and loss seeking some answer, some help from God. This summer we are looking at one Psalm each week, tying in a verse or passage from the New Testament that has a similar theme or connects the Psalm to the Good News of Jesus Christ. We began last week with Psalm 139 and the hard-to-wrap-our-minds-around message that God is with us and wants us wherever we are, high or low, whether in the midst of worshipful wonder or intense anger. Today we look at a Psalm that focuses on God’s glory, which has significant bearing on our understanding of our own worth and dignity as human beings made by God and in God’s image. In a day and age when we get so focused on the trivial or the worst of humanity, this Psalm is a reminder that we were made for more and with great hope and beauty despite the ugliness that often threatens to overwhelm us. We’ll look primarily at Psalm 8 today, but also refer to the other scriptures you’ve heard in the service: part of the creation account in Genesis 1 and a reference to Psalm 8 found in Hebrews 2.

The Glory of God (vv. 1-3)

Psalm 8 begins with the glory of God: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” (v. 1) From there the Psalmist invokes creation language: “splendor above the heavens… the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars…” (vv. 1,3) Nestled between that creation language is an interesting description of a God so mighty that even the sounds of the weakest of His people – the infants and nursing babes – because they are His, declare the greatness of His power and authority.

The creation language intentionally calls to mind the great creation story of Genesis 1-2, where God speaks all of creation into being. Sun, moon, stars, water, earth, sky: it all was made by God and belongs to God. The ancient Hebrews, whose song this is, would have understood creation itself to declare the glory of God. Generations later, the Apostle Paul would write in Romans of non-believers: “Since the creation of the world [God’s]… eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” (1:20) Old and New Testament scriptures declare that Creation displays the existence of a Creator and the nature of the Creator. If that is true in general, how much more would someone who believes in God (“O Lord, OUR Lord”) see glory in God’s creation!

It is important to have that backdrop – in the first part of Psalm 8 as well as in the creation story of Genesis 1 – to understand the significance of what comes next in Psalm 8. Next the question is raised: Where does humanity fit into the picture?

Human Dignity (vv. 4-7, Gen 1)

In verse four the Psalmist asks, “What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” What follows is a poetic reflection on the story of the creation of humanity from Genesis 1. There, having created the rest of the world and all that lives in it, God saw that it was good and said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (v. 26) In the next verse we read: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (v. 27) According to Genesis, humanity was created uniquely in the world to bear the image of God. Sometimes you hear that by the Latin terminology: imago Dei.

And there is a DIGNITY inherent in that image-bearing. Think of it! You and I are image-bearers of God. On one hand we can scarcely understand what that means. But we also have some analogies. Children often resemble or bear the image of their parents. And that’s not just in looks. Often a child will share mannerisms or qualities of their parents – even when they don’t want to! But it runs much deeper than that because we do not bear God’s image in a biological or psychological way. Rather, God is our Creator and He made us in His image. And did you notice the plural language there? “Let us make man in OUR image, according to OUR likeness” (v. 26) There are a number of scholarly explanations for that, from kingly language that is often set in the plural to a hint at the Triune nature of God. Or perhaps both! Perhaps the image includes that relationality as well as the eternal soul or the capacity for relating to God.

Some of that becomes speculative, but what is obvious is what comes next. Right along with that language of creating in God’s image is a purpose and stewardship extended to humanity: to “rule/fill/subdue the world” (vv. 26,28) As Creator, God clearly is the Great King with all authority over everything. But part of the imago Dei also seems to be God extending both the capacity and the responsibility to govern this world for His sake. Likewise, Psalm 8 waxes poetic about this capacity and responsibility: “You crown him [humanity] with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feat, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field…” (vv. 5b-8)

What dignity that great responsibility implies! Yet hearing it immediately sends my thoughts in two directions. One is “well what a mess we’ve made of that!” The other, related to that, is “Did God really give us this world to have our way with it?” Both of those directions miss what is actually said in Genesis and reveal the tragedy of the human condition. In Genesis 1:28, we read that this responsibility to rule/govern/subdue, that reflects the image of God, is part of God’s BLESSING of humanity. (v. 28) This past spring we spent about eight weeks talking about blessing. It is not what we want; it is aligning ourselves with what God wants! We are only bearing the image well, honoring the family name, pleasing God, when we care for this world and its inhabitants as God would. In fact, to willfully rule or “subdue” the world, its inhabitants, or each other the way we want rather than as God would is the essence of sin and disobedience.

Think then of the implications of having been created in God’s image. There are implications for the stewardship of natural resources. There are implications for beginning and end of life issues. There are implications for racial justice and reconciliation. There are implications for how we view family and friend and neighbor and so-called ‘foreigners.’ When Jesus spoke of any of these things he wasn’t just making up a new ethic or commandment. His teaching was deeply rooted in creation itself, in the human dignity implicit in bearing the image of God, and in obedience to God.

Dignity, Bound and Set Free (Hebrews 2)

Do you see the problem though? I’ve already named it. And it’s right there in Genesis, not long after this glorious creation and establishment of human dignity. We did and we do mess it up. God gave us this world to care for in a godly way, but in our sinfulness we have not only failed again and again in that task, but become ruled by sin. Where we were to steward and relate to each other with godly wisdom, care, and compassion, we have become ruled by sin. And that’s not just a spiritual category; it has practical and worldly implications. We are made to relate to each other and to this world and so we do, but we do so out of selfishness, greed, and other sin-warped ways. The very qualities God built into us in His image are often warped into something damaging and destructive. To use one analogy, sin is the warped mirror that distorts and twists the image so it is hardly recognizable. To use another analogy, it is as if our dignity has been bound up captive, but we must continue living and relating to this world and everything in it. And what is left falls so short of what God desires and designed for us.

The New Testament book of Hebrews picks up these themes and frames them in light of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus is named as the “True Human” – one like us who bears the imago Dei and yet who has not been bound up or distorted by human sin. In Jesus we have an undistorted image of humanity bearing the undistorted image of God. Hebrews 2 quotes Psalm 8 and names Jesus as the “son of man” to whom all things are subjected. And though we wait for all the implications of Jesus’ death to unfold – that is, “we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (v. 9) – we do see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor… so that He might taste death for everyone.” (v. 9) In the language of the prophets, announced by him early in his ministry, Jesus came to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable Year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18) By taking our sin and death onto himself, he frees us to experience and extend the dignity of our creation and purpose into the world around us.

Dignity, Captivity, and Freedom

Psalm 8 first points us to a glorious God who made the world. Then it places us in that world with great dignity, as bearers of the image of God. Yet we also know and experience the distortion and entanglement of sin, that so often we act and live with a sense of that dignity bound up or hidden away. Hebrews reminds us of the Good News, that Jesus has come as True Human to set us free. That is not just in terms of salvation, but in terms of how we live and move in this life and this world. Jesus truly rescues us, from sin and death, but also to restore our identity in him, which resets our place and purpose in the world.

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