When’s the last time you stood in the midst of something really large and felt really small? One of the first times I can remember feeling this way as an adult was when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there for a year with some friends. This was my first time living in a city. It didn’t take me long to feel like a very tiny part of this very large thing know as the city. Our apartment was one of hundreds of thousands in the area. My car was one of many thousands packed onto the highway – and if you’ve ever been in Atlanta around rush hour you know what I mean. I had just come off of two years living on a college campus where I knew pretty much everyone by name. In the city I knew no one, no one knew me, and I felt rather small.
I have the honor of being married to a Kansan – and not just a Kansan, but a Western Kansan. One thing about Western Kansas is that it’s mostly made up of sky. Huge sky, with very few things blocking your vision from taking it all in. Abbie’s parents live about a mile out of town, so when I go jogging there and head away from town I quickly get out into the open. And there’s certainly a feeling of being surrounded by something very large, with me being just a small part of the landscape.
This feeling of smallness in the face of something utterly massive is what the Psalmist is confronting. He’s gone star gazing recently. Verse three of Ps. 8 reads, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
“What are human beings?” It’s a fair question. Given our tiny little selves, who are we to expect God’s undivided attention? Or, who are we to expect that there is some kind of divine care shown toward us in the midst of all this cosmic craziness? I would guess this is a question that is even more persistent in our own time than that of the Psalmist.
Given what we are coming to learn about our universe, we haven’t been thinking near big enough yet. Large cities, the big sky, the moon and the stars visible to the naked eye are just a drop in the bucket compared to some of the other things that are out there. Now I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure the opening line of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” gets it right.
‘Space,’ it says, ‘is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
One thing I do know is that we figured out a while ago that we are not in the center of the universe, and not only that, we’re not even in the center of our own little pocket of the universe. Our planet revolves around our sun which resolves around the center of our galaxy which is one of the many galaxies making up one of the many clusters of known galaxies.
It’s almost silly to think of ourselves in comparison with these things. Our lives are such a small part of the unfolding life of the universe.
There is a foreign film, the name of which escapes me, but I believe its an Israeli film, in which one of characters is convinced life is absolutely meaningless. And just to prove it to others he drops out of high school, and spends his days dressed up in a large mouse costume handing out flyers on buses. He’s always telling people that we’re just little bits of floating dust in an ever expanding universe.
Whether or not people choose to express their feelings in this same way, there is no doubt a struggle for meaning within many people who are willing to ponder, along with the Psalmist, the vastness of the cosmos.
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
There is an important shift that happens in this Psalm at verse 5, like a hinge, swinging us in a different direction. The NRSV translation starts this verse with the word “yet.” This is an important word. It means – this one side of things taken by itself might not be so hopeful, ‘yet’ there is another side to consider. It means there is some truth in this perspective, “yet” there is also some truth in this other perspective. Vv. 5-6 “Yet you have made them just a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”
We are indeed small creatures, yet, we have been given responsibilities and authority to care for what God has made. Compared to the size of the universe we are almost like specks of dust, yet our glory and honor come from God. Our dignity is a gift and we have the honor of being valuable and of giving value to each other and every other created thing, living or nonliving.
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
One of the best images in Scripture of the meaning of the human being comes from the Genesis 2 passage that was read earlier. If I could choose a phrase to describe this passage I would say that it speaks with a “poetry of intimacy.” “What are human beings?” It’s as if we have been molded by the very hand of God, and as if God breathed breath into our nostrils to give us life. It’s as if we have been formed from the ground itself, made from the same substance as all other living beings. We are intimately connected with our earth because we are made out of the same stuff. And what is the human being in relation to another human being? Well, it’s as if we have been taken out of one another, like we share bones and flesh with each other. And we’re charged with all sorts of wonderful things like emotions and desires and sexuality that attracts us to each other, like we’re the same flesh trying to unite again. That’s how wonderful and awe-inspiring God has made us. We are made for intimacy and we find our fulfillment when we nurture our intimacy with God, with the earth, and with each other.
The Psalmist says that we have dominion over the sheep and the oxen and the birds and the fish. The tasks of farming and hunting and fishing aren’t quite as common for us as they were for the Psalmist. But we each have our daily responsibilities to provide for our families, to live safe healthy lives, to serve in our places of work. This also is part of the honor given us by God. The honor of having authority, of helping shape our world.
One of my memories from early childhood is having the responsibility of carrying a pitcher of milk from the barn to the house. Mom would give me the empty pitcher and let me go down to the barn by myself to have dad fill up the pitcher so I could carry it up by myself to the house. I took this very seriously. It was a huge responsibility. My entire world was focused on balancing that pitcher of milk across the lane so I could deliver it to Mom. And it made me feel important when we would drink milk in the house I knew that I had carried it up from the barn. Having responsibility is an honor, and it certainly made me feel like a big person.
YET, there is a certain freedom that comes with recognizing our smallness. I have a friend who once told me that when he stands beside the ocean, he is perfectly fine with how small he feels, and actually enjoys it. I would have to agree with him here. Being OK with being small can be very liberating. It means I don’t have to take myself so seriously. It means I can put some things in better perspective.
There is a process of decentering the self that is a healthy thing. It’s a part of a child’s development when they begin to realize that the world does not revolve around them and that there are other people who are equally important as themselves. It’s also a part of our spiritual development when we recognize that we are not in the center of the universe and are a small part of a much bigger picture.
The Psalmist wants us to hold together two great truths. Humility in the face of our smallness. And dignity in the light of having been given a life by God. Wonder and awe at the glory of the universe, and the wonder of our own lives, like we have been formed by the very hand of God. Formed for each other.
All of this begins and ends with an expression of praise to God. We begin with “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Verse 1. We end with “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Verse 9, the final verse. God is praised in our smallness, our near insignificance, our tinyness in the face of the hugeness of creation. God is also praised in our bigness, our importance, our responsibilities with watching over this earth, with caring for one another, with tending to our daily tasks of work and play. It begins and ends with praise. It’s surrounded by one continuous, unbroken Hallelujah.
This is one of those Scriptures that isn’t really asking us to do anything particular. It has much more to do with being and receiving than doing. Small, yet crowned with glory and honor. Humbled, yet given great dignity. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
Let’s spend several minutes in prayer, after which I will offer a prayer.
Prayer of Response
Gracious God, you form us by your own hands and give us dignity and honor. May we receive this gift.
Mighty God, you form the moon and stars and ever-expanding universe. May we live in awe and wonder. AMEN.