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Quotations I love: Listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers

Lynne Baab • Wednesday April 7 2021

Quotations I love: Listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers

“Let all creation help you to praise God. Give yourself the rest you need. When you are walking alone, listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers, the trees, the shrubs, the sky, the sun and the whole world. Notice how they preach to you a sermon full of love, of praise of God, and how they invite you to proclaim the greatness of the one who has given them being.”
     —Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), founder of the Passionist Order and preacher

At 20, one year after I became a committed Christian, I spent a lot of time at a microscope poring over bacteria and algae. The shapes and colors delighted me. I felt awe and wonder for the One who had created such beauty. In fact, the microbiology lab lifted my heart to God as much as the Christian fellowship group at my university. Algae and bacteria preached to me “a sermon full of love, of praise of God.” They invited me to praise “the greatness of the one who has given them being.”

During the pandemic, nature has become a powerful lifeline for so many. Walking, gardening, tending houseplants, burrowing into the fur of beloved pets, looking at clouds out the window, watching nature videos, and many other connections with God the Creator have kept us sane. I’ve been pondering how that works.

The quotation above from Saint Paul of the Cross talks about the way nature speaks to us. I love the fact that 250 years ago, an Italian mystic loved nature as much as I do, and he understood that nature isn’t just beautiful and soothing, but it speaks. It even preaches a sermon. Here are some of the components of the sermon. Maybe you can think of more.

– Nature tells us who created it. Joseph Addison (1672-1719), a British lawyer, politician, and hymn writer, wrote the words to a hymn that spoke to me as a student poring over a microscope. I later learned it was a paraphrase of Psalm 19:1-6. The hymn opens with these words: 

“The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.”

“Original” here means the One who created it. The hymn goes on to describe the sun, moon and stars, and the concluding lines of the hymn say that all these lights in the sky are

“for ever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine.’”

You can read the words to the hymn here and listen to it here, sung by a choir in Chennai, India (lots of beautiful saris!).

2 – Nature tells us that the God who made the stars, trees, oceans and animals is beautiful, “wrapped in light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2). This Creator rides “on the wings of the wind,” and the wind, fire and flame are the Creator’s messengers (Psalm 104:3, 4). John Stott calls Psalm 104 “perhaps the earliest essay in ecology in the literature of the world,” [1] and the psalm portrays many ways God sustains of all of earth’s systems. No discussion of God as creator is complete without mentioning Psalm 104.

– The God who made the planets, clouds, flowers, and ocean waves is separate from us, lofty, exalted, and majestic. The beauty of creation speaks to us of a beautiful God who is right here with us, yet also mysterious and very, very big. Isaiah points out the way the height of the sky speaks to us of God’s majesty:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
     —Isaiah 55:9

– Nature calls us to praise God. Saint Paul of the Cross, in the quotation above, says that the sermon nature preaches is full of praise of God. Isaiah tells us that creation itself praises God. Isaiah 55 describes the way nature models praise of God for us.

The mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
     —Isaiah 55:12

5 – Birds, butterflies, mountains and lakes convey peace to us. I don’t know if this gift of peace comes from the four ways nature speaks to us that I have described above, or if this is a distinct gift from God to us through the creation. Wendell Berry describes this in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things.” How many of us during the pandemic can relate to his words:

“I come into the peace of wild things. . . .
For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

You can read the poem here, and the webpage has an option to hear Berry read it in his lovely southern accent.

Evidently we humans have a role in calling creation to praise God. Several psalms seem to indicate that in the same way we hear Creation call us to prayer, we are called to preach right back to everything our beautiful God has made:

“Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
   he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
   stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
   fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds!”
     —Psalm 148:3-10

(Next week: Memory a call to resolve in us what simply will not go away. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

Some previous posts you may enjoy:

[1] John R. W. Stott, “The Works of the Lord,” The Best Preaching on Earth: Sermons on Caring for Creation, Stan L. LeQuire, ed. (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1996), 82.

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