Leviathan, whom you formed to play.
A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 24, 2023 at Holy Communion
Psalm 104, Deuteronomy 7:6–9, Ephesians 3:13–21
“The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
In my ten years in Nova Scotia, I had never gone whale watching until yesterday afternoon, along with the exchange students from Shelburne. Although I have marvelled at whale skeletons in museums and been moved by nature documentaries, none of it prepared me for the sense that I was chasing for a mythical, magical creature as we got out onto the water. When we first saw enormous splashes in the distance, I felt as if I had spotted meet a flesh-and-blood unicorn, and I thought that surely this was as close to the whales as we would be able to get.
But I was quite wrong. As we approached them, the whales approached us. I’m told that, late in the season, the whales learn to trust the boats and will come to investigate them. And they did. In a display of exuberant joy, a humpback whale the size of our fifty-foot boat heaved itself into the air to show us that it could make waves, then rolled onto its back and beat the water with its sixteen-foot flippers to tease us. It was unmistakable: the whale was playing with us.
Psalm 104 came to mind immediately: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it” (Psalm 104:24–26, ESV).
Indeed, there is a sea great and wide, and it does teem with creatures small and great. But what came to mind especially was the last phrase: God formed the great sea creatures to play in the wide ocean. God created them to play.
Why would God do such a thing? Why create something as magnificent as the whale just so that it could play?
We might get a hint from a different translation of the same psalm verse, which reads, “There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it” (Psalm 104:27, BAS). This translation suggests that it is not Leviathan—a mythical sea monster—who plays in the water, but God who creates Leviathan “for the sport of it,” because in creating the playful whale God himself demonstrates his own playfulness.
God creates the whale because he delights in it, because its leap and its song warm his heart, because the whale is a mirror of the goodness and beauty which is God himself. He creates it in order to love it.
This is the case for human beings as well. We do not exist by ourselves or for ourselves, but to delight the heart of the God to created us to be a mirror of his own goodness. After creating the sea creatures on the fifth day of the world, on the sixth God brings man out of the earth to be his image, as a gardener to show forth the ruling and tending care of God the Maker. God did this because it pleased him, because it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
It is not only human beings in general, as individuals, who are created for God’s glory and pleasure. We as a community, bound to God by a covenant of love and worship, are created to be a mirror of God’s love and holiness. God calls us into the church because this is “very good,” because the church is created to show the glory of God, who is its head and its source.
This is the teaching of our Old Testament Lesson. We hear that we “are a people holy to the Lord our God,” and that the Lord has “chosen us to be a people for his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). This is not because we were numerous, or excellent, or virtuous, but because “because the Lord loves us” and desires to demonstrate his generous faithfulness (v 7–8). What lesson are we supposed to learn? We are told: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him” (v 9). Knowing that God made a choice to call us into loving mutuality with himself simply out of love encourages us to continue in that relationship. Our relationship with God is grounded in the eternal depths of God’s own character.
This is also what St Paul tells us in the Epistle. St Paul prays for us, that we would be “rooted and grounded in love“ (Ephesians 3:17) and therefore able to comprehend “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge“ and “be filled with all the fullness of God” (v 19). We are “rooted and grounded in love”—that is, in God’s love for us, which he has shown by sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts (v 17), in whom we have spiritual riches of unsearchable “breadth, length, height, and depth” (v 18). The church has been created by God’s eternal love so that God can delight in us as he delights in his own eternal Son. We, like the whales, are created to play with him.
The theological term for what we are discussing is “election,” but all that word means is “choice.” God has has chosen us not because we have somehow earned it, but because God has a purpose in mind for us. We are created with a vocation, a calling that belongs to us which it delights God for us to fulfill. This purpose, and the reason why man is singled out as God’s image among all the creatures, is that we should love him with the free, rational, and personal love with which he loves us.
But in fulfilling this vocation it is helpful to know that God’s love comes first. We are “rooted and grounded” in God’s love for us, not the other way around, and out of that confidence in God’s love we respond in kind. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And if God loved us first, then the pressure is off on our side to be the initiators, to make ourselves lovable.
We do, of course, want to please the Lover of our souls, but we please him by consenting to the dance to which he invites us, not by chasing him down like an unwilling partner.
To put it another way, we please God by acting like the whale. God has created us to play, so we play with confidence and joy.