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Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

“Maybe I’m not as finished as I thought I was,” I told my instructor, looking again at the canvas and realizing something was still missing. I picked back up the paint and returned to work. A class at my local art school reminded me that, when creating, it is difficult to walk away from your creation, to call it definitively “done.”

Zooming out for a broad look at Psalm 104 makes it clear: this is a poem about the creation of the world and the God (namely, YHWH) who creates it and takes responsibility for all it contains. Now, we might say to the Psalmist: “There are two perfectly good (and poetic) creation narratives at the beginning of the Pentateuch—do you really have something to add to that lineup?” Robert Alter rushes to defend the psalmist, saying, “This poem reads distinctly like a poetic free improvisation on the themes from the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, rendered from the perspective of a human observer rather than through the magisterial omniscience of the narrator in Genesis” [1]. Part of the fresh perspective of the psalmist is that creation isn’t finished and done. Here God doesn’t say “Now that’s good!” and move on to the next day, nor does God clock out to rest, even though some suggest that the psalm is patterned after the days of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 [2].

Look at the verbs in vv.28-30:

“When you give”

“When you open”

“When you hide”

“When you take away”

“When you send forth”

These are all imperfect verbs, which means the actions they describe are not complete but ongoing. Hence, the “when” is added to the verbs by the NRSV to give the effect of continuation. What is continued? Life, death, creation itself. This culminates in the final, crowning imperfect: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (v.30). The Psalmist says that our creation narrative is not over, that there is more to add, that as much as we want to call ourselves and creation a closed case, God insists, I’m not as finished with it all as you thought I was. Sure, God took the seventh day off in Genesis, but God hasn’t missed a day of creating since.

Physicists say the universe is constantly expanding. That makes me dizzy. I recently asked my friends, “So, if the universe is expanding, what’s on the other side of the edge of the universe?” Try to imagine that. Try to imagine the edge of the universe, and then try to imagine what’s on the other side. That’s what it’s like to imagine God. Rudolf Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (i.e., the mystery that both terrifies and fascinates) rings in my mind. The psalmist says that when YHWH looks at the earth it trembles (v.32). That may be true, but when I look up at the sky, my brains start to smoke from grinding gears that cannot compute the observable universe, much less the God who creates it.

Like Alice in the rabbit hole, I fell headlong into a YouTube spiral, watching and rewatching video after video that circled my question about the edge of the universe. It turns out my question is nonsensical, because even in an expanding universe that is finite, there is still no such thing as “the other side of the edge” [3]. However, the observable universe is so terribly, unimaginably large that I have plenty of stuff to worry about before I ever reach the end of the universe—if you want your head to spin, watch a few of these videos [4]. Science concludes that the cosmos is not a finished project, the same thing our poet intuited thousands of years prior. The difference? Science as a discipline cannot attempt to answer why the universe is unfolding. The psalmist unabashedly jumps in line and says conclusively: Because God has sent forth God’s Spirit.

This must be the same Spirit that tapped John on the shoulder when he was sitting on Patmos, because one of the final pictures of the Revelation (and of the Scriptures) is of God creating. So the whole cannon agrees, God’s project of creating is not finished until all things are recreated. At its core, this creation poem is also Pentecostal. After all, what is Pentecost if not a creation story? The Spirit who hovered over the deep is the Spirit who continues to create our world, who creates the church, and who will make all things new. Will Willimon connects Pentecost and creation when he writes, “The Holy Spirit intrudes into an otherwise dull church meeting at Pentecost and we discover that the Holy Spirit is not only creative and life-giving but also incendiary and disruptive. Foundations shake. Fire descends. Once silenced people now do the talking. Only the Spirit who created the world can birth a church” [5]. He notes that when the Spirit shows up and gives a startling word to someone, the church often reacts with repulsion and violence, just like when Jesus began his Spirit-filled ministry in Luke 4: “And then, as sometimes happens with the descent of the Holy Spirit and Spirit-induced speech, the congregation exploded and tried to kill the preacher” [6].

This psalm invites the church into dependance upon the Spirit of God, without whom we do not exist at all, much less exist as the Body of Christ. Do we think we’ve built the church? Do we think we’ve created ourselves? Heck, without the Breath of God we are nothing but dust (see v.29 and Genesis 2:7). The dust of Ash Wednesday called us away from the false notion that our laboring will get us anywhere, watching Christ die and rise again cracked open a new reality in human history, and at Pentecost we are reminded that our creation story is not over. It’s not over for the cosmos, and it’s not over for the church. Neither are finished being created.

We can hold God to that. Rashi, the medieval French rabbi connects the sending of the Spirit in v.20 to the resurrection of the dead [7]. Therefore, even death does not signify the end of the story, only recreation will. Menasseh ben Israel, a 17th century Portuguese rabbi saw v.33 as the psalmist creatively pleading a case for resurrection. In his view, the writer “persuades God by saying, ‘Lord, if I die it is true that I will not forget you, because in the tomb who will praise you given that the body is no more than an insensitive stone. Therefore, give me life so that in body and soul I can praise you and do meritorious works’” [8]. In other words, the psalmist is holding God to a creative standard. Why would you want the rocks to praise you if you could just resurrect your people and let them keep on singing? Sure, we’d remember you in death, but wouldn’t you rather hear a living choir? This encourages me. If your church is anything like mine, you know that the days ahead completely depend upon God doing a work of recreation, of raising something from the dead, of creating a people, of God sending forth the Spirit to a ragtag family of misfits. And I intend to hold God to that.

Pentecost is the day we remember that God’s self-pouring-out mission is just as ongoing as the expansion of the universe. And, beyond all explanation or logical conclusion, God sees all that is and chooses to be present with us in the tiny, intimate moments we share together, to send forth the Spi