Sunday, January 16, 2022

Commander of Winter

So, a quick show of hands: who here has seen or heard the forecast for this evening? Yes, I thought so. Doesn't look too promising, does it? This evening, they say, we have a 90% chance of getting our inch of snow, turning to rain already tonight, possibly back to light snow tomorrow morning, to yield a fine slushy mess. Of course, by this point, we've had our sampler platter of winter weather already, what with the freezing rain last Sunday and the larger snowstorm before that. Even this weekend, our county is getting off easy. Further west, they're calling for mostly snow, with the far end of western New York warned of more than eighteen inches. Those of us who are greatly fond of winter weather are few and far between – although we have some notable exceptions among our number. But this morning, with the limited time we have, I'd like to begin looking at some of the Old Testament's mentions of winter weather. Meditate on these as the air chills and the snow falls tonight.

First, when we get our snow or ice, sleet or hail, whatever the case may be, it reminds us that God is sovereign. What does he say to Job? The LORD asks, “Have you entered the storehouse of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (Job 38:22-23). And, of course, Job hasn't. He's an ancient man, living three thousand years ago, without much understanding of how God prepares snow or hail, and certainly he's never been on site. We today claim a scientific grasp of the mechanics, but even now they remain too complex for us to firmly predict what exactly any given storm will do. How much more, then, should God be trusted with the vastly more complex webs of possibility that permit dangers in the world for the sake of opening the windows to let greater good blow in?

And like the psalmist says, “He sends out his command to earth, his word runs swiftly: He gives snow like wool, he scatters frost like ashes” (Psalm 147:15-16). God is the power behind the snow, the ice, the sleet, the hail, the frost. God is the Creator of the world, and he's all-powerful – there's nothing he cannot do. And ultimately, although he works ordinarily through intermediate causes, God is the One empowering the giving of snow or the scattering of frost. It's a show of his power, a reminder that God is God and we are not. For all our pretense, for all our grasping at control, neither you nor I can stand in the path of a blizzard and deflect it. When the windows frost and the snow falls, we must marvel at a mighty God.

We also lack the authority to command the winter – to make it do our bidding. But God has just that authority. Like Elihu tells Job, “God thunders wondrously with his great voice, he does great things we can't comprehend: for to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth!'... From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God, ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast” (Job 37:5-6, 9-10). God thunders, God speaks, and snow and cold and ice obey. He has authority, and when he speaks, these winter weather phenomena respond accordingly. They put us to shame! Because how often does God tell us to fall on the earth – to leave our chambers and go forth with mercy – and we stay clustered in our storehouses? How oft do we, unlike the ice, refuse to be given? And how oft do we, in the face of opposition or temptation, hear God calling us to freeze firm like the waters, and yet we're indifferent to the temperature of the situation? Wisdom: be attentive! For the Commander of Winter has every bit as much right to command you and me.

And when he at last flexes his might, he is irresistible. The psalmist asks, “Who can stand before his cold?” (Psalm 147:17b). I'll tell you, many windy winter days I'll step outside and sharply regret it, and then all I want to do is to take cover from the cold. I can't withstand it! It's at times like this that I'm glad I don't live in Oymyakon, the coldest village on earth, with a temperature usually around -40 and where on a colder day, your eyelashes might well freeze together. At its record low of -96, it was once below the average temperature of Mars there. Yet even in Oymyakon, who can dare boast before the LORD? Who anywhere needn't be humble?

So why does he send these things? Elihu tells us: “Whether for a rod or for his land or for mercy, he causes it to come” (Job 37:13). Sometimes, Elihu thinks, God provides harsh cold and winter weather as discipline. That, we can understand. Other times, Elihu suggests, God sends it “for his land,” because snow and ice had a beneficial role in enriching the land in preparing for another good growing season. And last, Elihu says, God might send his cold and his snow and his frost “for mercy.” And that may be hardest to imagine. But like the psalmist declares, God “gives snow like wool” (Psalm 147:16). He blankets the land in snow like a cozy fleece comforter, swaddling the earth in pristine beauty and serene comfort. Tomorrow's dawn may not look quite like that, but some snowfalls are truly beautiful (especially viewed from indoors). And that's God's mercy at work.

So winter weather can show us God's sovereignty and even God's love. But winter weather is also an action of the earth, and it's one way the earth praises God. “Praise the LORD from the earth, you... hail, snow, ice, tempest blast, those thing that do his word!” (Psalm 148:7-8 LXX). So the psalmist sings. When the earth gets cold and invites the snow, invites the ice, invites the wind, all these things are praising God! It's strange to think – but in their own unspoken way, each falling snowflake praises the Designer of its crystalline intricacy. Every chilling wind is singing its pointed hymn. It may not be a language pleasant to us, but God will be praised in every tongue – even these. Theirs can, at times, be a violent praise, like David dancing before the ark, coolly careless and thrashing before his Maker. So might winter weather thrash before the same Maker. Sometimes praise can be cold and austere, harsh and forceful. So in nature's praise, and so in our lives as well. God calls for our forceful, harsh, even chilly praise in the bleakness of our emotional midwinter, when darkness and frost are our only companions. And God accepts our harsh, chilly praise no less than our soothing, sunny praises in the springtimes of life. When the snow falls and the wind blows, watch the earth praising God – and join in.

What's more, winter weather reminds us that our family is large. Bear with me now. The LORD asked Job, “From whose womb did the ice come forth? And who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” (Job 38:29). Part of the great mystery of the Book of Job is an intense meditation on what it means to be a child of God, and when God at last speaks from the storm, he teaches Job that creation's marvels are the mysteries of his divine parenthood – that he looks on many creations as his offspring. It was God's womb that cradled the ice. It was God who gave birth to the frost of heaven. God isn't bashful to speak so. So in some mysterious way, when we realize ourselves as God's offspring even just by creation (to say nothing of becoming his heirs by adoption, as we have in Christ), we come to know ourselves as a big family – a family bigger than the human race. And the powers of snow and ice and frost are brother and sister to us. Winter weather is our family reunion! And, yes, family reunions can sometimes highlight tensions in a family – awkwardness, discomfort, unpleasantness – but that makes them no less worthwhile; and the same is true when Brother Frost and Sister Snow come to town to visit. They're perhaps a tad eccentric, with manners that can be grating, but offspring of our Father all the same.

Finally, winter weather is a pointer to our salvation. We'll think more on this the next two Sundays, but for now, hear the psalmist: “He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs” (Psalm 147:17a). And hear Moses: “When the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the desert a fine and flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14). And in the next verse, the Israelites name that frosty treat 'manna.' The bread of angels (Psalm 78:25)! For forty years in the desert, that was the diet of God's people, from God's storehouse of frost. And so each time since then when God sends down frost upon the earth, he's inviting us to imagine how the desert must have looked when God fed and cared for his people with heavenly bread those thousands of years ago.

And that leads us to think of when the Living Bread came down from heaven – Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. “He sends out his command to the earth: his Word runs swiftly” (Psalm 147:15) – that's Jesus! “He sends out his Word and melts them; he makes his Spirit blow, and waters flow” (Psalm 147:18). Now, if your lawn is anything like mine, you can see more of it this morning than you could a week ago, because the layer of snow is melting away. God has spoken onto his creation, sending forth a word that commands the snow to submit to the heat of the sun. God does not let ice hold sway forever – even in Oymyakon.

But so too, God has spoken his personal Word into creation as Jesus Christ. He descended from heaven like hail, taking on warm human flesh in the womb of Mary. And the Word brings the Spirit, and when the Spirit blows, the baptismal waters flow, and new birth is made possible. And to those who've received the new birth, the Word named Jesus gives his divinized flesh as manna, as bread from heaven, on the altar. The Word of God has become for us an edible frost that cools the passions of sin and chills the flames of hell. So let us gather in praise and thanksgiving before the sovereign Commander of Winter, who speaks in judgment and mercy, and let us feast on heaven's frost, Christ the Living Bread, the Word who freezes and melts at his pleasure in us. Amen.

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