Perhaps the people of Israel began by thinking of their God as just one particularly hard working and eloquent MP, whose faithfulness to them meant that he always deserved to get their vote and receive their worship. But, if so, their thinking quickly moved on, and they began to imagine him as the chief of all the gods or heavenly beings, far superior to any of them, a very Blairite or Thatcherite sort of prime minister moving among a cabinet of pygmies, lesser heavenly beings who owed their very existence to him. So the later verses of the psalm qualify that initial picture of a faithful advocate in the assembly or council of the holy ones, and present Israel's God as someone who is feared as well as respected, whose deeds set him far apart from the rest of the assembly because they are great and awesome, and whose nature is totally different from that of the other holy ones, as different as chalk and cheese. 'Who can be compared with him?' the Psalmist asks rhetorically, and the answer, of course, is 'No one!'
Israel was a landlocked country at this time and her people had a profound respect for the sea, yet they didn't hesitate to say that their God was powerful enough to be able to calm even the worst rages of the great Mediterranean. Like Jesus on Lake Galilee, God can still its storms. In fact, it was Jesus' own power to imitate God in this way that made his disciples feel in awe of him and wonder who he really was.
The Psalm imagines God's act of creation in a very different way from the orderly process described in Genesis chapter 1. Instead of quietly speaking the universe into existence, here God has to battle against the raging forces of chaos which are depicted not just as the raw elements of nature but as his very active enemies, fiercely opposed to harmony and beauty and embodied in the mythical figure of the Chaos Monster, Rahab, a mighty dragon or sea monster who fought against the god Marduk in the Babylonian legend of creation. In the ancient religion of Babylon, it was Lord Marduk who defeated and killed Rhab and made it possible for creation to evolve, whereas in the Psalm it is Israel's God who does this, so that it is thanks only to Israel's God that the whole universe as we know it now exists. The mention of the points of the compass are a way of emphasising that nothing lies outside of God's realm and even the most ancient mountains acknowledge his lordship.
This psalm gives a whole new dimension to the term Creationism. When some Christians say that they are Creationists they mean they believe that about six thousand years ago God created the world in just 144 hours, but the Psalmist here has a totally different understanding of Creationism which is about God vanquishing chaos and so laying the building blocks for a gradually evolving universe of variety and order, of symmetry and scientific law. Not that I am suggesting this is a more modern way of understanding creation, after all modern scientists would say that the Chaos Monster is not dead. They would see chaos operating as part of the very way that the universe actually evolves, and not in opposition to it at all. But the Psalm at least contains a different way of understanding what the act of creation means.
I'm with the scientists on this one. I don't think the Chaos Monster is dead, either. I can imagine the Psalmist taking part in one of those pantomime scenes where he's telling us - the audience - that God has killed Rahab and there's nothing to worry about any longer, but we're all shouting back, 'Look behind you!' as the Chaos Monster creeps up on him unawares. Whether we're talking about chaos affecting the weather, or the money markets, or whether we're thinking about the chaos and anarchy caused by earthquakes or wars, there still seems to be plenty of chaos to worry about.
The episode of the Burning Bush contains an even more shocking idea. Not only is chaos still very much alive, and not lying crushed and defeated as the Psalmist believed, but God himself seems to be using chaos in this story as part of his own plan of salvation. A bush which doesn't burn is a direct contradiction of the laws of nature. It's a totally chaotic idea and the shock of seeing such a great sight threatens to turn Moses' cosy life in the country upside down and catapult him back into the arena of history, where he will find himself centre stage in the struggle against the cruel and obstinate Pharaoh. And once there, in the Egyptian court, the threat of chaos will be his only weapon with which to win the liberation of his people. And remember just how much chaos God will help him to cause through the plagues of locusts, frogs and boils, and so on, culminating in the ultimate chaos inflicted by sudden death.
But even here, in this ancient story, there are clear limits to God's appetite for chaos. Rahab, the Chaos Monster, used chaos destructively to wreak death and disorder and to defeat the harmony and pattern which would otherwise have begun to emerge, whereas God uses chaos creatively, to bring about a positive outcome and liberate the people of Israel from oppression. God may work through chaos, but the ultimate ground of his being is continuity - his nature and his loving care are always the same, yesterday today and forever. He reveals himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors and the God of future generations yet unborn, the great I Am. So there is nothing essentially chaotic about God, none of the unpredictability and volatility which are associated with true chaos. Perhaps what modern science has shown us is that God is able to defeat chaos by using it to bring about the very harmony and creativity which it would seek to destroy.
We may even ask whether, in fact, God truly wished to bring chaos on the people of Egypt. His true wish, surely, was that Pharaoh might listen to him and let his people go. Perhaps the plagues were just an awful chapter of accidents, a reminder that Pharaoh was not all powerful or divine, and not able - therefore - to battle against chaos and overcome it, or to harness it to his own ends.
Our reading from John's Gospel contains an even more shocking idea than the revelation to Moses that God sometimes works through chaos. For here Jesus' realises that even his own perfect intimacy with God is not going to save him from sharing in the chaos and death that always threatens human happiness and tranquility. The realisation troubles him deeply. It is a moment of great mental and spiritual agony, equivalent to the agony Jesus suffers in the accounts of the Garden of Gethsemane, although John's version of the story is far more public because Jesus' inner trauma is witnessed by the whole crowd of curious people and well wishers who constantly followed him around.
In the other Gospels Jesus asks God to take the cup of suffering away from him, although he then qualifies that prayer by saying, 'Your will, not mine, be done.' Here he remains a little more self-assured. 'Shall I ask the Father to save me from this hour?' he ponders, before recognising that no, the whole purpose of his life has been to confront this moment, to endure darkness, and chaos, and death - to wrestle with these things, just as God is supposed to have wrestled with the Chaos Monster at the moment of creation, and to be glorified in and through that struggle. Now at last the Ruler of This World, the Chaos Monster, can really be dealt a knockout blow because, although chaos may still stalk the universe, now we know for sure that it can never have the final victory or the last word. Resurrection is the final and eternal answer to the worst that chaos can inflict - proof that the ancient myth of God defeating chaos is the ultimate truth.
Of course, the crowd is appalled by the shocking idea that God's anointed leader will struggle against chaos and be overcome and killed by it. Surely the Messiah should be above this kind of thing? Surely he should remain unchallenged, safely above the fray forever? Jesus' somewhat enigmatic reply mirrors what Moses had discovered about God at the Burning Bush. His essential nature is indeed light, and harmony, pattern, and peace. But that does not make God immune from the effects of darkness, disharmony, chaos and pain. Instead, just as the myth of God's battle with the Chaos Monster asserts, God is happy to roll up his sleeves and get involved in - and confront - the messiness of life. When we face chaos, disorder and danger, he is alongside us in Jesus, who was lifted up on the Cross as a sign that God is with us in the battle to overcome chaos, and indeed the victory is already his.