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Sermon - God's Help

Christmas Wreath Builders

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote a book entitled “Why is There Something Instead of Nothing?” An atheist will reply, “There just is”, and a believer says “Because God made it,” but neither usually ends up explaining why there is something rather than nothing. Kolakowski added many other good questions which are worth pondering now and then: who am I? where did I come from? where do I fit in? why am I responsible? what does my life mean?


Most anytime you answer one question you’ll raise a few others. Some preachers are opposed to the teaching of evolution but I am not one of them. It has helped answer countless biological questions and should be a staple of public school science. But evolution raises some interesting questions as well as answers them. For one thing, why do we and many other animals need sleep, when from an evolutionary standpoint you’d think that sleep would expose us to predators? William Dement, who established Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center and has worked in the field for 50 years, said “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”(Note 1) To ask a different question: why is there such a difference between chimpanzees and human beings? In evolutionary terms you’d think the difference would be slight - evolution is all about the development of gradual differences - but while it’s clear that a domestic cat and a leopard are very much the same type of creature, a human being and a chimpanzee, though genetically similar, are very different. Or how about this: why from an evolutionary standpoint do we have language, when so many crucial actions are in fact hard to put into words?(Note 2) After all, we could show someone how to make a tool or how to build a fire or how to swim, but we couldn’t easily explain how. What is art or music for? It doesn’t have an obvious practical purpose. I think it’s a safe bet that the same primitives who drew pictures also sang songs and enjoyed music, but I don’t see what survival value these skills would have. So how did they develop?

Violeta and I got an anniversary card the other day, and on it was some ancient looking couple, and it said, “For a marriage to last, learn to say these three important words”, and you opened up the card and it said, “let’s eat out.” The joke of course is that it’s hard but important to say these three words, “I love you”. I agree, and I’ll add that it’s also hard and important to say these three important words: “I don’t know.” We all like to be regarded as smart or as good at something, but in any subject there’s always a lot out there we don’t know. Socrates said real wisdom began first with acknowledging that.


I’ve lived enough years to see experts be wrong plenty of times. When I was small there were many grave discussions about overpopulation, which overall remains a serious topic, but since then the population of Europe has actually declined, which is causing various demographic challenges. No one predicted it. Again when I was young, the Cold War was a staple fact of foreign policy; a lot of money and talent was spent watching the Soviet Union. And again no one predicted its peaceful collapse in 1991. No one predicted that mainland China would go from being a Communist nation to a Capitalist one. To take a recent example, the last Iraq War turns out to have been fought on the basis of false information. We have to rely on experts - scientists, political leaders, the military - and yet it’s good once in a while to remember that often they don’t know what they’re talking about.


We read the Bible to help solve life’s greatest mysteries, but the Bible itself is often puzzling. Here’s a question which has struck me: when Jesus’ followers see the Risen Lord on Easter, at first no one recognizes him. Why not? This is a man they’ve been living with for over a year. In the first three Gospels there’s inevitably a lot of overlap as they describe Jesus’ ministry, what he said and what he did. That doesn’t happen in the descriptions of Easter, which are very distinct and independent of each other. Nevertheless I notice that in each one the same thing happens: people talk to Jesus for a while without realizing who he is, and then he does something which relates personally to them, and at that point they recognize him - the disciples cast their nets over the side and make a miraculous catch; he breaks bread with two other disciples; he’s talking to Mary and then says her name. Only then do they realize in a flash that it’s Jesus.


What’s this mean? I’ll go out on a limb and hazard a guess: usually recognition happens when we put together a certain pattern in a person’s face or voice. It’s the kind of thing where we get fooled once in a while: we say hello to someone we think we know, and it’s someone who just resembles them. That was in my mind this week because just the other day I cheerfully greeted someone who turned out to be a stranger, using the wrong name, and got a gruff reply. What is the Resurrection going to be like? If you’re blessed to see e.g. your father again, it’s not like he’s going to show up wearing his old work clothes you remember him wearing. What face and voice would he have? After all we look and sound differently at different times in our life. Recognition on that day will not be the same - souls won’t identify each other in the same way that we pick out old friends at high school reunions. My interpretation is that we see clues of this when Mary and the apostles meet the resurrected Jesus - but it’s only a guess. Often when we read scripture we’re in water which is over our head.

Paul himself acknowledges this in today’s lesson. His job is to share with the Gentiles the riches of Jesus Christ, which he describes as “unsearchable”, and “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God.” Paul says the Gospel is much larger, and much more, than his words are going to be able to express, but that at least some of God’s plan, hidden for centuries, is now being explained by the life, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.


My mother used to do crossword puzzles every day. Levels of difficulty in these differ - during the week she did the one in The Day, which was doable. On Sunday she and my aunt would try the New York Times, which was more challenging. For years they spent the whole Sunday afternoon on it. My father and I weren’t much good at this kind of thing and kept our distance. Once in a great while they’d successfully finish the whole thing, but usually there were sections they just couldn’t get. They’d throw up their hands and check the paper the following Sunday, which included the answer, which sometimes of course was something they wouldn’t have ever thought of.


Our knowledge of scripture, in fact our knowledge in general is often like that. We solve what we can solve; sometimes of course we have to throw up our hands at the rest. We wait until Judgment Day for the answer. There’s an old hymn (not one we sing here) which says “We’ll Understand it Better By and By.”

The poet Goethe said, “let us fathom what is fathomable, and leave the rest to reverence and silence.” When the subject is God, it’s good to acknowledge what we don’t know. The founders of this nation were religiously a mixed bunch; Thomas Paine, who wrote eloquently to defend the American Revolution, was an atheist. One reason he gave was the explanation of Good Friday which he received in childhood, which made it sound like God was so angry at sin that he needed to be mollified by the death of his own Son. The description of God as a tyrant on a rampage who had to be calmed down disturbed him. Paine remarked that “...any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.” That may be so, and I think the whole problem could have been avoided if human beings hadn’t tried to create clear doctrines on matters where scripture is obscure.


Paul on the other is aware of both how great his message is, and how difficult. I’ve been saying today how much in life and how much in scripture is mysterious; Paul begins today’s lesson with the most mysterious question of all: why me? He asks in today’s lesson: Why am I, Paul, in the middle of this?: “to me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given.” Paul realizes his faults, and knows he is unworthy to carry the Gospel, which he had previously tried to stamp out. And yet God had taken him by the collar and said, not gently, “Hey you! Take this message for me.”


And the mystery which God revealed through Paul was not one his previous life had prepared him for. There certainly are passages in the Old Testament which hint that God would be proclaimed to an entire world, but all-in-all Jews thought of themselves as the Chosen People, the one and only elect nation. Gentiles were sinners; it was forbidden to closely associate with them. And then one day God said to Paul, “I am going to appear to all the nations of the world, and you’re going to help me do it.”


One lesson to take from this is that God is always greater than what we imagine him to be. We create categories in our own mind which of course are rooted in our own experience. Our ideas of big and small, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, brave and cowardly, and so on, are based on what we’ve seen and who we’ve been able to be. Inevitably, we fit God into our own categories. The sad result of this is that you run into cruel people who conceive a cruel God; small, narrow, petty individuals, whose God of course is the same. But the God we seek to understand is so much more than what we are. We have to be transformed by the Gospel before we honestly begin to understand the Savior who is at the heart of the Bible.


Writer Garry Wills one time was asked why he was a Christian. He said you could tell the size of a boat by the wake it left, and by seeing the lives of the faithful people he’d known in his life, he’d likewise got some sense of God’s greatness. So too Paul realized that he understood only a little of what God was doing, but the more he understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the greater he realized it was.


God is a mystery the likes of whom we can only faintly understand, but as Paul says in today’s Call to Worship, God himself helps us in our weakness. If we come to him faithfully and humbly, we’ll come to know more and more of who is, and of what we can become. That is the type of life and you and I are called to.



[1] I quote the Wikipedia article on “Sleep”, which in turn cites a May 2010 National Geographic article.

[2] John Updike raises a number of these questions in a science book review in Hugging the Shore.

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