Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Your Beginning

(A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-28 and preached on September 21, 2014)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the Bible. The phrase can be translated “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth” (Fox, 5) so that we could read it as “To start with …” In any case, creation had a beginning and God was up to something with it. Later in Genesis we read about God’s creation of humanity. Regardless of how we literally came to be, which it is the business of science to figure out, God was up to something in the creation and existence of our kind. It stands to reason, then, that God was up to something in the making of you and me and in our placement in this world.

Given how great the odds are that we shouldn’t be here, we really should be amazed that we are. In the summer of 2011 Dr. Ali Binazir posed the question, “What are your chances of coming into being?” He considered such factors as (1) the odds of your parents meeting, which he estimates at 1 in 20,000, (2) the odds of that meeting leading to a relationship that produces a child, which he estimates to be 1 in 2000, (3) the odds of the right sperm from your father joining with the right egg from your mother to form you, which he puts at 1 in 400 quadrillion, and (4) the odds of every one of your ancestors living to the age at which they could reproduce, which Binazir estimates at 1 in 10 to the 45,000th power [“That number,” Binazir observed, “is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe."].

When you put all of that together, Binazir said, the probability that you could exist is 1 in 10 to the 2,685,000th power. Binazir attempted to describe the enormity of that number by offering a comparison. The number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 10 to the 27th power. The number of atoms making up the earth is about 10 to the 50th power. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 10 to the 80th power. So what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001. Therefore, according to Binazir’s calculations, the chances that you could exist are so infinitesimal as to amount to zero; there is virtually no probability that you could exist.

National Public Radio blogger Robert Krulwich, in his intriguingly titled post “Are You Totally Improbable or Totally Inevitable?”, summarized Binazir’s article and then observed, “On the other hand…there are poets who argue exactly the opposite: that each of us is fated to exist, that there is a plan, and that all of us are expected.” The poets of the Bible, I think, would come down mainly on the “there is a plan” side; we at least have strong intimations of such. For example, the Lord said to the young Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). For another example, the Psalmist sang, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:16b).

Had the biblical writers been confronted with the speculations of modern thinkers, would they have admitted to the presence of randomness and chance in our world and in our lives? Some certainly would have. Have you read Ecclesiastes lately? For the most part, though, I suspect that they would have looked at Binazir’s conclusion—“A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are”—said “Amen,” and done a little praising, a little thinking, and a little writing about how God works God’s purposes out even through random selection, chaotic human behavior, chance, coincidence, evolution, and happenstance.

I suspect that the philosopher Forrest Gump was on track when he said, “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both (are) happening at the same time.”

The bottom line is this: in some mysterious and providential way, we are here. We are here on this earth and we are here in this life. There is virtually no way that we should be here and yet by chance and by the providence of God, here we are. Surely it matters that we do something with the opportunity of being here; surely it matters that we take full advantage of the fact that we are here. You’ve won the lottery and you’re the apple of God’s eye. How can we not be inspired to live life for all it’s worth?

As the philosopher Neil Young put it, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust."

President Jimmy Carter is, as you know, a man of strong Christian faith and commitment. While reflecting on his life, he said, “One of the things that shaped my life was realizing that I have one life to live on this earth and I ask God frequently not to let me waste it and to let my life be beneficial for my fellow human beings in His kingdom” [Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p. 182, citing “Legitimate Pride” in Conversations with Carter, ed. Don Richardson (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998), p. 268]. That’s a good prayer for all of us to pray in light of the great gift that this life is: “O God, don’t let me waste my life. Let me live my life in ways that are beneficial to your kingdom and to people.”

Only one person has ever gotten it just right and that person was Jesus Christ. Jesus showed us how to live a full life defined by total love for God and by selfless love for others. Because of his crucifixion and resurrection and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God through which the fullness of God dwells in us, we are empowered to live in ways that are always moving toward that kind of life. It is a life in which we love God with all we are and in which we love our neighbor as we love ourselves; it is a life in which we think all the time of God and think all the time more of others than we do of ourselves. Such living is how we take full advantage of the life that God has given us to live.

So go now and live as the miracle that you are …

Monday, September 8, 2014

This Is the Day that the Lord Has Made

(A sermon based on Psalm 118 preached on Sunday, September 7, 2014)

Sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot. We find ourselves confined; we find ourselves shut in with little room to move. Figuratively (and perhaps literally) speaking, we find it hard to breathe.

We find ourselves wondering how we got there. We need to take a good hard look at our situation so that we can acknowledge what we need to acknowledge and confess what we need to confess and face what we need to face.

After all, it is just possible that we put ourselves in the tight spot that we are in. Oh, I know—believe me, I know—that family background and social circumstances and other people’s actions and other factors play into the choices and decisions we make. Still, when you get right down to it, our choices and decisions are our own. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the speaker in our psalm says (v. 18a). So sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have put ourselves there; sin does have consequences, after all. Things we do, relationships we betray, words we say, shortcuts we take, ethical corners we cut—they can hem us in.

The speaker in our psalm speaks of being surrounded by enemies (vv. 10-12). While he sees what has happened to him as being the judgment of God, not all difficulty is. Not all suffering comes because we have done wrong; some suffering comes because we have done right. Bad choices can get us in trouble but so can good choices—so can even the best choices! We may find ourselves surrounded by enemies because we have chosen to live, by the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, as much like Jesus showed us and told us to live as possible. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). And, as 1 Peter puts it, “(I)t is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” Still, we need to be careful how we think and talk about being “persecuted”; we do well to take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to heart: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

So sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have done wrong and sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have done right. And sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot without having any idea why we are there; sometimes the best we can say is, “Things happen—and they sure are happening now!”

Given what is going on in the world right now, I hardly need to remind you that the tight spot we find ourselves in can be the result of events that involve the great big picture in this great big world so that while we are impacted we are impacted along with a whole lot of people and we may be much less impacted than others are. So, for example, the people of Syria and Iraq are suffering greatly because of the ISIL threat but we feel pressure and stress because of the possible implications of that crisis for our nation and for the world.

The speaker in our psalm had been in a tight spot but now he celebrates—and the people of God join him in celebrating—because the Lord has brought him through. He gives credit and praise to the Lord because only the Lord could bring him out of his tight spot; we should give credit and praise to the Lord for the same reason. Let’s face it, while we should do all that we can to help ourselves—so long as we help ourselves in ways that are true to the life of Christ in us which means in ways that reflect our love for God and our love for others—when all is said and done, only God can see us through and only God can get us out.

That’s why we celebrate this day as the day that the Lord has made. We are Sunday people because Sunday is Resurrection Day. Because we are resurrection people, every day is Sunday because every day the Lord brings life to death, victory to defeat, and deliverance to captivity. Every day is the day that the Lord has made because Jesus is alive every day and because in Christ we are alive every day.

“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” proclaims the speaker in the psalm (v. 17). As Jesus said to Martha just before he raised her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Death and events that feel like death hang over us like a dark cloud, but in the crucified and resurrected Christ the death sentence is lifted and life now reigns where death once ruled. That is what we celebrate on this and on every other day.

The psalm begins and ends with the summons to “give thanks to the LORD” because “he is good” and “his steadfast love endures forever!” That love was shown most clearly in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; that love is shown clearly to us in the ways that God sees us through in this life and in the way that he will carry us into the life beyond this life.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!