Sermon for 19.02.17
I have a distinct memory of being nine or ten years old and walking around the outside of my house in Ohio, trying to get to grips with the idea of eternity. What could it possibly mean to say that the universe had existed forever, and that I would live forever? No beginning to the universe, no end to me? It was literally inconceivable.
It was only a year or two later that the Steady State theory of the universe, going all the way back to Aristotle, became supplanted by the idea of the Big Bang. You will all be familiar with the theory that 13.8 billion years ago, give or take a billion, the universe, and with it space and time itself, came into being as the result of a singular event. The universe began to expand and has been doing so ever since. One day the universe will come to an end, and with it space and time, though the scientists can’t agree when or how. It might be the Big Crunch in a mere hundred million years, when the expansion turns into a collapse. Or it might be a little longer – a hundred trillion years – until the Big Freeze occurs when the universe reaches the maximum entropy of absolute zero.
Either way doesn’t make a great deal of personal difference to me. But I find it oddly comforting to think that scientists now agree that space and time had a beginning and will have an end. We don’t have to spend any more time trying to imagine something that has just always existed and always will.
Genesis tells us the story of the beginning of the universe in poetic language. It doesn’t concern itself with the laws of physics. It focuses not on how the universe came to be, but why. Before space and time were created, Christians believe, God was, or is – it’s hard to know what tense to use. God was, or is, love before the universe came into being, because in God’s very self love flows between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. There was no need of anything else. But in God’s infinite, overflowing love, a space was made for something that is not-God. A Word was spoken – the Word that we call God the Son – and the universe came into being.
After 13 billion years of silence, that universe, through finely tuned physical laws, has brought into being on an insignificant planet circling a small star a tiny collection of carbon life forms we call the human race. What an extraordinary thought that is. How we came to be is a breathtaking mystery. But again, Genesis is only interested in why.
The reason, we are told, is because God wanted to make us in God’s own image. We know that in God’s innermost being is relational love. And that is what we reflect – it’s not our physical shape or our intellectual capacity that is godlike, but the fact that we only become fully human persons through being in relationship with God and with each other.
And, says Genesis, when we had arrived, God said that creation was very good, and it was time to rest. Now there were creatures in the universe who could know and return the love of the Creator.
That is the Christian story of our beginning. Paul writes about the other end of the story – where is it all going? He knows that there will be a time when the universe as we know it will come to an end. Whether it collapses or freezes is of no theological concern. What matters is that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” I have no idea at all of what that will look like or when it will happen, and neither did Paul. But his faith in the new creation was unshakeable, and it was based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We celebrate Sunday, the first day of the new creation, rather than the Saturday Sabbath of rest, because the resurrection is our guarantee that this created universe has a purpose and a direction. We began from God’s love, and our end-point is union with the loving God.
Our readings today have the broadest sweep imaginable, from the origins of the universe to the end of all finite things. But the gospel places us squarely in time, where Jesus came to meet us. Out of the eternity of God, the deep magic before the dawn of time as C.S. Lewis called it, the Son of God was born as one of us in the midst of human history. And his message in the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been hearing in chunks for several Sundays, was very down-to-earth.
Do not worry. Don’t be afraid. God loves you.
That was the message that my nine-year-old self had yet to assimilate. I was a terrific worrier. The world was a big and scary place and I laboured under the notion that I had to be good enough to win God’s approval. I think that is actually quite a common notion, in adults as well as children.
I needed to hear, as I still need to hear, the message of Jesus. In the midst of this immense, varied, mysterious, beautiful and sometimes terrifying universe, you are here because God made you and loves you. Hold onto that thought when your head begins to spin from the immensity of space and time that we now know about. Don’t worry about the Big Freeze in a hundred trillion years. Don’t even worry about tomorrow!
Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God, and that will put everything else into perspective. He doesn’t mean that life will be one long picnic. As one Biblical commentator wryly points out, even birds sometimes come to a sticky end through hunting or starvation. And Jesus himself reminds us of what happens to the flowers of the field – they end up in the stove. This is not a Disney world of tidy perfection that he is talking about. It is still a universe groaning in labour pains, as Paul says – an interesting metaphor for a bachelor to quote, I’ve always thought, but anyone who has given birth will appreciate the idea of a deeply joyful and amazing outcome from a pretty horrendous experience.
There will be troubles enough for today. We are not to be free of trouble, but free of worry. It’s not the facts of our lives but the meaning of our lives that Jesus is talking about. We are of eternal significance – we little carbon life forms in our corner of the universe. We are here not by accident but because of divine love. What happens to us matters to God. It matters so much that God chose to become part of this created universe, in order to show us what God’s love means.
During Lent this year, some of us will be reading extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings. Last week, when I was staying in a residential theological library to do some reading in Bonhoeffer, I discovered that the German word for Mediator is Mittler. Jesus comes to us in the middle of history, between God and humanity, between one human being and another. The Mittler brings heaven and earth together, time and eternity, the beginning and the end. The awe-inspiring sweep of the story of the universe, from its moment of creation to its unknown destiny, finds its centre in Jesus Christ, our friend and brother. There on a hillside, talking about birds and flowers and telling us not to worry, sat the Word that brought everything into being.
Rather than worry about where we came from or where we’re going, it is enough to try to get to grips with that stupendous thought.