WHY I BELIEVE: ALL THINGS NEW
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 14, 2014 (Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5
Although I decided not to do a sermon on them – for now – there have been some news events of the past few weeks that I think are important to reflect on in light of the faith that we profess. Today, let me just say something about the news of a professional football player who has been suspended for beating his then-fiance’ (now wife). You can discuss what should or shouldn’t be done about it over coffee after worship, but I want to state unequivocally that domestic violence is never acceptable. I will offer the counsel that I give to couples who are planning to marry here in this church: Any incidence of abuse or violence is reason to seek professional counseling. If you are in an abusive relationship, seek help, or get out. No one deserves to be hit or abused; promises to change are almost never kept. Love — is not violent or cruel. In the words of the apostle Paul, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5) If you would like to talk with me in private about this – let me know.
The sermon I planned for today is on some of the things that we believe as Christians. Why do you believe? Why do you believe in God, and in Jesus? What would you answer if some person, on learning that you were a Christian and part of a church , asked you why? Would you have an answer? The New Testament book of 1 Peter counsels believers, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15)
Many people come to believe what they do because they were raised in the church. The Christian faith is all they have ever known. They accepted what they were taught without a lot of serious thought. Maybe some folks were taught that asking questions showed a lack of faith. But these days, we meet and relate to people of other faiths. What makes Christianity different from Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism?
And there are many people who see no need for God or religious faith at all. Can we offer any reason to think otherwise?
As many of you know, I had some church background as a child and youth, but not a lot. I told our new confirmation class that I am a confirmation class dropout – I never did confirm my faith as a youth even though I was baptized as an infant. But I have thought about what I believe — and have come to be a minister and preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ because I believe it gives us insights into who we are, and why the world is as it is. Today, and in the weeks to come, I am going to share some of my thinking. I hope it will encourage you to think about what you believe as well.
(Note: I have started a new “sermon discussions” topic on our church website, if you would like to post questions or comments.)
Have you ever had the feeling that the world and our society are falling apart? It’s hard not to feel that way some days as we get the news of the world. Many young folks see the world as exciting, with great possibilities, and perhaps a naïve belief that they can change things and make the world better. As we get older, it seems that we mourn the loss of institutions and principles we believed in, and we can be less optimistic about the future. It is easy for us old folks to believe the world is crumbling rather than improving.
Well guess what? Scientifically speaking, the world is running down. The most common theory that astronomers and other scientists currently believe is that the universe began with a “big bang” more than 14 billion years ago. It started as a tiny speck smaller than the human eye could see (if there were any humans, or light to see by), and it is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. But its sources of energy are being used up. If it continues in this way, a time may finally come when all sources of energy in the universe are depleted. It will become cold and dark, and life will cease to exist.
I wouldn’t lose any sleep about it. We won’t be here to see that happen – none of us. The sun that gives light and warmth to the earth is expected to keep shining for more than 2 billion more years. Who knows what human beings will have learned and become by that time.
But eventually – a long, long time from now – this world and universe will come to an end. If that happens, it seems to me that ultimately, all that we learn and all that we do won’t matter.
It’s a depressing thought.
When I was a youth, I loved to read science fiction, and one of my favorite authors (and perhaps one of the earliest theologians I ever read, although most people would not think of him as such) was Isaac Asimov. There is one short story that he wrote that I remember after all these years, called “The Last Question.” He wrote it just as computers were being invented and developed – and he foresaw some of their potential. In the story, as computers started to be capable of remembering more data and looking for connections between them, a computer programmer asked an early device a question: How can the process of the universe running down be reversed? After doing all the calculations it could to answer the question, the computer finally had to respond, “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”
Over the course of many thousands of years, that first simple computer grew in ability and complexity (just like the internet), and people who worked with them would occasionally ask again that great question, “How can the process of the universe running down be reversed?” And throughout the course of human history, no computer was able to answer the question – there was insufficient information.
Finally, the computer continued to grow in ability and complexity until all information that would ever be known was loaded into its memory. The last stars in the universe winked out, and all life finally came to an end, but still the computer continued to do calculations, trying to answer that one last question that could never be answered. Finally, after a very long time, all the calculations were done, and the great computer had enough information to answer the question, but no one to give the answer to.
And so the computer said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. A new universe was created.
That story made a big impression on me. Over the years I have come to understand that God is much more than some super-computer. But I have decided to believe in God because only God offers the hope that all things can be made new.
Philosophers and theologians have tried for centuries to prove that God exists (or does not exist). It can’t be done. Human reason cannot prove that God exists (or does not exist). Perhaps, as some have suggested, God precedes existence. Instead, believing in God is a choice that we make – a choice for hope rather than despair; a choice for possibility rather than fate; a choice for love rather than indifference. A faith choice.
And the good news is that God did not just create a new world “in the beginning.” God is still creating – making all things new. One of the phrases in our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith that I think is brilliant is that God “calls the worlds into being.” Creation is an ongoing process.
This world is falling apart. Personally, I think that is a good thing. The world that is ruled by money and power and domination and oppression and violence is running out of energy, and its demise cannot come too soon. A new world, ruled by God and steadfast love, is already coming into being. I choose to believe in that world, and in the God who is creating it, and in Jesus Christ, the first light of that new creation.
And the old me is also falling apart and being recreated. The me that desires to have everything my way — to be happy and successful and free from pain is dying. It is a process that started in a baptismal font in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. But because I believe in God, that is a good thing. Because I believe that God can even make me new – more in the divine image, willing to trust that God knows what is better for me than I do, and that I can be a co-creator with God in the new world that is coming into being.
In the original Hebrew texts of the Prime (Old) Testament of the Bible, the verb that is translated into English as “create” – as in the story that begins the book of Genesis – is only applied to God. Humans can take stuff that God has created and make other stuff out of it, but only God can create. Only God can make all things new. And that is why I choose to believe in God.
Robert J. von Trebra
Copyright 2014 by Robert J. von Trebra
(Here is a link to a piece of music I thought about using after this sermon – but didn’t:
“The Story in Your Eyes” by the Moody Blues)