Today's scripture passage was Ephesians 2:3-12. Our hymns were Morning Has Broken, Be Thou My Vision, and How Firm a Foundation. The sermon was short, so there was a brief devotional at the beginning, before the prélude. Following church there was a picnic. Because it was raining, we needed to hold it in the social hall. Here's the video of the entire worship service. Beneath it is the transcript of the sermon.
There are Christians out there, of course, who reject science. Many of them are called young-earthers—people who insist that the earth is a few thousand years old. They’re able to determine this by looking at the genealogies in the Bible which list the ancestors of Jesus and Noah, among others, adding up the ages, and then determining that the earth is less than six thousand years old. Though they claim that they’re taking the Bible literally, there’s nothing in the Bible that can really enable anyone to determine the date of creation according to the first chapter of Genesis. Even young-earthers have to do a great deal of guesswork to arrive at a date for creation.
We, of course, know that the earth is simply one planet orbiting around a star that is one of billions—trillions, I reckon—and that the universe is billions of years old and is still in the process of being formed. When we look beyond our solar system and see other stars, they’re so far away that we’re not seeing them as they are on the night we think see them, but as they were years ago.
Take, for example, Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri. When we see their light shining at night, we’re seeing them as they were over four years ago. These are the closest stars to our planet. By contrast, the farthest star that we’ve ever seen is one we call Icarus. And when scientists look at Icarus, they’re looking at a heavenly body so distant that what they’re seeing is nine billion years old. In other words, the star they’re looking is probably long dead, but its light is still visible in the universe.
I’ve never understood why knowing stuff like this is such a threat to some people’s faith. The metaphors used in the Bible are beautiful, and they’re made all the more meaningful when astronomers and physicists help us understand the reality they point to: A creation that evolved over time.
One of the main reasons I find this notion so moving is found in the scripture passage that Jenny just read. It begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
It’s wonderful to meditate on the love of a God whose will was at work thousands of years ago. But how many times can we multiply that love if we think of God’s love in action when that unimaginably distant star Icarus was just an infant… or even billions of years before that when God’s love burst its confines in something known as the Big Bang?
There’s a flip side to this, however. There are many who reject the idea of a Creator, who believe the laws of physics explain the “how” of the universe. Others accept the notion of a Creator, but believe that God simply made what is, along with the laws governing it, and then just stepped back and let the whole thing operate on its own. We’ve all met people with this sort of belief. Maybe some of you believe this way yourselves.
Some people who reject prayer to a God who is involved in the happenings of the world do follow their horoscopes. Though God doesn’t influence our lives, the movements of all the stars and planets do exert influence over what happens to us and how we should live our lives. And more and more these days, I hear people addressing the universe as though it is actually God. People express a belief that the universe has a plan for them. Or they’ll throw up a prayer to the universe that something will or will not happen. Maybe some of you tossed off a prayer to the universe that it wouldn’t rain today.
The difference between belief in the universe or in the zodiac and faith in God is the difference between the impersonal and the personal. The universe and all its stars, planets, black holes and supernovas, is impersonal. It has influence in the same way the earth’s gravitational pull works on the moon. But we can’t think of it as a person. It cannot love us or intentionally guide us or care what happens to us one way or the other. If we believe in it in a certain way, of course, we can adjust our lives to the movement of the stars and planets. But whether we do or do not do this is immaterial to the universe.
But to believe in God is to believe in a personal Being. God the Father is a Person. God the Son is a Person. God the Holy Spirit is a Person. God in Three Persons, blessèd Trinity.
So don’t check your science at the church door [quote adapted from Pheme Perkins]. Look at the night sky and remember how Paul told the church at Ephesus that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” When you look at the North Star, you’re seeing it as it was over 300 years ago—before your great-great-grandparents were conceived. Yet even then, God knew you and loved you. And the fact that humans have now seen a long-dead star, whose light is billions and billions of years old, doesn’t disprove anything we believe about God. If we take today’s reading seriously, then it simply reïnforces the love of God: One of the heavenly places Paul mentions might well be that star Icarus. Even as that star was being born, God loved us. And as it finally fizzled out, God’s love had not diminished, but was simply billions of years closer to being felt by us, the children of God.
The opening verses of Ephesians is one of the most magnificent passages in the scriptures. It is stately and it is deep. I’d love this morning to preach a sermon on predestination, or to discuss the preëxistence of souls—both of these are topics in these verses that are ripe for the harvest. (I believe in one but reject the other, by the way.) But we have a picnic to get to, and I think many of you are probably champing at the bit to get to the hamburgers.
The idea I want to leave us with is simply this: The vastness of the universe speaks to us of the loving wisdom of God. Paul recorded his vision in the Letter to the Ephesians: a vision of God’s plan for us and for the universe—a plan that culminates not just in us hearing the good news of God’s love, but ultimately in experiencing it directly.
—©2021 Sam Greening, Pilgrim Christian Church