Following the science

In the sermon last week, I was trying to illustrate the vast creative power of Jesus Christ, who spoke everything into being, so I asked Google to tell me the number of galaxies in the universe.

Two trillion.

I was surprised, because the previous time I checked, the number was in the hundreds of billions.

The previous estimate was off by more than a trillion.

This week I checked Google again, and now the number is 125 billion.

I’m not making this up.

For some time now, our leaders have been telling us to “follow the science” when it comes to a host of issues. But “following the science” as a matter of public policy, without a basis in values we all agree on, is fraught with problems.

John Lennox, an Oxford professor of math and science, gave the following illustration:

Imagine your Aunt Matilda made a beautiful cake, and you took it to be analyzed by a group of the world’s top scientists.

The nutritionists told you the number of calories and the nutritional effects. 

The biochemists described the structure of proteins, fats, and so on. 

The physicists analyzed the cake in terms of fundamental particles. 

The mathematicians provided a set of equations to describe the behavior of the particles.

But then you asked the scientists one final question: Why was the cake made?

Only Aunt Matilda knows. 

Lennox said, “All the scientists in the world are not going to be able to answer that question, and it’s no insult to their disciplines that they can’t. The only way we’ll ever get an answer is if Aunt Matilda reveals it to us.”

The Gospel of John says that God has revealed his purpose for your life: To be in a relationship with the God who created you, and to reflect back to God a bit of his glory that he put in you. 

The scientists can describe you the same way they describe Aunt Matilda’s cake.

Only God can tell you what you’re worth.

One nation under God

I could say a lot about the sad spectacle of protestors-turned-rioters trashing the US Capitol this week, but I need to stick to my lane.

I’m a pastor.

It’s fashionable these days to bash the idea of American exceptionalism, but if America isn’t exceptional, why are we so upset about what we saw?

America truly is exceptional. Every other nation in history was based on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or place. But America was founded by people from different tribes, religions, ethnicities, and places.

They all had to cross an ocean in wooden ships to get here.

The nation they formed was based, not on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or geography, but on the truly exceptional idea that free people could govern themselves.

A nation…based on an idea?

What gave them the idea it could work? 

Faith.

The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. Of course, not everyone believed, and there were vast differences in how faith was practiced. But enough did believe to create a shared expectation of how free people were supposed to behave.

The key was George Whitefield, the most important founding father you never heard of. Whitefield was a short, cross-eyed preacher from England who was the first truly international celebrity. Aside from George Washington, he was the most famous person in America. He attracted vast crowds; people would walk 20 miles or more to hear him. His clear voice allowed him to be heard by tens of thousands at once. His sermons made people weep, wealthy and poor alike.

Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people were of infinite worth and beloved by God.

When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. His legacy was a shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.

But today, not nearly enough of us have heard the Gospel, and not nearly enough weep at its beauty. We’ve lost the shared understanding of public virtue that can only come from a Gospel understanding of the worth of each person.   

If you were sad or scared about what happened this week, there is something you can do:

Join a church that lives and proclaims the Gospel.

Worship. Bring your friends. Repeat.

Really, what’s your excuse? It’s not like you have to cross an ocean.

Odd truth

An epiphany is a sudden realization. 

In the church, Epiphany usually refers to the arrival of the Magi and the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles, meaning the non-Jewish world.

Author Flannery O’Connor is credited with paraphrasing a famous verse from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” The revelation of Jesus to the world has always carried with it surprise and disruption.

And some people have always been offended.

If Jesus was rejected as a baby by the political powers of his day, and as an adult by the folks of his own hometown, why would we expect it to be different in our day? 

No matter how loving and winsome we are, no matter how dedicated and selfless our service to others, revealing Christ to the world carries with it the risk of rejection.

What’s more, we need to give ourselves over to a process of ongoing revelation. We need to continue to allow ourselves to be surprised by what God is doing in the world, and in and through us.

The Magi had open minds and a star to guide them. They didn’t mind travelling a long way to a far-off country where their pagan religion would have been odd, if not downright offensive.

But it was worth it to discover the truth of Jesus Christ.

Now it’s our turn to share the truth. The folks around us are depending on us for their epiphany.     

Who minds being a little odd?

Fear not

When I was a kid, I was always afraid to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Year after year I had the same nightmare. I don’t remember the dream itself, but even today, I remember how terrified I was. I guess I was too wound up, or afraid Santa would pass our house by if I weren’t asleep.

We rarely focus on this—it doesn’t come out in children’s Christmas pageants—but the first Christmas began in terror for unsuspecting shepherds. Luke 2:9 says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

The old King James translation says they were “sore afraid.”

The Greek word for fear, phobia, is used twice in this sentence, first as a verb and then as a noun, along with the adjective mega, meaning “great.” 

Literally, the shepherds were “greatly afraid, fearful, mega.”

Isn’t Christmas supposed to be about warm feelings?

And what were they afraid of? It could not have been because they forgot to buy batteries, or because their crazy uncle showed up unannounced.

Luke said it was God’s glory. The Divine Essence on display in the night sky. The manifestation of the excellence and power of God. They saw God for who God really was, and they realized who they were in comparison.

That’s the primal fear, the fear beneath all other fears. 

To overcome that fear, God had to do something that no other religion can comprehend: God was born for you.

God became vulnerable. God came in need of you. 

When you take the Christ child into your arms, God shines the light of his glory on you. God sees you for who you really are and finds you beautiful.

“Fear not,” says the God of Love. “I was born for you.”

Get ready

Do you spend a lot of time and effort getting ready for the holidays?

OK, this year, maybe not so much. Maybe this year we take a step back from the excess.

But most of us pour ourselves into getting ready when we’re expecting guests. I remember my relatives would not only clean up and decorate for Christmas, somehow the prospect of having Christmas visitors led them to do major remodeling, new paint, carpet, curtains, and more.

On the other hand, I had a relative who was embarrassed at the thought of having visitors. Her home was lovely. It was modest, but it was furnished with nice things. She just never thought it was good enough, so visitors rarely got invited.

What if you got a call from the White House that the President was coming? Not only would you pour yourself into getting ready, the FBI would do a background check on you. You’d be in for a thorough examination.

The more important the guest, the more things have to be just right.

We all do this. In the Christmas song, even the “Little Drummer Boy” wondered if what he had was fit for a king.

But what if there is something more to getting ready for visitors than just avoiding embarrassment?

What if our unease points to something deeper?

John the Baptist knew that someone truly special was coming, someone unlike anyone who’d come before. If we knew what John knew, we’d do more than clean house.

The King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming.

Let every heart prepare him room.

Comfort, comfort

The order could not have come at a worse time.

Closing restaurants and businesses may slow the spread of the virus, but closings also spread unemployment. The suffering of the sick and the heartache of their caregivers is met by the despair of those who’ve lost dreams and livelihoods. 

This week I was on a Zoom meeting with my old debate team friends at the Air Force Academy from 50 years ago. Our revered Coach Whitlock, now 86, told us how the pandemic put an end to his teaching career after 56 years.

We got to tell Coach what he meant to us.

We’d all gone on to successful careers in the military, government, and business. Without any doubt, our speech and debate experience made all the difference.

So we lamented that the people ordering shutdowns never learned what we did.

It’s not enough to be right. To be convincing, you need to be clear and speak to the heart.

This Sunday is our Lessons and Carols service, where we get to hear great music, sing our faith, and let loose of some of our grief and frustrations.

One song we’ll be singing is Comfort, Comfort Now My People. Its words were first spoken to exiles by the Prophet Isaiah in the 6th century BCE.

A German pastor set the words to music about 500 years ago, using a French tune that’s now 600-years-old. The version in our hymnal was translated into English about 150 years ago.

I was imagining how this great song has comforted grieving people over the centuries.

Music is a gift from God, so it’s vital we sing during times like this.

Even if our leaders don’t know how to speak to our hearts, God still does.

Comfort, comfort now my people;

Speak of peace, so says our God.

Comfort those who sit in darkness,

Mourning under sorrow’s load.

Cry out to Jerusalem

Of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover

And her warfare now is over.

Joy

Can you think of times in your life when you experience pure, unadulterated joy?

One of those times for me was when I graduated from the Air Force Academy. The annual picture of graduates tossing their hats in the air, while the Thunderbirds zoom over, surely is one of the iconic symbols of joy in our county.

I got to experience that with Jana, my folks, and my sister. After four, long years filled with opportunity, challenge, homesickness, and so much more, it was pure joy.

Jana and I got married six weeks later.

Our boys came along eight and ten years later, respectively.

Pure joy.

I hope you’ve had a few moments in your life like that.  

The Bible has a number of famous songs of joy that give us insight into ultimate joy. One of the greatest is Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55, expressing the joy of Mary as she starts to grasp what the baby she’s carrying will do: Right every wrong. End every injustice. Satisfy every hunger. And not just for Mary, but for everyone, everywhere. 

Forever.

Pure cosmic joy.

But what if our greatest joys in this life are just fleeting glimpses of the joy God has prepared for us?

That’s the claim of Christmas. Christ was born for this.

Mary, (how) did you know?

In this era of fake news, how do you know what’s true?

We each have our preferred news outlets. We customize the news feeds on our phones. We cancel sources (and friends) who tell us things we don’t want to hear.

We say something is true “if it works for you.”

Of all the news that’s ever been delivered in all of history, the news Mary received from the angel Gabriel has to be among the hardest to believe.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”  (Luke 1:31-33)

If we received an email or a text like this, we’d block the sender.

But Mary didn’t get to pick and choose her source. And I doubt she considered whether this news was going to “work for her.”

What Mary did was to thoughtfully process what the angel had told her. English translations say she “wondered” or “pondered.” In the end, she told the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

The Christian faith cannot just be true “if it works for you.”

The Christian faith only works if it’s true.

Mary considered the source…an angel.

Mary considered the message in light of what she knew about God.

Mary chose to believe.

And that’s how she knew what the angel told her was true.

We had to celebrate

With the rise in cases of Covid-19, health officials have been warning us not to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

I’m thankful for leaders who work to protect us, I pray for them. But I wonder. What is the cost of minimizing the risk to our physical health?

What about our mental and spiritual health?

Luke 15 tells how the tax collectors and sinners “gathered around” Jesus. Seeing this, the Pharisees (which means “separatist”) muttered against him. In response, Jesus told three parables in which something was lost, a sheep, a coin, and a son. After each was found, there was, you guessed it, a celebration.

When the shepherd found his lost sheep and the woman found her lost coin, no explanation was needed. Everyone knew why they had to celebrate. “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” Jesus said.

But when his younger son was found, the father had to explain his joy to the older son. “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

When Jesus brings someone home, it’s a cause for cosmic joy.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day didn’t understand. Most people today don’t understand either.

Jesus described our ultimate future as a great banquet where he is the host. When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we get a taste of the joy in our ultimate future. And when believers gather for Thanksgiving, we get a taste of that joy as well.

When we gather to celebrate, there’s a health risk.

When we fail to gather to celebrate, there’s a soul risk.

Sometimes you have to celebrate.

When Dad paid the bills

When I was growing up in the 60’s, my Dad and I used to talk a lot about money. Actually, he would talk, and I would listen.

Dad was a pharmacist, and he and his two partners ran the corner drug store near our home. It was a classic old place with a marble soda fountain. The store provided for a decent living for the three men and their families, the delivery man and his family, and several clerks. 

But Dad always discouraged me from following in his footsteps. “Be a CPA”, he’d say. “They make $30,000.”

I don’t know how much Dad made, but it was a lot less than that. Back then, $30,000 seemed like a lot. Adjusted for inflation, it would be about $225,000 today.

Once a month, Dad would sit at his desk and pay the bills. I tried to avoid him on those days, because paying the bills always put him in a bad mood. He especially disliked paying for car repairs. “Never buy your first car,” he would say.

We had older cars that were frequently in the shop. We lived in an older house. I didn’t dress as nicely as some kids at school.

But I don’t recall any of that being a problem.

We had everything we needed and more.

We were content, except maybe for Dad when he paid the bills.

Then I grew up and starting paying the bills.

And no matter how much I got paid, and how many times I got promoted, it never felt like it was enough.

There is a reason Jesus talked more about money than anything else.

Jesus didn’t need money. He was God and didn’t need anything. Yet Jesus talked more about money that he talked about hell, and he talked about hell a lot.

Jesus knew there would always be someone who made more than us.

Jesus knew that the more we make, the more we consume. Luxuries become necessities. The more we make, the less content we are.

Jesus knew this happens to everyone, so we don’t realize it’s happening to us.

Are you giving away so much that it affects your lifestyle?

Are there things you can’t do, places you can’t go, things you can’t buy because you’re so generous? Unless the answer is “yes,” Jesus might not be first in your life.

You’ll never have enough, never be content, until he is.