Sermon - Epiphany 5 (Ordinary 5) Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
God the Creator: ancient and modern
[See also the sermons Creation: Faith and Science and The Wholeness of Miracles, especially the note at the end of the latter for references, and in particular the recent work of Harold Turner on the history of Christian faith and science which deserves to be more widely known. ]
If we look to the Old Testament for guidance on how we can live with faith in God in a world in which science has a strong influence, it seems quite strange to many in the modern world; and I would not wish in pointing that out to suggest that there is necessarily something wrong with modern thinking in that respect. To be helpful to people who in the present intellectual and cultural climate feel alienated from traditional beliefs and institutions one needs to acknowledge the liberation from authoritarian teaching and superstition which they, and we, enjoy. It is not such freedom that is at fault, but the misunderstanding of the nature of God, that is associated with alienation from God, which is the point at which believers might hope to offer the modern sceptic something better. It is mostly true that the image of God that modern atheists reject is not a good understanding of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we believe. If we believers are to do make clear what we do believe about what God if like, we need all the resources available to us, and ancient though it may be, that includes the revelation of God in the Old Covenant, witnessing to the experience of the people of Israel centuries before Christ was born. We need it as well as the teaching of Jesus, the witness of the apostles and faithful people through the ages up to and including the windows which have been opened onto the wonders of God's creation in recent times. Yet, unless you start from a position of strong Christian or Jewish commitment, or perhaps Mulim, and greater readiness that many believers today would be prepared to allow in the authority of Scripture, you would probably not expect to find anything useful in the literature of captive people living in Babylon about the time when it was conquered by the Persians in the Sixth Century BC.
The background to the Old Testament reading for today is an exhuberant shout of faith in God in the opening verses of Isaiah Chapter 40. It was made in reponse to a great historical event. The prophet who wrote in the name of Isaiah saw the conquest of one powerful empire by another as an act of liberation by God. Historically, it is well documented that in 539 BC King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian empire at the battle of Opis north of the city of Babylon, later entering the city without a fight by diverting the river Euphrates and exposing an entry underneath its impenetrable walls. One the acts for which Cyrus is remembered was that he liberted the captive peoples held there, including the Jews. The prophet saw the approaching army and called out, "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God," and "See the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him." (Is. 40:3b and 10a). The people of Israel who had been held captive in Babylon for fifty years were set free when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and they celebrated the prospect of returning to Jerusalem. You might expect to find something there, in Isaiah, about hopes for liberation and a new life, even the foundations for rebuilding of a nation. But would you expect to see there anything to inspire faith in God the Creator of the universe? Whence came the call to look up to the stars and say, "Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing." (Is. 40:26).
Are not concerns with liberty, and the thrilling prospect of release after many years of oppression, not much more immediate and deserving of attention to a captive people than the big picture stuff about the cosmos and God as Creator. Are not those big ideas not something to ponder in more relaxed circumstances. Why engage in star gazing when the army of another great power is marching to conquer the empire which has destroyed your home, and kept your people captive? But that is what the prophet did. The word of God to the oppressed people of Israel (in the second part of the book of Isaiah beginning in Chapter 40 from which the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday comes to us) was precisely that the one in whom the captives can set their hopes is the Lord of Creation, not a mere national god or protective angel, but he who is far above all earthly and heavenly beings including the great princes who contend for passing earthly power, and the stars of the sky, and yet not removed from the concerns of ordinary mortals. He is the same present power who will renew the strength of the poor and weak. The God of Creation and the God of history are the same God, and the same God as one who cares for the meekest members of the human family. As Isaiah expressed it "He will feed his flock like a shepard; he will gather the lambs in his arms" (v. 11), as Jesus was to teach directly some centuries later. You do not have to chose between the big picture and intimate concerns, and between a distant mighty power and an immanent picture of God. What holds them together is the faithfulness of God to his creatures in a well ordered world. The Lord of the universe is the God who comes to us and sets us free. That is a message for the modern world just as much as it was for the ancient people of Israel, and it does not require us to be antiquarian or old fashioned or to believe in an tyrant God who artibrarily intervenes in earthly affairs, nor is it to deny all value in the modern world. The foundation for all our hopes is in the nature of God who is both great and compassionate.
The high and mighty God rules over the mighty of the earth. That is not all there is to this understanding of God, but it is a source of hope to those who suffer unjustly under the lords of the earth. It is a comfort to them to know that the rulers of empires can be bought down. So Isaiah began, "Comfort, comfort, my peoplesays your God." (Is.40:1). Before the power of God earthy powers are but little things:
It is the grand vision of the ruler of heaven that gives hope to the oppressed. It is a word of reassurance rather than a threat. So the prophet had begun his message of hope with words of comfort: "Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem..." (Isaiah 40:1). The word of comfort is a word of liberation and hope as the glory of God is to be revealed in contrast to the insignificance of their oppressors: a new way will open for the triumph of God's servants. The voice of the prophet in the wilderness was later picked up by John the Baptist (as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "make straight the way of the Lord" John 1:22) to announce the coming of Christ.
It is a wonder in the light of modern scepticism about politics and warfare that the hand of God could be seen in the coming victory of a pagan Persian king over the rulers of Babylon - a real historical event seen with the eyes of faith. Where is that vision today? Would you trust it if you had it? Perhaps you might think not, and for good reason. But the prophet's celebration of the approach of an army of liberation was in some ways not so different from the words of hope that might have been spoken about the approaching Allied armies liberating the captives of Nazi Germany, or perhaps when the Berlin Wall came down. The prophet's celebration of the conquering and liberating army was truly intended to be a word of comfort, an assurance of the compassion of God who cares for the weak and lowly in their struggle with the strong and mighty
Here the prophet foreshadows the words of Mary in her song we know as the Magnificat, of which were reminded in the season of Advent and sang at the opening of our worship today, "He has put done the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52).
It is in this context that the glory of God the Creator is celebrated as a sign of God as Saviour, in the context of human struggle and freedom. Then it makes sense to sing of the wonders of his might,
This is context of liberation and majesty in which God the Creator is seen as "he who sits above the circle of the earth", from where "its inhabitants are like grasshoppers".
A sophisticated mind with a modern world view of a universe 13.5 billion years old containing hundreds of billions of billions of stars like our sun, and we can only guess how many planets like the earth, might see the idea of a great being sitting on top of a blue vault "above the circle of the earth" a ridiculously limited vision, and scarcely one to inspire confidence in the knowledge of the writer; and you could even find the view of people as like grasshoppers humiliating; but the word of the prophet is not about the world or the kind of cosmological theory we should prefer. We have in that passage a clear example of the "pre-scientific" world view, the three decker universe, in which God sits above the circle of the earth, and it raises again the question of how to speak of God in a world often estranged from the church by such visions of the Creator. Modern cosmology, nevertheless, although it is never free from the prejudice of the theorist who produced it, especially where outdated "scientism" prevails, is not so far removed from Christian understanding as is often assumed. As the cosmologist Paul Davies puts it, in books such as "The Mind of God", deep study of theoretical physics can lead to the conclusion that it is not all an accident, but that "the universe is about something". There is plenty for room for debate in which Christians can participate honestly, without fear of what may be discovered.
Christians should not give up on talk of God as Creator, but neither do we need to retreat defensively into uses of the Bible to oppose science. We have nothing to fear from the truth obtained from observation. It will not contradict what we learn from revelation. On the contrary, modern science depends upon basic attitudes which have been developed in Christian culture. Such attitudes as consistency in the way of world functions being an expression of the faithfulness of God; the unity of body and spirit being part of a belief in abstract thought like mathematics fitting with experience of the physical world. Historically it is a fact that modern empirical science grew in the soil of Christendom. Others sometimes had superior technology and mathematics, but not systematic scientific understanding of the physical world. We could go on to discuss further how contemporary theories of creation are more amenable to a theological understanding than the clockwork models of an earlier generation, and how the Christian faith laid the cultural foundations of belief in an ordered world not ruled by an arbitrary tyrant but one who could be trusted and is open to human discovery. But it is the human orientation of God to his creatures, as one open to the minds and hearts of humanity, that comes through to us from those ancient words of Isaiah.
The words of hope from Isaiah to the suffering people of Israel are about the nature of God the Creator who rules with care for his creatures:
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