Scripture Readings: Psalm 14

Luke 15:1-10

Lost and Found

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

One of the brainiest Christians of all time was man called Anselm, a Norman who became Archbishop of Canterbury around 1,000 years ago. He’s famous for writing a treatise on the existence of God which began with the first words of our Old Testament reading, Psalm 14: ‘Fools say to themselves, there is no God’. And he went on to try to prove, through a very subtle philosophical argument, that the fools were wrong.

With atheism being so fashionable among some people nowadays, it’s tempting for us to misunderstand the beginning of Psalm 14. We all know people who say, ‘There is no God’, and they are not all fools. Perhaps in Anselm’s day, when the existence of God was taken for granted by so many, it did seem you’d have to be a fool to deny the existence of God. Today we have no such consensus. Indeed, there are plenty of people claiming we’re the fools: people like you and me who do believe in God are the fools!

In fact, back in Old Testament times, the Psalmist had no intention of proving that God exists. The Psalmist took it for granted that God existed. The people he was complaining about were those who denied, not that God existed, but that God is active in the world. These are the people who are ‘corrupt’ and ‘do not do what is right’. Not only do they not worship God; they oppress the poor. Another translation makes this clearer:

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;

there is no one who does good,

no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers

who eat up my people as they eat bread,

and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,

for God is with the company of the righteous.

You would confound the plans of the poor,

but the Lord is their refuge.[1]

It is not that they do not believe in God, these people who have gone astray. It is that they do not acknowledge this God who seeks justice for the poor, who is the refuge of the poor. Because they do not fear God, the exploit the poor, ‘eating up my people as they eat bread’. And so this Psalm is not an argument for the existence of God. It is about justice for the poor, and how failing to acknowledge God can lead to selfishness, greed and exploitation.

Indeed, there are no arguments for the existence of God anywhere in the Bible. God is just assumed to exist. I suspect that is how it is for many of us- we have never really stepped outside the zone, and wondered if God does exist. Increasingly, however, many people in our society are stepping outside that zone. For various reasons, they have abandoned believing in God. Indeed, many have been brought up completely devoid of any belief in God, or even having given any thought to God at all. This is our mission field today: a world in which many people have given no thought to God whatsoever. No wonder we find it hard to bring the Christian message into our community- for the Gospel, if it is about anything, is about God.

Whether someone doesn’t believe in God, or have simply never thought about it, or if they simply don’t know, the result is the same as far as living your life is concerned. For the writer of Psalm 14, not knowing God means that you live without God’s law. Those who say ‘There is no God’ try to live with a morality, a sense of right and wrong, which is independent of knowing anything about God.

Some people may be able to do that. There are people who do not believe in God who are good, and kind, and generous. Indeed, there are nonbelievers who sometimes seem to put believers to shame. And there are some people who believers who give Christianity and other religions a bad name. We’re perhaps less confident that the Psalmist was that living without fear of God will lead to people being bad.

A few years ago, indeed, an atheist society paid for an advert on London buses which read, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The English writer Francis Spufford, however, points out just how patronising that must seem to many people:

[S]uppose, as the atheist bus goes by, that you are the fifty-something woman with the Tesco bags, trudging home to find out whether your dementing lover has smeared the walls of the flat with her own shit again. Yesterday when she did it, you hit her, and she mewled till her face was a mess of tears and mucus which you also had to clean up… Or suppose you’re that boy in the wheelchair, the one with the spasming corkscrew limbs and the funny-looking head. You’ve never been able to talk, but one of your hands has been enough under your control to tap out messages. Now the electrical storm in your nervous system is spreading there too, and your fingers tap more errors than readable words. Soon your narrow channel to the world will close altogether, and you’ll be left all alone in the hulk of your body.

So when the atheist bus comes by, and tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own… [L]et’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.[2]

The Bible, as I said, does not attempt to prove God’s existence. It simply asserts that God exists. We cannot, in fact, prove that God is exists to someone who is determined to not believe in God. People believe in God, not because of philosophical arguments, but because of a deep inner feeling that it must be so.

A favourite Psalm of mine, Psalm 8, includes words which speak to a deep place in my being:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places—

what are human beings, that you think of them;

mere mortals, that you care for them?[3]

For I have always been fascinated by the night sky. And I remember the first time I looked through a telescope at the moon. Suddenly those craters and mountains seemed almost within touching distance, as if I was orbiting the moon like an Apollo astronaut. It was almost mystical moment. But I wasn’t in church, or saying my prayers. I was dabbling, as an amateur, in the science of astronomy.

The Psalmist goes on to speak of his faith that the God who made the stars also made human beings:

Yet you made [us] inferior only to yourself;

you crowned [us] with glory and honour.[4]

His awe at the wonder of the night sky turns to faith. It is not that the wonders of the universe necessarily makes people believe in God. But those of us who believe in God can’t seem to help seeing God in the wonders of nature. As Psalm 19 puts it, ‘How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory! How plainly it shows what he has done!’ This is how the night sky affects me. But I have faith already.

It took millions of years for our world to come to be the way it is. Animals evolved over aeons of time, our planet formed out of the dust of the sun, and that the universe is unimaginably enormous and may well have other planets which are a lot like planet earth, populated, perhaps, by intelligent beings not unlike us. So the best science tells us. It is an awesome story.

Someone like Richard Dawkins will say that the theory of evolution has been a great success at explaining the evidence we have for how plants and animals are how they are. And he’s right, as far as I can tell, for he’s an expert in biology, and I would not argue with Dawkins about biology. But once he start to talk about philosophy and theology- well, then he trespassed into my special territory. Dawkins, and many other people today, claim that what we know about the world through science somehow make belief in God redundant. But having read and thought a lot about this, I can’t really see how that can be the case.

You see, I can’t prove there is a God. But I don’t see why I can’t believe in God, but also believe the scientists, and what they can tell us about the world, the universe, and how it all came to be. We can believe that there is a designer of the universe, for that is a matter of faith, not of science.

Science doesn’t rock my faith. On the contrary. Now that the dark nights are coming in again, I’m beginning to look at all those stars, and like the writer of Psalm 8, I am dumfounded: I look at the sky, at the moon and the stars, and my thoughts turn to the God who made it all.

In 1990, having spent years taking spectacular pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, the cameras of the Voyager 1 spacecraft were turned on earth, which was now 3.9 billion miles away. Voyager took a photograph in which our planet showed up as a tiny pale blue dot in what seemed like limitless space.

It is very humbling to think that we live on that tiny pale blue dot. It puts things into a new perspective. For some people, it means that we are really not that important, this race of people living on a tiny dot surrounded by all that immensity. But that pale blue dot is the only place we currently know of which sustains any kind of life. The blue is because the planet is covered in great oceans teeming with life. There’s more fascinating, complex, and multitudinous life on the land. And one of those land animals managed to design, build and send on its way the Voyager 1 spacecraft which took the photo. As Carl Sagan said of the photograph,

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.[5]

In the vast immensity of space, there is truly no place like our home planet! Some people might say that since the earth is such a tiny dot in an immensity of space, it surely can’t be that important. But I think they are wrong.

They are wrong because Jesus of Nazareth once walked our earth. He spoke of God, the creator of the universe- but not in the ways the philosophers speak of God. For Jesus taught that God is not an abstract concept, not just an explanation for how the world is. Remember, Psalm 14 said that those who deny God are living lives without God’s law. What God requires is not that we simply say, ‘I think God exists’: that’s not faith. Faith is when our belief in God becomes trust in God. And we learn to live as God would want us to live. For this is the God who, as Psalm 14 says, protects the poor, and who calls on those who say they believe in him to struggle for justice in our world.

And, in that tradition, Jesus came to live on our blue dot and told us stories: about a shepherd who searched for a lost sheep, and a woman who searched for a lost coin. Jesus was saying that God will go searching for those who are lost, whoever they are. These are wonderful tales to remind us that God really does care for the last and the least of his children. Tales of a God who, in Jesus, sought out our tiny blue dot of a planet, a God who seeks out the people of that planet, bringing them grace, hope and faith even although we seem so very small in the cosmic scale of things. When I look at the sky, I ask God: ‘What are mere human beings? Yet you have crowned us with glory and honour!’

Whatever our place in the universe, Christian faith maintains that all that is was created and maintained by the power of God. And according to Jesus, the nature of this God is love, and this God seeks each of us out and loves us as a father or mother loves their children. God does not think less of the inhabitants of this blue speck in space because we don’t take up a lot of room. Quite the contrary. God- the refuge of the poor- has come among us, in Jesus Christ, has come to seek us out and call us to trust him. And when we respond to the call of God and learn to live God’s way of justice and of peace, then the heavens rejoice.

Ascription of Praise

To the King of the ages,

immortal, invisible,

the only God,

be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17 (NRSV)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] Psalm 14.3-6 NRSV

[2] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Kindle Location 121). Faber and Faber

[3] Psalm 8.3,4

[4] Psalm 8.5

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot