On Monday one of my sons asked me if there were any band aids in our band aid box. I said there were. He said he didn’t believe me, and I should prove it. I decided not to show him the full box of band aids. Instead we talked about what it means to have a little faith. To believe something we cannot see.
This morning we begin a sermon series called “Who is God?” about some of our basic understandings of the divine. We do so with great humility in addressing such a topic. Philosophers and theologians have spilt much ink on the subject and what human has not given some thought to the question of if there is a God. We do so as an opportunity to invite someone to join us in worship who may be wrestling with faith or not sure about God. We do so having to trust because God has only partially revealed Godself to us. We want straight lines to clarity about the origins and meaning of life, and God gives us partial answers. So in many ways we are all seekers. And as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews tells us, there are rewards to seeking God. Let us pray….
Comedian Ricky Gervais once asked, “Why don’t you pray just in case there is a God?” And he answered, “For the same reason you don’t cover your doorways in garlic in case there are vampires?” Implying people either believe in God or they don’t. That there is no middle ground. But I find that most of us have some belief in a greater being, we probably wouldn’t be here this morning if we didn’t, combined with some doubt. And even if we intellectually have so many questions about God that we are skeptical, inside most of us have a deep longing for connection with something divine, an inner spiritual sense that there is something greater out there.
Despite any skepticism, most of us instinctively turn to God in particular times of need. It’s like the guy who’s late for a wedding and looking for a parking space. He prays frantically, “Oh God, please open up a spot. Please! I’ll go to church every Sunday.” Suddenly a spot opens up right in front of him. And the guy says, “Oh, never mind, God. I found one.”
They say there are no atheists in hospitals or foxholes at war because in such moments something deep within us comes to the surface. The story is told of an atheist walking through the woods, and he heard a rustling behind him. Turning, he saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw the grizzly was closing. The man tripped and fell to the ground. He rolled over and the bear was right over him with his right paw raised high to hit him. At that instant the atheist cried out, “Oh my God have mercy…it would probably be hypocritical to ask to be religious after all these years, but perhaps you could make the bear religious?” “Very well” said a voice from the heavens. And then the bear lowered his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed its head and prayed: “Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful…”
The author of the letter to the Hebrews understood that instinct, writing that anyone “who comes to God must believe at some level that God exists.”
Intellectually, I believe the evidence argues for the existence of God. The Psalmist cries out that the heavens tell of the glory of God. The Westminster Confession holds that God is known by “the light of nature and the works of creation.” Sir Isaac Newton said, “This most beautiful system of sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” And I cannot consider the amazing habitat of creation without believing in God. If you have ever hiked a mountain, walked a beach, or seen a beautiful sunset, you might have thought, “This had to be planned.” Darwin makes it easier to deny God perhaps. But to me, the beauty, complexity, diversity, and majesty of creation argues for a creator. I cannot believe that this world, this universe, did not originate somewhere. Planets avoid colliding. The earth turns on its core, revolves around the sun at regular times and in the right way to sustain human life. The patterns of the seasons and of day and night show harmony.
Billy Graham said the birth of a baby is the best evidence he knew of for the existence of God. The way the parts of the body are set up to function together I do not believe is pure accident.
While the evidence of God around us is strong, the evidence inside is even stronger. We are rational beings with an innate code of ethics. A human sense of right and wrong, a desire to help and a sense of morality shared at some level by all humans is powerful evidence to me that there must be some higher being that has implanted in us a sense of what ought to be, even if we fall short of achieving it.
We gather here as our national leaders are debating whether to attack Syria in response to Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill 1400 of his own people. We may wonder if living in a world where such atrocities happen, where gun violence occurs on our streets every day, where bad things happen to good people proves there is no God? But I think it underscores the point. Our revulsion to the use of chemical weapons results from our moral character. We get upset because we have a sense of right and wrong, and more often than not we realize when we are doing wrong. Ariel Castro, the man who horrifically held three girls in Cleveland for ten years, spoke openly about how he knew what he did was wrong, pleaded guilty and ultimately took his own life.
I have seen enough miracles and enough tragedies to believe in the supernatural. Evil is real and the instinctive human reaction to it is a sign to me of some greater moral structure imparted by a greater being.
New Zealand’s Robert Laidlaw once explained, “God exists whether we choose to believe in God or not. The reason why many people do not believe in God is not so much that it is intellectually impossible to believe in God, but because belief in God forces the thoughtful person to face the fact that we are accountable to such a God.”
Or as C.S. Lewis described his thought process in becoming a Christian, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of things being just or unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?…
To me, the still small voice in my ear after something significant happens, telling me to do right, making me feel guilty when I do wrong and holding me accountable for my actions is a sign of the existence of God.
I know we are physical, rational and moral beings, but more than this, we are spiritual beings as well. We not only conceive of God in our minds, we have a curiosity, connection and quest for God. There is an assurance within me that I cannot see nor explain that, as the author of Hebrews would put it, earnestly seeks the relationship and meaning of God.
It is not only in times of need, but in moments of quiet prayer or in joyful relationship with another person which brings this out. I am moved when I hug my children, when I see someone I’ve missed from across the room, when I lose someone important. My rational mind wants proof, evidence of God that comports with a scientific method. But my spiritual side, the part of me I cannot see, is comfortable putting my faith in that which I cannot see.
English poet Dante Rossetti wrote, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.” We all have a spiritual side. I believe that is a constant and it explains why the majority of humans throughout the ages continue to believe in a God; that the majority of Americans consistently and overwhelmingly believe in a deity. According the Gallup polls, in 1947 94% of Americans believed in God and in 2011 92% of Americans did.
Now just because so many people believe something doesn’t make it true. Most people used to believe the world was flat. But that so many Americans believed in God throughout the years, even while adherence to formal religion and membership in many denominations has declined, that the belief in God has held steady and that religion is so important to so many different kinds of people throughout the world tells us something about the breath of God, present at creation, inside of each of us.
And on welcome back Sunday, I know there is a God because God welcomes me. A spiritual affirmation that the physical world is no accident, that its beauty and rational ordering are not by chance, that my sense of right and wrong comes from somewhere.
St. Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. “ Whether we are a child looking for a band aid, a youth being chased or an adult asking the big question of life, we have both a head and a heart. And my heart confirms what my head tries to understand, that there is a God.
And thank God there is. Because if there is a God and God is behind the universe than life has new meaning. The questions of why we are here and where we are going have new purpose and hope in connection to God.
Many of you may have seen the movie or read the book The Life of Pi, a story of a 16 year old boy who survived 227 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger, a zebra, and an orangutan. The big claim of the movie is that the story will make you believe in God. I watched the movie on a long flight last year. And that flight was the most quiet and the best chance I’ve had to think in a while. And I thought that what makes me believe in God is not so much the out of the ordinary things that happen once in a lifetime to people like Pi. But the regular order of the things. The structure of the spangled heavens, the conscience of a child, the soothing prayers of a friend that go deep, the spiritual longing of each human for the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
As I look downed from the airplane I noticed that in nature, in the sea and land and mountains, within this amazing creation of God’s, there are lots of curvy and wavy and meandering lines. But not a lot of straight ones. Yet when you fly over farmland in the Midwest where I grew up you see a lot of human made straight lines. We humans like straight lines. There are clear boundaries in them.
But the path to belief in God is not a straight line. We do not fully believe because we inherit a set of beliefs. We believe when we question and search. Because the evidence for God’s existence, while very strong, ultimately is not crystal clear. It is formed by wavy, meandering lines. It relies on uneven paths of faith and doubt. And so the strongest faith results from wrestling with your own doubts and those of others to arrive over time at a place of contentment and trust.
That is why, in the end, the reward that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews talks about comes not from passive agreement, but from actively seeking God.
And so I believe that if you honestly seek God outside and inside yourself, you will find what you are looking for. May it be so. Amen.