March 10, 2013
Well, we did it, we moved our clocks forward and made it to church alright. I find that daylight savings makes me think about the universe in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. I got up this morning and it was darker than usual and the sun was in a place I didn’t recognize. It made me think, ah yes, our little world is part of something much bigger. So I looked up some information about the source of this light, our sun. You know that it takes twenty-four hours for the Earth to complete a full rotation relative to the Sun. A complete orbit of the earth around the sun occurs every 365.256 solar days. But did you know that the sun is about 150M kilometers away? There is an old joke about a man who suggests to NASA that they do a manned mission to the sun. Upon hearing that it’s too hot he suggested, “Then let’s just do it at night.” Throughout history, peoples from the Americas to Egypt to Greece to the East have worshiped the sun. The sun is huge, more than a million times the volume of the earth. And that is just our light source. Our sun is one of a massive number of suns and stars in the universe. In 2010, astronomers concluded that there were many more stars in the universe than they previously realized. The number is something like 1 followed by 23 zeros.
So when we look to this massive universe out there, what does the grandeur of the universe teach us? That was the question asked by two men on a camping trip one time. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night one woke the other up and said, “Look up at the sky, and tell me what you see.” The second man replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.” The first said: “And what do you deduce from that?” His friend said, “Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you?” The first man replied: “It tells me that somebody stole our tent.”
The theology of the universe seemed to fascinate the Psalmist. Several Psalms speak of the majesty of the heavenly creation. The author of Psalm 103, most likely King David writing around 1000bc., contrasts the nature of humanity to the grandeur of God, affirming that God has established God’s throne in the Heavens. Like most in the ancient world, the Psalmist viewed God as massive, eternal and majestic, like the universe itself. By contrast the Psalmist affirms the Ash Wednesday pronouncement that we humans are mere mortals, we “are dust,” as he puts it. Not only that but we are here only a short time. He says “our days are like grass, they flourish for a short time and then are gone.” And not only are we mortal and temporal but we are flawed. The Psalmist confesses that human sin highlights are iniquities. Like the men without a tent, our faults stand uncovered before the Heavens.
Karl Barth once said, “the question is not why God if God exists. It’s why God allows us to continue to exist with all we do wrong.” We read the newspapers and see the mistakes of humanity. The hit and run driver who killed a couple in Brooklyn this week on their way to the hospital to deliver their first child. The ways we as a society fail to make long term investments and reforms. The bombs dropped by governments in the Middle East on their own people. The regrets we each know from our individual lives.
Church historian Martin Marty once praised worship saying, “The church provides an invaluable service to society just by getting millions of sinners off the street for one hour on Sunday mornings.” But we do something else in worship, we give ourselves an opportunity to do what the Psalmist often did, tell the truth about ourselves through our Prayer of Confession. Of the five sections in the order of worship, “confessing and praising” is the one that gets the least amount of attention. About once a year someone will ask me why we have to have the confession of sin saying, “I didn’t do all that stuff this week.” “I wasn’t a hit and run driver, the sequester is not my fault, I didn’t bomb anyone.” We included our Chancel Players to emphasize that the prayer of confession is important, especially during the preparatory season of Lent. Our individual and corporate confessions allow us to unburden ourselves, to do some spiritual spring cleaning of the soul, and to prepare to receive the Easter light of Christ.
Lent is a period for expanding our spiritual lives. The word Lent derives in part from the Middle English word Lenten meaning lengthen, which came about as the spring days lengthened with more sunlight. So daylight savings Sunday is the quintessential Lenten day. On a personal level it means more sunlight coming into the darkest corners of your life. God provides the sunlight. That is why the Psalmist proclaims in the first section of Psalm 103 that God crowns, forgives, heals, redeems and satisfies. But it is up to us to open the window and let the sunlight in. When I was a boy my mother used to instruct us in spring cleaning this time of year. Covering our winter sleds. Hanging up the storm doors. Putting up the awning. Switching our sweaters for t-shirts. But the most sure sign of spring was when she tied back the drapes that insulated the breakfast room, threw open the windows and let the sunshine in.
With the lengthening days, our Lenten task is to throw open the windows of our lives and let the sunshine in. To do that we have to examine where we are and confess what it is we need to change to the forgiving God whom the Psalmist trusted . You cannot open the window if you cannot find which curtain it’s behind. We only experience redemption at Easter if we recognize our need for it. As we move towards Holy Week, the voice of one crucified centuries ago becomes louder, raising the voices of those we have wronged individually or neglected societally.
Like the Heavenly stars, God seems big, but in comparison we seem small. Stars that existed for billions of years make us realize we are temporary. The Heavens are ordered, but we confess that our lives are chaotic. So we wonder why God would give us a second glance or a second chance? Why notice us when there is so much else in creation for God to pay attention to? Why forgive us when we fail to follow God’s path? So when we look at the universe and wonder why God would even notice us as small as we are, let alone save us from our iniquities, there must be a reason.
The answer from our lesson is because God’s nature is to love. Psalm 103 has been called the 1 Corinthians 13 of the Old Testament. You know, the passage about how love is patient and kind you hear at weddings? Four times the Psalmist proclaims God’s fundamental quality of “steadfast love.” The Hebrew word hesed describes an awe-inspiring, all-consuming, life-changing, ever-lasting, favoritism towards us as God’s special creation. It’s because of this steadfast love that God seeks to crown, forgive, heal, redeem and satisfy us. The crown of Holy Week becomes the redemption of Easter when we let in the light of Lent.
More than any other part of creation, we reflect God’s light. We may feel small, our earthly existence may be temporary and are lives aren’t perfect. But you are made in God’s image. God made all other parts of creation first and then humanity on the sixth day. Only humanity was made in God’s image. God pronounced the work of the first five days good but after humanity was created God said creation was very good. And then God rested because God had achieved what God wanted. We are the crown of God’s creation . The pinnacle of the grand experiment of the universe . We are the recipients of God’s mercy. We are the children of God who receive God’s compassion. You, not the mountains, not the sun, not the Milky Way, most reflect the image of God. We reflect the light of God’s redeeming steadfast love. No wonder the Psalmist cries over and over again, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”
Preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of teaching vacation Bible school once in rural Tennessee and sending the third grade children out in to the woods to bring back something that reminded them of God. When the campers came back to the circle Craddock asked each of them, “What do you have?” “A flower” one said. “And what does that tell you about God?” She answered, “God is beautiful.” To another he asked, “And what do you have?” “A rock” “And what does that tell you?” “God is stout.” To another “And what do you have?” “Huckleberries.” “Well, what does that tell you?” “God feeds us and feeds the birds.” Then came the turn of one of the meanest kids in the camp. Craddock is nervous at what the boy would bring back. “What do you have?” Craddock asked. The boy held up the hand of his sister that he had dragged from the kindergarten group. He said, “My sister.” The boy recognized there wasn’t a thing in the forest that told him as much about God as his sister.
We are not as big as the galaxy or as permanent as the mountains or as pure as the snow. But we are not insignificant either. Because God cares and forgives our Lenten opportunity is to commit ourselves anew. Because we are made in the image of God, through Christ we can help right the wrongs we have confessed. We can celebrate that God’s steadfast love is what has gotten us this far and it’s what we need, perhaps all we need, to be put back together.
So let the lengthening light of Lent so fill your heart with grace and hope and love that you radiate light to all who see. Bless the Lord. Bless my soul and yours. For that is what God has done. Thanks be to God. Amen.