In the beginning...
Actually, in the beginning, I need to apologise. I have been very lax at posting our sermons and homilies frecently. Please accept my apologies. Here is Pete Stevenson's homily from Sunday 10th January
Our four year old grandson, Sawyer, thought he would ask some questions of his Auntie Rachel on her specialist subject. Rachel worked for some time as an astronomer.
Question 1. ‘Why do you need a space rocket to travel through space?’ Good question.
And so it went on.
At the end came the killer. ‘Auntie Rachel, what was there before the Big Bang?’ ‘Scientists are still working on it’ was our family astronomer’s answer.
And so to our readings for the morning. I love the very first words of the first chapter of the first book in the Bible, ‘In the beginning God...’ I find it a foundation worth clinging on to. In one of my Christmas books ’12 Rules for Life’, the forward says ‘...these stories have survived because they still provide guidance in dealing with uncertainty, and the unavoidable unknown’ At times we may be tempted to ditch them, thinking they present too many contradictions with modern life, we have now educated ourselves better than this, we don’t need creation stories, or simply, I’m in too much of a minority to go on with it. Sometimes, later in life, we come back and find in them a greater foundation than we realised. Like a proper life jacket in the sea; you can be face down unconscious in the water and your life jacket will roll you over on to your back and keep your face in the air while you regain coconsciousness. ‘In the beginning God...’
‘In the beginning God created...’ Every Christian is a Creationist – whether if we believe the universe was made over billions of years or 6 days – God created and, being made in his image, made us to be creative too. If you’ve ever had a boss who micro managed, you’ll know it sucks out any creativity in you and work ceases to be fulfilling and becomes tedious, a chore. That’s not to say we all need to be painting pictures or writing novels; I think of all those employed by Michelin working to make tyres safer, quieter, more eco friendly, more affordable, longer lasting – it’s incredibly creative!
‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, hovered or fluttered are alternative translations. I have no idea what this means, that’s not because I haven’t done my homework, I simply couldn’t find a commentary that made sense to me. There seemed to me too much tortured thinking, making the thinking fit the text rather than a thinking that naturally explained the text. Why God’s Spirit? Why not God? What water? But I love the poetry of it. I don’t want to force an awkward fit of Genesis into scientific knowledge, I think that’s a big mistake, just as much a mistake as denying scientific knowledge because it doesn’t fit the Genesis account. But it’s almost as if within the first two verses of the Bible, there were the building blocks of what we now see, there was substance, without form, and there was water. My daughter’s field of research was looking at the very furthest regions of our Solar System investigating asteroids that contain ice, she even has one named after her. Richard Branson has his own island, Rachel has an entire planetary world! If we could find out how water arrived on our planet, it would give a fascinating insight to our beginnings. Interestingly, Genesis speaks of God ‘...gathering the waters...’ (that are already there), there is no statement “And God said ‘Let there be water’”.
‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said...’. There are three themes which run through today’s readings, the Holy Spirit, water and speaking. A repeated phrase in Genesis 1 is ‘And God said...’ In our psalm the phrase ‘ The voice of the Lord....’ repeats. ‘The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,...’. John the Baptist’s words in our Gospel reading ‘I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”. Our reading from Acts combines the three themes, ‘...they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke - in tongues - and prophesied’.
History of the Holy Spirit’s gift of talking in tongues after the book of Acts is sparse up to the 20th Century but came to the fore in many churches in the early 1970’s when the charismatic movement swept across many churches of all denominations and none. The act of worshipping out loud in an unknown language, or, prophesying in tongues and the interpretation given to someone else in the meeting. The former (worshipping in tongues) I think can sound quite wonderful with all sorts of spontaneous harmonic chords and sounds, but if I am honest, I am a bit cautious about the second (prophesying).
I know some of our number come from Pentecostal and charismatic churches before coming to Christchurch. Our services must seem very staid compared with what you have been used to! Declaring my hand; speaking in tongues is not something I have experienced... but I am comfortable with it. There have been two occasions when charismatic Christian friends have thought they should pray over me to, using their phraseology, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ I was happy and open for this, they prayed, nothing happened. I wasn’t troubled one way or the other, but I think my friends might have been!
I’d like to suggest another facet on ‘speaking in tongues’. In 1995 my nephew was killed in a road accident. A short while afterwards I was talking about it in our church house group, and I remember it would have been February. Ten months later at Christmas time we had a card from a friend with a note inside ‘Thank you so much for what you said about your nephew. It really helped me get over the death of my father.’ And here’s the best bit, I haven’t a clue what I had said, not then, not now. Since I remember nothing about what I said, I might just as well have been speaking in an unknown language, speaking in tongues. I haven’t a clue what I said but I believe it was something the Holy Spirit used for comfort and for healing. There have been times when people have helped me and I’ve noticed a common theme, their words are calm and few, but they are words that count and stick.
I want to go back to Genesis 1 with a story. Our astronomer daughter declared herself an atheist some time ago and at the time I wanted to explore a little of what she thought and why. It was a good conversation and she told me the experience she had of being alone in an observatory high on a mountain in one of the most remote parts of the planet to get the clearest and darkest sky. She said, ‘I was overwhelmed by the sense of my smallness’. My heart went to the verse in Ecclesiastes. ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’ To use my earlier analogy, I felt she had kept her life jacket on.
To be overwhelmed by our smallness can be an almost heart stopping experience but the other side of the coin of - knowing we are small is - knowing we are known. In Psalm 139; Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea (there’s a word for us ex-pats) ... even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
I have some homework.
This is relatively easy if you live in a rural area, sadly not possible in these present times in a town. While we are still in the depths of winter, on a clear night, find somewhere proper dark to admire the night sky;. Around our way the street lights go off at 11pm so it’s quite easy. Wrap up warm, promise yourself your favourite tipple for when you come back in. Do your best to comprehend the some of the distances and numbers. When I was a teenager, I came home from youth club one night and shone my bike torch into the clear dark sky and imagined that column of light travelling through space. I know that’s not what happened, but humour me, let your imagination roam a little. I set that pencil of light from my 3 Volt bike torch on its way over 50 years ago, during which time it’s travelled about 300 trillion miles (that’s 3 with 14 noughts after it) but has got roughly another million years of travelling to reach the edge of the Milky Way you can see with the naked eye on a clear night. That’s just our galaxy... there’s literally billions of them.
Know that you are small but know that you are known, ‘...your right hand will hold me fast...Search me oh God, and know my heart;test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,and lead me in the way everlasting’. May God enable us to speak on occasions with a Spirit given wisdom that reaches beyond our own understanding for comfort and healing. A kind of speaking in tongues. Am