A child wakes in the night and cries out. Alone in the dark, he is full of fear, even in his crib. The dark world around him seems dark and threatening. Into his room comes his mother, who quietly takes him up, holds and soothes him, and murmurs to him, “Everything is all right.” Soon, calm and assured, the child drifts back to sleep.
That scene enacts a fundamental human drama, according to sociologist Peter Berger. We wake into a strange world needing to be reassured that life is trustworthy. In fact, psychologist Erik Erikson says that the first and deepest issue young children need to resolve, and the issue all of us face continually, is that of trust—Can life be trusted or not?
Is the mother telling the truth when she says to her child, “Everything is all right”? Answering that question is maybe the most profound task you and I will ever have, because it will ultimately affect everything we do. And any answer we give will be an answer of faith. Is this life trustworthy? Is there a God behind this immense universe? Are we loved and known on this planet as it spins through the darkness of space? Can there be hope of healing and new life when things fall apart?
This season of Epiphany in the church year focuses on the shining out of God’s light into the world. In the Old Testament lesson we hear a vision of a God who sustains the entire universe:
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it…: I am the Lord…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations….
And in the gospel we see the experience that launched Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and hears a voice calling and commissioning him, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It is a bold claim of Christian faith that the creator of the universe speaks, calls, and blesses—so bold that these days a good many don’t know to make of this notion.
Last fall, amid much discussion of Mother Teresa’s struggles with doubt and spiritual darkness and the public attacks on faith by several angry atheists, someone walking out after a service asked me a question with real urgency: ‘In the face of so much uncertainty about God, what is it that tips the scales toward faith? Why do you trust this faith?’ he asked. Which is a way of asking, Why should we trust that everything is all right?
That’s a question that would take hours fully to answer. But I thought I’d take a first stab on this Epiphany morning to articulate why I believe in a God we can trust. For me the answer has three parts.
First, our lives are riddled with what T.S. Eliot called “hints and guesses” that point us beyond the physical world to God. Such as the experience of life as gift. We are on this earth for only a brief time. Out of the workings of some mystery we are given a few decades to be alive amid the 15 billion year history of the cosmos. We did not earn our way into this world, we did not create our capacity to grow, achieve, and live full lives, we did not have to be at all. This life is sheer gift. It’s hard not to believe in a creator God when we hold an infant in our hands. The greatest shock of all is the fact that we are, and that the cosmos is.
There are many hints and guesses. Encounters with beauty in nature, and in art, music, and literature, for example, have been powerful pointers to God. I suspect we can all name moments when we were lifted out of ourselves—as we lingered on a beach or mountaintop, as we stood in front of one of Turner’s landscapes at the National Gallery and felt swept into a world of radiant beauty. It may have happened as we listened to Mozart, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, for that matter, times when for a few moments we and the music were one. Listen to this description of one person’s experience at a concert:
A friend persuaded me to go… hear a performance of Bach’s B minor Mass. I had heard the work, indeed I new Bach’s choral music well… The music thrilled me, until we got to the great Sanctus. I find this experience difficult to define. It was primarily a warning—I was frightened. I was trembling from head to foot and wanted to cry… [I felt as if] I was before the Judgement Seat. I was being weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Bach’s music becomes the place of her encounter with God.
Philosophers and theologians have used many sophisticated arguments to demonstrate that understanding the world requires pointing to a First Cause, an original actor, a power that holds all existence in being. And that points inevitably to God.
C.S. Lewis always pointed to two key signals, or hints, of God. One was the experience of longing and yearning. We spend our lives with an inner restlessness that keeps us yearning for a peace, a home, a security, a sense of being completely loved, that are always beyond our reach. Lewis called it something like nostalgia for a world we’ve lost, and it haunts us in such a way that we never stop searching for the home where we belong. That home we spend our lives yearning for, he says, is God.
Lewis’s second signal is moral obligation. Two people may disagree over whether something is right or wrong, but they will both agree that some sense of obligation exists. In an utterly relativist material world there would be no such thing as obligation pressing in on us.
Science itself is full of hints and guesses. Many scientists insist that we live in a universe stunningly fine-tuned to make the emergence of life possible, even on a tiny planet in a minor solar system in one galaxy among billions. Allan Sandage, the astronomer who figured out how fast the universe is and how old it is, says it was his scientific research that led him back to faith.
Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life. It turns out that if the constants of nature—unchanging numbers like the strength of gravity, the charge of an electron and the mass of a proton—were the tiniest bit different, then atoms would not hold together, stars would not burn, and life would never have made an appearance.
Well, all that is my first answer. The world keeps pointing beyond itself. A materialistic understanding of the world where physics, chemistry, and biology explain everything, can’t account for the world in all its complexity and for such experiences as love, beauty, wonder, and compassion. In those moments we are touching a reality beyond the ordinary.
My second answer is that testimonies are countless of people who have experienced life-changing moments of closeness to God. An English novelist Rosamond Lehman, for example, was staying with friends during a time of deep grief when she became aware of the beauty of a bird’s song. She went to the window and, as she puts it,
I beheld a visionary world. Everything around, above, below me was shimmering and vibrating. The tree-foliage, the strip of lawn, the flower-beds—all had become incandescent. I seemed to be looking through the surface of all things into the manifold iridescent rays … I seemed to be inside it, united and partaking in its creativity.
Sometimes we can see more than the ordinary, and glimpse the holiness hidden in every moment.
And there are countless testimonies of people who have experienced God’s calling presence—from St. Paul and Julian of Norwich, to John Wesley and Blaise Pascal, to Hildegard of Bingen and Martin Luther King. They encountered an overwhelming Other in ways they could not deny.
A close friend of mine still gives thanks ten years later for a night just before Christmas that year, as he lay in the hospital bed dealing with heart trouble. There he experienced an intense sense of being loved and held by God that lasted for a couple of hours. After that experience, his life shifted. He became much calmer, more at ease, less driven. He still chokes up when he talks about the “night visitor” who came and changed his life.
Is it true that everything is all right? Well, now you have two of my three answers. I believe the case for the existence of God is overwhelmingly compelling. But we base our lives on faith, not on proof. None of us can fully justify by argument the lives we live. We live by faith, by putting our trust in some way, some set of values, some way of seeing the world.
Christian faith is a decision to trust what all these experiences point to—a God of infinite goodness who holds and sustains the world. And that brings us to the third part of my answer—that this God comes to us, addresses us, and seeks us out through the people of Israel, and most importantly in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Without the story of the Jews and what happened in Jesus, we would be left guessing about what it is to which all these signs point. But instead God has spoken, God has sought us out.
It happened for Jesus when he was about thirty years old and was baptized. A power of love grasped him definitively in a way that shaped his entire life. As he went down in the Jordan River and emerged, he experienced an overwhelming sense of who he was and that he belonged to One he would call “Father.” That was the day when he knew without any doubt that “everything is all right,” that there was nothing to fear, not even death itself. “This is my son, my beloved,’ he heard, “with whom I am well pleased.”
And from that day he began his ministry of spreading the word that everyone, absolutely everyone, was beloved by this holy, mysterious God.. No lines could be drawn, no groups could be left out of his circle. He had experienced a love wider and deeper than the cosmos itself.
Jesus showed us a surprising God. When I hear atheists describe the arrogant, controlling, cruel, condemning god they don’t believe in, I want to say, I don’t believe in that god either. When I hear descriptions of a god willing to condemn billions of people to hell for not being Christians, I know I don’t believe in that god either. When I hear descriptions of a god who is always on America’s side, on the side of power, on the side of an economy that creates vast gaps between rich and poor, I don’t believe in that god either.
The God we meet in our lessons today is a God of mercy, who in the passage from Isaiah today is calling servants and followers to build a world of justice for everyone. This is a God who pursues and nudges, who seeks us out relentlessly, and whose patience never ceases. This God isn’t running the show from the top down, isn’t controlling every event. This is a God who can’t heal the world without you and me, and has sent his Son to show us that we are beloved too, and to call us to spread that belovedness across the city and the world.
Is everything really all right? Is there a love we can trust at work in our world and our lives? Can we trust that at our life’s end God will be there to receive us?
Answering those questions is no trivial matter. Jesus never expected his followers to believe it all at first. All he said was, Come on along, follow me, and if you stay with me, you’ll come to trust me and this God more and more. Knowing God doesn’t come at the end of an intellectual argument. The promise of this day is that if we will follow this Jesus, learn from him, and stay with him—read the scriptures, come to church, talk to others about our faith, serve those who are in need—we will come to know God for ourselves, and Jesus as our companion. We will hear in our own way the voice from heaven saying, “You are my son, my daughter, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”