September 24, 2011

The Humility of Divine Presence: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons,Theology — William Witt @ 6:58 am

Exodus 17: 1-7
Psalm 78
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

heronAmong other things, the Bible is a book of questions. The very first question in the Bible is the question the serpent asks of Eve, “Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any fruit of the garden?” (Gen. 3:1) And the first question God asks in the Bible is “Where are you?”followed by the questions “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3:9, 11) More questions: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”(Mark 15:34) “Simon, son of John, Do you love me?” (John 21:15) What these questions all have in common is that they are not attempts to find out information, but are rhetorical. They are questions that aim for a response from the hearers.

In both the Old Testament and the gospel readings this morning we find accounts of an exchange of questions between two groups of people, and like the other questions I mentioned, these are rhetorical questions. They are not aimed at getting information, but in provoking a response from those being questioned. In the Exodus reading, Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, and they find themselves in the desert without water. In response, they ask Moses: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kills us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” At the end of the reading, the text states: “They tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?” Moses responds to the situation with his own set of questions: He asks the people, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ ” He then asks God, “What shall I do with this people?” (Exodus 17:2-4)

The gospel reading takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry, immediately following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by his driving the money changers out of the temple. The chief priests and the elders then ask Jesus a question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23) Presumably these leaders are asking by what authority he cleared out the temple, but the text also mentions that Jesus had healed many blind and lame people who had come to him in the temple (v. 14). And, of course, Jesus’ entire ministry had included healings, exorcisms, and miracles, so “these things” likely refers not only to Jesus’ actions in the temple, but to all the signs that accompanied his ministry, as well as to his preaching and teaching. As did Moses, Jesus responds to the question with his own question, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”(v. 25)

As readers of the Bible, we have a certain advantage to those who originally asked the questions of Moses and Jesus. Because we have the entire book of Exodus and the entire book of Matthew, we know the answer to the questions. At the beginning of Exodus, God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush and said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry . . . and I have come to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . .” (Exodus 3:7-8) At the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, toward the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) So God did not lead the people of Israel into the desert so that they would die of thirst. The authority with which Jesus did the things he did is the authority of the voice that named him as the Father’s “beloved Son.”

As I mentioned above, these are rhetorical questions. None of them are about getting information. Both sets of questions—the question the Israelites asked Moses, and the question that the chief priests and the elders asked Jesus–are variations on the same question: “Is the Lord present among us or not?” Rhetorically, they are demands that, if God is with Moses, if God is with Jesus, then this presence needs to be made evident in a clear and unambiguous way. (more…)

September 13, 2011

Answers to New Atheist Questions: Part 1 — Epistemology

Filed under: Metaphysics,Philosophy,The New Atheism — William Witt @ 11:20 pm

A reader named “Dale” left the following comment in response to my sermon: “CallerID From the Source of the Universe”:

There are two main forces in the universe. Order and chaos. Religion perceives order as good and chaos as evil. These forces have always existed in matter. It is religion that has labeled them as such. Some texts of the Bible have been in existence since 1500 BC. There have been billions of creatures that have been borne, lived, and died before the Bible came along to interpret meaning. It is the nature of matter to be the way it is. It is what it is. Being matter I must die. I go out of existence. That is difficult to accept. I had no existence before I was borne. Faith tells me that there is a transcendence existence beyond matter. Hope comes into play here to treat the anxiety of death. Call it a psychological prop that keeps us sane. Here I can assent to faith or decline to do so. If faith, the promise of glory. Decline, hell or nothing. What is my choice. Glory sounds attractive. Organized religion plays on this dilemma. This is what atheists object to when they challenge believers in this psychological game of meaning.

I thought Dale’s comment was worth responding to at some length.

medallionThank you for writing, Dale. Your points are worth addressing, and I will do so at some length.

First, I want to point out that, in my sermon, I deliberately avoided addressing questions of the origins of evil or suffering, and instead focused on the question of what Christian faith asserts about what it is that God does about the existence of evil and suffering. I also avoided distinguishing between what philosophers call “natural evil” (earthquakes, birth defects) and moral evil (violence, murder, betrayal, theft). I did this for several reasons. First, as a preacher in a church that uses a lectionary, I had to preach from the lectionary texts for the day, and, second, unlike a lecture, a sermon is restricted to what the speaker can say in twenty minutes or so. A more adequate attempt to address the problem would necessarily deal with the origin of evil as well the distinction between natural occurrences (like earthquakes) that threaten human well-being (and are therefore discerned as “evil”), and events that have human causes and are designated as “evil” for moral reasons. The former are more properly “tragedy” than “evil,” while the latter are more properly designated as “evil.” If you lost your wallet, there would be a genuine loss to which you might respond with “tough luck” (minor tragedy), but you would not generally consider the loss “evil.” On the other hand, if I attempted to steal your wallet, then you would likely consider my actions “evil” even if I failed, and you would justifiably be angry with me, even if I actually had done you no harm.

More important than these distinctions, I think, is the question of response to evil, and, as I pointed out, it is one that I have yet to see any of the New Atheists address (or rather even acknowledge) with any sophistication. To the extent that the New Atheists ignore the fundamental Christian claim that God deals with evil in a particular manner, their criticism simply fails to hit its target. I note that your own comment did not address this central point either, but rather focuses on questions about the nature of the universe (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), specifically questions having to do with “natural evil,” and how we might know whether a given natural event is an evil. So I will address those questions.. Your comment covers a lot of territory and addresses several issues, so it needs to be broken down piece by piece. (more…)

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