Another sermon: “Big Questions”


A sermon preached on June 3, 2007, based upon Psalm 8, entitled, “Big Questions.”

Life is filled with what I would call “little” questions, such as:
       What will I have for supper?
       What is the freezing temperature of water?
       Where can I get a good price on a big screen t.v.? 
       Which of my credit card bills has the highest interest, requiring I pay it first? 

There is no end to these kind of questions.  We could spend all our days answering these kinds of questions, which would be unfortunate, because there is another kind of question — what I call the “big questions” — that require our attention; questions like, 

What’s it all mean?  Why am I here, on earth, alive?

These are soul questions.  And one of the reasons we come to church is because innately we know that these sorts of questions require our attention, and if we don’t set aside time to confront them, well, our souls will be diminished.

We ask big questions here in Church because the Bible has a way of asking big questions, such as:

“What does it profit a person to inherit the whole
earth and lose his or her soul?
“Who is my neighbor?”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

This morning’s psalm contains a good one. 

“What are human beings?”

Now one of the things that makes a question “big” is that although the question can be fruitfully explored, it can’t really be answered once for all.  These kind of questions call us to live with them in an ongoing conversation.  With a small question, you can give a definitive answer, and say to the person asking it, “Hey, I already answered your question, don’t bug me again.” 

But its not the same with big questions. (If it were so, I could just reference one of my old sermons:  Oh, you want to know the meaning of life?  Look up my sermon from March 8, 2004 — that’s the Sunday I took care of that one.)

What are human beings?

Biologists have contributed a great deal in our exploration of this question.  The whole theory of evolution, for instance, has made great contributions.  What are human beings? “We are mammals — the most highly evolved of mammals.”  And that answer, as far as it goes, is true.  But it doesn’t settle the question, once and for all. 

What are human beings?  

I heard on the radio this week that a recent Gallup poll asked Americans this question:  “Do you believe in evolution?”  The pollsters asked the question this way because it was the exact question asked recently of the Republican presidential candidates in a debate.  Interestingly, roughly half of Americans said, “yes,” the other half said, “no.” 

Now there are a couple of ways to interpret these poll results.  One way is to say,  “Geez, half of Americans have their heads stuck in the sand, refusing to accept the findings scientists have come to over the years of their research.” 

But another reaction would be to say the question, stated like this, attempts to reduce a big question into a little question.  Do I believe in evolution, in the sense that it solves the mystery of what it means to be a human being — end of question, let’s move on?  And if that’s what the question means,  I would answer, no, I don’t believe in Evolution either.
One of the challenges in asking the question, “what are human beings?”
is that there are these unavoidable paradoxes we come up against in attempting to answer the question.

It is true, for instance, that we are mammals, with much in common with the other mammals that populate this earth, but we also have these capacities that go far beyond all other mammals:  extraordinary capacities for creativity, for going in our imagination to a place apart from ourselves where we can contemplate, among other things, our very selves.  We alone have the capacity to ask the big questions, including the fact that we will all one day die, and to ask, “What is death?”

In the Bible, this paradox is expressed poetically in the story of our creation:  we were formed by combining, on the one hand, the very same dust of the earth out of which all other living things were made (and to this dust our bodies will return when our life on earth ends), and on the other hand, “divine breath” — the very spirit of God.

The Bible affirms right at the start that we, alone of all creatures, were “created in the image and likeness of God,” and yet, it quickly goes on to say that all of us are also sinners, held in bondage to the destructive power of sin. We are capable of both great good and great evil, and our capacities for both far exceed any other living creature. 

Those of us who are blessed and burdened by being parents know this paradox up close:  one moment our child ascends to such heights with some extraordinary act of creativity or compassion that our hearts stir with tender pride, delight, and even awe, and then in the very next moment, the very same child descends into the deepest pig pen of bratdom. 

And in this morning’s psalm the paradox is once more expressed.  The psalmist describes looking up into a clear night’s sky to ponder the enormity of the universe, and experiencing the inevitable humbling that is evoked, reminding us of how very tiny and insignificant we human beings are in the big picture of the universe. 

But then the psalmist goes on to make a most remarkable affirmation regarding the heights to which we were created to soar: 

“you have made (us human beings) a little lower than God,
and crowned (us) with glory and honor.”

So take a moment to ponder that claim:  to be a human being is to be made just “a little lower than God… crowned with glory and honor.”

Great works of literature are great because they grapple with the big questions. 
Dostoevsky in his novel Crime and Punishment  tells the story of a man named Raskolnikov, who picks out an old man with no family or friends and no job to run an experiment upon, an experiment in murder.  As far as Raskolnikov can see, it would matter to no one whether the old man was dead or alive, for he had absolutely no usefulness to anyone or anything.  And so Ralskolnikov kills the old man.  And then, to his great surprise, he is shaken to the core of his existence:  it did matter!  This seemingly worthless old man was a spiritual power simply by being human.  Even a bare-bones human existence contains enough glory to stagger any one of us into bewildered awe.  Raskolnikov was awakened to an awareness of spiritual heights and depths that he had never dreamed of in the people around him.  (Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, p. 60)

What would it mean to take seriously that we were made little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor?  How might it effect the way we view others, or the way we view ourselves?

It is in Jesus that we see human destiny lived out to the fullest.  And it is Jesus who pointed our attention to another paradox that opens up before another big question:  “What is life?”  Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

At an auction, an old, antique violin, found buried in someone’s attic, was being auctioned.  Receiving no bids, the auctioneer asked if he could get 20 bucks for the old instrument.  Silence.  An old man walked slowly up onto the stage, took the violin up into his arms, and proceeded to make such beatific music — the music of angels.  Afterwards, the bidding took off at $10,000 and didn’t stop.

In his last night with his disciples spoke of the coming of the spirit of truth.  It is when we empty ourselves, enter death so to speak, allowing God to be in charge, and not we ourselves, that this spirit of truth blows through us, raising us up to the heights to which we were destined by our creator. 

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