Big Thoughts on Large Sweeps of Time


A sermon preached on May 31, 2009 (Pentecost Sunday) based upon Acts 2:1 – 21 and Romans 8:22 – 27. 


As I get older, I find myself drawn to contemplate large sweeps of time. When we are young, an afternoon can feel like an incredibly long period of time.  A year can seem like eternity.  One of the obstacles for taking the Bible seriously, can be that it invites us to consider events that happened at least 2000 years ago.  What does “ancient” history have to do with me now?


As I age, however, large sweeps of time capture my imagination.  If you saw The Great Confirmation Play, you know I incorporated some of my reflections on time at the end of the play.


Scientists tell us that their observations lead them to concluded that the universe as we know it began something like fourteen billion years, give or take a billion.  (Now we’re talking about some seriously long time which makes two thousand years seem like the blink of an eye.) They tell us that it took several billion years before our earth was formed, billion years beyond that for “life” to appear, and then more billion years yet before what we refer to as “intelligent life” appeared on earth. 


They estimate that human beings evolved about a million years ago.  A million years sounds like a long time, but if you put a million years next to the entire 14 billion years of the universe, we realize that in the big picture of time, we’re making a very late appearance.


The first flower appeared about 130 million years ago.  It would take another 129 million years before a human being would come along who, in the midst of trying to hunt down some supper to survive, would pause in a meadow somewhere to gaze upon a flower and have the experience of wonder that we human beings are capable of in the face of beauty.  Which is to say that finally, after 14 billion years, a creature was present in the universe with the capacity to be aware of – conscious of – the creation itself.* 


This is what you call a big-time leap in the history of the universe. 


In recent decades, astro-physicists have taken notice of the fact that apparently at the moment of the initial big bang, when all the energy of the universe exploded forth from one compressed tiny, speck of space, the fundamental physical laws governing this universe were in place that were necessary for the eventual evolution of a planet such ours, life itself, and indeed “intelligent life.”  If these fundamental laws had been altered in just the slightest manner, none of this would ever have been possible.  The fact that the universe is this way is highly suggestive that there was an underlying intention to its design, a “purpose” to it all, which somehow involves the eventual appearance of creatures with this capacity for consciousness.       


I read an article on my recent vacation that reviewed a book by Karen Armstrong entitled “The Great Transformation.”  The article stated that anthropologists who study ancient human artifacts believe that “religion” has been around on the earth for something like 100,000.  For 97,000 years, it was all pretty much variations on the same theme:  “an attempt to influence unseen powers to better survive and prosper in a dicey world.”  These religions were, without exception, tribally based.


Around 3000 years ago, however, in various different places around the world, there was a major leap forward that took place in what we broadly call “religion.”  A vision took hold that involved an understanding of all life as being connected – that the human race really is in this thing called life together. Tribal-centered religion was transcended with a vision that incorporated, among other things, the practice of compassion and the golden rule.   


The article referenced examples of this leap forward in the great Hebrew prophets, the Greek philosophers, Lao Tzu in China, and Buddha in India.  It made it clear that this leap forward never became “normative” – that to a large extent the practice of religion remained much like it had been for the first 97 thousand years.  But it is striking nonetheless that this larger vision began to appear in different places and cultures at approximately the same time.  From a Christian perspective, we see the appearance of Jesus Christ as the ultimate expression of this deeper vision.   His vision, however, was resisted by the defenders of the traditional view of religion, as evidenced in his crucifixion.  


Today is Pentecost Sunday.  I was struck by the fact that both of our scripture lessons reference the passage of time.  When the apostle Peter stood up in Jerusalem to try and explain the spiritual phenomenon of “tongues” that people were witnessing whereby the barriers of race and culture were being transcended, he quoted from the Hebrew prophet Joel, who begins by saying “In the latter days, says the Lord, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”  He uses poetic imagery to speak of a transformation taking place characterized by a radical equality:  all flesh will receive the spirit, as opposed to just the elite, the religious authorities.  It speaks of young and old, male and female, and even slaves, traditionally viewed as inferior, would receive this Spirit, and anyone (not just one tribe or class) who reaches out to God will be saved.  Joel implies that this transformation will involve terror because the traditional forms will fall apart, creating great uncertainty.


The Apostle Paul carries this idea further when he writes, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit…” 


Again, the implication is that the creation has been moving towards the present moment, a time of transformation that will be like child birth, terrifying, but wonderful at the same time. We have have received the first glimpse of this new creation, the first fruits of the Spirit that allow this evolutionary leap forward in consciousness. 


Paul didn’t have access to the findings of modern astro-physicists – he had no idea just how long the creation had been around.  But he intuits that the creation is moving towards something extraordinary that is beginning to break forth.


So here we are two thousand years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which can seem like a very long time, but in the context of the 14 billion years of creation, we in the same “latter days” in which the Spirit is poured out.  


I know these are rather big and abstract ideas that might not seem to have much bearing on our daily lives.  For me, however, there is something awe-inspiring in this notion that the whole universe has been leading up to the possibilities for love and creativity that are open to us human beings, and whether or not we manage to catch on to living out of this higher consciousness in the ordinary living of our lives is enormously consequential in a way we rarely pause to contemplate.    


*There is of course the possibility of “intelligent life” evolving other places in this big universe, but the basic idea remains the same:  the arrival of conscious, aware creatures was a big step for the universe.




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