Tim Carson
Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · January 11, 2015
The First Sunday of Epiphany
Adapted from John 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
In the beginning, before time and space,
there was only the mind and creative wisdom of God.
In the fullness of time, that mind and power that created everything
put skin in the game and moved among us, showing grace and truth.
The infinite life of God revealed itself in human form, a baby born to nobodies,
just so there would be no confusion where it came from.
One day, a man named John was baptizing people in the Jordan River,
and he told them they had better turn around and make things right.
To everyone’s surprise, especially to John, Jesus walked right on in to take his turn.
Once he came out of the water, a voice said he was just like a Son,
and the Spirit descended on him, just like doves do.
If John baptized with fire, said John, the wisdom, who wore flesh,
would be more like a forest fire. How right he was.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer
Nick Larson
From the very beginning, Vulnerable God, all creation has sung your glory: goodness laughing from the mountaintops, beauty echoing in every valley. You shaped us from creation, your Word calling us by name, your Spirit breathing life into us. You set us free to live with you in that garden of delightful wonders, but we believed our thoughts were better than yours.
We shaped idols to look like our desires, and placed them in such a way that we would not see you. There is nothing that stays hidden from you, so you saw how foolish we were. Sin muddled our minds, so that we could not listen to the prophets you sent; so Jesus came to show us your love which had never abandoned us.
With those who stood at the foot of Sinai, with those who were astounded in the temple, with those who have become foolish by following you, with all your children of every time and in every place, we lift our praises to you this morning.
Holy are you, God of grace and glory, and blessed is Jesus Christ, our Lord. When we insisted on worshipping every petty and pretty idol, you came to show us exactly what your love looks like. When we put our expectations in your way, hoping that you would stumble over them, you picked them up and tossed them aside, so you could continue until you reached the end of your journey. When we looked for a sign that God is with us, you died on the cross and was raised to new life.
Come to us again this morning, through your Word, through our worship, and through this community of faith gathered this morning. For this we pray, joining our words with the words of Christ throughout the centuries, praying...
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The Scripture
Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
This is the Word of the Lord for us today.
Thanks be to God.
The Message
Tim Carson
Let us pray together.
Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany, the Season of Lights, the time in the church year in which we tell the story of the Gospel going forth to all nations. So, we begin with the tale of the Magi, the astrologers from Persia, who follow an astral phenomenon and plot the signs to the birth of a strange new king, one that earthly rulers who fear a rival to their power want to destroy. At the same time, we tell the story of the baptism of our Lord, and how the light spread into his public ministry.
During this Season of Lights, we will be moving from one light to the next, sequentially, each light building on the one that preceded it. And today we start, where else, but with the creation story.
In some of the most elegant and moving poetic language ever written, the author boldly pronounces, "Bereshit bara Elohim: In the beginning, God created.”
The narrative tells of this ordering and goodness that shapes everything. Through beautiful sequences of ordering, “Let there be … and there was…” the good and unified creation is willed into a diverse and harmonious tapestry. The oneness of God manifests itself in the oneness of the good creation.
And then we hear it, right in the midst of the story, a great riddle that has preoccupied many a rabbi throughout the centuries. It goes like this:
Out of the great void, the darkness, and chaos, from the formlessness that preceded the big bang or big whatever, the creative and purposeful presence of God raced across the face of the deep and suddenly unfolded. The first word was an imperative: “Let there be light.” And there was, and it was good.
“But how,” asked the rabbis, “is there light without a source of light?” Their question is a good one, because as we know that, in the story at least, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars comes later. So how is there light without any of the obvious sources? Let there be light but lit with what?
Of course, there are many ways to unpack that riddle. You can somehow try to explain it through natural science. You can try to do some literary comparison with other world creation stories. But no, that’s not the way they turned it, because it is speaking on the meaning level, the theological level. How does this riddle tease us to explore the nature of God in the created cosmos?
What more than one of them said was that this light, the light that existed before there is source for light, before the sun, moon, or stars, is the primordial light. This is the light of the presence of God that underlies everything. This is the radiance of the created order before there is anything else.
They said this long before the ways we popularly put it today, as astrophysicists talk about the measurable radiation of the cosmos that is still discernable from the big bang.
The ancients would say it differently, of course. They would say that out of nothing, against the backdrop of the deep, God pulses. God is known. God radiates. Before there is a source, God already is, because God is the only source.
The writer of the Revelation, at the end of our biblical canon, picked up on this idea when he described the New Jerusalem, which is a model of new creation. He wrote that there would be no more night, only light. And this light would not come from a source like a lamp or the sun. No, said he, the Lord would be their light, and the glory of God would illumine their way (Revelation 22:5).
So the end of the story is as its beginning; there is light, but light that doesn’t require a source. This is the light that enlightens all people, that pulses in the creation, the energy of everything everywhere, the glory of God that we Christians see shining in the face of Christ.
And this, said the rabbis, is the answer to the riddle of how light exists before any sources are present: The Lord is our light. Revelation says the same thing but from the other side; after the sources of light are gone, light remains nevertheless.
The Magi follow the light of an astral phenomenon, but they end up finding another kind of light. Light, but more light, a different kind of light.
To this riddle arose my own questions and my own observations. I am sure you have your own. For me, it goes something like this:
I’m not puzzled at all by the sources of light, what they are, where they came from, how they illumine. All of that is pretty straightforward physics. But what does puzzle me, in my own life and in the life of the world at large, is how one finds light when all the sources seem to be hidden, even the indirect ones.
Where do you find light when all the immediate sources, the ones you most usually turn to, go dark? Where do you find light when that symbol of hope or love dies? When that person dies? Where do you find light when that dream or ideal or conviction gets shattered? Where do you find light when the running lights of your own soul dim?
We could all search for the sun, moon, or stars to light the way, but they may not be there. What is there, according to Genesis and Revelation, is the primordial light, the light that permeates all things. So how do you know it, discover it?
Do you nod in understanding when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world?” (John 8:12). “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Does that mean something to you?
I have been wading through and digesting Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Harris is part of that loose confederation of activist atheists, who have been quite vocal over the past ten years or so. You may know him from some of his past books, such as Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith.
He has, like many of us, debunked the low-hanging fruit of superstitious religious thinking, destructive practices, and charlatan leaders. But beyond that, which most of us do anyway, he cuts a more severe swath.
He really discredits anything that looks like it recognizes a power or presence beyond individual existence. Certainly, every religious system is highly suspect. That’s why, I was rather surprised to hear Sam Harris say that though he has absolutely no time for religion, he has plenty of time for spirituality, as long as he gets to define it. He has lots of company in the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. About 20% of the American population consider themselves spiritual but not religious.
So, I have tried to suspend my biases and read him fairly; listening to what he has to say rather than what I think he is saying. I believe I am being fair to his thinking when I say: Sam Harris doesn’t like anything like a classical theistic view of God, that is “the old man in the sky” (but many people don’t) and nothing like a religious structure to point toward ultimacy (but many dislike that, too). He does like Buddhism, as long as it is scrubbed of any of its fanciful trappings. He likes it, because it is full of observations of how the mind works and happiness is found. But most of all, for this neurologist by training – and I believe I am being fair to him – he thinks the essence of spirituality is a state of mind.
He spends lots of time talking about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. (There is nothing wrong with that.) He describes the right and left hemispheres of the brain interacting with one another (his explanation of how there seems to be a mysterious other present – the hidden other hemisphere). (Whatever!)
And he suggests that happiness can be indeed found in the present moment when, Buddhist style, we eliminate the false sense of “me” and open to experiencing whatever is in front of us.
Ok, I get it. I’m fascinated by much of the biology. The brain as the machine of consciousness. Finding the peaceful center beyond thoughts. Finding goodness and high altruism through a peaceful non-self.
But here is my bottom line criticism and assessment of why I believe Sam Harris is missing the lion’s share of the matter: He is reductionistic. He reduces spiritual experience to a state of mind, and no matter how centered, mindful, or peaceful that might be, it can never be enough.
In fact, most spiritual masters know that subjective experience by itself can be very misleading. If there isn’t something that transcends the person’s subjective experience – all is lost.
Suffice it to say that the machine of our brain can and does go dark in a moment. All it takes is developing Alzheimer’s. Or a massive stroke. Or God forbid, a traumatic brain injury.
We simply can’t reduce spirituality to a state of mind, to our subjective experience, however rich and important it is. Why? Because it is too fragile and too fleeting. It can be taken in a moment.
What is required, says Tim, is a central and compelling wisdom that there is a primordial light that exists whether or not I know about it, that exists when no other lights do, including the light of our own minds. We cannot base our ultimate truth in something that transitory or fallible. 
Harris would say that’s exactly what religion does – puts its trust in the wrong things, something that transitory and fallible, and he is at least half-right. Considering the actions propelled by radicalized religion in Paris this week, he gets one point in his column.
I want to say that because all creation is good, and any part of the creation may reflect the light of its source, any light we reflect is good.
But our lessor light is good, because we participate in that greater light. Let us not confuse ourselves: If our candle is snuffed out today, the light of the cosmos does not go out. The essence of spirituality is not defined or limited by my state of mind. Oh, Lord has mercy if that were the case. Its essence is the humble knowledge of what exists beyond my state of mind.
Many of us have followed the wisdom and writings of Henri Nouwen. It is fair to say that he shaped a whole generation of spiritual pilgrims. What is less known is his secret journal, the one written, as he was passing through some nine months of a deep and soul-wrenching depression.
As he moved through this dark night of the soul, his spiritual directors insisted that he keep writing, that he keep a journal. Later, when he thought that the writings that came out of his struggle could never be redemptive for others they disagreed. What could be more helpful than the struggle of the soul when you are at the bottom of the well? And so, the book, a collection of his writings, The Inner Voice of Love was published just before he died. In the conclusion, he wrote these words:
“During my months of anguish, I often wondered if God is real or just a product of my imagination. I now know that while I felt completely abandoned, God didn’t leave me alone…I have heard the inner voice of love, deeper and stronger than ever. I want to keep trusting in that voice and be led by it beyond the boundaries of my short life, to where God is all in all” (p.118).
From the search for the obvious sources of light to the light that shines before there is a sun, moon, or stars to shed light, to the primordial light that just is, the light of which I am a small part, a reflection, and which infinitely exceeds me. It always has been. It is. It always will be. And sometimes, I can glimpse it, even in the dark.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Benediction
Tim Carson
So now, may the Light of Christ that flows into our midst and into our hearts be reflected to the world we go to, now and forever. Amen.
Last Published: January 12, 2015 12:20 AM