A Sermon from Sherborne

The Humility of God

A sermon preached at Festal Mattins on Easter Sunday 21st April 2019 by The Reverend Ron Martin, Associate Priest (and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital).

Isaiah 43:1-7.  John 20:19-23.


“Peace be with you.”  These are the first words Jesus utters to his disciples when he appears among them after his resurrection.  “Peace be with you.”

Until the mid 19th century many, if not most Christian people, believed that the world was just a few thousand years old.  Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh formulated his analysis of the age of the earth based on his reading of the Old Testament and concluded in 1650 that the earth began on 23rd October 4004 BC.  Other scholars such as the historian the Venerable Bede and even Sir Isaac Newton came up with a similar timescale for the age of the earth.   It wasn’t until the 19th century, with the rise of Geology and other scientific and academic disciplines that people began to discover that the earth was much older than previously thought, perhaps several million years old.  Gradually we have discovered that the earth is actually around four and a half billion years old and that the universe it is set within is about thirteen and a half billion years old.

That’s a huge number to comprehend.  We think we know the difference between a thousand, a million and a billion but it’s actually quite hard to grasp.  The 2018 Christmas lecture last year demonstrated this for me.  To illustrate the 4 billion years since single celled organisms appeared on our planet, Professor Alice Roberts took a roll of ribbon which was so long she had to have the help of a leaf blower to blow the ribbon off it’s real.  There were hundreds of feet of ribbon to illustrate how long 4 billion years took.  Right at the beginning of this huge length of ribbon reaching back in time was a strip of black material about 1cm thick; this tiny strip represented the last 300,000 years that modern human beings have walked on the earth.   Another way to help us understand the difference between a million years and a billion years is to think in terms of seconds.  One million seconds lasts just over 12 days.  So how long do you think a billion seconds lasts?   31.7 years!  The numbers, distances and timescales that astronomers and astrophysicists and the like work with every day are vast, incredible, mind spinning.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding over the last two millennia, an infinitesimally small amount of time when compared with the age of the earth.  Only as recently as 1500 years ago did we discover that the earth wasn’t flat but a sphere.  A mere 500 years ago we discovered that the sun, and not the earth is at the centre of our solar system.   And only as recently as 175 years ago did we discover that the earth is unimaginably older than originally accepted.  In the last hundred years a cascade of discoveries have revolutionised our planet and our lives and the way we think about who we are and the vast universe we are suspended in.

In 1977 the space probe Voyager 1 was launched to explore the outer reaches of our solar system. Thirteen years later in 1990, as it reached the very edge of our solar system, Voyager 1 turned around and took a photograph as it passed into interstellar space.  The tiny pinprick dot of light suspended in space in the middle of that vast photograph is our planet earth.  Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist, reflecting on that photo wrote,  “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…..every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

The size and scale of time and space are beyond our ability to imagine let alone comprehend and as the years have gone by, we have come to have a very different understanding and view of our place in the universe than that of Archbishop Ussher and his contemporaries.  We could be forgiven for thinking that we are no more important than a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam; that our lives and the life of our planet are irrelevant and insignificant in the context of billions of galaxies within a universe that is billions of years old.

In an interview I recently saw, Professor Richard Dawkins the famous evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, among other works, is particularly disdainful of the notion that any supreme being, any God, any creator of the vastness of time and space would choose to come to earth as a vulnerable middle eastern baby; that such an unimaginably powerful being should become a refugee born into an occupied and troubled backwater of the Roman Empire and then submit to scorn, torture and death?  Ridiculous!  Laughable!  There are many others who conclude as much, perhaps even most others; after all our churches are rarely bulging with crowds of people eagerly seeking to commune with God.   But they never have been.  There never was a golden age for the Church.  Christ crucified remains what it has always been since St Paul first confirmed it to the faithful at Corinth; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

“Peace be with you.”  That the Creator of time and space, of stars and galaxies, of wonders on a scale far beyond our imagining should come down to earth, emptying himself of all but love, remains confounding foolishness for most, but for us and for countless millions of others, even in our modern scientific world, it is a sublime and transcendent truth.

Peace be with you; don’t be afraid. The Creator of all things, seen and unseen is astonishingly, amazingly, with us, for us, on our side and he is gentle and humble hearted, full of compassion and forgiveness.   He has created us in his image, to reflect these same qualities of creativity, humility and compassion.  He is God Almighty.  He is our brother, our sister, our guide and our friend.  Death could not hold him, and nothing, not even our sin and certainly not death can snatch us out of his Almighty hand.

This is surely a truth that outshines by far, even the wonders of the vastness of time and space and the billions of galaxies this gentle humble God has created.

It’s Easter!  Away with our fears and our doubts!  Christ is risen and God, our God, stands in our midst even now and proclaims to each and every one of us, “Peace be with you.”

The Reverend Ron Martin, Associate Priest and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital 21/04/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne