Sunday, September 15, 2013

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Funcational Atheism

          Psalm 14 (Coverdale)

“The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” - Psalm 14.1

The Psalm that has been read this morning contains a devastating account of human nature. The Psalm relates what I would call a realistic anthropology, that is, it gives an honest and sober evaluation of our the human condition. The Psalm reads, “Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.” The traditional translation of this Psalm reads even more strongly, “But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable; there is none that doeth good, no not one.” The realistic anthropology of this Psalm contradicts the prevailing conception in our society which holds to an optimistic anthropology. Such a view says that everyone is basically good. As the church has become more worldly, it has espoused this high view of man, hence the increasing silence and embarrassment in the churches when it comes to the language of sin and redemption. But the Bible is unequivocal on this point: man apart from God inevitably sins and breaks God's righteous commandments.

I know that already there will be some, perhaps many, who will be objecting to this point. But I ask you to consider for a moment the record of human history. Is it a record of people being basically nice and good? Or is human history a record of power-grabbing, oppression, and the pursuit of solitary happiness? Solitary happiness says that my happiness can come at the expense of others' misery; that is the ethic of hell. Let me tell you, it never works to build your happiness on someone else's unhappiness. If you are doing something to make yourself happy that would hurt those closest to you, then it is probably sinful. Like it or not we live in the same world as the crusades, slavery and Communist Russia, and we possess the same human nature as Nero, Napoleon, and Stalin. Think for a moment of your own life as well. Is it free of moral complication? When was the last time you broke one of the Ten Commandments? Have you ever known something was wrong and yet still did it? This is one of the Bible's definitions for sin. In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul quotes our Psalm to make the point that both Jews and Gentiles have sinned. Even though Jews have the Law, they are morally no superior to Gentiles. St. Paul concludes his argument with these famous words, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3.23).

I like to think of the Bible as one continuous narrative. The central problem in the plot of the Bible is sin and death, and so the Bible relates how God saves humanity from sin and death and evil. The darkness of human sin and brokenness is contrasted in the Bible with God's patience, mercy and love. God's existence is not hidden, but rather God reveals it in the world itself. Psalm 24 reads “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament his handiwork. There is neither speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” We live in a world which shows us that God exists. This is precisely why the Bible indicates that it is the fool who says there is no God. Look at the world around us, the order of this good creation. The axis of the earth is tilted just enough to give us four seasons. Plants and animals supply one another's needs in a delicate order and balance. Consider the ordinary beauty of a wildflower. In it is contained a hint of the good and kind and beautiful Creator himself. Man too has been given an eternal soul and has been made in the image of God. Think of the human capacity for love, joy and creativity. That such human beings as Plato, Mozart and Shakespeare could exist by a mere accident stretches the limit of credulity. I was told recently that even the great advocate of atheism Richard Dawkins conceded in a debate that his belief system could not account for beauty.

It would be easy at this moment to give ourselves a pat on the back and say, at least I'm not an atheist. I go to church and say the creed, I believe in one God. I think this lets us off the hook too easily. Notice the wording of the Psalm, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” It is not simply referring to those who in the outward profession are atheists. It also includes those who are functionally atheist, that is, those who might say they believe in God but do not live as if he existed. I think most of us including myself fall all too easily into this functional atheism. We come to church on Sunday, say our prayers, but the rest of the week we direct the show. Or perhaps we are given to think of God as the cosmic clockmaker who set this world in motion, but now is basically hand-offs. He doesn't intervene in human history and has no real interest in public or private life. Anytime we reject God's providence in this way, we slip into this type of atheism.

Despite the stark realism of this Psalm, it also gives us hope for God's redemption. Jesus Christ is at the center of the Bible's narrative. The Old Testament looks forward to this Christ; the New Testament proclaims him explicitly. In our Psalm today, there is a kind of foreshadowing of that grim Friday in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. On that day, people acted as if there were no God. The Jews gave false witness against Jesus and sought the death penalty for a man who was innocent of any crime. The Romans acquiesced to mob rule and condemned this man to one of the most heinous methods of execution ever devised. Neither group had the fear of God before them. The commoners too derided our Lord Jesus not because of any wrongdoing but because of the lofty claims he had made for himself. Careless laughter then and now is destructive both to those to whom it is directed and even more so to those who laugh. Even the disciples capitulated to fear and abandoned the courage to stand in defense of truth and principle. On that day—in the words of the Psalm—the Lord looked down from heaven to see if there was any who sought after God, but everyone has proved faithless. Now if this were a comic book or a novel, such poetic injustice would have to righted: Jesus would have to reveal his divine glory, his superhuman powers and mete out quick justice. But, of course, this is just the opposite of what the Evangelists say unfolded that day. Our Lord gives himself over in sacrifice for the sins of those who are crucifying him. “Evildoers eat him as if he were bread,” but he prays, “Father, forgive them.” He dies for the broken. He dies for the sinful. He even dies for the atheistic, the fool who says in his heart there is no God. My brothers and sisters, “Deliverance has come out of Zion;” “The Lord has restored our fortunes” by drawing us to himself in our Lord Jesus through his sacrifice. Let us rejoice, let us be glad that we have such a Saviour and Deliverer

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