IIIM Magazine Online,Volume 4, Number 22, June 3 to June 9, 2002



A SERMON ON PSALM 8:3-8; 14:1-3

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

In preparation for the Billy Graham Mission event, this congregation will explore the theme of Witness: Sharing our Faith all this month. This week and next, we look at the basic message of our faith, answering the question:

  • What is our situation?
  • What is our solution?

These are two basic questions that every faith system needs to answer — and every faith system answers differently. The next three messages will focus on sharing the basic content of the faith by answering the questions:

  • How do we say it? (Witnessing)
  • How do we show it? (Public obedience)
  • How do we survive it? (Where do we get the power to consistently speak and live the message?)

So what is our situation? Simply put, what does it mean to be human? This is a question that has occupied the minds of thinkers for millennia. The answer to this question affects basic approach to almost every ethical question you face. Contemporary advancements in science have caused some to re-think this question.

If you've been following the news lately, you've probably heard about the decoding of the human genome. Technology giant Celeron had been competing with a nonprofit group to completely map out the structure of the human DNA — and from that map, to determine what each gene does for us in our bodies. DNA is fascinating because it is simply a long string of four different molecules — Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine. These four molecules are the alphabet of the genes of all life as we know it. By combining these molecules into long structures, our body creates a unique genetic structure.

Interestingly, however, we have also found that our human genetic structure is not all that unique. 82% of our genetic structure is shared with mice. Just over 98% of our genetic structure is shared with chimpanzees. And the genetic difference between you and the person sitting next to you is only .0003%. Think about that the next time someone cuts you off in traffic.

Such discoveries have caused some to surmise that we as humans are not really that special at all. We're simply just like every other animal, only with a more advanced brain stem. Of course, there are attempts to preserve our sense of being special. As an example, Juan Enriquez, of the Life Sciences project at Harvard, says this in his recent book As the Future Catches You:

What makes us special is not the number of genes or the fact that we share many of these with worms, plants, bacteria. What is particular to humans is the complexity with which we network ... our biological selves.1

The only thing that makes us special, in the view of many moderns, is that we are more complex than other creatures.

The Bible, however, teaches that humanity is uniquely special because we carry God's image with us. Genesis 1:26-28 teaches this truth — that God made man in his image — notice that it says both male and female. Those who claim that the Bible is misogynist haven't been reading the text. Both men and women bear God's image. Notice also that God has work for these image bearers "Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it." God gave us a positive work to create a culture that would be pleasing to Him.

Now the question immediately comes to mind, or at least it should, — what does it mean to bear the image of God? Does that mean that God has a body like we do? Is God really some aged English actor with flowing white hair? If not, then what does it mean to be in God's image. Our reading from Psalm 8 helps us with this question. The Psalm is dedicated to God's glory from the beginning. Verses 3-4 poses the question "What is man when considered with the awesomeness of creation?" This is the same type of question that we brush up against with contemporary scientific discoveries — "What is man? What makes him special?"

The answer has nothing to do with our physicality. Yes our physical beings are a part of who we are, but they are not integral to our bearing God's image. The answer to the question "What make us special?" is that God has crowned us with glory and honor and given us authority over all the rest of the earth. We weren't created to live life defeated and downcast — we were made to be the apex of creation. We weren't created simply to fill our hours with shallow whims and diversions — we were made to build an entire society of people yearning to please God in all that they do. We were created to be creative.

Notice also that this truth applies to every human being who walks the earth. Had we but eyes to see, we would perceive the radiance and glory of God's image beaming from behind every face. Imagine how such an understanding changes our perception of the tired working mother carting her kids around the mall, or the hollow eyed street person shuffling down Piatt park, or the harried and caustic checkout teller at the supermarket. Might we not treat the least of these with more dignity and respect? Might we not expect more from others and ourselves if we truly perceived the glory for which we were created?

Why is it that we don't always live up to this glorious identity? It goes back to the rebellion in the human heart. The book of Genesis tells how the first man, Adam, disobeyed God's instruction, and from that first disobedience, every human has inherited a disobedient heart. Our second reading today explores this problem — it says there is none who do good. No one in himself or herself seeks God. This is the problem that we label "sin."

Now many people have the idea that sin is about the bad things we do. If we lie, or cheat, or steal, or do obviously bad things then we're sinning. But most people also think that if you lead a basically good life, then you're without sin. That is not the case. Sin refers more to an orientation of the human heart — an orientation away from God's will for us toward our own will. St. Augustine defined sin as valuing a lesser good over a greater good. You see, when God created everything, he pronounced it all good. In disobeying God, Adam was not putting evil over good. Rather he was placing the lesser good of his own desire for knowledge over the greater good of obedience to God's commands. Every good is rightly enjoyed in its proper context, but when we enjoy a good outside of the limits set by God, it loses its goodness.

We all intuitively know this. Who doesn't like the occasional pint of Graeter's ice cream? But if we feasted on Graeter's after every meal, then we would balloon up to an unhealthy size and the ice cream itself would soon lose it's savor — it would bring no more joy. This is the cycle of addiction. Some pleasure is enjoyed out of its proper context — and therefore increasing doses are needed to produce the same satisfaction.

Ultimately then, sin is a matter of our heart refusing to go to God for fulfillment, but looking anywhere and everywhere else for it. Calvin called the human heart a factory of idols, and it is true. Many look to drugs, pornography, partying for fulfillment, and they find it sadly wanting. However, others fall into the subtler trap of setting up virtues as idols. Some of us put very positive things at the center of our lives — family, volunteering, patriotism, and character. These are good things, but they are not proper at the center of our lives. Only a right relationship with God is proper to the center of our lives — all the other virtues and goods radiate out from that and find their meaning in the context of that relationship.

If you've never read G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mystery stories, you've missed out on some of the best detective stories ever written. Father Brown is a Catholic priest who applies a Christian understanding of sin and redemption to help solve mysteries. In one story, he confronts a man who thought he had gotten away with murder. The man, astounded says "How do you know all this.... are you a devil?" "I am a man," answered Father Brown gravely; "and therefore have all devils in my heart."2 Chesterton understood — the human heart is twisted in an astounding way. There is no way we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps sufficiently to merit God's favor. As pastor Tim Keller says, "Cheer up, you're worse than you ever knew."

So there is the dilemma — we are designed with incredible dignity, and we are burdened with unimaginable depravity. John Lennon once said "Every man is Christ. Every man is Hitler". Lennon may not have understood the theology of what he was saying, but he certainly understood the predicament of the human condition. Most of us don't like to live with that tension. Many unconsciously try to drown it out through ceaseless activity. We've certainly concocted ample enough diversions to distract our attention from this fundamental human problem. But I challenge you to keep this tension ever before your eyes — the grand dignity with which you were created, and the depravity that lurks within your heart. Keep that before you, for it keeps your mind ever ready to receive the solution that God offers through Jesus Christ. And we'll explore that next week. Amen.

1. As the Future Catches You, pg. 219

2. "The Hammer of God" from the Complete Father Brown, p 174.