Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-31a, Revelation 22:1-20
Recent advances in science have given us a pretty good idea of where the universe is going. Depending on its total mass, the universe will either continue to expand and thus eventually, when all the stars burn out, become dark and cold, or gravity will decelerate the expansion until the universe contracts and, finally, collapses into a black hole. Much earlier, however, our sun will burn out, and before that our galaxy will collide with a neighboring galaxy. In that celestial catastrophe our solar system will either be drawn into the chaos of the impact area or thrown out into space. So, before the entire universe comes to an end, the universe known for centuries in the night sky of earth will cease to exist.
Of course, life on earth may well cease long before that, and human life on earth will likely end before all life on earth ends. A collision with a large asteroid would have a devastating effect on our environment, and when the super volcano in Yellowstone National Park erupts some time in the next ten thousand years only a remnant of the earth’s people will survive. One way or another, life as we know it will end, sooner or later, and finally even the entire universe will cease to exist.
What does this knowledge of the universe tell us about creation? To speak of creation, rather than the universe, is to assume that a Creator has brought the universe into existence for a purpose. Talking about creation shifts the language from inquiry into how the universe will end to reflection on why it will end. Science can only tell us how the universe works, and thus how it will cease to work based on the way it is now working. Science cannot answer why this is the way things are, and why the universe as we know it will come to an end.
So, although the explanations of the natural world in scripture are inaccurate, the religious meanings in these ancient stories may help us address questions that science cannot even ask. The creation story in Genesis 1 says God created the universe and all life on earth. Moreover, God made human beings in "the image of God," as male and female, and blessed them, and told them to be fruitful and multiply. "Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen. 1:28) And everything that was made, God saw, was good.
The rest of the Bible struggles to understand what has gone wrong with creation. Human beings are blamed, punished, and offered opportunities to be reunited once more with God, if not physically than at least with God’s good purposes. In the New Testament, God becomes human flesh to embody for humanity the unity of matter and spirit that reveals the purpose of creation. In Jesus, we find that death – even an unjust and painful death – is not the worst thing in life. The worst thing in life is neglecting the needs of the least among us, for in committing this sin we miss our chance to know the God who loves even those who are unlovely and unloving.
The New Testament proclaims a kingdom of God beyond the control of the reigning king of kings in the first century, the Caesar ruling the Roman Empire. Thereefore, the revelation to John that ends the Bible story concludes with a vision of the end of history. With the end of time and space, as we know it, God alone reigns in a world that can only be imagined. In Revelation 21:1 the visionary author of this apocalypse sees "a new heaven and a new earth" for "the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more."
And Revelation 21:3-4 records a voice from the throne, saying: "The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them…[and] wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
This vision announces that a new Jerusalem will come down from heaven, beautifully "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband," (Rev. 21:2) but in this wondrous city there will not be a temple for worship because "the LORD God the Almighty and the Lamb" will be present. "And there will be no more night," for those who are saved, "for the LORD God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." (Rev. 22:5)
This isn't much like either an ever-expanding universe, or a collapse of the universe into a black hole. But this passage from scripture is not a description of how the universe will end. Instead, it tells us why the universe ends. The reign of God will only come, the Bible says, when the reign of the world’s Caesars finally ends. God’s kingdom is not of this world, but offers life with God in and beyond this world.
No such eternal world can be measured with scientific instruments or verified by making more refined observations of the laws of the universe. The idea of "eternity" is beyond measurement. And although we talk about God as though we know what we are talking about, God is beyond our knowing and our talking. The Bible, this sermon, and your personal experience of God – these are all, at best, candles in the vast darkness of our unknowing. They reveal almost nothing, yet we follow these flickers of light, because they show us a way forward. On our own, we see only the laws of the universe and the systems of life, which will end some day when space and time become vastly dark or disappear into the nothingness of a black hole.
Pessimists say the notion of eternity is fantasy, and that there is no God, no meaning, no hope. Realists claim that human beings make up religious stories because, without them, they find little to live for. Yet, those with faith live — trusting that love comes from love, that joy and beauty cannot come from matter alone, that spirit is real and eternal.
Such faith need not be naïve. Clearly, the God of our knowing is largely of our own making. Human beings told the stories, wrote the teachings, created the paintings, composed the music, and argued for the doctrines that convey God to us through the life of the church. And our experience, no matter how exalted and inspiring, is nonetheless human. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, now we only see things dimly.
Yet, we may trust that we are made in the image of God. The miracle of mind from matter may give us hope. The incredible character of the universe may inspire us to embrace all as God’s creation.
Where is creation going? Now, here, it is going where we take it. Our corner of creation is very much our responsibility. Clearly, human beings are not in control of the earth’s environment, yet no other species has a greater impact. Moreover, we are gifted with the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. Our question should be, not where is creation going, but where are we going? Do we seek life with God? Are we embracing eternal life now, as we live?
Faith in creation concerns now, not merely the beginning and the end of the universe. The past that has brought us to this moment, as well as the future that will radiate from this moment, is present in this moment.
Here is where we may find the love of God that passes all understanding. Here is where God is, among the least of those among us. Here on earth is where we are challenged to care for other creatures. Here is where we are called to lift up our faith through faithful living.