How do we know?

Good morning, Friends!

At Wednesday night Bible study we just finished spending two months reading through the Psalms – some of the prayers and songs which David wrote. David was famous as a warrior. He made a lot of changes as a king. But where David really left his mark, in a permanent way, was in the Psalms he wrote.

In poem after poem, in song after song, David poured out his heart to God. He praised God. He repented of his mistakes. He told God about his fear and his anger.

It says in the Bible that God loved David, and that God promised to love and protect David’s family forever, because of David’s faith. The place we see that faith best, is in these songs and Psalms David wrote.

For thousands of years, people have found inspiration in the Psalms. Most of you know a few of them:

  • “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me by the still water. He restores my soul. . .” (Psalm 23)
  • “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27)
  • “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. . .” (Psalm 121)

And so many more! How many Psalms are there? 150 – and we’ve been praying them for almost 3,000 years.

Now, I’m going to ask you all a big, important  question.

Does God exist? Most of you are going to answer “yes” to that question. Some of you are going to say, “Well, I think so.” Some of you might even say, “I’m not sure.”

I want to ask you, how do you know that God is there? That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. The Psalm we’re going to read today is one of the most famous Psalms – Psalm 19, which talks about how obvious it is that God is all around us.

How do you know that God is here? It’s different for each of us. People know the Lord in many different ways. Everybody’s different. But if you open your eyes, if you let your mind and your heart be open, you’ll know that God is all around us. Let’s read the Psalm together.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.

Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Some people live very close to the natural world. In the old days, these were people like shepherds, farmers, and fishermen. They lived out under the open sky. They felt the winds. They watched the stars. They saw the changing seasons.

Today, a lot of us spend most of our time indoors. We hide from nature. We close ourselves off and insulate ourselves from the heat and cold. We force ourselves to work on night shifts, and we have so many street lights and neon signs that a lot of people never see the stars.

But there are still people who spend a lot of time outdoors – gardeners, joggers, cable installers, people who walk dogs, people who fish and play golf, anyone who spends a big part of their day outside.

For those people, it’s just obvious. God is all around us! God is visible, in the beauty, power, and complexity of the natural world.

As the hymn we sang earlier this morning says, “This is my Father’s world, He shines in all that’s fair; in the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere. . .”

Or, as it says in our scripture reading this morning, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. . .”

In many ways, scientists are the most religious people in the world today. Scientists study the complexity, regularity, and power, the eternity, beauty and interconnectedness of all things. Scientists actually do it much better than the rest of us, who just go along and take the world for granted.

As people understand more and more about science, we develop a new appreciation for the creation and the Creator. If there are natural laws governing everything, it stands to reason that there must be a God who made them.

This world is too beautiful to have been put here by accident. The universe is too well-balanced to have been cut loose at random. There are things we don’t understand, but there is design in things. There must be a Designer.

The complexity of the world, and its height and depth, argues that there must be some organizing genius. Things are too orderly for everything to have just happened.

So, that’s one answer to the question, “Does God exist?” If there’s a creation, there must be a Creator.

Here’s another take, a different version. If the world needs to be saved, there must be a Savior.

Human society and human nature are clearly messed up. We’re in trouble. Anyone who gives the slightest attention to politics, history, economics, psychology, justice, or just everyday human existence has to agree with that. There is something wrong with human beings and with the way we treat each other. There is something wrong with the way that we think and feel.

Human beings do terrible things to each other, and it must be either because we are fundamentally flawed or because we have a completely wrong understanding of what the world is and how we’re supposed to live in it.

It’s puzzling, because most people do have a strong sense of fairness. We have eyes to see when things are wrong. We have ears to hear people crying out. We can imagine their pain. Why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we change?

As Saint Paul points out, “I don’t understand my own actions. For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . .I can will what’s right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . .” (Romans 7:15, 18-19)

Somehow, the problem of wrong and evil is way too big for us. Our illness is pervasive. Some days it feels like a mortal wound in society – we’re bleeding to death, and we can’t fix ourselves.

So, what do we do?

Some people say we have broken God’s laws. From the most basic law about not worshiping other gods, to the law about not murdering our neighbor, we have broken every law God has ever made for us.

We are fundamentally a rebellious, lawless, guilty people, who reject God at every opportunity. We have broken the law, and somebody has to take the blame. Someone has to set us straight. The whole system of law needs to be replaced somehow, and meanwhile, God’s justice has to be satisfied.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t been paying attention to Christian theology for a long time. Because this is the basic idea that drives what many Christians believe.

Jesus came to set things straight. Jesus argues before God in the heavenly court on our behalf. Jesus sets up a new law, and Jesus takes the blame and shoulders the punishment himself for us in some mysterious way.

It’s no accident that the people who pioneered this kind of understanding tended to be lawyers. Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin were all trained in law. They see all this as fundamentally a legal problem, with a legal solution.

And if the whole theological business of conviction and justification, crime and punishment, divine retribution and clearing the record doesn’t always make sense to us, it may be because not everyone is a lawyer. Not everyone thinks that way.

Other people aren’t so wrapped up in law and punishment. The verse they hang their hat on is the one where is says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him my not perish but have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. . .” (John 3:16-17)

You see a difference there? One side says that everybody’s going to Hell, except a lucky few. The other side says that God wants everybody to go to Heaven.

I don’t know how to referee between those two different points of view. I guess I feel that God wants everybody to be saved – even the people who disagree with that.

I also think that it’s really up to God. Our job is to live the way Jesus said we should, and try to care for people the way Jesus did. If we do that, I think that once again, we’ll find God all around us. For people who try to walk the way Jesus walked, the kingdom of God is always very near.

The original question I asked this morning was, “Does God exist?” and I’d like to get back to it.

For some people, the answer comes from seeing the world as a divine creation, with God as the creator.

For other people, the answer comes from a different question – “The human race is in terrible shape, and who can fix it?” And the answer for these people is Jesus Christ.

For a third large group of people, the answer to the basic question, “Does God exist?” comes from a very different place.

The answer comes from within. The answer comes directly and experientially, from a spiritual sense that God is here.

People who find their basic answer in the Holy Spirit don’t disbelieve in God as creator, or disbelieve in Jesus. But those aren’t the answers they turn to first. The convincing answer for these folks, the revelation, comes primarily in their direct and personal experience of the Holy Spirit.

A good example of this would be one of my favorite quotes, from the Quaker writer Robert Barclay. Barclay wrote:

“Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of doctrine and convincement of my understanding thereby came [I] to receive and bear witness to the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life. For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed. And indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian. . .” (Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition 11, Section 7)

Or, to quote another Quaker writer, James Nayler, who also wrote about the experience of the Holy Spirit:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. . .Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. . .”Thou wast with me when I fled from the face of mine enemies; then didst Thou warn me in the night: Thou carriedst me in Thy power into the hiding-place Thou hadst prepared for me: there Thou coveredst me with Thy Hand that in time Thou mightst present me to the world in Thy strength in which I stand, and cannot be moved. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let this be written for those that come after. Praise the Lord.” (James Nayler’s  dying words)

People like Robert Barclay and James Nayler find their proof for the existence of God in the Spirit, rather than somewhere else.

Some people may feel the Spirit most when there’s a lot of loud singing, or where there’s lots praying or testifying in a large group. Other people feel the Spirit best when they’re alone, when they’re praying quietly.

Either way, what convinces this third group of people, is the Spirit. They believe in God the creator, because they feel the Spirit everywhere. They believe in the gospel, because they feel the same Spirit in Jesus that they feel in their hearts.

They don’t discount the Bible. But for them, the Spirit is the source of all truth, and the Bible is simply a record of how people at different times have experienced the Spirit.

If I had to try to summarize what I want you all to take home this morning, I would say, “The question is, ‘Does God exist?'” This is the most basic religious question there is.

But instead of telling you what to believe, I would say, “Find your own answer. Recognize the kind of person you are. Identify the kind of faith you have, from among all these different possibilities.”

I will not tell you what to believe or how to have faith, but I will argue passionately that it’s crucial for everyone to have an unshakeable reason to believe in God. I care very much about every one of you. I want you to have faith. I want you to hope. I want every one of you to discover, in your own way, the love and power of God.

Does God exist? And, how do you know it? Let’s take those questions into our time of quiet prayer together.

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