The following is a sermon that I preached on 19th November 2017 at St Mary -le-More Church, Wallingford. The readings on which the sermon is based are Zephaniah 1.7,12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, and Matthew 25.14-30.
It is, of course, very easy to ‘spiritualise’ these readings – to see them as a warning that we should not allow our faith to become complacent or lacklustre. Personally, I think that is a good warning to heed, and a not inappropriate interpretation of these particular readings. But I’m not sure that looking at them in an exclusively spiritual way is enough.
What all three readings have in common is the coming Day of the Lord – the Day of Judgement – and how to prepare for it. Preparing for the Day of the Lord is, of course, spiritual, but it is also more than that. It involves how we allow our faith to shape the practices of our lives. The Zephaniah passage warns that, for the rich, not even their silver and gold can save them. The implication is that although they may be prosperous and have much, they have neglected God, and have not used their wealth in a godly way. So, too, the parable of the talents that Jesus tells. Those who have been blessed with wealth, positions of influence and leadership, whether religious, political or both, those who have gifts and skills, must use these in ways that return a reward – not for themselves, but for God, their master. In other words, in ways that build and make known God’s kingdom. Wealth, power, influence, gifts and skills should be used for the common good, and to support those who are lacking in these things.
In our own society, one of the great resources that we have is knowledge. Now that’s not new. The world has always had people who knew stuff. But science and technology have allowed us to develop knowledge in ways that previous generations would never have dreamed possible. Telescopes allow us to see not just vast distances in space but, through those distances, back in time, to the very early, cosmologically speaking, days of the universe. We can see the microscopic and even subatomic. We are able to harness enormous energies, understand the causes of disease and develop ever more precise and sophisticated medical treatments. We can even manipulate the very building blocks of life to create synthetic organisms. We can build and programme machines that not only perform tasks, but can ‘learn’. One day, they might even be able to ‘think’ as we understand thinking.
That is all amazing. Some of it is terrifying. But the question that applies to all of it is, ‘how do we use it?’ This question can be asked at two levels. One, do we use it to inspire us or to undermine our faith, and two, do we use it for the good of all, or to enrich ourselves (whether individuals, corporations or nations)?
That first level, do we use this vast body of knowledge to inspire us, or do we let it undermine our faith, is the question many have in mind when they think of the relationship between science and faith. For those of us who are both interested in science or, indeed, are scientists, and also people of faith, this is a serious question. Some have seen in the scientific discoveries of the past century and a half or so evidence that the Bible is ‘untrue’. But that depends on how you understand the Bible. If you understand it as the unfolding revelation of God to his creation, rendered in images and narratives that tell us deep truths about God, then there is, in fact, no reason to think that the theory of evolution, or the age of the earth derived from geological evidence, undermine the Christian faith.
If part of our Christian calling is to help others to encounter God and see the truth of our faith, we have to acknowledge the truth revealed to us through science, because that is their truth.
Only then can we demonstrate that those two truths can sit comfortably side by side.
As we become familiar with the wonders that science reveals and the wonderful things it allows us to do, that can strengthen our own faith and worship. Worship is all about giving God the praise he is due. Science offers a perspective on what a wonderful, amazing universe God created. Beyond that, the teachings of science, such as evolution, show us that God gave to this universe the ability to make and shape itself. That tells us that God was willing to relinquish control, and that he loves creation enough to let it be what it will be, even though that means giving creation the freedom to go wrong at points, including human sinfulness. The God that loves his creation enough to let it stray, also loves it enough to reach out and bring it back, to restore its relationship with him, and to guide it towards the perfect state he desires it to achieve. That should stir in us a deep sense of wonder and gratitude.
When we allow our relationship with God to be inspired by science, rather than be threatened by it, then our interest in science becomes a gift that can be used for evangelism and mission, as well as being a means by which we deepen our own personal faith. These things are relevant to our spiritual preparedness for the coming of the Kingdom.
The second level of the question I posed at the start of this sermon, do we use scientific knowledge and technology to benefit all or only ourselves, falls very much in line with the Bible’s concern with the appropriate uses of wealth. Wealth, in the ancient world, was understood by many to be a sign of God’s blessing. But the point of being blessed was to bless others. The advantages that science gives us are, in themselves, a type of wealth, a blessing that enables us to have long, healthy, prosperous lives. That being the case, we should be using this wealth to bless others.
This, naturally, raises ethical questions about science. What type of scientific work is being done in our society? Will it give advantage to some while disadvantaging others? Does it respect the dignity of human life? Much scientific research and technological innovation is, as I’m sure we’re all aware, done by corporations. This raises the issue of proprietary knowledge. It is necessary for companies to make money from their discoveries, otherwise, there would be no investment or innovation. But there is a real question to be asked about how far that should go.
I apologise if that feels a bit political. But the truth is, Christians shouldn’t shy away from questions about the relationship between science and faith. Nor should we shy away from some of the more challenging aspects of science and technology. These things pervade every aspect of our world, so it is right that we, among others, have a voice when we feel that there are ethical issues to be addressed. Of course, what we cannot do is say to those working in science and technology, “We have decided this is how you must do your job.” What we can say is, “We are concerned that all should benefit from the scientific research and the technological advances being achieved. We want to have a discussion about how our society might make that happen.” If that sounds wishy-washy, believe me, it’s not. It states clearly the concerns that Christians have for the common good. It makes plain a desire to engage fruitfully. And it encourages dialogue by not presupposing that we already know the answers and have the right to dictate to others. If I may be so bold to say so, I think it’s a pretty Christ-like way to engage.
God has given us, some of us as individuals and all of us together as a society, the gifts of human intelligence, curiosity and ingenuity. Those, in turn, have led to the extraordinary set of things we call science. What the parable of the talents challenges us to consider is, how are we investing these gifts? What sort of return are we getting from them for God and his Kingdom?