This is the message I presented on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 February 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28.
When I first started working on today’s sermon, I was thinking in terms of computers, information technology, and how information is so much a part of our lives. But yesterday’s tragic event quickly made that approach mute. But it doesn’t change the idea that information and how we use information, the power of information, are so much a part of our lives and our understanding of God’s role in our lives.
The seven astronauts aboard the Columbia died in the pursuit of information. And it is at times like these when we find ourselves, with all the knowledge we have gained throughout the years, struggling to explain this event, not only to ourselves but also to those who depend on our judgement. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do at this point is understand that we don’t have all the information that we need, that we are at the beginning of an exploration. And despite our desires for quick and immediate answers, we will find that answers come only with time.
There are some things that we do know. We have grown rather blasé about the nature of space travel. We must remember that we are still in the infancy of space travel and that efforts like Star Trek or Star Wars are still works of fiction, possible in the far future but still fiction today. And for any manned space mission, the launch and landing of the spacecraft are still the most dangerous parts.
It is almost a certainty as well that we are going to be hearing many things, from the completely absurd to plausible. The most immediate thought of course is that it was a terrorist activity but that would mean that our security systems failed before the shuttle launched. And if there were any thoughts that it was shut down, remember that the shuttle was 39 miles above the earth, traveling at 18 times the speed of sound. Our own missile technology can’t hit objects that high moving at that speed, so I personally doubt that anyone else can.
We may also hear that this was a sign from God. But if it was a sign from God, what was He trying to tell us? Signs from God are clear and unmistakable and God does not take the lives of innocents for the wrongs of others. It brings us back to the question of understanding God and the nature of wisdom. We are wrong to assume that we can fully understand what God wants us to do. The nature of our own knowledge is incomplete and it would be futile to try and speak for God. But this much is certain, at least to me, if God did not want us to explore and push the nature of the universe, then why did He give us the brains and wherewithal to do so?
The need to explore, the need to find answers to our questions will only lead us to more questions. And as we gain more knowledge about the world around us, it only causes us to have more questions about the nature of the world. Sooner or later that means that questions about God and His role in this world will be asked. Some would say that we shouldn’t ask questions about God. But if we don’t ask such questions, it becomes harder for us to know who God is and what His role in our lives is, what it should be, and what it can be.
It should be noted that education has always been a tradition in Methodism. The early circuit riders were encouraged to read and study the Bible during those hours spent riding their horses between churches and assignments. This was an easy thing to do because the horse pretty well knew the way between stops and this gave time for the preacher to read and study in the saddle. I know that the encouragement still exists today though the method by which it is done, I hope, has changed.
John Wesley also saw the need for the children and adults coming to church to study the Bible. The first organized schools in England were Methodist Sunday schools, designed to provide basic literacy training for children and adults at a time when education was limited to the upper class and landed gentry of the time. Wesley understood that an illiterate populace would never advance in life. Nor could they even begin to understand the nature of the Bible and the meaning of salvation.
There is no limit nor can there be a limit to knowledge. For to put limits on what we know or can know can only limit what we do or can do. But we must be aware that in our desire to gain knowledge, we never lose sight of who we are and the limits that knowledge put on us. We must always be aware that when we feel our knowledge takes us beyond the scope of God, we are asking for trouble. The tower of Babel was the epochal story of mankind’s thinking that it had the capability to be equal to God.
We are in an age where information and the ability to use information is the key to power. One of my favorite sayings, one that I use as part of the screen saver on my computers comes from John, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8: 32)
So we seek the truth, in whatever forms it might be. But we must be reminded that the ability to use information and the power that comes with such knowledge must always be tempered by the fact that it can be abused. There are those who will be quick to say they have the only true understanding; that they speak for the Lord. But the Old Testament reading for today, in verse 15, reminds us that one does not become a true prophet by self-will or desire but because they were raised up by the Lord.
Earlier, in chapter 13 (verses 1 – 5), the writer of Deuteronomy wrote
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods (god you have not known) and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeem you from the land of slavery’ he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.
This was the same basis upon which it was written in today’s Old Testament reading, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18: 20) In short, the Lord warns us to beware of false prophets, those who would speak in the name of the Lord but only seek gains for themselves.
I think that the difference between the false prophets of old, and some of the newer ones as well, is that they are not really teachers. Jesus was first and foremost a teacher. Forty-two percent of Mark’s gospel deals with some mention of teaching. In almost every instance, the reports of such teaching are accompanied with reports of astonishment and amazement. But that was because the people of Israel had never encountered a teacher who did not rely on his own past experiences or the past experiences of others for their own knowledge. Jesus had no need to do so for his authority, his understanding came from who He was and is and will be. His teaching was designed to help people understand who God was and is and what God meant for each of us. His teaching, his knowledge of the world was never designed to be an exercise in personal power. The demon in the Gospel reading for today knew who Jesus was but Jesus would not acknowledge that testimony because it came from a disreputable source. Mark noted that this miracle brought a great deal of recognition for Jesus.
Mark contrasts the people who received Christ with the Pharisees and rulers who worked against Him. The sad truth is that too many times the religious of the world do more to keep people from Christ.
I think this was part of Paul’s problems with the Corinthians. It appears from what Paul wrote that many in the church at Corinth saw knowledge as more than wisdom. The statement that “we know that we all have knowledge” appears to have been a slogan used by certain Corinthian believers as an arrogant statement against weaker Christians. Those weaker Christians believed that eating food offered to idols was a sin. Others believed that such concerns were ridiculous. They argued that if the idols were worthless, then the meat offered to them was fine to eat. Paul agreed that such food was not contaminated but he wanted the knowledgeable Christians not to flaunt their point of view.
Paul’s statement that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” is one of his five attacks on the arrogance of some of the members of the church. These individuals belittled the weaker members with their knowledge. Paul wanted them to know that they were missing the point; instead of belittling someone, they should have been using their knowledge to help others.
Paul pointed out that the more knowledgeable members were correct in their views about idols. But that wasn’t the point. If those who felt that eating the food offered to idols was sinful saw someone eating that food, then they might be tempted to eat it anyway. This would be in clear violation of their conscience. And to go against one’s conscience was, in fact, sinning. By their knowledge the stronger ones caused the weaker ones to stumble. Paul exhorted the strong believers to show love to the weaker ones by refraining from offending them.
The most difficult thing about knowledge is that others are always involved in the pursuit of it. There must be someone there to help us, in some way, find the knowledge that we seek. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But as Paul pointed out, there are problems when such knowledge is abused. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were meant to remind them that their gifts came from God and were meant to be used in ways that unified the church and spread the Gospel.
It is the Gospel message that frees us. As Jesus said, when we seek the truth and find it, we will be set free. We are reminded again that the pursuit of freedom is not always easy, nor does it come cheaply. Seven individuals seeking more knowledge that can be used to provide a better life have given their lives in that pursuit and we mourn their loss. But I, like others, hope that their loss will not put a damper on the efforts to better know this world and this universe. We should not stop our search simply because there has been a tragedy. To do so would dishonor the memory of all that were lost in the pursuit of knowledge.
It is through the power provided by the information that we gain in our exploration that drives us onward. Our efforts to better know this world should never end, for to do so puts an end to our existence. We have come to know God through our searches; and through our searches our knowledge of God, His role in our lives, and our role in this world becomes stronger. That is the ultimate power of information.