Sermon - Sunday, 10 March 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 10 March 2019.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 / Luke 4: 1-13

Text:  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert where for forty days he was tempted by the devil         (Luke 4: 1)


Science and religion: two fields of human endeavour each with their own vocabulary, their own methodologies, their own areas of interest.

Science and religion: which one is right, which one holds the key to unlocking the deep mysteries of life and the deep truths of human experience?

Why is there something rather than nothing – and is it the scientist or the theologian to whom we should turn for insight?

And will it be the scientist or the theologian who will help us understand why even the furthest flung corners of the universe appear regular, intelligible and ordered according to the law of physics?

And rather than a universe, should we be thinking in terms of a multi-verse?

Big questions, challenging questions, questions which do not lend themselves to quick and easy answers but important questions which take us to the heart of what it means to be human and our search for meaning and understanding.

And if you made use of the February Prayer Diary you will recognise these were some of the questions raised by Professor David Fergusson in the closing reflection.

David Fergusson is the Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and the reflection printed in the prayer diary was taken from a lecture he gave to last year’s Scottish Church Theology Society’s annual conference on contemporary issues in science and religion and what the ancient Greek philosopher Plato described as the search for a likely story.[1]

Noting the interaction between religion and science has intensified in recent years,   Fergusson laments the fact that with the decline in mainstream religious institutions, the thoughts and views of leading scientists on ethical and political matters are often given more attention that the views of bishops and moderators.

In the popular narrative at least, scientists like Richard Dawkins have discredited religion and established science and scientific endeavour as a more reliable source of knowledge and wisdom.

As Fergusson noted however, to a significant extent throughout history the natural sciences have been and still are pursued by people of different faith communities.

Inviting us to look at the names of the buildings and streets around Kings Buildings, home to the University of Edinburgh’s science faculty, Fergusson suggests it reveals a varied and complex relationship between science and religion.

Check it out for yourself and see if you agree?

If not in conflict or competition with one another – and it is always worth remembering that in any conflict, it is always one person’s understanding of science against another person’s understanding of religion – Fergusson wonders if science and religion might be better thought to complement one another.

Whereas it could be said religion is concerned with the spiritual, personal and moral life of individuals and communities, science is concerned with how the physical world operates.

From such a distinction, science is concerned with asking how – how did galaxies emerge from the Big Bang, how did animals evolve from earlier species which are now extinct, how do our bodies function and how does disease occur – whereas religion attempts to ask and answer the why question – why is there something rather than nothing, why should I love my neighbour, why is this action right and this action wrong?

So far from being in competition with one another, Fergusson is persuaded science and religion have their respective areas of interest and investigation and methodologies but, given the reality of life is so complex and nuanced, from time to time their concerns overlap or just bump into one another.

And Fergusson quotes with approval the former Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ observation about the importance of a partnership between science and religion;

Science takes things apart to see how they work suggests Sacks while religion puts things together to see what they mean.

And if that is true of anything it is true of cosmology, our understanding of the universe as a whole.

Fergusson notes research and discussions in the scientific community about cosmic origins lie close to philosophical and theological concerns about creation.

Does the Big Bang obviate the need for God as an explanation or, given the impossibility of an infinite series of causes, does the universe require a first cause, God, who does not require a causal explanation?

And rather than a single universe, are there many or multi-verses - and if so do they still raise questions of ultimate dependence?

As I said, such questions are not easy but they are important because an endeavour to understand why there is something rather than nothing gives substance and meaning to the presence and purpose of humanity itself, our identity and our place in the greater scheme of things.

Again Jonathan Sacks put it well when he observed;

Science, politics, economics, anthropology, sociology………….are all neutral on the questions that matter most to us [2]

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit

into the desert where for forty days he was tempted…………

Within the calendar of the Christian year today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent.

As the shadow of the cross begins to loom large, the forty days of Lent represent Jesus’ time in the desert enduring a number of temptations in preparation for his ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer.

With his unique relationship with God having been declared at his baptism, Luke presents Jesus’ wilderness experience as Jesus coming to terms with what it means to be the One in whom God is well pleased.

And the clue: whereas at his baptism Jesus heard a voice declaring You are my Son, my beloved so now in the wilderness he hears another voice asking if you are the Son of God?

If you are the Son of God…………..the devilish subtlety of these temptations is not that they assaulted Jesus at a point of weakness and vulnerability; rather they tested him at the point of his greatest strength, his compassion, his commitment to God and his faith.

Sent to proclaim the kingdom of God, here was an opportunity for Christ to achieve his goal without coming into conflict with the powers of evil, without the pain of rejection by the Pharisees or the betrayal of one of his disciples, and without the humiliating agony of Gethsemane and the cross.

All he had to do was turn stone into bread, worship the devil and throw himself off the highest point of the temple………..ALL HE HAD TO DO

We know how the drama unfolds.  

God’s promise and purpose will not be defeated and Jesus emerges from the wilderness knowing that if he is to succeed, then he will succeed God’s way or not at all.

And one of the things important about God’s way is God’s willingness to engage, to engage with the world in all its beauty and tragedy and to engage with humanity in all its joy and sorrow.

When faced with different explanations of reality, competing understandings of truth and alternative accounts of what it means to be human, one temptation for people of faith is to withdraw, circle the wagons and refuse to engage.

How sad and how wrong that would be.

If we believe – and we do – God has given us an ability to think, to understand, a desire to ask and find out the truth  and deep meaning of things, then why would we not put these God-given gifts to their very best use.

Far from being in conflict with our spiritual nature, our rational minds awaken us to a deeper appreciation of the extraordinary beauty and complexity of the world in which we live.

At best we may never come to a final answer, truth with a capital T, at best we may do no more than articulate a likely story……………….. but it matters.

It matters because as Fergusson notes, if theology withdraws from the debates and discussions around artificial intelligence, genetic modification and global warming then we will become increasingly isolated from mainstream cultural activity.

It matters because given we have vast power, we still need to ask how we should use it and what kind of world do we want to live in?

It matters because although we can travel at unprecedented speed, we still need to ask where do we want to go?

And it matters because in the words of William James, the late 19th and early 20th century theologian/scientist;

it makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accepts the universe in the drab discoloured way of stoic resignation to necessity or with the passionate happiness of the Christian saints

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

[1] David Fergusson, Religion and Science: the search for a likely story Theology in Scotland, Vol 25, no 2 Autumn 2018, St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews

[2] Jonathan Sacks Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places, Comtinuum, London, 2000, p59