Sunday, January 8, 2017

Before You Were Born: Sermon on Jeremiah 1:1-5

“Science and religion – two things at constant war; you can't have both.” Or at least, that's what some people say. Have you heard that? The idea that science and religion don't get along, that they're somehow opposite and incompatible? I've heard people say that. To me, nothing seems further than the truth. This whole “conflict thesis” was brewed up 140 years ago, and it's bad history. The old skeptic Ingersoll lied when he said that “when science was a child, religion sought to strange it in the cradle.” That's just not true. In fact, Christian teaching gave rise to modern science by saying that the world was made and ruled by a reasonable God who could've done it differently, so you need to actually look at creation to understand it.

And once you do, you'll have even more reason to praise God. God always invited us to look closely at his creation and see his glory spelled a trillion different ways there. And then we take another look, we learn more, and now suddenly we see the trillion-and-first reminder of God's glory. And that gives even more depth to what the Bible already says. For instance, you all know the verse that reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Think for a moment about the first, second, third, even fourth generation of Israelites who sang that age-old Psalm of David. How much more do we know about the heavens now? They had no idea what a light-year is, much less that the stars they saw were thousands, even millions of light-years away. They said the heavens declare the glory of God, and since then our telescopes have counted at least a hundred billion galaxies that we can see, each of which might have a hundred billion stars, each of which is vastly larger than the earth on which we live. We can see the glory of God written that much clearer, we can hear the skies' proclamation that much louder, because God's handiwork keeps surprising us with beauty and truth beyond our wildest imagination.

And it isn't all just out there. Ecclesiastes uses the formation of a child in the womb as the ultimate mystery on earth (Ecclesiastes 11:5). The Bible says that God is the one who sustains what's in the womb and brings us out of the womb when we're born (Psalm 71:6). And the Bible describes that process of being formed in the womb as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Think about the first few generations in Israel who sang that psalm. They didn't have an inkling how deep it goes! And now we have insight into that mystery. The psalm talks about our “unformed substance” (Psalm 139:16). Now we know that life begins when two microscopic specialized cells come together, each filled with packets of a large, twisted molecule we call DNA, which by the arrangement of the nucleotides making it up contains a library's worth of information. And when they come together and form one new cell, there's a chemical reaction that emits a burst of light. And the one cell formed at that moment, even modern embryology textbooks consistently admit is “the beginning of a new human being,” “the initiation of the life of a new individual,” “the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

And with that beginning, various proteins help to break down the barrier, so that the chromosomes can pair up and recombine. And during just the first week, that first little cell cleaves, clings, multiplies, forms membranes. And then forms a disk and features by the second week. And then in the third week after conception, structures are forming, laying the groundwork for what will become the spinal cord, the brain, and the heart. And then comes the fourth week, and already in the fourth week, the first form of the ears start taking shape, and there are buds that will become the arms, and others that will be the lungs, and another bud that will be the pancreas, and the first forms of the liver and gallbladder and spleen, and even the rupture in the buccopharyngeal membrane that will form a mouth. And then in the fifth week, as the heart pumps blood, the eyes and the nostrils start to form, and buds that will be legs, and paddles on the arms that will be hands, and the first form of the kidneys, and the brain starts to divide, even though the whole embryo weighs just 40% what this penny weighs. And then there's the sixth week, when the lungs really get forming, and the brain develops more, and you can start to see fingers and toes. And then by the seventh week, the arms and legs are moving on their own, and if you listen close, so close, you can hear a heartbeat. And that's just the first seven weeks of life, not even yet the end of the first trimester!

And how can anyone know all that and not just be staggered at the astounding impact of the words: “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made!”? If it was a testament to God's faithfulness, his expertise, his craftsmanship even in ancient Israel before they knew any of this, how much more should we be overwhelmed by God our Creator now that we know even the few details we do – and there's still so much more to learn! The more scientists can uncover about the process that God has ordained for new life to take shape in his creation, the more we flesh out in our understanding what truth there is to the psalmist's words:

Even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
       for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
       you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
       my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
    when I was being made in secret,
       intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
    in your book were written, every one of them,
       the days that were formed for me
          when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:12-16)

But you know what else I find interesting about how the psalmist describes it, how God inspired him to describe it? When the psalmist reflects back on the process of being formed in the womb, before his birth, he always and consistently uses words like 'I,' 'me,' and 'my.' He's saying: “They were 'my' inward parts. It was 'me' who was knitted together. It was 'my' frame. 'My' unformed substance. 'I' was being made in secret. 'I' was the one who was intricately woven.” And it isn't just this psalm. There's another psalm where the singer says to the Lord, “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth” (Psalm 71:6). There's that 'I' again. And the psalmist isn't some special person; he wrote this, God provided this, for all of us to sing about ourselves.

God, in the Bible, wants to make it clear: Before you were born, you were already you. The baby in the womb is not a 'potential person'; the baby in the womb is a 'person with potential.' And in the case of each of your mothers, the baby she once carried in her womb was you – not something else that would later turn into you, or give rise to you, or generate you, but just you. A sonogram is no less a picture of you than a baby picture or a graduation picture or a picture of you from last Tuesday.

And if that's all true, then it means we need to rethink how we think and talk about the baby before birth, in the womb – because if that baby is a human being, is a person, is an 'I' alrerady that we can identify with the 'I' said later by someone grown up, then the Bible has a lot of things to say. First of all, what the psalmist already said: The baby in the womb, whether we call him or her a baby, a child, a fetus, an embryo, a zygote, whatever, is God's precious handiwork, no less than the artistry of the heavens or the colors of the sunset. And what decent person would deface the careful work of a Master Artist? The baby in the womb is already, and is still being, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God – just as we're all still being “fearfully and wonderfully made” as God continues to grow and develop us during our journey on the earth and beyond.

Second, the baby in the womb is being fearfully and wonderfully made by God in God's own image. When that phrase was first written in Genesis about Adam and Eve, the point there was that, what ancient kings used to claim for themselves, that they and they alone reflected the glory and authority of the gods on earth, was in fact true of all of us. We were put on this earth to represent God here – to be a living emblem of his glory and his authority and his character, and to rule the earth like he would. And the same is true of the baby in the womb: no matter how many cells she has, she's made in God's image, she's a living pointer to God, she's made to rule the earth along with the rest of us, and so she's sacred. There's a sanctity to her life, because an attack on her is an attack on God, just like an attack on any of us is an attack on God. An attack on anyone made in God's image, whatever their age or wherever they live, is treason and blasphemy.

Third, the baby in the womb is our neighbor. You remember the story in the Gospels, how the lawyer stood and asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He really meant, “Where can I draw the line? Where can I stop having concern for anybody on the outside of it? Who can I exclude from my neighborhood?” And so Jesus told the story of a man beaten half to death on the road to Jericho, a dangerous road. And the priest passed by, and the Levite passed by, but along came a Samaritan. And the Samaritan had nothing to gain and everything to lose. If you had asked this injured man a day before if he loved Samaritans, he would've spat at your feet. But now the Samaritan is the one taking care of him at great expense, and treating him like a neighbor. The Samaritan is the one to imitate here: “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. The Samaritan is proved to be a neighbor, even though the Samaritan was an unwanted neighbor to most of the Jews of that age.

But the baby in the womb is already our neighbor. Before you were born, you were already a neighbor to your mom, to your dad, to those who lived around them. And even now, whenever you see a pregnant woman, the child she's carrying is already your neighbor, and you're his or her neighbor, too. And the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates how we're to treat our neighbors in their time of need. We're meant to love them. We're meant to heal them. We're meant to protect them from further harm and violence. That's how neighbors behave – that's what the Good Samaritan did.

Sadly, throughout history, sin-stained societies have often endorsed violence or exclusion against neighbors they viewed as 'unwanted' or 'unvalued' – or, just as bad, valued only as a commodity and not as a neighbor. The Old South before the Civil War endorsed violence, exclusion, and injustice against some neighbors based on the color of their skin and the role they were forced to play in that society. In Germany in the 1940s, there were plenty of neighbors who suffered extreme exclusion and methodical violence, because the Germans in power saw them as 'unwanted.' And today, our society routinely endorses violence against the most innocent and most vulnerable neighbors who are seen as 'unwanted' while yet in the womb.

The gospel tells us that we are not free to dismiss any neighbor as 'unwanted.' We are not free to view any neighbor as disposable. The gospel tells us to love our neighbor – period. To love our Samaritan neighbor. To love our immigrant neighbor. To love our unborn neighbor. The gospel reminds us to cherish them as made in God's image, to look on that Samaritan, that immigrant, that unborn neighbor as intended to be a representative of the God we claim to worship. And the gospel urges us to opposite violent injustice against any neighbor – including our neighbors currently growing in wombs. The church, from its earliest days, was against the way Roman culture routinely used violence against their womb-dwelling neighbors. That's why maybe the earliest Christian book we have outside the New Testament says, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born” (Didache 2.2).

Practices like that are not part of a healthy and just society; practices like that are what God instituted governments to prevent in the first place. And for us especially, they're forbidden by the way the Bible portrays the baby in the womb – our neighbor, God's handiwork, God's image, God's beloved. The Bible depicts unborn children standing in a special relationship with God. Remember, the psalmist looked back on his beginnings and said, “You, O Lord, are my hope; my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb” (Psalm 71:5-6). A baby in a womb is dependent – dependent on his or her mother, obviously. Though really, all of us continue to be dependent; none of us are 'viable' to live on our own in this world.

But more than that, a baby in a womb is dependent on God, relies on God, in some way implicitly trusts God and has faith in God. From the story of John the Baptist, we know that a baby in a womb can be indwelt by God's presence, just the same as we who are grown can (Luke 1:15). And as we remembered during the Christmas season, when God stepped into the human condition, he did so by becoming a zygote, who grew to be an embryo, who grew to be a fetus, who was then born, and then on the eighth day given the name 'Jesus.'

And with all that, it's no surprise when the Bible depicts unborn children being called by God. That's the picture we get the first time we meet the prophet Jeremiah ben Hilkiah. Born into a minor priestly family in a simple village three miles northwest of Jerusalem, you can just imagine how Jeremiah felt one day, in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah. Jeremiah couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time. But the Word of the LORD came to him (Jeremiah 1:4). And what did God say to him? “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

In other words, this was not their first encounter. Although God's purposes for Jeremiah had been decreed in eternity past, God says to him here that, when Jeremiah was still what the psalmist called an “unformed substance,” God already knew him, already was establishing a relationship with him. And while Jeremiah was still just a baby in the womb, linked to Mrs. Hilkiah by an umbilical cord, God was there. God was there knitting Jeremiah together. God was there weaving him intricately. God was there giving form to his substance and shape to his frame. And God was there to consecrate him – to set him apart as holy and special. When was Jeremiah ordained? In utero – in the womb – is where God ordained Jeremiah and gave him his orders as a prophet. Which is why Jeremiah's objections don't amount to much. The story underway had begun in the womb of Hilkiah's wife.

Already, from the womb, Jeremiah had a call on his future. God had already claimed all Jeremiah's days, all the days written for him in God's book before they came to be (cf. Psalm 139:16). God was already making his purposes for Jeremiah's life known. And so it was too late to back out on his calling, difficult though it proved to be. Where could he go? “Where shall I flee from your Spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7-10). Already, from the womb, Jeremiah had a call from God upon his future.

And, I'd like to suggest, the same is true for you. Before you were born, you were you. Before you were born, you were God's incredible handiwork. Before you were born, you were fearfully and wonderfully made in God's image. Before you were born, you were already part of the great human neighborhood. And before you were born, there was a call from God upon your future. God had a purpose for you, God had chosen you, God had set you apart, putting into action the decisions he'd made from all eternity. Before you were born, God was calling you to faith, to lean on him and display his glory. It's too late to back out now, as much as all the world tries. This week, celebrate the God who fearfully and wonderfully made you, the God who knew all your days and all your ways, the God who called you to faith and life... before you were born. Hallelujah. Amen.

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