“The Search for Life” 1 Kings 17:8-16. Mark 12:41-44, Hebrews 9:23-28 Donald W. Dotterer, PhD, 11/11/18
On October 30 the space agency NASA announced that Kepler, the highly praised planet-hunting space telescope, has finally run out of fuel and is being retired. The Kepler telescope has been in orbit around the sun for 9 ½ years. The super telescope has observed 530,506 stars and discovered 2,662 planets.
Astronomers mourned the loss, but they also celebrated the mission that changed their lives and enlarged the universe and its possibilities.”[i] Physicist William Borucki, who led the Kepler mission until his retirement in 2015 said, “Kepler has truly opened up a new vista in astronomy. Kepler showed that there are more planets than stars in our galaxies.”
Kepler was so amazing because it found all sorts of crazy planet types that we never imagined were possible—lava planets, ocean worlds, planets with more than one sun.[ii] He went on to say that many of these planets have warm temperatures and water on their surfaces. These are conditions that can conceivably support the existence of life.
Natalie Batalha, a longtime Kepler mission scientist said, “The search for planets is the search for life. These results will form the basis for future searches for life.”[iii]
So it is that scientists use super telescopes both in space and on the ground to search for the existence of life “out there,” that is, way out there! They search for life on the ocean worlds orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. They search for life in the sands of Mars and the rocky worlds that are known to orbit nearby suns. And some day they may find it.
But we who live on this earth have another way to find life, life that is more wonderful and amazing than even life on another planet. We who have faith can find life, that is, eternal life, by looking and going not outward, but by instead going inward. Instead of going deeper into outer space, this eternal life is found by going deeper into our inner space. And God, the God who created this amazing, apparently endless universe with countless planets and stars, this God sent his son Jesus into the world to teach us how to go on this inward journey to find that great gift that the Bible calls eternal life.
Today’s gospel lesson is the rather well-known story of what has been called “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus is in the temple, observing what is happening there. Over the years I’ve had other pastors come incognito to my worship services to observe what’s going on and give me an objective opinion on what they saw. I want an objective opinion on the hospitality, the music, the preaching, the friendliness of the people, so on and so forth. This may be something like what Jesus was doing that day in the temple.Jesus was of course a “people watcher.” In fact, he’s still watching us. He knows what’s going on in both the outside and inside of people.
On this particular day Jesus is watching what people drop into the offering box. He sees the wealthy people in the temple
that day make large contributions. Then he sees a poor widow. She comes up and puts in two lepta, that is, two small coins with little monetary value, almost nothing compared to what the others were putting in.One lesson here is that it’s not the size of the gift that matters as much as the feeling that is behind it. It’s not so much the size of the gift as what it means for us to give it away. Jesus comments to his disciples on what this poor woman has done. This was, for them and us, a teachable moment. Jesus says, “The others have given out of their abundance.” Notice that Jesus does not say that giving out of abundance is a bad thing. We all know that those large gifts are needed if a church is going to do anything significant. We’ve got our own object lesson right in this sanctuary. It’s most likely going to take some serious money to fix the falling plaster in here.
But, there’s always a “but,” isn’t there? But, Jesus says, “the truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together.”
As Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation, “All the others gave what they will never miss. But she gave extravagantly what she could not afford; she gave her all.”
Now I can’t that I have ever done that. I don’t know that I have ever given away what I could not afford. I’ve never given away my last morsel of food. I’ve never gone to bed without food in the refrigerator. I’ve never been down to my bottom dollar. I can’t say that I have ever given my all. To anything. Really. How about you?
Well, we can sit here and think that Jesus is trying to make us feel bad ourselves and that we should give away all that we had to live on. But I really believe that this is about something else First of all, it helps to remember the story of another poor widow, the widow of Zarephath. This story comes from 1 Kings 17. This woman was also poor. She is gathering sticks to make a fire to prepare a final meal for herself and her son before they die from starvation.The prophet Elijah, who is also poor, asks her for “a little cake.” So he’s not asking for much. Again, it’s not the size of the gift that matters as much as it is how much it means to us.
So this woman gives to the prophet what she believes is her last bit of food. But miraculously, her flour and oil do not run out. The lesson of course is that when we give sacrificially, God provides for our needs.
But you have to try that to experience it. The hard part is really believing that God really will take care of us. But again, the only way to know that it is to try it. People who can do that learn that it is true. But as with so many things in life, the hard part is in actually doing it. So these lessons are about how God provides for those who are extravagantly generous, even with gifts that are small. And that’s important. But still, I think, these lessons are about something even more than even this.
What this is about is one aspect of going deeper into our hearts and discovering something that will help us find life, real life, that is, eternal life with God. What this is about is instead of clinging to our survival, it’s about offering a sacrifice that draws us closer to God.[iv]
Today is Veterans Day. It is a day to honor and give thanks for the sacrifices that our veterans have made in the defense of freedom. More than 650,000 Americans have died in combat in our history. Those men and women paid the ultimate price. They gave their all. And the veterans and active soldiers who have put their lives on the line have been ready to do that as well if needed. Today we honor those who have made those sacrifices so that the rest of us don’t have to.Our lessons today are about sacrifice and how sacrifice helps us to grow spiritually. It’s a simple principle, really.
For example, a talented, educated woman may sacrifice her career to care for her family. A father may take on a second job to help his child pay for college. To sacrifice means to give something up to achieve something better, and not necessarily for one’s self. Often the sacrifice is to help someone else.
So it is that when we make a gift for God’s work we give up some of what we have been blessed with so that we can grow in our relationship to God.
And the basic principle is this—the more we give, the more we sacrifice, the more we grow in faith. So often it is that when we make a sacrifice, we get more spiritually than we give.
n stewardship conversations we talk about “proportional giving.” That’s “proportional giving.” It’s coming to that time of year when we need to think about our financial commitments to the church for 2019. The Bible says we need to contribute ten percent of our income to God’s work.Given people’s life circumstances, some people can give more than that. Others with family and/or big medical expenses may not be able to do that right now. But everyone can do proportional giving. We may need to start with three or five or seven percent and work up to the tithe. The important thing is to make a commitment. And that commitment needs to represent a sacrifice.
End of sermon. Well, not really. Just kidding. You’ll have to be patient with me.
Now most of us don’t have the occasion or the opportunity to sacrifice everything; we don’t have the ability to give it all.
The point of today’s lesson from Hebrews, and actually the point of the whole New Testament, is that Jesus sacrificed it all for us. Our lesson makes it clear that Jesus’ sacrifice was a “once for all” sacrifice that saved the world once and for all time.
A soldier who gives his or her life for the country can only die once; he or she can only make that sacrifice one time. Giving one’s life is the ultimate sacrifice.
Everybody dies once. That’s what Jesus did. He too only died once to save us. He gave all that he could give. He had only to do that one time to save the world.
Then Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven to prepare a place for us so that we could be with him for eternity. Jesus humbled himself and was humiliated for our sake. It was for the life of the world that he did this. But back to the widow and her offering in the temple. It’s not the size or value of the gift that matters so much. It’s not even about the good that the gift can do in the world. It’s about what good giving the gift can do for the one who gives it.
The widow’s two coins weren’t going to make any real difference in the maintenance costs of the temple. But still, she got it right. And this is why.
The difference that her gift made was not the difference it made in the temple budget. The difference was what her sacrifice meant in this woman’s heart. She knew that she had sacrificed, that she had done her best, that she had given her all to God. And for that she knew that she was blessed and was experiencing God’s gift of eternal life.
I began this message by talking about the super telescope Kepler and how it has revealed the awesomeness of stars and planets in God’s universe. But awesome things can happen here on this planet as well. For example, this story was in the news a couple of weeks ago. Maybe you saw it. It was about people giving of themselves and working together to make something good happen. October Books, a book shop in Southampton, England,was forced to move after a rent increase in its old building. When it got ready to move just up the street into a new building, about 250 people showed up as volunteers to form a human chain to move the books from the old site to the new one. The volunteers handed the shop's more than 2,000 books 160 yards from one location to the other by passing them one by one from one person to another.
Jani Franck, who participated in the chain said, "It's amazing. The power of community coming together and achieving something like this." Clare Diaper, who works at the store, said, "It was a tremendous show of support . . . and we're moved and incredibly touched by it,"[v]
n the grand scale of things, showing up to help pass books from one books store location to another was not a big deal. You can’t say that this was a huge sacrifice for anyone. It was just a few hours of those individuals’ time. But for people who enjoy books, it made a difference.And this is important—the difference was made by people working together. Small sacrifices of many people working together made a big difference.
And that’s what we all hope to do in life, isn’t it? We want to know that we have made a difference. What we may not realize is that the biggest difference made is not the passing of books to keep a bookstore open, the biggest difference is not that we helped keep the ministry of this going by getting the roof fixed, the biggest difference is not even giving a hungry person a meal at a community dinner or a cold person warm clothes at our clothing closet or reading to kindergartners at school. The real difference is the difference it makes in our heart by giving a gift that is a sacrifice.
Friends, we are all situated in places where we can make a difference by making sacrifices large and small. The most important place where you can do that is here in church, the place where deal with the issues of life, of death, and life after death.
I hope that you will continue to join us in the search for eternal life in Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.
[i] New York Times, 10/31/18, A14.
[iv] The Christian Century, 10/24/18, p 20.
[v] The Guardian, 10/29/18