Unapproachable Light

Unapproachable Light

moondog_saarloos9001 Timothy 6:11-16

by Daniel Harrell

1 Timothy, along with 2 Timothy and Titus, make up what are known as the “pastoral epistles.” Timothy and Titus were close associates of Paul and early pastors of the thriving and rapidly expanding church. In 1 Timothy, Paul has left his trusted associate the keys to the Ephesian church with orders to halt the bad influence of false teachers that were corrupting the congregation from the inside. The flock was being led astray by its own shepherds who distorted the gospel to serve themselves. Specifically, the problem appears to tied to greed, thus prompting Paul to stress how the love of money is a root of all evil. Of the more than 500 references to evil in Scripture, 1 Timothy is the only place where any mention of an origin occurs. Greed is a deadly sin to which pastors are hardly immune. I got an inquiry from this desolate cornfield county church looking for a new pastor. Flattered, I asked a friend who lives near this church what he knew about it. He told me he heard they give their minister a free Lexus to drive. Giddy up.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t turn to 1 Timothy this morning to talk about greed, but to talk about light. Two more sermons and we’ll turn out the lights on this series, but having started in Genesis last September, I felt like we should follow the light all the way to the end. We’re almost there. Paul uses the phrase “unapproachable light” to describe God’s dwelling, a likely reference to Psalm 104: “O LORD my God, … you are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent…”  The adjective “unapproachable” only shows up here in the Bible, and seems to stress God’s extreme holiness—we cannot approach him due to our sinfulness—and his incomprehensibility—we cannot fully understand him either. Writing from the fourth century, church father John Chrysostom compared knowing the depths of God to plumbing the depths of the sea. “We call that thing unapproachable which, from the start, cannot be searched out or investigated,” he said.

Couched in Psalm 104, God’s wrapping himself in light tethers to his work as creator: “You wrapped in light as with a garment and stretch out the heavens like a tent… You set the earth on its foundations… You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they give drink to every wild animal… O LORD, how manifold are your works!” As we know, “let there be light” were the first words out of the Lord’s mouth in the beginning. However, few people took this literally since, like the Lord, the universe was always thought to be infinite with no definite beginning. Light goes on forever. But then along came Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble who theorized and confirmed how galaxies were receding away from each other over time. The universe was expanding. What this meant was that if you were to run the clock backwards far enough, you’d get to an actual point in time when all matter, energy and space itself condensed into a single spot. Astronomer Jennifer Wiseman, you may remember, told us last fall about the discovery of cosmic background radiation that fills what were thought to be the dark voids of space. This microwave light is residue from that single beginning, an echo of the Lord’s first words as it were, and has become enough to convince even the staunchest critics of a decisive start for the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

Believers throughout Christendom naturally rejoiced at the discovery. The Bible had it right after all (once you’re willing to concede on the seven 24-hour days part). Some scientists weren’t nearly as thrilled. Agnostic cosmologist Robert Jastrow expressed his own sense of dismay when he wrote: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

We’ve labeled this scientifically confirmed beginning the “Big Bang,” and popularly conceive as some massive, fiery, bright blast out of nothingness from which hurled galaxies, stars, planets, air, water, land, you and me. But as far as we can tell, the Big Bang wasn’t big at all, but more of an infinitesimal, itty bitty soundless bing. It’s currently impossible for science to get back to point zero and describe what happened. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, connected to gravity, is very precise as to what was going on one second after the Itty Bitty Bang—when already the universe had expanded to about 1,000 times the size of our solar system. But whatever happened occurred before that in the subatomic world of quantum mechanics where general relativity and gravity don’t apply. And this is a huge problem because the math of general relativity and the math of quantum mechanics don’t add up. It’s as if reality is divided in two. It doesn’t make any sense.

This gives another dimension to “unapproachable” or “incomprehensible” light. Neither physicists nor philosophers can comprehend what happened in the beginning. They have ideas, however. Stephen Hawking talks about time folding over on itself into something of rewinding tape. Time just keeps going round and round starting over and over again. There’s a theory of random quantum fluctuation, a vacuum from which popped out a little packet of energy that quickly bloomed into a universe. Brian Greene has popularized the notion of a multiverse. Tied to what’s called “string theory,” the idea is that there are an exponentially large number of universes out there, something like 10500, of which ours is but one pulled out of the deck.

Scientists and philosophers tend to agree that whichever theory proves simplest is probably the true answer. Here’s where the theologians eagerly join the chorus. What more simple explanation exists than to say, “God did it!” Oxford philosopher of science Richard Swinburne asserts that, “to posit a trillion, trillion other universes to explain our universe seems slightly mad when the much simpler hypothesis of God is available.”

Of course for those who actually believe in the God of the Bible, the Lord is hardly a simple hypothesis. From the problem of evil to the problem of obedience, God can get pretty complicated. Again, he dwells in unapproachable light. Had he simply got the quantum particle rolling and moved out of the way, then that may have simply been that. But for Christians at least, God also intervenes in his creation. He answers prayers, reveals truths, does miracles, loves and relates to the point of taking on human flesh and dying for our sins. His willing involvement unavoidably leads to hard questions about death and disease and genetic mishaps and natural disasters and why life on earth is the only place it happens amongst billions and billions of planets, all of which seems to suggest a bit of incompetence if not outright negligence. Unless, that is, God is simply absent.

Richard Swinburne counters that for a God who is good, “It’s unlikely he’d create a universe and then not take an interest in it. Parents who leave their children to fend for themselves aren’t very good parents. You’d expect God to keep a connection with his creation, and if things go wrong, to help people to straighten them out. He will want to interact with his creation, but not be too obvious about it. Like a good parent, he’ll be torn between interfering too much and interfering too little. He’ll want people to work out their own destiny, to work out what is right and wrong and so on, without his intervening all the time. So he’ll keep his distance. But on the other hand, when there has been a lot of sin around, he will want to help people  deal with it, especially those who want his help. He’ll hear their prayers and sometimes he’ll answer them.”

Speaking of being a good parent, a number of us are enjoying a Wednesday night workshop here at the church focusing on how to be better at parenting. Admittedly, from the parents’ side, the objective seems mostly to be getting your kids to do what you want. However our instructors on Wednesday keep pushing from the kids’ side. If your kids’ interpret your parenting always trying to get them to do what you want, it won’t make for a very safe and satisfying relationship. Better to ask your kids questions. Give them some space to create too.

One example is a boy named Jake who was regularly hitting his younger brother Ian. After  a particular battle, his mom, instead of getting angry like usual and punishing Jake, calmly asked Jake if hitting Ian was a good thing to do or not such a good thing. “Not such a good thing,” Jake said, a repentant tone to his voice. Right. His mom then asked Jake what he thought he could do to help remember that he shouldn’t hit his brother. As if he’d just made a brilliant discovery, Jake announced, “We could make a sign.” So his mom gave him some paper and a pen, and Jake wrote “No hitting Ian.” The next day, when Ian started annoying Jake again, Jake ran over and checked his sign. Right. He then proudly announced to his mom how he saw “no hitting Ian” on his sign, so he didn’t.

“Misbehavior, is the ultimate opportunity to love,” say our instructors. Kids remember grace more than they remember punishment. Affirm what you can about every situation. Taking this to heart, a number of parents last Wednesday night wondered aloud about what to affirm when their kids deny and outright lie after being caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing. One parent suggested she could affirm her child’s creativity and imagination. Another suggested affirming the ability to problem-solve and get out of predicaments. Another suggested affirming a strong personality. I suggested affirming a future in politics. Or church ministry for that matter. Which finally pulls this train back to the misbehaving pastors in 1 Timothy.

In contrast to the bad shepherds who fleeced their sheep for a chance to drive around in a Lexus, Paul writes, “As for you, man of God, shun all this falsehood and run after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. These are good virtues for pastors and parents too.

Paul further instructs Timothy to “fight the good fight,” an analogy to the wrestling mat of ancient athletic contests. Wrestling was my father’s preferred mode of parenting. A state champion wrestler in high school, our misbehavior as kids gave him an opportunity to put us in one of his wrestling holds. He’d even give me and my brother the advantage of going two-on-one against him, but inevitably we’d end up pinned to the carpet, held down each with one of his almighty arms, unable to move and begging for mercy. I’ve tried this with Violet but unfortunately she’s stronger than I am.

Which reminds me of one of the weirder wrestling stories in Scripture. In Genesis, Jacob gets into a wrestling match with a man who ends up being an angel but whom Jacob recognizes as God Almighty himself. They wrestled until daybreak, which is weird since you’d think God could take down Jacob in a quantum second. Stranger still is that Jacob gets the upper hand, forcing the Lord to touch Jacob’s hip and wrench it of its socket. Still Jacob holds on, refusing to let go, desperate, no doubt, for a blessing he knows that he needs. Jacob had been a bad boy, not only fleecing his own father and his in-laws, but beating his brother out of his birthright. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob said, perhaps a repentant tone in his own voice. The Lord replied, “What is your name?” And Jacob said “Jacob” which means “to hold on to a heel.” And Jacob had been a heel. But the Lord took Jacob’s misbehavior as an opportunity to love him. “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “You will now be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”

Normally such victory would stoke a sense of inordinate pride, but Jacob quickly realized the enormity of what had transpired. “I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” Jacob made a sign for the place and called it Peniel,  which means “face of God,” as well as “no more hitting your brother.” Limping from that place Jacob looked up to see his brother, whom he had swindled, approaching with his army of 400. Cowering toward Esau with due repentance, Jacob bowed seven times and expected a reprisal, but like God, Esau also took the opportunity of his brother’s misbehavior to love him. Esau ran to meet Jacob, took hold of him and kissed him. And they both wept.

Paul wrote to Timothy that, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Like Jacob, Saul had been a heel. A false teacher and haughty shepherd, Saul hit God’s unapproachable light driving his Lexus down that road to Damascus, as we saw last Sunday. The Lord wrestled Saul to the ground—blinded him, blessed him, changed his name to Paul and changed his tune. “For this very reason I received mercy,” Paul wrote, “so that in me, as the foremost sinner, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

So “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,” Paul tells Timothy– life forever freed from death, its curses and sorrows, made certain through the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t let go. Knowing the temptations and dangers firsthand, Paul charges Timothy to hold on “without spot or blame until the manifestationof our Lord Jesus Christ.” Eternal life is not something to be possessed. Eternal life is to be lived with “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” until the “manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” when eternity becomes our reality.

This word manifestation is the Greek word epiphany, related to photon or light, to shine, Paul writes, “with immortality and unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see….” at least not yet.

Physicists await an epiphany, a unified theory of quantum gravity, the holy grail of contemporary science that will finally bring together the incomprehensible interface between the unapproachable quantum world and the world that we see with our eyes. Likewise those who trust in the Lord await the epiphany of Jesus Christ who will finally bring together the incomprehensible interface between heaven and earth; when eternity and time become one reality. “The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever.” As Paul famously writes elsewhere, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but one day we will see face to face and we will know fully, even as we have been fully known by our Father in heaven.” So in the meantime, take hold of eternal life, and hold on until the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, “which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”