A sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15: 1-10 by Nathan Nettleton
Not all atheists are atheists. You’ve probably noticed it often, but sometimes the people who most sincerely describe themselves as atheists, seem to live the least atheistic lives. They live life enthusiastically with care and consideration for others, and for the world. They seem to have a strong sense of the importance of life and freedom and hope, and they live as though they want to help everyone access those gifts. Often they even appear to have a sense of accountability to something bigger and beyond themselves, as though there was some integrating force in the universe and we all had to play our part or stand condemned. And yet, for all that, they sincerely describe themselves as atheists, because they cannot get their minds around the idea of God. Often they have given it a great deal of thought, but their experience and their philosophizing does not lead them to the conclusion that there is a God. In fact it would seem to suggest pretty strongly that there is not a God.
I would describe such people as theoretical atheists. Regardless of what we may observe about the way they live their lives, at the level of theories, they are atheists. They do not believe in their heads that there is a God.
On the other hand, you have probably also observed the opposite of this. Sometimes the people who most loudly describe themselves as Christians and godly people show precious little evidence of it in the way they live. Sure they talk a lot about God. They are forever saying “In God we trust” and talking about how God has done this that or the other thing for them, and how important it is that we all be focussed on God and living in obedience to God’s law. But if you could watch their lives and turn the sound track off, you’d never guess that they had any concept of God at all.
They seem to live as though the highest and most important being in the universe was themselves. They work hard at shaping their world to ensure that it works to their benefit, often to the exclusion of others, and they don’t appear to have any concern for the consequences for other people or even for the legacy they leave to their own children. They show no evidence at all of having any sense of accountability to anyone or anything beyond themselves. They live as though the only values that matter are their own comfort, prosperity and pleasure, and that these things should therefore be procured regardless of who else might have to pay a price for them. Those who are weak and vulnerable are like pawns in a chess game to them, expendable objects to be used to advantage.
These people have been called practical atheists, because regardless of what they might say, in practice they live as though there was no God. Whether they say they believe in God or not, their lives are lived as though no-one sees, no-one cares, and no-one calls to account. Practical atheism. I think it’s fairly clear from my descriptions which form of atheism I think is more dangerous.
The Psalm we read before addresses the issue of practical atheism. Remember its first line was not “fools believe in their heads there is no God,” it was “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God.” In their hearts, in the silence. Regardless of what they may say in public, in their hearts they say, “there is no God.” No-one hears them say it. They may not even hear it themselves. And then the psalm begins to address the consequences of this practical atheism. They are corrupt, they lack knowledge, they eat up other people like bread, and they end up in great terror themselves because of the unforeseen consequences of their actions.
Now I need to make something clear here. It is easy to get caught up in a very simplistic, black and white reading of this and divide all the world up into the fools who say in their hearts there is no God, and us who are utterly godly and consistently loving, just and peaceful. It is easy to think that way, but it is probably nearly as foolish as saying in your heart there is no God. Fools say in their hearts, “this doesn’t apply to me.”
All of us are a mixture to some extent or another. Just as, when it comes to what we believe in our heads, we all have bits of orthodox belief that we find easy to believe and bits that we really find very difficult to accept, so too when it comes to the way we live. We all have parts of our lives that we have no trouble bringing into conformity with the example of Jesus, or bringing into submission to the leadership of Christ, and parts of our lives that seem to constantly resist change and reform, and continue to trip us up, hurting us and often spilling over to hurt other people as well.
We have things that are difficult to change because of long established habit patterns or deep seated psychological and emotional blocks. We also have things that are difficult to change just because we have some cherished behaviour which we are stubbornly unwilling to let go of, usually because it has tended to get us what we want without exposing us too much to negative consequences. These second ones are perhaps the more insidious because they continue in us a pattern of rebellion that gets us used to tolerating evil in ourselves, and that tends to have the long term consequence of getting broader and broader until we find that much of our lives are lived in practical atheism, in defiance of God and in opposition to the ways of Jesus Christ.
We begin, like the fools in the Psalm, to arrange and manipulate the world to our own ends. The description may sound like the powerful and influential, but we can all do it in our own arenas of influence. Some people can influence events on the world stage or the national stage. Others can influence events in their own workplace, home or circle of friends. Even if your circle of power extends no further than one relationship, perhaps even just a child, you still have a stage on which you can manipulate feelings, conversations, events, whatever, in order to further your own ends, regardless of the consequences for the other.
And it is our insulation from the consequences that usually allows us to do it. And that differentiates our attitude from God’s. I think that 90% of what we do that is against God’s guidance is done because we can’t foresee the consequences and therefore we don’t take it seriously. Our vision is too narrow and shortsighted. We can maybe see the first wave of consequences, but they keep rolling on way beyond the scope of our sight. If you’re playing chess or a card game, you often make a couple of moves and then later you realize that you made them in the wrong order. The immediate consequence was harmless enough, but by the end of the game it has cost you dearly. But without another ten years of practice you would never have been able to foresee it.
Perhaps some of you have some classic stories of how you would have done something differently if you could have foreseen what actually resulted? They don’t have to be stories of sin and rebellion, but of anything where you failed to see the eventual consequences of an action.
This is one of the big differences between us and God, and a reason for taking seriously what God has to say to us. God can see the consequences. When we here in the reading from Jeremiah that God described the future as a wasted earth, the loss of the birds of the air, fruitful land becoming barren, and then we stand where we are now and we see that becoming more and more real, and we now begin to understand the chain of causes and effects that produce this devastation, then we know that we would have been a lot safer listening to God in the first place and trusting that God could see what we couldn’t see.
The Psalm describes those practical atheists who lived life at the expense of others as ending up in great terror themselves. And that is so often what comes from a long chain of exploitative behaviour. It eventually catches up with us. We eventually find ourselves friendless and joyless and loveless, living in terror behind security systems and lawyers trying to hold back the harvest of bitterness and resentment we have sown. And as the Psalm said we find ourselves opposed by God, because God will always side with the poor and the vulnerable, God will always be their place of safety, and if we raise a hand against them we find ourselves confronted with the righteousness of God.
And yet, despite the fact that all of us behave like this somewhere in our lives, there is good news. The psalm describes us as having gone astray and failing to seek after God, but the gospel reading assures us that even when we have gone astray, God still seeks us. No matter how lost we have become in the confusions and terrors and webs of deceit we have created for ourselves, God, like and eager shepherd, continues to search for us, to pursue us, to reach out to us with the offer of a hand to pull us out of the mess and put us back on safe ground. Although God’s ways cannot be bent to our own ends, God is willing to accept us the minute we decide to change sides.
And this holds true, whatever your level of rebellion. Maybe you really identify with the one lost sheep and feel completely out in the cold on your own and in desperate need of a shepherd to lead you home. But maybe you are more like the whole flock, with most of your parts doing fine, but with one or two aspects of your life out of control and totally out of step with what you want and with what God would want for you. Either way God is eagerly awaiting the chance to pull us out of the cycle of selfishness and self-destructiveness that are usually the unforeseen consequences of living as though there is no God.
The only condition put on our rescue is our willingness to trust and follow the ways of the one who can see all the consequences and who always has our interests at heart. And that one is Jesus Christ, the one who has gone before us, and whose life is still having consequences that can rescue us from chaos here and now.