Here’s a sermon from a couple of weeks ago, addressing the why of Christian worship.
Of Stars and Starvation
Why do we bother with astronomy when people are starving in the world?
Guy lies in bed unable to sleep. He is thirty years old with a Ph.D. in planetary science. He’s done post-graduate work at MIT and Harvard. He’s taught at MIT and Harvard. He’s a rising star in the world of astronomy. Every day he sees things that few other eyes will ever see: comets hurling through solar systems, supernova explosions, black holes.
He loves it, all of it, and yet there he lies, unable able to sleep, thinking about leaving his career as an astronomer because he can’t answer this question: why am I doing astronomy when people are starving in the world? Isn’t looking at stars a massive waste of time when matters of life and death press in on us from all sides at all times? Who’s got time for comets, supernovas, and black holes when empty stomachs, broken hearts, and ruined souls surround us?
It’s a disturbing question because the word astronomy could be replaced by any number of things. Why do we bother with music when people are starving in the world? Why do we bother with sports when people are starving in the world? Why do we bother with laughter and parties and vacations when people are starving in the world? Why do we bother?
Take a second to read Genesis 1…slowly.
Genesis 1 has been the site for lots of bloodshed over the years. Are we supposed to take it literally? Are we supposed to take it figuratively? Are we supposed to take it somewhere in between literally and figuratively? How long are the days? How old is the earth? And most importantly, where the heck are the dinosaurs?
And while I don’t mean to belittle such questions because some of them are important, most of them are simply exercises in missing the point because Genesis 1 is less about science and more about a song. Indeed it’s quite remarkable that across the theological spectrum—liberal, moderate, conservative—most biblical scholars agree that Genesis 1 has more in common with a song we might sing in worship than a paragraph we might find a scientific textbook.
Listen to it—it has a very clear cadence and rhythm.
Then God said, let there be light…and there was…and God saw that it was good.
Then God said, let there be a sky…and there was…and God saw that it was good.
Then God said, let there be oceans and lands and trees…and there was…and God saw that it was good.
Then God said, let there be sun and moon and stars…and there was…and God saw that it was good.
Unless you’re tone-deaf, you hear it—the rhythm and groove of “Then God said, and there was, and it was good. And then God said, and there was, and it was good.” Genesis 1 tells us the truth about creation (no doubt about it), and it tells it through song. And it’s no coincidence that the story of creation is told in a song.
Music, Food, Sex
I’ll go out on a limb and guess that every person who reads this likes music, because everybody likes music. Across time and culture and gender and race, everybody likes music. It’s not a matter of taste, it’s not up for debate—if you don’t like music, there’s something wrong with you. You need Jesus. It is not ok to not like music. We all know this. But why do we like music so much?
In 2001, a pair of neuroscientists from the University of Montreal tackled this question and this is what they found. When we do certain things, our brains reward us with a rush of something called dopamine—a neurotransmitter that, basically, makes us feel good. For example, when we eat food, our brain rewards us with a dopamine rush—that’s why we like eating so much. Or when we have sex, our brain rewards us with a dopamine rush—that’s why we like sex so much. But why do our brains do this?
The evolutionary theory is that our brain rewards behaviors that contribute to the survival of the species—things like food and sex. So when we do something that helps homo sapiens thrive, our brain goes, “Good job! Here’s some dopamine. Keep doing that.” And that’s a sound theory, but here’s where things get interesting.
Echoes of the Song
The study found that listening to music also causes the brain to reward us with a rush of dopamine. We listen to music, and for some reason our brain rewards us—it says, “Good job, Austin. Here’s some dopamine. Keep listening.”
And this has puzzled the scientific community because, well, music doesn’t contribute to the survival of the species. We don’t need music. It doesn’t sustain us physically. It doesn’t aid in procreation (although sometimes it helps). Why would our brain want us listening to music?
This may puzzle the scientist, but not the person who has read Genesis 1 where the story of creation is told in a song because creation itself is best understood as a song—something unnecessary, gratuitous, over the top, extravagant. As Job 38:4,7 says it, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?…When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” As Proverbs 8:30-31 says it, “Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him, rejoicing in the world, His earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.”
Stars singing, all creatures shouting, and God himself having an insanely good time with the whole thing. Creation is a song—something God doesn’t need but wants, just cause, just cause he wants to, just cause he can, just cause he feels like it.
And so why does our brain reward us with dopamine when we listen to music? Because, theologically speaking, when we do we’re hearing echoes of God and all his creatures singing the song of creation!
The Good News Before the Bad News
Has it ever dawned on you just what creation is, what your existence is? Have you ever had one of those moments? —
The sun sets and your eyes can’t manage the brilliance of all the colors, the person you hurt so deeply looks into your eyes and says “I forgive you”, an old married couple walks across the street hand in hand, a newborn baby smiles and you think your heart might explode with the joy and wonder of it all.
And in that moment, you get it, you see it, you hear it—you hear all the pain and hurt and suffering, but behind all of it you hear another song, a deeper song, a truer song…the song of creation. You understand, if only for a moment, that every breath in and every breath out is a gift, so unexpected and unnecessary and extravagant that all you can do is fall on your knees speechless and then say, “Wow. Thank you.” Because that, ultimately, is what worship is—falling to your knees at the beauty of it all, at the glory of a God who would do something like this, and saying “Wow. Thank you.”
I like to call it the good news before the bad news before the good news. Perhaps you’ve heard that you need to hear the bad news of sin before you can hear the good news of gospel and that’s true. But never forget that the Bible starts with good news, not bad news; namely, God doesn’t need all of this, doesn’t need us, doesn’t need anything—God wants all of this. And that’s very important.
God: The Happiest Being in the Universe
So let’s go back for a second before Genesis 1:1, before the “in the beginning.”
Before creation, what do you think God was doing? Sitting around, bored and lonely, floating outside of space and time until he realized it was sad going to bed alone?
God, from all eternity, is one God in three persons sharing a vibrant, dynamic, and infinitely creative life of delight, community, feasting, joy, and love. Quite simply, God is, has always been, and will always be the happiest being in all the universe. As Dallas Willard says it, “We must understand that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe…All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”
Think about the happiest moment in your life, when you thought you were about to spontaneously combust with joy and love—that’s what all of God’s life is like. And creation is a song, an expression of that. And this leads us to Psalm 50.
God is agitated with his people because they seem to think that worship is about giving God something God needs. They bring their bulls and goats and birds because they think God is hungry and needs people to say nice things about him and pay him compliments and make him “famous.”
To which God responds, “I don’t need your bulls and your goats and your birds, because they’re all mine anyways. If I was hungry, I wouldn’t tell you about it. Are you kidding me? What are you going to give me? That’s not how this arrangement works. You don’t give to me—you’re too little for that. I give to you. I am Creator and you are creature.” As Psalm 100:3 says it, “Know that the Lord Himself is God. It is He who has made us, and not we who have made ourselves.”
The Beat Goes On
And notice how the psalm ends. If we can’t come to terms with what worship is—a joyous acceptance and submission to the rhythm of the universe where the God who needs nothing from us freely gives everything to us, and we say wow, thank you—if you can’t get down with that, if you insist on singing a different song, then you will be torn apart at the seams…because the beat will go on.
And so worship is about gathering together as the people of God and listening to the song of creation (through Scripture and communion and song and prayer and confession) and singing it together, week after week, so that it swallows up all the petty and insignificant songs that we’ve spent all week singing.
It’s a song we need to sing by ourselves sometimes, because all of life is worship and much of life is spent alone. But it’s a song that is best sung together—the people of God, bowing before their Maker in a borderline excessive celebration of the beauty and glory of it all.
And if all that sounds too good to be true—too rhapsodic and optimistic—and your skepticism and grumpiness start waving their stingy little red flags, then that means you’re starting to hear it.
And so back to that question we started with: why do we look at stars when people are starving in the world?
Guy Consalmagno just couldn’t come up with a good answer to that question, so he quit his career in astronomy and went to work for the Peace Corps, hoping to help fill the bellies of all those people starving in the world. He was sent to Africa and found his work there very important and meaningful. He got to show the compassion of Christ to malnourished men, women, and children.
But Guy still had a soft spot in his heart for astronomy, so every once in a while he would take his little telescope out to the villages, and every single person in the village would come out and look through his little telescope at the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and the craters on the moon…and they would all say…
And that was when Guy understood why we look at stars when people are starving in the world. Because even in a world crippled with empty stomachs and broken hearts and ruined souls, we need to see the stars shining and the sun setting and the baby smiling and the Messiah hanging; we need to hear the song it’s all singing, so we can fall on our knees at the sheer wonder, surprise, and beauty of it all, and say,
Wow. Thank you.