Rev Sue preached this sermon during the morning service of Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday. Here it is for you again:
You will have seen timelines, I’m sure, perhaps in primary schools, where events in history are marked at the appropriate place on a long strip of paper. Can you visualise a timeline where a 100 years is represented by a centimetre? So, Jesus was born 2000 years ago, which would be 20cm. People have been around about 130 000 years, so that would be 13 metres – so the existence of the human race would be perhaps to the wall by the organ. The first animal life would be 700 million years, which would give us 70 km, which would take us to Blackpool. The earth was formed 4 600 million years ago, which would take us comfortably down to the south coast. So that (a cm) is our lifespan compared with the age of the earth, being the distance from here to Plymouth. And I haven’t even gone further than this planet. The age of the sun, the stars and the universe itself are of mind-blowing proportions. Looked at like that, our lives are very short and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. There is a Latin phrase sub specie aeternitatis, which means in the light of eternity. When we consider our own problems, generally, in the light of eternity, they seem very small.
That would be depressing, if it were not that the other side of the coin, is that God knows every one of us by name and has counted every single hair on our heads. We are only one amongst billions yet are loved as individuals by a God who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Most, if not all, human sin springs from not truly believing both those things. Because we do not believe how loved and valued we are, we puff ourselves up to make ourselves seem important. We posture and lie and make others feel small, as long as we look good. In the heart of each of us there is a God-shaped hole, but instead of inviting God to dwell there we fill it with possessions, or addictions or status symbols. Because we are not secure in God’s love, we fear for the future, not realising that our short time on this earth is only the prelude to eternity with God. This is true on every level. You can observe it in toddlers in a nursery. But with devastating consequences fear, greed and self-importance infect even international negotiations. Through a combination of expansionism, fear of their neighbours and coveting natural resources, conflicts and wars break out.
Do not think that I minimise the pain and grief that we feel as individuals when we are ill or lose someone we love, or the devastation of war that, thank God, most of us have been spared in our lifetimes. We hardly dare to turn on the television just now as we can hardly believe that there is once more war in Europe. On the contrary, it is only by seeing things in the light of eternity that I find these horrors bearable. People have suffered and died, civilisations have flourished and decayed. We knew that terrible things happen, and we pray that God will spare us the worst.
In a few minutes, Deborah will make the sign of the cross on our foreheads in ash. That one symbol sums up everything I have been saying. From dust we are and to dust we shall return. Our lifespan is tiny, and at the end our bodies become just dust and ashes. Remembering that, all our preoccupations even those things that matter greatly to us, do not assume much significance sub specie aeternitatis. We have little more significance than a butterfly. And yet those ashes are smeared on each of us, one at a time, as individuals, in the shape of a cross. For Jesus loved us enough to die a painful death, and we believe that he would have done that to save just one sinner. To save just you or me. Do not let yourselves be overwhelmed. Remember both your insignificance in the great scheme of things, and your infinite preciousness to God.