Survival of the Fittest | Sermon from January 13, 2019

This past week, a headline appeared in my newsfeed: “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” The tag line explained, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone–so how did it come to be?”

The article made me think back to the extravagant splendor we found in the northeast Georgia mountains. With the help of a little app called All Trails, we found our way to four unique waterfalls, two of which took our breath away. The last one we visited was a two mile hike into the woods. Carter wore out and he and Dana turned around to go back to the car. Within five minutes, as Jack and I pressed ahead, we were at a towering waterfall of what I estimate to be twenty feet. It was magnificent. So much so, that Jack and I ran back down the trail to fetch Dana and Carter before they returned to the car so they could see it. Jack lost both of his shoes to the mud, but we caught them and brought them to the extravagant splendor of the waterfall.

There, we stood in awe. Creation, nature, in all its extravagance. Evolution explains much, but it can’t explain why we’re enraptured by such beauty.

Like the first time I encountered jazz. I remember it distinctly. I was ending my sophomore year of high school one spring when I went with several other students to a jazz clinic at Georgia State University. There, I heard one of the best jazz trombonists I have ever heard. I was in absolute awe at the extravagant splendor of his playing. I didn’t know the trombone, my instrument, could sound that way. While I no longer have opportunity to play in a jazz band, it inspired within me a lifelong love of jazz and kept me playing in jazz bands through college and into graduate school.

That, too, is something that evolution cannot explain. Why do we value beauty? It poses no evolutionary benefit. Evolution sees the world not as a place of beauty that should inspire awe and wonder. No, it sees the world is a place of chaos to be survived by the fittest among us.

Those who appreciate beauty are not stronger and, therefore, more likely to stand the test of natural selection. Those who engage in the creation of art of many kinds are not better equipped for the challenges presented by a nature that can often be characterized by chaos more than order. And yet, we humans love beauty and, should we allow ourselves to be so consumed, awe can inspire our hearts and draw us to a place of extravagant splendor.

We are drawn to beauty in a chaotic world that demands strength. A world where only the strong survive, but beauty enraptured. How do you see the world?

This headline about the extravagant splendor of nature came amidst headlines about R. Kelly, the government shutdown, trouble in Venezuela and the Congo. The news paints that picture of a place where only the strong survive, rarely placing value on beauty. It’s fair to say the news conforms to a Darwinian view of the world: survival of the fittest.

It’s for that reason I have chosen to consume less news, a choice born out of a conviction of my prayer life. I’m powerless to affect change in policy, governments, or social issues. I find that the news comes to steal, kill, and destroy: steal my joy, kill my enthusiasm, and destroy my hope. But Christ came that we might have life, and life abundant: hope that is born through recognizing that you and I together, we as a church, have more potential than we realize, when we put our efforts together to address the needs that are right around us.

Indeed, when I look out from my perch as your leader, I am inspired by so many of you. I remarked to one of you recently that this job, as your pastor, is one of the great joys of my life because I have the privilege of watching so many of you go deeper in your relationship with Christ. I get to see you grow and blossom, experiencing that life abundant that Christ offers. I am inspired by the passion so many of you have for this community. I am in awe of your dedication to our neighbors and I am better for having spent the last eighteen months here.

There’s extravagant splendor in seeing this community move and work together. And yet the news reminds us that it’s a dog eat dog world; a world marked by survival of the fittest.

How do you see the world?

There are those who would say that all this talk of awe, of waterfalls and jazz and the goodness of this church, is misguided or a just plain wrong view of the world. They say it’s escapist. It’s to see the world through rose colored glasses, denying the true nature of things. That the true way to see the world is through the lens of chaos, sin, evil: to be aware and recognize all the problems that abound. Christ may have come for life and life abundant but to truly realize that requires that we have our head on straight, seeing the chaos that abounds.

The thought is that such talk of awe, of dwelling secure in the land of beauty, is choosing to blind yourself to the real problems of the world. It’s at best a naive way to see the world and, at worst, lying to yourself about the true nature of things.

For the world really is survival of the fittest; natural selection. Those who are strong win. Those who have the right resources win. Those who create opportunity for themselves and rely on no one else win. The world is full of winners and losers and the right thing to do, the only way to be, is to do what you need to do to win at life. Life is chaos, create your own order, is the right perspective, the one this crazy, unpredictable, cruel life seems to demand.

In this crazy world where chaos can strike at any time, where wars and rumors of wars abound, where we see much dysfunction in governments near and far, where we live in fear of the next violent act, the next mass shooting, where we worry and fret over most everything; in this world of chaos, we must create our own order for ourselves and those we love. No one else can do it for us, the task is to survive and, when we’ve survived, to then win. Darwin was right: only the strong survive, so be strong.

How do you see the world?

Based on what we’ve said so far, we see the world one of two ways: survival of the fittest or extravagant splendor. One sees the world through conflict and chaos, the other beauty and order. But the Psalms offer us a different way:

[Read Psalm 33]

How does the Psalmist see the world? As chaos and order, as survival and extravagant splendor. The Psalm merges the two views into one.

This Psalm, like the entire book and, indeed, all of scripture, sees the chaos in the world. There are enemies, there are those who seek to steal, kill, and destroy, there are warriors and war horses and those with great armies who would seek our destruction, there is natural chaos in the world that comes through disasters. The Psalmist doesn’t deny this Darwinist reality of the world. Survival of the fittest, indeed, rules.

But here’s the key difference: the Psalmist places no hope in his own strength. He is not interested in securing his own survival. He has nothing to say about winning himself.

That’s because the strength he relies upon, the strength that always wins, the only strength that can guarantee his survival, is God. God is the fittest, and those in God will survive.

God is the strongest. God’s strength makes the mightiest army look like a gang of ten year olds with spit balls. God’s wisdom makes the wisest human look like a fool. God’s provision is so great he can overcome the greatest famine. God’s offer of life and life abundant is so remarkable that not even death can defeat it.

God is the fittest, and those in God will not only survive, but thrive.

And it’s the beauty of the world, the things that cause awe within us, that remind us that God is with us and among us, moving for order. Extravagant splendor is our way of finding security in this world.

This is why this Psalm can speak of awe and wonder so beautifully. This Psalm, like so many others, is full of extravagant splendor because when the Psalmist looks out on the world, he sees God and God’s matchless strength, and that’s reason to rejoice.

How do you see the world?

How you answer that question makes all the difference in your faith, in your happiness, and in your life.

The eyes of sin cause us to see the world as a place where only the strong survive, where we must rely upon ourselves because no one will do it for us, where we can’t count on anything but chaos and ourselves to provide.

The eyes of Christ cause us to see the world as a place where God provides, where we can rely upon God to take care of us, where we can count on God to bring order to our chaos.

That’s because only God can restore the world, only God can undo the chaos, only God can restore the destruction, only God can bring hope amidst despair. Only God can do these things, and we can either be a part of what God is doing or stand against God. There is no middle ground.

Rejoicing in the extravagant splendor of the world, in the ways we encounter beauty, isn’t escapism away from the despairing realities of life. That beauty serves as a reminder that God is present among us, that God is with us, that God created the world to be a place of order and beauty that brings us to a place of awe and wonder. That’s what God’s about. And that’s what God is doing in our midst. And the reality that God is among us, creating order that causes beauty, is why we can trust God.

Today, we begin a sermon series on the Psalms. The Psalms reveal to us the cycle of faith, the way we go through life with God: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Orientation is the foundation of this cycle, it’s the basis, just as it’s the basis of our faith. And to be properly oriented toward God is simple: it’s to be in awe of God.

Our world gives us extravagant reasons to be in awe of God. You have, in your life, your own waterfalls, jazz, and people: things that cause you to stand in awe of who God is. Are you focusing your sights there? Do you trust God to be strong in this world of chaos?

When we choose to stand in awe of God, we begin to see the world the way God does: through the lens of hope. And that’s what this sermon series is really about: how do we find hope in this life? Finding hope begins here, with how we orient ourselves. Do you look for hope in the world or do you look for despair? It’s the same as asking does the world inspire awe of God or fear of survival. Do you spend the majority of your time enjoying the extravagant splendor of God or worrying about how you’ll survive and win?

How do you see the world?

N.T. Wright says, “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.”

Standing in awe of God teaches trust in God which inspires hope. That’s the proper way to see the world. That’s how we are to orient our faith and, indeed, our very lives. Standing in awe of God reaches trust in God, which inspires hope.

This morning, if you see the world primarily through the lens of despair, a lens born by just trying to survive, God offers you the opportunity to thrive. Go and rejoice in those things that inspire awe in you. There, you will learn to trust God and see how God is strong, moving to create order amidst the chaos.

And, this morning, if you see the world through the lens of hope, keep that fresh by rejoicing in the things that inspire awe in you. It’s always tempting to trust in our own strength. Awe keeps us properly grounded, oriented, to who God is.

The proper orientation for our lives is awe: wonder at the extravagant splendor of our God who reigns over this chaotic world with his order.

This morning, do you see that? Do you trust that? Do you have hope?

How do you see the world?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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