As we head towards Christmas and the New Year, we invariably think of the year that has been. Those of us who are older will often remark how quickly the years have gone by. Those of us who are getting older (all of us, even those who think they can stay forever young) should recognise that another year has gone which we won't get back. Despite HG Wells and Dr Who, there is no time machine which will enable us to get back the years. Time is precious – an unswappable commodity.
Last week we saw that there is a time for everything. If the notion of time is difficult enough to understand and hurts my head even thinking about it, the idea of eternity, to which the preacher now turns, blows my mind. Time is one thing. Timelessness is quite another.
I remember as a child trying to imagine not existing. It was impossible. Impossible because God has set eternity in our hearts. To me this is the greatest apologetic for God – the sense of beauty and the sense of eternity in the human heart.
There is something inside us which gives us that awareness of eternity. We have a capacity for eternal things. We are concerned about the future, we want to understand from the beginning to the end, and we have a sense of wonder and beauty that transcends our immediate situation. This leads us to a God-consciousness that is part of our nature. Paul tells us that we are naturally theists because 'since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse' (Romans 1: 18-21).
This is interesting because whereas most contemporary atheists think it is an obvious point that humans are born atheists and have to be 'indoctrinated' to believe in God, there are those who agree with Richard Dawkins, who with psychologist Dorothy Kelman believes children believe in a Creator instinctively – though they have to be educated out of it. The Bible's perspective is we have this inbuilt awareness of God, because he exists. We are made in his image and we have this sense of eternity and beauty within us.
There is a negative side to this. It is a burden. We have this sense of eternity and this sense of beauty. But we cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end. Walter Kaiser speaks of this as being 'a deep seated desire, a compulsive drive. To know the character, composition and meaning of the world... and to discern its purpose and destiny.'There is nothing under the sun that can ultimately satisfy this sense of the eternal. There is always a striving after beauty – a striving after the One.
We have a desire to progress – we long for beauty. We long to improve and to make things better. We boast about being 'progressive' in terms of values, but the only real progress we have made is technological. But the progress that has brought us penicillin and the internet has also brought us nuclear weapons and global warming. In many ways, with labour-saving devices and the increase in leisure and pleasure time, we should we freer to enjoy life – but we are frustrated and disappointed that freedom and comfort have not brought us meaning and peace.
Take the internet. It is a brilliant invention that brings many wonderful things and possibilities – you are reading this because of it! But as with all human inventions there is a downside. This week a former Facebook vice-president, Chamath Palihapitiya, gave a widely reported talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in which he lamented his role in creating Facebook. He said: 'The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.'
There are so many wonderful things about modern life, but it is a fact that the most technologically advanced countries are also marked by family breakdown, drug addiction, abortion, violent crime, homelessness and suicide. As Malcolm Muggeridge observed: 'The result is almost invariably the exact opposite of what's intended. Thus expanding public education has served to increase illiteracy; half a century of pacifist agitation has resulted in the two most ferocious and destructive wars in history, political egalitarianism has made for a heightened class-consciousness... and sexual freedom has led to erotomania on a scale hitherto undreamed of.'
What is the solution to this burden? We need to bring God into the equation. Not human religion, not man-made gods, but God. The word for beauty in verse 11 (Yapeh) is very close to Yahweh, the name for God. The sense of beauty within us is what C S Lewis called 'drippings of grace' which point us to Christ. These are moments of transcendence. Personally for me this means Bach's Christmas Oratorio, sitting in Glen Doll in the Scottish Highlands, holding a newborn baby in my arms.
All of us experience moments like these. It's what we do with them that counts. Without God we forget and misuse them. God gives us the capacity for pleasure – taste buds, sexual drive and the capacity to appreciate beauty – but without him that will lead to over indulgence and destruction. We turn nudity into pornography, wine into alcoholism, food into gluttony, and human diversity into racism and prejudice. Instead of being good gifts they become destructive to us. Our life becomes a waste, either frittered away or burnt out in over activity.
God has given us this burden of eternity and the desire for beauty. He has also given us the source of that beauty – the fountain of light, life and love – Christ. This Christmas, in the midst of all our fragility, stress, sin and ugliness, may the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.