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Questions to Ponder: What Is Man?

January 11, 2009



Questions to Ponder:  What Is Man?

Psalm 8, Hebrews 2:5-9; Isaiah 55:8-9


            Do you ever look in the sky at night and pay attention to the stars?  Have you ever gotten away from a city, gone out in the country, and just gazed up at the stars?  Perhaps you saw the full moon last night.  The sky was a little overcast, but maybe you caught a glimpse of that big round orb.  I have been paying special attention to the moon since right after Christmas.  I have seen it go from almost totally black, to that distinctive South Carolina crescent, and now last night to a full moon.

            I took a group of Scouts on a camping trip one year, and two of the young boys forgot their tent.  It is easy for a Scout to forget his toothbrush, but this is the only one time I know of when a Scout forgot a tent.  The boys used my tent, and I slept in the back of a pickup truck.  Because of the way the truck was positioned, I could easily see the North Star.  Several times during the night, I woke up and noticed how the stars had repositioned themselves.  I have had similar experiences just camping out under the stars, especially in the high mountains on a grassy spot somewhere along the Appalachian Trail. 

Can you imagine how many times David, the sweet singer of Israel, the shepherd boy, had that experience?  David must have spent many nights outside tending sheep, looking at the stars, and noticing the moon.  From his vantage point on those hills in Judea, David, too, was awed with the majesty of God’s creation when he looked at the sky.  He was impressed by God’s sovereignty, God’s splendor, God’s grandeur.  After observing the glory of God’s revelation to His people, David wrote the beautiful words of Psalm 8, originally a poem and then probably a song that he played on his harp.  This first of the praise psalms, Psalm 8 is positioned well within the book of Psalms.  It raises questions that fit perfectly into our series of sermons, Questions to Ponder.  What is man?  What is woman?  What does it mean to be a human being?

My initial experience looking through a microscope occurred when I was in high school.  I remember the first time I ever saw a paramecium, a funny-looking animal that moves by waving its hair-like legs.  I remember the first time I saw an amoeba, an improbable creature that moves along so awkwardly.  I watched under a microscope this part of God’s created order that is completely beyond our ability to see without magnification.  Likewise, looking through a telescope for the first time and seeing the moons around the planet Jupiter was an incredible experience for me.  God has created the entire universe and universes beyond, our galaxy and other galaxies beyond.  His created order goes both to the very finite limits under a microscope and to the infinite limits when viewed through a telescope.

Recently, I saw a television program that showed some pictures taken by the remarkable instrument known as the Hubble Telescope.  Aimed at the Eagle Nebula, the telescope took pictures of the Pillars of Creation, huge gaseous pillars that exist way, way out in space.  These pillars are so enormous that the height must be measured in light years.  On the surface of these pillars are star eggs, places where new stars are “hatched.”  It was marvelous looking at those pictures yet perplexing trying to understand the vastness of God’s created order.

Stargazing is an interesting hobby.  Men from the East, wise men they were called, spent a lot of time stargazing.  Probably members of a religious group known as the Zoroastrians, they climbed huge towers and observed the heavens because they believed that the canopy of heaven was a reflection of earth.  To them, when something unusual happened on earth, the skies portrayed that event.  For example, a new star appearing in the heavens meant that a royal person had been born on earth.  When the wise men saw the star shining over the little town of Bethlehem, they determined to travel there by caravan to find the new king.  We position figurines of the wise men next to the shepherds in our manger scenes, but the accounts in Luke and Matthew tell us that the shepherds arrived sometime after the birth of Jesus.  The church has marked the difference in time between Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the wise men by the observance of Epiphany on January 6.  We really do not emphasize Epiphany in the Baptist church, but today I do want to highlight the importance of God making Himself known in the created order. 

Last night as I looked at the full moon, I realized that forty years ago Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  All of us were astounded, when in 1969, the astronauts onboard walked on the surface of the moon.  “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong commented. 

Of course, other events happened during that momentous flight.  Buzz Aldrin, the commander of the Apollo 11, had taken with him a small communion set, which his church, the Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas, had given him.  That set, which included a small wafer and a small cup of wine.  Inside the lunar landing module, wearing his flight suit, he took those elements the Lord’s Supper, even as his own congregation in Webster, Texas, did.  Aldrin had written on a note card two passages of Scripture.  One included words of institution about the Lord’s Supper from John 15.  The other card included just two verses from Psalm 8:  “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”  Buzz Aldrin asked this question as he took communion inside the lunar module on the surface of the moon. 

These words of Psalm 8 are still on the surface of the moon.  They appear on a silicon disk attached to that module.  Seventy-three countries from around the world, using seventy-three different languages, recorded a simple message on that disk.  The message recorded in Latin, which came from the Vatican City, included the words of Psalm 8.  The next time you look at the moon, remember that these verses that declare the splendor of God are there. 

I want to share two events that happened to me on January 6, the day designated as Epiphany.  I know the Neely names are often confusing.  My wife is Clare.  Our daughter is Betsy.  Our daughter-in-law married to Scott is Betsy Claire.  Scott and Betsy Claire have been expecting a child, and Scott called Monday afternoon to let us know that they had gone to the hospital.  Of course, Grandmother Clare was on the ready and told me that I needed to be ready, too.  A little after 9:00 that evening, we heard the news that Benjamin Jackson Neely, our first grandson, had been born.  Of course, nothing would do but for us to go to the hospital. 

There we chatted with the other set of grandparents.  Al Jolly, Betsy Claire’s father, asked me, “Whom does Ben look like?”

Do not ask me that question.  Years of experience have taught me that when you see a new baby, you say, “Oh and Ah.”  There is no need to say much else.  Looking at Ben, I answered Al, “You know, he looks like a shriveled up peanut to me,” which is the way all babies look when they are first born, I think.  At six pounds and eleven ounces, Ben is big enough to keep; but he is not big enough to go fishing with me just yet.  He is still too much like bait.  We are all delighted Ben is here.

When Clare and I returned to the hospital the next day, I was able to hold this little baby in my arms.  I must admit that some of the wrinkles had ironed out overnight.  I then realized that Ben is the spitting image of Scott Neely.  I held that little boy and thought, “What a miracle!  What a miracle has happened here!”  Of course, a miracle happens no more or less with my grandchildren than it does with yours.  The birth of every child is a miracle from God.  We should treasure that.  We not only see the glory and the splendor in God through microscopes and telescopes but we also see the glory and splendor of God close up, especially in a little child.  

When we got home from the hospital, I checked my e-mail and saw a message from our daughter-in-law June and her husband, Ian. In October, they had a little girl, Virginia June.  They had just returned home to Nashville from a trip to Portland, Oregon, where they had been visiting Ian’s family.  June told us in the e-mail that on the Sunday before Christmas, their church had had a Christmas pageant.  Guess whom they tagged to be baby Jesus in their pageant?  Virginia June Kern.  June included in the e-mail a picture of the eleven-year-old girl who played the part of Mary.  She was holding little Virginia June, our granddaughter, playing the part of Jesus – a very demanding part, I might add.

These two grandchildren both made an impression on me on the day we call Epiphany. 

God has revealed Himself in magnificent ways.  He was at work creating for a long time, long before He ever created people.   It is so difficult for us to think of God as a God of imagination, a God with such creativity.  God is so far beyond us that it is very difficult for us to understand just what it means to call Him Creator, to talk about His splendor and glory.  Isaiah 55:8-9 puts it well:  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.  Higher than your thoughts are my thoughts, and higher than your ways are my ways.”  Frederic Buechner explains that a human being’s attempt to understand God is similar to a dung beetle’s effort to understand a human being.  His comparison has great perception.  It puts man’s effort in perspective.  Do you think a little insect can understand what it means to be human?  Do you think a human being can understand what it means to be God?  I do not think so. 

God created us to occupy a special place.  Psalm 8 says that God created man to be just a little lower than the heavenly beings but clearly having dominion over the rest of creation.  He has created us to live betwixt and between, between heaven and earth, as it were, between being God and being a creature.  You know that having a special place is a hard situation in which to live.  We sin by becoming more than we are supposed to be, trying to become God, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.  We also sin by being less than we are supposed to be, becoming like an animal, as Cain and Abel did.  Within the first three chapters of the Bible, you see how complicated it is for us to live in that gap, that in-between place where we are created to be.  We must remember that God has fashioned us as a special part of His creation.  He has a unique purpose for each one of us.  

How do we evaluate the meaning of such questions as What is man? and What does it mean to be a human being?  Sometimes we talk about our self-worth or net-worth as a person.  Most people I know say that their net-worth has dropped quite a bit in the last few months.  Is that the way we measure the value of a human being?  Do we measure a person by their stocks and bonds, by their bank accounts, or by how much they have stored?  Scientists say that if we break down all the chemical elements within the human body and offer them for sale, we are probably worth less than $5, just in terms of our chemical composition.  You might be worth more if you have a good bit of gold in your teeth.  Self-worth is even more difficult to understand.

A bag lady in Miami, nicknamed Garbage Can Alice, roamed the streets of the city.  She rummaged through garbage cans, pulling out refuse others had discarded.  Nobody knew what she did with people’s trash, but every night she would disappear and then reappear on the streets the next day.

When Alice died, people started learning more about her.  They discovered that she owned a very prominent home in Miami Beach.  After getting a court order to go into her home, they entered what appeared to be a maze created by stacks of newspapers and magazines, as well as all kinds of items piled up in her house.  The people made their way through these narrow passages to her bedroom, also cluttered.  Under her bed, they found a fireproof lockbox containing $3,000,000.  This woman, a millionaire, lived as if she was worth nothing.

My dad has an expression when somebody is feeling badly about himself.  He says, “He is so low down he could sit on a dime and his feet would not touch the floor.”

More than six billion people live in the world.  Sooner or later, we all feel badly about ourselves.  We wonder what we are worth.  Psalms 3-7 focus on suffering; but Psalm 8, our text for today, is the first one of praise. Here, we see the question, What is a man?  What is a man that God should care about us?  What is a human being that God should even take note of us? 

A connection exists between human suffering and what it means to be a human being.  Certainly, suffering is part and parcel of our lives together as human beings. If you read the book of Job carefully, you will find no fewer than four verses from Psalm 8 embedded there.  Hebrews 2:5-9 also reiterates lines from Psalm 8.  We can see from these verses that the early Christian church interpreted the “son of man” as Jesus himself.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.  But there is a place where someone has testified: 


“What is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him? 

You made him a little lower than the angels;

     you crowned him with glory and honor

and put everything under his feet.” 


In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.  Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.  But we see Jesus…


God wants us to understand His majesty and glory, but He did not give us a microscope or a telescope.  He gave us, of all things, a baby.  Look at the life of this baby.  This baby was born in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph were going to be taxed, counted like so many cattle.  This baby was born in a feeding trough.  His birth was attended by blue collar workers – shepherds and strange wise men – who were not even of the Jewish faith.  This baby was taken as a refugee to Egypt because Herod was trying to kill children.  This child grew up in Nazareth, playing among the blocks and sawdust of Joseph’s carpenter bench and probably kicking a goat skin ball around the hills of Galilee.  When Joseph died, Jesus was possibly a teenager or young adult.  He had to assume the responsibility of caring for his widowed mother.  Then he entered his ministry phase after his baptism in the cold, muddy Jordan River by his first cousin and his period of temptation in the wilderness.  As an itinerant rabbi, he was despised and rejected.  Finally, in collusion, the temple and empire put Jesus to death as a common criminal outside the gates of the capital city. 

What is that life worth?  Maybe I should ask a different question:  Do you know what Jesus Christ thinks you are worth?  Do you know the value he places on your life?  Jesus died for you because he loves you.  He loves the whole world.  Ladies and gentlemen, teenagers, boys and girls, Christ loves you and thinks that your life is worth his life. 

When you come to Calvary and look into the face of Jesus, you see the glory of God.  At Christmas, we come to the manger and look into the face of that baby.  In the same way that little Ben is the spitting image of his father, Scott, that baby in the manger is the spitting image of his Father, God.  We see in that face, as an infant, as a crucified Christ, the face of love.

What does it mean to be a human being?  It means that we are loved supremely by the God who created the moon and the stars, by the God who created all things.  Do you believe that God loves you that way?  Have you acknowledged that love by asking God to come into your life, to forgive your sins, to help you be the person He has created you to be?  That is the most important decision you can make.  Once you make that decision, the majesty and glory of God will be revealed to you over and over and over.  You will see it in the faces of people you meet.  Remarkably, others will see it in you. 


Kirk H. Neely

© January 2009

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