Contemporary Word:    Insights into a new heaven and a new earth - Michael Player JUC 10am 8 Sept 2013

As our Minister of the Word, Anna has a special love of libraries.  She has the happy knack of finding interesting angles on subjects, spurred on by books she finds in libraries, whether it be libraries in New York or Johnsonville. 

Over the course of history libraries have not only been the places where knowledge has been stored but they have been sources of inspiration to explore beyond the horizons of knowledge, to give glimpses of a new heaven and new earth, if you will. 

Perhaps the greatest library of the time before Christ was that of the library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Alexandria was one of the great ports of the world and one of the sources of its collection of scrolls was the many ships who passed through the port. A law existed whereby every ship that berthed in Alexandria had to supply any scrolls on board for copying by the library.

There is some dispute as to what eventually brought about the demise of the Great Library of Alexandria but the most common story is that a fire that began in the port area consumed much of the town, including the library.  Other reports, however, suggest that while the fire caused some damage it did not totally destroy the collections.

Not only was the library of Alexandria known for its thoroughness of record keeping but for the quality of its librarians. 

One of the most famous of librarians of Alexandria was the third librarian who lived between 276 BC and 194 BC.  His name was Eratosthenes.

Eratosthenes made many contributions to science and mathematics and he was a good friend of another famous Greek, Archimedes.  He was also an admirer of Aristotle but unlike Aristotle who believed that humanity was divided into Greeks and Barbarians, Eratosthenes believed there was good and bad in every nation.  

Like Aristotle,  Eratosthenes was intrigued by the fact that the world appeared to be spherical.  Of course this was over 1700 years before the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Aristotle had observed that whenever the earth’s shadow was seen on the moon it was circular. The only thing that makes a circular shadow is a sphere, ergo the earth is a sphere.   But Aristotle didn’t know how big a sphere the earth was. 

The calculation of how big a sphere the earth was made by Eratosthenes soon after receiving a letter from the town of Syene south of Alexandria. ...In the letter the writer said at noon on the solstice when he looked down a well the reflection in the water at the bottom showed his head entirely blocked the sun. Now for the mathematicians among you listen up and for the rest of you don’t worry about the detail just admire the power of Eratosthenes brain.  The observation in the well further reinforced the thinking of Eratosthenes that if the shadow of the man’s head completely blocked out the sun at noon on the solstice the sun must be directly above the town of Syene...   Eratosthenes further observed that a stick stuck in the ground at Alexandria on the same date and time cast a shadow that showed it was 7.2 degrees off axis.  Now if you have two points on the circumference of a circle all you need to know is the distance between those two points and you can extrapolate the total distance of the circumference, that is  360 degrees divided by  7.2 equals 50.   Eratosthenes also knew his geography, in fact he invented the word geography.  And he knew the distance between Alexandria and Syene was 5000 stadia or the equivalent of 793.8 kilometres.   Multiply that by 50 and you get 36,690 kilometres which is only 1.6% off the actual diameter of the earth.   This discovery, made so long ago,  was an amazing contribution to humanity’s knowledge of the physical dimensions of planet earth. 

But Alexandria was not alone among the great libraries.

The second greatest library of the ancient world was the library of Perganum,  in a city in what is now known as Turkey.

In 2007 Debbie and I visited Perganum high in the mountains of southern Turkey.   It is an errie place because you can walk in the remains of a sizeable city high on a mountain and surrounded largely by bare countryside and a modern town down below.  Not only did the original citizens of Perganum work out a system to bring artesian water from mountains on the horizon but the library was literally a temple of great learning.    Intriguingly, much of the stone work of that library survived well into the 19th century only for it to be plundered and disassembled and carted off by the Germans to Berlin, where to this day it forms part of a substantial museum.

So, down through the ages libraries have been instrumental in giving us insights into God’s great creation. 

Of the libraries of the modern world the most extensive collection is believed to reside in the British Library, which contains more than 150 million items.  Second place belongs to the Library of Congress in the United States with an estimated 147 million items. 

 

But over the course of the 21st century physical libraries will wane in size and influence.  The greatest library of modern times is of course the internet.

 

Currently it comprises some 350 billion pages of information a number which the human mind can barely put into context.

 

The much publicised National Security Agency of the United States gathers as much data as stored in the entire Library of Congress every six hours!

 

Not only is the size ginormous but the speed at which human knowledge is developing has also sped up and is exploding exponentially.  Human knowledge is currently doubling every year.  The  internet is currently estimated to be 5 million terabytes of which Google has indexed just 200 Terabytes or just .004% of its total size.  But it won’t be long before the doubling of human knowledge and accessible human knowledge at that, is counted in hours rather than weeks, months or years.   

 

But for all the marvels of libraries the best insights for Christians into the kingdom of God and the renewal of the earth still comes from a study of just 26 books, the books of the bible.   We are indeed fortunate as a small community of Christians to still be able to fund Anna to study the bible and make use of other library resources so that three weeks of most months we may see and hear the fruits of her insights, tailor-made for our edification.

 

In the New Testament book of Peter we are introduced to the concept of expectation... that because there is to be a significant change between the old and the new, and the old will melt away, that we should live lives worthy of the new order.

But what does that mean exactly.... does it mean we should put more of our available time and energy into charitable work, into supporting others with physical as well as less tangible support.  Well  yes, to a degree it does, but most importantly it is an urging of us to extract as much out of life as we are able given our health, our mental and physical resources.

Oscar Wilde once said, any map of the world without the country of Utopia is not a map worth studying.

Wilde was commending to us the human spirit’s superb capacity to search relentlessly  for a better place. 

By way of example, I want to reflect on the story of one man who caught my attention recently as perhaps he did you, ... a man who featured in the Sunday paper two Sundays ago and on the Seven Sharp show on Monday night.

Peter Taylor has been a top equestrian rider and coach, restaurateur, drag queen, author and owner of one of Auckland’s more prominent bars.  At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 he was bitten by a sandfly that infected him with a parasite that destroyed his bone marrow.  Because he was also HIV positive he was expected to die within 20 months but 21 years on he has survived much longer than anyone, including himself, thought possible.

But Peter Taylor now only has days to live.  On September 1st he stopped the chemotheraphy he has endured three times a week every three weeks.  He has stopped taking the 250 pills that he has been consuming  for more years than he cares to remember. 

He has consciously decided he doesn’t want any more pieces of him cut out, cut off, harvested, dug, slashed, burnt or spiked. 

He says that it is time to say goodbye and to leave his body which is a cause of constant pain.  He says there’s not much fun anymore and when there’s no fun it’s just a trial.

Last weekend Peter Taylor hosted a dinner in St Matthews in the City church in Auckland, a dinner which had all the qualities of a wonderful funeral but a funeral in which the individual being honoured and remembered was present in life.

The 60 year old is at peace with his decision, he has glimpsed a positive future, a future without pain.  In his own words he says:  “I am without fear.  I am excited.  All the places I have travelled in the world I have had no expectations of where I was going to, so I was never disappointed.  And I feel the same way about this.”

On television, when asked a question of what he wanted to be remembered for he said everyone of us should ask ourselves the question of “How well did you learn to live, how well did you love and how well did you let go.”

Peter Taylor is indeed a courageous man, a man who has lived life as fully as he was able and who has consciously decided to switch off.   

Few of us will have such a choice but it sounds like Peter Taylor has well and truly earned his choice.

And so my friends, that is my reflection on glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth.

As a child I used to delight in family discussions involving my father and my grandfather about what heaven would be like when we died. I will always remember my father saying “Well can you eat bananas there “ and my grandfather saying very vigorously no, no “it’s just like going to sleep forever, you’ll know nothing.”   

Whatever the answer, they both know it whereas I can but hold fast to the comfort of certain words  of Saint Paul from my trusty 1971 New English Bible and in particular the words in Romans 8 verse 38 and 39 where he says: “For I am convinced  that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of the spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths – nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”    Amen.