+ + +
Have you ever wondered how many people have ever lived on Earth?
The people at a think tank called the Population Reference Bureau have. Of course a lot depends on how far back on the evolutionary tree you start. But starting about 50,000 years ago with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, they came up with an educated guess of about 108 billion human beings ever born.
Think for a moment about all those lives. A hundred billion stories, each as unique as yours or mine. Each one filled with drama, even if only the modest dramas of everyday life. Growing up; working; perhaps falling in love, having children; friends, family, moments of exhilaration, moments of grief. Some stories deeply tragic, cut short in a moment by war, sickness, or accident. Some relatively easy and pleasant. A few of them prominent, most not—of all those hundred billion, how many names are actually remembered in history? Several thousand, maybe? And the rest lost to us in the mists of time, even their tombstones long crumbled away, their names and precious stories known only to God.
Frankly, that’s one reason I believe in God: out of a deep longing for all those stories, including yours and mine, to matter to someone. To be more than a brief, absurd blip in a meaningless physical universe. To have eternal significance.
Whether we believe in God or not, I think all of us want to matter. Often we try to do that by doing something impressive. It might be success in grades, sports, business, money, politics, or popularity. Sometimes that motivation becomes dark and twisted, as with perpetrators of mass killings whose destruction of others and themselves seems a desperate attempt to feel some kind of emotion and achieve some kind of significance. Sometimes it fuels a healthier ambition to serve others and do good in the world. Most of us settle for mattering in smaller, more modest ways that don’t get our names in the New York Times. But all of us can be tempted by the goal of achievement, whether it’s making the honor roll or the all-star team, having the best résumé or the most Facebook friends. Nobody ever made a résumé listing all their failures and inadequacies.
Today’s scriptures confront us with the surprising truth that God is not all that interested in résumés or achievements. Rather, God is interested in people. Real significance comes not from what you achieve but from your identity as a beloved child of God.
Consider the ordinariness of Jesus. Here is the incarnate Son of God who appears on earth not as a Caesar or a conqueror, but as a small-time village healer and traveling preacher. Yes, we believe the life and ministry of Jesus was the most important turning point of history. But in the world’s terms, it didn’t seem to amount to much. Even Jesus’ crucifixion probably went all but unnoticed in the society around him, just one troublemaker among hundreds and thousands executed by the Romans. If there had been a newspaper then, it might have made a small entry in the police blotter. The resurrection wasn’t witnessed by anyone, and when a few of his friends started to preach that Jesus was alive again it remained a pretty small-scale movement at first. We would never know anything about Jesus today if it weren’t for the lives he touched so profoundly that they were transformed forever.
Today we see him at his most ordinary, surrounded by people who grew up with him, who know his sisters and brothers by name and who don’t cut him any slack as a celebrity. It’s interesting that somehow their lack of faith seems to mean that even Jesus can’t do his usual deeds of power but has to content himself with a few small healings. And then we hear about him sending out his disciples, and sending them out essentially with nothing. No fancy clothes, no toolkits, only the power of prayer and their own trust in God and in the effect Jesus has had on them.
There’s a story that Jesus was talking with the angel Gabriel after his ascension into heaven. “What’s next?” said Gabriel. “You conquered death, rose into heaven; what happens from here?” “Well,” said Jesus, “I’ve sent my friends to go preach the good news.” “They must be incredibly gifted.” “Not really. They’re pretty ordinary villagers, some a bit dense, some hotheaded and vain. The leader denied me three times.” Gabriel paused. “Uh, Lord . . . what’s the backup plan?” And Jesus said, “I have no backup plan.”
Jesus entrusted the message of salvation to very ordinary people who were not achievers in the world’s terms. And over time, it reached far and wide, and it reached some people who were achievers in the world’s terms—like Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen, a trained rabbinic thinker, and an intellectual. He knew all about success in the world’s terms—and he knew how to boast. That comes through in the portion of his second letter to Corinth we heard this morning, where he almost ties himself in knots talking about how he could boast about his spiritual life with its visions and revelations if he chose, but he won’t. He even uses the transparent device of talking about himself in the third person, essentially saying, “I have a friend who had an incredible vision of paradise.” Yet in the end Paul comes to know that what matters isn’t his achievements, even spiritual ones, but God’s love for him in the grace of Jesus.
Here we are today too, in a society where some have great power and influence, and many more don’t. We have more exposure today to celebrity, politics, and money than ever before. Peasants in first-century Galilee never saw Caesar except maybe in a portrait on a coin; in our society anybody can watch stars, athletes, and politicians 24/7. It can seem as if all that matters is “making it” in those terms. But many, many people are just trying to get through the day or the week; trying to get a job, or working through a bad one; trying to get an education or a leg up; facing mental illness or caring for a sick family member; struggling with chronic pain or substance use; and also finding pleasure in the ordinary: going fishing, or watching TV, or grilling with friends on the Fourth of July.
You do not have to be great in the world’s eyes to matter to God—or for God to do great things through you.
Even if you are great in the world’s eyes, God doesn’t particularly care—though God loves you and can do things through you too.
Whoever you are, God loves you and longs for you, and your story matters eternally.
 “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?” Population Reference Bureau, March 9, 2018, https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/.