Sermon for January 2nd, 2022

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Genesis 2:18-22 (OT p.2)

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

Zechariah 10:1-5 (OT p.884)

1 Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain, from the Lord who makes the storm clouds, who gives showers of rain to you, the vegetation in the field to everyone. 2 For the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they suffer for lack of a shepherd. 3 My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his proud war-horse. 4 Out of them shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every commander. 5 Together they shall be like warriors in battle, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets; they shall fight, for the Lord is with them, and they shall put to shame the riders on horses.

Faith & Film X: The Matrix Resurrections

Three Minute Film Synopsis

The basic premise of all the Matrix films (this is number four) is simply that we are all living in a computer generated illusion. Humans long ago lost a war to the machines we created, but rather than killing us, the machines simply enslaved us, in order to harvest our body energy, and plugged us into a simulated virtual reality (called the Matrix), which seems real to us and keeps us complacently occupied with a million day-to-day concerns.

Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer. He wrote a successful video game trilogy called "The Matrix" but has difficulty separating reality from his game (which seems more like a memory to him). He sees a therapist who helps him process these feelings, and keeps him grounded in "reality."

A series of strange visitors convince him that his world is not, in fact, the real one, and his memories of the game he created are his actual memories from his former life, where he was known as "Neo" and was a leader in the resistance fight against the machines. Neo is extracted from the matrix, but quickly decides he must go back to rescue his love interest, Trinity, who is trapped there in the illusion that she has a husband and children.

When he returns to the Matrix, he must confront the Artificial Intelligence who designed the Matrix, known as the Analyst (played by a very diabolical Neil Patrick Harris). The Analyst happens to be Neo's therapist--or at least he has been manifesting as such within the Matrix in order to keep watch and control over Neo. Trinity and Neo fight the analyst and an army of commandeered human "bots", defeating them and taking control of the Matrix, which they are now free to re-write and re-program according to their own desires and preferences.

Savior or Something Else?

In the first three Matrix movies, Neo is decidedly the main character, and it's pretty obvious that he's a Christ type. His first name, "Thomas" hints at his skepticism (doubting Thomas) but his last name is Anderson--the Greek root Andro means "Man" and son means...son. So his name literally means Son of man, which was Jesus' favorite title for himself. Neo, in the first three movies, has supernatural powers, is predicted to be the chosen one, and in the end sacrifices his life to save the lives of others. That's the definition of a Christ type, and exactly what Neo the first three movies.

But in this movie, there are actually two main characters. And more than any of the other Matrix films, this one is at its heart a love story:

Rather than the "new" man, this time Neo more closely resembles the "first man," or Adam, and Trinity is like Eve. In the beginning of the film, the two are wandering aimlessly through a world (kind of like a garden) that has been constructed specifically for them. They are innocent, without knowledge of good and evil in the battle that surrounds them. The Analyst, who is definitely the villain here, is a kind of serpent or Satan figure, and at one point he even munches on an apple while whispering half-truths to them and trying to seduce them into following his point of view. Neo and Trinity's reshaping of the Matrix at the end of the film is reminiscent of Adam and Eve taking dominion over the earth in the book of Genesis.

Truth & Reality

In almost every single film I've seen this year, the same theme keeps popping up: What is real? What is true, and how can you be sure? How do you distinguish truth from lie, fantasy from reality, fact from fiction? I think that persistent theme says a lot about what's on our collective mind right now, and so it's fascinating to me that the Matrix (which was one of the first movies to really hone in on that theme over 20 years ago) made a very timely comeback n 2021.

Listen to the following clip, in which there are two alternating voices: One is the voice of Neo's real-world mentor, Morpheus. The other voice is that of the Analyst, played by Neal Patrick Harris. Both articulate seemingly reasonable points of view:

The analyst is saying, in essence, "This is the real world. That other world is just a fantasy." While Morpheus is essentially saying the opposite: "No, that world is the real world and this one is just a fantasy." What a dilemma. Complicating things even more, the Analyst is the professional, and the one with whom Neo is familiar. He's the one saying, "don't rock the boat. You don't want to cause harm, do you?" Morpheus, on the other hand, is a total stranger, saying, you have to choose now, trust your instincts, you're going to have to fight for it. Here's a clip of Morpheus trying to extract Neo from the Matrix by offering him a red pill (more on that later).

So how do you know what's real and what's not? How do you know what to believe? How do you know whom to trust?

In our world today, some people answer that question by saying "trust your instincts." I don't know about you, but my instincts tend to change from day to day, depending on what I had for breakfast, what kind of mood I'm in, and what I really want to do (or don't want to do).

Others in our world today answer the question by saying, "Trust the experts. Trust science." But science, too, has a tendency to change from day to day, depending on who's doing it, who's funding it, or who's interpreting it. And since I'm an expert (at least in one or two fields) I can also tell you firsthand that experts often disagree, even about fundamental and important aspects of their area of expertise.

So What's real? What should you believe? Who can you trust?

If you are looking to your own instincts to answer those questions, or to other fallible human beings, you're basing your truth, your reality, on constantly shifting sands. Jesus said in Matthew 7 to build your house upon a rock. In other words, put your trust, your truth, your decision making process in things that don't change, like for example...God's word.

This struggle for truth and reality isn't new, by the way. In our scripture passage from Zechariah, written almost 3,000 years ago, Go complains about those who speak nonsense, spread deceit and lies, and put their hope in false dreams. God compares them to sheep (or as one character in the film puts it, "sheeple") who wander for lack of a shepherd. And finally, God calls them to rise up and fight, like warriors in a battle for truth.

Choice vs. Predestination

In the very first Matrix film, choice was a big theme, represented by the blue and red pills that Morpheus offers to Neo--if he takes the blue pill, he'll remain "asleep" in the Matrix, but his "imaginary" life will continue as it always has. If he takes the red pill, he'll "wake up" into a new world which is disturbing, but real. A difficult choice, but a choice nonetheless.

In the second and third films, this shifts, and some characters suggest that choice as an illusion, like the Matrix itself. By the time we get to the fourth film, this one, the shift is complete. Over and over again, when Neo and other characters are presented with a choice, we hear them say, "That's really not a choice" indicating that the answer has already been predetermined.

Interestingly, this is the position or doctrine that Presbyterians are most known for, and which is probably the most misunderstood: The doctrine of Predestination comes from John Calvin's teachings that God is in charge of everything, and that nothing happens in this world--whether it seems good or bad to us--that is not part of God's larger plan. Everything--our choices, our actions, and our ultimate fate--is all predestined. As you can imagine, this is not a very popular doctrine. Especially in America, we like the idea of free will, and we don't want to be anyone's puppet.

But I think the Matrix actually gets the subtle nuance of predestination right: While not specifically attributing it to God or any deity, the characters come to realize that no choice happens in a vacuum. Every "seeming" decision we make is built on a complicated web of influences and experiences, psychological, biological, social, spiritual. Our choices have real consequences, and we are accountable for them, but they are usually propelled by more forces than we can understand.

In many ways we are like the characters in a book or even a movie. Yes, we may be scripted. But as Christians, we believe that we are scripted in the hands of a skilled and benevolent author. Like actors, we do our thing, but we have a director and a producer who calls the shots in service to the greater story. While bad things, and sometimes even tragic things happen in the course of that story, we trust that it will all come together, it will all make sense when we get to the end. Or, as the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:28, "all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose."