By Zac Koons
One night last summer when Anna and I were camping in Montana, we decided to go on a stargazing tour. We showed up, as the flyer instructed, at a particular pitch-black parking lot at 11pm. It felt like we were members of a drug cartel meeting up with our suppliers. We were met instead by a park ranger and about 15 other strangers eager to plumb the depths of the cosmos. Truthfully, Anna kind of had to drag me there. It was cold. It was past my bedtime. And that had been our fourth day in a row of hiking, so my legs felt like they were going to stop working at any moment. But, alas, we went.
We proceeded to have our minds blown, like, over and over again, as our park ranger narrated our journey from constellation to constellation with lessons from ancient Greek astrology spanning all the way to modern-day astrophysics. Then we moved to the telescopes, like giant telescopes as big as a small car, and got to see planet after planet after galaxy after nebula after whatever else is up there I don’t remember.
Have you ever wondered why all our planets are round? I had never thought to wonder that before. Did you know that mathematically speaking it’s the same reason that soap bubbles are naturally take a round shape, and the same reason that stars are round too, and that as best as we can tell, our ever-expanding universe is also round? And yes, that’s right, our universe is expanding, apparently. I’d heard that phrase before but never actually thought about it. In 1929, astrophysicist Edward Hubble discovered that the furthest galaxies we can see in every direction are not only moving away from us, but that they’re moving away from us faster than galaxies which are closer to us, which means, in other words, the universe is actively getting bigger.
Did you know that looking up at the stars is literally looking into the past? Let me explain: Light travels at the speed of light, right? Right. Duh. Stay with me. The closest star to earth, other than the sun, is a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, which is 4.25 light years away from earth. Which means that when we look at that star now, we’re seeing it not as it is right now, but as it was 4 years and 4 months ago — as it was before I ever stepped foot in Round Rock. Yet I’m looking at it, in Round Rock. WHAT?! What’s the furthest star we can see with the naked eye? I’m so glad you asked. That would be V762 Cas — 16,308 light years away. You can see something today — TONIGHT — that is not only older that Jesus, but older than Genesis. The Andromeda galaxy, also visible to the naked eye? 2.5 MILLION light years away.
Don’t even get me started on dark matter, which is totally real, and by the way is also not even at the cutting edge of astrophysical discovery anymore. Dark energy, on the other hand, now that’s where it gets really wild.
Ok, I’ll rein it in. The point of all this is that that night, being out there in that random Montana parking lot felt like being inside of Isaiah chapter 40.
Listen again to what sounds like the ancient astrophysics of Israel: “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he [i.e., the God of Israel] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; [it is he] who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in. . . . Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”
This passage is more than just a list of cosmological beliefs. It has an emotional context. It sounds like we’re in a courtroom. The prophet Isaiah is the prosecuting lawyer, and Israel — and by extension we, the readers — are in the dock, on trial for not believing in God. Isaiah names the words of Israel’s complaint against his client: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.’” Israel feels like God has forgotten her.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” says Isaiah the lawyer. “Lift up your eyes.”— and you can imagine the roof of the courtroom being ripped off and Isaiah pointing up at a night sky – “Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name. …The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”
I wonder if you’ve had moments like this. Standing out in that parking lot I felt overwhelmed by God. Awestruck. Floored. And then my wonder transformed into a kind of embarrassment. As Israel probably did in the face of Isaiah’s courtroom charisma, I felt ashamed by my own doubts and complaints, which all seemed so petty all of the sudden. What were my grievances in the context of this cosmos? How dare I question the intentions of someone or something capable of creating a universe with things as big as Jupiter and as small as a proton? I felt small: Who am I anyway in this expanse of millions of light years, and gamma rays, and megahertz and molecules. It was exhilarating and humbling. I felt tiny and God felt real. I wonder if you’ve had moments like this.
Moments like this can be anchors to our faith. They’re memories that we hold onto and call to mind to steady our faith when we get bogged down again by the brutalities of daily life. Or moments like these can be shields, shields against the intellectual antagonism of militant atheists. Many of us, I’d venture to guess, have found these or similar words coming out of our own mouths: “This just can’t be an accident. Our world is just too intricate and beautiful; there must be some intelligent design behind all this.”
I want to say two things about these kinds of moments, about the kind of moment that I had under the stars in Montana: The first is that these moments are good, and, I think, to be cherished. In addition to what I’ve just said, they’re also good also inasmuch as they typically signify that we’ve managed, however briefly, to break out of our everyday routines to gain some perspective on our life; that we’ve broken the pattern of endless digital distraction, for example, or of the humdrum maintenance of who’s driving who to soccer practice on which day; and that we’ve taken a step back far enough to see ourselves and our lives and our problems again in the context of a larger human, cosmic story.
The second thing I want to say is that these moments don’t quite count as Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong: Moments like these are not antithetical to Christianity. But moments like these nonetheless are not sufficiently Christian (or “sufficient to be described as Christian.”). Which is to say — and this is the important part — there’s much more to Christianity than looking at the stars and being amazed at the Creator God who is “out there.”
I say it doesn’t count as Christianity. But first we should establish it doesn’t count as the faith of Old Testament Israel either. It really only counts as the faith of Genesis 1. The God of Israel is the Creator of the world, yes, but for Israel too God has always been much more than that. Israel believes that God is her active companion in history. Israel’s relationship with God in the first place was founded on God’s direct action of rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, after which God traveled with them through the wilderness, in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And God made demands of Israel and reacted to their obedience and disobedience. God accepted sacrifices from them, and then God continued to be present with them in the Temple, and by the words of the Prophets. Even Isaiah chapter 40 makes mention of God’s dynamic presence: According to Isaiah, God not only “sits above the circle of the earth,” but he also “brings princes to naught. . .. gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.”
This dynamic character of Israel’s God reaches new heights when we turn to the New Testament. And our Gospel reading for today is as good an example as any. For those of us who are quite used to reading the Bible, there’s nothing very extraordinary about today’s lesson: Jesus enters the house of Simon and Andrew and finds Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. And the text says, “Jesus took her by the hand, and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Again, we might be tempted to think: So Jesus heals another sick person. What’s so crazy about that?
What’s so crazy about that is that this is still the God of the Universe we’re talking about. This is the God who made the sun and the stars and the light years and the gamma rays and the megahertz. This is the God who is “out there”—but the thing is He’s not just out there. This God is right here. This God is at your mother-in-law’s house. This God holds a sick person’s hand. Touches a blind man’s eyes. This God weeps, and sweats, and prays. This God feels anger, and pain, and joy. This is the God not only of the mind-blowing scale and microscopic intricacies of the cosmos, but he’s also the God of the even more complex and even more beautiful human mind, body, and soul.
Christians don’t worship a Somewhere Over the Rainbow God. We don’t worship an old, bearded man in the sky that’s just sitting there playing chess with himself. We worship a God who throughout history has been more reliably known in the midst of His people than he has been as something or someone flying over them. You think it’s crazy that there’s a god who created the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light-years away? Christianity sees that bet and raises you that the God who created Andromeda in the first place also took on human flesh, was born as a vulnerable baby in a smelly Bethlehem barn, and then grew up and walked around in our midst. What’s crazier still is that most didn’t think it was that big of a deal, and what’s still crazier is that those who did notice, instead of recognizing him as the greatest gift the world could ever ask for, decided to kill him instead for fear that he would overturn our apple carts.
The trouble with a God who remains eternally over the rainbow is that we humans have long been really terrible at reading the sky. We have a tendency to look at the clouds and see whatever we want to see. The Greeks, for example, looked at a particular group of seven stars and saw a bear — something they interpreted as a blessing for the hunt; the Irish some centuries later looked at the same exact stars and saw a farmer’s plough, which to them is a symbol of left-wing politics; an old Arabian story looks at the same stars and sees a coffin with a trailing funeral procession; and then there’s us who look at the same stars and see a soup ladle we weirdly call the Big Dipper. The truth is humans tend to look up at the stars and see only reflections of ourselves. Sometimes we can look up at the stars and feel overwhelmed by God’s presence. But sometimes we can look up at the stars and feel overwhelmed by loneliness. It depends on where and when you were born, and it kind of just depends on what mood we’re in. That’s why God needed to come out of the sky, to become human, so that Jesus could show us what the God who made the universe is really like.
So what are we left to do with these experiences of natural and cosmic beauty? Don’t forget the first thing I said. These things are good. These memories are to be cherished. So enjoy the stars. Be amazed. By all means drive out into the country in the middle of the night and lie down on your back in some field and look up be overwhelmed by wonder.
But what I’m trying to say to you today is don’t stop there. Because it gets much, much, much better than that. Come to Church and hear a crazier story still: that the God who made the stars also made you. And the complexity and the beauty of the universe don’t compare with the complexity and beauty of you. Because God didn’t decide to take the form of a star, or a moon, or a molecule. God became human. So when you look up at the stars, see not only the God who made them, but see also the God who has a human face; the God who gently holds the hand of a mother-in-law bed-ridden by fever; the God who you see today in the face of the poor; the God who, even though we everyday find new ways to screw it up, still longs to be in dynamic, active relationship with us—such that the God of the galaxies died for us.
It gets one level crazier still: It just might be the case that the same God who made the cosmos is here with us right now. And that that God is still more reliably known through things that we can see, and touch, and even taste.
So be amazed, brothers and sisters, by the God of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’ Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas. This sermon was preached in 2018, when he was rector of St. Richard’s Church, Round Rock, Texas.