The Universe and Us
I want to start this by asking you to look at the photo here. Few years ago some scientists pointed the Hubble Deep Space telescope into what looked like an empty part of space. This is the picture they got from it.
It looks like a lot of stars, but actually there are only a few stars in that picture. The rest are galaxies–ten thousand, give or take a thousand. One of these galaxies is the furtherest away from us–13.4 billion light years away. You probably know this, but a light year is the distance a ray of light travels in one year. Now just to give you an idea of how fast that is, imagine you could shoot a bullet that would go all the way around the world, and hit you in the back after it made its trip. (Obviously this is an accidental shooting.) Now if the bullet were traveling at regular speed, around 17,00 mph, it would take it about 14 and half hours to get back to you. At the speed of light, it would go through you eight times before you could fall to the ground. So it took the light from that galaxy more than 13 billion years to get here. In other words, when we look at this picture, we are looking at light that is between a billion and thirteen billion years old.
Now each of these points of light in the picture is a galaxy. Our galaxy is the Milky way, which contains between 200 and 400 billion stars, and maybe as many as 100 billion planets. This small area of space that the Hubble Telescope photographed, contains around 10,000 galaxies.
Our minds really cannot grasp that. If the sun were the size of a basketball, then Mercury, the closest planet, would be the size of a pin, and 12 yards away. That is about right here. Venus would be 22 yards away, still the size of the head of a pin, and earth would be 31 yards away. Mars would be 47 yards away, about half the length of a football field. Jupiter would 162 years, a football field and a half. Saturn clocks in at 297 yards, three football fields. Uranus is a third of a mile away, Neptune is half a mile away, which is the distance between here and the I-5 bridge over Hawthorne Park. Pluto, which is no longer a planet, would be about three fourths a mile away, which is the distance between and the Tinsel Town Cinemas (or Butter Cloud Bakery, whichever you prefer.)
The nearest star would be 4,300 miles away. That is about almost a thousand miles more than the distance between Medford, and Key West, Florida.
This is the universe we find ourselves in. Does it make you feel small?
Well, let’s stay on the earth. Scientists reckon the earth is four and half billion years old. Imagine if we could scrunch all that time into a 24-hour day. The very first life would appear around 4 am. Between four am and the 8:30 pm, almost nothing happens. At 8:30 we get the first microbes, followed 20 minutes later by the first jelly fish. Around 10 pm, we start to get plants, and by 10:24 we get trees. Dinosaurs show up around 11 pm, and have their fifteen minutes in the sun. We start to see the first mammals around 11:39. The first human appears one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight, and all of recorded human history takes place just a few seconds before midnight.
We are a blip on this earth, compared to mountains, seas, and the first vestiges of life.
As wide as the universe is, and as old as it is, what are human beings? We are an insignificant speck.
Trinity Sunday–the Ineffable complexity of God
And what if we bring God into the picture?
Today is Trinity Sunday. We get to sing Holy, Holy, Holy, and I get to wax eloquent, or incomprehensible, and about Trinitarian theology. We sang Holy, holy, holy, but I am not going to go into the theology of the Trinity. All I will say is that compared to the universe, God is infinitely more complex. Just like we cannot really wrap our heads about what 13.4 billion light years is like, nor can we wrap our heads about the Triune God of creation who formed the universe.
This universe we live in helps us understand God, and the glory of God. As we reflect, as best we can, on the vastness of creation, we are quickly reminded that God is more vast than the universe. As we reflect on time, and how long the universe has been in existence, we are reminded that our creator existed before the universe, outside of time, which is also something else we cannot wrap our heads around.
Listen to the words of Psalm 8,
O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
So who are we? To quote this Psalm in the Old King James, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
Given all I have so to this point, what is our role in creation? Given what I have said about the vastness of creation and of God, where do we fit into the picture? What is our place in the universe, and in the eyes of God?
Psalm 8 gives us that answer:
…you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
You may know that thought activity in the human brain is composed of neurons firing in our heads. There are more neurons in your head than there are stars in our galaxy. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by synapses, and each neuron has around 40,000 synapses. There are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the universe! The activity in one brain alone, your brain, is more complex than the workings of the universe. Each one of you has a universe of activity in your heads.
The Psalmist says we were made just a little lower than God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is lambasting some members of the church for bringing lawsuits against other members. And in the middle of his screed, he says something very strange: Do you not know that we are to judge angels–to say nothing of ordinary matters?
We are extraordinary beings!
What does that mean for us?
Well, first it means that the most important thing in our lives are relationships. Every time I preach on Trinity Sunday, I always say that one implication of a Triune God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is that the Christian God is defined by relationships. Without the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, the God of Christianity disappears. God is essentially a series of relationships.
We share the image of God, which means we have a kinship with one another. You are intimately related to every other human being, whether they are the person sitting next to you in the pew, the person sitting in city hall and other halls of power, the person sitting on a bench in Alba Park, the person sitting in a prison, the people sitting around your table at home, or the person sitting in a detention center in Texas or Arizona. We are all one, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.
Now only are we in relationship with one another, we are also in a relationship with all creation. And we have a special relationship to creation. Most beings live within creation. God has put us over creation.
The Psalmist says, when talking about human beings:
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
This is just not a theological assertion. You can see it as you look around the world. Humans are capable of mastering many, many aspects of creation. We are the only species that is able to take two separate elements of creation, and mix them together to make a third thing. We do that in everything from cooking to metallurgy. But the theology gives us a context for our dominion over nature.
The Psalmist uses language here that is very specific. The Hebrew words refer to the role of a king, and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the translators use the Greek word “crowned.” The Psalmist is not saying we have power over nature. That is a secular understanding. The Psalmist is saying that we are like kings and queens over nature. This is different from saying we have power over nature.
What is the difference? If the Psalmist were just saying we have power over nature, that implies our power is rather unlimited. There are natural boundaries to our power. We cannot go faster than the speed of light, we cannot go back in time, we cannot turn lead into gold. We have to obey the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. But other than that, our power is limitless.
But a king or queen–that is different. Royalty does have power, and that was especially true when the Psalmist wrote this. But a king or queen also has a strong sense of responsibility for their subjects. In the biblical sense, that means they are responsible for the general welfare of the people. If the people suffer, it is the sovereign’s job to alleviate that suffering. If the people are under attack, is it the sovereign’s job to defend them.
The king or queen also has a responsibility to God. The Bible actually rates the kings of Israel and Judah according to their faithfulness to God. Some of the kings, who led their people to economic prosperity were ranked very low on the scale of the biblical standard, because they were not faithful to God.
So what is this biblical standard? It was actually pretty simple. First, to worship no idols themselves. Second, to keep the people from worshiping idols. For the third, I am going to read a part of another Psalm, Psalm 72. This Psalm was written when Solomon became king after David, and was a prayer for the success of his reign.
Here is part of it.
8 May he [the king] have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
11 May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
Why is the king receiving all these accolades?
12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
This is the kind of king God seeks. And when the Psalmist says we have dominion over the earth, that we are kings and queens of creation, this is the kind of rule God desires. As kings over creation, we will worship no idols, and we will care for our subjects, especially when they are powerless and need someone to care for them.
What does this mean for us, as we exercise dominion over creation?
Creation Needs Our Care
Currently there is an island of plastic floating in the Pacific that covers an area of 617,800 square miles. Now to put that in perspective, the state of Oregon is 98,466 square miles. This island of plastic is 6 and quarter times larger than Oregon. It is almost four times the size of the state of California!
On Thursday of this week, in one day, 2 billion tons of ice melted in Greenland. The 20 warmest years since they started measuring this occurred in the last 22 years. The last five years have been the hottest five years on record. When I lived in Alaska, we could see it getting warmer year by year. The year before we left they had a record number of 70 degree days. The next year we had a record number of 80 degree days, and the next year was a record number of 90 degree days, and now they are having record numbers of 100 degree days. In Fairbanks, Alaska!
It is natural to have one to five species go extinct every year. That is to be expected. That is a natural baseline number. But these days species are going extinct at 1,000 times that rate. Now the species going extinct are not elephants, or lions or other big animals, although many of their numbers are falling. They are much smaller species, the ones we do not notice. But when the smaller species go extinct, that affects the whole food chain.
In other words, the earth is hurting. Creation is hurting. That is the bad news.
But remember who we are! We are just a little lower than God! We are kings and queens of creation! We have the capacity to be benevolent rulers. There are things we can do. Angelee and I are looking for ways we can reduce plastics in our lives, ways we use less energy, ways we can lower any negative impact on our creation. The church has replaced all our florescent lights with led lighting. The education committee is working on a way of talking about Earth care, so we can all learn more about what we can do. Right now Angelee and I working on a home Bible study for ourselves, that gives some ideas for how we can better exercise responsible sovereignty.
Some we can do are easy. Some take sacrifice. But that is what it means to be a sovereign. We are not powerless. We don’t have to just let all this happen.
“…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”
That is a quote from the comic book Spiderman, but it is one of those sayings that resonates far beyond who said it. We have great power. Let us also exercise great responsibility.