Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain

Proper 5,  February 8, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31

I don’t know if you share my fascination with the Hubble Space Telescope. I think it is the most wonderful machine – a huge telescope, suspended above the earth’s atmosphere, peering endlessly into the unimaginable depths of space.  And magically, that also means peering back in time, back towards the origin of the universe. The pictures it has taken are simply breath-taking. For example, of the great nebulae, resolving them into unimaginably huge structures of gas, immense pillars and beams and rings of glowing gas, where thousands of stars are being born. Or take the Hubble Deep Field project: taking just a tiny patch of particularly empty sky, and focussing the huge lenses and minutely sensitive light sensors on it for an extended period, patiently gathering up the tiniest movements of light. What slowly emerged, in that empty patch of sky, was the image of over 3000 galaxies stretching back 12 billion years. The vastness of the universe is literally mind-boggling.

What happens to us, when we contemplate these images? Well, we are confronted with the impression of our own unbelievable smallness in the grand scheme of things. Ourselves, all of human history, our planet, our sun, are tiny to the point of insignificance. Even our Milky Way galaxy, itself so unimaginably vast, is one of maybe one hundred billion in the whole universe, astronomers say. It is not just the world we know: it is everything we can even imagine, the biggest big we can picture, that too is insignificantly small, compared to what is out there. In the face of such vastness, we feel a dizzying sense of awe and wonder. Astronomers speak of this. Many scientists – although by no means all – are vocal atheists: yet the language they use to describe their feelings in the face of the unimaginable depths of space is unashamedly religious. It makes us feel small. Not in a way that is demeaning, but in a way that doesn’t let us even think of ourselves at all next to the stunning grandeur of what is.

All of which raises the faith question: where is God in all this? Scientists can look to the vastness of space and feel awe in the face of what is, feel an overwhelming sense of wonder and praise that moves them beyond the pettiness of thinking of themselves. And yet many of them would say that they don’t find God there, that what they experience has nothing to do with God. If you asked them – and indeed you don’t need to ask, because some of the professional atheists in their ranks are free in volunteering the information – you will learn that their idea of God is very different. God for them is simply the projection of the fantasies of religious people. What God looks like for them seems to be an old man, a feeble and decrepit old man, but also a very cranky and pettily vindictive old man.

Now we know how unfair that is. Every one of us here today has a more complex and richer understanding of God than this caricature that is upheld by the atheist crusaders of the last decade, no matter how many PhDs they may have in astrophysics or evolutionary biology. Because we have embarked on the adventure of faith, we have discovered that knowing God is an intellectually and emotionally subtle and rich experience.

But I wonder if, for all that, they may not be a little bit right in one respect. That is, compared to the vastness of the universe, if our image and understanding of God has not become a bit small.  Where is the awe that we experience when we immerse ourselves in one of those images from the Hubble telescope? The problem is, that the vastness of space has so far outstripped the limitations of our mind. We simply cannot imagine anything that big. And so, we can’t imagine God that big, either. We are left with a small God. A God who is friendly and loving, yes; and those things are crucially important, especially in such a universe. But a God who has become small. How often does the thought of God so overwhelm us, that we are left with a dizzying sense of our own insignificance, how often do we experience the same awe that we do in the face of unnumbered galaxies?  We have largely forgotten an important part of our tradition: that God is not only kind, but also, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, aweful. That God is not only to be loved, but also to be feared: not with the fear of a petty tyrant, who wishes us ill (that again would be making God far too small), but with the fear we feel before a vastness that makes us insignificant.

We are not the first generation to have forgotten. The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, is speaking also to a people who have forgotten something of God’s awefulness:

    Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?

And then goes on to remind us:

    It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
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.

Now, let us remember who Isaiah is speaking to: these are the exiles in Babylon, people who have lost their lands and their nation and their freedom, and maybe their faith as well, people who have been carried away captive to a foreign land. Isaiah’s message to them is one of hope and comfort. This is the very chapter, Is 40, that begins with those wonderful Advent words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” These words about the vastness of God are intended as comfort to a bereaved people.

Well, first of all, there is a certain cold comfort in the impersonal vastness of it all. Isaiah celebrates God’s power and grandeur, a grandeur that makes us grasshoppers by comparison. But it is not the power of domination, it is not power the way we humans exercise it, power that feeds by lording it over others and making them small. It is not the power we project onto our petty gods – the gods of the Babylonians, for example, gods of empire, of violence and domination. Gods that look remarkably like the emperors and kings. God

    brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

The power that pertains to God is of a completely different dimension. It is the power of creation, the vastness of those countless galaxies in deep space. It’s not that God takes any delight in making us small, to build up his power; if we are grasshoppers, it’s just the way it is. There is a comfort in knowing that God is not hostile; that if we are insignificant, that is just in the order of things.

But Isaiah doesn’t just leave it here. Because God is not some ultimately indifferent cosmic force. Isaiah proclaims to the exiles a God who has not forgotten, a God who cares deeply about his people, a God who will come and gather the exiles and bring them home, who will tend his flock like a shepherd, who will bind up and cherish the broken-hearted. Now that’s more like it, that’s the God we know. But notice the difference. If that is all we know about God, if God is simply the always available, always caring friend, then we begin to take God for granted. If God loves us and comforts us, well, that’s just what God is supposed to do. When Isaiah takes the long view, when Isaiah reminds us that God is as vast and aweful as the universe that is God’s creation, he shakes us out of our complacency. And then we are reminded that God’s compassion and grace and mercy are not just what we should naturally expect from God, not just our due.  They too are an aweful and mind-boggling miracle: that this God, the God of the distant galaxies, should care about us – well, as the old hymn says, I scarce can take it in!

There is a wonderful old rabbinic tale about Rabbi Susya.  Rabbi Susya was the holy fool of the old Eastern European rabbis, a man known for his simple faith, his intimate friendship with God. One day, the story goes, Rabbi Susya prayed, “O God, let me know you as the angels know you, who see you face to face.” And God heard Rabbi Susya’s prayer, and he saw God as the angels see God, in all his vastness and glory. And Rabbi Susya crawled under his bed, curled up in a ball, and whimpered and trembled like a dog, until he prayed again, “O God, let me know you again as Susya knows you, not like the angels”. And God once more granted his prayer.

Well, may Susya’s prayer be our own: may we know God as Susya knew him, as an intimate friend, in whose love and compassion we can trust each day of our lives. And yet, just so we don’t start to take that for granted, may we once in a while catch just a glimpse of God as the angels see him, may we see in God the dizzying vastness of the countless galaxies, just so that we remember, with wondering awe, who it actually is who loves us.