Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
February 8, 2015
Isaiah 40:21–31 • Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? God inhabits the earth’s horizon— its inhabitants are like locusts— stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one. Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.
We live in a remarkable age.
I can hold in my pocket a device that is capable of receiving pings from several satellites in geostationary orbit and calculating, based on the minute differences between the times that the signals arrive (differences in the thousandths of a second), triangulating my location on the planet to within a few feet. That same device can also send a message to someone on the other side of the globe in fractions of a second. While that person and I are conversing, I can research a piece of music that I once heard, find the manuscript score scanned from a library in Europe, download it and send it to that same person on the other side of the globe.
Our newscasts are filled with images that are being transmitted live from the other side of the planet. Meetings are convened in online meeting “spaces” with participants from different continents, who are able to share the same documents with each other in real-time as they meet, separated by thousands of miles.
It once took months to cross the Atlantic on a perilous sea voyage that was as likely to kill you as it was to deliver you safely on the other shore. And now, within mere hours a person can breakfast in London and be in New York in time for lunch. If you were so inclined and had the money, you could fly to Europe for the weekend.
Once, the United States could reasonably practice its preferred foreign policy of isolationism, but that is no longer practicable. And even if it were the case that we were always interventionist but just preferred to have the rest of the world leave us alone, that is no longer a reasonable expectation. We’re all very much closer to each other than we used to be. We’re much more in daily contact with people we might never have even heard of a few decades ago.
It is an oft-repeated cliché that the world is getting smaller. And given the technological leaps we’re experiencing, it’s easy to understand the sensation that the world is getting ever smaller.
II. THE TEXT
The world used to be a lot smaller.
I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean that literally: the world used to be smaller physically. At least we thought it was.
We used to think that the world was a flat disk, suspended in a watery abyss and covered by a dome of sky. On the interior of the dome hung the sun, moon, and stars. If one traveled far enough, across the sea that surrounded the land, one would reach the mountains that serve
d as the foundations of the firmament, holding the dome to the earth.
The world of the ancient Israelites was a lot smaller than the world we’re used to. And yet, to the ancients, it was pretty vast. Even if the world were only a few thousand miles across from one literal “end of the earth” to the other, that’s far beyond any ordinary person’s ability to travel in an ordinary lifetime. To an ancient nomadic, agrarian society, even this small world we have come to know through our ever-broadening technology must have seemed immensely vast and wondrous.
And it was out of a recognition of that vastness and wondrousness that the prophet pens these words, as a reminder to the people to contemplate the awesomeness of God.
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? God inhabits the earth’s horizon…. So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one. Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. … Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.
The prophet, speaking to a people languishing in exile, reminds them of the greatness of their God, of whom there is no like:
So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the Holy One.
And then by way of illustrating the point:
Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name… The Lord is the everlasting god, the creator of the ends of the earth.
“Look up at the sky and consider…” words designed to remind the individual of the awesomeness of God as seen in contemplating the wonder of the Creation. Even in a world where the sky was believed literally to be a dome above them (and in theory, reachable by an ancient Babylonian tower), there was still plenty of wonder that could inspire deep and profound reflection about the God who was behind it all.
The world was a vast place even when it was a lot smaller.
III. THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE; THE SHRINKING GOD
Since that time, the world has gotten bigger. The Greeks believed that the world was round, a belief that seems to have taken hold by the early Patristic period of the church (though there are some notable exceptions ). One Greek astronomer, Eratosthenes, even managed to come up with a reasonably good calculation of the circumference of the earth by using geometry and his knowledge of the angles of the sun in different cities. (It’s 250,000 stadia, if you’re wondering.)
It was still generally assumed that this round earth was suspended in space and surrounded by concentric heavenly spheres in which the sun, moon, stars, and planets moved. That view of the universe would get a little larger when Copernicus and Galileo would posit and then demonstrate that it was the earth that went around the sun and not the other way around. Suddenly now, the universe was on the scale of a solar system, with a sun in the center and the planets orbiting it at vast distances, with a sphere of stars further off.
And then beginning in the 17th century with Giordano Bruno and continuing with scientists like Galileo, Kepler, Huygens, Newton, and into the 19th Century with Bessel came the supposition, then the theory, then the proof that the sun itself was a star. And if the sun was a star, then the stars were suns, and suns at very, very great distances. The universe was suddenly immensely bigger.
With 19th Century geology, archaeology, and evolutionary biology, the earth became a lot older. And with 20th Century astronomy and astrophysics, the universe began to take on staggering proportions both in terms of age and size. Hubble’s examination of the Doppler shift of light demonstrated that the universe was expanding, with everything moving away from everything else, like the surface of an inflating balloon. And the discovery of a universe so vast, that even in the nearly 14 billion years of its existence, light has yet to cross from one side to the other.
Our little corner of it may have gotten smaller as a result of mass communication and electronic interconnectedness, but the neighborhood in which we live has gotten much, much bigger.
The irony in all of this, I suppose, is that as the universe has gotten bigger, the room for God in it has gotten smaller.
Perhaps that’s the result of our presumptions. We assume that the prophet is looking to the sky, pointing at the stars and asking us to have awe because God created the stars. And perhaps that appeal seems less meaningful to us now.
The story is told of the French astronomer who presented his findings before the Emperor Napoleon, who asked him, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace, famously replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”)
Indeed as our science has revealed to us the truths about gravity holding the planets in their orbits, the stellar furnaces that create the elements of life, the stellar nebulae that are the result of dying stars and the seed ground for the elements that will one day collapse into new ones, our answers to the prophet’s question are different. The question, “Who made these?” seems less relevant when we are presented with options of natural, scientific processes.
This is the peril, of course, of what is called a “God of the gaps” theology. That is, whenever we don’t understand something, we say, “God did it.” At first it was the sun, moon, and stars, then it was earthquakes, lightning, and thunder, then human creation, then it was the missing link, then it was the eyeball, then it was … Whatever it was we didn’t understand, we assigned to God. And as our understanding grew, and our universe expanded, and our conception of God shrank. To be sure, there are still people who blame earthquakes on God, but they are usually marginal voices whose main aim is in raising cash.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think that the prophet is inviting us into a “God of the gaps” theology. I think that the prophet is, to the best of his ability and understanding in his time and place, inviting us to do the exact opposite.
IV. AN EPIPHANY OF GOD
I have a close friend who is an exceptionally talented scientist. Her area of expertise is not on the macro scale of planets, stars, and galaxies, but on the micro scale of the structure of the human brain, studying the blood vessels that provide the brain with its life-giving oxygen, exploring the effects of light on the retinal structures on scales so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope.
She tells me that as she examines the microcirculation of the brain and discovers the factors that influence the brain’s blood vessels, she cannot help but see the hand of the divine in it all. She is as much a trained believer in evolutionary biology as any other scientist, but for her, God is not a “God of the gaps.”
As she contemplates this one little aspect of the complexity of the brain, she is able to marvel at the overall wonder that is the human brain. And beyond that at the nature of science itself, the cumulative enterprise of human knowledge that is the result of those same brains, that human intelligence and creativity applied in astonishing ways.
In ways that allow scientists to measure the light spectrum from a distant star and to tell us what elements make up that star. That allow physicists to create equations that predict the existence of subatomic particles, and other scientists who come up with ways to find them, constructing massive machines and fantastic technologies that will smash particles into one another yielding the very particles they seek for fractions of a fraction of a second before they decay into nothingness.
It is not any one aspect of the universe that causes us to feel this sense of awe, it is the whole thing. The entire elaborate system of stars, planets, galaxies, organisms, biospheres, human beings, human brains, our collective process of discovery and exploration—all of it. All of it is cause for wonder. And all of it is an opportunity for encounter with the divine.
The ancient pagans believed that their gods were in the thunder and the lightning and the trees. When learning revealed a different reality, those traditions usually faded. The Abrahamic faiths never believed that God was like that, we always believed that God was transcendent: God was the Creator of all things. Apart and removed.
But in the Orthodox Christian tradition, alongside that affirmation of the otherness of God came the affirmation of the world as an “epiphany” of God. While the world and God were not the same as the pagan traditions claimed, the world nevertheless revealed something to us about God.
This is an idea echoed by some of the great thinkers throughout the ages: Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton. The Islamic philosopher Ibn-Rushd argued that the world was a work of art and that science was the means through which the faithful engaged in “the study of existing beings and the reflection on them as indication of the Artisan (or Creator).” We learn about God by learning about what God has made. Science, then, becomes not a way to undo the role of God in the creation; it is a way of delving even deeper into the divine mystery that is the Creation.
The universe we inhabit has become a lot larger than then one the ancients knew. Our understanding of the world has grown to unbelievable heights compared to what generations past understood. But that understanding does not mean that our sense of wonder and the divine is diminished. No, in many ways, the world has only become more wondrous.
I do not need to think of the sky as a dome over us in which the stars are little lamps, affixed to the dome to light the way and help us determine direction, to be able to see the hand of the divine in its being. I do not need to think of the sun as revolving around the earth as a lamp to light the day, to be able to see in its light and heat an epiphany of the creator. I do not need to imagine the world is only 6,000 years old and that my species was created as we are now in that time frame to understand humanity as nevertheless made in the image of God. Instead, I can see all of these things—our astrophysics, our geology, our biology, our evolution—as causes for wonder.
And should I ever need to regain a source of wonder, I only need be reminded of the prophet’s words: “Look up at the sky ….”
 See, e.g., The book of Revelation in the New Testament and its mention of the “sky rolling back like a scroll”.