by Daniel Harrell
If you’re one to keep track of these annual Celebration Sundays at Colonial Church, you’ve already realized that I’m starting this fall with the same Scripture passage I led off with last year. On the one hand you might say there’s no better way to start than “in the beginning.” On the other hand, it’s not like this is Christmas. Shouldn’t the preacher be able to come up with some new material? Rest assured this morning is not a total recycle. Last year I surveyed the entire Bible with a water theme. From start to finish, water flows across the pages of Scripture. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” to be sure, but already present, it seems, was deep, dark water over which swept a wind from God. This same wind, or spirit as the Hebrew word allows, later swept water into a devastating judicial flood, into a divided sea for exodus, into a miraculous fountain of relief in the desert, into a mythical river flowing out of the Temple, some serious baptismal power, wedding wine, a watery path on which Jesus walked, and finally in Revelation, into a stream of mercy gushing from heaven itself.
I want to embark on a similar survey this morning, only instead of riding a wave of water, I want to travel a beam of light. Like water, light shows up in the beginning too and shines on just about every page of the Bible, increasing in intensity to the point that the apostle John declares, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Light, like God, is different from anything else you experience in life. You can’t touch it, walk on it, ride it to work, or feel it hit you, for the most part. But you rely on it for everything. And yet because light is so unique, isolating its properties in order to understand it has been practically impossible. Little wonder that Scripture draws the comparison of light to the Almighty himself.
Another reason I want to walk us in the light is to highlight a very special event next month. Over the weekend of October 21, we will welcome Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer, author, and Christian who currently serves as the Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. She’ll present her findings and their implications for our faith in a series of talks (with pictures), sponsored by our Guelich Lecture fund.
The universe is truly spectacular. While kayaking with a good friend on Lake Superior this summer, camped out on Manitou Island during a crystal clear night, the heavens enveloped our campsite with its vast array of starry light. As only you can experience when you are far from human populations, we witnessed the vivid setting of a beet red moon, and then as if on cue the marvelous splendor of the northern lights, compelling me to instinctively echo the Psalmist of old, “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, mere mortals that you care for them?”
Last week I read how the spacecraft, Voyager 1, is almost at the edge of our solar system. Remember Voyager? Launched back in 1977 and loaded with 68 kilobytes of computer memory—100,000 times less powerful than an iPod Nano—Voyager’s original assignment was a tour of Jupiter and Saturn. It sent back some stellar postcards. These days, however, Voyager only beams back minimal data about magnetic fields and solar wind; data that takes about 17 hours to get back to earth. But that’s not so bad considering that Voyager 1 is almost 11 billion miles away. One of these days, or years, it will cross our solar system boundary into interstellar space. It will still be in our galaxy, of course. Our galaxy has billions of solar systems in it. Every galaxy has billions of solar systems. And there are billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions.
The Psalmist asks a good question. Who are we that God is mindful of us? Why would he care for us?” And yet we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” It’s an absurd notion until you realize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did the One who created the heavens pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, he went on to pick the most obscure bunch of ancient people with whom to have a relationship, a people to whom he eventually showed up in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time in history, only to end up rejected, unjustly convicted and strung up on barbaric instrument of execution. The Bible audaciously calls this “good news,” the demonstration of God’s love for the world, a love that the apostle Paul describes as “pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”
Paul goes on to employ the language of “new creation” to talk about all of this, hearkening back to the beginning. “Let there be light.” These are the very first words God utters in Scripture. And as with everything God says, it comes to pass. In this case what comes to pass is the emergence of sun, moon and stars, though these don’t appear until after the light of day one. Christianity’s critics scoff at this, bemused that God Almighty can’t get his days straight. He blooms vegetation on day three of Creation before the sun ever shines on day four. As I mentioned last year, I am one of those who considers the imagery and language of Genesis 1 to be nonscientific; they offer a different kind of description of the universe in accordance with the vocabulary and concerns pertinent to ancient Near Eastern cultures. Genesis 1 stress creation’s authorship and purpose and not its physics. For light to shine without the sun affirms light as the Lord’s calling card, the essence of his presence. As Revelation will announce regarding new creation at the end, there will be “no need of sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God is its light.”
Now to say that “God is light” is not to say that “light is God.” Light, unlike God, exists as the product atomic transitions, accelerated charged particles and matter-antimatter annihilation. And yet to comprehend light, like God, means you have to leave room for mystery. Is light a wave or a particle? Well, both. Comprehending light’s behavior humbles us just as the cosmos does. Minuscule particle light and massive starlight even resemble each other.
James Clerk Maxwell, a nineteenth-century British physicist and Christian, was among the most prominent scientists of his day. He brilliantly formulated a simple set of four mathematical equations that encompassed the physical laws governing electric and magnetic fields. He also realized that these equations indicated the existence of waves made up of these fields. Out of the equations came a value for the speed of these waves, based on numbers that could be measured from electric circuits. Amazingly, this value matched the speed of light that had been measured just five years prior. He found light to be no more and no less than a pattern of electric and magnetic fields traveling through space.
Swarthmore College physicist, Catherine Crouch writes of her first encounter with Maxwell’s discovery: “The exquisite simplicity of the universe was never so evident as at that moment. Simple, and yet incredibly fertile — the travel of light through space and matter, governed by its few principles, nonetheless manifests itself in a stunning variety of ways. Light from the sun brings us the warmth and energy needed to sustain life on our planet; we perceive the world around us primarily through images formed by our eyes from the light that reaches us; and we use what we’ve learned about light, both through recent science and through the experimentation of untold generations, to improve our vision, to heal, to communicate, to probe the structure of the molecules and organisms that make up the world around us — and to make beautiful things. And the world around us is filled with beauty that comes from light refracting through drops of water and scattering from grains of dust.”
God “saw the light” and called it “good,” though you think he might have been a little more enthusiastic. Wouldn’t a word like “fantastic” or “astonishing” have been more fitting? Not really. In Hebrew, to call something “good” is to say it looks like God. When a man ran up to Jesus in Mark’s gospel and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ first response was to ask back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Granted, Mark uses this to tell us something about Jesus himself. Like visible light, Jesus is the visible manifestation of God. And as with God the Father, the apostle Paul celebrates Jesus as having immortality and dwelling in “unapproachable light,” light being the prominent Biblical metaphor for pure goodness. To him along belongs “honor and eternal dominion.”
Among the first things you probably learned in physics was how light travels 186,000 miles per second. Nothing can go faster. As an object approaches light speed, it gets more and more massive and thus requires more and more energy to speed it up. Consequently, nothing but light ever reaches light speed because its mass and its energy would have to be infinite—which I know must come as a disappointment to all Star Trek fans. The only thing that moves at light speed is light itself. To go faster than light is to be unapproachable light. It is to inhabit infinity. Yours would be an eternal dominion. Which when you pause and think about it, can leave you a little speechless.
This is why at in the beginning, God does all the talking. And right after making light the eternal Lord decides to make time: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Next comes space, which God names “the sky.” In classical physics, tracing back to Euclid, space was understood as three-dimensions. Time occupied a fourth and separate dimension. But then came Einstein came and the discovery that space and time comprised a single continuum, a unified uni-verse, simple and elegant, just what you’d expect from the Maker of heaven and earth.
And yet notably in Genesis, God creates not by unifying, but by separating. He separates day from night, sea from sky, water from land and woman from man. We tend to see separation as destructive, but God separates light from darkness and calls it good. Why not just eliminate darkness instead? Wouldn’t that be better? Do that and you’d also eliminate pesky conundrums like “How a good God can let evil exist.” In Genesis, God’s light first shines amidst a darkness already present. For ancient readers, deep water was feared as that primordial abode of terror and evil. Genesis taps into this mythic fear, portraying a deep shrouded in darkness, formless and void—a murky Hebrew idea best understood as “total chaos.” Chaotic darkness is the stage on which God acts, and not just here but over and over throughout Scripture and life, and never more dramatically than with the resurrection light that dispels the darkness of the cross. Somehow darkness proves necessary in order for the light of goodness to make any sense. To comprehend light means leaving room for mystery.
Smart people tell us that the universe is about 14 billion years old and around 46 billion light years across and getting bigger at an ever increasing rate. How many miles is 46 billion light years across? Light travels about 5.87 TRILLION miles a year. Punch that into your calculator and multiply by 46 billion and you’ll get this: 2.70231100992E23. The E means that the numbers prior are to be multiplied by 10 to the 23rd power. Theologian Peter Enns (whose blog inspired this sermon), says that this number is what God laughing at us looks like. Of course maybe you’re thinking, how can a 14 billion year old universe be 46 billion light years wide? Do the math and either the universe is 14 billion light years wide or it’s 46 billion years old. Light can’t move faster than light. But this is not simple math. The width of the universe is due to the expansion of its objects away from each other. Relatively speaking, some of this expansion occurs faster than light. How is this possible? Let’s say you drive a car that tops out at 100mph. Drive away from another car also doing 100mph in the opposite direction then, relatively speaking, your car is now topping out at 200mph.
But that’s only part of it. Not only are galactic bodies speeding away from each other faster than light, but the “empty” space in between them is expanding too. As a younger Mister Scott remarked in the “Star Trek” reboot we watched on TV last night: “It never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.” Oh, and should also know that 46 billion light years wide is only the size of the observable universe. This is all we can see due to its age and the time it takes light to reach our instruments. The entire universe is estimated to be 10 to the 23 power bigger.
Though let’s not pretend I have any idea what I’m talking about. Astronomy and optical physics are way above my pay grade. Still, even for physicists, to comprehend light means leaving room for mystery. Light is as unfathomable as the good Lord himself. What kind of a God is this, who is capable of the sorts of things the universe displays? How can we ever imagine to know him, to speak for him, or to imagine his thoughts or his ways as our own? Who do we think we are? And yet I stand before you this morning and boldly assert that this same God who dwells in an unapproachable light that renders my calculator incomprehensible, nevertheless willingly and lovingly (and quite literally) makes time to approach me and you, to know me and you, and to love me and you so much as to suffer and die for me and for you. Which when you pause and think about it, can leave you a little speechless.