Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is our place in the cosmos? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

There are times in life when we stop to ask ourselves, “What is my place?” “What is the purpose of my life?” We may ask that question as we’re about to graduate from high school, or while facing a big birthday, or gazing into the night sky, as Lisa and I did this summer together at a mountain retreat center…the same place I used to gaze with awe into the starry sky as a teenager and pray.  Psalm 8 expresses the timeless question of every human heart: “What is my place in the cosmos?” It’s a question, as we will see, that can only be answered by the majesty of God, and the magnificent purpose for which God made us.

(i) Let’s begin at the very center of Psalm 8 where King David gives voice to "The mystery of you and me and the universe" (3-4) “When I look at the 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, mortals that you care for them” (3-4)?  
In his book, Prayer: Does it Make a Difference? Philip Yancey quips: 

"If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup.... (An astrophysicist I know at a major university assures me he's right.) Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For 35 years now they have been speeding away from Earth, now soon to pass the boundaries of our solar system after traveling 11.1 billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), it typically takes 16 hours to arrive! Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun - the size of a coffee cup sitting somewhere near the edge of N. America—is only one among several hundred billion other solar systems in the Milky Way. And, the Milky Way is only one of perhaps 400 billion other such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take more than 16 hours…it would take 15 billion years."
David must confess that he feels very small… “What is a human being in all of this?” Some have answered that question like Carl Sagan: “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” That is certainly one possible response…but is there another? Are there reasons and is there revelation that could point us to a different answer? And to that, David would offer a resounding, YES!” There is a God who is mindful of us, who cares for us, and who has a special place for us in this awe-inspiring universe.

(ii) David invites us first to consider "The majesty and humility of God" (1-2)  How is it that we can come to know God with confidence? What is this God like, and how can we know his will for our lives? David begins, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

David does not begin by giving us logical proofs for the existence of God. Instead, he introduces us to the God who has revealed himself to humankind by name, personally and historically. In Hebrew the name signifies character and essence. God is “the LORD” (The name that means something like “I am…the One who will be there for you as I am”) This LORD, is truly our adonai, our “sovereign” or “governor.” This is the One who has been in charge all along, despite the long succession of earthly emperors, kings, czars, premiers, governors, prime ministers and presidents. This November, our Lord’s name will not be on the ballot…and yet it is the Holy One who is truly in charge.

So God has made himself known to us personally…in salvation history but he has also revealed himself cosmically through the things that have been made. For David said, “You have set your glory above the heavens.” And Paul writes in Rom. 1:20 that “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature…have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” In what ways does the universe point us to God’s existence. Here are just four ways…

1. We live in a dependent universe. From our own lives, to the planet, sun, moon and stars…we learn in our science classrooms that everything is dependent or contingent upon something else for its existence. Indeed all the matter and energy of the universe was, if scientists are correct, concentrated in a space no bigger than the period made by a pencil at the moment of creation. This naturally raises the question: upon what or who does this universe, and all possible universes, depend?

2. We live in a universe that is amazingly fine-tuned for life. Our universe had to have just the right molecules, and just the right number of atoms, nucleons, electrons and protons for life to exist. Let’s take the ratio of electrons to the number of protons in our universe. They must be equivalent in number to an accuracy of one part in 1037 or better. If our universe did not have such a fine tuned ratio, galaxies, stars, and planets would never have formed. Here’s an analogy from astrophysicist Hugh Ross: "Cover the entire North American continent with dimes all the way up to the moon, a height of 239,000 miles. Next, pile dimes from here to the moon on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the billion piles of dimes. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037 -- and this is only one of the parameters that is so delicately balanced to allow life to form" (Hugh Ross, The Creator & the Cosmos).  Michael Turner, the widely quoted astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, describes the fine-tuning of the cosmos this way: "The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bulls eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side!" 

3. You and I live in an indescribably beautiful universe… at every level of magnification, from the DNA molecule to the gigantic nebula and star clusters, to the cry of “babes and infants” – we feel bathed in the exquisite beauty of the universe. At the same time, the destructive power of the universe humbles us, and – like its extreme beauty -- causes us to seek answers which the universe cannot supply. World-renowned geneticist Francis Collins was led to Christ through the questions of a suffering patient that he couldn’t answer…then by the brilliance of Christian writer C.S. Lewis…but the final turning point came as he was hiking through the Cascades: “the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.” 

4. Finally, as amazing as our universe is, we live in an unsatisfying universe. On Monday, Felix Baumgartner will attempt to jump from a high altitude balloon 120k miles up. Jumping from a capsule in his special pressurized space suit at 5:00am he will travel 700 miles per hour, becoming the first free-falling human to break the sound barrier. Now, he’s already jumped an altitude of 71k and 96k. How come he isn’t satisfied? Why risk his life? It seems that nothing can satisfy his thirst to do more and experience more. Plato once said we are like “leaky jars.”  It’s as though you and I were containers into which things are always being poured but which never get filled! The fact that there is nothing in this universe that can satisfy those desires suggests that we were made for another world, that we have desires for meaning and purpose that only a relationship with God can satisfy.

And so, without the knowledge of the Creator, our sense of purpose and meaning is truly lost. In fact we ourselves are “lost” as Carl Sagan once said, “lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” But where reason falls short, God’s revelation sets us free; for the Holy One made the biggest free-fall in the history of time and space when he descended from heaven to earth in Christ that he might raise us up again with Him to the magnificence for which we were created.

(iii) "The recovery of our magnificent purpose" (5-9)  As we look into the night sky we see something extraordinary…we see a vast something that was once an infinitely small nothing. We see order and beauty where there was once…chaos. This is a clue to our magnificent purpose. For David says that “you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor. You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under [our] feet….” 
It is a sign of our brokenness as human beings that some of us act like we are “a little higher than God” while others of us think we are “a little lower than the beasts of the field”! Neither is the truth…for Scripture says we are “a little lower than God” – that is, God has given us the divine qualities of purposefulness, creativity, intelligence, and the capacity to rule and especially to love sacrificially. Just as God has brought order and beauty out of chaos, so we are to have “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands” (6), carrying out this responsibility with him as co-agents (Genesis 1.28; 2.15). This was God’s plan, but as we mistrusted God and distanced ourselves from him, our rule was corrupted. Now the reason God sent his Son to this world was to restore us to our royal position as sons and daughters of the King, “crowned with glory and honor.” He came to show us and to empower us to have dominion, to bring order where there is chaos, beauty where there is ugliness, life where there is only death. Did you know that each of you has been called in this life to special areas of authority and dominion? 

The psalmist says that our dominion was to extend over “all things.” Some of you were brought into this world to rise up and have dominion over the epidemic of fragmented family life…still others over the destructive cycle of child abuse. Others of you are called to have dominion over dishonesty and a lack of integrity in business. Still others are called to have dominion over diseases like cancer, or poverty or injustice… others over the destruction and degradation of the natural world. And all of us are called to be vessels through which Christ is extending his rule and reign over the human spirit, bringing his grace, and peace and the gift of eternal life. 

We began with a question, “What is our place in the cosmos?” We’ve seen that it is a question that can only be answered by the majesty of God and the magnificent purpose for which we were created. Science and unaided human reason cannot answer this question. It is a knowledge that comes from outside ourselves… from the One who made us and is calling us to follow him…the voice we hear in the brilliant light of a billion stars, or the sound of a thundering waterfall, or the miracle of a tiny baby…and the voice of the crucified and risen Christ who gave his life for us and says, “Come, follow me!”  He invites you to do today what Francis Collins did, as he was hiking through the Cascades… to kneel down in the grass with the sunrise and surrender your heart, soul, mind and strength to Him. Knowing that “God so loved this seemingly insignificant, lost, and forgotten world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  

Eternal God, how full of glory and majesty you are.  For it was You who formed the inconceivable vastness of our universe, made possible the splendor of an ocean sunset, the magnificence of a thundering waterfall, the awesome complexity of our own bodies, so finely tuned, and the wondrous beauty of a child.  In all these ways and more, we recognize Your infinite brilliance and generosity, and the immeasurable gift of our lives.  Yet even more wonderful, is the knowledge that You are not remote or unfeeling, but drew near to us in Christ, revealing your mind and heart in flesh and blood. You emptied yourself of glory in order to show us the way to abundant and eternal life, defeating the power of sin, death, and hell on the cross, and rising from death on the Third Day.  From this day forth, may we know our place in the longer insignificant, lost, or forgotten, but welcomed into the bright presence of the Creator, and now members of your forever family...through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

For further reading:
Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a PostModern World
Francis Collins, The Language of God
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in the Age of Science
Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos

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