“Have You Not Known?” / Isaiah 40:21-31 / 4 February 2018
“Have you not known? Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?
[stars, presumably] Who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, and not one is missing?” Wonder! Awe. Ever think how we’re limited to this one livable planet called Earth, and we spend the vast number of our days pretty much in the same small patch of it? One of the most important things you can know is that there’s far more that you can never know. Centuries of time roll into eons, and you’re so young. “Have you not known?” Isaiah asks. Faith doesn’t claim answers to life’s biggest questions. Faith is not a bundle of hard certainties. Faith is the ability to stand in wonder, all unafraid.
On a trip out west, my old college friend Eric and I ended up camping out at the bottom of a canyon in the plains of eastern New Mexico. This was one of our famous ghost-towning trips, where Eric and I sift through the wreckage of abandoned towns. Take a lot of pictures. Marvel at the people who lived their lives, and dreamed their dreams, and died their deaths in that inhospitable land. They were people pretty much like you and me, except that a day came when the well dried up or the mine ceased to produce, at which point they up and left. But the things they couldn’t take with them still remain: their decaying buildings, their loved-one’s graves, and sometimes even their tools and furniture. Such things are still sitting in many of these towns, just waiting for some snoop from back East to find a way to hike in and poke around in it. This time in particular, we’d come looking for an old Spanish settlement named Trementina (which sadly had been sold and posted with No Trespassing signs). But I’m from Western PA, where there’s always something to hide behind: hills, trees, buildings. I felt conspicuous out there on the broad plains. That’s why I insisted on a campsite down in the canyon, and in a spot that couldn’t be seen from the road. I was in unfamiliar territory, among evil looking yucca trees, down among red rocks that look nothing like the rocks in my native place. I felt foreign and exposed. My friend Eric thought I was paranoid. He said, “Wow, man, y’all must have lots of crime back in New England,” for to him, anything that used to be a colony is New England.
The afternoon light faded fast on the east wall of the canyon, and darkness came down like a stage curtain, to no applause. We had to collect firewood and set up camp quick before it got too dark to see. We found a spot where I felt sufficiently concealed from the gangs of roving bandits that I’d seen in Western movies, and the bloodthirsty drug cartels I’d seen on Breaking Bad. Soon enough, a beautiful fire was crackling, a fragrant fire of pinion pine and juniper, incense in the desert. The silence was unbroken; not an insect or an owl disrupted the perfect quiet of the September night. The great, craggy rock faces of the canyon walls disappeared into the seamless dark, and as they did, another striking vision took their place: the universe. There were more stars above the High Plains than I had ever seen or imagined. Great huge swaths of the sky were illuminated by thick bands of gleaming stars. The Milky Way—and how many millions of other galaxies of the universe—stood out in stunning array. The moon was nowhere to be seen, but all the night sky was awash in light. All the galactic realms of heaven stretched out in skies above, distant, cold, untouchable, unreachable, and unknowable, but shedding their prehistoric light in splendor over all the rusty-colored rocks, and junipers, and pinion pines in that far-flung canyon. It called to mind the melancholy line from Psalm 8: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” All I could do was stare, craning my neck to the skies in sheer wonder.
Have you ever seen that sight? It was so magnificent, even my friend Eric closed his mouth, which was fine with me; we had not been traveling well together, two middle-aged guys trying to recapture the adventure of our college days, old enough to be set in our ways, old enough to call our wives every four hours, old enough to really work on each other’s nerves. Without speaking, we pulled our bag-chairs out away from the ring of firelight, out into the dark sagebrush that surrounded our camp. And there we stared at the skies, stupefied by the sight. I recall hearing once that the light from the nearest star—Proxima Centauri—takes four years and three months to reach the earth. The light of more distant stars takes many thousands of years to appear in our sky. Shedding their rays above our New Mexico canyon, many of those stars were long-dead, and yet their ancient light still shone in the night. And there we sat, gaping at starlight older than the language we speak! Starlight older than civilization! Starlight older than the Scriptures that sing the glory of the heavens!
What are the chances, I asked myself, that some other aging bald fellow is not out there within the ring of light shed by one of those other stars? And what are the chances that he’s not staring back at my star, and asking himself if there’s any planet other than his own capable of supporting life? And then a sadder realization struck: These galactic armies of light are always up there, but I never see them. I go to bed too early; I don’t look for them; there’s light pollution, and cloud cover, and the noisy distractions of a busy mind. Yes, all of those things. And yet, they’re always out there, whether I see them or not. Their reality, their uncharted majesty, their unknowable mystery: it’s all there. And it will still be there long after I have passed forever from memory. “Have you not known? Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these [stars]? Who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, and not one is missing?” Truly, the essence of faith is not certainty, or dogma, or adherence to a creed, however grand. The essence of faith is a sense of wonder.
Our passage today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is best known for its closing verses about rising up on wings like eagles. But I want to call your attention instead today to the deep sense of awe and wonder that you can read in the words. Isaiah was written in three parts and over the course of many lifetimes. You can even trace the journey from polytheism to monotheism down through the chapters of the book. At the beginning, Isaiah’s constant refrain is, “Our…God’s…the…Best!” (Not unlike the refrain of some religious people today.) Our God’s bigger than yours, stronger, smarter. Our God can beat up your god. But by the time you get to our reading here in chapter forty, the book has changed its tune. Now instead of “Our God’s the best,” it’s saying, “There’s only one God for all people.” (Which makes a less fun chant.) But why the shift from “Our God’s the best” to “There’s only one God”? Well, faiths are living things, always changing and growing. This shift occurred when Isaiah and his peers got their hearts broken, saw the larger world, were taken captive, forced from their homeland, and made to live in exile in Babylon. As much as they hated their captors, they had to admit that the One they knew as “God” wasn’t entirely absent from among those strange peoples. They had to admit that they discovered the same God in Babylon as they did back home. God was somehow everywhere. God was somehow bigger than their primitive previous vision of God. Their God wasn’t the best. In some ways their God had really let them down. And from a distance, they’ve begun to see that the thing they called their God was in large part a mystery, beckoning them to stand in awe and wonder.
And that is the predicament of the unknown, is it not? When faced with the unknown, with the foreigner, with unfamiliar beliefs, with the stars themselves, we can respond to them with one of two things: fear or wonder. We can approach unknown things and persons with the openhearted curiosity that sees God as big enough to embrace us all. Or we can stick to our small enclave, embracing only the familiar, listening only to our own kind, learning only from those who teach us what we already think. Do I go through life chanting “Our God’s the best,” or do I run the risk of discovering that I’ve got things to learn…and from people I don’t like? Do I respond to life in fear or wonder?
Ironically enough, the people who seem the most faith-filled in this world are very often the most devoid of wonder. M. Scott Peck once said, “Some come to faith in order to find mystery, and others come to escape it.” Sometimes it is the most religious who are most filled with anger and fear. The wild-eyed fanatic brandishing a sword or gun in the name of his God…this is probably not a person who falls to sleep at night wondering whether manatees dream. People who picket with angry signs about whom God hates…these people will probably never look to the heavens and wonder if someone out there is looking back. They won’t wonder because they already know. They have no room for uncertainty, and their god is all the smaller for it. Their hearts and their daily lives are all the smaller, too. As are their intellects. And it’s sad, for if we’ve never gone down on our knees before something that causes us to marvel, then how will we ever stand on our feet for something that causes us to care? Standing in awe of the world’s mystery teaches us humility, compassion, and peace.
There exist in my home three little gadgets that are plugged into an electric socket in three different rooms. These small devices just sit there waiting to be called upon at any time. All they want is to hear the magic word—Google—and they’ll snap into action. “Hey Google, how many people live in Moscow?” “According to such and such a website, Moscow has a population of 12 million.” I worked at the public library in the mid-90s, and people used to pick up the telephone and call us with such questions, then hold the line while we looked up the answers in reference books. “Hey Google, tell me about the weather tomorrow in Cleveland.” “Tomorrow in Cleveland there will be frequent snow shower and a high of 21 degrees.” “Okay, Google, tell me about Twelfth Night celebrations in colonial America.” And this little gadget will give me an answer. I can ask it to play sad piano music for me, and it’s done. I can ask it to set an alarm for 3:57am, and it will waken me precisely at 3:57am. It’s like having a smart little know-it-all in every room. Not only does this mechanical little gadget have no sense of wonder, or humor, or uncertainty, but it helps me to lose my sense of those things, too (as do most of our luxuries). It subtly suggests to me that everything is within my reach, that all answers are available, that there’s nothing science and technology cannot do. But do you know what they can’t do? They can’t make me kinder; wonder can. They can’t make me more patient; wonder can. They can’t give me peace of mind, which, ironically, wonder can…for as the poet says, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the dark.”
And so what? Two things: First, know that if faith had all the answers, then it would be certainty, which is something less than faith. And second, go out of your way to experience wonder. Give yourself time and occasion to experience things you do not comprehend. It’ll be immensely good for you. “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? Who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, and not one is missing?” The essence of faith is not certainty, but wonder. Amen.