This past week my alma mater, The University of Chicago, announced the astounding news that it has recovered and analyzed stardust from a meteorite that crash landed in Australia fifty years ago.[i] The stardust has a history worthy of a Hollywood epic. Five billion years ago—Five billion! That’s older than our own sun—a star exploded and cast forth the dust into the far reaches of a universe still being born. It was an active time in the cosmos, scientists believe, when stars came to be, and shuddered, and died with much greater frequency than they do today. The whole universe was bursting like the night sky on the Fourth of July, and Australian stardust chronicles the story even now.
The story amazed me. It underscores the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, in age, in size, and, quite possibly, in meaning. The story also reminded me of Eucharistic Prayer C, which we say at 9 a.m. at Christ Church during the season of Epiphany. “At your command,” Eucharistic Prayer C says, “all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses…” And that sentence ends, “…and this fragile earth, our island home.”
You see, Prayer C is designed to accentuate our smallness in the grand cosmic sweep, the near-nothingness that we are from a God’s-eye perspective. Prayer C reminds us of our fragility and our contingency in a universe of black holes, quasars, and stardust older than the sun. It calls into question all of our little human goals and purposes and whimsically smiles from a billion years ago at our pretensions to importance.
Prayer C does all of these things, but it in its next breath it adds, almost as if in confused wonder, “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.” The prayer takes this turn as if to quote the scripture and ask of God, “How have I found such favor in your eyes that you take notice of me?”[ii] The God in whose hands the mighty stars are playthings turns God’s attention to the insignificant third rock from a tiny sun, a split second ago in cosmic time, and creates us, who are so small and yet have within each one of us a conscious universe all its own.
In today’s Gospel passage this mind-bending contrast is made explicit in the very person of Jesus. The first disciples Jesus calls say of Jesus, “We have found the Messiah.” To us, two thousand years later, these words may have little impact, but to the fishermen of first century Galilee they were as big and astounding as the news of billion-year-old stardust found in Australia. The term “messiah” connoted the appearance of God’s anointed, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a thousand years. It meant the return of King David, who embodied all the hopes of Israel. And this messiah was named Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, which we may have forgotten, but Andrew and Peter had not, was the one in Israel’s history who came after Moses; the new Moses; the one who, like Moses, would redeem God’s people. In other words, Andrew the fisherman declares today that Jesus the Messiah is the one whose impact will be like the cosmic fireworks that marked the dawn of time. This is the biggest news, of the greatest power. Jesus the Messiah will change everything.[iii]
But twice in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist, who is the very first to recognize Jesus for who he is, does not call Jesus messiah or Moses. John calls Jesus “the lamb of God,” and lambs have no power. They are born and exist only to be sacrificed on the altar. They are the definition of insignificance. And so, we encounter the contrast in Jesus himself. How can he be both the Moses-Messiah and the lamb, so big and so small, so powerful and so powerless? What sense does that make? We’ll come back to that.
I’m fascinated by cosmology, by the stories quasars and stardust can tell us. But I’m even more fascinated by the quantum world, that realm so tiny that atoms are as big as solar systems. Renowned Cambridge theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest, argues that God actively works not through the biggest and grandest things but through the smallest. God works, Polkinghorne believes, in the sub-atomic, quantum, interstitial spaces where randomness and freedom are the only law. There, in the tiny, most insignificant places, God nudges, and reality moves.[iv]
That brings us back to the Gospel. Jesus is the Messiah, the new Moses who will redeem all people, but the way his power works will frustrate his disciples, his enemies, and us. “Show us your power,” we all say, “light up the sky like a starburst.” But Jesus exercises his power as the lamb. Like God, Jesus works in and through the smallest, interstitial spaces. Again and again in his ministry, Jesus speaks a word of grace to the one in need. He embraces the one who is untouchable. He pauses for the one the world passes by. Today, to the one seeking meaning, he says simply, “Come and see.” And when it becomes necessary to do so, Jesus sacrifices himself on the altar of the world’s violence, as a testament to God’s love that will not participate in that violence. None of these things looks to us like power. They are each so very small. And yet, Jesus nudges, and the world moves. He transformed—he transforms—the world.
What does all of this mean for us? It means, first of all, that we should—we must—acknowledge our own smallness in the face of reality. We have for so long failed to do so, and in our willful insistence that we are the biggest, most important thing around we have damaged relationships, and the earth, and ourselves almost beyond repair. We have engaged in violent thoughts, and words, and sometimes actions all in the subconscious effort to substantiate the claim of our own centrality and importance. As we pray to God in Eucharistic Prayer C, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.” The world can’t take anymore. It is time to listen to the Prayer Book about our fragility and our true place in the cosmic scheme of things.
But it is equally important to hear what the Prayer Book and Jesus also say about our role and our purpose. Small as we are, God takes notice of us, and that is a profound thing. God grants us with memory, reason, and skill, but not so that we can try to exercise the gravitational pull of a sun. God grants us these powers so that we exercise them like the lamb, in kindness, in care, and in love, especially for those who, like those touched by Jesus, are in the greatest need.
In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, the great and powerful of Middle Earth vie over who will wield the One Ring of power. Wizards, elves, and warriors each believe that their own importance and power make them the best suited. But ultimately, only Frodo the Hobbit, who is the smallest and least powerful of all, the one others barely notice, can safely carry the ring. Frodo can do so because he alone understands his place in the world and the role he is called to play. Only Frodo does not want the ring, and thus his powerlessness becomes power, and goodness prevails.
As lambs who follow the Lamb, we can nudge in the interstitial space, and the world will move. That is how God works, and that’s how God can work through us. If we all nudge together, we might just tilt the world on its very axis and transform it by God’s grace. Come and see!
[ii] Ruth 2:10
[iii] I’m grateful to the Rev. Winne Varghese on this point, for a sermon she preached at Trinity Church-Wall Street on August 4, 2019: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/sunday-9am-sermon-rev-winnie-varghese-0