One of my biggest pleasures of summer is walking outside on our farm in Fluvanna County right at dusk, when the sunset is fiery red and the stars come out on a moonless night. A book I often read has a line I love, “When enchanted by a starlit night, we found ourselves thinking, ‘Who then made all this.’” In case you haven’t been keeping up with the space program, the most complex scientific expedition every attempted which is being called a civilization-scale mission to understand our universe, will blast off in 983 days. The James Webb Space Telescope, which is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope, will be launched by NASA on March 30, 2021. The three-stories-high telescope will orbit the sun one million miles away from earth in order to intercept infrared and ultraviolet waves, while blocking the light from the earth, sun and moon. It is a time machine of sorts, that will be able to detect the ancient light of the universe when the first galaxies were born after the Big Bang, the first generation of planets, and our stars being born. We will be able to capture the dawn of the cosmos and witness galaxies as they are assembling. The James Webb Telescope is hoping to answer the big questions that are at the heart of our existence on earth. Where did we come from? Why are we here? How did the universe start? Are we alone?
Knowing the origins of the universe will not answer the question of love. Through space travel, we may be able to find out the what and how of the universe but God is the who and why. Love is what brought our universe into being and us with it.
In the book of Revelations, Jesus reveals that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, meaning that God exists from the beginning to the end of time. The beginning of the universe was the Big Bang of love. We would not exist without love, nor can we exist without love. It is a power that cannot yet be seen by our most powerful telescopes, but can be felt by the human heart and soul. Love is a wavelength unseen by the human eye but has birthed millions of galaxies as well as hope and compassion for ourselves and others.
How does the love of God pass through us to each other and into the world? There is an interesting warp and woof to Jesus’ ministry with the hordes of people who are usually following him and the disciples. We see it here in the gospel of Mark, where the disciples have been sent out 2×2 to cast out demons and anoint the sick. When they return, Jesus invites them to “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest for a while.” In the bible, a deserted place is a place where God cares for us—think the Israelites wandering in the desert, Abraham in the desert. It is a place of compassion and identifies the source of compassion—God. The Alpha and Omega of love. The birthplace of compassion is God’s heart which is Christ.
Something that is important about this text is what is not included- the lectionary skips 19 verses in the gospel of Mark. These verses are about the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus praying by himself on the mountain. In the expanded version of the scriptures, we see Jesus go into the desert, or a mountain or in a boat to be alone with God before he returns with compassion to the people. In this text, he is inviting the disciples and us into the same rhythm, to go to the source of love of compassion so that we can love our neighbor and ourselves. Jesus is telling the disciples that they are not the generators of the love and power that they have been spreading. The great commandment starts with love God with all your heart, mind and soul because that love is what will fill you with love for your neighbor and yourself. Henri Nouwen pondered that one of the greatest mysteries of life is how the unconditional love of God can make it through the filter of our conditional love to our neighbor. Our conditional love is most glaring in how we treat ourselves.
Growing up Christian, I gleaned the message that treating myself well would be selfish. I believed that making God proud of me meant working until I was exhausted, never saying no to the demands of others, and treating myself like a drill sergeant would if I was at Basic training. This did not serve me or Jesus Christ well. This was not the freedom of a Christian. I was neck deep in the 4 P’s- Performing, Perfecting, Pleasing and Proving—for Jesus. I believed that what Jesus required of me was constantly striving for perfection so that the world would be a perfect place because of my efforts. The message I missed was that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice redeemed the world so I didn’t have to.
By hearing the gospel of grace preached, I learned that God loves me and wants me to thrive in love so that I can love my neighbor. I cannot by myself follow the commands of God and am constantly in need of the life giving mercy of grace. The freeing message of Jesus Christ is what we hear in the gospel today. “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest for a while.” I hear an invitation to what I have come to call stewardship of my body, mind and spirit, the very elements that I am asked to use to love God with. If I look at myself through Christ’s eyes of compassion, I can see that all of my striving leaves me tired and self-pitying and that God has given me one precious life to live. Good stewardship of ourselves is not a plan of salvation. It will not make you more righteous, moral or worthy but it will give Jesus more to work with when he needs an instrument of mercy, love and grace to use. And if we are to believe the statistics on the possibilities of life on other planets, we are a very rare species indeed. As the psychiatrist Gerald May mused, “Mysterious as it may be, there is something wonderful at the heart of our existence, and it is about nothing other than love; love for God, love for one another, love for creation, love for life itself.” My prayer for you today is that you hear the call of Christ to come away and rest in Him exactly as you are, believing and trusting that the God of the Universe came to us in a human body to save us from the deep longing we have to be loved, and loves with an eternal love. Christ answers the question, “Are we alone?” with a resounding, “No, never.” And the question, “Why are we here?” with “Because I love you so much and sent my only Son to die for you so that you could know me and know my love for you.” Amen.