On Valentine’s Day, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was approximately four billion miles away from the Earth when it took a picture of it. The famous astronomer, Carl Sagan, had asked for the photo, and then he wrote this reflection on it called Pale Blue Dot. Zooming out just about as far as humanly possible to look at our planet, here’s what Sagan wrote:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Zoom out. Zoom in. Do you see what Sagan has done with this photograph? He’s taken us just about as far away from our world as possible to highlight just how tiny our world is in the vastness of the cosmos, and yet, zooming in, he highlights the preciousness of life here on Earth, urging all of us to cling to what really matters and to cease empowering people and institutions that do not promote the well-being of all. The planet and all who inhabit it – people, plants, animals, everything – are worth caring for, Sagan argues, because if we make this world uninhabitable, then like the silent extinguishing of a candle, life as we know it will cease. And the universe will not even notice. Psalm 2 strikes a similar tone. “Why DO the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” it begins. That’s quite a good question because it’s something that has happened throughout human history. Nation wages war against nation. Brother against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. Why do we do this? Think of the civilizations that have come and gone. By one count there have been at least 202 dynasties or empires in human history. Egyptian. Xin Dynasty. Roman. British. Third Reich. Soviet. Ottoman. Aztec. I could go on. Almost all of them have come and gone. And yet the world rattles its sabers at each other all the time. North Korea. Iran. Taliban. How do we maintain our power? How do we hold others at bay? Why do the nations conspire? The psalm zooms out from this question to point to the reality that God is in charge of it all. These nations think they’re in charge? Ha! “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision” (2:4). The Lord Almighty, who created everything out of nothing, looks on the nations of the Earth, a bit like the Voyager 1, and scoffs at our hubris. Psalms 1 and 2 are often read together because they thematically set up the remaining 148 psalms. Psalm 1 describes the difference between the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 2 pulls things back from the individual to see our corporate life and nation building, reminding us that the One who oversees all of this has a plan to work through one insignificant group of people to set the world to rights, going all the way back to God’s promises to Abraham to make of him a great nation that will bless – not dominate – all the nations of the earth. Yet the nations surrounding Israel – the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks and Romans – only see Israel as an insignificant people on a prime piece of Middle Eastern real estate. On this pale blue dot in a vast cosmos, the Lord will ultimately bring about justice and peace through a different kind of leader. “‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill,’” the Lord says. “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (2:6-7). This is the only place in the Old Testament where the Messiah is called God’s son, and it’s in the midst of a psalm that portrays God’s plan to set the whole world right. This son will get things in order. This son will humble the powers, but as we know and believe, this Son will do this through perceived weakness – death on a cross. Zooming all the way in to one person hanging on a cross on a small hill called Golgotha, we see God’s plan in full effect to save the entire cosmos. How tiny it seems. Why do the nations rage? Don’t we see throughout history that all of their raging and military might amounts to nothing? Zooming in now to a small village in Lithuania. Outside of the village is a cemetery on a hill where the villagers remember their loved ones. In 1940 the Soviet Army saw this cross-covered hill and removed every last one of those crosses. The Soviets passed a law forbidding further Christian symbols to be placed on the hill. They thought their might would last forever. Yet, the villagers kept sneaking to the hill at night and putting crosses back on the hill. For half a century the villagers and the empire went back and forth placing and removing crosses. In 1988, the Soviet Empire fell. Today the hill is covered with crosses that have taken on an additional meaning. Not only do those crosses remind them of the promised resurrection of their loved ones, but now they also remind them that empires will come and go but God in Christ is the forever victor. As the psalm concludes, “Happy are all who take refuge in him” (2:11). Zooming back out, I came across this on Twitter this week. The Atheist Forum tweeted, “CHRISTIANITY: Belief that one God created a universe 13.79 billion yrs old, 93 billion light yrs in diameter (1 light yr = approx. 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing ave. of 200 billion stars, only to have a personal relationship with you.” And in a perfectly tweeted reply, author and speaker Jon Acuff wrote, “Exactly.” Zooming out and zooming in we encounter the faithful love of God for every atom in existence, for every square inch of the universe, for each and every person. It’s a love massive enough to do all of this AND to think you are personally worthy of this love. All of this brings me to our text in Matthew. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the Sunday right before Lent starts, where we prepare our lives once again to walk the difficult road to the cross. In the gospels, this story stands out. It happens shortly after Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, which is true and which marks a significant shift in the narrative. Jesus begins teaching about how the Messiah will suffer and die on a cross and will be raised from the dead after three days. These are mind-blowing claims. Transfiguration is a word we rarely hear these days. Likely it only comes up when a pastor preaches on this particular moment in Jesus’ story. Growing up, I was as influenced by Calvin and Hobbes as I was by the Bible, so the closest parallel in mind is Calvin’s experimenting with a cardboard box that became his “Transmogrifier.” I thought perhaps Bill Watterson made up that word, but it turns out he didn’t. It actually means to change or alter greatly and often with grotesque or humorous effect. In the strip, Calvin transmogrifies into his pet tiger Hobbes. He claims he could turn into a slug the size of the Chrysler Building or 500-story gastropod, all with the push of a button! What happens to Jesus, however, is not transmogrification. Jesus brings his inner ring of disciples with him up a mountain. To Peter, James, and John in that moment all the glory of who Jesus is transfigures his appearance. This man who teaches, heals, weeps, eats, and laughs becomes something exquisitely more before their eyes. All the glory of the One who created the universe 93 billion light years in diameter focused into that particular person in that particular moment. Or perhaps to put it better, that glory was always there in Jesus but for that blinding instant, these three encountered it in an inexplicable way. What do you do when something like this happens? Fumbling around for something, Peter offers to turn this moment into a monument, but he’s missing the point that all of this glory is now and has always been packed into Jesus, the One who will continue to walk beside Peter. Who is Jesus? He’s the Son of God. He’s the answer to Psalm 2. All of eternity flows in and through him, and in that moment, he shined like a supernova before his friends. From then on he did not reveal himself in such a supernatural way, but that does not mean that all of that glory and power and love weren’t still with him. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Why does this matter? It matters because God has imbued this pale blue dot with a significance that exceeds our imagination. God in Christ has taken on all the brokenness and violence and hurt of the word and is now redeeming it even now through us. In the fullness of time, all of the raging of the nations will cease. In the fullness of time, all the hurt and pain will be no more. In the fullness of time what God has done on this pale blue dot through Jesus makes all the difference for the entire cosmos and for every creature that has ever occupied this glorious place. Yes, you are one of approximately 100 billion people who have ever lived. Yes, you occupy one planet of the 100 billion in our galaxy. Yes, there are people who act important, but in the scope of history they are no greater than anyone else. Yet, Jesus came to enact God’s grand plan for fixing the mess we have made of it all. Each and every one of us – you included – is significant in the sight of God. God has done this for you. God has done it for everyone. This universe matters. This pale blue dot matters. You matter. The story of Jesus tells us this. Thanks be to God.  https://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html  https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-a-2/?type=lectionary_epistle