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When the Universe Looks Empty

8/30/07


Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:11-13)



A team of scientists at the University of Minnesota has discovered nothing.
space
I know, but itís a much more significant discovery than it sounds like. They have discovered nothing, but theyíve discovered it in a place where by all rights there should be something. A lot of something. What theyíve discovered is a void, an empty hole, in the universe. Itís not a little pinhole, either Ė the void is nearly, get this, a billion light-years across. That is to say, if you could stand on one side of the void (you couldnít, though) and turn on a flashlight, it would take almost a billion years for someone standing on the other side of the void to see your light.

Our universe, apparently, is full of stuff: stars and planets and galaxies and nebulae and gases, and even something called ďdark matter,Ē which is matter that canít be seen. The universe is full of all this stuff Ė but not in this void. Itís just a billion light-years of nothing.

This team of scientists is very surprised, to say the least, by this huge hole in the universe. ďNot only has no one ever found a void this big, but we never even expected to find one this size,Ē said astronomy professor Lawrence Rudnick. He went on to say, ďWhat we've found is not normal, based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the Universe.Ē

In other words, they never imagined this hole could be there, nothing astronomers and physicists, have ever observed has made them think that it should be there, and they have no idea why itís there. A bunch of extraordinarily brilliant people are, in scientific terms, stumped.

We hate to be stumped, donít we? Thereís something in us that wants to know, wants to figure things out and explain, well, everything. We have a curiosity about things, and a driving need to banish all mystery. And we convince ourselves that we can understand and even anticipate how our universe and our world and our lives should and do work. We have models, after all, and theories, formulas, and lab results. There are no depths we canít plumb, veils we canít penetrate, secrets we canít discover.

And then we discover a billion light-years of nothing.

Maybe thatís good for us. If nothing else, it teaches us humility, doesnít it? The universe is a big place, and however powerful our telescopes or accurate our computer models or brilliant our theories or sophisticated our minds may be, thereís still a lot of room for mystery.

Whatís true on the large scale of astrophysics is true on the smaller scale of our own lives. There is room for mystery, and far from being frightened by that, we should embrace it.

Elijah, I think, might have made a good astrophysicist, if that had been a career option in his day. His relationship with God was empirical. Remember when he used that altar on Mount Carmel as his lab? The prophets of Baal did their thing, and Baal didnít answer. Elijah prayed, and God sent down fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar. The experiment confirmed the hypothesis: Elijah called to God, there was an answer from heaven. The conclusion was a no-brainer, and Israel got it immediately: ďThe LORD, he is God!Ē

Like most of us, though, when things were a little less cut-and-dried, Elijah wasnít quite as comfortable. Right after his victorious moment on Carmel, he got word that the king and queen wanted him dead. He went to ground; he hid in a cave and came up with a plan, which basically consisted of asking God to finish him off quickly, before Ahab and Jezebel could get to him. From his perspective, based on the available evidence, it made all the sense in the world. Who was he to stand against the power of the royal house, after all? The nation had proven itself fickle; they would go back to Baal soon enough. He was Godís last, best hope, and he was out of ideas and over his head.

Thatís a place none of us like to be. If youíre diagnosed with a disease, the first thing you want to do is find out all you can about it, right? What causes it? How do I treat it? Whatís the prognosis? If youíre having trouble in a relationship, you might go for counseling or read books. Lose your job, and youíd have a plan to get another one, or maybe to go for more education to increase your marketability. And if youíre truly at the end of your rope, out of ideas and unable to conquer the obstacles in your life? Well, you might just give up. Check out. Abandon all hope. If you canít figure it out, after all, why go on?

At that point in his life, at the point of abandoning hope, Elijah was reminded of something he undoubtedly already knew: when the mystery in your life is too deep for you to penetrate, you embrace the mystery and trust God. Hiding in his cave, ready to give up, Elijah heard a wind come through, so powerful it shattered rock. But that wasnít God. Then there was an earthquake, but again, that wasnít God. Then there was a fire; Elijah must have wondered, but it wasnít God. Then after all that, there was the faintest of whispers. The sound of silence. Nothing. And thatís when God spoke to Elijah -- out of that nothing. He reminded Elijah that he was still in control of events, even in control of the royal house he feared so much. He reminded Elijah that there was still work for him to do. And he reminded him that he wasnít alone at all Ė seven thousand in Israel still worshipped the LORD.

God doesnít always speak and act as we expect, and life doesnít always turn out as we had hoped or assumed. But even in times of mystery, when we donít understand whatís happening to us, or why, and when there is no word of explanation from God, heís still there. He doesnít always give us wind or fire or make the ground shake right when we expect him to, but thereís much for us to learn from mystery and stillness. We learn that God is still with us. We learn that we probably have more allies than we ever imagined. And we learn that even when we donít understand and canít explain the turn life has taken, thereís still much for us to do.

Donít hide from mystery. Embrace it. Even when it looks like nothing.

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