The Farthest Star

Kathleen Kimball (’12)
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 22, 2012
Philippians 4:4-9

Philippians 4: 4-9 • Always be glad because of the Lord! I will say it again: be glad. Always be gentle with others. The Lord will soon be here. Don’t worry about anything. With thankful hearts, offer up your prayers and requests to God. Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel. Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. You know the teachings I gave you, and you know what you heard me say and saw me do. So follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you.

So… I’m just going to start the way I always start talking in church, and that’s with a God sighting.

So, the Hubble Space telescope. It’s awesome. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s essentially the greatest single astronomical piece of equipment on the planet. Er… off the planet, technically. It’s more like a totally weird satellite with a bunch of mirrors and bells and whistles and windchimes on it that orbits the planet and takes pictures of stuff.

Anyway – a few years ago, there was a major project launched by some astronomers with the Hubble telescope called the Ultra Deep Field Experiment. Essentially, we already had a low-resolution map of the sky, so a bunch of guys from NASA picked a spot in the sky that was as small as the tip of pencil held at arm’s length and pointed the lens of the Hubble right at it and took a 20-minute exposure of it. So, every time the Hubble came around the Earth, it took a picture of that infinitely tiny point in the sky. The goal was to see if they could catch any tiny piece of light coming from that direction in order to see if there was anything in that spot that was too far away to have already identified on their present sketch of the sky. They took about 400 pictures before they evaluated their data, and when they did, they found something.

Any ideas of what it was?

It was 10,000 galaxies. 10,000 galaxies.

Now a galaxy contains 100 billion stars each, so that’s something like 1,000 trillion stars in a spot in the sky smaller than a period at the end of a sentence. Also allow me to remind you that each star is around the size of our the Sun – so there could be super tiny Earths and Venuses orbiting any one of those stars out there that we don’t even know about!

This experiment effectively concluded that the sky is virtually unrestrained and one can barely make a shadow of a speculation at the expanse of the universe.

About now, I’m sure some of you are saying, “Cool, Kathleen. But we just sang a hymn about joy or something. Is this astronomy lesson supposed to bring me joy?”

Well… did it?

You just learned that creation does not stop with what you can see. Heck! It doesn’t even stop with what the Hubble Space Telescope can see! For every one thing we think we know about the universe there are a thousand – in this case, TEN thousand – things we don’t know. And each of those things we don’t know represents a world of possibilities!

What did you feel when that hit you? Was it shock? Wonder? Excitement? Awe? Maybe your worries about exams and post grad life seemed just a teeny bit more manageable in comparison to the depth of the Lord’s creation all around you? Maybe you’re curious? Hopeful? Intrigued? Maybe you’ll even go back to your room and share this story with your roommate.

Well shoot folks – I don’t know a better list of symptoms for joy than that.

I’m not trying to send your imaginations on a rampage about aliens and apocalyptic invasions. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate a way I see God present in this world. To review what we already know, God is everywhere. But when you have joy, He’s most obviously with you because you have seen Him and His work.

But what about the people who don’t feel happy? What about the people who feel nothing but sadness?

A friend of mind once described her image of Hell as being a place void of God; a place without any hope of joy. Well if that’s true, how could anybody possibly experience Hell here on Earth if God is all around us? Isn’t God always supposed to be with me everywhere I go? To watch over me? Protect me? Enliven my life? Or, like that famous poem, carry me through times of great sorrow?

If I feel sad – does that mean that my life, my world, my very being is void of God?

That can’t be right. We know that God holds dear all of His children, and since we’re all the children of God, why would he abandon those who are overcome with sadness?

I don’t think He does.

Here’s the thing about joy: I don’t think it’s the same as happiness.

Happiness is an emotion. It’s a function of what happened in a day – you’re happy because you did well on an exam, or your roommate baked cupcakes, or you found $5 in your jeans front pocket. Happiness, as an emotion, is as transient as its opposite: sadness.

Joy is different. Joy is seeing the world with a depth to it – with a purpose, a maker, and maybe even a method to the madness. In a way, happiness will lift your spirits for a moment; but joy will lift your soul for as long as you allow it. Joy’s opposite is not sadness; it’s the choice to view the world as accidental, hopeless, forbidden, or maybe even ultimately lethal. The opposite of joy is despair.

Paul tells us that we should be “glad” because of the Lord, and that if we keep our hearts full of things that are “worthy of praise,” then God will grant us a “peace that nobody can truly understand.”

When we pass the peace to each other in church, we are doing much more than saying, “have a nice day!” Having a nice day is being happy – having the Lord’s peace is being joyful. We wish each other the grand blessing of having inner peace in the Lord. And this inner peace persists despite the shortcomings, frustrations, dead ends, and heartbreaks of life.

Given that joy and happiness are different, I’d venture to say that a person can be joyful and sad at the same time. Joy not only reminds you that it’s OK to be sad or broken, but that God is with you and all around you despite that sadness. Sometimes, joy can even bring you a shot of happiness.

So how do I get joy? How do I achieve the Lord’s peace in my heart? What do I have to do to see God everywhere I go?

You just… decide to.

I don’t know that I have an explanation of joy for you today except that it’s the choice to see the your life and world as wondrous, God-filled, exciting, blessed, and destined for something greater. In essence, if this room were covered in complete darkness, a person filled with despair would curse it. A person filled with joy would look up and admire the streetlights streaming through the stained glass windows overhead. They’re both still in the dark – the difference is how they have chosen to respond. God is with both of them, and they will each remain in the darkness… but I think only one will be filled with the Lord’s peace despite the darkness – the other will not.

The passage also talks about how we should never stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise… but who decides what is worthy of praise?

You do.

Albert Einstein once said that you can see the world one of two ways: as if everything is a miracle or as if nothing is a miracle. Either way, you’d be right. If you get the last Oreo on Tuesday afternoon in the Methodist office – is that a miracle or not? If a stray dog crosses a busy highway unharmed, if a poor, inner city student chooses books over drugs, or if a sick child awaiting a heart transplant receives it just in time to save him – is that a miracle? Or not?

Is it worthy of praise, or isn’t it?

There are no more Oreos after you’ve taken yours. The dog is still homeless and hungry, the student is still poor and surrounded by peer pressure, and the child will remain sick even after the transplant. There is still a lot of work to be done, and there is still a lot of sadness to conquer. But despite all this sadness, we are not without joy because we not without God.

And as long as we are within reach of God, we are within reach of peace. The trick is to take it.

You know, a friend once described his vision of God to me as being as close as your next breath and as far as the most distant star. If joy is a sure sign of God’s presence, then what does this description say about our ability to find joy in this world?

It seems to me that it says the sky is the limit… which, according to the Hubble telescope, renders the possibilities of joy unimaginably boundless.