Are We Alone in the Universe?

Trinity Sunday B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Let us pray, “God of Multiplicity, you move fluidly among us without concern for boxes, binaries, or the bounds of doctrine. Wild and free, you reveal yourself in an abundance of forms. May your Spirit come and help us to perceive. Amen.” (That prayer comes from a United Methodist hymnal for Trinity Sunday)

When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe. God is found in every corner of the cosmos. So maybe it won’t sound so strange when I ask. Do you believe in extraterrestrial life? Your answer may help us better understand the core Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Two-thirds (66%) of Americans say they believe that there’s intelligent life on other planets – up 10% from 2017 (CBS News poll). That same year a Hawaiian telescope glimpsed something just as it was leaving the solar system, an interstellar visitor they called ‘Oumuamua (which means “scout” in Hawaiian). Oddly flat and shaped like a cigar made of rock, it appeared to accelerate as it sped away past the sun. Maybe you remember that old TV show with David Duchovny, The X-Files? If so, you were startled but not surprised to hear the United States government and military services now officially admit they have collected visuals, data and testimonials recording flying objects they cannot explain. The U.S. director of national intelligence was ordered to issue an unclassified report to congress about UFO’s due out next month.

What might it mean to discover we’re not alone in the universe? Astronomers at the nonprofit SETI Institute have used sophisticated radio telescopes for nearly 40 years to search the stars for transmissions from other civilizations like ours without success. Today, we push the limits of modern technology, sophisticated radars and telescopes to find the answer that could become breaking news.

Yet, to our ancestors in faith, the question of extraterrestrial intelligent life was settled long ago. Our forebears worked on this issue for nearly two thousand years. What we so dryly call the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, could be described as their final report on the pursuit of the origins and character of intelligent life. In fact, their work has direct application in our pursuit of knowledge about both extraterrestrial and intra-terrestrial intelligence that is alive and moving even now, beyond the stars; beneath the sea; within every cell; within each breath.

Of course, ancient peoples didn’t use modern technology. Instead, they used the exquisitely sensitive instrument of human consciousness. People of faith, prayerfully joined together, across communities and spanning time like a vast network of radio telescopes. You and I and little Thorsten who will be baptized here this morning, are a part of this network. By connection to each other, through the sacraments and the holy scriptures and our faith tradition we tune in to the still speaking God. Our forebears were the first to pick up the signals of extraterrestrial life trying to communicate with you from within creation, “It is good,” the message read; and at the burning bush, “I AM Yahweh,” God said. ‘You may call me Trinity. You are my child.’

Ancient people strained the limits of their technology to write it down and preserve the record such as our psalm and first reading today. The “voice of the Lord” in Psalm 29 thunders over mighty waters. We read that God’s word is a powerful and majestic voice that splinters the cedars, twists the oaks, and rips the bark off a tree. The psalmist compares this voice to the flash of lightning. Similarly, Isaiah envisions God “high and lifted up.” Celestial creatures surround God’s throne in worship, covering their eyes at the very sight. “At the sound of their voice,” writes Isaiah, “the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Our forebears were first to discover God is not only out-there, transcendent, infinite, mysterious, and beyond human knowing, but that God is also immanent, near and dear to every person. We pray, “Our Father, in heaven,” (Luke 11:1–13), because Jesus our brother and Lord has told us what God is like. He is like a loving Father. She is like a mother hen nestling her brood under her wings. The Apostle Paul says the same thing in our reading from Romans. When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (or daddy), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.

Keep your heart and mind tuned in to Christ Jesus to hear the Word of Life streaming in, even now, from all corners of the planet and the heavens. The still, small voice, like the sound of sheer silence dwells within each of us. It calls to us now, stirs and unsettles us, just as it did for Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jewish people. He was a teacher of Israel, a big man around Jerusalem. But he had a problem. He had a problem because his grand life didn’t satisfy him. He felt there must be something more to life and he thought he had glimpsed it in Jesus. So, he waited for an opportunity when no one was looking and went to Jesus at night.

It’s difficult to say. Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life? Nicodemus seemed to be on a journey of faith. Later in John’s gospel we read he steps in to temper the judgment of his angry colleagues who want to arrest Jesus, and later that he helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. God’s grace seemed to be working on him. He felt the call, but we are uncertain how far he was willing to go.

From Nicodemus we learn how God is patient with us, patient and challenging. Sometimes we are more like Nicodemus and sometimes like Peter. Sometimes we are willing to take a leap of faith and sometimes we linger on the diving board. Sometimes we’re ready to throw away our pandemic masks. Other times, we are more hesitant and careful. We keep our covid masks in place long after we are fully vaccinated. Fortunately, the biblical readout on life in the universe is that both are faithful responses. Both Nicodemus and Peter belong dwell in God. We must be patient and kind to one another just as God is patient and kind.

We must be born again from above. We are not alone in the universe. The Good News is we share this world with intelligent life that is as loving as it is mysterious. We may be transformed in the image of this extra- and intra-terrestrial life through Christ our Lord, through God our loving parent, and the Holy abiding Spirit. In God “…we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “Blessed is every creature and creation – unique and particular. Each, a testimony to God. Through our diversity and differences, divinity is encountered. The glory of God is revealed in our midst. Extravagant and expansive is the image of God. Holy is the collage of life.” (UMC hymnal)