John Piper says people don’t go to the Grand Canyon to boost their egos. I get his point but I’m not sure that’s totally correct. You’ve been with people, haven’t you, who talk about where they have been and what they have seen? I’ve seen the glorious Taj Mahal, stood on the foothills of the towering Himalayas, I’ve felt the spray on my face from the awesome Niagara Falls, snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef, clambered up the Great Wall of China. Some of you have seen yet other magnificent sights, maybe Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, the Northern Lights in Scandinavia, gone on safari in the Serengeti, Tanzania and so on and so on. We think we will impress others by telling them where we have been and what we have seen and this feeds feelings of self-importance.
A fanatical plumber was taken by his friend to see the Niagara Falls. He took one look and said, “I’ll just go and get my tools out of the car. I think I can fix this leak.” This joke makes Piper’s point for him. Unless you’ve lost your humanity then when you stand by the Niagara Falls or on the Grand Canyon you are filled with awe at the sheer wonder and magnificence of what God has created. And at that moment the universe does not revolve around you, around me. Especially as Christians, as the hymn puts it, we find ourselves “lost in wonder, love and praise.” It’s all about him, not about us. In a very real way we become totally insignificant and it doesn’t matter. It’s at such moments that we feel we can say “Amen” when John the Baptist says, “He must increase but I must decrease.”
Of course, not all people look at the glory of nature and the immensity of the universe and respond in the same way. Many modern atheists argue that the immensity of the universe means that human beings are totally insignificant and that the only meaning life has is what we can make of it, for example, “eat, drink and be merry.”
So Stephen Hawking says, “We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.”
Carl Sagan was famous for his Cosmos series. He asked, “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy tucked away in a forgotten corner of a universe, in which there are more far more galaxies than people.”
Yet another astrophysicist, George Smoot maintained, “When people really understand the Big Bang and the whole sweep of the evolution of the universe, it will be clear that humans are fairly insignificant.”
Light moves at a speed of 186,000 miles per second (299,792 kms per second), that is, approximately 6 trillion miles (9.6 trillion kms) in a year. So vast is the universe that some of the distant galaxies are believed to be not millions of miles, but millions of light-years away! Our sun is one of about 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy belongs to a small cluster of 19 galaxies which occupy a region over 3 million light-years in diameter. Over a billion galaxies can now be observed containing 1023 stars. If our sun and our entire galaxy is so infinitesimally small what does that make you and me? What possible significance can a puny human being have in such an unspeakably vast universe?
In Psalm 8 the insignificance of people is central. David so gets this that he asks God, “…what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” Stop and think about this for a moment. As we know, the universe is vast far beyond what ancients like David could ever have imagined. Yet David asks this question precisely because he stood in awe at the immensity of the universe as he understood it. David says, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
Let’s change David’s question to see more clearly what he is saying. “what is man if you are not mindful of him, the son of man if you don’t care for him?” You get the point. Take God out of the picture and his love for human beings and atheists are dead right. People are then not lost in wonder, but rather lost in space. We become insignificant, unimportant creatures, no more significant than any other creature that lives on our planet.