What links the Large Hadron Collider and Moses? The work of a scientist, a poet, and a theologian? They are all motivated by a sense of wonder, a desire to discover more. I explore this in my sermon.
I was invited to preach at the chapel at Repton School and wanted to talk about something that might be relevant and interesting in that sort of context.
Wonder; Reading: Exodus 3:1-10
You might not have thought about this, but what makes you able to touch? What makes you able to hold a piece of paper? What makes you able to sit on your chair?
Well, two years ago, the scientist who answered those questions was awarded the Nobel Prize, the top prize in physics, worth about 1 million dollars. To try to find out the answer to those questions a massive experiment was run for years. A huge machine, the Large Hadron Collider, has been built 100 metres underground on the border between France and Switzerland. It is almost 17 miles in circumference and has been cooled so that it’s now colder than outer space. Tiny particles of matter are being sent round the machine 11,000 times a second to smash together to create new particles which last a fraction of a second. All this generates enough data to fill 2 million DVDs each year with information that the scientists have to look through.
And the point of all this? To find out about something that we take for granted. To find out why we and everything around us is solid. To discover evidence of the Higgs boson, a particle which Peter Higgs, the Nobel-winning scientist predicted 50 or so years ago. This particle is evidence of something called the Higgs field, which is one significant part of why everything else has mass. A large part of the reason that we weigh anything at all or can reach out and touch the chair in front of us, or sit on a chair at all, is because things are affected by the Higgs field.
That’s a lot of effort to go to, to discover something that we take for granted, for the ability to touch. But, because Peter Higgs wondered about it, because he didn’t take it for granted, we now understand a little bit more about how the universe works.
Or, to give another example, earlier this year we have seen images sent back from Pluto by the space craft New Horizons, which spent 9 years travelling over 5 billion kilometres to get there. Congratulating the team Stephen Hawking said:
We explore because we are human and we long to know.
Which is also where the reading from Exodus that we heard comes in. Moses had fled his life as a prince in Egypt many years before, and had spent many years tending his father-in-law’s flock. His people had been enslaved by the Egyptians. The promise that God had made to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the promise that God had made to give them their own land, seemed more and more distant. Joseph had led God’s people into Egypt and there they had stayed, trapped. Moses had fled, expecting never to be able to return. He has settled down, got married, got a job.
And, now, in the part we heard read, Moses is having a bad day. He is a shepherd, looking after the sheep and goats of his father-in-law. He looks after the flock in the wilderness, in an area of small bushes and tough grass. Except that, today, he’s having to take the flock further afield. He’s having to take them through the wilderness, to the far side, to essentially, the desert. And as he’s trudging through land that’s getting hotter and hotter, with less and less plants for the animals to eat, he sees yet another bush go up in flames. He’s seen bushes burning before and all it really means is one less meal for his sheep and goats.
So he shrugs and trudges on, looking for plants that aren’t chargrilled.
Except, except, that, as we’ve just heard, he doesn’t. He doesn’t do the obvious, the ordinary, the expected. He turns aside. He wonders. He’s having a rubbish day and he’s still interested in what’s going on and why. He goes over to have a closer look.
One of the scientists who has worked on the Large Hadron Collider was asked what physics and religion have in common and he said this:
I think that they have the same motivation, which is that you notice that there’s something worth explaining about the universe. It’s an emotional reaction to it — like, this is beautiful, I want to understand how it works. If you would ask me who would I prefer to talk to — someone who didn’t notice that the universe is beautiful or someone that did, I would say, the people that do notice.
Also … [one] view of a cathedral: [is] that it’s supposed to be a place that people go to and are shaken out of their everyday complacency and inspired to think about something else, to think about bigger things. I also think that’s what physics does.
There’s something worth explaining about the universe. There are bigger things to think about. A shared sense of wonder that inspires scientists, motivates faith, and drives artists as well.
It was also that sense of wonder that Moses probably had when he saw a bush that was burning, but where the flames were not destroying the bush. It was his sense of wonder at what was happening that led to him having an encounter with God. It was because of Moses’ sense of wonder that he had this encounter with God. It was because of this encounter with God that Moses led his people from slavery into Egypt into the promised land. This is one of the most important events in the Bible and it starts with one person’s sense of wonder, one person’s desire to find out what was actually happening.
It starts with one person’s sense of wonder, leads to the freeing of a whole nation of people, and shows that God is concerned about what is going on: “I have heard the cry of my people”. And the ultimate expression of God’s concern is the one that we celebrate at Christmas; the birth of God’s son, Jesus, to show that God is bothered about what happens to us, that God is here with us in the midst of the wonder and the heartache, the fear and the joy.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote these lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries
We are human, made in God’s image, and we long to know. Our sense of wonder can lead us to explore and discover amazing things, in science, in art, in faith.
I’m going to finish with a prayer:
Thank you for the sense of wonder that you give us.
Help us to use our sense of wonder
To explore our world, to create,
And to see you in the wonderful things that you have created.
Help us to keep hold of our sense of wonder.