Cosmic Mercies

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The Cigar Galaxy

Pizza and Boom!

by Daniel Ray

In January 2014, a small group of astronomy students was huddled about as the weather began to get a bit foggy over the glowing city lights of London town; not exactly the ideal location for observing the heavens in great detail. They ordered the standard fair of collegiate life, pizza, and settled in for what promised to be a rather ordinary evening. Before the night sky had been completely immersed in cloud cover, however, the group decided to spend some time using some features on one of their new telescopes.

That’s when they saw it.

In a galaxy far, far away called M82, known also as the “Cigar Galaxy”. Not too far from the bucket of the Big Dipper. In a really dark sky, astronomers say this supernova is visible with a small telescope or binoculars. It’s quite rare to be able to catch a glimpse of an exploding star. As one of the other students said of their discovery, “The chances of finding anything new in the sky are astronomical, but this was particularly astounding as it was one of the first images we had taken with this telescope.”

The celestial gift is now known formerly as SN 2014J.

You just never know what you’ll find. And usually, it’s when you’re not looking when such remarkable discoveries come your way.

So whenever your skies look a bit cloudy, just take a bite of pizza and just do the next thing. Finish your homework. Listen to your parents. Do your chores. Read the chapter. Study for your test. Stay the course. One step at a time. Don’t quit. And be ready.

You just never know might happen in the course of your everyday routines. You have no idea what the Lord Jesus might reveal to you.

Boom!

Like finding a supernova.

As the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah to King Cyrus, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”[1]

We just don’t have any idea what God’s going to do. What seems impossible to us is possible with God. So be faithful in the little things to which the Lord Jesus has called you. Stay in His light, remain in His house. Father Abraham has many sons. I am one of them and so are you. Long ago, God told Abraham his descendants would be more numerous than the stars of heaven.

One of those descendants is the unlikely theological and ecclesiastical reformer of the 16th century, Martin Luther. Today is “Reformation Sunday” and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther tacking? nailing? hammering? his 95 Thesis on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, “posting” stuff for discussion long before the advent of Facebook or Twitter! Luther had no intention of starting a revolution, he simply wanted to discuss certain theological questions and concerns he had about the doctrines and practices of the Church of the time.

In 1545, the year before he died, Luther wrote about how God had used one particular verse in the book of Romans to give him a great victory over his own personal spiritual struggle the Law of the Old Testament and the Gospel or “Good News” of the New Testament. It was a turning point not only for Luther but little did he know, for all of Christendom for the next five centuries! For young Luther, sometime around 1518, the Gospel was anything but good news. He stumbled over the phrase Paul uses in Romans, “the righteousness of God,” finding no solace or comfort in it. “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God,” Luther confesses, “who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue [the Ten Commandments], without having God add paint to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunely upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.”[2]

After much struggle, Luther attests that he was smitten by the “mercy of God” and experiences a life-changing epiphany about the verse for which he previously had held so much contempt. “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” In other words, God, through Christ, declares us righteous, not we ourselves. That anyone has faith to understand God’s gracious act of declaring us righteous is itself a gift. We do not work to make ourselves right before God, but through Christ, God does all the work to put us in right standing with Him. As Paul says, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” For Luther, recognizing this truth, that he was freed from the condemnation of the Law, that the righteousness of God that He spurned was actually the very thing that freed him from the Law’s curse. “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”[3]

The glory of God. It is one of the five pillars of the Reformation. Luther’s own personal struggles with God and man remind us that it is only through God and God alone that we are saved. On the authority Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), through faith alone, (sola fide), by grace alone (sola gratia), in Christ alone (sola Christi), all to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria), are we saved. The emphasis on “alone” means that there are no earthly intermediaries, no man-centered authority, faith, work, wisdom, or glory, needed for God to save us. To God alone be all the glory.

In not a few ways, Luther turned out to be a kind of supernova himself, unexpectedly bursting into the ecclesiastical darkness of the early 16th century with good news not even he completely understood at the time. Thesis number one on Luther’s list mentions repentance. “In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 1. When Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be of one repentance.”[4] In the simplest of definitions, repentance simply means turning from sin and turning to Christ. Turning. Turn your eyes away from sin and turn them toward Christ Jesus. “Lift up your eyes on high,” exhorts the prophet Isaiah, “and see…” Take your eyes off of your earthly cares and selfishness, take your eyes off of your own sin and shame and look to Christ. “Look up, for your redemption draweth nigh.” “Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars…” Look up! Look up on high! Turn away from what is below and look up to what is above. As Paul puts in in his letter to the Colossians, “If you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth.”[5] The heavens themselves remind us of this turning. Planets, stars, galaxies, all are in a constant state of turning, but that celestial motion is not something inanimate objects can do on their own. No amount of human wisdom, wealth or power can so much as move a single star. Likewise, when it comes to the remission and forgiveness of sin, no amount of human wisdom, wealth or power can do it, only God alone can forgive and absolve us of sin. As Luther said in thesis #21, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in err when they say that a person is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” An “indulgence” in Luther’s day was a monetary donation made to the Church for the sake of absolving one’s own sins and for perhaps releasing the souls of deceased relatives from Purgatory. But Luther understood this was simply a tradition made by man and not in accordance with Scripture. “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted to the Christian by God, even without indulgence letters,” Luther says in thesis #37. It should be here noted that Lutheran scholars put Luther’s Romans epiphany sometime between 1518 and 1519, after his posting of the 95 Thesis. God’s grace came to the reluctant reformer in stages. So be encouraged, God is patient with us too. He knows our frame is but dust. He is our Father, the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it, as He did with Martin. Like the potter spins his clay vessel on his wheel, so too does the Father turn us. The One who turns about planets, suns and galaxies with His “fingers” turns you too. Rest in Him. Turn to Him as He turns you to Himself.

Just as He did with Johannes Kepler. Born in 1571 to familial strife, social, religious and political discord, not to mention much anxiety and health problems, Kepler’s early life gave no one any indication he would grow up to forever reform our view of the heavens. In addition to the multitude of problems he faced growing up, Kepler had poor eyesight, not exactly the sort of characteristic helpful to becoming an astronomer! But from an early age, Kepler held to a genuine and sincere faith in God. Raised in the Lutheran tradition, Kepler enjoyed the tremendous blessing of having a solid education. “The Lutheran Church’s commitment to education provided a single stroke of good fortune in an otherwise hopelessly bleak childhood,” writes Kitty Ferguson. The Lutheran duchy of Württemberg had established a fine free school system, and this system rescued Johannes.”[6] Kepler himself said of his Lutheran faith, “I am a Christian, the Lutheran creed was taught me by my parents, I took it unto myself with repeated searchings of its foundations, with daily questionings, and I hold fast to it. Hypocrisy I have never learnt. I am in earnest about Faith and I do not play with it.”[7] In 1600, he refused to convert to Catholicism, despite the looming threat of having to leave the recently Catholicized city of Graz in which he and his family lived at the time. On the second of August, 1600, Kepler informed the examination committee that “he was a Lutheran and he would not convert. His name was written down on the list of sixty-one banished citizens. He was given six weeks and three days to leave Graz for good.”

But knowing his ultimate citizenship was in heaven, Kepler accepted his banishment with “a serenity that even he found astonishing.”[8] Ferguson notes that Kepler wrote to a friend, confessing “I would not have thought that it is so sweet in companionship with some brothers, to suffer injury and indignity for the sake of religion, to abandon house, fields, friends and homeland. If it is this way with real martyrdom and with the surrender of life, and if the exultation is so much the greater, the greater the loss, then it is an easy matter also to die for faith.”[9]

And it would appear that the Lord in His cosmic mercies, rewarded the perseverance and faithfulness of His servant Johannes with a gift from the heavens themselves. Though Kepler was not the first to have noticed it, there appeared on the night of October 10th, 1604,  a new star, a supernova. In the early morning hours of October 11, Kepler and his family had been awakened by “a court official in a state of great agitation.” Ferguson writes that “When Kepler could make sense of the man, he learned that on the previous evening he had seen a brilliant new star through a gap in the clouds.” It was not until a week later, after the skies had finally cleared, that Kepler saw the spectacularly luminous sight for himself.

As God turned Luther’s eyes to the glorious light of the Gospel for the first time, the Lord Jesus likewise turned Kepler’s eyes up on high to the brilliantly colorful diadem blazing scintillating near the foot of Ophiuchus, the constellation of the serpent handler. The nova’s appearance created quite a stir in Europe. Most people thought it a “sinister omen.”[10] Kepler spent the better part of year studying the celestial wonder and ended up publishing De Nova Stella or The New Star, with the rather profuse subtitle, “A Book Full of Astronomical, Physical, Metaphysical, Meteorological and Astrological Discussions, Glorious and Unusual.[11] In those days, Kepler actually wrote astrological tracts for nobles and government officials, as it provided a means for income, but he scarcely believed there was any actual merit to his own prognostications. Needless to say, he thought about the astrological implications of the appearance of the star in De Nova Stella and thought it best, as a Christian and a Lutheran, to exhort his readers “to examine their sins and repent.”[12]

Kepler’s Nova, now formally known as SN1604 or “Kepler’s Nova”, is the last known supernova to have occurred in our own Milky Way galaxy. It is now understood to have been a Type I supernova. Type 1 supernovae are comprised of binary stars, a pair of stars in which one is a white dwarf star. The smaller white dwarf spins and draws off material from the larger star triggering a violent, cataclysmic reaction that results in an incredibly powerful detonation. In not a few ways, this is precisely how one might understand the relationship between the small-of-stature Kepler and his larger-than-life celestial companion Great Dane with the mostly-missing nose, Tycho Brahe. Kepler drew off as much matter as he could from Brahe, and by so doing, boom. A blindingly bright and powerful “supernova” of astronomical proportions tore through eons of man’s darkened ignorance about the heavens, forever changing our perception of the cosmos. And as the Lord would have it, the last supernova before Kepler’s occurred in 1572, first discovered by (can you guess?) Tycho Brahe.

On earth as it is in the heavens. A binary pair of terrestrial stars ignite an astronomical reformation. Luther and Melanchthon, Brahe and Kepler, God and Man.

The Lord Jesus Christ. The Bright and Morning Star, the Serpent Handler writ large, whose foot was bruised as He wrestled with and defeated the serpent of old. Though I cannot go so far as to say that Jesus meant for SN1604 to be a sign of the Edenic prophecy that He would one day ascend Golgotha and have His own foot wounded by the serpent, I will say that SN1604 certainly reminds me of Christ’s sacrificial bruising nonetheless. “Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars…” Turn from your worldly concerns and spin with otherworldly light for the glory of God! Amen. Here is to more supernovae, in the heavens and on the earth. With whom is God pairing you? Who are your companions? How can you draw from them and let your light so spectacularly shine and change the world? So you may see yourself as a mere dwarf. So your boss or other intimidating figure looms large in your life at the moment. They frustrate you, cajole you and spin you in ways contrary to your own expectations. Maybe they too are missing a bit of their nose, have some spectacularly irritating qualities that make you want to scream out in frustration. Ok. But they just might be the very companion from which you are drawing great inspiration for future victories yet unknown to you at the moment. Persevere and look heavenward dearly loved of Jesus, for your reward in the heavens is great.

And great are the heavens.

Hear more from Daniel Ray and our friend Wayne Spencer at their podcast Good Heavens! (and at Patreon: Good Heavens!).

Kepler's Nova

Kepler’s Nova

[1] Isaiah 45:3.

[2] Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, Its Historical and Systematic Development (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 91.

[3] Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, Its Historical and Systematic Development, 91.

[4] Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, editors, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 8.

[5] Colossians 3:1-2.

[6]  Kitty Ferguson, Tycho & Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens (New York: Walker & Company, 2002), 102.

[7] Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (London: Arkana, 1959), 283.

[8] Ferguson, Tycho & Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens, 268.

[9] Ibid, 268.

[10] Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, 293.

[11] Ferguson, Tycho & Kepler, 295.

[12] Ibid, 296.

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