When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 2 Kings 6.15-17
In the movie Contact, based on the book by the scientist Carl Sagan, Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) searches for and eventually contacts beings from outer space – hence, name of the movie: Contact. The story builds on the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and the overarching theme of the movie explores the conflict between religion and science, faith and reason. (Antagonism between science and religion – in this movie and otherwise – seems to me to be falsely founded, but that is another conversation.) Dr. Arroway ultimately is rewarded in her search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but is unable to produce a single piece of evidence of her encounter when called to appear before a congressional committee. Her testimony is one of beauty, eloquence, longing, and certainty in the existence of extraterrestrial life because she has experienced it personally. But finally, it is a testimony that calls the rest of the world to have faith in intelligent life that is not God. This is in keeping with Carl Sagan’s own view that extraterrestrial life exists, but God does not.
In every human being exists an innate need for something beyond ourselves to draw us forward, to compel us to larger vistas, and to teach us truths greater than our own existence. There may or may not be extraterrestrial life; I am in no position to know. Neither do I think the existence of such life would prove anything about our God and the salvation of Jesus Christ except to reveal a more creative God than we perhaps currently attribute to the God of Christian faith. My point, however, is not about the existence, or lack thereof, of intelligent life in the universe, but rather, about the hole in humanity that demands there be something more than we can see. For Carl Sagan and other atheists, extraterrestrial life is a more plausible answer than the existence of God, not that it matters at this point. Carl Sagan died in 1996 and now knows the truth.
We are not alone, and we need to know that. Cherubim and seraphim surround the throne of God, while angels and archangels serve the bidding of their Creator. Heavenly beings beyond anything we now see are perhaps even more alive than are we, if for no other reason than they exist fully in the presence of God. These will one day be our co-habitants for eternity, but as the passage above makes clear, these heavenly beings are not as separated from us as we are from them. They participate in the greater reality and life of which we are a part, but seldom embrace fully. Their existence, their presence, and their work promise us that we are not alone in this world, and that what we see is not the full measure of reality. This is so important to know, as the Israelites discovered in the war with Aram.
Through divine guidance Elisha thwarted the Aramean army’s pursuit. Frustrated and angry, the king of Aram sought Elisha under the cloak of darkness, surrounding the city of Dothan with a large force of horses and chariots to take Elisha hostage. The reality of their inevitable success terrified Elisha’s servant. But then, what exactly is reality? We think we know, but Elisha’s servant totally underestimated God – as do we. The reality we see is but a tiny window into the whole. So confined by the historical sweep of time that we are unable to experience any generation but our own, how can we possibly grasp the reality of the Kingdom of God? And yet, even now, the whole of God’s Kingdom is open to us. We simply do not have eyes to see.
That was the prayer of Elisha when his servant called him to see the forces amassed around the city – that his servant would have eyes to see. When the servant looked again, he saw reality as it is, not as he assumed it to be only minutes before. There, surrounding the vast army of Aram was an even greater army of horses and chariots of fire. They had come to protect Elisha. No harm would come to him.
This is what we need to know – that our God surrounds us and upholds us not only by Himself, but also with the vast host of heaven. We are not alone, and every step we take in this physical life is walked with us, even if we never see. Our struggles are not alone; our rejoicing is shared eternally; our sorrows are carried in our Father’s Kingdom; our blessings come through unseen sources.
When asked if she expected the world to take what she had seen by faith, Dr. Arroway in Contact responded with, “I had an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are, a vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not – that none of us – are alone. I would share that with everyone, if even for one moment they could feel that awe and humility and the hope, but I can’t.”
Such is the dramatic change in every human life when faith is revealed to be truth, but unlike the movie, evidence of our God abounds, most dramatically so in His Incarnation, death and Resurrection. Moreover, the experience of God has been repeated across history in immeasurable numbers, and that experience remains available to everyone who humbly desires to know God. In His presence and in the presence of eternal beings, we do indeed learn that we are tiny and insignificant, rare and precious, that we belong to something greater than ourselves, and we are not alone. The host of heaven is present, and perhaps that knowledge is also the source of courage we need to live more fearlessly, more humbly, and more gratefully. Maybe if we knew we walk with residents of eternity, we would take more steps and falter less often.
Unlike science fiction, our God is real, and He never abandons or leaves us. As insignificant as we are among billions, we are rare and precious to Him, and His love for us never wavers. At His beck and call, the unseen host of heaven surrounds us, and we need not be afraid.
In Christ –
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