Scientists in Colorado are studying the amount of light in the universe, and they have discovered a curious thing. There is far more light in the universe than they can account for, from the sources of light they know of. One of the scientists said, “The universe is like a brightly lit room, but you only see one 40-watt bulb. You wonder where all the light is coming from.” Then he said, “The way we understand light may be fundamentally wrong. The universe is exciting, scary, and mostly mysterious.”
I love this honest, humble admission of how limited our knowledge is. And it reminds me of what I call the ‘Thimble Principle.’ What I know fits into a thimble, and what I don’t know fills the rest of space. It’s always good to keep the Thimble Principle in mind and remember that what we don’t know if far more than what we do know, and even what we do know may be ‘fundamentally wrong.’
Let’s turn to today’s Bible reading (Genesis 42:29-38). Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people. Jacob lived in the land of Israel with his family. A famine came upon the land, and Jacob had to send his sons down to Egypt to buy grain. He sent all of them except his youngest son, Benjamin. Benjamin was the only remaining son of Jacob’s wife Rachel. (He had 12 sons by several mothers; his was the original blended family.) Rachel is gone by now in the story, and her older son Joseph is also gone. All Jacob has left to remember Rachel is Benjamin, so he wants to keep him safe at home, and he sends his other sons down to Egypt to buy grain.
They meet with the head Egyptian official in charge of grain distribution. He is unexpectedly harsh with them, asking them many questions about their home and who is left back in Israel. He accuses them of being spies. He takes one of them hostage, Simeon, and he sends the rest back to their father Jacob, along with grain for food, but he tells them they can only return to Egypt to get more grain (and recover Simeon!) if they bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. They return to their father Jacob distraught. Jacob himself has a meltdown. He doesn’t want to put Benjamin in harm’s way. Rachel has died, and Joseph, Benjamin’s older brother, is gone too. He doesn’t know what to do.
But what Jacob doesn’t know, and what his other sons also do not know, is that the Egyptian official they have spoken to, the man who was harsh to them and demanded that Benjamin come down to Egypt too — this man IS Benjamin’s older brother and Jacob’s lost son Joseph. You see, about 20 years earlier, Joseph’s brothers played a terrible trick on their father. They faked Joseph’s death because they hated him, and they sold him into slavery to a group of traders headed to Egypt. All these years that Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, Joseph has been alive and having his own adventure in Egypt. Joseph is playing a trick on his brothers now by pretending not to know them, just as they played a trick on their father many years earlier.
Jacob is about to have a surprise that will blow his life wide open. The impossible is about to be possible for him. He will allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt with his other sons, and Joseph, on seeing his younger brother, will reveal himself to his other half-brothers, who had not recognized him before. (He spoke and dressed as an Egyptian.) Then Joseph will invite Jacob and the whole family to come down to Egypt and live as long as the famine continues in Israel. There will be a great family reunion.
But my point is this: this belief that Jacob had for 20 years that his son Joseph was dead, this belief was fundamentally wrong. That Joseph was actually alive was not in Jacob’s tiny thimble of knowledge. And when he discovered that Joseph was alive, he was astonished with the surprise of his life.
Be open yourself to being surprised. Surprised by life. Surprised by God. Surprised by what is possible. Remember that what you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know. When you own your own ignorance, then this opens you up to being surprised. The ones who are never surprised are the ones who cling tenaciously to their thimble of knowledge.
There is a scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence must cross an awful, deadly desert. No one ever crosses it because no one comes out alive. But Lawrence takes his men across the desert, and they survive. Just as they are coming out of the desert, as the oasis is in sight, Lawrence notices that one of their camels is without a rider. The rider has fallen off and is back in the terrible desert. Lawrence determines to go back and rescue him. Everyone in the company objects. Lawrence’s friend Ali says, “It must have been that man’s time to die. It is written.” But Lawrence takes his camel back into the desert to rescue the lost man, while the rest of his company continues forward to the oasis and safety. Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, cue the dramatic music, and Lawrence comes out of the terrible desert a second time, holding the rescued man with him on his camel. He comes to the oasis and takes a drink of water from his friend Ali. Then he says to Ali, “Nothing is written.”
Nothing is written. That someone could survive that desert a second time was not in Ali’s thimble of knowledge. Lawrence taught him that the impossible is possible.
So be open to being surprised by what is possible in your life. Remember that what you know or think you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know.
Be open to being surprised at what you can do personally. Maybe you are facing a desert, and no one thinks you can cross it. Maybe you don’t think you can do it either. But how do you know? Nothing is written. Allow yourself to be surprised at what you can do.
A group of us went to Cass Community Social Services in Detroit last Wednesday for a day-long mission trip. In the afternoon, we listened to the formerly homeless men there tell us their stories. They work in the little factory Cass has making mud mats, coasters, and flip-flops to sell. They used to live on the streets, and now they have jobs and apartments. One of them said, “I am learning to manage my finances.” It made me smile. He used to be on the streets, and now he needs Dave Ramsey! He must be surprising himself at what is possible in his life. Let yourself be surprised at what you can do too.
Also, be open to being surprised by what we can do as a community of faith. Some folks here think our congregation is going to continue to decline and then close the doors. But you don’t know that. The 184 year history of our congregation has already been written, but whatever happens from now on is a blank book with a bunch of blank pages in it. Allow yourself to be surprised at what will be written in those pages as we cooperate with God. Some things are disappearing, and new things are coming to birth here. Remember the thimble, and open yourself to the future.
I have my thimble here. I have a little piece of paper that I will fold and put into the thimble. It says three words: “I Am Loved.” That’s all I know for sure. I am loved. I am loved by Linda and my family. I am loved by my friends. And mostly importantly, I am loved by God.
When we know that we are loved by God, then that gives us a deep security. We know that God will always take care of us. And we can walk with confidence into an unknown future, step by step and day by day with the God who makes all things new. Amen.