The small yellow flowers were soft between my thumb and finger, not yet stiff like some of the others and not still fuzzy and white, like those yet to bloom. Rain had arrived last month, and the creosote had turned it into this gentle flash of color. It was spring in the Mojave, and I was hustling up the trail to catch the sunset from the summit.
Ahead of me was Amboy Crater, a possibly extinct (but probably not) volcano that had spit out 28 square miles of black rock on the alluvial floor of the desert. The crater isn’t that tall, just a few hundred feet, but its spherical shape and the sharp contrast of its dark color against the desert makes it look exactly like your expectations for a volcano.
It was the last hour of the day and though the air was still hot, the low angle of the sun made for long shadows and a tolerable hike. Stepping up onto the black rock and around the bend, I saw the opening of the crater at the top of an angled field of rough boulders. This rough rock had been spewed out some 5000 years ago, old compared to human civilization, but easily some of the youngest rock in California. Compared to much of the rock above my home in Los Angeles, this rock was like the springtime creosote flowers living beneath it. Here today, eroded tomorrow.
At the top of the crater, I scanned the horizon to catch the view in every direction, the ridges layered in shades that faded away into the haze. The sun dropped into the golden glow of a cloudless sunset. The shadow of the crater lengthened behind me. A train rumbled in the distance. I sat on a rock to watch and wait; chugged some water I’d packed; texted pictures to my wife. I watched the people watching the sunset on the opposite side of the crater. An insistent wind blew in my face. The sun touched the mountains at the horizon and slipped out of view. The glare gone, I scanned the horizon once again, and then headed down and hiked back to the parking lot.
Sunset on top of Amboy Crater in springtime would have been enough to get me out here and out of the city for the day, but I had come primarily for another reason. This weekend was the weekend of the new moon, which meant tonight would be a dark night full of very bright stars. On a bed of gravel at the overflow parking lot, I set up my telescopes and sat down to watch the night sky come alive: Sirius and Capella, Orion and the Dippers, and dimmer constellations I can’t come close to seeing in Los Angeles.
I had come to the desert in order to see more and see far. For one part of the year, for a couple hours per night, the biggest star cluster in our night sky, Omega Centauri, is visible on the southern horizon. I got a bead on it after midnight, finding it in my little refractor, looking like a fuzzy cotton ball. In my much larger reflecting telescope it resolved into a glittering sphere of stars—dense and huge—a magnificent sight in southern sky.
High above, the space between the constellations Virgo and Leo seemed as full of galaxies as it was of stars. With no light pollution to drown them out, I bounced from one to the next. So many galactic smudges went by that it was hard to tell which was which. They came in all shapes and sizes: face-on, edge-on, elliptical, and angled. At one point, Markarian’s Chain, an asterism of galaxies, filled up the field of view in my eyepiece. With seven galaxies in view all at once, how many billions or trillions of stars must there be looking at me as I looked at them? “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them,” the Lord had said to Abraham (Genesis 15:5). “What is mankind, that you are mindful of them,” humanity replies (Psalm 8:4).
Later I got down to the business of serious searching. I wanted to go deep, very deep. There were two quasars on my search list. These “stars” are the product of a black hole interacting with gas at the center of very distant galaxies, outshining the galaxies in which they live. I star-hopped to the spot and then double, triple, quadruple checked the view in my eyepiece with the view in my sky atlas. This must be it! I was looking at light 2 billion light years away. Then off to another, which I think I had right (I’m a pastor not a scientist), whose light came from over 4 billion light years away, the time when our solar system was just forming. Astounded, I sat back in awe, contemplating the distance as I watched the river of stars from our own galaxy come up on the eastern horizon.
The vastness of the universe and stretches of time measured in units beyond any ordinary human reckoning is a reminder for me of the unfathomable greatness of the holiness of God. That such ancient reaches of the universe could be accessible to my eyeballs with some fairly ordinary equipment never ceases to amaze me. I keep telling myself that that light left that galaxy to travel to my eye how many years ago?! I sit there cackling at the eyepiece, believing that “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4).
And he knows me by name too, because at the same time that the vastness of the universe suggests for us how wide and long and high and deep is the holiness of God, the Scriptures also insist that the love of God is just as big. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11). Our lives are so short and small, like those lovely little creosote flowers that come out in the spring, set inside a universe vast beyond knowing. But our value to our Creator is revealed by his love for us in Christ the Redeemer at the cross. “For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him” (Psalm 103:14-17).
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