Awe and Wonder

Romans 11:33  “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out.” [This was actually the assigned text for the previous week, but we got out of sequence somehow!}

There was a night not long ago when I had trouble falling asleep. As I lay awake I could look to the south and see a very bright light in the sky. Without my glasses on I couldn’t be sure whether it was the moon or a very bright star. I had seen the moon earlier as I was coming home from a meeting and it was a crescent moon but through the window screen the light was filtered in such a way that what I was seeing might have been a thin crescent. Well, finallyI got up and put my glasses on and went outside to see and then it was obviously a planet. The moon had gone down by that time and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. However many billions of stars there are, you could see everyone of them. The Milky Way stretched across the sky from one end to the other. So I sat down for a while and just looked. Phrases from the psalms came to mind:
The heavens declare the glory of God * and the firmament showeth his handiwork
He telleth the number of the stars, * and calleth them all by their names.
When I consider the heavens the work of thine hands, *
the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained
What is man that thou art mindful of him *
and the son of man that thou visitest him.
Unfortunately I memorized the psalms in the days before inclusive and politically correct language, but maybe you get the point. That’s one way to talk about the stars.
Another to talk about the stars is in the Encyclopedia which tells us that, “Stars are massive, self-luminous objects, shining by radiation derived from internal energy sources.” There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy and the nearest one Is 4 1/3 light years away. One of the brightest stars in the sky, Deneb, is 1400 light years away.  Some of the largest stars are 400 to 600 times the size of the sun. That is fairly prosaic information but I think my response to the stars is largely shaped by this kind of data.
In the Psalmist’s day the stars were thought to be fixed in a dome above the earth and maybe not that far away, so their response was different from mine. Their response was to the beauty of the stars; mine is in large part to the immensity of the universe, the sheer unimaginable size of creation.
It’s interesting that the word “awesome” has become popular in recent years because “awe” is what I’m talking about and awe is what we have more reason for today than ever before in human history. A sense of awe is one of those basic human instincts that just in itself seems to point to another dimension of existence. Fear and love and courage and joy and many other emotions have a practical survival value; they help preserve the species. But awe, a sense of wonder and reverence, is somehow different. It seems to serve no practical purpose. It leads to activities like worship that have no obvious survival value.  It seems to point to a power beyond ourselves with whom we might have a relationship.
When I was a candidate for ordination to the priesthood, one of the requirements was (and still is) to write three sermons on texts assigned by a group of senior priests. Mine came in the mail so I opened the letter and found my assignment. I’ve completely forgotten the other two texts, but the third was in this morning’s epistle: Romans 11:33 – “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out.”  How’s that for a text for your first sermon!
I don’t know whether the sermon I wrote is still in a file somewhere. I don’t think I ever actually preached it. And I didn’t even try to find it in preparation for this morning. But I’ve never forgotten this text – or forgiven the examining board for asking me to wrestle with it. But what a marvelous statement it is of who God is and who we are.
Now Paul put those words at the end of what may be the longest and most carefully thought out piece of theology he ever wrote. Paul was a practical man. His letters are full of specific advice about specific problems. But when he wrote to Rome he was grappling with a mystery he had never quite resolved in his own mind: why so many in Israel had failed to accept Jesus as Messiah. How could it be: God, the Creator, made the universe and created the human race in the image of God, and called Abraham to be the first of a chosen race and promised them the Messiah.  How could that chosen race not fulfill their destiny? Paul agonized over it and finally reasoned out a theory: he suggests that Israel’s rejection took place to enable the Gentiles to be brought in like a wild olive branch grafted into a cultivated tree.  And then, says St. Paul, if the wild branch is grafted in, eventually the natural branch will be grafted back in also and Jews and Gentiles alike will be nourished by the same tree, worship the same God, be reunited as branches of one family to the greater glory of God.
And then – and then – at the end of that long, logical, reasoning out comes this burst of awe and praise: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out.”  But that comes at the end of the rational process. Paul has taken reason as far as he can before he turns to awe and wonder.  I believe that that is exactly what God meant us to do. You hear people say, “Well, you have to take it on faith,” and very often it seems to me that’s an excuse for not thinking. There have been times and places when the Christian church – parts of it any way – have taught that approach: “Take it on faith; use your mind from Monday to Friday but leave it at the church door.  Don’t bother to try to figure things out on Sunday; just believe.”  As if the Creator of the universe created minds by mistake. As if God could be glorified best by mindless beings.
It’s one of the hall marks of our Anglican tradition that it gives a very high place to the use of reason. Ask your friends what the final authority is in their church, and some will tell you it’s the pope and some will tell you it’s the Bible and some may even tell you it’s the congregation. But the traditional Anglican answer is “Scripture, tradition, and reason.” The Bible comes first, of course, but the Bible doesn’t answer every question. The Bible never mentions worshiping on Sunday; that’s a tradition almost universally accepted. So if we can’t find it in the Bible, we ask others and try to find out what Christians have usually thought and done. And that can give us very useful guidance.
But sometimes neither the Bible nor tradition has an answer or maybe they have an answer we can’t really accept.  Maybe it seems to us as if Christians in the past have always found a wrong answer and we have a better one: like the ordination of women. The Bible has no solid evidence either way, but tradition has been negative.  Over the last thirty or forty years most Anglicans have come to believe that the tradition was wrong and women should be ordained. It seems reasonable in the light of the general attitude of Jesus and Paul, the larger feel of the Biblical witness, and so our church has done what the Roman Church and Orthodox Church will probably also do in the next hundred years. Human reason must be respected. What else is it for?            But reason can be mistaken and it has its limitations. So what happens then? I think we very often get the impression that reason is a plank that takes you part way and then you jump: the so-called “leap of faith.”  But it seems to me that’s not quite how it is. Why would we jump if we had no reason to do so? Why would we believe unless there were reasons?
I think it might be better  to think of different ways of knowing. There’s scientific investigation and evidence and proof; that gives us one kind of knowledge. But I doubt we have that kind of knowledge about most of the decisions we make.  The last time I bought a car it was second hand and I didn’t know – couldn’t possibly know – how good a buy it was. But I knew the dealer and I trust him. That’s reason enough.
I read an article once on the state of American music and the enormous variety of styles and voices. It ended up this way: “The all-American messiness of contemporary taste is something to be savored. Don’t try to make sense of it; lean forward and listen.”  But isn’t that also a way of knowing? You can’t demonstrate or prove to me that one form of music is superior to others, but you know what music speaks to you and when you lean forward and listen you are responding to something beyond reason and logic which is not unreasonable or illogical;  in fact, it too is a way of knowing.  Imagine, if you can, a world without music and art galleries, in which all decisions were scientifically logical and no one ever planted flowers or went to concerts or gazed at the stars or got married.
I wonder, actually, if in such a world there would be any scientists because who would be motivated to study the stars unless they had a sense of wonder and awe? Who would plant a garden or sing a hymn or get married? So instead of our assumption that reason comes first and awe begins where reason leaves off, might it be more accurate to say that wonder inspires reason and reason deepens wonder and that both are ways of knowing which need to work together to produce the fullest knowledge and the deepest faith?
This service this morning can be looked at simplistically as following a two step progression: first, lessons for the mind; second, a sacrament beyond our understanding. There is some truth to that. But the lessons ought also to inspire a sense of wonder: the prophet Isaiah, this passage in Romans, Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. There’s more going on there than logic. And when we come to the sacrament, how can we respond as deeply as we should unless we have tried to work out as far as we can how it is that God feeds us, renews us, in the gifts of bread and wine? And then, the logic of language is deepened by the inspiration of music and the beauty of music helps to fix the words in our minds as well as in our hearts. And all of it is a way of knowing.
Some things I know by reason and logic – but maybe not the important things. I know you and you know me by a process that involves very little of logic and a  great deal of wonder and even awe.  There remains always a  mystery about human life and relationships. There’s probably much more that we don’t know than what we do. l’ve often said, “If I understood human beings better I might go into the ministry.” But here I am –  and it’s probably because of  the mystery, the constant sense of  wonder, that is part of all our relationships and especially those built on faith.  I don’t think I knew that nearly as well when I was ordained as I know it now. Notice the verb “know.”  I know what I know not by any sort of  scientific knowledge but from long years of  experience that only increase the wonder and awe and joy. We stand always on the edge of that boundless ocean of knowledge and wisdom Paul points to in the reading today and which I’m sure you know also and which is why you are here.  When you get to the end of it and understand it all, you can stop coming.

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