Series: January 2024
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"Start With Awe"
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise the Lord in the heights!
2 Praise the Lord, all God’s angels;
praise the Lord, all God’s host!
3 Praise God, sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining stars!
4 Praise God, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for God commanded and they were created.
6 God established them forever and ever;
God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9 Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for God’s name alone is exalted;
God’s glory is above earth and heaven.
14 God has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all God’s faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Start with Awe
Our decorations have remained not because we are behind in taking them down, but because in the church Christmas, like Easter, is a season not merely a day. It ended yesterday with epiphany, the grand realization, but we left them up until today so we could close this season together with a little ritual, even though we may not be as mighty in numbers as we were on Christmas Eve.
Do you ever wonder why fewer are taken with religion, except perhaps on holidays? It might be anti-institutionalism. It might be stuffy dogma. It might be there are more things to do. I think it’s more fundamental; the story we tell doesn’t resonate. I found in my notes somewhere this line: “If I ever leave the church, it will not be because the story is too big, too fantastical; it will be because the story is too small.”
It’s easier to show you. I got this card on a paleontological dig as a family a few summers back in Wyoming. It is an illustrated geological timeline and history of life on earth. Here you see the Cambrian period, the Ordivician, the Silurian, and these are two of the five periods beforethe Triassic, the first of three dinosaur epochs. Here’s an interesting fact about the length of the three dinosaur periods: the time between Stegosaurus, and early dinosaur, and Tyrannosaurus, a late dinosaur is greater than the time between Tyrannosaurus and us! So, we come on to the scene way up here on the card, which puts the Bible here, Jesus here, and us here. And this is just earth!
We know the story is much bigger than what we read about in scripture which while addressing universal themes is time and culture bound, even Jesus’ ministry, which all took place somewhere between 12 and 36 months. Somewhere along the way, we started to act as if God could be found in here rather than in our life, our time and place. Thomas Berry reminds us that the universe is the “primary revelation of God.” The Bible was born from it, not the other way around. Religion doesn’t own God or spirituality. Religions are sets of tools and practices, pools of wisdom that we can use to make sense of our lives and give them shape and direction.
The scriptures may understand their place better than many Christians have, pointing beyond themselves to the creation: “In the beginning…the earth was a formless void…a Wind/Spirit/Breath of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…” (Gen 1). That’s how it begins, Genesis 1. Psalm 148, which you heard, is a song of praise to the celestial landscape, heavens, sun and moon, shining stars, sea monsters and ocean depths, snow and frost, wind (again), mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and domesticated, creeping and flying things, and then only then (way up here) people, all peoples; it’s universal and universe-al. “Brother Sun,” says St. Francis as we repeated in our Call to Worship, “Sister Moon.”
Jesus is placed within this larger cosmic story. When he is baptized, the heavensare torn apart, and he too emerges from formless waters, signifying a new creation, as the Spirit/Wind/Breath of God descend upon him. In this other sacramental moment, communion, Jesus identifies himself with the elements—intentionally chosen word—“Take eat,” he says of bread, “This is my body” and of the cup, “This is my blood of the covenant [the great promise].” Maybe this is more literal than we usually treat it. This creation that so inspires poets, intrigues scientists, moves sunset watchers, sailors, and stargazers, is where the Christ is too, is where Creator is, and when we want to experience the Creator that’s one place we will find him, her, them, it.
I don’t have to tell you a new, bigger story. You already know it. On one level we all know it. We just have to practice getting back in touch with it, remembering it, so that it might remember us back into being. This is not just passive privileged pleasure-cruising, though pleasure is okay. This is character-forming, moral formation, and this is why we have to get reconnected with a deeper reality that we can find in the world not just in a book: We care about what we feel connected to, we love what you care about, and we protect/take care of what we love. The starting point of it all is awe. When we realize what we are a part of, how big this story is, isn’t the response awe? We don’t own the stars. Neither does my neighbor nor my enemy, but we are born of them. We are all born of them by the same divine breath. We have a divine kinship that deserves our tending.
As we start a new year on the secular calendar, I invite you to start where it always started for our ancestors – awe. Whenever people encounter God or God in Christ, the response is always some form of awe. That’s how they know, and that’s a signal they’re about to be changed, formed, put in touch with this deeper connection that defies all separation and enmity.
You don’t have to absorb every great moral teaching, master every diet in the first week of the year. In fact, skip that. Make your resolution for now be to cultivate awe. I found in an article in Psychology Todaythat gives 7 ways to do this. You can make your own list.
- Take awe excursions in nature – connect with something vast that expands your frame of reference.
- Go to repositories of awe, conservatories, museums, concert halls, gardens. Spend slow time there.
- Record awe experiences – integrate them by writing or somehow responding to them. Create an “awe portfolio.”
- Meditate on the awe-inspiring. I’d call this a kind of prayer. Psychology Today mentions using passages from the Bible (!), but you don’t have to limit yourself to that, just awe-inspiring.
- Connect with awe-inspiring stories, other accounts of awe.
- Use media to experience awe. For all its shortcomings, it can bring us things we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Be creative with what you listen to or watch.
- Be mindful, attentive, to the awe you experience.Acknowledge it.
So now, as our children learn in “Sacred Stories”, we don’t put out the Advent candles, we change the light so that we might recognize it shines not only in here, and certainly not only in here (Bible), but all around out there.