I want to reflect with you upon the sense of wonder which we ought to
have as believers. I'd go so far as to suggest that a genuine sense of
wonder, of radical amazement, is a characteristic of the believer; and we
should be seriously worried if we lack it. So many of the Psalms record the
faithful writers' awestruck wonder at God's ways, at the human body, at His
acts in history, at creation. Even under inspiration, Paul writes of how he
himself is caught up in utter marvel at the way God's grace works to save
both Jews and Gentiles: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and
knowledge of God!" (Rom. 11:33). Three times a day the Orthodox Jew prays:
"We thank thee for thy miracles which are daily with us, for thy continued
marvels". And in the evening liturgy they recite the words of Job 9:10: God
"does great things past finding out, marvellous things without number". And
perhaps spiritual Israel can take a lesson from this; a regular sense of
wonder should fill our daily lives. But does it?
I'm sure you've had those rare moments of wonder, of insight, of 'getting it', or feeling you are somewhere along the road of getting it... but where do they come from, and what do they mean? I suggest they are all about our meeting with God. The Bible reveals that God is in search of man. "Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel" (Hos. 9:10); "He found him in a desert land...he encircled him, he cared for him" (Dt. 32:10); "I have found David my servant" (Ps. 89:20). Jeremiah's search for believers was a reflection of God's: "Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth" (Jer. 5:1). God hunts for us like a lion, Job came to realize; and in this "You show yourself wonderful to me" (Job 10:16). And we are searching for God. God is not indifferent to our searching for Him. Those awestruck moments of wonder, of radical amazement, are where God finds us at the time we are searching for Him. Both sides are seeking each other; and in those moments, they meet. As a Jewish poet put it: "And going out to meet thee / I found thee coming toward me". In those moments, heaven and earth kiss each other. There is a click, a flash, between Almighty God and us- as we stand at a bus stop, turn left into Acacia Avenue, lay there on our bed meditating.
Wonder doesn't mean we cease to analyze God's word; it's a sense of touching reality, not a fuzzy feeling of vague speculation. It's tempting to assume that it's the natural creation which alone provokes wonder. But Biblically, it's more often God's actions in history, His saving of His Israel, His grace, His undeserved helping of us in practical situations (e.g. Jer. 21:2) which are what should provoke wonder. Otherwise the blind would have no sense of wonder at God. God's whole plan in Christ "is wonderful in our eyes" (Ps. 118:23). It is a "marvellous work and a wonder" (Is. 29:14; Acts 13:41).
Yet beholding the stars and the natural world lead the Psalmists to wonder. But this was not because they saw them as an end in themselves; the writers looked to the God and the covenant with us which is beyond them. The natural creation is a mystery, a question- but not the answer. To simply observe it won't give the answers. "Pitiless is the silence of the sky". Job went so far as to say: "If I have looked at the sun when it shone, or the moon moving in splendour... I should have been false to God above" (Job 31:26-28). The prophets seem to discount any form of nature worship. The answers to the questions creation poses are to be found, to put it bluntly, in the Bible. Few people really know what to do with their lives, with their minds, with their encounters with a sunset or the mysteries of life... we need guidance, and that guidance is in God's word. Humanity senses that there is something 'there' which is within our reach but beyond our grasp; an undisclosed meaning, an allusiveness to some One beyond, a whisper of some forgotten mother tongue, scattered hints, something cryptic. And we need help to get to it. A passing sense of wonder at the night sky as a man glances at it for a few moments longer than usual one evening from his balcony... needs to lead to the questions in response to God's questions: Who or what is He? What is His Name, His hope for me, His ability... how should I respond? And the answers to those questions aren't in nature itself, but in God's word. "You are great and do wonders... teach me your way, O Lord; I will walk in your way" (Ps. 86:10,11). The moments of wonder which God affords His creatures aren't intended to lead them into wild speculation; but rather to incite them to seek His revealed truth in His word.
But for these questions to be sincerely asked, they must be provoked not by the idle intellectual curiosity of a moment, but by the sense of wonder which arises from faith. Remember how the Lord repeatedly tells the cynical and unbelieving Jews of His day not to marvel / wonder, but to believe. Perhaps we're intended to read in an ellipsis to these passages: '[Don't only] marvel / wonder [but believe]’. If we know that "we are of God", that He is with us, with me personally... then our wonder at creation will be of a different order to that felt by the unbeliever; we will be able to feel some connection with the natural world which the people of the world don't feel. We will be able to say with Job that we are "in league with the stones of the field" (Job 5:23). And thus we will feel God's very real presence; that man is not alone; I am not alone. There is God, and a God who is "for me", Emmanuel, God with us and for us in His Son. The most basic words of Scripture need to be felt by us: "You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me". Our moments of wonder will arise from our realization that the natural and supernatural aren't two different spheres, a beauty up there or out there which is separate from our mess down here. "The earth is the Lord's". The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity dwells both in the high and holy place, and with those who are of a humble and contrite spirit to His word (Is. 57:15). For those who don't know the Father and Son, the search for God through nature must lead ultimately to some sense of doubt. But the Biblical perspective is so different. There are so many words in Biblical Hebrew for "wonder"; but not one which means "doubt".
Man In Search Of Wonder
We too often kid ourselves that nobody is really interested in our message. But not so. People are aware that there is something beyond their mundane experience, the emotional flatland and seeking for petty 'fun' which characterizes our postmodern world. Humanity is confronted with a world that alludes to something beyond itself, to a truth beyond experience. Ps. 19 speaks of how the sun, moon and stars speak to humanity with no voice nor words. And yet that very passage is applied in the New Testament to the preachers of the Gospel. In mankind's meeting with us they should be seeing the same unspoken message which there is in the heavens above. We really can lead them on from their vague sense that there's something else out there in life and existence. They may feel that the answers lie shrouded by some impenetrable fog. But we need the spirit of Paul, when he noticed an altar to an unknown God. "Whom you ignorantly seek / worship, Him I will declare to you". People are fast realizing that advanced technology, social reforms, a rational approach to life... simply isn't the answer to our spiritual needs. People are seeking something beyond. They're asking the right questions, but seeking answers in the wrong places. It's becoming increasingly evident that as a planet, we can't solve our problems; and the nature of the global village now is that a few men- be they the 9/11 terrorists, Bush, Saddam, Obama or Osama - may throw all men into final disaster. Something beyond us is needed to save us; and people are realizing this, even if only subconsciously. The whole planet is ripe for harvesting by the preacher of the true Gospel.
What Stops Wonder
If God is replaced merely with a creed, love by habit, then our sense of wonder will wane. "The truth" is a Biblical phrase, but I think it refers essentially to the covenant truthfulness of God to us, rather than implying that those who are "in the truth" therefore know all there is to know about God. If this is what we think- nothing will be very wondrous for us, if we think we know it all already. Every Biblical paradox will be 'easily explained'; there will be for us no sense of mystery left. Whereas I suggest there are many intentional paradoxes in God's word, which defy rational resolution. The whole nature of the Lord Jesus, Son of God and yet Son of man, is itself the "great mystery of Godliness". A statement of faith, a list of accurate theological propositions, is all well and good and useful in some ways. But a mere combination of concepts won't of itself produce wonder and awe of God. If misused, it can hinder it. If we identify ourselves as believers with a creed set in stone, then the great sweep of the spirit which occurs in those moments of wonder will swerve into the blind alley of literalism and preformulated theological propositions, seeking to force the infinite God whom we wonder at into the triteness of our minds. True wonder at God produces creative thinking; for we have interacted with God in those intense moments of amazement, and we will not be inspired by that encounter to return to our familiar paths of thought and behaviour, but rather to quit those rat runs and reach out to Him in newness of life and thinking. Words and symbols cannot adequately convey our sense of wonder. Indeed, our sense of wonder is exactly because we have encountered something we know is ultimately beyond our comprehension.
The endless petty things of life naturally stop us having the 'wonder' feelings constantly. In the same way as God has to have some distance and hiddenness from us, so man cannot constantly be enraptured in wonder at God. We can't live in the intensity of the 'wonder' moments all the time. And yet we can too easily glory in the petty distractions of life, rather than seeking to minimize them in our lives. Look up at the sky, and then hold a small coin in front of your eye. That very small thing can obscure the vision of so much. And so it is with the leaking gutters, sick cat, crying baby... which fill our lives. And yet I'd say that in the same way there's an afterglow of the evening after the sun has set, so there should be a glow which characterizes our lives, in between the moments of actual wonder.
The Spirit Of Our Age
But like Israel, we can forget God's wonders, lose the intensity of those moments we once shared with Him (Ps. 78:11). Our worship can so easily become mechanical, the flame of praise dies out all too soon. When was the last time you spontaneously did something for the Father and Son, or burst out in heartfelt praise, in response to real wonder? It’s indifference, lack of passion, which, it seems to me, is the besetting tragedy of our age. When did you last really shed tears? When were you moved, really wrenched in your gut, by the suffering of others, by the sin of this world, your own sin, your part in humanity’s tragic rejection of God… when did you last feel for God in His pain, as He sees His beloved children and creation walk away from Him day after day, second after second? When did you last feel ecstatic joy, deep sadness… in this post-modern world of surface level emotion?
In human nature, the pole of regularity is stronger than the pole of spontaneity. We so easily slip into habit, whereas the 'wondrous acts of God', of which the Bible speaks so much, are intended to shake us from this mire of mediocrity. Confronted by a spectacular sunset, modern man at best grabs his cell phone and snaps a picture of it, and then gets distracted forwarding it to his friends. But ultimately, there's no neutrality before God. To ignore the implications of that sunset is to effectively deny Him. And of course man doesn't stand before God just for the duration of that sunset; our relation to Him isn't an episode, He demands our life and soul. What we face in that sunset [or whatever awesome aspect of creation we encounter] isn't merely a passing state of mind within us, a vague aspiration of a moment; it is a contact with the everlasting fact of the universe, namely God. We return from those moments of encounter all too easily to the issues of our family, employment, society, groups to which we belong. But our relations to those things don't penetrate every strata of our personality and existence. In our final solitude, as we face death, those things fade away and leave us with our inner longing for God. And it is this which we must allow first place whilst we have life, and not grant Him merely a few moments of occasional wonder and reflection as we charge through life. And it's not just a pretty sunset which should elicit this awareness; to the spiritually minded man, in every event, every encounter in this world, there is something spiritual at stake, something of God.
A worship of science and technology has without any doubt decreased our
sense of wonder and spontaneity. Rationalism has been the keynote of our
modern world; everything can be explained, so they think; or at least,
science will one day explain it. There's no place left for wonder. People
need an ever more dramatic 'wonder' experience to break them away from their
rationalism. The modern world has trivialized existence; adults spend hours
playing dumb games on their keyboards, pressing keys and clicking a mouse in
a certain sequence. Study and reflection is used in order to get
qualifications which enable more money to be earned; but there's a lack of
deep personal analysis, any time free from money making is whiled away on
the inanities of entertainment. There's even an anti-intellectual climate
around, whereby anything other than 'fun' is frowned upon or shied away from
as too challenging and intrusive. People generally fail to see any ultimate
significance in anything. And so when confronted by the overpowering sunset,
the sense of awe never runs very deep and soon fades away.
Yet in those 'awesome' experiences we are facing a question from God. We don't come to God through asking the right questions as one does in scientific analysis. For can we by searching find out God? This was the whole climax of the book of Job- it wasn't Job's questions which led him to God, but God's questions to Him. I'd suggest that human philosophy starts with human questions; but true Chrisianity begins with God's questions to us, and His ultimate question is posed in the cross of His Son. We may easily accept the theory of all I've written here. Job did too. He spoke in his earlier speeches of the wondrous nature of God's power. But it needed the speeches of Elihu and God Himself to make Job really experience wonder. What he had heard in theory, by the hearing of the ear, his eye came to see personally. God's response to Job's suffering and self-absorption was to instill in Job a real sense of wonder. And He works likewise with us.
Where Wonder Leads
- Wonder leads to worship, to that flame of praise which is the worship "in spirit and in truth" which the Father seeks. But wonder adds awe and reverence to that worship. And we have to ask how much of that there is in much popular worship today, be it in starchy hymns or rock music. 1 Chron. 16:9 makes the connection between wonder and worship quite plain: "Sing unto him, sing praises unto him; talk of all his wonders". Likewise Ps. 9:1: "I will praise you O Lord; I will show forth all your wonders".
- The fear or awe of the Lord, our wonder at Him, is the beginning of wisdom. Wonder isn't a kind of intellectual resignation, giving up on the study of God and retreating into numb feelings. Quite the opposite. True wonder leads to a more earnest seeking after wisdom. The Angel told John that John had 'wondered' in amazement at the visions so that God could now reveal the mystery to him (Rev. 17:6,7). In our wonder we sense we are at the beginning of things of infinite significance, we feel we are starting to grasp something ultimate. And we wish to go further. We will glory in the understanding and knowledge of God which that wonder stimulates us to search out (Jer. 9:22,23). Our eyes are opened to the "wonderful things" in God's law (Ps. 119:18). A sense of wonder in itself will not give us the knowledge of God; it is His word which does this. Nebuchadnezzar in his repentance knew a sense of wonder; and it led him to knowledge, not nagging doubt or wild speculation: "At the end of the days, I lifted up mine eyes to heaven, and my power of knowledge returned to me" (Dan. 4:31).
- Related to this, wonder leads to more faith. God reminded Abraham and Sarah: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14). And the Hebrew word translated "hard" is that usually translated "wonder". In our moments of wonder, and as the afterglow of them permeates our lives, it becomes easier to believe that nothing is too wonderful for our God of wonders to do for us. For He is the God who does wonders, He is wonderful and awesome. Jeremiah theoretically learnt the lesson from God's words to Abraham and Sarah; for he alludes to it in Jer. 32:17: "Ah Lord God! Behold, you have made the heaven and the earth by your great power and by your stretched out arm; there is nothing too hard [wonderful] for you". But God has to remind him soon afterwards in Jer 32:26,27: "Then came the word of the Lord unto Jeremiah, saying, Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard [wonderful] for me?". We think we know all about wonder, when actually we don't. Our lack of total faith shows that we do indeed think God's wonder is limited. Because something is hard / marvellous in our eyes doesn't mean it is in God's eyes (Zech. 8:6).
- Our sense of awe is a tacit recognition of the distance between us and God; yet at the same time it's a realization that He is 'there' and yet He is 'here' too. It's the very perception that there is this distance between us and God which brings us to Him; rather like the silence that draws lovers near. And this 'distance' isn't only a matter of realizing "How great Thou art" in physical / cosmic terms of power, but also in perceiving the distance between our thoughts and His. But our baseline belief in Him and His searching for us draws us closer. It's an amazing thing. That man is not alone. I am not alone; you are not alone. God is in search of man. Planet earth isn't spinning out of control in the cosmos; for "the earth is the Lord's". And His Son shall soon return, right here. One of the hardest things about God to believe is that really, all men matter…you matter. I matter. How we speak, what we do and think, is incredibly significant to God. It is a staggering thought that the Creator of heaven and earth should care about how an obscure individual man behaves toward poor widows, orphans, his wife…
- This faith, inspired by our sense of wonder, will lead to obedience in practice. "Behold I make a covenant: Before all your people I will do wonders... [therefore] observe that [covenant] which I command you this day" (Ex. 34:10,11). Israel refused to be obedient, were stiffnecked, because they were "not mindful of your wonders" (Neh. 9:17). Ps. 78:32 likewise: "For all this they sinned still, and believed not in his wondrous works". Our perception of God's wonder is intended to inspire us not to sin, to be obedient to Him at whom we wonder.
- A real sense of wonder also becomes the base motivation for our witness. "Declare his glory among the gentiles, his wonders among the nations" (1 Chron. 16:24). And the Psalms are full of this, once we appreciate that in their primary context many of them were David's preaching to the Gentile nations around him.
A Scream In The Night
For we who are in Christ, there will be those moments when the wonder of the truth of God breaks again and again over us, as a joyful wave. I can testify to this, as can so many of you. Let us right now try to grasp the wonder of it all. That Christ really will come, soon; that now is my salvation nearer than when I first believed. That the feet of Jesus of Nazareth will surely stand on this earth again, and His Kingdom be eternally here; that He truly was a man of my passions and nature, and yet overcame. That I and my innate selfishness are the real ‘satan’, not someone or something else. That death is death, that this brief and fragile life is the time to serve the Lord, with no fiery hell beneath us, but instead the sure hope of God’s grace. That through baptism, I truly am part of the seed of Abraham and a partaker in Israel’s Hope. And that by the grace of God’s calling, I am delivered from the fog of error which dogs so many about these things. And that there is, in the end, one body of true believers world-wide believing as I do; that the sun that bids me rest is waking my brethren ‘neath the Western sky, so that the voice of praise is never silent. And in the end, it shall never be silent- for you and I shall live forever in God’s Kingdom.
There are times of total desperation and disappointment with myself, with my nature, with this world, with humanity, with my brethren. And I know there are just the same for you too. So in our hard moments, in the hours and days of such utter and essential loneliness, the dark nights of the soul, let’s seek to grasp the wonder of it all again. Reflect again on the power of those things which we most surely believe. Look at nature. Feel God searching for you, as you search for Him. And may we find Him, and in wonder be revived, may the thrill of knowing again His love for us spark a light in the black, as a scream in the night, bringing us to know again the personal presence and power of Jesus my Lord. Not for us ‘the same old scene’. Working on the highway, drilling through the hardtop, hour after mindless hour; changing those nappies, preparing the same food at the same times, day after endless day as we take the same route to work each day, walking to the textile mill, across the railroad tracks, boarding the same bus, coming off at exit 42; in all these things we can be more than conquerors. In the wonder of knowing Him and His saving grace.