Invariably, emphasis in religious practice, sermons, biblical discussion and writings is on the perils of not seeking redemption and of not keeping the faith. Much of what the prophets wrote concerned warnings of dire consequences for failing to heed God’s word. Leviticus and Proverbs, for example, provide critical instruction on correct living. Of course, given the fact that we live in a fallen world, such focus and emphasis cannot be overstated. It is the reason for Jesus’s ministry, his suffering and his sacrifice on our behalf.
The greatness of God, however, should in itself be overwhelming in ensuring faithfulness to him and his precepts. Fourth-century theologian, Gregory Nazianus, stated: “To conceive of God is difficult; to define him is impossible.” Recognition, appreciation and celebration of God as the author and architect of creation along with his works as recorded in the Bible, ought to be so staggeringly dazzling that they superglue us to serving him and glorifying him. Experience, history and everyday life, however, is filled with proof that, sadly, that is not the case.
Nonetheless, in a departure from considering our failings and foibles, this sermon is focused on celebrating our awesome God. We are all familiar with the first chapter of Genesis which recounts the origins of creation. But chapter 38 of Job provides an insight of God interrogating his creation; literally unpacking the nuts, screws and bolts of it. As such, it is the appropriate text on which to launch a celebration of awe.
Excerpts from Job 38
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?… Who marked off its dimensions? Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set?…… Who shut the sea behind the doors….when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place?…. Have you ever given orders to the morning or shown the dawn its place?….. The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? …Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?….. What is the way to the abode of light? And where does the darkness reside?…… Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?…. What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
Who cuts the channel for the torrents of rain and a path for the thunderstorm?….. Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?…..can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?
Job’ response that should be ours
In responding, Job displays humility and awe at God’s power and creation: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted….. things too wonderful for me to know….Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” (42: 2; 6).
Job’s self-abnegation is appropriate in responding to God’s question: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (38: 2). “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (40: 2).
We are endowed with enquiring minds which can probe and realise the greatness of God as Gregory Nazianus did in the fourth century. But that same capacity has led many to scorn God and to dispute his hand in creation. According to such people our existence came about by cosmic accident and not by design. Creation, they claim, evolved as a result of a big bang some 15 billion years ago.
Millions accept that theory which is endorsed by many of the so-called learned community of our day. They brazenly dare to challenge God and to dispute him. Yet their theory is unable to explain many of the crucial aspects of our world which simply could not have resulted by accident. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate that if the axis of our earth was not tilted to the angle of 23½° we would not have the seasons as the earth revolves around the sun. That is taught in Grade 9 Geography. Therefore, it is ridiculous to claim that by some fluke during the big bang that not only was the earth created with all its diversity and capacity to rotate on its own axis, but while that was occurring, its axis was carefully tilted to 23½° – not 20 or 25 but 23½°.
Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of all time, did not believe in the God of the Bible. As a pantheist, he believed that a god is in everything. In 1939 he stated that belief in the God of the Bible was in conflict with rationality. Christians, in his view, had “feeble souls” for cherishing the belief that God rewards and punishes his creatures and that Jesus survived his physical death. Thus, Einstein’s often quoted statement that “God does not play dice with the universe,” is wrongly interpreted as his endorsement of the Biblical account of creation.
In trying to fathom creation, the Bible-deniers fail to appreciate that as finite beings we dwell in an infinity. God is timeless but we are time-bound and measure everything within a time-bound framework. St James expressed it aptly when he wrote, we “are a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes,” (4:14). It is a sad reality that there is a whole industry dedicated to promoting man-made theories of creation and sidelining if not ridiculing Biblical accounts. As Ecclesiastes noted, “yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end’ (3:11). Before leaving Job, let’s admire another one of his gem observations – chapter 26, verses 7 to 10:
….He suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight…..he marks out the horizon….for a boundary between light and darkness.
Space exploration photography has enabled us to appreciate the accuracy and reality of Job’s description of the “earth suspended over nothing.” Pictures of the earth transmitted from space always show the defined boundary line between day and night, light and darkness, which we know results from the rotation of the earth on it axis while it revolves around the sun.
How did that come about? The mathematical consistency of rotation and revolution: every 24 hours; every 365 days; the constant heat of the sun’s rays? How was it all fixed in place? Indeed, as Job exclaimed, “things too wonderful for me to know,” and “wonders that cannot be fathomed” (42:3; 9:10). Of course, science has some answers such as gravitational pull and the solar flaring of hydrogen. But beyond whatever data scientists compile, they fall short on explaining the big questions of how and by who.
David’s awe at God’s creation should inspire us: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?…. You made him ruler over the works of your hands and you put everything under his feet…..O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps 8: 3-9). Yet sadly, today, in terms of name recognition, Bill Gates and Samsung score above God when it comes to the perception of creativity.
In order to appreciate the symmetry of day and night, observe and note the time of sunrise or sunset over say a three or four day period. I did this over the winter solstice –June 21, 22, through to June 24. I watched the red ball of the sun sink over the western horizon and disappear. On June 22, the peak of the solstice, I timed it at 4.56pm. Two days later it had taken nearly a minute longer to fade beyond my horizon. That is the wonder of the design of creation on which the seasons are based and the calculation of time. Take the opportunity to witness it, mindful of what is happening and has been happening unerringly since the beginning of creation. Be awed! Glorify God and have a Job and David moment!
But let us now consider what David noted in Psalm 8 – that God has entrusted man with custody of his earthly creation. Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy provides us with a vista of the grandeur and richness of a part of the earth’s landscape –the promised land. But at the same time it contains a message and a warning.
The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce; a land where rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord for the good land he has given you. Otherwise when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied,…. You will forget the Lord your God…..You may say to yourself, ‘my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember……if you forget the Lord your God, you will be destroyed for not obeying….(verses 7-20).
As an agrarian people, the Israelites were integrally bonded with nature and the environment. So when they failed God, he punished them with droughts, hail, famines, locusts and plagues. Nature and the environment are ever-present in the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. The flood: the elimination of the wicked; forty years in the desert: discipline for waywardness; the promised land: reward for faithfulness; captivity in exile: the punishment for neglecting God.
The beauty of God’s natural creation is displayed widely in the Old Testament. Here is an excerpt from the book Song of Songs. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season for singing as come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance… (2:11-13)
Just as we should be conscious of the daily wonder of sunrise and sunset, so we should find time, literally, to stop and smell the roses. The Camelsfoot tree in my property is in full bloom. I have to walk under it to fetch my copy of the Mercury every morning. So I stop and thrust my nose towards one of the low-hanging blooms. They have a delicate, exquisite fragrance. It brings home what wonders of creation are in our midst. Besides the beauty of the blossom, how does it get that fragrance? Another Job and David moment! In that brief encounter one glorifies God. With few exceptions, no matter where one is, even a window box or a floral arrangement in a room can provide a reminder of the splendour and glory of God’s creation.
So it is sad to witness the plundering and degradation of our environment and ecosystems. Entrusted with safekeeping, man is destroying the natural environment. His indifference, however, does not go unnoticed by God. That is why we read of crop failures, droughts, floods and sicknesses. God punishes man’s disregard for the stewardship bestowed on him and for not glorifying him.
Like several other psalms, Psalm 145 by David is a psalm of praise. He says, “I will meditate on your wonderful works…..tell of the power of your awesome works” (5-6). Let’s reflect, then, on a number of those works to remind ourselves of the uniqueness of God’s powers, be in awe of them. Glorify God.
Venturing beyond the marvel of the creation of our planet, the sun, the moon and the stars, the power of God’s control was first demonstrated by the Flood. He used one part of his creation to destroy another part – corrupt human society. His interventions on behalf of the Israelites when they were captive in Egypt could not be matched by Pharaoh’s magicians. They acknowledged what they termed “the finger of God” when God tormented Egypt with a plagues of gnats and flies (Ex 8).
Pharaoh’s continued refusal to free the Israelites saw Egypt inflicted by a fresh series of plagues. What was remarkable about them was their selective effect. The plague on livestock affected only the livestock belonging to Egyptians. The same distinction occurred when God inflicted a plague of boils and rained down a devastating hail storm. Again, the Israelites were unaffected by those disasters. One needs to pause and try to process from a human standpoint just how astonishing it is that the Israelites and their livestock were immunised against epidemics which otherwise had a universal effect.
Equally astonishing is the plague of darkness. For three days Egypt was plunged into darkness. “No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived,” states Exodus in chapter 10, verse 23. In this instance, our minds should boggle at how God manipulated the rays of the sun so as to isolate the Egyptians in utter darkness.
As astounding as these plagues were, Pharaoh’s heart towards the Israelites remained stubborn. The lesson here is that human nature has not changed. Throughout history hearts have hardened towards God, regardless of the signs and wonders he has performed.
However, Pharaoh finally relented following the plague on the firstborn when again God distinguished between Egyptian and Israelite and cut down the firstborn of every Egyptian child and animal in a night known as the Passover. Pharaoh’s words to Moses are interesting: “Go… take your flocks and herds and go. And also bless me” (Ex 12:32). Did Pharaoh’s apparent eleventh-hour repentance signify that even the most obdurate opponents of God can be turned around? In Pharaoh’s case, however, it was short lived. By allowing his labour force, the Israelites, to leave Egypt, he crippled Egypt’s economy. He had to get them back. So he despatched his army to do just that.
Once again, the power of God in directing the course of events was displayed. The parting of the sea, driven back by a strong east wind so that the Israelites could walk between walls of water on dry ground and escape Pharaoh’s army, is another example of creation recognising and obeying its creator. Scientists and sceptics scoff at this incident telling us that it is impossible and must be an exaggeration. But as we know, with God nothing is impossible.
Another Old Testament wonder that has the sceptics baffled is the crossing of the Jordan River. Despite the river being in flood, the water upstream stopped flowing and piled up in a great heap. The whole of Israel passed through the river bed on dry ground (Josh 3:15-17). The significance of that event was noted by Joshua as follows: “The Lord God did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God” (Josh 4: 24). But, as time wore on, memories faded and hearts hardened despite the reminders of the prophets. Israel suffered when it stopped glorifying God.
New Testament wonders
The word “amazed” frequently occurs in accounts of the miracles Jesus performed. Since they were performed amongst ordinary people, we don’t read about scepticism. That attitude was manifested amongst the so-called learned, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who claimed that it was Beelzebub, the prince of demons, who powered Jesus. The same scepticism and refusal to acknowledge God’s infinite power prevails today. A sceptic once told me that the blank period in the four evangelists’ account of Jesus’s life between the age of 12, when he was found in the temple, and the age of 30, when he started his public ministry, was the time that Jesus spent learning magic in a distant eastern land.
While news of the wonders Jesus performed spread far and wide, there was a grey area in as far as realising who he is. The ordinary folk were in awe. The apostles seemed mesmerised and uncertain. The educated Jewish elite, apart from the likes of Joseph of Arimathea, saw him as an imposter who threatened their authority and way of life.
How fortunate we are that with faith reinforced by the bible, our minds are not clouded by doubt and scepticism. We are able to ponder in awe the miracles of Jesus. In that context, one of the most profound moments and utterances in the New Testament is provided by Thomas, called Didymus. His scepticism at the news that Jesus had risen from the dead was typically human. For him, as with so many of us, seeing is believing. When confronted with the risen Jesus so that he could personally probe the wounds of crucifixion, Thomas’s exclamation is a superlative statement of reverence, awe and glorification – “My Lord and my God!”
Equally profound and comforting is Jesus’s response to Thomas -and to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20: 28-29).
The common retort of sceptics and cynics is that if God was so great why does he allow evil and violence to flourish? The answer is that man has turned his back on God, ceased to glorify him, outlawed him from places of learning and embraced secularism. It’s what God warned in Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 20, cited earlier: If you forget the Lord your God, you will be destroyed for not obeying. The greatness of God is there for those who want to perceive it. And it envelopes us in numerous ways. Many Psalms and hymns are proclamations of praise for and glory of God. They remind us that God, our creator, expects us to praise and honour him. Jesus always acknowledged that his role was to give glory to his Father. Significantly, in most cases, the beneficiaries of his miracles gave glory to God. On the night before Jesus’ death, he prayed to his Father saying: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (Jn 17: 4). By rejoicing in the marvels of his creation, we glorify God. So, we need to increase our Job and David moments!