Living in Awe

(Preached at St. Andrew’s United Church, Ripley, July 16, 2017)

Very recently, a group of Canadian scientists got together. They realized that with all the advances in genetic science, they could probably create life.

So they challenged God to a life-making contest. God, being a good sport said, “You’re on! Do your best!”

The scientists took their jars and went to the garden outside their laboratory to gather some dirt.

Then God spoke. “Oh, no you don’t! That’s my dirt! Go make some of your own…”

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

There are so many, many hymns I could have chosen for today’s service. I’ve chosen four, but I might just has easily have chosen “This is My Father’s World,” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful” or “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” or more modern tunes like “Our God is an Awesome God” or “In Awe.”

I could have had my choice of psalms, too. I chose Psalm 19, but I could just have easily preached this sermon on Psalm 8. “When I look to the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in their places, what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us, mere human beings that you should care for us?”

Or Psalm 139. “How deep are your designs, O God! How great is their number!”

Or Psalm 147: “God covers the sky with clouds, God prepares the rain for the earth, God makes the hills green with grass.”

And those are just three that I found without really looking hard.

In times past, human beings lived closer to nature, and they lived in awe. Not just the “Oooh! Look at that!” kind of awe, but the kind of awe that sometimes had them cowering under the bedcovers, fearing for their lives. Or peering anxiously at the skies, searching for the rain that hasn’t come to water the crops. Or shivering in their tents, wondering if the snow was ever going to stop falling, or if they were going to freeze to death this winter?

We’ve become very isolated from nature, so much so that when a human being in the developed world dies in an accidental encounter with nature, it’s headline news. Wildfires threaten homes. Bears maul an unwise hiker. A man drowns in Florida. An airliner disappears into the ocean, and years later we’re still looking for it.

But our daily lives are divorced from God’s natural world. When I was living in Guelph and going to school in Toronto, it was entirely normal for me to leave my front door, get on a bus in front of my house to go downtown, switch to another bus to go to Toronto, get off that bus and walk to the subway station to take the train to Museum station, and get off the subway, walk up the stairs and through the front doors of Emmanuel College, all without ever walking on earth, grass, or indeed any natural substance.

If you are an office worker in downtown Toronto and live in an apartment in Toronto, it is entirely possible that you could go for entire days without even venturing into open air. The heavens telling the glory of God and the sky proclaiming God’s glory in thunderstorms goes unheard.

In the psalmist’s time, nothing could be hidden from the sun’s heat, but with air conditioned buildings, well…

The heat and the snow and the thunderstorms are no longer even minor inconveniences. Unless the power goes out, of course…

I know the folks here in Ripley and Bervie-Kinloss are much more in tune with the natural world than the average Torontonian. Some of you garden, some of you farm, and there are no vast expanses of high rise buildings to block out the sun or the thunderstorms.

But even so, the effect of nature here is muted. We all (I hope) live in solid housing that keeps out the rain and the wind and even the heat for the most part. We’ve developed irrigation and pest control methods that alleviate some of the worst of natures depredations on our crops and animals, and we have greenhouses to give us year-round produce, even here in snowy Canada. We no longer live in the world of the psalmist, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that sense of awe and wonder that humans felt in times past when they witnessed the absolutely untameable forces of God’s nature.

We think that we are like the scientists in my joke, able to tame what God has created and improve upon it. Until we’re reminded in rather spectacular ways that we are really NOT in control.

The wildfires raging in British Columbia are particularly bad this year. It’s not just the hot, dry weather that may or may not be caused by global warming that has been caused by human activity on the planet.

It’s also the result, ironically enough, of increasingly effective methods of supressing wildfires. Wildfires are actually necessary for the regeneration of forests. In a natural situation, they burn over an area about every ten years, consuming dead wood and leaving the healthiest trees a little scarred, but alive. The ashes return to the soil, providing the living trees with nutrients. Some species of trees are renewed as the fire provides the heat necessary for their cones to open and release their seeds.

The bare patches left by the fire become filled with sun-loving plants such as blueberries that in turn provide food for animals.

But we humans are, rightly, terrified of fire. We jump on those wildfires, most of which are naturally started by lightning, and put them out as quickly as possible. The result is a build up of dead wood in the forest, and in a hot dry year such as the one currently happening in the interior of British Columbia, the forest can become one big furnace. Instead of simply burning off the old wood, the fire becomes hot enough to kill large, healthy trees. Instead of renewing the soil, the fire can actually sterilize it. The pine cones will open, but the seeds will be consumed.

The result is a dead zone which will take years to recover. All because we thought we were doing the natural world a favour by putting out fires…

Sometimes the word “awe” is translated as “wonder,” but it’s also translated as “fear.” But awe is both of these things at once, and more besides. Awe isn’t just about feeling wonder at God’s creation and God’s word, and it isn’t just about feeling fear of creation or God. Awe denotes respect—not the polite respect we demand of our children, but the cautious, deeply-felt respect we should feel if, for example, we meet a moose or a bear unawares on a hiking trail. Being awe-filled means enjoying what we see, but keeping our distance.

Many folks, I am sorry to say, no longer feel a sense of awe. Watching nature documentaries on television has replaced viewing nature in the raw, but not even a sixty-five inch high definition 3-D television can replicate the awe felt standing on the top of a cliff in Algonquin Park, viewing the Baron Canyon or the Lake of Two Rivers or a glorious sunset. For one thing, there is no weather—no wind to ruffle your hair, no sun to warm your face, no rain to cool it off. For another, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no fear. The danger of falling out of your easy chair is far less than the danger of falling off the cliff on the Lookout Trail in Algonquin.

Some become so afraid of the danger or so averse to the discomforts that they never leave the couch. My parents and brother and sister-in-law were nature documentary addicts at one time, and yet living as they did in the Kawartha Lakes district, all they ever had to do to view nature in all its glory was step outside the house!

Some, especially those who have seen too many tame cartoon animals dancing around befriending humans on their televisions, lose the element of respect. Some are so used to the comforts of the city—temperature-controlled swimming pools, tame animals, air conditioned buildings—that they have no idea of the dangers posed by the natural world.

When they meet nature in the raw, these are the folks who are most likely to be hurt. They want the closeup of the moose or the bear, they stray too close to the edge of the cliff, they forget, if they ever knew, that the lake is not a tame swimming pool and that currents can be deadly. Even for those of us who are educated and have been part of the natural world since birth, God’s creation demands caution and respect. For the uninitiated, it can be a deadly lesson.

And then there are those who have embraced the awesomeness of God’s creation, but are blind in quite a different way.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip with my mother and my youngest son to see a world-famous, UNESCO Heritage Site. We had a wonderful day, on a boat with the wind in our faces and sparkling blue waters reflected in our eyes. We met tourists from around the world—I heard smatterings of conversation in German, French, Japanese and Chinese. Some of those folks had spent tens of thousands of dollars and all of their vacation time just to see this beautiful natural wonder of the world.

I took lots of pictures, and when we got back to Guelph, I showed them to some friends from church. I had more than one person ask, “Where is that?”

“That” was Flowerpot Island. (You do all know where that is, right? I hope that you’ve all been on the boat trip around the islands at least once. Maybe even walked the trails?)

A day trip from my home in Guelph, costing us perhaps $250, gas, meals and boat trip for three included. And yet some would say, “It’s too far,” or “It’s too expensive,” all the while booking trips to Iceland to see volcanoes or Scotland to see old castles or Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone or Jerusalem to walk in the places that Jesus walked.

Too far??? Too expensive???

I think that sometimes we become blind to the awesomeness of God’s creation in our own country, desiring the wonders of other countries. We look at other people’s grass and say it’s greener, while failing to see the wonders that are right on our doorstep.

We’re kind of like the nine lepers in Luke’s story. They’ve been healed by Jesus, and I’m sure they’re properly grateful. But at this point, Jesus has been around for a while, and perhaps his wonderful power has lost it’s novelty. Only the foreigner returns, praising God for the miracle. Local wonders just don’t seem as wonderful, somehow, as those in far countries.

Last week, I gave you a sheet with some reflections so that you could perhaps find God in scripture. This week, I’m going to give you a different type of assignment.

Put down your Bibles and go out into the natural world. Not in Australia or Egypt or even the United States. Go here, in Ontario. Just for a day, if that’s all the time you can take.

If you can get out into the middle of Georgian Bay or Lake Huron, far from the sight or sound of other humans, do it! If you can find a trail that leads to a cliff top with an awesome view, do it! If you can get close but not to close to a moose or a bear or another wild animal, do it! If you can get to a place where the lights from the cities and towns of humans no longer hide the incredible wealth of stars in the night sky, do it!

Take your cameras and your life jackets and your bug spray. Stay a respectful distance from cliff edges and wild animals. Watch out for poison ivy. But do, please go out into the awesome wildness of God’s creation and meet God face to face.