Starry, Starry Night

Genesis 1 (selected verses); Luke 11: 1-4

It is a curious thing, I think, that there’s always some organization compiling a list that ranks just about any subject or category you can name…the 100 best communities to live in, the 10 most beautiful people in the world, the top 25 movies from the 80’s, the 400 richest people on the planet, the 50 most important novels ever written. And now, as of 07/07/07, there’s a listing of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

The original Seven Wonders of the World were a group of remarkable structures built in ancient times. How many can you name right now? Three came to my mind: the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes. After that, I had to get on Google. The other four ancient wonders are: the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria. Of these original seven wonders, only one remains in existence today, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

The list of New Seven Wonders was arrived at by voting on the internet, based on the most frequently visited tourist sites (a questionable criteria to be sure). Voters could choose from twenty-one human- built wonders that are still standing. The oldest candidate was Britain’s Stonehenge, and the newest was Australia’s Opera House. The final tally resulted in these New Seven Wonders: the Great Wall of China, Petra in Jordan, the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop a mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Peru’s Machu Picchu, Mexico’s Chichen Itza Mayan Pyramid, the Colosseum in Rome, and India’s Taj Mahal.

In the course of my search, I discovered there are other lists of Seven Wonders that have been developed according to particular criteria. Like the Seven Engineering Wonders by the American Society of Civil Engineers that includes the Chunnel, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal.

Wonders are not lacking in this world. What is lacking, though, is wonderment…that feeling within us that elicits a sense of deep awe and wonder coupled with humility.

While we marvel at the human ingenuity involved in creating the structures of any one of the Seven Wonders list, I wonder…is there anything more awe- inspiring than God’s good creation: The astonishing miracle of birth? Or the incredible diversity and complexity of life on this earth? Or the delicate beauty of a single Morning Glory pushing up through a crack in the pavement. Or than the glory of the heavens?

For a number of summers when our children were growing up, our family vacationed at a dairy farm in Medford, Wisconsin right around this time. There we lived in a farm house with two or three other guest families and the host family. We ate our meals around a large, oaken dining table in front of windows that looked out on the woods across the fields. We adjusted to the timing required for 8-11 adults and children sharing just one single bathroom. It was such a different way of living.

Out there in the country, we were so much closer to nature. At sunset you could walk down to the end of the gravel road, stopping to pick wild raspberries along the way, and in the shelter of trees watch otters play in the river as they slid down the grass covered banks. Nearby you could hike the “ice age” trail in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. But best of all was when nightfall came.

As urban dwellers we are accustomed to seeing a relatively small patch of stars in the night sky. Both the brightness of the stars and the darkness of the night are dimmed by the light pollution from Chicago’s sodium-vapor street lights. But out there in the countryside, away from the concentration of man-made light, the stars shone with a brilliant luminance against the pure blackness of the sky. It was breathtakingly beautiful, hard to describe in words.

It became a custom for our family (and whoever else wanted to come along) to go out into the field next to the house at night with a blanket on which we would lie down and look up at the heavens. The Milky Way was an incredible sight, a silvery trail of stardust cutting a swath across the canopy above us. Venus and Mars were quite visible. With our star guide, it was fun to find and identify many star formations. And every year at that time, beginning about August 12th or so, the Perseid Meteor showers occurred – a series of shooting-star-like streaks of light across the night sky at about one per minute. The children with us would ooh and aah out loud at this natural light show. I watched in grateful silence, filled with awe and a prayerful sense of serenity. God felt so close though the stars were so distant.

The psalmist writes: (Psalm 19)

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day after day the heavens pour forth speech,

and night after night the firmament displays knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their language is not heard;

Yet the voice goes out through all the earth.

and their words to the end of the world…

Imagine what it must have been like for the ancients as they observed and experienced the world around and above them…the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of the sea, the magnificence of the giant cedars, the changing seasons of growth, harvest and fallowness, the wonder of life itself. They had to ask themselves: What was behind it all? How did it all begin?

We are all fascinated by stories that tell us of beginnings. The little child asks, “Mommy, tell me again about how you and Daddy met.” Maybe in your family there’s someone who has become interested in genealogy and traced your family’s name back seven generations or more. Or maybe in this brave new techno world, you know someone who has swabbed the inside of their cheek and sent it in to a DNA service that promises to trace the path of their earliest forbearers out of Africa to whatever part of the world their ancestors migrated.

The Hebrew people were no different. They had stories about how their nation began with Abraham, about how their tribes began with Jacob, about how different holy places began. But the question that remained was: the story of how it all began.  There are records of other creation stories from the cultures of Egypt, Samaria and Babylon that circulated in the ancient world. But the story at the beginning of Genesis about how it all began is distinctive. It is a statement of faith from the opening sentence: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” giving credit where credit is due, to God’s mysterious, creative power. God speaks and the cosmos and life on earth are called into being. God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image,” and human beings are created with a spark of the divine within.

The Genesis story of how it all began isn’t told in the language of physics, or the language of chemistry. It is not about a scientific proof. But it tells a truth, an eternal truth. The first chapter of Genesis more nearly resembles a song, so lyrical that it sets off a symphony of the heart. It praises God for the sheer lavishness of the creation – from supernovas to sunfish, from the monsters of the sea to the tiny creepy, crawly things that burrow underneath the earth. The message of this story of Genesis is an outpouring of delight for the God of heaven and earth who was there before time, before it all began.

Of course, not everyone would agree with that reading and interpretation of this finely crafted creation story that was put at the opening of our Bible. There are many who believe that the Bible quite literally describes how the world came to be, down to the detail of the seven days of time. Unfortunately, this has led to a continuing and sometimes strident debate pitting science against religion. But that is not the subject of this sermon. Rather today’s sermon is more in line with what Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass as he sat in a classroom listening to a science lecture and thought to himself…

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Sometimes in our information saturated world, we live with far too many explanations and way too many facts that tend to squeeze the wonder out. Do you really think that a rainbow is nothing more than the sun’s rays refracting through particles of water in the air? Doesn’t a part of you when you look at a rainbow hanging in the sky feel that its fragile, ethereal beauty is something more? Just as the sun setting in the western sky is something special to just behold – not simply the consequence of the rotation of the earth. Noted mathematics and physics professor, John Polkinghorne, comments, “It is one thing to study the universe and quite another to listen to its song.” (from Science and Religion)

Tuning ourselves to the song of creation is prayer-like. It is a way of saying yes to life, a yes of gratitude and trust in the God in whom we live and move and have our being. When we let the wonder in, deep within us we wordlessly resonate with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who are in heaven hallowed be thy name…I am in Thy hands…for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

God’s good creation is poetic, musical and prayerful. A masterpiece of wonders of which we are a part.

The story is told of a father on a weekend camping trip with his son. The boy’s father is an architect who has designed some of those magnificent buildings that dominate the city skyline with their great height and brilliant luminosity. Away from the city in the green mountains of Vermont, he and his son gaze out upon an open sky, the clouds catching fire as the sun dips through the horizon, yielding pastel ribbons of color, then gently darkening until, one by one, the stars come out.

“This is the eighth wonder of the world,” the man says to his son.

What are the other seven?” asks the boy.

The father answers his son’s question, describing each of the seven marvels in considerable detail. Then the two of them stand quietly together, until the sky is filled with the light of the bright stars. Minutes pass as they stand side by side, the glorious sight above them.

The son breaks the silence. “Daddy? He says.

“Yes, Son?”

“Those things you told me about. They aren’t the real Seven Wonders of the world.”

“What do you mean, Son?”

“The first wonder of the world is a baby being born. Don’t you think so, Dad? The second is being able to see. Then comes being able to walk and talk. That’s four. Hearing makes five. Then either touch or smell. Both makes seven.”

Looking up at the starry night with new eyes and thinking for a moment, the father says,

“How about love, Son?”

“Love,” his son repeats. “That’s it. That’s the eighth wonder of the world.”

Our faith trusts that behind the wonders and mystery of all that is, there is God. The God who continues to create life and hope. The God whose creative power is reflected in the beauty of the earth and the magnificence of the night sky. The God of love whom we praise with joyful awe and humility.

Thanks be, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.   .