One of the highlights of my sabbatical was the opportunity to attend ElderLink in Greensboro. It was a workshop for elders and ministers. One of the speakers was Don Mclaughlin who is one of my favorite preachers. He said something in one of his lessons about the importance of awe and wonder which got me to thinking.
As we think about God, who God is and what God has done, the appropriate response from us should be a sense of awe and wonder. In fact, we sang these words just a few moments ago, “Oh Lord, my God, When I, in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.”
Wonder and awe are very similar, but they’re not exactly the same thing. Wonder is “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Perhaps we see a field covered with butterflies and it fills us with a sense of wonder.
And the result is that wonder makes us want to explore, to learn, to understand. We see something beautiful and we say to ourselves, “I wonder about that.” I want to know more.
On the other hand, awe is “the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky.” It’s a feeling of amazement, a feeling that something is so much greater than we can imagine.
And the result is that awe inspires us to connect and participate. There’s something bigger here that I want to be a part of. I read an interesting article in Psychology Today this past week. There was a study that was done to measure the impact of awe. Keep in mind, this was not a religious study. This was a purely psychological study. And what they found is that the greater a sense of awe a person feels, the more likely he or she is to be unselfish and helpful in meeting the needs of others.
The reason they gave is that when you experience awe, you don’t feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. You feel smaller, less self-important, and that leads you to want to connect with others. A sense of awe can cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others.
And from a religious perspective, it also causes us to want to connect with God. So, I would agree with Don McLaughlin that we need to do more to foster a sense of awe and wonder. But I think there are several things that get in the way.
First of all, it’s difficult for us to have a sense of awe and wonder simply by reading the stories in the Bible. Let me explain what I mean by that. How many of you here have ever been to the Grand Canyon? Sueanne and I have never been, but we’ve seen pictures like this, so I’m sure we can fully appreciate just how awesome the Grand Canyon is. Justin, would you agree?
No, everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon says there’s absolutely no way that pictures can ever do it justice. You have to be there and see it for yourself to fully appreciate just how amazing it is.
I think it’s the same way with Bible stories. We can read that Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea and we can say, “Yeah, that amazing”, but I think the Israelites who saw that water piled up on either side of them as they walked through on dry ground had a different sense of wonder and awe than we do.
I think, secondly, we tend to read the stories in the Bible a bit too casually. We read about the parting of the waters of the Red Sea like it’s something that happens every day. And then, we get to the miracles of Jesus – he healed a man, he walked on water, he raised a man from the dead. Most of experience more wonder and awe when we read about the features of the latest iPhone than we do when we read about the raising of Lazarus – a man who had been dead for 4 days.
All of us need to develop the same sense of wonder that children have. If you’ve ever walked through a field with a child, you know that they will ooh and aah over all the amazing things that they see, things that we tend to ignore as adults.
But then, thirdly, I think that those of us who are preachers are partly to blame. Perhaps we haven’t done enough to create a sense of awe and wonder in our sermons. We tell the story of the birth of Jesus and we want focus on the fact that “scriptures never actually say there were three wise men who came to see Jesus.” Or we talk about Jesus being crucified and focus on details like whether a crucified person carried the whole cross or simply the crossbeam.
And I have to confess that there have been many times when I’ve focused on unimportant details rather than trying to create a sense of wonder as we reflect on just how awesome God is. So, I’d like to take us on a journey this morning that will lead us to a place of awe and wonder.
In Genesis 1:1, we read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Now, there are many things in things in nature that I could talk about, but this morning I want to focus on just one aspect of God’s creation. Because it’s what God did on day four that absolutely boggles my mind.
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth’ And it was so. And God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:14-18)
Now, you may wonder what there is in this passage that boggles my mind (or maybe you just think I have a mind that is easily boggled). Have you ever thought much about the stars and what they tell us about God?
The Psalmist David said, “The heavens tell the glory of God, and the skies announce what his hands have made. Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again. They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard. But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.” (Psalm 19:1-4, NCV)
Truly the heavens declare the glory of God. And I would suggest to you that the closer we look at the heavens, the more of God’s glory will be revealed to us. Now we have such a tremendous advantage over people of past generations because of our technology. For all the conflicts there have been between scientists and Christians, I believe that science has made it easier for us to comprehend the nature of God because science makes it possible for us to see more and more of God’s creation.
For example, in Genesis 15, God took Abraham outside and said to him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”(Genesis 15:5)
When Abraham looked up into the sky, he would have seen what we see when we get away from city lights and look up, and that’s approximately 2,000-3,000 stars. And maybe that sounds like a lot to you. But if you use a telescope, even an amateur telescope, you can actually see millions of stars.
But using the fancy telescopes scientists have now, including one that sends back pictures from outer space, we’ve learned some amazing stuff. Take a look at this picture of the whirlpool galaxy. The God we’re worshipping this morning is the God who created that. It’s one of many spiral galaxies in the sky. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but you can see it with a telescope or even with a pair of binoculars. Isn’t that beautiful?
This galaxy contains 300 billion stars. In that one galaxy, 300 billion stars. And this galaxy is only one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the known universe that God has made. NASA estimates that, if you were to count all the stars, you’d come up with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 sextillion stars. That’s a one followed by 21 zeroes.
Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 147: “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” (Psalm 147:4-5)
And it’s not just that God knows how many stars that there are. Folks, God created those stars with a single word. He said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens” and one sextillion stars appeared. Think about that. Paul says in Romans 1 that we can know something about God’s “eternal power” by looking around at nature, so consider the fact that our God is so powerful and so immense that he was able to create all this just by speaking a word.
And it reminds us this morning, this God that we’re praising, the God to whom we sing the words, “How Great Thou Art” is more than just “great.” He is enormous. He’s bigger than anything we’ve ever dreamed of. He’s bigger than our wildest imagination. All you have to do is look up and you see the size of the God that we’re worshipping.
But I want to take it one step further. I want to change your view of God this morning. I want to expand your view of God. I want you to realize that we are here this morning to worship a huge, massive God.
Now, in order for us to consider just how big God is, I want to take a closer look at some of the stars. Now we’re not going to look at all one sextillion stars because if we did, well, I’d have a hard time getting you out of here by lunchtime, or by the end of the century for that matter.
But, I want us to look closely at only four stars. Now the first one is easy because there is just one star in our solar system and that star is called the……sun. It’s our own star – here’s a picture of it.
Now, the sun may seem rather close, but it’s actually a pretty good distance away — 93 million miles away to be exact. But what I really want you to see this morning is the size of the sun. Here’s a picture showing the sun and all the planets to scale. The sun is approximately one million times the size of this earth, and that’s significant when you read what the Psalmist says in Psalm 33, “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” (Psalm 33:6).
In other words, God didn’t lift a finger when he made the universe. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” And the Psalmist goes on to say, “He breathed the word, and all the stars were born.” We’re looking at something so intense that we don’t want to get any closer than 93 million miles away which is what we are right now, and then we read that God just breathes out stars. It’s mind-boggling to think about that happening.
Here’s another slide to picture how large the sun is. Imagine for a moment that the Earth is the size of a ping pong ball. And to help you picture this, I brought one with me this morning. All through this lesson, this ping pong ball is going to represent the plant Earth, so this is where we are. I need for everybody to look as closely as you can and find yourself here on this Earth.
Now, if the Earth were a ping pong ball, the sun would be 14 feet in diameter. That’s the distance from the floor of this room to the lights. The sun is a massive, massive star and it’s one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, our little neighborhood in this the universe that God has created. It’s huge, and this morning, we’re worshipping the God who created that star.
But let me tell you about a second star. This star is called Betelgeuse (Beetlejuice). Betelgeuse can be seen looking at the constellation Orion. Orion is one of my favorite constellations because it’s fairly easy to find in the sky. Imagine a hunter holding a shield in his right hand, with his left arm holding a weapon, and a 3-star belt from which hangs a glittering sword.
Betelgeuse is that yellowish star that sits on Orion’s left shoulder. Here’s another picture of it in the night sky, I know it doesn’t look very impressive. But it’s 427 light years away. That’s 427 times 5.88 trillion miles away from us right now.
Let’s come in a little bit closer using the Hubble space telescope, and you can start to get a feeling of its intensity, but what I really want you to see is how big this star is. Here is the size Betelgeuse compared to our sun. Folks, this star is massive
If the earth were a ping pong ball, Betelgeuse would be the height of six Empire State buildings on top of each other! Have you ever seen the Empire State Building? Maybe what you need to do to fully appreciate how massive this star is — is to gather the family, get a ping pong ball, get a plane ticket, and fly up to New York. And you’re going to go to the Empire State Building and you’re going to take your ping pong ball, and put it on the sidewalk outside the Empire State Building – don’t worry about people thinking you’re crazy, they’re not even gonna notice you in New York – you’re gonna go across the street, you’re gonna look up at the Empire State Building and imagine five more Empire State Buildings on top of that one – that’s Betelgeuse and here’s the earth.
You could fit 262 trillion Earths inside Betelgeuse. So if the earth were a ping pong ball, that would be enough ping pong balls to fill up the Superdome – 3,000 times!
Folks, if you really understand this, it will change your view of God. Especially if most of your prayers are spent advising God, correcting God, suggesting things to God, telling God how he ought to do things. I look at this star called Betelgeuse and I begin to get a new appreciation for Ephesians 3:20 where Paul writes, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” (Ephesians 3:20)
Can you even begin to comprehend a God so awesome that he can create a star that size just by speaking a word?
The third star I want to look at this morning is called Mu Cephei. It’s 3,000 light years away. Here it is in the night sky. It’s that star that’s a bit brighter than all the rest. It is one of the brightest stars visible in the night sky, and it’s a star known as a red supergiant star. There’s a reason they call it a supergiant star.
If earth were a ping pong ball, Mu Cephei would be as big across as two Golden Gate bridges end to end. Apparently, to adequately picture this, you’re going to need to travel from New York to the West Coast. Go to San Francisco with your family and your ping-pong ball. Place your ping-pong ball at one end of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is 1.7 miles long. Go across the bay into Oakland to a high place where you can see the entire 1.7 miles of the Golden Gate Bridge. Imagine another Golden Gate Bridge next to it. Then, as you’re looking across these two Golden Gate Bridges, look back at the very beginning and find your ping pong ball. That’s the earth and somewhere you’re on it.
This is only one of the billions and billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. This one star is so big you could fit 2.7 quadrillion earths inside this one star. But that’s not even the biggest star we’ve found.
One of the biggest stars that scientists have found to this point is Canis Majoris. That’s Latin for Big Dog, and that’s exactly what this is. Now, in this picture here, it’s a part of that glow in the center. But let me tell you how big Canis Majoris is. If the Earth were a ping pong ball, Canis Majoris would be the height of Mt Everest!
So, you’re going to need to hop on a plane from San Francisco to Katmandu, Nepal. This mountain rises to almost six miles above sea level, it is the highest point on our planet. And you’re going to need to unzip your parka, and pull out your ping pong ball and set it at the base of this mountain. Then you’ll have a sense of just how huge this star is.
You could fit 7 quadrillion Earths inside Canis Majoris. That’s enough Earths that if the Earth were a ping pong ball, those ping pong balls would cover the entire state of Texas 21 inches deep. Imagine that, take a look at all those ping pong balls and find the one you’re on.
Maybe this video clip will help a little bit more. Here’s Earth compared to some of the other planets. Pretty good size, huh? But now, here’s Earth compared to some of those larger planets. We don’t look so big any more.
Now, here’s all the planets compared with the Sun. Earth is only a speck on this picture.
Here’s the Sun compared to a couple of larger stars. Here’s Betelegeuse. Larger still. Now we get to Mu Cephei. Now, the animation ends there, so we don’t even get to see Canis Majoris, the largest star of them all.
If we put a picture of Canis Majoris up on the screen, do you realize that you could come up here with a fine tipped pen and make a dot that would approximate the size of our Sun – which, you recall, is a million times larger than the Earth.
Now when you see all this, I don’t know what happens to you, but I’ll tell you what happens to me. A shrinking feeling comes over me, and that’s a good thing. Because we sometimes have a way of trying to shrink God down to our size, and think that he’s on our level.
But just a glance into the universe that God has created resizes everything in a heartbeat. Because God didn’t just create these handful of stars, as huge as they are. He created billions and billions of these stars. And we realize this morning that we are worshipping a God of infinite might and power and glory and awe, and there is none like him anywhere in all of creation.
Folks, we are not here to worship some teeny tiny God. We are the teeny tiny ones, you and me. We are small and weak and fragile and frail. You and I, we are only a handful of people in the 7.8 billion people on this little ping-pong ball sized planet in this massive universe that God has created.
Psalm 8 takes on new meaning. David says, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
David says, “In comparison with the awesomeness of this universe, we are so incredibly small. So why in the world would God pay attention to us?” But here’s the amazing thing — that even though we are tiny and frail, we have been created in the image of the God who breathes out stars and put this universe into place. You and I are fashioned and formed by the God of all creation.
And David answers the question that he raises – “What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:4-5).
That, to me, is the really amazing thing, that in this awesome, awesome universe, God looks down on that teeny tiny little planet called Earth and he sees you and knows you, and loves you more than you can imagine. And what he desires more than anything else in this world is to have a relationship with you. Consider that the next time you don’t feel very important.
But the other thing I want to get out of this look at the stars is to see just how big God is. If these stars are so incredibly big, you put together billions and billions of these stars and combined they are still so small that God is able to create all of them just by speaking a word. Do you begin to get a sense of just how huge God is?
“’To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might and the strength of His power.” (Isaiah 40:25-26)
And I ask you to consider one thing as we close. If our God is that huge, if he has the power to create a star 7 quadrillion times bigger than the Earth, then don’t you think that God has the ability to handle any problem that you’re facing right now? Oh, I know it looks big to you. It looks so big that not only are you having trouble dealing with it, but you’re having trouble imagining that anybody else can deal with it either.
I want you to leave this morning with a new image of God, with a sense of wonder and awe. And I want you to leave here this morning with the confidence that God is able to take care of you no matter what happens. Because, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”