Well, did you all like the first snow of the year this past week?
I have a lot of reasons to not like the snow. I’m the main shoveller where we live, and it’s heavy. Our church has a big property here, and we pay for plowing and I wonder if all the snow melt is going to seep into our buildings somewhere. I mainly get around by bicycle throughout the year, and the snowy, icy season is by far the trickiest time for that.
But still, there’s something that happens in me with that first real snow of the year. I was running home from our members meeting last Sunday afternoon with my daughter, and we saw just a few flakes in air, here and there, and my eyes widened just a little bit, as we ran, and I huffed and puffed. My daughter’s not so easy to keep up with any more.
And then later, at home, I looked out the window, and there it was – snow falling from the sky, piling up white on the trees and sidewalk and streets, just falling and falling and falling. Something in me just kept expanding, as time stopped for a moment, with me starting out the window, transfixed, thinking nothing at all really except: This is so beautiful.
That experience of being stopped in our tracks, surprised by beauty, arrested by something so new or unexpected or stunning or larger than ourselves, we call that wonder. Sometimes we think of wonder as childlike because kids are frankly best at it – they experience wonder most often, maybe most deeply.
Sometimes when we think we understand more, we are overjoyed and mystified by less. Sometimes when we’ve experienced more, there’s less that still arrests us.
But the first snow of the year is one experience that always still does it for me and helps me remember that wonder is not just the stuff of children, it’s some of the more important stuff of life.
The great Jewish thinker Abraham Heschel had a lot to say about wonder. Heschel was a scholar and a mystic. He was born in Poland, became a rabbi and a professor. He barely escaped the Nazi invasion and the Holocaust, and spent the rest of his years in this country, where he wrote, taught, was active with King and others in the Civil Rights and anti-war movments. And he happened to die less than a year before I was born.
In his book God in Search of Man, Heschel wrote: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living . What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” Wonder for Heschel was foundational to a good life, a joyful life, and it was also bound up with the possibility of encountering God.
So Heschel also wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Christmas used to do this for me. Partly it was the presents. My parents didn’t have much cash, but they went broke at Christmastime, and one set of my grandparents piled on as well. So I knew that every year, our Christmas tree would be piled with mounds of stuff that would at least for a while surprise and delight me.
It wasn’t just that, though. It had to do with school vacation, and first snows, and Christmas music, and chocolate appearing everywhere – it seemed – and family seeming a little more present, a little more happy than normal. So much that gave me wonder as a kid this time of year.
I said last week that Advent – this season of waiting and expectancy before Christmas – is a time making for room, a time for shifting our attention, from turning away from what chokes out joy. Similarly, Advent can be a great time to lift up our gaze, to be surprised and delighted again, and to start growing a life of wonder.
With talk of childhood and Christmas and first snows, if you’re thinking this will be a sentimental sermon, well it may be that. But I can assure you it will not only be that. Wonder is far deeper and more important than nostalgia or warm feelings. As Heschel wrote, wonder is at the beginning of happiness; wonder is essential to our search for God. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
With this in mind, let’s travel back in time to our text from the Bible for today. It’s an old, old story in the memory of the Jewish people, and so of the church as well. And it’s a weird story, one chock full of wonder .
It begins after a battle scene in the life of the famous father of faith – for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Abraham – then Abram is returning from a violent rescue mission, when he and his little rag tag army had gone to save his cousin Lot from kidnapping. At the same time, he’d managed to help another local warlord – called the king of Sodom here. But in the middle of their encounter, the story gets super weird. Here we go:
Genesis 14:17-24 (CEB)
17 After Abram returned from his attack on Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom came out to the Shaveh Valley (that is, the King’s Valley) to meet him. 18 Now Melchizedek the king of Salem and the priest of El Elyon had brought bread and wine, 19 and he blessed him,
“Bless Abram by El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth; 20 bless El Elyon, who gave you the victory over your enemies.”
Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything. 21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and take the property for yourself.”
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I promised the Lord, El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I wouldn’t take even a thread or a sandal strap from anything that was yours so that you couldn’t say, ‘I’m the one who made Abram rich.’ 24 The only exception is that the young men may keep whatever they have taken to eat, and the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre—may keep their share.”
What in the world is happening here?!?
Abram’s returning from battle, and there’s this scene of post-war booty negotiation that is perfectly at home in an epic royal tale from the ancient near east. But right in the middle of all that, with no warning, no explanation, this other king Melchizedek – or is he a priest? – shows up with his bread and wine picnic basket and his basket of praise and prayers as well.
And then before you know it, before we – or maybe before Abram too – can really figure out what is going on, Melchizedek is gone. And it’s just Abram and his business with the king of Sodom again.
Reading this always reminds me of this other story reading experience I had. When our daughter Julianna was in preschool or kindergarten, I believe, her teacher had kids pair up and tell stories together. The two children would each narrate part of a story, which the teacher would write down, and the child would provide the artwork. Totally charming. And the interesting part of this version of that is that each of two children would provide a page at a time, back and forth, back and forth.
And Julianna was paired up with this boy in her class, I think Jackson was his name. And Julianna began her part of the story with a beautiful princess in a faraway castle. And then we shifted to Jackson, who continued by mentioning a fiery dragon, and a big monster. And then Julianna would pick up her story on the next page, with the princess’ beautiful dress and hair, and then Jackson would go and the dragon and the monster were battling out with swords and fire.
Back and forth the story would go, not apparent that there was any particular throughline or connection between the two alternating halves of this wild, disconnected plot.
So delightful, ever surprising.
Who is Melchizedek?
Well, we don’t know – he’s mostly the stuff of legends. But he appears to be another Cananaanite king – like Abram, the head of a small tribal band of folks in this region. But present there first. His name may mean: “king of righteousness.” Melk-zedek – a compound name.
But his name might also mean “My king is Zedek.” Because in ages past, there was a local Canaanite deity named Zedek. And if this is the case, Melchizedek is a worshipper or priest of Zedek.
So there’s this king/priest thing going on. Is he one? Is he the other is he both? And if he’s a priest, who is his God? Because he may be named after the local god Zedek, but he seems to worship and offer blessing in the name of a different god, whom he calls El Elyon. El Elyon means God Most High, and in the local Canaanite religions which preceded Jewish religion, El Eyon was the chief Canaanite deity – the head honcho amongst the pantheon of gods.
When you dig into the Scriptures, by the way, particularly the ones like Genesis whose roots are very old, you always get stuff like this, by the way – weird, surprising mash-ups of many ancient stories and ideas.
It’s not entirely unparalleled here – this mixing in of ancient Canaanite religion with the newer Jewish worship of the one they call the most high God. In the Psalms too, you get these worship songs to Baal – another important Canaanite god, basically the son of El Eyon. And the Hebrew worship songs appropriate these Baal praises songs a couple times, just changing the name of the god in them, so that they can use this music.
There’s a lesson here, I guess. Which is that people have been stealing good music and good poetry forever. And more to our point today, that God can not be contained. God is so much bigger and wilder than our expectations. No person or place or culture, no religion even, can fully contain God.
So Melchizedek is some Canaanite mystic or royal figure who shows up on the scene.
In the rabbinic, Jewish tradition, Mechizedek is all kinds of other things too. Some rabbis saw the past in Mechizedek, that he represents a mythic or mystic ancestor. That he was Noah of Noah’s ark son Shem, still alive by a different name, now bequeathing the land to Noah’s other distant ancestor Abram.
Some rabbis saw the future in Melchizedek, that he was a prefiguring of the great Jewish King of Jerusalem, King David, who was a kind of priest as well on the side. Some saw politics in him. Where most priests of Israel were descended from Moses’ brother Aaron, there were a group of priests in Jerusalem, that that party thought Melchizedek legitimized. Others are content to not really know who Melchizedek was or is, but to simply see in him a messenger of God, blessing Abram as he does and giving him the land.
In our translation, Abram gives a tithe, a tenth, of all his war booty to Melchizedek, the priest. But some translation traditions read this old language and flipped it, like Melchizedek was giving a tithe to Abram – adding land rights to his legacy, maybe even adding letters to his name in the balance.
No matter what, though, Melchizedek is an utter surprise. And in his larger than life authority and spectacle, he evokes wonder.
This is what Melchizedek does when he shows up in the popular imagination too.
When I taught writing and speaking and literature to ninth graders, Paulo Coehlo’s little mythic novel The Alchemist was almost always a text we read together. And The Alchemist is a beautiful little parable about a shepherd boy in search of a treasure, and in search of a dream, and in search of himself all at the same time.
And very early in his search, early in his wanderings, his pilgrimage to the Middle East – in his case the pyramids of Egypt – Santiago, the shepherd boy meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who appears to him. And Melchizedek, in his priestly role, blesses Santiago with encouragement, with motivation, and also with a kind of ancient Magic 8-ball to help him make decisions along the way.
Melchizedek says that when people are searching, as a priest, he always appears to people in one form or another, to encourage them on their search. He lifts their gaze, helps them believe in the impossible, in part through his very appearing, through evoking wonder again.
Abraham Heschel, again in that same book, God in Search of Man, asked
“How does a (hu)man lift up (one’s) eyes to see a little higher than (one)self? The grand premise of religion is that (hu)man(s) (are) able to surpass (our)sel(ves); that (hu)man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with (God) who is greater than the world; that (hu)mans may lift up (our) minds and be attached to the absolute; that (hu)man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned. How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world?”
These questions lead Heschel to wonder. Wonder surprises us, arrests us, delights us, so it takes us outside of ourselves, outside of our narrow gaze, outside of our ego, outside of the narrow confines of our horizons, our identity as we see it, our group as we construct it. Wonder starts to lift our eyes to more.
After the falling of the snow this week, I began to remember the experiences that have given me wonder. I wrote in my journal, stream of consciousness list-making, of times of wonder I remember.
The views atop the White Mountains, above treeline. My first time standing on the Great Wall of China. Holding my sons and daughter as babies. Listening to them breathe, watching them sleep. Singing in worship in this place, and feeling the room somehow shrink and expand all at once, with the sense that unseen Spirit of God is with us, upon us, within me and on top of me, all at once. Experiences of delight, of hospitality, of love, or grace that beyond my expectations.
What I noticed in all this remembrance of wonder is that wonder seems to always come from interruption. Wonder is rarely evoked through our plans or execution, through that which we prepare and make happen. Wonder is an internal sensation – a thought and a feeling, a lived experience – but wonder always comes to us from without.
Something or someone in this world, or sometimes it seems some presence or person or force from beyond this world makes itself known, and we are arrested, surprised, delighted, and sometimes transformed.
Because wonder always gives to us. And wonder always asks of us as well. We see this in the story of Abram and Melchizedek, bound up with the blessing and the tithe.
Melchizedek is giving to Abram – at the very least giving him encouragement. You got this, Abram. This is yours – this victory, to be sure, but maybe this land, maybe this favor of the Most High God. Wonder is the giving and the welcoming of a gift, always.
But wonder asks something of us as well. Read in our translation and in most, Abram is compelled internally to give to Melchizedek – to give a lot, a tenth of all he’s just won. This is one of many places in the Hebrew scriptures that indicate that to find ways to give to God at least a tenth of all we have – income, land, wealth, time – that’s a normal, functional response to wonder. It’s a recognition that all we have is gift; it’s ours to receive and always right then to release as well, as Abram does.
At the very least, wonder costs us our attention. Wonder gently, sometimes loudly insists: notice. Look. Pay attention. There’s something important to behold here, something that will shape you, that will draw something good out of you, make someone good of you perhaps.
I began this sermon talking about snowfall and Christmas, and we’re anchored in a strange old, mythic feeling text. But to be clear that we’re not just talking rainbows and sunsets, let me tell you one more story, a story I rarely share, but one that is at the center of how I first began to know God.
It’s a story that reminds me that wonder is at the heart of the good life. And wonder can be found not just in what first most obviously delights us but also at the heart of pain, in the midst of grief, even in the depths of our sin and foolishness.
I dated a lot when I was a teenager, and my record in these relationships by any measure was pretty up and down. I was not always a great friend. In one of these relationships in particular, the harm I did to someone I genuinely treasured was immense. I tend to keep most of the details of this story private, but I’ll just say that due to problems of my own that I didn’t yet understand, certainly in places I hadn’t yet sought healing, I caused profound hurt.
At a point when I least expected it, my friend confronted me about the hurt I caused and let me know that I had been wrong, that I had betrayed trust, that I had been a source of harm. And after saying these things, my friend looked me in the eye and said: I also want you to know that I forgive you. My forgiveness doesn’t remove what happened, but I am still setting you free.
Years later, when as an adult, I returned to this person to again apologize and to see if I could make amends, that was appreciated. But I was also assured that forgiveness was real and had continued.
When my friend confronted me, and when that confrontation was accompanied by that forgiveness, I was seared with pain as I’ve been very few times in my life. In some ancient cultures, when people are struck with pain or grief, they tear their own clothes in lament. I didn’t know about that back then, but on instinct, without thinking, I tore my clothes, ripped up my outer shirt I was wearing.
My folly, my sin, the harm I could do to someone I wouldn’t want to harm, the consequences of my own unhealed, ungoverned wounds — all that hit me with a shock of heavy, overwhelming pain. This was the arresting force not of beauty and delight, but of grief, and guilt, and shame.
But at the same time, to hear truth and love bound together, to see both grief and grace on the face of my friend, and in the tone and content of her words to me, I knew then that I was seeing the face of Christ. I knew then and more as I reflected upon it, that this was my friend, and this was a revelation of the love of God for me in Jesus Christ.
Honest, truthful, utterly non-delusional about everything good and bad in me, all seeing, all knowing – holding grief for my pain and for the pain I could inflict, and holding all that while offering grace. Saying I forgive you. Extending peace and love to me still.
This too was the force of wonder. Of God’s truth and love, grief and grace meeting me in the face and words of one I’d wronged.
This gave me a vision of the holy goodness of the living God. This gave me an emotionally, cognitively, deep soul unforgettable experience of God’s disposition toward me. It gave me my deepest yet taste of love and grace.
And yet, wonder asked of me too. This experience was like a giant knocking on the door of my life. How will I respond to this friend? Will I ever hurt someone in this way again, or will this encounter – colored by grace – push me to be a better man? A freer man? A person who is safer? Who does less harm?
This encounter was certainly part of that journey in me.
And will this love I’d tasted, will this grief and grace I’d seen, shape me, or not? How would I respond to what I’d seen of God?
I’ve heard other stories like this from friends, and from some of you I serve and love as a pastor. I think of them as Jean Valjean moments, after that time early in Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean – an angry, unhealed, bitter man – steals the treasures of a priest, and when confronted is offered mercy, a way forward without carrying the weight of blame for what he’d done. In that moment when the priest gives him freedom, the priest says, “I have bought your soul for God.” He doesn’t need to give the priest anything, no repayment. But there’s a sense in which he’s now asked to see his life – all he is and all he has – as God’s, to let that gift and that obligation echo down through the rest of his life.
And in the story, echo it does, shaping Valjean into a person of justice and mercy and humble walking with God and his fellow humans. As in my own way, my encounter with Jesus is doing in me still.
Some of you may have be aware that in the Christian mystical tradition, Melchizedek is a version of, a prefiguring of, Jesus Christ himself. In the Bible’s Jesus material, the New Testament, the letter called Hebrews spends a good bit of ink remembering the legend of Melchizedek. And we’re told that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
That Jesus has appeared to us from God, that Jesus has no beginning or end, that Jesus blesses us and mediates a covenant with us and God. A promise, a kind of holy contract, a new deal. One in which God is in solidarity with us in all our mortality, in which we are known and loved by God, in which our folly is overlooked and our sins are forgiven, in which we are prayed for, welcomed into the family, set free to live with peace and confidence and hope and joy.
When Melchizedek shows up to Abraham with bread and wine, the Christian mystics heard echoes of communion, saw Jesus showing up to us all, sent from God with his body and his blood, his very self to give.
To be mortal humans, and to be met in the flesh by a self-sacrificing, all-giving, fully knowing and fully loving God is the great surprise of history. It is the central wonder of the human story.
The great interruption of our life, to arrest us with surprise, and evoke wonder.
Jesus’ whole life story pointed to this great surprise, this central wonder-evoking union of humanity and God.
Almost everything that Jesus said and did was utterly surprising. More full of life and wisdom and gentleness and provocation all at once. The only normal responses people ever have to Jesus is when it says people did not understand him, or when they apprehended just a bit and it says: they were filled with awe and wonder.
And Jesus actually received life on these terms himself. Everything meaningful in Jesus’ life begins as an interruption.
A tax collector stares at him from a tree, and he engages.
A woman pours her treasured perfume over his feet and wipes them with his hair, and he in turn honors her loving gesture.
Friends break open the ceiling where he’s teaching, to get their buddy some help, and Jesus tends to their need and honors their ingenuity.
A Roman soldier – a representation of his colonizing, oppressive enemies – begs for help for his child, and Jesus heals the child and praises his faith.
People with points to make, axes to grind, grudges to nurse use people and words to trap and trick Jesus, and he sighs or smiles or says: how dare you? And he uses words and action to liberate, to question, and to love and set free.
Jesus welcomes every interruption as a container of possibility, as an opportunity for God, as the beginning of something wonder-ful.
In the Christmas story, it’s much the same. At every turn, if people don’t notice interruptions, God isn’t revealed to them. Joseph could have brushed off his dream that told him Mary’s pregnancy was God’s. Mary could have ignored her dream that her baby was God’s great liberator come to earth. All the witnesses – the magi could have doubted their astrology, the shepherds chalked their nighttime vision up to sleepiness, the elders who blessed baby Jesus in the temple could have marked their wonder at the sight of the child as senility or nostalgia for the days when they had children of their own.
Every part of the gift of God in Christ was easy to miss, if interruptions weren’t welcomed.
To find God, we need to look a little higher than ourselves To be spiritual is to allow ourselves again to be amazed.
So friends, sisters, brothers,
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Make room for interruptions. Treasure them as containers for God’s gift of wonder.
Can you treat every interruption in your life, or even some small portion of them – and I mean our actual interruptions (surprise encounters, waking children, stuff that unexpectedly goes well or badly – for real, all of them) not as irritants or obstacles, but as vessels for God’s work and presence, as the beginnings of holy moments, as means to wonder.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
When you experience wonder, notice the gift God is giving you, and try to notice what God is asking of you as well.